The Everglades Smallwood Store: Frontier Outpost
By Jeff Klinkenberg
Florida is modern now. Air conditioners hum from every building. Windows are covered by screens to keep out flies. When the mosquitoes start biting, a truck rumbles through your neighborhood and spews poison.
Listen, I’m not complaining. But sometimes I enjoy going back to the time before Florida got civilized. I go to the Smallwood Store on the island of Chokoloskee, the western gateway of Everglades National Park, and talk to Lynn Smallwood.
Lynn’s granddaddy, Ted Smallwood, opened his store in 1906. Chokoloskee was frontier, without electricity, running water, or even a bridge. You lived on the mosquito-infested mangrove island or you came by boat, and when it was hot outside it was suffocating inside Smallwood’s. When the breeze died down, the Swamp Angels – that’s what the old Gladesmen called the salt marsh mosquitoes – flew through those screenless windows and drew blood.
It isn’t much different now. Inside the store, even on a warm December afternoon, you may sweat or slap a Swamp Angel. Ted passed away in 1951 before Lynn was born, though a burly mannequin of his likeness watches fiercely from a rocking chair. In the 21st century, his legacy is a museum rather than a place to buy salted mullet from a barrel, a side of bacon, or feathers from a roseate spoonbill. But I always come home with stories about Ted, the Seminole Indians and even wicked Mister Watson.
Ted Smallwood was born in Georgia in 1873, fled to Florida to escape an unpleasant stepmother, and settled in the rugged country the Glades people called the Ten Thousand Islands. He knew how to grow things. He knew how to hunt. He knew how to net fish. If something broke, even somebody’s arm, he could fix it.
His store served the Gladesmen who lived in Southwest Florida and the Seminole Indians who dwelled 50 miles away in the central Everglades. The Seminoles poled heavy canoes made from cypress trunks through the sawgrass and the cypress swamps down rivers and across Chokoloskee Bay to visit Mister Ted. They traded frog legs and animal furs for sewing needles and cloth. Seminoles, usually suspicious of white men, trusted Ted. He had learned their language, treated them respectfully and extended credit. Standing in the store recently, I read from a ledger dated 1937. Seminole Jim Tiger, it said, usually paid debts with otter skins. But he had died owing Ted $8.15.
“Ted fed the Everglades during the Depression,’’ Lynn Smallwood told me. “He had $20,000 on the books that he never got back.’’
Born in 1957, Lynn practically grew up in the store working for her tough Aunt Thelma, Ted’s daughter. Lynn swept the wood floors and did laundry in a tub. In fact, she did whatever no-nonsense Aunt Thelma ordered. Thelma famously quit her job as postmaster when bureaucrats insisted she install boxes to store mail. “Thelma thought it was stupid,’’ Lynn told me last time I dropped by. And I did not argue.
Thelma, among other things, passed on family stories to Lynn, who can tell you, for example, about Ed Watson, the Chatham River farmer who traded at Smallwood’s. Watson had a fearsome temper and a terrible reputation for murdering folks who disappointed him, often employees who asked for their pay.
In 1910, two bodies floated down the river from the Watson place into the bay behind the Smallwood store. Chokoloskee’s nervous male citizens decided, once and for all, to confront their outlaw neighbor. Next time they heard his engine coming, they gathered on the dock with weapons drawn. Unintimidated, Watson aimed his shotgun and fired. His shells were damp. Nothing happened.
On the dock, townspeople who had kept their powder dry retaliated with gunfire of their own.
“They’re killing Mister Watson,’’ a witness yelled up at Ted Smallwood, who watched from the window. Ted had doctoring skills. He could set a broken bone if a mahogany limb fell on your leg. He could stitch you up if a hog cut you with a tusk.
But he could do nothing for Watson, dead from 37 bullets.