The Tootie McGregor Fountain sits in the parking lot out at the Fort Myers Country Club on McGregor Boulevard. One hundred years old as of August 17, 2013, Fort Myers' oldest public artwork finds itself in dire need of repair. Charged by ordinance with the fountain's care and maintenance, the City's Public Art Committee doesn't have the $65,000 conservators say it will cost to restore the fountain to its original state. Undaunted, the volunteer committee members are planning to devote their time, contacts and limited resources to raise the funds needed to return the favors Tootie showered on our fledgling city between 1900 and her death on August 17, 1912.
"Tootie McGregor Terry played a crucial role in Fort Myers' early development," member Jared Beck noted during the Committee's meeting on October 15. "When her husband died in 1900, Tootie could have moved anywhere, but she chose to stay in Fort Myers and help the town develop and grow."
Tootie's husband was Ambrose McGregor, the CEO of Standard Oil. He was reputed to be the 10th richest man in the United States at the time of his death. Which would have probably made Tootie the richest woman in the entire country.
Her holdings in Fort Myers included two large orange groves, numerous tracts of land scattered throughout Lee County, and mortgages on buildings her husband financed for Harvey Heitman. But Tootie did not rest on her husband's laurels. No, she joined with Heitman in the construction of business buildings and the Bradford Hotel (which they named in honor of her only child, who died in 1902). And a few years later, she also purchased the Royal Palm Hotel and immediately added 50 rooms to make it even bigger and grander than it already was. Tootie's two hotels attracted numerous celebrities and millionaires to Fort Myers, many of whom made Fort Myers their winter home.
Next Tootie proposed a plan for constructing seawalls along the riverfront to eradicate the dirty, litter-and-rubbish strewn waterfront that was characterized by decaying hyacinths, stinking sewage and rickety old wharves and boathouses. She even suggested a 75-foot wide waterside boulevard, but reluctant to part with their riparian rights, the affected property owners refused to go along with her idea.
In 1906, Tootie and new husband Dr. Marshall O. Terry donated 40 acres to the city for use as the Philadelphia Athletics’ spring training facility. Today, this tract bears the name of Terry Park and it played a major role in constituting Fort Myers as a MLB spring training site ever since. Tootie and Dr. Terry brought golf to Fort Myers as well. But it was her role in having Riverside Drive paved from Monroe Street all the way to Punta Rassa for which she is best remembered.
In broad brush strokes, Tootie proposed to the City and Lee County that if they would combine to pave a 50-foot wide stretch of Riverside Drive from Monroe to Whiskey Creek, she would pay to have Riverside paved from Whiskey Creek all the way to Punta Rassa. Her offer included bridges, culverts and five years of maintenance. "It would be tantamount to someone agreeing to pave a 20-mile stretch of I-75 today," Beck points out. Adjusting for inflation, the $105,000 her part cost would be about $2.5 million in today's money.
But the cost of Tootie's gift doesn't begin to describe its value.
When Tootie and Ambrose first came to town in 1892, not one street was paved or even graded.
First Street (which was called Front Street at the time) was nothing more than a sandy, weed-grown open space that meandered between two irregular rows of unpainted, cheaply constructed wood frame general stores, saloons, livery stables, blacksmith shops and houses. The only sidewalk was a shell walkway that William H. Towles and James E. Hendry laid in April of 1886 in front of their store at First and Jackson. At the time, the Fort Myers Press stated that “our streets and sidewalks at present are a disgrace to the town.”
There was only one streetlight in Fort Myers at the time, also installed by Towles and Hendry in front of their store when it became clear in June of 1887 that Thomas Edison wasn’t going to “light Fort Myers” after all. But everywhere else in town, people had to use lanterns whenever they ventured outside after dark.
There were but three bridges in Fort Myers, one over Whiskey Creek, a second spanning Billy’s Creek and a wooden foot bridge that crossed Manuel’s Branch. None spanned the Caloosahatchee River itself. And the roads leading into and out of town were virtually non-existent, consisting of two sets of deep ruts created by oxcart wagon wheels that cut through clutching sand and clinging mud. People referred to these trails as “Wish to God” roadways because regardless of which set of ruts the traveller chose, he always “wished to God” he had taken the other set.
The county commissioners addressed the problem in late 1900 by purchasing shell for 15 cents a barrel and then hiring laborers to fill in the oxcart tracks from Billy’s Creek to Buckingham. Two feet wide and six inches deep, the new “surface” did not make the road passable during rainy season and over time, the shell disintegrated and disappeared in the mud and sand. To compensate, logs were laid crosswise over the ruts, giving rise to the nickname “corduroy roads.”
But the shell inspired the city council in 1901 to propose a bond issue to improve the streets. When the proposal was defeated at the polls, the city councilmen borrowed the money necessary to purchase 20,000 barrels of shell on their own signatures. To get the shell needed, Caloosa Indian mounds up and down the river were levelled, but this only provided enough shell to create a 15-foot wide strip down the center of First Street from Billy’s Creek to Monroe.
“This narrow strip was so ‘marvelously smooth’ and such an improvement over the old sandy waste,” writes local historian Karl H. Grismer in The Story of Fort Myers (p. 168), “that the property owners immediately demanded that the entire street be covered. So did the property owners elsewhere in the business section.”
But nothing happened to the roads in town for another 12 years!
Meanwhile, the movement to get concrete sidewalks for the business section was launched in the summer of 1904 by William H. Towles, Harvie Heitman and George F. Ireland. They were finally laid in 2006 by Manuel S. Gonzalez, who left his mark “M.S.G. – 1906 in the concrete. But notwithstanding these “improvements,” Fort Myers was still a cow town. Literally. Due to the influence of the town’s powerful cattle barons, cow were still allowed to roam freely through the streets.
At least until September 4, 1908, when an ordinance was finally adopted mandating that cattle and milk cows alike be penned up. From New York, Dr. Terry wrote: “I am delighted beyond expression,” echoing the sentiment felt by hundreds of other Fort Myers residents and visitors. But several more months would follow before the ordinance was extended to hogs, and outside of town, hogs were permitted to wander freely for several more years, much to the vexation of Tootie and her husband, Dr. Marshall O. Terry.
So this was the state of affairs when Tootie proposed in February of 1912 to pave the 20-mile stretch of Riverside Drive from Whiskey Creek to Punta Rassa if Fort Myers and Lee County would pave from Whiskey Creek to Monroe Street. Unfortunately, Tootie did not live long enough to see the roadwork started. She did not even live long enough to see Fort Myers approve a $47,000 bond issue to “hard surface” the roads in town in 1913. Rejecting advocates who lobbied for brick or concrete, the city opted for shell-asphalt, which was completed in the late summer of 1915. Although nice and smooth when originally installed, they didn’t remain that way for very long as summer rains soon began wreaking havoc with them.
Tootie and Dr. Terry were ahead of their time. They not only understood that a paved McGregor Boulevard would open all the invaluable land it abutted to development, but that good roads leading into and out of town were needed if the town was to develop as it should. Because the latter were not provided until the 1920s, Fort Myers almost missed out on the growth experienced by other Florida cities during the real estate boom that began toward the end of World War I.
With this for context, it is little wonder why the members of the Fort Myers Public Art Committee are willing to devote their time, contact their family, friends and business associates, and put themselves on the line to restore the monument dedicated to Tootie's memory by her second husband, Dr. Marshall O. Terry, and the City of Fort Myers in 1913.