Have you ever wanted to step back in time to see what it was like to live in 20th Century Florida? Chokoloskee Island is one of Florida’s last frontiers and is home to the Smallwood Store where you can time travel back to the pioneer days.
The Smallwood Store is a red-wooded building on stilts that sits right over the waters of Chokoloskee Bay. Ted Smallwood established the store back in 1906. It operated as a trading post where the early settlers would come to get their goods as well as their mail. The store was still functioning and even was placed on the National Register of Historic Places up until 1982 when it closed. It remained closed for 7 years until Ted Smallwood’s granddaughter, Lynn McMillin, decided she wanted to open it back up, this time as a museum. She spent 7 more years going through everything that was leftover in the store before she was able to open again.
The awesome thing about the museum is that 90% of the artifacts and things you see inside are original to the store. When you walk up the wooden steps and step foot in the building, it looks as though nothing has been touched or disturbed. To the left, glass bottles and medicine line the shelves, along with books, knick-knacks, and other goods. The store is separated into three different rooms. The middle room is the entrance where the commodities, Native American artifacts and pictures line the counters. Then to your right is where the home goods are, such as furniture with the life-size wax figure of Ted Smallwood sits in his rocking chair. Finally, across the hall is the museum’s gift shop and an exhibit of Southwest Florida’s pioneers, telling their history as you’re surrounded by various animal hides. In the back of the store, there’s a porch that hovers over the tumbling waves where the Ten Thousand Islands silently reside.
One of the most well-known characters who frequented the store when it operated was Edgar “Ed” Watson. You may have heard of Ed Watson before or even experienced his presence at the Smallwood Store, as many claims he still roams the property years after his death. Edgar Watson was greeted at gunpoint by a mob of locals after they learned of the gruesome murders he had committed over the years. Before he could fire a bullet, the mob shot and killed Watson right below the store. There are many who do not believe in ghosts or spirits, but I am not one of them. I have witnessed the chilling experience of Ed Watson walking toward me as I was on the dock under the store facing the bay. I was down there alone with no one around or in sight taking pictures of the sunset when I heard the distinct sound of boots walking on the gravel behind me. After three steps, I turned to look, and no one was there. I shrugged it off thinking I must have been hearing things until two more times the footsteps approached me until the sound was less than two feet away from me. With a chill down my spine and goosebumps on my body, I searched the property far and wide for someone who might have been just messing around to scare me and found nothing. I have never bolted out of a place so fast and to this day I will never again be there alone at sunset or nightfall again. Paranormal investigators have come to the store to conduct investigations and strange things occur while they’re there. The nightlife of the store is truly a mystery.
Aside from the ghost encounter, I have so many fond memories of this museum growing up. When I was in middle school my cousin and I would walk through the mangrove trail from the other side of Chokoloskee to the Smallwood Store. We would go upstairs, say hello to whoever was working that day and buy a glass bottle of Sprite to drink on the dock before walking back to her house to play. Throughout school, and even the past few years, I would come to visit my friend who is the great-great-granddaughter of Ted Smallwood while she worked. We sat by the front window, gazed at the artifacts, and talked for hours until it was time to close. Then I’d help her close the doors and board up the windows. I can still hear us laughing as we tried closing the windows without making them squeak, standing out on the porch watching the summer thunderstorms pass through Chokoloskee Bay, and screaming as we ran down the front stairs outside after she turned off the lights, afraid Watson was going to get us.
This time capsule is truly one of Chokoloskee, Everglades City, and Florida’s best treasures. If you haven’t already visited, I suggest you come on down to our little island and let the Smallwood Store awaken your inner curiosity of what life once was like in the Everglades.