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Exhibit focuses on early Pine Island Sound life

By Staff | Oct 8, 2014

Robert Ballard and his display, now featured at the Southwest Florida Historical Society. PHOTO PROVIDED

During the month of October, the Southwest Florida Historical Society has an exhibit on display focusing on “Life Around Pine Island Sound” in the early 1900s. Society board member Robert Ballard, whose family has lived on Pine Island for more than 120 years, organized the exhibit of old family photos.

“I got interested in my family history from family stories and something my father said whenever I would ask about his family history,” Ballard said. “His response was always, ‘All I can tell you is, we were here to shake the Pilgrims’ hands when they got off the boat.’ I also remember my mother saying her dad told her there was Cherokee blood in his family. So those things sparked an interest in learning about my family history.”

The Ballard family history begins with John Nathan Spearing.

“John Nathan Spearing was my great-great grandfather. He was born in Clinton, Maine, in 1812 and made it down to Georgia about 1830 and then to Jacksonville around 1845. He was a sergeant in the Confederate States of America and his headstone is located on property that he once owned on St. John’s Bluff in Jacksonville (now the Roosevelt Preserve.)”

A Google search quickly brought up numerous articles raising the question, “Who was John Nathan Spearing?” It seems hikers have also located Spearing’s headstone on St. John’s Bluff. The headstone reads: SGT. John Nathan Spearing, CO 1, 8 Regt. Fla. Inf., CSA, 1812 1879.

Robert Ballard at the grave of his great-great grandfather John Nathan Spearing. PHOTO PROVIDED

“A Google search is how I came across my great-great-grandfather’s grave,” Ballard said. “I received a call from the Fort Caroline historical site and they came across something I posted on the Internet. They were the ones that took me out to the grave.”

The lineage leading from John Spearing to Robert Ballard begins with John’s son, Albert Owen Spearing. “Albert Owen Spearing and his brother William B. Spearing first came to Southwest Florida in the late 1800s,” Ballard said. “They made their living by carrying freight up and down the coast from Cedar Key. Albert Owen Spearing married Lizzie (Young) Spearing and they had a son they named George. George Spearing was my grandfather.”

George married Oriole (Thigpen) Spearing June 22, 1913 on Gasparilla Island.

“George was a fisherman and moved his family up and down the Gulf Coast between Gasparilla and Steinhatchee from 1913 to 1928 when the family moved to Cayo Costa,” Ballard said “The family survived on the fish he caught and sold, the water birds, gopher tortoise and sea turtles he could catch, and the few vegetables they could raise in the sandy soil. My mother told us stories of her mother pickling turtle flippers to add to the family provisions. Additional food supplies were mainly bought and then delivered by the ‘run-boats’ of the Punta Gorda Fish Company, and the rare trip by boat to Fort Myers or Punta Gorda.

“By this time the family consisted of Robert, born on Gasparilla (1914), Lois (1916) and Nellie (1918) born in Grove City,” he continued. “Norma Spearing (my mother) was born on Cayo Costa on Feb. 25, 1929, as were her two younger brothers, Charlie (1930) and Jack (1932). The land they were born on had been the property of William Spearing, who received a U.S. Bureau of Land Management Land Grant in 1890. When William died he had no heirs so his nephew, Albert Owen Spearing, inherited the property. The property was eventually sold.

“Life on Cayo Costa was total seclusion,” Ballard said. “The kids entertained themselves by fishing, exploring the island and beach and doing family chores of gathering firewood, building the smudge pots to keep down the mosquitos and whatever else they could find to do. My mother Norma’s early elementary education was received at the Punta Blanca School, traveling by school boat. The boat made stops at Cayo Costa, Cabbage Key, Useppa and Mondongo before unloading at the Punta Blanca School.

“At the dock the students were usually met by the billy goat, which was more than ready to butt the kids,” Ballard said. “So the older boys would get off first and grab the goat so the little kids could get off unmolested. Old billy goat seemed to be an instrument of some pranks by some of the boys. One day Timer Spearing and another boy put the goat in the attic while the teacher was outside watching the younger kids. When class resumed there was much stomping on the ceiling much to the delight of the kids and the horror of the teacher. The Spearing children are pictured on the front cover of the local book, “Boat Goat” by Capt. Kirk.”

