By Natalie Strom
It’s not every day that family members of the “founding father” of Marco Island pay a visit. It was quite a surprise for the Marco Island Historical Society when members found out that four of Captain Bill (W.T.) Collier’s great-great grandchildren were visiting Marco Island for the first time. On short notice, MIHS brought the four siblings to the Marco Island Historical Museum where they toured the exhibits and then sat down for a reception with members of the MIHS.
The four great-great grandchildren, Diane Bonar, Mary Beth Herrin, Julia Dugger and Jim Dugger, brought historical paperwork found hidden away in their parents’ home after their passing. They shared it with local historian Craig Woodward. Among the paperwork were typed up remarks by W.T.’s son, Captain Bill (W.D.) Collier, and a portion of his wife Margaret McIlvane Collier’s diary. The museum’s curator, Austin Bell, made copies of the paperwork so they could be further studied.
The four admitted that they knew little about their great-great grandfather or great-grandfather, and Woodward was able to fill them in on many of the details of their family’s adventurous history.
In 1870, W.T. Collier brought his family to Marco Island on a schooner named the “Robert E. Lee.” The family built their first home on what we know as Hideaway Beach.
W.T.’s son, “Captain Bill” (W.D.) Collier (great grandfather to the four) was 18 when the family arrived on Marco, and he quickly made a name for himself on the island. Captain Bill sailed the coastline, trading fur, meat, vegetables, hides and more. He built his first home on Marco which still stands and serves as Marek’s Restaurant on Bald Eagle Drive in “Old Marco.”
Woodward explained how Captain Bill invented the clam dredge for the cannery in Old Marco that stood where the Snook Inn is today.
One story the siblings had heard and discussed with Woodward, was the deaths of Captain Bill’s three young sons: William, 8; Robert, 6; and Wilmer, 4. In 1898, during a routine trip for Collier, a storm capsized his vessel. His three sons who were with him drowned during the ordeal. Woodward explained that history dictates Captain Bill never truly recovered after the death of his boys. A devout Christian, it has been said that he abandoned his faith due to the incident.
Captain Bill’s wife, Maggie, had died only two years earlier, along with what would have been the couple’s ninth child, during labor. In a matter of two years, Captain Bill lost his wife, three sons, a newborn, and was left with five daughters of nine children. Julia Boyd Collier, the youngest of the five girls, married Ernest Parrish; they are the grandparents of the four visiting siblings. From there, daughter Willard Parrish married John Robert Dugger. They had six children: Thomas, Diane, Mary Beth, Robert, Glenn and Julia.
Throughout their lives, the children heard limited stories of their heritage and never had the chance to visit Marco Island. “After our parents passed, we started cleaning out stuff (in the house) and we found some information that started us thinking about Marco,” said Mary Beth. Their brother Glenn finally visited the island a year or so ago, and the four siblings decided they ought to go as well. They visited the cemetery, where many of their ancestors were buried. “It was so emotional,” stated Mary Beth.
In an email Diane sent to the MIHS before their arrival, she shared some of the tales they heard as children. On the courting of her grandparents, Julia Boyd Collier and Ernest Parish, she wrote, “My grandfather was from Lowndes County (Valdosta, GA). Mother always told the story that he was told to go to Florida because of his health. He wound up on Marco Island, and when he saw this pretty, young girl when he got off a boat, he pretended to drop his hat. Then every time he tried to pick it up, he secretly kicked it again, until it was close enough to her to talk to her. They may have made up, but it was a story I heard many times.”
She also recalled her grandmother’s memories of her father (Captain Bill) and his trading business. “I remember that Grandma used to tell us how afraid she was when the Indians came to town to trade. She said that she used to go hide behind a dresser until they left!”
The direct descendants of Captain W.T. Collier and his son, Captain Bill Collier, were enthralled by the hardships of pioneer life displayed in the museum. Growing up in Georgia, the four never truly realized the important role their family played in the development of Marco Island. After a week long stay and an informational afternoon at the museum, the siblings were in agreement that they looked forward to a return visit, and that next time, all six should come together.
With an entire island containing and preserving their family’s past, it looks as though the great-great grandchildren of Captain Bill (W.T.) Collier won’t be signing up for ancestry.com any time soon.
Thanks to Diane, Mary Beth, Jim and Julia for sharing their time, documents and stories with the Marco Island Historical Society and Coastal Breeze News. See you next time!