South of Marco Island is the well known Cape Romano with its famous, dilapidated dome house tilted on washed out pilings above the Gulf of Mexico. Kice Island, located north of Cape Romano and just south of Marco Island, received almost no attention until recently, when a number of pilot whales beached themselves there. Kice Island is a beautiful island, running parallel to the Gulf with a long, sandy beachfront; leaving us to wonder, how did it get its name and what can we find of its history?
Almost 100 years ago, on Sept. 27, 1915, Murray S. Kice purchased 119.4 acres of land from the U.S. Government. Mr. Kice sold real estate in Louisville, Kentucky through his business M.S. Kice & Co., and it was not long until he became Florida’s newest developer with big ideas for his island. The founders of Naples were also from Louisville, Kentucky, naming their subdivision “Naples-on-the-Gulf,” so it is probable that Kice had learned of this area from them, as he similarly called his project “Kice Island-on-the-Gulf.”
In 1893, the oldest child of Murray and Lucy Kice was born and named after his father, Murray Stancliffe Kice, Jr. Murray Jr. graduated from Purdue University in 1915 with a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering. After graduating, he got a job with American Blower Co. in Cleveland Ohio, but at age 23 his career was interrupted when the soon-to-be Lieutenant Kice was drafted into World War I in May of 1917. He was placed into the 88th Division of the 337th Field Artillery Regiment, and in September of 1918 he was shipped out to France. Fortunately for him, the war was almost over and soon after, on Jan. 8, 1919, the Regiment came back to the U.S.
In February of 1922 Murray Kice, Jr., age 28, married Miriam Deming from Franklin, Indiana, and Murray was able to resume his engineering career with American Blower Co. The Florida real estate boom of the 1920s created the next interruption in their lives. By 1927, the Ft. Myers City Directory shows all the Kices, both Murray, Sr., age 58, his son Murray, Jr., age 35, and their wives, Lucy and Miriam, were living in Ft. Myers. In December of 1925 they had formed the corporation known as “M.S. Kice Developing Company” with Murray Sr. as president/treasurer and Murray Jr. as vice-president/secretary.
On March 5, 1926 the 119.4 acres purchased in 1915 had been surveyed and was platted. It was one of the first subdivisions of Collier County, newly created in 1923 by the State Legislature. The official plat was signed by the Kices, father and son, and witnessed by notables: Mrs. Tommie Barfield and Barron Collier’s brother, C. M. Collier, Jr., who was, at the time, the chairman of the first Collier County Board of Commissioners. It was notarized by D.W. McLeod who was the county’s first property appraiser.
About a mile long was “Gulf Beach Drive” in the new “Kice Island-on-the-Gulf” subdivision, with the “Bay Beach Drive” following a similar distance along Caxambas Bay. Running through the interior of the island, also north and south, was a long central canal appropriately named “Venice Way” with two openings out to Caxambas Bay at the north and south. They created 971 sellable lots on paper, with 143 lots on the beach. A similar number on the eastern Caxambas Bay side and 202 lots, or 20 percent of the project, would have water access via the interior Venice Way canal. Named streets included: Kentucky Ave. – reflecting the family’s home state; Hugh Ave. – a Murray family name; Deming Drive – Murray, Jr.’s wife Miriam’s maiden name – a “Barfield Drive” after J.M. and his wife Tommie who resided in the nearby Caxambas area – and interestingly, a Mound Ave. that curved around an apparent shell mound. Almost all of the lots were sized as 50 feet wide and 140-150 feet deep.
Strangely enough, while there are a number of interior roads, there is no bridge or ferry access shown. Also, there are no bridges crossing the long interior Venice Way waterway, making it difficult to drive around this large platted project.
Despite Murray S. Kice, Sr.’s expertise in real estate, tremendous development and the great optimism of his family, unforeseen forces immediately doomed their project. Within six months, in September of 1926, a hurricane nicknamed the “Great Miami Hurricane,” hit with a 60 mile wide storm spreading from Miami to Ft. Lauderdale. It carried winds recorded at 140 mph, pushed a 12-foot storm surge that rushed up the rivers and bays and slammed into South Beach. The 1926 hurricane continued west in Naples and Marco breaking windows, toppling trees and utility poles. In Everglades City water emptied from the Barron River creating an eight-foot storm surge throughout the city. Meanwhile, on Kice Island, the curve of the northern tip of the island was destroyed. Statewide, thousands were dead, and one headline read “Southeastern Florida Wiped Out.” On the east coast properties that had sold for $600,000 in 1925 were reportedly put on the market for $600 after the storm.
