Bonita Springs - Home of the Swamp Buggy and more!

Local historians credit Ed Frank, as the "father" and inventor of the first swamp buggy. He developed his original "skeeter" between 1918 and 1920 while in Bonita Springs for hunting, using parts from a junked Model T Ford and an orange crate box for a seat.

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Bonita Springs - Birthplace of the Swamp Buggy
By Martha Simons

Everybody knows that Naples is the Home of the World Famous Swamp Buggy Races but not as many people know that Bonita Springs is the birthplace of the swamp buggy and was home to several of Naples' first businessmen.

As the story goes, Ed H. Frank built the the first swampy buggy in 1921 in Bonita Springs at his Frank's Garage.The building still stands as part of the Benson's Groceries building on Old 41.
The swamp buggy was a necessary innovation not just for hunting but to get anywhere long distance by automobile during rainy season. A crude road of sorts, shell and deep mud, extended thru Lee County between Naples and Fort Myers thru Bonita Springs ( Old 41) by 1918. The Tamiami Trail to Miami wasn't finished till 1928. Finishing the road was part of Barron Collier's promise in exchange for Collier County's separation from Lee County in 1923.

At the age of 19, Ed Frank adapted a Model T Ford, and junk parts  into a buggy named "Skeeter" . He spent a short time riding "Skeeter" in the California mountains. Ed was born in Washington in 1902  and had a rough start in life. He became an apprentice mechanic at age 12. When he returned to Bonita Springs, he modified Skeeter. He reversed the axles ( who knew you could do such a thing) to keep them up out of the swamp water. He also added big tires with chains on for the same purpose. He found this also worked pretty well for taking hunting parties out into the Everglades, hence the early Swamp Buggy races also celebrated the first day of hunting season. Hunting and fishing were not just sport but a necessity back then. I wonder though, how did Ed Frank get that first buggy from California to Bonita Springs at the age of 18?  Obviously, Ed Frank had the heart of an innovator and adventurer, a trait born by many of our early Southwest Florida pioneers.

Ed Frank, and his wife Katherine Espenlaub Frank, owned several properties in Bonita Springs including the riverside lots where the 1926 Liles Hotel was soon to be built by J.W. Liles. Kate Frank's brother, Henry Espenlaub, owned two lots near where the butterfly garden is in Riverside Park.The Espenlaub family owned a lot of ranchland and a large building for their meat market in Arcadia and land in Boca Grande. Certainly, this budding businessman and property owner, E.H. Frank, knew the local politicos. Ansel McSwain, Bonita Springs first Mayor in 1925, and kin to the Liles, met Ed Frank in Bonita Springs. They must have been excited about their prospects in the newly incorporated Town of Bonita Springs. They must have been more thrilled with a visit by FL. Governor John Martin, Seaboard Railway Pres. Warfield and six hundred businessmen on the Orange Blossom Special, stopping for a look-see and giving speeches at the Bonita Springs Depot on Seaboard Railway's inaugural ride from Fort Ogden to Naples in January, 1927. Thousands of people would welcome these inaugural train stops. It was an era of progress Bonita Springs had not known. Ansel McSwain and others joined the railroad party for the remainder of the trip to show them around Naples.

The existence of Frank's Garage in Bonita Springs is confirmed by a 1922 purchase agreement for large auto mechanic shop equipment between a Nebraska/ Wyoming based mfg.company and Frank's Garage in Bonita Springs. Ed Frank is reported to have lived in Naples in 1923. However, Ed Frank and his family, including his wife Katherine Espenlaub Frank of Arcadia, FL, are enumerated in the 1930 Federal census with his family in Bonita Springs. He opened Frank's Garage in Naples in 1927, making his building the first commercial building on Tamiami Trail in Naples and later, when he added an attached coffee shop in 1931, it became the first strip mall in Naples. He later opened the first car dealership in Naples. The Frank's son, William, "Buba" opened Naples Millwork which closed in 2012 after 60 years. The Espenlaubs became famous for their swamp buggy tours in the Everglades. Henry built a house in Naples in 1938 which is preserved at the Collier County Museum as the Huntoon Gallery. Their friend, Bonita's First Mayor, Ansel McSwain opened his gas station soon after in Naples at Four Corners (5th Ave and Tamiami Trail) His Sinclair building later became a visitors center for the Naples Chamber of Commerce.

Apparently their Bonita born friendship bore great fruit. Ansel McSwain, Ed Frank and W. Roy Smith, local auditor for Standard Oil, later to be Naples Mayor, co-founded the Bank of Naples along with other investors in 1949, the same year the first Swamp Buggy Parade was held.

