Marks & Brands is a public art project that is due for installation this fall in the courtyard of the new public library and along First Street. Designed by California sculptor Peter Mitten, this site-specific project will commemorate the rich tradition of the cattle industry that flourished in Southwest Florida during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
In the first few years of Reconstruction, a river of gold flowed through Punta Rassa, where Jacob Summerlin and fellow cattlemen conducted a lucrative export business to Havana and other ports lining the Cuban coast. During the 1870s, 165,669 head of cattle were shipped to Cuban ports, for which the cattlemen received $2,441,846 – “a truly a princely sum during those lean reconstruction years” according to Karl Grismer in his tome The Story of Fort Myers.
But little of that money found its way to the handful of families that began to create a small settlement out of the little wood that wasn’t cannibalized by marauders in the weeks following Fort Myers’ abandonment in June of 1865. But it was not until Charles and Jane Hendry lost their six-year old daughter Esther Ann to illness that the town of Fort Myers began to come into its own.
In the aftermath of the girl’s death, Jane L. decided that she would no longer live far from civilization just to keep watch over the family’s cattle. She packed up the family and she and Charles arrived in Fort Myers four days later. Captain Francis Asbury Hendry, Marion Hendry and three other closely-related families soon followed.
F.A., Charles and Marion were already familiar with the fort. F.A. had visited the fort twice twice during the Second Seminole War, once in 1853 and again a year later. He returned under less hospitable circumstances on February 20, 1865 when, as captain of a 131-man company that he raised and commanded himself, he joined with Major William Footman’s Cow Calvary in an unsuccessful attack on the fort.
Charles had also visited the fort during the Second Seminole War. As a member of a Florida Volunteer boat company, he brought Seminole prisoners to the redoubt on at least one occasion.
And all three men passed by the skeleton of the old fort numerous times as they led herds to the cow pens and wharves down river in Punta Rassa.
“All these newcomers were able, intelligent men, and all were destined to take prominent parts in the development of the Fort Myers area,” Karl Grismer writes. “Capt. F.A. Hendry became known as ‘The Father of Fort Myers,’ partly because of his many descendants, but mainly because he fostered and took an active part in almost every worthy movement in the early days of the community.”
Capt. Hendry, in particular, ultimately eclipsed the Summerlins as the principal cattle rancher in the area. With a herd in excess of 50,000 head, he became known as the Cattle King of South Florida. He also became one of the most influential leaders in both Fort Myers and Lee County as well. He served as a State Senator from 1875-1877, State Representative from 1893-1904, was on the first town council of Fort Myers in 1885 and also the first Lee County Commission in 1887. He was also one of the city’s ten founding fathers and chaired the meeting that resulted in the city’s incorporation on August 12, 1885.
Hendry and Summerlin were good for business. They brought with them a whole network of cattlemen, cow hunters, blacksmiths, cobblers and everyone else who attended to the cattlemen’s needs. Men in every line of work began coming to Fort Myers. “They could make a living here while at the same time get all the benefits of a fine climate, and fish and hunt to their heart’s content,” Grismer writes.
While Fort Myers did have temperate weather and exceedingly fertile grounds, it could never have developed as a farming community because it lacked a way to get its crops to market. The nearest railroad was an hour north of Tampa, in Cedar Key. The nearest town of any consequence was Key West. And the river was filled with shoals and shallows that made shipping produce by boat impractical, if not impossible.
“The infant village had one great asset – it was the one and only accessible trading center for a rapidly growing cattle region,” Grismer points out. “The importance of the cattle industry can best be shown by the fact that during one year in the 1870’s, Captain Hendry shipped 12,896 head from Punta Rassa to Key West. The prices paid averaged $15. For all the cattle, he received approximately $200,000.”
The cattle industry drew people to the fledgling town not in one great migration, “but a few this year, and a few next, the total always climbing.” But it was as a cow town that Fort Myers grew. Not fast, but slowly and deliberately.
And but for the efforts of Fort Myers’ cattle families, visionaries like Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and Ambrose and Tootie McGregor would have never come.