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Finding Florida

Finding Florida: Back to the Good Old Days
By Mitch Traphagen mitch@observernews.net
Apr 8, 2004 - 6:55:00 AM

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The view from the end of the road in St. James City on Pine Island is of some of the most expensive real estate in Florida - Sanibel Island. Though it is just a stone's throw away, Pine Island is separated by decades. It is a remnant of the Florida from the past. (Mitch Traphagen Photo)
ST. JAMES CITY, FL
- It is literally a stones throw away from some of the most expensive property in Florida. In fact, from where the road ends you can look out over the water and see the shores of Sanibel Island and the seven figure real estate prices that island commands. It is such a short distance away but in reality, there is a time warp between the islands of Sanibel and Pine.

In many ways Pine Island is a throwback to what Florida was before the boom began. It is quiet, you can buy a home without being an executive on the run from a major corporate financial scandal and there are few, if any, tourists. In fact, I don't think that St. James City, the island's main town, even has a motel.

Pine Island is also a reminder that the longing for what was, the memories of the past, are often painted with a rose colored brush. Simply put, there is a reason that it is quiet, there is a reason that you can buy a reasonably affordable home on this island in the Gulf. The reason is simple: There is nothing there.

It is a working town filled with manufactured and mobile homes. The one grocery store is a far cry from the monster-mega-markets found on the mainland. Nor is it a pricy boutique-style stores such as those found on neighboring Sanibel. The St. James City General Store is much like the island itself, a no nonsense affair that provides the things you need and not much more.

But it also has something else not typically found in those other stores - real people who are courteous and friendly in a real southern way. There is no artificial facade in St. James City, it is a real town where what you see is what you get. It is a place where you could pull up a chair and chat with the store clerk while she waits for customers.

They will call you 'Darlin' in the Ragged Ass Saloon and when they ask how your lunch is, they really want to know. On the other hand, if you are a demanding, obnoxious tourist with an attitude, they may well ask you to leave. The food, by the way, was excellent and the service was, again, courteous and friendly in a real southern way. The saloon overlooks a boat yard that contains a mix of commercial fishermen and small private boats, some of which have seen better days.

The winds of change are blowing on Pine Island. On the opposite end of the island from St. James City, there are resorts and expensive homes taking advantage of the beautiful view. (Mitch Traphagen Photo)
St. James City is not the postcard perfect little Florida hamlet that is typically advertised to tourists from the north. But it is a genuine town with genuine people and it is a refreshing respite from the multi-million dollar developments that threaten to change the flavor and consistency of Florida into something resembling a loaf of generic white bread. It is one of the few remaining bastions of what Florida was - a quiet little place with not much going on.

But change is coming to St. James City. In what years ago may well have been mobile homes and fishing shacks, new homes are going up near the water overlooking Sanibel. Construction equipment is lined up at the small canal marina near the Ragged Ass Saloon. The winds of change are blowing through Punta Gorda, through the town of Matlacha and swirling around the end of the road in St. James City.

But for now, it is still there, a genuine little town where everyone knows each other and people call you 'Darlin'. For now, there are still people who wake up and go to work and come home to watch TV or visit with neighbors. For now, it is a picture in time of what Florida was - a genuine place with courteous people who actually mean what they say. What they say, whether it is good or bad, depends upon you. There is no facade in St. James City - it would be best if you did not carry one in.

The real Florida is still out there in St. James City. In our memories, the Good Old Days are often seen through rose colored glasses. It is so easy to forget that the Good Old Days, by necessity, lacked the conveniences to which most of us have become accustomed. The Good Old Days did not have giant mega-markets and 24-hour pharmacies. The Good Old Days did not offer 50 varieties of breakfast cereal. The Good Old Days did not have seven figure home prices and every imaginable convenience that kept you from thinking for yourself. The Good Old Days had none of that and neither does St. James City.

The Ragged Ass Saloon overlooks a working boat yard and marina. Construction equipment on site, however, suggests that change is coming. (Mitch Traphagen Photo)
But the winds of change keep blowing. Before long, life in St. James City will be much more convenient. That will be a sad day, indeed.



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