The Wild West of Sanibel, Part 1

November 22, 2014 – One day last week, we decided to walk to the beach, starting from the site of our planned home on Cooley Hammock at the west end of Sanibel.  We walked directly from the house pad (fill dirt has been spread out on the cleared part of the site) through the jungle to the southwesternmost corner of the 3.6 acres, exiting the brush at the bike path.  We walked northwesterly up the bike path for a mere three minutes, then crossed Sanibel-Captiva Road.  We were already at the beach.  A three minute walk isn’t bad; all we need to do is create the path in Cooley Hammock from the house site to that corner of the property.
We walked down the beach (southeasterly) past just two houses, one of which is huge and named “Mandalay,” and then we were on a pristine beach that has no houses; instead, a bayou and acres of mangroves separate the beach from the homes on San-Cap road.  When we’d been walking for about ten minutes on the beach, we were at the entrance to Silver Key, an almost-island within the island.
There’s an informational kiosk and a 1200-foot long path along Silver Key, which we explored.  I remember when the place was covered with Australian pine trees; I used to walk up to it from Bowman’s beach in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Google Maps image of Silver Key
Once upon a time, Silver Key was Gulf-front property, owned by the Harry H. Ford family.  That’s the same family from whom we bought our land, now called Cooley Hammock.  This Ford family (no relation to the Henry Ford of automotive fame) bought two large chunks of land on Sanibel in 1925.  Cooley Hammock was in one of those chunks, and Silver Key was in the other.
Soon after the Fords bought it, the Silver Key land was to become the subject of a landmark land survey law case in the Florida courts.  You see, the hurricane of 1926 caused an accretion of land from the land owned by the Turners, to the north, on Captiva.  Basically, via a movement of sand, a peninsula of Captiva grew down in front of the Fords’ Gulf-front property, and it was no longer Gulf-front.  The Fords sued the Turners, claiming that the accreted land really belonged to the Fords, since it was in front of their land.  The Turners argued that the accreted land was the Turners’ land, since it was contiguous with it.  The Turners won the case.
But the Fords didn’t give up.  Decades later, when Hurricane Donna cut the accreted land off from the rest of the Turner land on Captiva (1960), the Fords went to court again, in an attempt to get title to the Gulf frontage.  Once again, the Fords lost.
Image from the Ford v. Turner case
I’m intrigued by the story of the Fords’ real estate ventures on Sanibel Island, and so I’ve done some research about them.  As far as I can tell, the Fords never lived on Sanibel.  When they moved to Florida from North Branch, Michigan, they settled first in the middle of the state in the Lakeland area, and later ended up in the Sarasota-Bradenton area, where Harry Ford’s son and daughter still live.  An older daughter died there in 2003.
In the Florida land boom of the early to mid 1920s, the Fords bought land all over south Florida, not just on Sanibel.  Land was not cheap in the peak of that land boom; the Fords spent plenty. How did they make their money, I wondered?
Usually what happens is that people make money up north, and then bring it to Florida to spend on land.  Nothing has changed about that!
So, where did the Fords come from and what did they do?  Well, Harry Ford (1879-1965) was born to Henry Ford and Elizabeth Grace Uglow Ford, who had immigrated from England and married in Canada in 1872.  By the time Harry was born in 1879, the family was living in North Branch, Michigan.  But it is safe to say they had Canadian connections.
Henry was a grocer who operated the general store in North Branch, which was, and still is, a small and simple little town well north of Detroit.  The town is situated on a cross-road that connects the two highways, routes 24 and 53, both of which run straight up from Detroit, through the thumb of the Michigan mitten, to the grand Saginaw Bay of Lake Huron.  
As a young man, Harry worked as a “salesman” in the family grocery/general store in tiny North Branch.  When Henry, his dad, died in 1914, Harry continued running the business, with his mother Elizabeth.
Sadly, Elizabeth’s sister Mary Ann Uglow Stacey, and brother-in-law Thomas Stacey, also died in 1914 in North Branch.
Meanwhile, things were changing in Michigan – things that were bound to affect a grocer’s business.  By 1911, dozens of counties in the state had prohibited sales of alcohol.  Then in 1916, the people of Michigan voted to prohibit alcohol sales throughout the entire state.  Booze began to flow into Michigan from Ohio.  Then nation-wide prohibition started in 1920.  By then, Michiganders were accustomed to bootlegging.  You might say they had head start in this black market business.
Starting in 1920, the direction of alcohol flow into Michigan was from Canada.  When large shipments arrived, they’d sometimes go directly to people for personal consumption.  But sometimes the imports would go to “blind pigs,” a term used for any place selling illicit alcohol.  Detroit reportedly had up to 25,000 “blind pigs.”
By 1925, the Fords were well into their real estate investment ventures in Florida.  Harry’s mom, Elizabeth Grace Uglow Ford, died in 1925 in Starke, Florida (the city that is near the Florida State Prison Farm).  She was 77 years old at that time.  I still do not know how these Fords made their fortune; I only know they invested heavily in south Florida real estate.
Harry married a woman named Lula Grace (last name unknown), and together they had three children, Laura (1911-2003), Elizabeth Grace (born in 1919), and Robert H. (born in 1924).  Robert is now Elizabeth’s guardian, and as such he has to approve the sales of Elizabeth’s remaining real estate holdings.  Ours was one of them in 2013, and now Cooley Hammock is, for the first time since 1925, owned by Cooleys, not Fords.  At about the same time we bought our land, a doctor from Fort Myers bought the other remaining Ford parcel across the street, on San-Cap Road.  Now we’ve reached the end of a Ford real estate venture era that began in the land boom of the 1920s.
Sources:  http://www.mackinac.org/10016 , leepa.org, www.leeclerk.org, U.S. Census data, and Ancestry.com.


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