Take a History Walk in Bonita: Preserving The Past and Beautifying With Art
A colorful mural decorates Benson's grocery.
“It’s all about transportation,” declares Charlie Strader of the Bonita Springs Historical Society, or BSHS, at the start of one of its “Places of Wonderment” History Walks in downtown Bonita. The BSHS website explains that the group “has partnered with Calusa Ghost Tours to provide a series of educational and entertaining history walks … There are several different walk itineraries, each focusing on a particular area and with different activities.”
The development of most civilizations began with how people got there. Bonita is no exception.
It all began with the Imperial River. Then cattle trails, then roads, then railroads and then the completion of the Tamiami Trail in 1928. It was a perfect stopping point on the long trek to Miami—a place where curiosity seekers could stop and visit one of the many tourist attractions such as The Dome, Everglades Wonder Gardens, or the original Shell Factory. People came from miles around to stay and go camping, fishing and exploring.
But if transportation is what brought people to Bonita initially, it’s also what drove people away. By 1976, the Tamiami Trail had become so heavily traveled between Naples and Fort Myers that it had to be widened. The new U.S. 41 was designed to bypass Bonita’s little downtown area. While the road project was devastating to many businesses at the time, it also produced the unintended benefit of preserving the history and “small town feel” of Bonita.
BSHS tours enable visitors and residents to experience the city from different perspectives. In addition to “Places of Wonderment” and “Ghost Walk From the Past,” history walk themes include “Downtown Landmarks,” “How Bonita Got Its Name,” “Cruisin’ Down the River,” and “Land of the Calusa.”
Art in Public Places
History is expected on a history walk, but the bonus on BSHS tours is the art. Behind Liles Hotel History Center is a row of small bungalows that were once fishing and camping cabins. They’re now called the “Artist Cottages” because artists have set up studios and produce pottery, paintings, jewelry, shell art, woodcrafts and more. Visitors stroll from cottage to cottage to watch artists at work, make purchases and register for lessons.
John Paeno, who partners with BSHS in planning and operating the walking tours, has his own cottage. He proudly displays Calusa artifacts and replicas, including household items such as mats and bowls as well as tools and weaponry—all made from cabbage palms.
Various sculptures can be found around Riverside Park and Depot Park, including ones titled “Lords of the Forest,” “Away 12 Foot” and “Slices of Heaven.” Take a walking tour and see if you can spot at least six sculptures, and other memorials.
Perhaps the largest pieces of art in plain sight are the murals. You can see them from Old 41, but don’t just do a drive-by. They’re worth stopping for. Walking tours offer the chance to linger and admire, and each mural tells a story. From the colorful depiction of the natural beauty of Bonita to the six-panel pictorial history painted prominently on the sides of local businesses, the murals are a clear source of pride. At least five exist now and the city isn’t stopping there.
When asked why the city commissions all the art, Paeno answers: “For beauty of course! Bonita Springs is committed to parks, beautification and the arts.”
History in Art, Art in History
Along the walking tour are several historic buildings in various stages of preservation. BSHS has acquired the McSwain Home, built in 1915, and the 1930 Casner Home, now a living history museum. Strader’s vision is to create a village where artistic attractions and historically preserved buildings are clustered in one area.
Some suggest that because Bonita is so walkable, that’s the case anyway. But development is always threatening to encroach, so Strader dedicates himself to the cause. “It’s the perfect marriage of art and history,” he claims.
Bonita continues to grow and change. Investment in a historic downtown, however, sends the clear signal of commitment to preserving history and beautifying with art at the same time. Take a walk in Bonita Springs and discover it for yourself.
IF YOU GO:
BSHS walking tours operate regularly from November to May; they also may be arranged any time of year. Tours last about two hours, starting and ending at Liles Hotel History Center, Riverside Park, 27300 Old 41 Road. Call 239-221-8218 or email [email protected] for reservations.
“Art Night at the Cottages” is open to the public every fourth Wednesday of the month, 5:30-8 p.m. Go to upriverceramics.com and click on “EVENTS.”
For Bonita Springs Historical Society info, visit BonitaSpringsHistoricalSociety.org.
Holly Morris is a travel writer and copywriter who’s lived, worked and played in Southwest Florida her entire life. She loves sharing her experiences of the area through TOTI Media.