On the Wells Fargo Home Mortgage bank building next door to Val Ward Cadillac is a mosaic attributed to Millard Sheets. It is one or more than 175 stained glass, mosaics, and painted murals that Sheets' studio created at the direction of financier Howard Ahamson, Sr. for his now-defunct Home Savings and Loan and its parent, Savings of America.
"I want buildings that will be exciting seventy-five years from now," Ahmanson told Sheets in 1953, offering him carte blanch to design the Home Savings/Savings of America brand. Ahmanson wanted his banks to be both local landmarks and gathering places within their communities.
In many locales, Home Savings' distinctive architecture could be seen up and down the avenue. Some branches boasted wide entrance plazas; others had grand lobbies with fountains and nicely manicured foliage. But what made the banks so endearing to depositors was Sheets' focus on local history and community events. His stained glass, intricate mosaics and painted murals engendered a sense of community by depicting scenes of its people, families and local history.
According to Fort Myers News-Press Journalist Amy Bennett Williams, the dual mosaics on the Wells Fargo building "depict the birth of Fort Myers ... Scrub cattle being driven by whip-wielding cracker cowboys, Seminole Indians, a pioneer family on a paint horse, an ox cart and more." The inscription beneath the mosaics reads "McGregor Boulevard, once a cattle trail, is today lined by stately palms. The pride of Fort Myers. Among the boulevard founders: Thomas Edison, James E. Hendry, Jr., Tootie McGregor Terry, Ambrose McGregor."
While it is true that present-day McGregor was once a dusty dirt cattle trail called Riverside Drive, the scene played out in the Wells Fargo mosaics looks more like Jane L. Hendry's exodus from the grazing lands in the Glades country 30 miles east of Fort Myers than a cattle drive down to the stockyards in Punta Rassa, where scrub cows were loaded onto boats bound for Havana in exchange for the promise of payment in Spanish doubloons.
It was the death of Jane L. and Charles' six-year-old daughter Esther Ann on May 17, 1873 that was, in a very real sense, responsible for the birth of Fort Myers. The tiny town had all but been abandoned the year before the little girl's death. But immediately after the child's crude coffin was lowered into the ground beneath a pine tree next to the Hendry's home, Jane L. began packing the family's possessions. "She was moving nearer neighbors so she could have help if one of her other children, James, Alice or Roean, became sick," explains James H. Grismer in The Story of Fort Myers (p. 90). "Charles W. did not argue. He knew that when his Jane L. made up her mind to do a thing, she was going to do it."
Two oxcarts held everything - like the ones depicted in the mosaics on the Wells Fargo bank building.
Although Charles and Jane L. Hendry actually settled in a log cabin at the edge of Billy's Creek, by the following summer, other Hendrys began moving into Fort Myers proper. First cousin Captain F.A. Hendry led the way, rebuilding one of the officer's quarters near the site of the present-day Sidney & Berne Davis Art Center into the family home. Another of Charles' first cousins, W. Marion Hendry, followed with his family, choosing a site on the river east of the street that's now named after the Hendry clan.
"Three more families, all closely related to the Hendrys, soon followed," writes Grismer. "They were the families of Jehu J. Blount, whose wife, Mary, was a sister of F.A. and Marion Hendry, and Francis J. and Augustus J. Wilson, nephews of the Hendrys."
All were cattlemen who'd passed by the old fort on drives to Punta Rassa.
Notwithstanding the great hurricane of October 6, 1873 and Major James Evans' claim that he'd homesteaded all of the lands occupied by the town's early settlers years before, the Hendrys stayed and attracted dozens of cow hunters, drovers, blacksmiths, cobblers and shopkeepers, along with doctors, druggists and merchants of varying types. "Men in every line of endeavor began coming to Fort Myers," notes Grismer. "They could make a living here while at the same time get all the benefits of a fine climate, and fish and hunt to their heart's content. They did not come in a great migration, but a few this year, and a few next, the total always climbing."
So Amy Williams is right. The mural does apparently depict the actual event that gave birth to the city we today know as Fort Myers. But the cattle trail is also part of that narrative.
The cattle trail cut through the emerging town, connecting the pasture lands and ranges in LaBelle, Fort Ogden and Alva to the cow pens and wharves downriver in Punta Rassa. Running down First, it morphed into the old Wire Road, which contained a stopover for cattle drovers that Thomas Edison purchased along with 13 acres on the river when he bought the site for his winter home and botanical research lab in 1885 from Fort Myers' first cattleman, Samuel Summerlin.
Edison erected a lodge on the property that consisted of two identical houses built side by side. He and his family occupied one. His business partner, Ezra Gilliland, occupied the other. The relationship between Gilliland and Edison eventually soured following a bad business deal. When Edison cut off power and water to the Gilliland side of the property, Galliland had no choice but to sell his half of the lodge. The purchasers were none other than Ambrose and Tootie McGregor.
In the years that followed, Edison imported more than 200 Royal Palms from Cuba, which he planted on either side of the dirt cattle trail between his estate and downtown. And tired of the dust, mud and smell of cow manure, Tootie McGregor induced the city and county in 1915 to join her in widening and paving the palm-lined road, which she had renamed McGregor Boulevard in honor of first husband Ambrose. Worth an estimated $16 million when he died of cancer in 1900, the former president of Standard Oil left Tootie one of the ten wealthiest people in the entire nation. Tootie used her largesse to help convert Fort Myers from a rough-and-tumble cow town into a modern Twentieth Century city.
So this is the story cryptically encapsulated in the two small mosaics that now adorn the east facade of the Wells Fargo Home Mortgage bank building on Cleveland, just north of College Parkway. But there remains the question of how big a role Millard Sheets played in the mosaics' conception, fabrication and installation. That's because the Fort Myers Savings of America branch was built in 1988, nearly eight years after Sheets retired.
Sheets Studio was still accepting and completing Home Savings & Loan and Savings of America commissions until Home Savings was sold in 1998 to Washington Mutual, but by 1988, Sheets' former student at Scripps College, Susan Lautmann Hertel, and his protege' Denis O'Connor, were running the studio and executing the work. So while the mosaics are attributable to Sheets Studio, they appear to have been wrought by O'Connor and Hertel, which may explain why the colors are more muted and the composition far simpler than the works that pre-date Sheets retirement in 1980.
Regardless of the level of Millard Sheets' involvement, the mosaics are clearly historical, not only for the story they tell about Fort Myers' birth and early development, but because they are part of an historic partnership between one of the nation's early public artists and a visionary financier who was determined to use art in order to market his banks to the local community and thereby make them local landmarks and gathering spots - a concept alien to the homogeneity characterized by 21st Century bank design.
Every public artwork has a story to tell. But sometimes it's not exactly the tale you think it is.