Regional Road Tour #4: Reflecting on Preservation of Historic Cemeteries in Fort Myers
On May 3, 2023, Millennial Brewing in Downtown Fort Myers hosted a thought-provoking event in celebration of Historic Preservation Month. Aptly named Over My Dead Body: Preserving Historic Cemeteries in Fort Myers, the event was organized by the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation and the Florida Public Archaeology Network. Speakers Natalie A. De La Torre Salas from FPAN Southwest and Melissa Wyllie, CEO and President of the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation, led participants in a history happy hour and brief lecture before embarking on a short stroll to the location of nearby Fowler Burial Historic Cemetery, a 2022 Florida's 11 to Save site.
The event was part of the Florida Trust's 2023 Regional Road Tour campaign. Florida is a big state, and to help us better connect with preservationists in communities around the state, we established eight Regional Councils representing all of Florida's cities and counties.
Regional Councils are led by volunteers who are contacts between the Florida Trust and the region they represent, whom we’ve designated as Regional Council Ambassadors. To reflect our commitment to engage, listen and learn in each of these Regions, we kicked off our first annual Regional Road Tour campaign this year, which will bring the Florida Trust team to visit and engage in each region in Florida. The event in Fort Myers marked the half way point for Road Tours this year!
Regional Council Ambassadors bridge the gap between local preservation efforts and communities impacted by our mission with the entire state at large. They assist with planning quarterly meetings and maintaining communications within their region, providing support for preservation advocacy, reporting local issues to the Board to help inform our advocacy and serving as a liaison for membership and sponsorship inquiries to Florida Trust staff. Since we know that most preservation is local, this is key to supporting our mission!
"It was a wonderful experience walking in beautiful Fort Myers with people of all ages, learning about the past and talking about how we can learn and do better for the historic places in this community," Wyllie said. "I am grateful we are again able to get out and experience Florida's unique history and engage with people in communities around the state. Many thanks to everyone who came out in Fort Myers, and to all of those who helped out with the event."
A Visit to Fowler Burial Historic Cemetery
In the mid-19th century, a U.S. Military Cemetery was established outside the fortifications of Fort Myers. Decades later, a small church was erected on the same block. There, a smaller church cemetery may also have been established. In 1888, bodies were disinterred from the site and moved to other
burial grounds. But in the 20th century, it became apparent that not all the bodies had been relocated. Newspaper articles frequently mentioned remains being uncovered in the area, and a 1993 archaeological excavation on a small portion of the site found twenty burial features.
In 2021, development of the site, now a part of bustling downtown Fort Myers, began. Local preservationists, historians, archaeologists and concerned residents, as well as indigenous leaders and representatives of state government, voiced concerns that an invaluable opportunity to fully understand the historic site could be lost. However, local guidelines did not call for a complete archaeological survey or archaeological monitoring to take place, and the development moved forward.
Exploring Lost Heritage Today
As participants walked to the site of the Fowler Burial Historic Cemetery, the atmosphere was charged with a mix of curiosity and shock as they realized the site had been transformed by a nearly complete
apartment building. The event's primary goal was to emphasize the importance of active participation in local politics and advocate for ordinances to better protect our archaeological heritage. Attendees were encouraged to become proactive advocates for heritage preservation. By amplifying their voices and engaging with decision-makers, residents can shape policies that protect cultural heritage sites from being lost forever.
Local guidelines did not call for a complete archaeological survey or archaeological monitoring to take place prior to building over the cemetery. This highlights the need for proactive preservation - and shows how working with local lawmakers can be beneficial in any community.
The Fowler Burial Historic Cemetery site serves as a poignant reminder of the need for robust preservation measures. Participants in Over My Dead Body engaged in conversations about the balance that is struck between progress and development, which are vital for a thriving city, and the preservation of cultural and natural heritage. Attendees remarked that Fort Myers boasts a rich history that deserves recognition and protection and discussed ways to work hand in hand with local government heritage institutions, and other concerned citizens, to create ordinances that strike this delicate balance.
Stay tuned for our Regional Road Tour journey as we travel the state, and catch up on the Road Tours you missed! If you want to get involved in your Region, learn more here. Want to get more involved in Region 7? Contact us at email@example.com.