The “Things to Do in Matlacha” page tops with “polka-dot dolphins and coconut postcards.” Must have hired a writer.
Praise may have inflated the typist’s head, as “gift of the gods,” whimsical champagne, and pee-wee follow closely enough for discomfort, maybe a hair on the hyperbolic side.
This leans more believable: “… think ‘Florida Fish Camp meets Andy Warhol in Key West’.”
What’s a Matlacha?
A Seminole word for either “knee-deep waters” or “big warrior” — not sure how you confuse the two, but maybe to a humongous dude, the Gulf of Mexico feels only distantly damp — it’s a colorful — pretty much all written descriptions throw “colorful” in, for free — piece of Florida island off the coast of Fort Myers.
Matlacha’s a “census-designated place,” a fancy-schmancy way of saying “We know it’s here, but nah, it’s not actually a city,” with a 2010 census-designated population of 677. Due to its petite nature, that works out to 4,878.7 people per square mile. Yes Barbie, math is hard, but also confusing.
Some dispute on pronunciation, in line with the knee-deep warrior debacle. It’s either “mat-la-SHAY,” or “MAT-la-shay,” but for near-certain it’s not “Mat-LAASH-a,” as my Southern-raised brain kept wishing to insist.
Matlacha’s considered one of the last of the old Florida fishing villages, home to art galleries — and in came “colorful” — boutiques, seafood restaurants, and old-school cottages. “Shocking pink” palm trees are mentioned, though what’s not clear is how they achieved such tone. Mad midnight chromatists?
Did we mention hues of all stripes and tinges? Matlacha’s splashed in “lurid colors,” one travel writer opines, which, honestly, I like, even though the phrasing brings to mind certain light-designated areas of New Orleans, early 20th century.
Whole lotta fishing, with your colors, and boating, shrimping, canoeing, crabbing, each of which is apparently a “lifestyle.”
A strange interlude: Should anyone comb through my collected typed works, up might fly, like a moth from discarded clothes, a luridly variegated lifestyle of champagne-drunk whimsical gift-bearing demi-gods lined up to polka-dot your coconut dolphin, so please believe I am not mocking writers so much as mocking writing. We’re a delirious bunch, dependency issues, chronic imposter-syndromes, inflated-to-bursting balloon-fragile egos and all.
The Matlacha Pass bridge has been dubbed the “world’s fishing-est,” and come on, applaud even forced neologisms, folks, though the art-funky-colorful vibe arose as commercial fishing fell away in the ’90s. Lovegrove Gallery and Gardens, Matlacha Menagerie, Wildchild Art Gallery and more thrive near the famous Fudge Factory … wait. Check notes. Famous?
The CW Fudge Factory that I’d never heard tell of before, in part because I’ve only recently become aware of Knee-Deep Warrior Island, offers 35 flavors, home-made, and their photo page represents a famously glandular salivation sensation. Imagine if you could smell-o-vision. In color.
To wash down the 35, there’s ice cream at Great Licks, fresh seafood at the restaurant where adjectives ran out, Olde Fish House, or at Sandy Hook Fish and Rib House, and come on, when was the last time you pictured fish with ribs, if ever, before Pretty Darn Large Yet Only Up Past Calves Water?
Travel pages show souvenir shacks and dive bars like those that used to polka-dolphin Panama City Beach before condo-mania robbed “beach road” of all meaning, unless you can hear the faint white noise with Superman ears, or are not among those who fervently believe one should be able to see actual beach from a beach road.
Based on photos alone, and the lure of “old Florida” — aka what I remember from childhood, with rickety Miracle Strip amusements, orange juice fresh squozen into plastic sippy-cup orange-looking things because screw you environment, mermaids no one would ever mistake for manatees, and silver-spring-skiing ladies — I’m half sold.
But they buried the lede.
As am I, for another fascinating Matlacha-bit: A ban on gill nets crushed commercial fishing. Fishers for mullet — dibs on the band name — were snatching up recreational fish — band name — and thus the gill net ban — band name — and thus the fishers of mullet organized, in the grand American tradition of unions. They wrote letters to editors, visited representatives to register grievances, and ultimately came to a sunny degree of sanguinity, retraining to revive personal and local economy.
Remember, colorful village or not, it’s Florida, where generations of “We left all the best countries behind to sail toward India, we thought” craziness trickles down into our continent’s vast dangling bladder. Florida = America squared. Math.
So in the grand American tradition of “We’ll show ’em! Watch ‘is!,” closely tracked by making an ash of oneself, the former mulletmen shot holes in their boats and set them ablaze. The towering mullet-fishing-funeral pyre — Do I even need to say band name? — could be seen from Sanibel Island and Fort Myers Beach.
But that colorf… dynamic demonstration speaks to Matlacha’s foundation, and now we get down to the nitty, gritty and dirty, already a band name.
In 1926, Lee County moved a single-lane swing bridge between mangrove swamps to link Pine Island to the mainland. To support approaches, the county dredged fill, which nitty-dirty-etc. became an island unto itself, and after October 1929, to people fleeing Black Tuesday foreclosures, a home.
Victims of the market crash riddled former houses with bullets, and lit them afire. Ha. No. They packed what remained of their belongings and headed toward warmer weather, protected waters colorfully ripe with fish, and in the grand American tradition of “It’s free if we plant a flag on it first,” land.
Squatters parked, living out of car trunks. Gradually they replaced tents with thatched-roof wooden shacks, which evolved into clapboard stilt homes, to dodge pesky tides.
Lee County didn’t like the idea of taxpayers not paying taxes, so eviction proceedings were brought, but in the grand American tradition of … what? Check notes. Yes, the little guys won, by virtue of “adverse possession.” Fort Myers native Richard Powell wrote about the southward immigration in his novel “Pioneer, Go Home!,” tracing a group of New Jersey Pineys, an only tangentially blood-related family named Kwimper.
The 1959 satire salutes the hardy spirit that says “Can do” to overcoming hardship, and also to accepting gub’mint handouts while bemoaning gub’mint, and “No can do” to taxes, in the grand American tradition of at least one former White House occupant.
Herman Raucher was Hollywood-hired, so you can see this isn’t going to end happily, to write a screenplay, but studio heads thought the Brooklyn-born-and-raised writer couldn’t capture the country-ish twang. Raucher turned his unused script into a play, but he’s better known for the later novel and movie, “Summer of ’42,” which became a smash, so nyah, he did get a Hollywood ending.
“Pioneer, Go Home!” rolled on, until a producer renamed it for an infectiously bouncy song: “Follow That Dream.” It’s one of the rare Elvis Presley flicks that’s not only worth a watch beyond novelty value, but that features a couple of sweet little tunes, including a simple ballad called “Angel” that sounds like one was crooning it.
Now we get to what the Matlacha Chamber of Colorful Commerce needs to strum: After meeting Elvis, the barely in double-digits nephew of a film crew member decided to pick up a guitar for his own. Twelve-string, one day.
Thank you, Matlacha, for color on porpoise, polka-fudge-fame and flaming fishing mullets, but especially for a viewable Elvis comedy that gave the world Tom Petty.
Boom. Hire me, deep color warrior.
Reach Tusk Editor Mark Hughes Cobb at email@example.com, or call 205-722-0201.