More than a century ago here in Immokalee – before the busy commercial Main Street with auto parts stores, the shops like Little Guatemala, and the casino down the road – hundreds of cattle crossed right through one of the biggest homestead ranches in the state, in an area populated with cowmen, Indian traders, missionaries and hunters who scratched out an existence up against the Big Cypress Swamp.
A piece of that part of Florida’s history can be found by a quick turn off a busy road in downtown Immokalee about 44 miles northeast of Naples in Southwest Florida.
Sitting on 15 acres of what was once part of more than 160,000 acres of ranchland – one of Florida’s biggest – are remnants of the life of Robert Roberts and his family.
The Immokalee Pioneer Museum at Roberts Ranch holds 20 historically preserved buildings that visitors can walk through to get a flavor of pioneering ranch life a century ago – including a horse barn, a smoke-and-hide house, a sugar cane boiler, a bunkhouse, and the Roberts’ two-story shotgun clapboard family home built in 1926.
At the entrance of the property sits what was the first 1st Baptist Church of Immokalee, built in 1916 for $616. Since then it has moved around town about a dozen times, most recently owned by a Haitian congregation, before it was brought to the ranch property, and later restored by the county and turned into an exhibition and lecture hall, with the help of a state grant.
Inside, across dark brown hardwood floors is a small platform holding three plush red chairs, a podium and an antique wooden bench likely once used to make leather harnesses. Lining the white walls are replicas of century-old saddles and old photos of the Roberts’ family and historical local figures as well as pictures of old burlap gunny sacks once used for the transport of grains.
This is also where visitors will find Lee Mitchell, the museum’s manager, who has an office in the back. Mitchell is a tall, thin man with a white beard and glasses. Born and raised in New Mexico before a stint in the Army and a move to Homestead, where Hurricane Andrew destroyed his house, he now lives south of Immokalee and has come to know the intimate details of the state’s history.
“What do you think Florida looked like 10,000 years ago?” he asks visitors, starting his tours with an overview inside the church. He recounts the more recent history of the Calusa Indians who lived in Southwest Florida when Spanish explorers arrived 500 years ago, and the introduction of cattle by Spaniards, eventually making Florida the state with the longest history of cattle ranching in the nation.
By the 1600s, he explains, the Spanish developed ranchos throughout Florida even as the fierce warrior Calusa tribe was nearly wiped out by both warfare and smallpox carried by Europeans.
Mitchell talks about the three Seminole wars through the 1800s, and the subsequent trading among European descendants and Seminoles who had fled and lived in the Everglades.
Robert Roberts arrived by oxcart in 1914 with 300 head of cattle, his wife and seven children, moving south from Wauchula.
Outside, Mitchell walks visitors to a four-stall horse barn, rebuilt in 1943. Inside are handmade citrus ladders, a horse-drawn rake for making rows of hay before balers were used.
“This is the most historical artifact on the property,” he says, stopping to point out two logs in the ground, the only thing left of the log cabin built from pine and cypress by Charles Hendry in the mid- to late-1800s, and the first home for the Roberts’ family when they moved to the property.
He moves on through a bunkhouse from the 1930s where the cowmen lived, filled now with two old bunks, a green wood table and some antique trunks and furniture that county workers have brought in.
On the center of the property is a Seminole chickee or cypress pole hut with a thatched roof, a replica of what was used by the Seminole Indians during the early 1800s to deal with South Florida’s heat. This one was donated by the tribe for the property.
Finally, near the end of the tour, is the Roberts family home, given to the county by the family and then restored to replicate its appearance when built in 1926.
A squeaky screen door leads to a white porch with green trim, screened in on three sides, holding wicker rockers and a hanging swing.
Inside, to the left is the small sitting room with a fireplace, green sofas and rocker against white bead board walls; and to the right, a bedroom with a pair of worn cowboy boots below the saddle stand.
“Bobby Roberts comes over here and says, ‘Let me see these boots,’” Mitchell recalls, referring to Robert Roberts’ son, who recently died at the age of 90. Upon inspecting the boots and the signature crease left by his father’s missing toe – which the elder Roberts shot off himself by accident during a cattle drive – Bobby Roberts was convinced they were the real thing.
‘”Yep, those are my dad’s boots,’” Mitchell remembers Bobby Roberts saying.
The rest of the home holds a combination of family possessions and some other items the county filled in, from lantern chandeliers to the old stove in the kitchen, to reflect the era.
“Authenticating the collection is a challenge,” Mitchell says. “You don’t always know when (an item) was here and when it wasn’t.”
For instance, the museum reconstructed a 10-foot-by-10-foot outdoor water shed to replicate where the Roberts parents and ultimately a total of nine children took turns bathing and where they washed their clothes. Afterward, the last surviving Roberts child, residing in a nearby assisted living facility, visited and informed Mitchell that the wooden floor was wrong. Their wash house never had a floor, he recalls her saying.
“We try to do the best we can with the information we have,” he says.
If you go…
The Immokalee Pioneer Museum at Roberts Ranch is located at 1215 Roberts Avenue West in Immokalee about 44 miles northeast of Naples. The museum is open Mondays through Fridays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is free, though donations are welcome. For more information, visit: http://www.colliermuseums.com.