In the early 1960s, a chapter of the Association for Early Childhood Education International was formed in the Lee County Public school System. Several local chapter members visited the Leon County chapter at Tallahassee where there was an extensive collection of ‘Suitcase Museums’ for circulation to schools and civic groups on diverse topics, such as economics, botany, insects, sea shells, animals, Indian life, and local history.The collections were housed in army-style footlockers and were circulated primarily to elementary media centers for display and hands-on experiences.
About that time, the Johnson Administrations “Great Society” Elementary and Secondary Education Act became operative. Various sources of federal and state funding made possible the expansion of the facilities of most schools. Special reading teachers and media specialists were high priority in lee County public schools.
The local chapter of the Association for Early Childhood Education prepared several footlockers for circulation.
Almost coincidentally (1963-1965), with expanded media services in public elementary schools through funds from the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, was the formation of a local chapter of the Junior Welfare League. The League was a group of very active young women bent on pubic service projects. The Junior Welfare league had voted to establish a museum as a long term project. A suitcase project was started and eventually the project had eight suitcases including Fossils, Seminole, and the History of Fort Myers.
For several years the Junior Welfare League carted around these suitcases to schools that requested them. Eventually, the Junior League studied the community to see if there was a need for a natural history museum and planetarium. Noting that it was, a board of mostly League members was establish to accomplish the project.
During the 1960’s, Southwest Florida was being discovered and occupied by a wave of new settlers, each seemingly with a gaggle of kids in need of an education. There were Junior-Senior High Schools at Fort Myers and Alva, and elementary schools dispersed throughout the county. A needs survey indicated that schools were needed in nearly all directions from the Fort Myers central area.
One of the new arrivals was William F. (Bill) Hammond, who with his wife, Rosemarie came to Lee County for the new school year. Bill had been offered a scholarship in a prestigious art school, but he opted to pursue a career in education. After graduation, he taught general science and viology at Moravia in upstate New York before accepting a position in 1962 at the new Lee Junior High School. There he taught Earth Science and Biology. He established a community studies program which conducted scientific studies in field biology and marine sciences in a converted school bus field laboratory. Later, he transferred to the newly built Cypress Lake Senior High School in South Fort Myers, where he chaired the science department and taught the more advanced secondary subjects. The combination of events led to his interest in environmental education.
Bill and Rosemarie drafted and submitted an application under Johnson’s “Great Society” Elementary and Secondary Education Act which was a success and a new program was added to the curriculum.
About 1969, the School Board of Lee County received the Title III Elementary and Secondary Education Act grant to establish an Environmental Education program for the public and qualifying private schools in the area. The Environmental Education program was initiated with Bill acting as Director, Rosemarie as Secretary and Assistants Joel Christensen, Jim Butler, Joseph Carter, Mike Stuart, and Larry Thompson. The first pupil involvement from schools throughout the county were talented Juniors and Seniors, astute enough to skip a day of the traditional academic program, who came to concentrate on environmental affairs. They were known as the “Monday Group” and soon learned of the Junior Welfare League’s project. They helped to conduct environmental assessments of proposed nature center sites.
While all of this was going on, the National Defense Education Act, Title III for enhancement in the fields of science, mathematics, and modern foreign languages, was being implemented. For several years, projects were submitted to acquire the hardware equipment for a yet-to-be planetarium. It was then decided that it should begin with a museum type facility.
Several sites in the Fort Myers area were investigated as a potential location for the museum-nature center-planetarium facility. One of the early locations studied was a small cypress head south of the Community Hospital, now the South West Regional Medical Center ( it has since been developed as an industrial area). Another site offered was from the Zipperer family, near Six Mile Cypress. One site, though, stood out. About five miles east of downtown Fort Myers, along State Road 82 (now Dr Martin Luther King, Jr Blvd) is Ortiz Avenue. It originally connected SR 8- on the north end and SR 82 on the south end. South of SR 82, Ortiz extended as a sand grade farm road to the Six Mile Cupress Slough. Ortiz was the eastern boundary to the two-square-mile City well field, where the city’s water processing plant is supplied by shallow wells, which in turn are recharged with water from the Caloosahatchee River. The southeast corner apparently was unsuitable for the shallow wells. at that location a Cypress head had been logged off some thirty years before by the CJ Jones Lumber Compant, and fencepost cuters had cleared the area of standing lightwood hearts of long dead pines. An abandoned logging grade extended northwestward from the corner of the well field. Much of the area near the Ortiz sand grade was littered with old car bodies and assorted junk. This became the chosen site.
In early 1972, the City of Fort Myers granted a lease of 105 acres of the well field to the Junior Museum and Planetarium of lee County, Inc. By this time, the gram grade had been widened and Ortiz Avenue was paved about two miles south of SR 82. A considerable amount of cleanup and installation of a culvert between Ortiz and the museum plot was necessary before clearing and filling could take place. The Colonial Ave extension would not be for several years, nor would I-75 reach this far south.
Bill Rivers of the Rivers and Pigott firm was chosen to design the facility. Johnson Engineering did the site design work. Dr Robin Brown and Bill Hammond successfully obtained a Bicentennial grant from the Florida Department of Natural Resources to construct an approach ramp to reach the expected eight foot high raised elevation of the proposed building. These funds came first, and for some time the “Ramp to Nowhere” stood fallow awaiting grant approvals and matching funds for the construction of the museum phase I.
The business community responded enthusiastically. One of these early supporters was Quinton McNew of Harper Brothers, who donated materials and construction time for the parking lot, and who later expanded the facility in the memory of his late son.
The school system became actively involved. Superintendent Ray Williams, a former science teacher, initiated a program for children to “buy a star”. For a small donation, children received a receipt, officially stamped and signed with a raccoon’s paw print.
Bids for Phase I of the main facility were sought and awarded. Some $170,000 from grants and Junior Welfare League matching funds became available and the first half of the building was completed in early 1977.
The Environmental Education staff and Monday Group students laid out a route for trails and boardwalk to, in and around the cypress dome northwest of the museum building, which became the Cypress Loop Trail. Not one standing tree was removed. Later, some environmental education students, under the direction of Industrial Arts Supervisor Al Howard and staff members built the Pine Loop Trail, as well as the deck, walkways, and ramp that connected the new museum building with the Iona House. They also poured the concrete floor under the south end of the building that joins the McNew Pavilion to the north, and built a small cement pond adjacent to the walkway.
In the early 1980’s, during the museum Board Presidency of Mary Lee Mann and Directorship of Herpetologist Dr. Bob Taylor, the museum underwent the most extensive expansion in its history. The Audubon Aviary was nearly finished and was stocked with a basic collection of injured birds from CROW on Sanibel The surrounding boardwalk was soon to be built. Indian chickees were being built west of the aviary by the Miccosukee, or Trail, Indians.
Under Mary Lee’s presidency, an application to the Florida Department of Education was prepared and funds were approved to construct Phase II of the museum building, and a planetarium. The planetarium design contract was awarded to Parker-Mudgett architects. Ground was broken in May of 1984.
In 1993, a committee chaired by Executive Director Susan Beckman recommended a name change, “Calusa Nature Center and Planetarium, Inc.”, to the Board for consideration. The proposal was accepted in april 1994 and officially changed.
(From excerpts written by Dr. Bill Hammond)