Colson: Greed lurks at the place where Mr. Watson died

with John Colson

A little-known but important bit of Florida history is endangered today, and I’m not talking about the fabled black panthers of the Everglades or some other poor beast being driven to extinction by rampant development and human avarice.

In this case, it’s a bit of human history, a tiny store founded in 1906 that now operates as a museum, standing in testament to the crazy tide of misfits and outlaws who made their home in the region in the early 1900s.

This historical oddity is named Ted Smallwood’s Store, a rickety outpost of civilization when it was founded, unfortunately now situated in the middle of perhaps the last part of Florida where a developer can make a killing off of raw land, shady building practices, and a liberal application of money to the right people.

It’s a perfect setting for a Carl Hiaasen book; he spoke at a fundraising event there a couple of years ago.

Anyways, the store/museum currently is under the management of the founder’s granddaughter, Lynn Smallwood McMillin. According to news accounts, she is striving to keep alive this monument to those who inhabited what was once known as America’s last frontier.

Called the Ten Thousand Islands region of southwestern Florida, southeast of Naples, it is an area of fabulously intricate sea channels where the long-extinct Calusa Indians once paddled their canoes amidst islands built up by shell mounds. The shells were deposited there as part of the natives’ system of commerce and their own form of residential development.

The coast still is protected from storm surges by these shell mounds, many of which have been deeply covered by accumulating soil and resultant vegetation and have become islands marked out by picturesque names like Chokoloskee Bay, Lost Man’s River, and Chokoloskee Island, where Ted Smallwood’s Store still sits.

It seems that a development company, Florida Georg Grove, wants to build some kind of project on its land near the museum/store. As it happens, the critical access road to the store, called Mamie Street, wanders right across the land in question, as it has for a century, the only road leading to the store.

The Naples Daily News reported on May 7 that McMillin was worried that a court-ordered mediation over the fate of the road would not turn out in her favor. She’s probably correct, especially since the Collier County attorney has sided with the developers (surprise, surprise, surprise).

Then, on July 6, the New York Times picked up the story, and the word is out in a big way.

So, what, you ask? I can hear the question reverberating down the electronic pathways even now, as readers try to figure out if I’ve lost my marbles or am simply bereft of column topics.

The answer is, neither of the above.

I happen to have a link to this little store. Though McMillin may not know my name and I have never actually been to the store, it has held a place of honor in my imagination for a couple of decades now.

The link, as are many of my ties to strange places around the globe, is through a novel I read years ago, a book that deeply impressed me and remains at the top my list of good reads to recommend to good friends.

Published in 1990, the book is “Killing Mr. Watson,” by Peter Matthiessen. It is the first, best part of a trilogy based on the murky history of the area, the Shadow Country Trilogy, which sets out the author’s impressions of a lawless time and region.

The eponymous Mr. Watson was an actual person, an outlaw who reportedly was driven by his intemperate ways out of his home country of the American southeast, drifted to the Wild West for a time, and ended up as a sugarcane farmer in southwest Florida.

Arriving there soon after the turn of the 19th century to the 20th, he picked up a reputation as a violent man who preferred to shoot his employees instead of paying them for work they had done, and he ultimately was murdered himself in 1910 (no spoiler alert needed, as the title gives it all away).

It is a fine book and series, believed by many to be the best fiction work Matthiessen ever did.

But this is not a book review, this is a call to arms for anyone interested in preserving history, even the darker parts of our national story that some would prefer to fade away and be forgotten.

So, if you care about history, if you care about people’s need for historical touchstones regardless of someone’s need for profit, then you should care about this.