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History of Bonita Springs, Florida

Tiana Burgos
March 16, 2020

There is no denying that Bonita Springs is one of the most loved vacation spots in the United States. But have you ever wondered about the history of Bonita Springs, Florida? Today, Bonita Springs is a welcoming beach community, which is situated between Naples and Fort Myers. It attracts people year-on-year because of the beautiful weather and the fun water activities that go on in the area.

However, all stories need to begin somewhere, and so in this guide, we are going to take a look at the history of Bonita Springs, Florida, in further detail. We will provide you with information on what this part of Florida is famous for, as well as providing you with further insight into the story behind Bonita Springs and how to incorporate this into your vacation when visiting this part of Florida.

Where Is Bonita Springs?

Bonita Springs is a city that is situated within the Lee Country area of Florida. It is situated on the state’s southwest coast and is within the Cape Coral-Fort Myers, Florida Metropolitan Statistical Area. Today, it is easy to get to this part of Florida, as there are a number of different transport links.

If you are planning on traveling to Bonita Springs by plane, you will have two airports at your disposal. The first is the Naples Municipal Airport. However, this is a smaller airport, which is mainly for individuals using it for private aviation. The other airport, which serves more than eight million people per year, is Southwest Florida International Airport. You will find this in the nearby South Fort Myers. 

There is also rail transport in the city, with Seminole Gulf Railway owning and operating a line that goes through the city. In terms of mass transport, the Lee County Transit Department provides a fixed-route bus and trolley service. The major highways that pass through here include U.S. Route 41 and Interstate 75. Therefore, if you are interested in visiting this part of Florida, you should have no trouble planning your trip. 

What is Bonita Springs Known For?

There is no denying that Bonita Springs has become a popular and exciting tourist destination for a lot of people today. It is famous for its white, pristine beaches, and clear waters. A lot of people come to this part of Florida so that they can enjoy the different water sports and activities that are on offer. 

Aside from this, Bonita Springs, Florida, has really become known for its wildlife. If you want to have a relaxing vacation and get close to nature, this is definitely a location that we would recommend very highly. 

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Calusa Indians and the Early History of Bonita Springs, Florida

You can trace back the history of Bonita Springs, Florida, far back indeed. This is an area that has been inhabited for many years. In fact, it has been inhabited since the days of prehistoric man. Some of the more recent discoveries have placed humans in this part of Florida around 8,000 years ago! 

The first group of people that we know a lot about that inhabited Bonita Springs is the Calusa, which are also known as the Shell Indians. They lived on the sandy shores of Florida’s southwest coast. It is believed that the tribe’s population reached as high as 50,000 people. Men of this tribe were well built, tall, and they had long hair. In fact, the name ‘Calusa’ describes this tribe perfectly, as it means ‘fierce people.’ 

You may be wondering how the Calusa Indians lived. They used to reside along the inner waterways along the coast. Their homes were built on stilts, with roofs being fashioned from Palmetto leaves. However, they did not build walls. Like other Indian tribes in Florida, the Calusa Indians did not farm. Instead, they used to head to the waterways, rivers, bays, and coast to fish for food. The boys and men of this tribe would use palm tree webbing to make nets so that they could catch the likes of catfish, pigfish, pinfish, and mullet. They also used spears to catch turtles and eels. The children and women were taught how to catch shellfish, like oysters, lobsters, clams, crabs, and conchs. 

You may be wondering why the Calusa Indians were known as the Shell Indians. This is because they are thought to be the first shell collectors. There used to be shells that were discarded into massive piles. The Calusa Indians did not make a lot of pottery items, as other Indian tribes did. Instead, they would use the shells for ornaments, jewelry, utensils, and tools for their shrines. They also created shell spears for hunting and fishing. There are still shell mounds remaining today, which have been protected by conservation groups and environmentalists. 

Spanish Explorers and the History of Bonita Springs, Florida

Unfortunately for the Calusa Indians, the arrival of Spanish explorers marked the start of the end for their reign. Due to slave trading, warfare, and disease, the Calusa tribe was pretty much wiped out by the 1700s. The Spanish invasion of what we know was Florida today started back in 1513. The native people of South Florida were aware of the threat of the Spanish, as they had heard reports from Natives of the Caribbean Islands, as they had traded with them frequently for centuries. 

Juan Ponce de Leon (the conqueror of Puerto Rico), a Spanish explorer, explored the Florida coast in 1513. He landed on Easter Week, and that is how the land became known as Florida, as Easter Week is Pasqua Florida in Spanish. At the time, his goal was to acquire slaves. At this time, the Spanish were interested in Americans as suppliers of food, porters, guides, sexual partners, and laborers. 

