One of my favorite things about Everglades City and our surrounding areas is the rich history that we have here. Historical buildings and houses can be seen near and far, decorating the streets of Florida’s last frontier. The Rod and Gun Club is just one of the many historical sites found in our town, and its history is extremely unique.
I decided to ride my golf cart over one day to visit the club and to meet with one of the owners and find out more about the iconic lodge. I grew up visiting the Rod and Gun Club a lot. My parents would take me inside to gaze upon the large mounted animals and fish placed on the walls and in the corners. Many of our friends and family have hosted their weddings at the club. I have so many memories here that when I walk through the building, all of them instantly fill my mind. Looking over at the pool table I can visualize younger me hiding behind my mom as we glanced up at the alligator skin spread out on the wall. To my right, outside on the porch, I can see my family and our friends celebrating my cousin’s wedding by stuffing our faces with Stone Crab claws and laughing until we’re teary-eyed. If walls could talk this place would have more words than a dictionary. As I enter the dining room, I’m greeted by the manager, Taylor Caple, and her mother Patty Bowen, one of the owners of the Rod and Gun Club. We sat down and caught up with each other before diving into the club’s history.
The story of the Rod and Gun Club begins with Everglades City founder, William Smith Allen, building a small house on the property along the Barron River after purchasing the land from squatters. Allen came to the Everglades in 1871 and became the first permanent white settler in the area. Allen’s house set the foundation for the historic Rod and Gun Club. He built a river dock and established a trading post on the site. Visitors to the trading post ranged from Miccosukee Natives traveling from their villages to vegetable farmers looking to ship their produce to Florida’s largest town during the era, Key West. In 1889, George W. Storter Jr. purchased the landholdings of Allen on the Barron River for $800. As the new owner, Storter enlarged the house to entertain the growing number of fishermen and hunters who were coming to the Everglades. Soon, Storter named the lodge The Rod and Gun Club.
The 20th century introduced Barron Gift Collier, the founder of Collier County, to Southwest Florida. Collier began purchasing much of the land in the area and ultimately became Florida’s largest landowner, with a whopping 1,186,700 acres. He purchased the Rod and Gun Club and adapted the lodge to serve as a private club. Collier was the host to numerous international dignitaries and several United States Presidents. Even after his passing in 1939, the private club continued to host elites, including President Harry Truman during his visit in 1947 to dedicate the Everglades National Park. When Hurricane Donna destroyed Everglades City in 1960, his corporate interests sold the Rod and Gun Club and it fell into the hands of new owners in 1968.
Martin Bowen and Marcella Bowen moved their family from Michigan to Everglades City in 1964. Bowen opened a business across the street from the Rod and Gun Club in 1970, called the Tropical Lounge. “The Rod and Gun was abandoned and falling down,” Patty explained. “He decided to take it over and purchased it in his late 50s.” The club was for sale for a while, but because of its condition and appearance, the property did not catch anyone’s eye. “In the 70s, old was not popular, everything was chrome and glass.”
Once Martin Bowen saw the potential of the iconic lodge, their family began the process of refurbishing it. Martin, Marcella, and their three children—Patty, Barbara, and Marti—worked years to restore the historic building. Together, with their hard work and dedication, the family turned the Rod and Gun Club back to its original posh state, without the help of a company. “Before, everything in here was broken,” Patty noted, “and old sheets were stacked up so high, like they just left it and walked out.” However, the club’s previous owners left behind prized treasures that left the Rod and Gun Club feeling like it never changed from the time it was built. Large mounted fish from the brackish waters of the Ten Thousand Islands cover the tall brown-wooded walls that Patty stated have always been in the building. “Nothing’s changed. The fish on the walls have to be at least 80 years old,” she remarked.
Something which really surprised me was that some of the chair cushions in the lobby are filled with horsehair. Wealthy households in previous centuries obtained furniture with horsehair fabric, because of their durability and comfort. Once synthetics became popular in the 1920s, however, horsehair became a trend of the past. The fact that the club still has the original furniture from Barron Collier’s time of ownership is remarkable.
Today, the Rod and Gun Club is still family–owned and operated. The former private club of Barron Collier serves as a restaurant, hotel, and marina. Outside the main building sits several cottages with multiple rooms where guests can rent to stay in while visiting. Patty’s daughter, Taylor, currently manages the Rod and Gun Club and is very fond of the history behind the iconic building. If you haven’t already visited the Rod and Gun Club, I recommend that you do. The unique experience you’ll gain from the visit will not only satisfy the feeling of an Olde Florida nostalgia, but you can also say you’ve been in the same room that President Roosevelt and Actor Burt Reynolds once stood.