During the late 19th century and turn of the 20th century, Southwest Florida was a frontier outpost, almost an Eastern version of the Wild West. In those days, many of the early settlers lived off the land, hunting alligator, frogs, bird plumes, and pelts from animals like otters, fox and raccoons alongside the Seminoles to make a profit and have food to put on the table.
In order to help local settlers and Seminoles alike turn their hunting lifestyle and in some cases, crafts into cash, trading posts were established. Most of these trading posts also served as general stores, providing products and goods that were a reminder of the cities they had left behind to start a new life in Southwest Florida.
Most of these general stores/trading posts have disappeared over the years, becoming mere footnotes in Southwest Florida history. However, there is one still in existence, that is now a museum open to the public. This museum is called Smallwood Store.
Smallwood Store Museum
Located in Chokoloskee, Florida, Smallwood Store served the local Seminoles and local settlers on the island there and in neighboring Everglades City. The store in the early days was owned, operated and originally constructed by Ted Smallwood. In the store, he sold major products like Coca Cola, ammunition, fabric, Singer sewing machines, guns, needles, thread, popular tonics of the time, canned foods, knives, pelts, and beads just to name a few.
SEE ORIGINAL STORE STOCK
One of the most amazing things about visiting this museum is that travelers get to see the original stock that was sold here. When Smallwood Store first closed in the 1970s and was reopened as a museum, 98% of the original stock was still on the shelves!
When the museum opened, the stock was just left there, and some interpretive details were added. It is this aspect of Smallwood Store that will make it one of the most powerful museums you will ever visit: it is a time capsule for what life was like for the earliest settlers out in Southwest Florida, in particular Chokoloskee.
SELF GUIDED EXHIBITS
Even though there is very little interpretive material at Smallwood Store, the exhibits are self-guided since the interior of the store is in itself the museum. The interpretive materials lie in the few plaques around, describing to the visitor about Ted Smallwood, what many of the products were used for, and the impact that Smallwood Store had on life in late 19th century/turn of the 20th century Chokoloskee.
EJ Watson Exhibit
In addition to the actual stock on display, there are some exhibits related to the history of Smallwood Store. One, is on EJ Watson, a local sugar planter who was accused of murdering several people in and around Chokoloskee around the turn of the 20th century. As a result, he was killed, by twenty-six people who shot him.
Even though EJ Watson was a real person, the facts behind what led to his death and also the death of the people he allegedly killed is still a mystery, and nor do the oral histories of the local families around at that time agree with what happened, except for the fact that they deem Watson guilty.
Nonetheless, this legend inspired Peter Mathiesson’s Shadow County trilogy, including the New York Times Best Seller Killing Mr. Watson. You can learn more about this legend from the exhibit, talking to the volunteer on duty, or purchase your copy of Killing Mr. Watson to read on the way home.
Seminole Artwork Exhibit
The second exhibit is about Seminole arts and crafts traditions, like the traditional patch work they do. This is relevant to the history of Smallwood Store, because if it wasn’t for the Seminoles trading activity here, the store wouldn’t have had much business. You will learn about these crafts and also learn how it impacted the economic health of the store.
Explore the Loading Decks
After touring the exhibits, maybe go outside to the top deck and lower deck. This was the area where the Seminoles often unloaded their pelts and arts and crafts in exchange for Western goods for their needs. These decks were also used by locals, who were passing through via their boats.
The people who stopped here either came to trade their pelts for goods, shopped in the store, or just came to socialize. There wasn’t much in Chokoloskee in those days, let alone in Southwest Florida, so Smallwood Store became a hub for trade, shopping and socializing.
Once you are done taking a tour of Smallwood Store, ask about the kayak tours offered. You also don’t want to forget asking the volunteer on duty about the ghosts that some mediums claim haunt the property. The hauntings at Smallwood Store, in fact, have attracted shows like Ghost Hunters, in addition to mediums and ghost hunters from around the United States.
There are rumored sightings of an old woman near where the restrooms are, and mediums have reported that two male spirits haunt the far end of the store, near the exit of the main exhibits towards the upper deck outside. There are also stories of people hearing footsteps at night when one stands underneath Smallwood Store.
Smallwood Store is open seven days a week, from 11 am to 5 pm from May to November, to 10 am to 5 pm from December to April. There is an entrance fee of about $10 per person. For more information on Smallwood Store, please visit their website at http://www.smallwoodstore.com/.