Under Ponce de Leon, the Spanish landed just to the north of what is known as Cape Canaveral today. They then sailed south, landing at a Tequesta town. They then sailed into San Carlos Bay. it was their aim to recaulk and clean one of their ships. However, 80 Calusa canoes, which were filled with people using shields and archers, approached the ships. This caused the Spanish to attack, driving the Calusa to the shore. The Spanish captured some of their women and broke up some of the canoes. However, the Spanish were forced to withdraw by the Calusa warriors. 

This marked the start of a number of different trips by the Spanish over the coming decade or so. This, coupled with disease ravaging in Bonita Springs, saw the Calusa tribe basically disappear.

Bonita Springs Used to Be Known As Survey

There are a lot of interesting facts about Bonita Springs. However, one thing that you may be surprised to learn is that the area used to be known as Survey. The site became known as survey after government surveyors pitched camp along the waterway, which is now called the Imperial River, back in the 1870s. Once the crew of surveyors left the site, the area became known as Survey. The waterway then became known as Surveyor’s Creek. 

The name remained for a number of decades. It was not until the 2,400 acres around Survey was purchased by J.H. Ragsdale in 1912. The Tennessean purchased the area with another investor from Fort Myers. He and Dan Farnsworth, his associate, surveyed the area, laying out a small town that had avenues and streets named after the investors. It was decided by the investors that the name, Survey, did not have sales appeal. Because of this, they decided to call the town Bonita Springs instead. This was not the only name change they made. Surveyor’s Creek was renamed and became the Imperial River. They also changed the name of the Indian Spring Branch to Oak Creek.

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Bonita Springs in the 1800s

While we have looked back upon the history of Bonita Springs from when it was first founded, it was quite some time until the area began to become developed. The beginnings of the location came about sometime in the 1870’s. This is when the group of government surveyors in the remote part of Southwest Florida set up a camp close to the medicinal spring. This is where it was believed that the sick could be healed. This is what the local Indians believed. Once the crew left, this is when the stream became known as Surveyor’s Creek and the site was deemed Survey.

Merely a few homesteaders relocated to this part of Florida over the next ten years or so. However, the population of the area more than doubled in the 1880s. This occurred when Braxton B. Comer purchased 6,000 acres of land around the area. He imported equipment and mules to the area. He also moved in 50 African-American families to work on a big plantation here, growing coconuts, bananas, and pineapples. Within a few years, the area had gone from being a scattering of homesteaders to a full-blown community. A small, log-walled, thatched roof public school was then built in 1887. This market the start of Bonita Springs becoming the area we know and love today.  

Bonita Springs in the 1900s

In the 1900s, a lot of development really started to take place in Bonita Springs. By 1910, there was a two-story Eagle Hotel in business. This hotel was designed to cater to the visitors that were interested in the area’s unspoiled beauty and hotspots for fishing and hunting. As touched upon earlier, a couple of years after this, two investors decided to purchase the area, and this is when it was renamed. They surveyed the area, laying out a small town with different avenues and streets named for potential buyers. 

While there was no church in the area at the time, the first non-denominational service was held in the school house for the community in 1915. It was led by a Naples minister. In order to attract more people to the area, it became renamed, and that’s when Bonita Springs officially started. 

In an attempt to expand his empire, Barron Collier, made an extension to the Fort-Myers Southern Railroad in the early 1920’s, so that Bonita Springs was now included. This resulted in another land boom being brought to the area thanks to the new Tamiami Trail. This marked the start of another name change as well. An area known for millions of tiny fiddler crabs, Fiddler-ville, was renamed and the area is what we know as Bonita Beach today! 

More and more visitors made their way to Bonita Springs as the 90’s progressed, as more and more attractions were established. Lester and Bill Piper displayed bears, panthers, and other native Florida animals at Everglades Wonder Gardens, as well as supplying rare animals to the zoo in Chicago. The Shell Factory was also created during this period. Harold Crant, a Canadian, opened the Shell Factory after noticing millions of shells lying around, free for the taking, along the beautiful beaches. The factory actually burned down in the early 1940’s. However, it was then rebuilt in North Fort Myers at a later date. 

As the years continued, the I-75 corridors and U.S. 41 Bypass created more access options for people who wanted to visit this part of Florida. This meant that exceptional golf courses, contemporary office facilities, and amazing shopping malls were brought to the location. 

Today, Bonita Springs is an array that attracts tons of tourists thanks to the outstanding recreational facilities, fine restaurants, and breath-taking beaches. It has become another Southwest Florida township that is truly flourishing. When you consider this, it really is hard to believe that just over three generations ago, the roots of this vibrant community were a few homesteaders’ shacks, located by a creek in the back of a place that was called Survey. How times have really changed for this area! 