To make things worse, two years later in September of 1928, the “Okeechobee Hurricane” hit South Florida. The hurricane added another 10 inches of water to a lake already overfilled and pounded the area with 150 mph winds, breaching the dike that protected adjacent towns and sent four to six feet of water flooding into the streets. One in three of the residents died that night; 2,000 people gone in what was Florida’s largest tragedy. The Sept. 18 newspaper headlines read “Florida Destroyed! Florida Destroyed!” The following year on Oct. 29, 1929, Black Friday occurred, plunging the rest of the country into the Great Depression. It was the third and last strike of devastating economic impacts to the state; it would be a long time before Florida recovered.
At some point in the late 1920’s Murray Kice, Jr. and his wife Miriam left Florida and moved to Michigan to continue his career as a mechanical engineer, again rejoining American Blower Co. Meanwhile, Murray Kice, Sr. and his wife Lucy moved to Los Angeles, California where they apparently retired. In 1930 they were living in a very nice $25,000 house with a housekeeper and a nurse. Florida’s “Kice Island-on-the-Gulf” seemed all but forgotten until a man named Joe Dickman rode his motorcycle from Minster, Ohio and arrived in Los Angeles, California on his way to find his fortune in China. A chance encounter with Murray Kice, Sr., who was still at the top of his game as a real estate promoter, changed Joe Dickman’s life forever.
By Dickman’s account, Kice convinced Joe, then around age 49, to give up his dream of going to China and, instead turned around and headed back east to Florida to settle on Kice Island. It took Joe Dickman 30 days to drive the 3,000 miles to Florida. His head was full of Kice’s promises that the family would return to develop the island and that “Joe would be in on the ground floor” of this exciting project. Joe later said that the motorcycle was in such bad shape that he sold it on arrival in order to buy a small boat to get to Kice Island. Arriving in 1929, Dickman would be the only permanent inhabitant of this island for the next 31 years. In fact, he is the only known person to have ever lived on Kice Island in recorded history.
Joe Dickman soon put in pilings and built his own house looking over the Gulf and Caxambas Pass – a two story clapboard structure elevated above the ground. However, the key to habitable life on Kice Island was an artesian well that continually flowed large amounts of fresh water. A water test done in 1970 showed the quality to be good. It is possible that the historic existence of this water source was the derivation for the name “Caxambas,” which means fresh water, a name marked on old Spanish maps. We do know that in 1925 Kice had the artesian well capped for use with a strong valve placed on the wellhead.
Dickman lived a very simple life working as a fisherman and as a guide, but mostly he collected seashells along the long beaches of Kice Island, Morgan Island south to Cape Romano and on Marco Island. He was very good at shelling, taking boxed shells by the boatload to the mainland, shipping them and selling them to seashell jewelry factories including one in Pennsylvania. It was “pretty tough work for the best shells as they had to be dug out of the mud and then cleaned” according to Dickman. In fact, he was very proud that a “Fella named Tebeau from Miami called me an emeritus of a sea shell picker.” Dr. Charlton Tebeau, was a Professor of History at U. of M. and the author of “Florida’s Last Frontier – the History of Collier County.” With the cash earned, Dickman paid for discretionary items like Nabisco ginger snap cookies and burgundy wine, which guests mentioned he served them at his home.
As expected, from someone who lived alone on an island, Dickman was very independent and reportedly could live simply on sardines, crackers and beer. For clothing he wore very little, was normally shirtless and his skin was described as “a deep brown tone and looked like leather.” Often he wore wear cut off slacks with no shoes; his feet were so tough he could walk barefoot across broken clam shells. Outside his house were what must have been smelly boxes of shells in various stages of cleaning, while inside he had a high shelf containing his lifelong collection of souvenirs.
Remarkably enough, Dickman never corresponded with his family in Ohio. In 1931, a group headed to California to find out where Joe ended up. On that trip was Marj Freytag, Dickman’s great niece who traveled along with her grandparents, grandfather’s brother and her parents and sister heading “to California in a Model T Ford looking for Great Uncle Joe.” She remembers crossing the desert at night with a water bag hung on the car, and because there were no roads in the desert, they followed telephone poles. In the end, Marj said: “We couldn’t find any trace of Uncle Joe,” and it devastated her family.
