Marks & Brands is a brand new public art project that is due to be installed this fall in the courtyard of the new Lee County Public Library and along First Street. Designed by California sculptor Peter Mitten, the specific sculptural project will commemorate the rich traditions of the cattle industry that flourished in Southwest Florida during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
If not the most prosperous, the Summerlins were unquestionably the first cattlemen to relocate to Fort Myers in the aftermath of the Civil War.
Jacob Summerlin got into the cattle business prior to the war between the states when he traded 20 slaves he inherited for 6,000 head of cattle. At first, he supplied the Confederacy with beef, hides and tallow. But beginning in 1863, he teamed up with James McKay, Sr., a daring and notorious blockade runner who operated from a base in Charlotte Harbor to the north. Whether he learned about Punta Rassa from McKay or by other means, Summerlin showed up there within weeks of the war’s end, and he appropriated the abandoned pens, barracks and wharf for the continued export of cattle to Cuba and Key West.
When the Ocean Telegraph Company (which was later acquired by Western Union) took over the barracks and wharf, Summerlin simply built a longer and even better pier farther up the point. He also constructed a crude road from Fort Ogden to Punta Rassa, along with scrub pens and stopovers, including the cracker-style structure that Thomas Edison purchased in 1885 and converted into his Caretaker’s House.
In no time at all, Summerlin’s agents began buying and driving cattle from ranches throughout central and northern Florida south toward Punta Rassa. Some herds crossed the Caloosahatchee at Fort Denaud;, others at Fort Thompson. But no matter where the cow hunters forded the river, they had to pass through the remnants of the old fort on their way to Summerlin’s shipping pens.
Summerlin’s export business accelerated in 1868 when Cuban insurrectionists began a ten-year war with their Spanish occupiers and increased their demand for beef. But he could not hold his monopoly on the cattle export trade forever. Within two years, other cattlemen began arriving in Punta Rassa to strike deals directly with buyers from Key West and Havana.
Jacob and his son, Samuel, allowed them to use their wharf and cow pens – for a per-head fee, of course. To recoup some of their lost dollars, they also built a hotel that came to be known as the Summerlin House which provided room and board to cattle drivers during their stays in Punta Rassa. But few of the gold coins the cattlemen derived from their exports to Havana and other ports throughout Cuba found their way into the fledgling town that was developing inside the breastworks of the abandoned fort. It took the death of a six-year-old girl to cause that to happen.