TAMIAMI TRAIL — Florida’s original north-south highway shadows the gulf coastline, a bygone road through beach communities that last week bore the brunt of Hurricane Ian.
The route is rimmed with old strip malls and new subdivisions. Pieces of the past, promises of future growth. A borderland of sorts.
No one takes this to fly through, not like the interstate. This is Grandma and Grandpa’s road. Here, you have to stop at countless lights, but you can take in attractions where visitors from around the world have flocked for a century.
Two days after the hurricane, a trip down the Tamiami Trail, once known as “the most unusual scenic highway in the world,” revealed the damage to some of the state’s most historic sites.
The two-lane, 264-mile road opened in 1928 and, for the first time, allowed people to drive from Tampa to Miami. It took 2.6 million sticks of dynamite and a dozen years to complete.
At the trail’s peak of popularity, thousands of families came down to see their first alligators at Jungle Gardens in Sarasota and to search for pearls in oysters at the Shell Factory in North Fort Myers.
The road, also known as U.S. 41, began being bypassed in the 1970s as I-75 opened. On Friday, that highway sat jammed for hours as floodwaters rose in the Myakka River.
The trail, though, was clear, winding through Sarasota, Venice, North Port, Port Charlotte, Punta Gorda and North Fort Myers, where the hurricane hit. A mishmash of shiny car dealerships and decrepit trailer parks, faded motels and new mansions stood, some battered by the storm.
The attractions are tucked along the edges, most with towering signs touting venerable Florida gems: exotic plants and animals, healing waters, treasures from the sea. Things you can’t find in Ohio.
SARASOTA: The Jungle Gardens, opened in 1939
The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art and the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens were all still standing in this town of 55,000.
On the west edge of the highway, a giant sign lay on its side, pieces of parrot, snake and flamingo mingled with brick and mangled metal, strewn across the parking lot of a CVS. The alligator lost its snout.
For 82 years, that beacon beckoned visitors to one of Florida’s first tourist attractions, with the roadside sign as big as a movie screen.
“It survived Hurricane Andrew, even Charley,” said Chris Lavick, Jungle Gardens’ chief operating officer. “I guess it just had enough.”
Branches striped the winding road into the parking lot. Saws buzzed in the distance. Three peacocks pranced through puddles by the gift shop. The other 374 animals were still corralled in the education building, waiting while keepers cleared and secured their outdoor enclosures.
Lavick and his employees had wrangled the lemurs, deer, tortoises, iguanas and macaws into the 5,700-square-foot “fortress.” They threw a net over the flamingos and guided them into a classroom. They made sure the alligators were hungry, then used meat to lure all 31 into a wooden pen.
Three employees rode out the storm with the menagerie. Lavick slept on a cot surrounded by dozens of parrots who never shut up. “It was like Noah’s Ark.”
Thursday morning, he woke to find the power out but the building secure, all the animals safe.
Living in Florida, you have to expect hurricanes, Lavick said. But they seem to be coming more often, getting stronger, doing more damage. Each time, it’s harder to rebuild.
He never considers closing. Where else can grandparents bring toddlers to feed flamingos or gaze up through “Jurassic trees” eight stories tall?
“We have generations of people coming here, more than 700 visitors every day,” said Lavick, who hoped to reopen the attraction within a week. “We’ve been continuously operating since 1939 and have come back after every storm.”
Lavick hasn’t been able to assess all the damage, but estimated it will take $70,000 to clear the “jungle” with cranes. He has no idea what it will cost to replace the historic sign on the trail which, he said, is irreplaceable.
VENICE: The Venice Theatre, opened in 1950, housed in a 1927 building
Driving 21 miles south, over the drawbridge into Venice, the theater’s skeleton stretched three stories tall. Wind had ripped off the roof of the 95-year-old building and blown out the coral-colored walls.
Above the soaked stage, three chandeliers spun eerily from scaffolding.
A playbill from the most recent show clung to the bulletin board: “God’s Country.”
“This just breaks my heart,” Pat Sleight, 79, told her friend as they walked behind the stage door. “All those lights used to shine on all our wonderful shows here.”
