By Steve Winston
Chokoloskee, Florida, isn’t really a ghost town. It’s actually more of a ghostly town.
Many of the 300 people who live here, in the 10,000 Islands area of the Everglades, will tell that there may actually be more ghosts in town than living souls. And that many of them make nocturnal visits to Ted Smallwood’s General Store.
Chokoloskee may be small. But, in the early days of the 20th Century, the (living) folks here had more than their share of excitement.
Ted Smallwood’s General Store was pretty much the center of everything here, back then. It’s no longer a store, but one of the most unique museums in Florida.
“My Granddad was born in Georgia,” says Lynn Smallwood McMillin, Ted’s granddaughter. “At 12, he ran away from home, and began working on the ‘run boats’ that delivered supplies to isolated outposts like Chokoloskee. Then he lived in the Bahamas for awhile, and in Cuba.”
Ted came back to settle in Chokoloskee around the turn of the century. He took a wife, and began farming tomatoes. Then he opened a general store in his farmhouse, and became the first white man in the area to trade with the Indians. In 1917 he built a larger store, on Chokoloskee Bay. And his new store quickly became the meeting/socializing/gambling/trading/tall-tale-telling/gossip center of town.
It remained that way through two generations of family-members, and was eventually placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Unfortunately, it closed in 1982.
“After it closed, the store remained shut for seven years,” Smallwood-McMillin says. “But then I bought it from the rest of the family, and decided to turn it into a museum. It took seven years of hard work until I could open it again. But it was worth every minute. I think it tells the story of this part of the 10,000 Islands. And I think – between the history, the bad guys, and the ghosts - it’s a fascinating story.”
Today, when you open that creaky wooden door and walk inside, you’re back in 1920.
Ted traded with Cuba, and there are burlap bags labeled “Matanzas Sugar Estates.” There are old grinding machines, Nehi Soda bottles, old glassware and hand tools, butter-churning tools and sewing machines, barrels, small canoes made by a Seminole Indian named Henry John Billie, old Coca-Cola machines, electric equipment, and a fully-set table with turn-of-the-century dishware, glasses, and lace tablecloth.
There are spittoons and fly-swatters, wooden rocking chairs, canning machines, school supplies, wagon wheels, and animal skins. There’s a bright-red “Gulf Gasoline” tank that’s seven feet high… featuring a price of 15.5 cents a gallon! There’s a strikingly-realistic wax figure of an old man sitting in a rocker.
If these walls could talk, they might tell the stories of legendary characters like Edgar Watson, who some folks feel still inhabits the store.
“Edgar Watson came to Chokoloskee in the early-1900’s,” Smallwood-McMillin says. “He was said to have been an outlaw with the Jesse James gang in Arkansas, and to have killed Belle Starr, the ‘Bandit Queen’ of the Old West. At first, he wasn’t looked upon too poorly by the locals. The Everglades, because it was so isolated, was a place where a lot of people went to get away from the law.
“He spent a lot of time here at the store. He always wore an overcoat with a big bulge in it. And he always stood with his back to the wall, so no one could get behind him.”
Watson hired other fugitives to work the farm he purchased. When, one by one, they started getting murdered, apparently by Watson, no one really cared much. But Watson’s appetite for murder began extending to the locals, as well, and then they cared.
Eventually, the townspeople surrounded him at Smallwood’s Store.
“He drew his pistol and fired at them,” as Smallwood-McMillin tells it. “His pistol, though, misfired. Then the locals drew their pistols. And theirs’ didn’t misfire!”
To this day, there’s still a bloodstain on the wall. And according to some, Edgar’s still here, too.
Lynn doesn’t go to the store at night anymore. But that doesn’t mean no one else does. In fact, she says, the store seems to still be a popular hangout for some of the past residents.
One of them is C.G. McKinney. McKinney abandoned his wife and five children in northern Florida and moved here with his children’s nanny. He had five children with her, each of them carrying the same name as one of his five abandoned children. And he, too, still, apparently, comes to the store after business hours.
A number of paranormal groups have come to Smallwood’s Store to study it.
“One of those groups was taking some tests,” Smallwood-McMillin says, “when, all of a sudden, all of their equipment shut down at the stroke of midnight. And another time, when a film crew was here to film National Park Mysteries, they saw some movement of shadows behind the cracks in the walls.”
Then there was boy from Chokoloskee who had once served on a pirate ship. He died at the age of 120, when he got trapped in his own fishing net. He’s apparently in the market for a new net… in the middle of the night at Smallwood’s General Store.
And that’s not all. A number of folks have rung the McMillins’ door-bell late at night, to tell her they’d just seen people in the store.
So don’t plan on showing up at Smallwood’s at night. But if you go during the daytime, Lynn Smallwood-McMillin will open up the doors to a very special piece of Old Florida -- and to the best ghost stories you’ve ever heard!
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