Bonita Springs Downtown Historic District

If you are really looking for a taste of culture and history when you take a trip to Bonita Springs, we definitely recommend exploring the downtown area. Downtown Bonita Springs is a historic area, which evokes memories of Old Florida when Ed Sullivan Show was a must-watch on TV, Kennedy was in the White House, and Cadillacs had fins. It is a nostalgic area, which has so much to offer. 

The downtown area is centered around the Imperial River, Riverside Park, and Old 41 Road. While the City of Bonita Springs has provided significant municipal support for redevelopment, there is no denying that there is an old charm here and there are a lot of great attractions as well. 

One of the best things to do here is to explore the downtown district with the Bonita Springs Historical Society. Through doing this, you will be able to learn all about the history of the area. There are seven different themed history walks that are provided by the Bonita Springs Historical Society. This includes the Land of the Calusa walk, as well as Monuments, Arts & Culture, and Ghost Walks from the Past, Cruisin’ Down the River, How Bonita Got its Name, Places of Wonderment, and Downtown Landmarks. These tours give you the perfect opportunity to explore the downtown district and learn all about Bonita Springs from a number of different perspectives. 

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The Everglades Wonder Gardens

One place that we certainly recommend visiting if you want to explore Old Florida is Everglades Wonder Gardens. This is an attraction that should be at the top of your to-do list when making the trip to this part of the state. 

When you take a trip to Everglades Wonder Gardens, you will feel like you are traveling back in time. After all, this attraction has certainly become a cultural icon for Bonita Springs. Visitors will have an unforgettable and unique experience, and this is something that people have been enjoying ever since the doors opened back in 1936!

When you take a trip to Everglades Wonder Gardens, you will start off your journey in the natural history museum. Here, you will be able to take a look at the artifacts that were collected by Lester and Bill Piper - the founders of Everglades Wonder Gardens. Once you have explored everything the museum has to offer, you are going to step outside so you can explore the botanical jungle. The area covers 3.5 acres and you will have a great time exploring all of the different plants and specimens from around the world, as well as the beautiful native trees. 

While you are exploring, you will get the opportunity to come close with different reptiles and birds that have been rescued and now found their forever homes at Everglades Wonder Gardens. Don’t forget to feed the flamingos as well!

Shangri La Part of Bonita Springs History

Along old US 41 in Bonita Springs, you will find a stone mermaid tucked in a peaceful and quiet garden. You can see that time has had a hand in smoothing the mermaid and changing the color of it, with the sulfur water spraying into the surrounding water also having an impact but adding to the serenity and magic of the scene.

What has this mermaid got to do with anything you may ask? Well, according to the CEO of Shangri-La Springs, Andrew Sroka, this mermaid is the Bonita spring. In fact, it was installed by Dr. Charles Gnau. Not only an osteopath, Gnau was the fourth owner of the property and he was very interested in the health benefits the spring provided. 

The Shangri-La Springs actually first came about in 1921. This was when a hotel was created near the spring by the Heitman Family. The property changed hands a number of times. Leo Dahlman purchased it in 1993 when it was restored. After this, a trust purchased the property in 1998. When the trust bought the property, one of the initial things they set about doing was growing produce as part of their project for rehabilitating the property. It took several years in order to certify the grounds as organic. The unique thing about this area is that everything is organic. This does not just mean the gardens and the orchards; it means everything, including the grounds that the property stands on.

It’s quite a spectacular area, and it is one that attracts a lot of people today. The spa is open here and there is a small farm, which is thriving. Events are also hosted at a meeting room that is placed along the mineral pool. Small classes also take place here. Visitors can enjoy lunch at a restaurant as well. 

The farm is pretty impressive here. You won’t find a few planters with tomatoes and peppers or a small herb patch. You will see that there are neat rows of herbs and vegetables, which flourish against the backdrop of the old avocado and mango orchard. Per year, the trees here produce 1,500 pounds of avocados and 3,000 pounds of mangoes.

Liles Hotel History Center

Another area that is going to allow you to delve deeper into Bonita Springs is the Liles Hotel History Center. Almost 14 years ago, the Bonita Springs Historical Society was granted permission from the Bonita Springs City Council to occupy space at the Liles Hotel, which had just been renovated. This result in history exhibits being put on display in the hotel’s public areas. Not only this but there is a first floor room that has been decorated as a period bedroom to represent the 1930s. On the second floor, the two rooms that are now occupied by the Society are used as a history resource center. The public can visit this center in order to get a better understanding of the local heritage of Bonita Springs. 