Power and cell service were still out Friday, and few folks had seen any news. Many ventured out that afternoon, needing a break from cleaning and crying, trying to see what had happened downtown.
The Venice Theatre sat at the top of Tampa Avenue in a stucco structure with white columns. The building went up in 1927, the year the planned community filled with Italian architecture and lush landscaping was founded.
Many businesses lost pieces of roofs in the hurricane, or had flooded floors.
But the theater sustained some of the worst destruction.
Venice Little Theatre’s first show opened in 1950, in the barracks of an old Army air base with folding chairs borrowed from the funeral home. In 1972, the group moved into the historic space downtown.
The theater grew with the city, becoming one of the country’s biggest “little theaters.” Each summer, dozens of aspiring thespians took their first bows on the stage.
Today, Venice has fewer than 25,000 year-round residents and thousands of snow birds. The median age is 69.
Seniors save their strength for dates or ladies’ night at the theater. Grandparents take visiting families to “A Christmas Carol” each winter.
“What a loss,” said Sleight. “I hope they can raise the money to bring it back.”
A few minutes later, Venice’s mayor showed U.S. Rep. and gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist and his fiancée, Chelsea Grimes, the theater’s remains.
“This is just one of the key elements to the city in terms of our cultural background,” Mayor Ron Feinsod said as Crist nodded.
The theater’s Facebook page includes a thank you to the community and a promise: We will be back stronger than ever!
NORTH PORT: Warm Mineral Springs, opened in 1946
A man in his underwear sat by a bench, clutching his shorts and shirt, staring at the entryway to Warm Mineral Springs.
The park had been closed since the hurricane. A portable toilet had been toppled. Shredded awnings blew like ribbons above the front door.
For 20 years, Alex Farber, 74, had made an annual pilgrimage from New York City to North Port to submerge in the fabled springs. Some called the water the Fountain of Youth. Others said the springs help with arthritis.
Farber, a retired cab driver, said the water was healing his broken shoulder. “It is very good water, the best in the world,” said Farber, who grew up in Ukraine.
Warm Mineral Springs is 15 miles south of Venice, the warmest and southernmost of Florida’s 1,000 springs. The park opened in 1946, a roadside attraction that promised to turn back time. It formed more than 12,000 years ago after a sinkhole collapse left a fissure in Florida’s limestone bedrock, allowing ancient hot seawater to mix with cooler freshwater.
Cave divers have found bones of saber-toothed tigers and giant sloths at the bottom and Model T tires near the top.
For decades, the glistening springs have drawn thousands of Eastern Europeans and others from around the world who come to sit in 87-degree water that smells like sulfur, replaces itself every two hours and boasts 51 minerals.
Farber had soaked in the springs every day since Sept. 7. On Friday, when he saw the park was still closed, he got desperate. He had to go back to New York soon.
So as people in North Port assessed their mangled mobile homes and tried to wade to flooded houses, Farber peeled off his clothes, walked a few feet to a creek near the road and sank into the shallow water. A tributary, just a smaller version of the springs.
For the first time in two decades, he had the magical waters to himself.
PUNTA GORDA: The Museum of African American History and Culture, housed in the 1925 Blanchard House
Wearing white wader boots, Jerome Evans peered up at the darkening sky through a refrigerator-sized hole in the ceiling of the Blanchard House Museum.
Nearby stood a full-size replica of a Tuskegee Airman wearing goggles, a flight helmet and a parachute.
Hurricane Ian had ripped off part of the roof at The Museum of African American History and Culture in Punta Gorda, soaking some of the exhibits.
Evans, 63, pulled a giant placard with a map of Florida’s African American Historic Preservation Trail from a puddle on the 1925 oak floors.
He tried to describe the damage.
“Did the Ocoee exhibit fall down?” museum director Martha Russell Bireda asked him over the phone about an installation on the 1920 race riots. “How about the new exhibit?”
“It’s still in there,” Evans said.
He entered another room in the gray Craftsman bungalow, built for a Black sea captain and his Louisiana mail-order bride. Displays for a new exhibit hung on the walls, a drawing of an African who first landed in Florida with Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon in 1513.
