Totch Brown: A true character and Chokoloskee native
It’s hard to believe, but 16 years ago this month, the Chokoloskee native was laid to rest following yet another heart attack. He was buried in the Smallwood Cemetery on Chokoloskee Island on May 11, 1996, next to his dearly beloved wife and partner Estelle (nee Demere), his “Queen of the Everglades.”
Totch was born in 1920, the fourth of five children born to John and Alice (nee McKinney). He spent most of his youth on Chokoloskee, hunting, fishing and trapping along the Chatham Bend area with his father and brother, “Peg,” long before the formation of the Everglades National Park (in 1947).
The family lived off the land in tarpaper shacks that were inundated with mosquitoes — “swamp angels,” as his grandfather McKinney called them, “so thick you could rake ’em off your brow by the handful!”
He was 18 and Estelle just 14 when they married. Eleven months later, the ffirst of their five cchildren wi (three of whom are still living) was born.
Totch only left tthe island twice: oonce to serve his country during World War II, returning with both a Bronze Star and Purple Heart for his service during the Battle of the Bulge in 1944 with the 87th Infantry; and again to serve, this time 15 months in federal prison, for tax evasion stemming from his former marijuana smuggling days (he refused to rat out his friends).
Totch decided to write his book, “Totch: A Life in the Everglades,” in order to “set the record straight.” At age 73, with a seventh-grade education and a No. 3 lead pencil, he began telling his story, beginning with the settling in the Ten Thousand Islands back in the 1880s.
No subject is off-limits in the book, which was published in 1993. Totch’s tales run the gamut from hunting raccoons and alligators, to eating the tasty “Chokoloskee Chicken” (white ibis, which is protected today) and living on the old homestead of “Bloody” Edgar Watson of “Killing Mister Watson” fame. He tells of his infamous pothauling days and his trips back and forth to Colombia, where he actually picked his own crop, and of Operation Everglades on July 7, 1983, which caught the unsuspecting Totch offguard and led to his arrest in 1984.
Totch indeed led a most interesting life. Over the years, he made a living as a crabber, a fisherman and a gator poacher. He loved to sing and could write songs. He even snagged a bit part as an extra named “One Note” in Budd Schulberg’s “Wind Across the Everglades,” filmed on location in 1958 and starring Burl Ives, Gypsy Rose Lee, Peter Falk and Christopher Plummer.
He had his share of heartache, too, beginning with the loss of his daughter, Judy, aged 2, when their boat exploded in 1943. Two years later, Totch and Estelle’s third child, Marie Faye, died from an enlarged heart 10 days after she was born.
Totch’s book — which can still be found in local bookstores and libraries, as well as on Amazon — is a must-read for anyone wanting to learn more about this area and how previous generations existed without things like air-conditioning, bug spray, refrigeration, etc. The island itself was pretty well isolated until the causeway was completed in 1956.
My personal involvement with Totch began in 1993, when I wrote for the former Everglades Echo weekly newspaper. My very first interview with him took place on his boat, just prior to the publication of his book. He graciously took me out in the famed Ten Thousand Islands and shared his life story with me. I was hooked — on Totch and the local people and the area, too. Not only did he pique my interest in this remote region called the Last Frontier, he changed my life’s direction.
There is no doubt in my mind that had I not met Totch and been given that grand tour (and many others during the next three years before his passing), I would never have been so interested in learning about our county’s early history and the many pioneers who came before us — nor would I have ever written my own book about the area. ¦
— Maureen Sullivan- Hartung arrived in Naples in 1981. Following a year’s stint as a reporter for the former weekly Everglades Echo newspaper, she began freelancing. Her first book, “The Hidden History of Everglades City & Points Nearby,” was published in 2010 by The History Press in South Carolina. Look for her Undercover Historian column every other week in Florida Weekly. Learn more about Ms. Sullivan- Hartung at www.maureenwrites.com.