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RSW Living Magazine

Once Upon a Time: An Approachable Guide to the History of Sanibel

To know Sanibel is to love Sanibel—and none more so than Betty Anholt and Charles LeBuff. The long-time friends have both written multiple books—separately and together—about the island, and their passion about the place is evident in their charmingly written words. 

Their latest work, published in March, is Once Upon the Island Known as Sanibel. While both have written more conventional histories of the island before, this one comes more from the heart—and a lot of personal experience, each having spent most of their lifetimes in the area.  

This is an engaging folk history, filled with real-life anecdotes of life on Sanibel through the ages. Their goal, according to the authors, is “to transport the reader back to the special uncrowded times when our barrier island life was rugged, wild, and full of everyday adventures.” They mark the opening of the Sanibel Causeway in 1963 as the turning point from a “genuine island detached in every way from routine mainland life” to a community that has struggled ever since to maintain that detachment with varying degrees of success. 

They share their appreciation of the island through the ages and detail early efforts to take advantage of Sanibel’s natural beauty and “develop” it, beginning with the first explorers to land here. Ponce de Leon first encountered the island in 1513, returning eight years later with 250 people with the intention of establishing a farming settlement. The Calusa had other ideas. 

Again in 1833, there were grand plans to develop Sanibel by the Florida Land Company, which plotted out 50 bay-to-gulf lots, another scheme that never quite got off the ground. 

The book tells the entertaining but true stories of the travails of early homesteaders in the 1800s, the hard but inspiring lives of settlers in the early 1900s, evolving into the newer residents who landed here mid-century, many of whom had discovered it when stationed in Southwest Florida during WWII. They later worked hard to preserve the natural island by fighting for home rule in the 1960s and ’70s.  

One of the most fun chapters is “The Way Things Were,” a virtual drive from the Sanibel Lighthouse to Blind Pass, pointing out the roads, buildings, and natural features that existed in those pre-causeway days. Readers will enjoy seeing how much—and how little—has changed since then. You pass by the Seahorse Shops (the building is still there), the original Bait Box, Casa Ybel Hotel and its nearby airstrip, the Island Inn, Rabbit Road (actually more of a trail, so-named because of its abundance of rabbits), Coconut Grove Restaurant (now George & Wendy's), then on up the road to Captiva, past the American Legion building then under construction to the Castaways Restaurant and Marina. “Think about it,” write the authors, “we drove by quaint shops and unpretentious homes. You did not pass a bank, or a doctor’s or a dentist’s office on Sanibel during our trip. It would be nearly a decade before any of these services would be established on the helter-skelter modern islands.” 

From beginning to end the book relates the ups and downs of island life. It goes into detail about islanders’ organized efforts to save what they have—including the beginnings of the J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge and Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation, the resistance to Lee County’s plans to allow high-rise condominiums and a population of 100,000 people on Sanibel, the anti-causeway effort, and finally the successful incorporation campaign known as Sanibel Tomorrow. 

Anholt and LeBuff have long ties to Sanibel. Thankfully for us, they have put their extensive knowledge of the place to excellent use.