Russell Bireda, whose family is descended from one of the area’s first African American families, started the museum in 2004 after moving the house three blocks to the heart of the city’s historic Black business district. It was her mother’s vision. She wanted people to know how important African Americans had been in the area.
Punta Gorda hugs the Peace River where it meets Charlotte Harbor. It earned its spot on the Tamiami Trail in 1921 by agreeing to construct the bridge over the river.
Residents have submitted flood claims from Agnes, Elena, Keith, Josephine, Georges, Harvey, Gordon, Gabrielle, Charley, Wilma and Irma.
Ian brought an estimated 7-foot surge and cut most of the power to this town of 20,000. But it didn’t cause as much damage as Charley, which demolished 11,000 homes and 300 businesses here.
Evans, whose reverend grandfather is memorialized at the museum, picked up pieces of ceiling. He splashed through puddles and worried about the October opening of their exhibit.
“Does it look like there’s any damage on the walls?” asked Russell Bireda, who lost the roof on her home.
“Just the water on the floor and the pipe burst in the back,” Evans said.
“I turned the water off,” he said.
He closed the museum door and headed home to search for a tarp.
NORTH FORT MYERS: Shell Factory, opened in 1938
Ho-Ho had fallen on his face, his plastic beard shattered. The 16-foot Santa had stood sentry at the Shell Factory as long as anyone could remember.
Shell Factory owner Pam Cronin stood nearby in the parking lot, paying a man to upright her red truck.
Hurricane Ian had ripped off pieces of roof and spilled storm water through the holes, scattering 70-year-old shell collections across the shelves.
Cronin, 63, had been at the 18-acre complex since 7 a.m., trying to figure out what to salvage. Some of her 102 employees, and some neighbors, had stopped by to help.
Inside the five buildings, the power was still off, ankle-deep puddles filled the tile floor. The air hung hot and musty. The ice cream had begun to melt.
Cronin tallied the damage: $25,000 in lost food, $50,000 in structure. An aviary. The carpet. The roof.
But it could have been worse. “Some of our staff lost their homes.”
The Shell Factory opened in 1938 in nearby Bonita Springs and touted itself as “the largest retail shell store in the world.” It sold shell necklaces, nightlights, mirrors and dolls with cockle shell skirts. Tourists followed billboards like Burma-Shave signs south from Valdosta, Georgia: “Only 348 miles to the Shell Factory… "
In 1952, the attraction moved to U.S. 41 and erected its iconic arched sign. Visitors streamed to see sharks’ teeth, buy shells and bring back beach souvenirs.
Cronin and her husband had planned to empty the warehouses and rent them to plumbers and electricians. But when the local newspaper ran the headline “Developer Saves Landmark Attraction,” they felt obligated to save the Shell Factory.
They added bumper boats, mini golf, a nature park and zip line. The Holiday House Christmas store. A camel, sloth, eagle, owl, lemurs, parrots and Cronin’s favorite: Ivan the weasel. All 380 animals survived Ian.
“Hurricane Irma made me want to leave Florida,” Cronin said. But six months later, her husband died. She knew she had to stay. The Shell Factory became her purpose, her legacy.
This hurricane scared her, but spared her. She feels sick about the devastation just across the river but can’t wait to reopen.
Fewer than 40,000 people live in North Fort Myers. Last year, 12 times that many people from around the world visited the Shell Factory.
Christmas is coming. Soon, grandmothers will be bringing a new generation to pry open oysters, hoping for pearls.
Tampa Bay Times Hurricane Ian coverage
HOW TO HELP: Where to donate or volunteer to help Hurricane Ian victims.
FEMA: Floridians hurt by Ian can now apply for FEMA assistance. Here’s how.
THE STORM HAS PASSED: Now what? Safety tips for returning home.
POST-STORM QUESTIONS: After Hurricane Ian, how to get help with fallen trees, food, damaged shelter.
WEATHER EFFECTS: Hurricane Ian was supposed to slam Tampa Bay head on. What happened?
HISTORIC SURGE. RECORD FLOODING. Ian’s lesson in the rising risk of hurricanes.
MORE STORM COVERAGE: Get ready and stay informed at tampabay.com/hurricane.