Elvis Presley, Richard P. Powell and Matlacha, Florida
Take a drive through Matlacha today and you’ll see a quirky artists’ community dotted by brightly colored buildings, folks fishing along the bridge, great restaurants and, of course, fish houses and working fishermen.
But did you know that Matlacha started — not as a fishing community — but as a squatters’ paradise? And that it was once the setting for both a New York Times bestselling satirical novel and an Elvis Presley movie?
In the 1920s, the road to Matlacha was little more than a dirt trail when Harry Stringfellow was elected to the county commission. According to local lore, at the time the only way Harry could get to the mainland for commission meetings from his home near Pineland was to take a mule-drawn wagon to St. James City (a three-hour ride) and then take the steamboat to Fort Myers. The trip took all day. So Harry, who served on the Lee County Commission from 1926-1953, and Bruce Scott eventually persuaded the commissioners to build a bridge connecting Pine Island with the mainland. In 1927, the first bridge through Matlacha — a swing bridge purchased from Alva — was completed.
At the time, the area was merely known as “The Fill” for the fill that had been dredged out of the pass to put the bridge pilings on and had not yet picked up the name Matlacha.
Following the Stock Market crash in 1929, squatters began moving on to The Fill — building a hodgepodge of shacks and shanties over the water and wherever they could. Eventually, a true fishing community developed in the area.
At one point, Lee County tried to evict the squatters and a court battle ensued. The squatters eventually won their battle, gaining legal ownership to their homes, and their little fishing community flourished.
That’s where best-selling author Richard P. Powell comes in. Powell was a New Jersey native, a former newspaper and advertising man, who also served on Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s staff during WWII. In 1959, Powell moved to Fort Myers following the success of his novel, The Philadelphian. While many expected his next novel to be a follow on that serious tale of Philadelphia society, this book instead was a satirical showdown between the common man and big government titled Pioneer, Go Home! According to Powell’s tale, New Jersey Piner Pop Kwimper takes a wrong turn as he and his family are on vacation. He runs out of gas and ends up at the fictional town of Columbiana, on the side of the road on the fill where a bridge is being built. They end up staying. Eventually, Pop learns about squatter’s rights, setting up the fight with government. The story, of course, is based on what happened in Matlacha.
In 1962, Powell’s popular book was made into the movie Follow That Dream, starring Elvis Presley as Pop’s son, Toby. While many people think that the movie was filmed in Matlacha, it was really filmed in Yankeetown. So, alas, Elvis probably never slept here!
When I started selling real estate on the Island in 1977, Matlacha was a pretty monochromatic place — the white and gray clapboard buildings erected over the years were still there. Eventually, I opened Islands Realty and established my office in what is now the Matlacha Wellness Center building just inside of Matlacha. It was the first pink building in Matlacha.
A few years later, John Casey came along and wanted to start rehabbing the community. But since the area was such a mishmash of residential and commercial buildings, zoning was a nightmare. Fortunately, Gloria Sajgo, principal planner for the Lee County Historic Preservation Board, helped us get the area designated as a historic district so restoration and rehabilitation could take place. I think Pine Island artist Leoma Lovegrove’s gallery was probably the earliest of the rehabbed buildings and set the stage for the unique, colorful destination we have today.
While you can no longer be a squatter on the Island of Matlacha, there are still plenty of places there you can call home or set up your Island business. Give us a call to learn more about the properties we have listed there.