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Residents get history lesson from those who lived it

August 22, 2010

Cape Coral residents learned about the earliest days of the city during a presentation and luncheon Saturday afternoon at the Lake Kennedy Senior Center.

The presentation, which began at 11 a.m., was given by Paul Sanborn and Elmer Tabor. Sanborn, president of the Cape Coral Historical Society and city historian, moved to the Cape in 1962 to work for Gulf American Land Corporation, while Tabor's family moved to the community when he was a child in 1960 and opened the city's first grocery store.

The longtime locals shared with the audience a slideshow of old photographs and tales from times past, while dispelling myths and confirming facts about a city that once had a population of 1,100. It was the late 1950s when Jack and Leonard Rosen set eyes on the area and set their minds to building a city on about 4,800 acres in the southeast portion.

"There was absolutely no development north of Cape Coral Parkway or west of Pelican," Sanborn said. "This was the nucleus of Cape Coral."

Mail was delivered by boat, trips to Fort Myers involved taking Del Prado Boulevard to Hancock Bridge Parkway to U.S. 41, and everything was about firsts - one of the first businesses was Carriage Cleaners, which is still in operation today, and the first hotel in town was the Nautilus Motel, which once stood where the Holiday Inn Express is now.

"We didn't have any traffic lights," Sanborn said.

The first traffic signal went up at Cape Coral Parkway and Coronado Parkway, followed by one at Del Prado and the parkway. The Surfside Restaurant was one of two eateries in town, and the first shopping plaza consisted of a coin laundry, a bar and a gift shop at the corner of Southeast 47th Terrace and Southeast 15th Avenue.

There was one rent-a-car company and one taxi company, with one service vehicle each.

Tabor's family owned the first grocery store at about 3,500 square feet, the size of a 7-Eleven today, he explained. In the early 1960s, Tabor saw the first hardware store and first library open. The first medical center now houses the Cape Coral Arts Studio, and the first church in town was a storefront business.

"It was not easy living here," he said, referring to the pioneer spirit of the first families.

In 1962, the Rosens opened the Cape Coral Yacht Club for residents.

"Their philosophy was, 'Build it and they will come,'" Sanborn said. "And they did."

The Cape Coral Rose Garden, closed in 1970, featured porpoise shows and the famous Waltzing Waters. Located where Tarpon Point Marina now stands, the garden was used to attract prospective buyers. It showcased 40,000 rose bushes, including a species that was specifically developed for the community, the Cape Coral rose.

"The Rosen brothers, when they did things, they did it right," Sanborn said.

The completion of the Cape Coral Bridge in 1964 provided easier access across the Caloosahatchee, and residents saw the city's first hospital built in 1977. Over the years, the city expanded - Pine Island Road and Santa Barbara Boulevard now split the city from east to west and north to south - and more people began to call the Cape home.

The city's current population is about 160,000.

"It's great that I had an opportunity to be involved," Tabor said of the city's beginning.

"There's a lot of future left in Cape Coral," he added.

On Saturday, Shirley Sloper attended the presentation with two friends. A resident of Cape Coral since 1994, she said she was surprised to learn that farmland made up some of the city when the Rosens first saw the land back in the late 1950s, along with cattle.

"I didn't realize that there was that much land that wasn't swamp land," she said.

She learned that residents originally used U.S. 41 to get to Fort Myers and that the mail was delivered by boat, and Sloper was amazed that they lived without air-conditioning.

"How did they stand it?" she asked.

Sloper's friends, Kathy Ray and Barbara Wood, were drawn to the part about the Rose Garden. Wood, a Cape resident since 2000, said she found the presentation interesting, while Ray expressed disappointment that the Rose Garden was no longer in existence.

"It's a nice opportunity to get together with friends," Wood said of the luncheon.

A resident since 2001, Ray agreed, calling the overall presentation "good."

"It was interesting," Ray said. "I enjoyed it."



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