There's a place on the Southwest Coast of Florida, deep in the 10,000 Islands area of the Everglades, where it's still the 19th Century.
Here, you'll pass mile after mile of uninhabited wilderness – except for Florida panthers, black bears, and hundreds of species found nowhere else in the world – until you come to the small town of Everglades City.
From the outside, the Everglades City Rod & Gun Club looks simply like an old white lodge. But when you open the doors and walk inside, you're suddenly enveloped in a time-warp. The ambience – and all the furniture – is from the turn of the century. In fact, it's actually the original furniture from the days when the Rod & Gun Club was a playground for some of the world's wealthiest people.
In this tiny town of some 400 souls, the Rod & Gun Club is a living monument to a Gilded Age. It was originally built upon a foundation set by the first permanent settler here, who founded Everglades City in 1864. In 1922, it was purchased by Barron Collier, a wealthy rancher and industrialist after whom Collier County is named. Collier turned it into a private establishment for his well-heeled friends.
During the next half-century, the Rod & Gun Club saw booms and busts, along with the rest of Florida.
In 1972 it was purchased by the Bowen family, who still own it today. They've closed down the top two floors of the main building, kept the bottom floor (with a fine restaurant, great room, Victorian sitting rooms, general store, etc.) as an authentic monument to those grandiose times, and built five cottages with four units each for guests.
Today, the guests who come here can fish in the Everglades or the Barron River, which the club overlooks. They can hike on local trails in one of the world's great natural wonderlands, or visit nearby Indian reservations. They can loll over an excellent meal in the dining room overlooking the river, as the sun sets over the Glades. Or, they can just relax with a good book on the white wicker chairs out on the porch overlooking the river, in the glow of warm sunshine and precious silence.
"The club was abandoned and ready to be condemned when my Dad first saw it in 1970," says Patty Bowen, one of the owners. "But he was able to see beyond the shabbiness. He saw an authentic piece of Old Florida that was in danger of being lost forever. And he saw the potential to restore it to its original glory."
And restore it they did. The main house is filled with high Victorian chairs with elaborate embroidery. Stuffed otters, deer, alligators, panthers, fish, and assorted other critters on the walls and floors. Elegant crystal chandeliers. Dark hardwood floors. Wooden ceiling fans. Tiffany lamps with stained-glass and fringed shades. Nautical antiques. Wooden roll-top desks.
There are wooden Indian-Head sculptures. Old mariners' maps. An antique pool table. Old rifles. A floor-to-ceiling, brick-and-tin fireplace. Antique gas lamps. A five-foot-tall wooden carving of a captain's face. And newspaper clippings from the past hundred years, showing the colorful history of Everglades City.
"We haven't stopped working on this place for one day since we bought it," Patty Bowen says. "And we do pretty much all of the work ourselves. For us, it's a labor of love. And it's a true family effort, too, with aunts, uncles, cousins, nephews, and nieces."
Even the story of how the Bowens came to Everglades City is fascinating.
"In 1960, my Dad was driving across the state toward Miami, on the only road that connected the southeastern and southwestern parts of the state," Patty Bowen says. "But a bad hurricane had just come through, and there was a huge tree blocking the road. On the other side of the tree was a gentleman headed in the opposite direction. But, because of the tree, neither one of them could move. So they met at the tree, decided to simply swap cars, and each continued on… in the opposite direction from where they had each intended to go! My Dad ended up here."
Over the years, five presidents have stayed here – FDR, Truman, Eisenhower, Hoover, and Nixon. Actors such as John Wayne, Burt Reynolds, Sally Field, Sean Connery, Danny Glover, and Joe Pesci have stayed here, as well as Burl Ives and Gypsy Rose Lee in 1945, while filming "Winds Across the Everglades." Mick Jagger has stayed here. So has Ernest Hemingway. And, the Everglades being a great place to hide out from the law, so have numerous drug-smugglers, murderers, rum-runners, and assorted other criminals on the lam.
For some, it's a place of great romance. Jenny Harroun and Bernie Koster got married here, in fact – 50 years after they first fell in love.
"We were high school sweethearts in Ohio," Jenny says. "But then my family moved to St. Louis, and we lost touch. But we never fell out of love. Last year – thanks to the Internet – we found each other again. By pure accident, we happened to be passing through Everglades City recently, and we stopped at the Rod & Gun Club. And as soon as we walked in, we knew… this was the place we wanted to be married in!"
If you're looking for the "other" Florida – and a slice of Old Florida – it still exists at the Everglades Rod & Gun Club.
For more information: http://www.evergladesrodandgun.com
This story originally appeared at Visit Florida, www.visitflorida.com.