The Liles Hotel in Riverside Park contains photographs, educational displays, and exhibits on the history of our city. It is open to the public from 9 - 5, M - F during winter season and is located at 27300 Old US41, Bonita Springs 34135.
Highlights of Bonita History
Bonita Springs has long been inhabited; in fact, since the days of prehistoric man. Recent discoveries place humans in Bonita Springs some 8,000 years ago. Here are just a few milestones in our history:
Thousands of Calusa Indians were here when the Spanish came in 1539 looking for the Fountain of Youth. Within a couple of centuries, the once mighty Calusa Chiefdom was decimated by European diseases and slave trading. The few survivors moved to the Florida Keys and on to Cuba. Some may have been assimilated into Seminole tribes that had taken refuge in South Florida.
In the 1870's, government surveyors in a remote part of Southwest Florida pitched camp along the waterway now known as the Imperial River. After the crew left, the site became know as Survey. The waterway became known as Surveyor's Creek.
During the next decade only a few homesteaders moved into the area.In the late 1880's the population of the area more than doubled when Braxton B. Comer bought 6000 acres of land around Survey and imported 50 Negro families from Alabama with mules and equipment to work his large plantation growing pineapples, bananas, coconuts and other kinds of fruit.
The next ten years saw a boom in the planting of citrus groves, and within a few years, Survey developed from a scattering of homesteaders into a community. In 1897, the pioneers built a small, thatched-roof, log-walled public school. In 1901, a Post Office was opened in the town of Survey, and by 1910 the frame two-story, Eagle Hotel was in business catering to visitors attracted to the unspoiled area's bounty of hunting and fishing. By 1912, there were 70 students from 20 families enrolled in public school.
Also in 1912, Tennessean J.H. Ragsdale along with a fellow investors from Fort Myers purchased 2400 acres around Survey. He and associate, Dan Farnsworth, surveyed the area and laid out a small town with streets and avenues named after the investors. The developers decided that the name, Survey, lacked sales appeal, so the town was renamed Bonita Springs; Indian Spring Branch became the Oak Creek; and Surveyor's Creek was renamed, the Imperial River.
When the newly-named town of Bonita Springs was being developed, transportation was still mainly by boat. In 1917, a barely passable road was completed between Fort Myers and Bonita Springs. Barron Collier, the wealthy landowner and developer, wanting to expand his empire, had extended his Fort Myers-Southern Railroad south to include Bonita Springs in 1925. This along with the completion of the new Tamiami Trail in 1928, brought another land boom to the area. Still basically unpopulated, the nearby beaches were called Fiddlerville, so called for its millions of tiny fiddler crabs. From 1925 to 1934, Bonita Springs continued to grow and was briefly incorporated, churches were built, saw mills flourished, there were two hotels and the Banyan tree on old 41 was planted.
Man-made ttractions also helped bring more visitors to Bonita Springs. In 1936, the Piper brothers, Bill and Lester, built a roadside attraction displaying alligators, cougars, other wild animals and native plants, called the Everglades Reptile Gardens. Later named the Everglades Wonder Gardens, the gardens are still operating. A Canadian, Harold Crant, saw the millions of shells lying, free for the taking, knee-deep in brilliantly colored windrows along the beaches and opened the Shell Factory in 1938. After the factory burned down on New Year’s Eve in 1952, it was later rebuilt in North Fort Myers.
Bonita remained a quiet small town for the next three decades. But, as the years passed, the rush to build was about to start. With the development of air conditioning and the opening of “new” US41 and I-75, the increased population brought shopping malls, modern office facilities and golf courses into the area. Today, Bonita Springs is an attractive, affluent area with beautiful beaches, fine restaurants, excellent recreational facilities and beautiful homes. It's hard to realize that, a little more than three generations ago, the roots of this thriving community were a scattering of homesteaders' shacks by a creek in the back of nowhere - a place called Survey.
For more information about the Everglades Wonder Gardens, an excellent resource by former guide, Charles LeBuff can be found at:
Also now available is his new book about Bill and Lester Piper - for sale at the Liles Hotel.
From the back cover:
“Bill and Lester Piper were no strangers to living on the edge in dangerous times, doing dangerous things, and risking their lives on a daily basis. They were financially successful bootleggers during the Great Depression and after Prohibition was repealed they put the Detroit River behind them and settled in Bonita Springs, Florida. The brothers had visited this hamlet as younger men and had long been students of the wildlife of the Everglades and the regional wilderness. In the late 1930s they opened the Bonita Springs Reptile Gardens that evolved into Everglades Wonder Gardens, and which by the 1950s became Florida’s premier wildlife attraction. The Piper brothers owned and exhibited the world’s largest collection of threatened American crocodiles, and also pioneered captive propagation of the endangered Florida panther. They, and their animals, like “Old Slewfoot” of The Yearling, were featured in major motion pictures. Their Wonder Gardens educated tens of thousands of Americans in the early days of environmental education and eco-tourism. Their mission was clearly stated in their own words, “We have only a sincere desire to give the visitor a clear picture of the thrilling life, dangers, intrigue and constant struggle for existence that goes on in the depths of the impenetrable and fascinating Everglades.” The Piper brothers were undeniably the Wildlife Barons of the Everglades.”
Thirty-three black and white photographs.6" x 9" — 272 pages with notes and index. ISBN 978-0-88359-064-5. Published by Ralph Curtis Publishing. Publication date, May 15, 2010.