Island Stories: A Little Piece of History from Pine Island SoundAug 17, 2022 08:57AM ● By Capt. Brian Holaway
Every island tells a story. You just have to listen to the past and be in the present.
More than 100 years ago the barrier islands along the Southwest Florida coast were home to schoolteachers, postmasters, boat pilots, fishermen, boat builders, and humanitarians.
According to the U.S. Census taken in June 1900, the population was 37 on Cayo Costa. This diverse group of islanders were represented by seven countries—Canary Islands, Portugal, Mexico, Germany, France, Norway, and Denmark—as well as the states of Florida, Kentucky, and Georgia.
Captain Peter Nelson was one of these islanders listed on the 1900 census. He was a 60-year-old boat pilot from Denmark, who had been in Southwest Florida for at least 30 years. During that time, he was on the school board and helped get funds for the second school in what was then Northern Monroe County (now Lee County). When Lee County was formed he was one of the first county commissioners. Nelson founded the town of Alva on the banks of the Caloosahatchee River, and we have this Danish Sea Captain to thank for the first public library in Southwest Florida.
Nelson spent his last years on Cayo Costa as a boat captain, postmaster, and schoolteacher. He passed away on September 7, 1919, and is buried in the island’s pioneer cemetery. The island school where he taught functioned until 1928 when a new school was built by Barron Collier on Punta Blanca, a smaller island off the north end of Cayo Costa and now part of the Florida State Park System.
Collier, who owned the nearby island of Useppa, built not only the school on Punta Blanca, but also workers’ housing, a post office, a small store, and a boat-building facility. This boat facility was known up and down the coast, and many fine boats were constructed there. The Punta Blanca school operated until 1949. Children from the neighboring islands of Mondongo, Patricio, Cayo Costa, Useppa, and Cabbage Key (then known as Palmetto Key) would be picked up by boat and taken to school. One of these students was my friend, the late Wink Coleman.
Wink, who lived on Cayo Costa and attended the Punta Blanca school until it closed, told me many stories about those days. He said he always remembered the boat-building shed on the island and how he admired the old brass diving helmet that hung in the building. In the 1990s Wink had a tour boat business called Ghost Rider tours, taking passengers to the north end of Cayo Costa.
Another student at Punta Blanca was Taylor Stults. His mother and father, Jan and Larry Stults, owned and operated Cabbage Key from 1944 to 1969. Taylor took the school boat every day from Cabbage Key to Punta Blanca. He went on to a career in academia.
The history of these two islands has been rich in individuals creating communities and legacies that we still learn from today.
Capt. Brian Holaway is a Florida Master Naturalist and has been a Southwest Florida shelling and ecotour guide since 1995. His boat charters visit the islands of Pine Island Sound, including Cayo Costa State Park, Cabbage Key, Pine Island, and North Captiva.