Although Bonita Springs had several businesses along the Tamiami Trail before Naples, the Great Depression was not kind to Bonita Springs. Ansel McSwain moved to Naples to cast his fortune there. Ed Frank sold most of his Bonita properties. Ed Frank tried to sell his Bonita Springs garage building on his three lots twice before successfully selling to W.C. Benson in 1934. Included in the sale of the garage property was all of the garage and office equipment, a grease rack, and a wrecker car. With these was an agreement with Standard Oil. Apparently, the wrecker was very useful. There was quite a good business hauling cars out of muddy holes and ditches on the dirt roads for many years in Bonita Springs. You can still see remnants of Frank's Garage in the interior of Benson's. Rumor has it that car parts were mixed in with the cement for the buttresses you can see on the outside of the building today.

Below, courtesy of the Bonita Springs Historical Society, is a photo of Ed Frank at as a young man at a hunting camp and behind him is believed to be the famous 1921 "Skeeter", the first swamp buggy ever built at Frank's Garage in Bonita Springs- the Birthplace of the Swamp Buggy.

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History: Swamp Buggies, a local tradition
By: By Lila Zuck 
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Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Rick Caperton, a swamp buggy driver since 1975, described the motivation of a swamp buggy builder when he said, "You can't buy swamp buggy wheels at a store."

As early as 1917, wood buggies were being built, capable of clearing the tall cypress stumps along the narrow Seminole trails in the Everglades.

Through the decades, they evolved into the 8-cylinder, fire-breathing racing machines that scramble around a watery track, but the drivers have remained the same, limited only by the extent of their creativity. "I had no money; I built it out of junk," said Ed Frank, about how, at 19, he built Skeeter, a buggy he drove over mountains in California.

When he returned to Bonita Springs, Ed Frank modified Skeeter to access the Everglades for hunting. He soon moved to Naples and settled on 220 acres of wilderness.

Frank and his hunter buddies would work on their swamp buggies all year and try them out just before hunting season opened on Nov. 1. These vehicles had to get them into the woods and also get them out again, so they tested them out at boggy places around town.

Sidney Griffin, another hunter, found a more challenging location in East Naples, off what would become Radio Road. It was a piece of property used to grow sweet potatoes and turned to pure muck after the potatoes were dug up; perfect!
Every season, wives, children and friends would gather to watch the men test run their buggies. In 1947, Ed Frank suggested to Stuart Rabb, editor of the paper, that they parade the buggies through town and invite the townspeople to watch the men test their swamp-worthiness and have a few laughs.

The parade started at the Naples Hotel, ended with festivities at Cambier Park, and then off they all went to the "tater patch," to watch the men challenge each other's buggies in the mud. The year was 1949.

From then on, everyone looked forward to the annual Swamp Buggy parade and race, at the start of hunting season. There was no charge to attend that first race; a small fee for the second, and then, activities were included during the parade to raise money for the community. That same year, another tradition was started when Joan Ozier was crowned as the first Swamp Buggy Queen.
In 1957, another tradition started. H.W. McCurry was so excited when he won that he grabbed the queen, gown and all, and dunked her in the muckiest part of the Mile-O-Mud, as the old 'tater patch was called. That day the tradition of the race winner and the queen jumping into the Sippy Hole together was born. But, it was Milton Morris who deserves recognition for the Sippy Hole, at least in naming it.

Morris was a cracker from Mississippi, who came to Naples determined to race a swamp buggy. So he built a bright, red-striped buggy and entered each race. Race after race, he would get stuck in the track's deepest, 6-foot, muckiest part. The crowds roared each time his floppy hat floated away from his submerged buggy. Morris' nickname was Sippy.
"Yeah, I dug that hole as deep as it is today," said Sippy. "For five years, I never got out of that hole, so they named the hole after me!"
By the 1960s, drivers sought to build faster buggies, rather than buggies that could charge through the muck. Fences went up and new environmental protection laws began to restrict entry into the Everglades.

By the 1970s, two races a year were held and then, three. In 1982, the need for a new location for the races became urgent. Development on Radio Road, coupled with the lack of parking for fans, and the fact that the old 'tater patch was not zoned recreational, prompted the Swamp Buggy Board to purchase a shooting range off CR 951 in 1985. The first race at the new Florida Sports Park was held in 1986.

Prize money grew slowly over the years, but never came anywhere close to the cost of building the buggies. Charitable contributions to the community continue today. Swamp Buggy racing's national exposure has attracted national sponsors, but every driver will admit that no matter how much they receive, their costs are never covered. Spending upwards of $100,000 on a buggy is not unusual.
In 1999. Naples Mayor Bill Barnett proclaimed the weekend of Oct. 29 to 31 as Swamp Buggy Weekend, in honor of the event's 50th anniversary.

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Into the woods for Paul Frank, left, Henry Espenlaub, Ed Frank and Roy Smith and the first swamp buggy.

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For more about Buggies in early Bonita Springs - click on image below to read full story by Barbara Wyland and see photos.Bonita's Buggy Days