2013-04-25 / Undercover Historian

A centennial celebration at Chokoloskee Church of God

UNDERCOVER HISTORIAN

Not many of us can claim anything for 100 years. It’s hard for me to imagine that the tiny island of Chokoloskee just south of Everglades City, once the grand governing center of Collier County, was even inhabited back in 1913, but its establishment actually goes back much further. Records show that the modern settlement of Chokoloskee Island began in 1874. It was in 1913, however, that the Chokoloskee Church of God opened its doors.

I attended the tiny church’s recent centennial celebration and came away from the service with a much deeper appreciation for this small town. The lengthy service included several individual testimonies and numerous mention of words such as “heritage,” “foundation,” “history,” “family” and “generations.” Indeed, a mighty strong sense of community prevailed over the happy occasion.

The Pentecostal movement on Chokoloskee Island was started in 1912 by J.J. “Babe” and Sally Whidden, who traveled to the island by boat from Fort Myers. Unfortunately, that is the extent of information about them on record. We do know, however, that it was nothing back in those days for a revival to go on for long stretches of time — mainly because an itinerant circuit-rider preacher couldn’t leave until the next mail boat came along (which sometimes could be several months — or even longer.)

Church records show that during a 1913 revival, 40 people converted and were baptized at McKinney’s Landing, which is now the home of Martha and Craig Daniels (she’s the great-greatgranddaughter of Charles Greenleigh McKinney). The roster of those baptized that day includes folks from several pioneer families, including the Browns, the Hamiltons, the McKinneys and the Storters.

In his book, “Totch Brown: A Life in the Everglades,” Chokoloskee native Totch Brown wrote that his grandfather, the aforementioned Mr. McKinney, donated the land to build the first church as well as the lumber that went into the building and the brass bell that chimed from it.

It would take the completion of the Tamiami Trail in 1928 before a fulltime minister could be appointed to the church on Chokoloskee Island. Even then, the church — and the entire island community — remained quite isolated until the completion of the causeway in 1956 that connected Everglades City to Chokoloskee Island along with the outside world.

From its first fulltime pastor, the Rev. Baldree, who held the position for one year, to today’s the Rev. Morris Dantin, who has been at the church since 1995, the little church has had 19 pastors to lead the congregation from the pulpit.

The oldest parishioner, Beatrice Williams Brown Rogers, aka Aunt Bea, turns 94 this year. She was born in Punta Rassa in 1919 and lived in Fort Myers before moving with her family to Chokoloskee in 1934. The next oldest parishioner is Copeland resident Margaret Webb, 90 years young, who has attended the church since her birth (since an unfortunate encounter with an alligator, however, she doesn’t get out as much).

When Hurricane Wilma hit the island in 2005, its 130-mph winds blew the steeple off the church. During the subsequent cleanup efforts, the steeple was located about two blocks away, but the bell was missing. A new steeple and pews have since been installed. The present-day structure was built in the late 1950s and is actually the third building for the church.

At the close of the recent centennial celebration service and before the congregation adjourned for more fellowship at the local Seafood Depot, the Rev. Dantin shared with the congregation his continued love of the members and the church itself: “In all my years here at Chokoloskee Church of God, the members have been so gracious to endure my mistakes and failings,” he told them. “Our church has been the rock of this community for the past 100 years; let’s look now to the next 100 years, God willing.” ¦

— 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, “Hidden History of Everglades City & Points Nearby,” was published in 2010 by The History Press in South Carolina. Learn more about Ms. Sullivan- Hartung at www.maureenwrites.com.

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