He continued, “The family moved from Cayo Costa to Bokeelia in 1942 so Norma and her younger brothers could attend school without having to be transported by boat. George had bought an old houseboat called a lighter and dragged it up on the bank at what was called Gopher Ridge in the Back Bay area west of the Bokeelia settlement. George was not able to get the lighter completely up onto the bank so the stern would take on water during extreme high tides. The Spearings lived here for a couple of years until Grandma (Oriole) had had enough of the high tide intrusions and laid down the law to Granddaddy (George). She was tired of moving and wanted a house of her own.

“About this time my father, Melvin Ballard, had come to Bokeelia to recuperate after an accident and stayed with his mother and stepfather, Nettie and Elbert Thigpen,” Ballard said. “Norma was friends with Melvin’s sister, Elsie Ballard, and through Elsie they met and started a courtship. They were married in 1946.

“My dad (Melvin) was working for the Punta Gorda Fish Company running the fish and ice house that was on the dock in front of the Seabreeze (now Capt’n Con’s). There was a tenant’s house built next to the fishhouse on the dock. The house was very drafty during the cold, winter nights and blazing hot in the summer sun. Unlike her mother, sister and her husband’s mother who had their children at home, Momma (Norma) went into Fort Myers to have her first child, Robert, in the summer of 1946.

“In the summer of 1947 Mom and Dad moved in with Grandma as Robert was starting to walk and the dock was too risky for a toddler. The second child, Barbara, was born in October of 1947. In early 1948 the family moved to the Belcher Ranch in Loxahatchee, then dad took a job in Okeechobee with the Belcher Oil Company. After a short time they moved back to Bokeelia in 1949. Dad went to work on the ranch of Dr. Harvie Stipe on Pine Island Road in early 1949. Granddaddy gave them an acre of land next door to their house and Dad built a house on that acre. Mom became an expert at packing and moving her family.

“The house was built from one of the old Army Barracks at Buckingham. During this time Mom and Robert would trout fish in a little trout boat with Calcutta poles. In 1953, Dad was asked to take over as ranch manager for this 11,000-acre ranch. In the fall of 1953, the family moved into the ranch house at the intersection of Pine Island Road and what is now Burnt Store Road (where Publix is now). While on the ranch, two more children were born, David, born in 1955, and Joyce, born in 1958. In 1962, the family returned to Bokeelia into a new house on Quail Trail.

“Dad joined Jake Molter building houses and when the construction business would slow down he would go back to commercial fishing with the Spearing men,” he said. “Now back on Bokeelia and with Joyce starting school, Mom set an example for her children and studied evenings and earned her GED. She went to work in the cafeteria at the Pine Island Elementary School and retired in 1991 after 20 years of cooking and baking. Many Pine Island adults still talk about Miss Norma from their years at the school.

“In 1987 Dad underwent major heart surgery and a chain of medical events over the next six months sealed his working career. Mom devoted her time after retirement to taking care of him until his death in 1999. She continued to live in Bokeelia and looked after her sister, Nellie, until Nellie’s death in 2007. Barefoot living transitioned to socks and shoes as Mom’s own health problems grew. She passed away this spring after years of failing health and three weeks after the death of my sister Barbara. Her 85 years transitioned a period of time in Southwest Florida from shell roads, rain cisterns and a life of commercial fishing to air conditioning, mosquito control and a net ban, all of which changed her life and the life of this community we call home.

“We have a number of family photos on display dating from the early 1900s to the present as well as the family Bible, land records, the family quilt from 1949. I also have the photo diary of Baron Collier’s trip to Useppa. This display will be here until the end of October,” Ballard said.

The Southwest Florida Historical Society’s objectives are to discover, collect and preserve original and source documents, maps and photographs pertaining to the history of Southwest Florida. To promote historical research and to preserve and perpetuate historical sites.

To bring together those interested in the history of this area; to promote and stimulate public interest and appreciation of the history of this area; and to further the preservation and knowledge of Southwest Florida’s past.

The Southwest Florida Historical Society is at 10091 McGregor Blvd., located on Alliance of the Arts grounds at the southeast corner of McGregor Blvd. and Colonial Blvd., in Fort Myers. Hours are Wednesday and Saturday, from 9 a.m. to noon’ and Wednesday afternoons from 4-7 p.m. Call (239) 939-4044 for additional information.