The aim of this is so that locals and tourists alike can understand the area and come away with a greater appreciation for the past, which helped to create the beautiful place that is now Bonita Springs. It is also the aim of the Bonita Springs Historical Society to help people to see that preserving the historical and cultural resources of the area is valuable. 

That’s not all. The Bonita Springs Historical Society hopes that these facilities being created will enable the city of Bonita Springs to joint ranks with other cities nearby that offer history museums to their citizens. All in all, it is something that is only going to assist in reinforcing the value of Bonita Spring’s own unique identity. If you want to see a cohesive timeline of the local history of the area, which is separate from the cities that are nearby, such as Naples and Fort Myers, this is certainly the place to visit. 

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The Modern Development of Bonita Springs

One thing that is for sure is that there has been a lot of development in Bonita Springs in recent times, and this is a place that is likely to see more development as time goes on. However, the area has been very careful and considered when it comes to keeping the charm and history of the past intact. 

In fact, as recently as last year, Bonita Springs became the latest city in Florida to hire a guru in an attempt to bolster the economic development potential via effective urban design. This is something that we have already seen happen in Naples, Fort Myers, and Sarasota, with Duany Plater-Zyberk Inc. of Miami leading the way.

The company is encouraging the municipality in Lee County to expand zoning so that more mixed-use projects can be provided, as well as resident numbers increasing and pedestrian experiences being heightened. 

Bonita Springs Today

Hopefully, you now have a better understanding of the amazing history of Bonita Springs. However, if you are planning on taking a trip here, you will also be interested in knowing what Bonita Springs is like today and what you are able to do in the area. Here are some of the highlights that we definitely recommend…

  • Barefoot Beach Preserve - There is only one place to begin, and this is with the Barefoot Beach Preserve. If you are looking to experience nature that has remained pretty much unchanged by the hands of man, this is the place to be. It is situated nearby Naples, on Barefoot Beach Boulevard. It consists of more than 300 acres. The area is about as undeveloped as you can expect to find anywhere. You’re not going to find shopping outlets, stylish coffee shops, and Ferris wheels here, as is the case at a lot of beaches today. Instead, this is a place for all-around nature lovers, shell collectors, and of course, sunbathers. There is ample parking here, a few food and drink concessions, and bathrooms. 
  • Mound Key State Park - While we refer to this as ‘Bonita Springs today,’ this is definitely one of the most historical attractions you will find in the area. Almost 500 years ago, when Spanish explorers first arrived on the Florida shores, Calusa Native Americans inhabited the land around Bonita Springs. You will find the famous mounds that the Calusas created at Mound Key State Park, which consists of over 100 acres on Estero Bay. Today, it is advisable to enjoy the area through a guided tour in order to make the most of it. There are a number of different options available, with most departing from the nearby Koreshan and Key State Parks. 
  • Bonita Fairways Golf Course -If you’re someone who loves a trip to the golf course, you will not be disappointed while in Bonita Springs. In fact, the sheer number of courses in the Sunshine State can be a bit mind-boggling. However, if you do not want to spend a fortune and you’re looking for a good golf course in Bonita Springs, you cannot go wrong with Bonita Fairways Golf Course. It is a short course, at just 3,400 yards, yet it does feature 18 holes. This makes it the perfect course for anyone who wants a quick game of golf and does not want to spend their entire day on the course. 
  • Riverside Park - Last but not least, we cannot mention Bonita Springs without talking about Riverside Park. this is on the scenic Imperial River, situated along the US Route 41 in Bonita Springs. Not only is it known for having a number of different recreation options and stunning natural beauty, but it has become a venue that is known to host live entertainment events, festivals, and shows throughout the year too. So, it is certainly worth checking the events calendar before your holiday.  

Experience the History of Bonita Springs, Florida with Royal Shell

So there you have it: an insight into the magical and wonderful history of Bonita Springs, Florida. There is no denying that this is a part of the United States that has an interesting history, and it is crazy to think about how far the area has come in such a short space of time. If you are planning on visiting Bonita Springs, and you want to make the most of the history of the area, Royal Shell can help you to book the vacation of your dreams. 

At Royal Shell, we have a number of vacation properties for you to choose from in the Bonita Springs area. It does not matter whether you are looking for a vacation home for the entire family or you are planning on exploring the area by yourself, we can help. In fact, some of the properties that we have available sleep up to 16 people. We can help you to choose a vacation home that fits into your budget and your wants from your holiday. We will also help you to plan your trip so that you can make the most of the history of Bonita Springs, should you wish to do so. All you need to do is get in touch today to get started. The number you need is 866 202 0723. Alternatively, you can send an email to info@royalshell.com, and we will get back to you as soon as possible.

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