Big News for Smallwood Store

Brent Batten: Big news for Smallwood Store

72DSCN01202After four years – well, technically three years, 11 months and four days – the dispute over the road leading the Smallwood Store in Chokoloskee is over.

A settlement agreement between the store, Collier County and the Sebring development company Florida Georgia Grove has ended the ongoing dispute over Mamie Street, the lone road leading to the historic site.

Lynn McMillin, owner of the store and granddaughter of pioneer merchant Ted Smallwood, called the agreement, signed last week, a complete victory. “I’m sleeping a lot better now,” she said Wednesday.

In the agreement, Florida Georgia Grove concedes Mamie Street is a public road. The company erected a fence across the street in 2011, claiming it was a private driveway on property it had been accumulating near the Smallwood Store.

That set off protests, outrage and a legal fight taken up on behalf of the store – now operating as more of a museum- by one of Naples’ top law firms.

McMillin said without the discounted services of Dick Grant and others at Grant Fridkin Pearson, the cause would have been lost. “They stood by us and did the right thing,” McMillin said.

Grant, whose legal background includes helping the Southwest Florida Land Preservation Trust acquire land next to the store 20 years ago, said it was that same interest in preserving the past that led to this effort. “We were willing to do it because it was the right thing to do. And we like history,” he said.

McMillin can tell you exactly – almost – how long the dispute lasted. “We came to work and found them putting a fence up,” she said of a morning in April in 2011. The settlement followed after, “Three years, 11 months and four days. I don’t know how many hours.”

The museum was closed for six months after its road access was cut.

A temporary injunction reopened the road but the legal fight dragged on. Other inhabitants of Chokoloskee were drawn into the fray when an alternative plan to reroute Mamie Street would have put the road closer to their homes. They turned out in force to a county commission meeting in January 2014, urging commissioners not to go along with the alternative plan. Commissioners agreed and stayed in the fight against Florida Georgia Grove.

Herb Kehoe, a charter captain who lives on the island, said the settlement brings closure and a sense of certainty back to Chokoloskee and his business. “It’s access to my home. It’s access to my boats. Now I know I won’t have to rearrange my business,” he said.

As part of the settlement, the county agreed to maintain Mamie Street going forward. That may have been the incentive that caused Florida Georgia Grove to settle, Grant said.

Representatives of the company did not return phone calls seeking comment. Grant credited company attorney Steve Chase with working months. “Hopefully, they will all be good neighbors with one another going forward. That’s
very important,” Grant said.

McMillin said the museum is enjoying a good year, attendance wise, but that the long battle drained its resources, even with discounted legal help. “Every penny we made went to legal fees,” she said.

She plans to launch a fundraising drive to catch up on items such as painting and repairs to the fire sprinkler system that were neglected while the lawsuit dragged on. “The store needs some attention,” she said. “We can move forward now and work on preserving this historic site.”

Ted Smallwood opened his trading post in 1906. In 1910, local outlaw Edgar Watson was killed there by his neighbors, an event made famous by Peter Matthiessen’s fictionalized account in the book, “Killing Mr. Watson.”

For decades before Mamie Street, the only way to reach the store was by boat.

It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974 and stayed open until1982. McMillian opened it as a museum in the 1990s.

Now, with road access secure, that museum can survive. “It was an endurance test. We barely made it through,” she said.

(Connect with Brent Batten at bebatten@naplesnews.com, on Twitter@NDN_BrentBatten and at facebook.comjndnbrentbatten)Copyright 2015 Scripps Media, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.