NBC2 explores the once iconic, now abandoned places of SWFL
PALMDALE, Fla. (WBBH) — Southwest Florida is among the fastest-growing regions in all of the United States.
And yet, scattered around our area are several prime properties that look straight out of a ghost town.
These historic, once iconic places are now crumbling shells of what they used to be.
NBC2 Investigator Evan Dean and photojournalist Kirk Erwin set out to learn the history behind these abandoned places, and to find out what’s being done to bring them back from the dead.
TOM GASKINS’ CYPRESS KNEE MUSEUM
Our journey starts the same way it’ll end – well off the beaten path.
After lacing up our boots and trekking down a dirt road, we meet up with writer Nancy Dale.
“It’s invaluable that you came,” she said upon greeting us.
We’re in rural Palmdale, which sits a few dozens miles west of Lake Okeechobee. It feels like the middle of nowhere.
“Preserving native Florida,” Nancy reads, holding up a book she’s written. That’s become part of her life’s mission.
Sadly, the property where we’ve met up — near the intersection of US-27 and FL-29 — has not been preserved.
“Okay — here we go,” she said as we head inside the building. “Watch out for rattlesnakes.”
Inside, we see trees and overgrown brush shooting skyward through the middle of the building. Glass display cases are shattered on the floor. Graffiti lines the walls.
“It’s in my memory,” Nancy thinks hard to remember what it once looked like. “His creativity. His originality. His appreciation of nature.”
She’s referring to the late Tom Gaskins, the quirky artist who created what was once here: The Tom Gaskins’ Cypress Knee Museum.
Decades ago, it was a big tourist draw. Best of all, it was uniquely Florida.
As Nancy explains, a messy land dispute long after Gaskins had passed away eventually led to the museum’s demise.
Vandals haven’t been kind to it since it was closed.
“People just came in off the street and did all this and ruined it,” Nancy said, frustrated, while walking over crunching shards of glass. “It’s sad, because this is our cultural heritage.”
Near the museum is what Nancy described as an old caretaker’s house. It doesn’t look any better.
Other buildings used to sit across the highway, but not anymore. We wander through dense woods and find the old catwalk that sprawls over the swamp and amongst the Cypress trees. It’s still being held up by old wires.
The catwalk, like the museum itself, is somehow still standing.
The state of Florida now owns the land, and Glades County leases it. There’s been talk among the Gaskins family and locals of restoring the roadside icon, perhaps creating a welcome center, but no movement just yet.
Nancy believes it’s something worth saving.
“It’s inspiring because the remains are still living. This is a living monument,” she emphasized. “It’s not just the museum. This represents rugged individuals. Where are they today?”
EL JOBEAN GRAND HOTEL
For our next stop, we head west to a tiny community on the northern banks of the Myakka River in Charlotte County. Tucked away from view, we originally miss our destination and need to turn around.
After looping back over the river, we make our way to the community of El Jobean and the Bean Depot, a restaurant and cafe where live music and good vibes fill the air.
“Come on down,” CK Meyer, our ‘tour guide’ said. He shows us around with a beer in his hand.
“This was originally the post office, general store, train depot, one room jail cell,” CK said, chuckling. He’s part of the group that bought the building some 20 years ago and turned it into a cafe and museum.
At the cafe, customers leave dollar bills on the wall. In the museum, old artifacts tell of the story of El Jobean. It’s all fantastically odd.
“The big guy – holding the snook,” CK points to a life-size cut out of the town’s founder.
His name was Joel Bean. Get it?
We also learn of ‘Suicide Simon’, a daredevil who lived in the community and once owned the now-historical properties. His old stunt props are hung high on the ceiling.
“This is a platform he would dive off of from 110 feet up in the air,” CK explained.
We have to leave the museum and walk across the street to find the place that time left behind.
“After a few hurricanes, it has deteriorated,” CK explained, walking up.
We step into the century-old, once-famous El Jobean Grand Hotel. Inside, it isn’t quite so grand anymore.
“Careful,” CK said, still chuckling, as we walk through the darkened rooms. “Try and find a joist.”
The building is falling apart. The main hallway is now seemingly sideways. It looks more like a haunted house than a grand hotel.
We ask CK what it’s like to see it in such poor shape.
“It’s kind of depressing,” he replies, his smile fading, if only briefly.
Outside, our drone flies above to capture what we can’t: pepper trees have swarmed the property and strong storms have battered the back end of the hotel.
Back at the museum, CK turns on a small TV and plays old black-and-white films that help remind of what fun the hotel once was.
“People were out here during prohibition, pounding down drinks and dancing out front,” he said.
CK and the group that owns the hotel hope to someday recapture that energy. They have plans to restore the property, though he wouldn’t reveal what exactly it might become.
After all the work they put in at the cafe and museum, perhaps their plans at the hotel can also come to fruition.
“It means a piece of history that we’re missing out on right now, that we should put back together,’” CK said. “We need our history in Florida. There’s too much going by the wayside.”
CAPE ROMANO DOME HOUSE
For our third and final stop, we head south to the Isles of Capri which requires us to leave dry land.
We haul our camera gear onto a dock and then onto a boat that’s sitting in the water.
“Thanks for taking us out,” we tell local realtor Beau Middlebrook and his friend, who’ve offered to take us out for a ride. It’s a beautiful day to spend on a boat.
Once in the gulf, we slice over the water navigating south, passing the massive, luxurious vacation properties on Marco Island.
The clear, turquoise water and splashing dolphins are enough to catch anyone’s eye.
Just not quite like what we see in the distance.
Four white, dome-like structures sit on stilts well atop the water, leaning slightly in different directions. It isn’t even close to shore.
It looks like a space alien splashed down. But it’s actually what’s left of a home, known now as the Cape Romano Dome House.
“It was in pristine condition. It looked like the way the owner and builder designed it,” Middlebrook recalled, remembering what was once here.
We’ve now anchored down closer to the unusual structures.
“It was beach 500 feet this way,” he said, motioning out to the gulf. “That’s where the beach was.”
Old photos – before the sea swallowed the shore — tell the story better than any person can.
The dome house was built by former oil producer Bob Lee in 1979. The shape was by design. It was created to withstand strong winds — and it did. But when Hurricane Andrew blew through in 1992, the interior suffered major damage and the house was abandoned soon after that.
Remarkably, all these years later, 4 of the 6 domes are still standing, even as erosion eats away at the coast.
“Mother nature took the land, but it didn’t take the house,” Beau remarked. “The house is still here.”
Today, the domes attract sun-bathing birds, fisherman, and tourists from all over the world. There’s no plans to restore it — obviously, that’s not possible — but also no idea how much longer it’ll last.
“Who knows,” Beau said, laughing, when we ask him what might happen to the dome house in 20 years. “Who knows.”
GHOST TOWNS & VANISHING SETTLEMENTS
On dry land in downtown Fort Myers, historian and map-lover Joanne Miller reminds us that it’s not just places that have been abandoned. It’s entire towns — ghost towns — and vanishing settlements.
On a bench in front of the former Lee County courthouse, Joanne shows us an old map of the Caloosahatchee and all the towns that once lined its banks.
“To get in here and start going through these books and these maps and these documents… it’s pretty cool stuff,” she said.
She hopes you think so too.
If there’s one thing we learned from our exploration across southwest Florida, it’s that there’s so much history — valuable, fun, quirky history — that’s worth remembering.
“There’s just a lot of history here,” Joanne said. “If we don’t talk about it and teach it, it’s gonna be lost.”
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