Dickman would later recount that while he would never again see Murray Kice, Sr., he would occasionally receive letters from him that “kept sayin’ he was comin’ and to hold on.” Dickman chuckled to an interviewer that one of Kice’s promises did come true: Joe really did “get in on the ground floor and he was still here (on Kice Island).” It is not clear if Dickman knew that in 1938, nine years after they met in California, Murray Kice, Sr. died in L.A. at age 69 and his wife Lucy died after that. Meanwhile, their son Murray Kice, Jr. continued to work as the chief engineer for American Blower in Michigan while his wife Miriam raised their sons. Murray, Jr. was an inventor and a number of patents were issued to him between the years 1937 to 1951.
Dickman operated a short-wave radio and his friends said that Joe had learned five languages from using it. He once told a reporter that he spoke seven languages, having learned English and German at home. He later related to his great niece, Marj, that during WWII, he, like many locals, was involved in watching for German boats and subs along Florida’s Gulf Coast. Dickman was uniquely qualified for this, as not only did he live directly on the beach, but he could communicate by short-wave radio.
While Dickman lived alone, he never thought of himself as a hermit. Around 1950 Dickman famously said: “Long time ago, some city folks came out and asked me if it was true there was a hermit on the island; I told them that I’d been here 20 years and had never seen one!” Dickman remained long time friends with a number of local people, including Bud Kirk, having helped him build his house that was later moved to Goodland. He was also a friend of the Otter family in Caxambas.
By the mid 1950s, Dickman’s family had long given him up for lost. After all, it had been 26 years since he was last seen. Remarkably, a bachelor from Dickman’s home town in Minster, Ohio, Casey Kohnen, came fishing in Florida and ran into Joe on Kice Island. He reported back to the family, but sadly some of the family had died before knowing what happened to Joe.
Shortly after 1951, the Michigan census records show that Murray Kice, Jr. had died, and his wife, Miriam was now a widow. Of the four Kice family members, who, in the 1920s, came to Florida to develop Kice Island, Miriam was the only one alive. Florida public records from 1958 show that Miriam had M.S. Kice Developing Co. put into a court ordered receivership with the court ordering the island be sold to pay investors. On September 16, 1958, a few days short of 43 continuous years of ownership by the family, Kice Island was sold for the sum of $125,000.
Almost exactly two years later Hurricane Donna forced Joe Dickman to leave a home he had lived in for 31 years on Dickman’s Point at the north tip of Kice Island. Donna hit Sept. 10, 1960 as a Category 4 hurricane. The eye crossed Goodland, and the storm destroyed Dickman’s beachfront home leaving, according to his niece Marj, only the foundation and some plumbing pipes. Across Caxambas Pass the wind gauge at the U.S. Missile Tracking Station, located where Cape Marco is now, blew out and Islanders heard later that gusts had been as high as 185 mph.
With his home destroyed, Dickman moved for a while to Caxambas and lived near Otter Mound in the abandoned Barfield house, and then moved into the Ideal Fish Camp in Caxambas. In 1960, Marj Freytag and her husband Albert, made their first visit to the fish camp where “Uncle Joe invited us to stay with him in one of the fishing cabins,” but Marj said, “In the cabins there were just boards for a bunk and the stench of rotting shells was overwhelming. We declined his gracious invitation.” While living there, Belinda Ellington remembers Dickman as having “built sawhorses with planks across them and would put his shells out to cure.” She said that Mr. Joe was very sweet to her, and described him as the “nicest man she met when her family moved to Marco Island.”
Joe Dickman predicted that a hurricane would wash away Kice Island, having observed over the 31 years of living there that the island was “building up slower on one side then it was washing away on the other side.” He was correct. By 1966, the original northern tip of the island was gone and much of the western side had eroded to the point where most of the proposed “Venice Way” canal was now in the Gulf of Mexico; hundreds of platted lots had became submerged and disappeared.
Marj Freytag and her husband Albert made an effort to visit her Uncle Joe every year from 1960 until his death from cancer on Jan. 12, 1971 at age 90. He was buried at the Marco Cemetery. Today, Kice Island is owned by the State of Florida, but the north tip is still referred to as “Dickman’s Point” in his honor.
I want to thank Marj Freytag for our conversations and sharing with me her many memories as well as newspaper articles about her great uncle Joe; thank Dave Johnson for sharing his father’s photos of Joe Dickman and the Dickman home; and Belinda Ellington who shared with me her memories of Joe Dickman’s kindness to her and her family.