Dozens of unblinking eyes stared at me as I stepped through the lobby and dining room at the Rod and Gun Club, a motor court and restaurant in Everglades City, Florida, that was once a private hunting and fishing getaway for the nation’s most powerful. Of course, the eyes belonged to the musty taxidermy fish, animals, and reptiles hung long ago from the pecky cypress walls. The unofficial living history museum hasn’t changed much since it was built in the 1920s, but that is a good thing.
Everglades City pioneer William Allen constructed a house on the footprint of today’s Rod and Gun Club ca. 1870. Allen sold his holdings to George Storter Jr. in 1889, and the core of the current club structure was built shortly thereafter. There weren’t a whole lot of options for travelers in those parts at the turn of the century, so Storter began to take in wealthy Northern sportsmen and yachters. He expanded his home to accommodate them.
In 1922, Barron Collier bought Storter’s dwelling and much of the land in Everglades City, then known as “Everglades” and before that “Everglade,” to use as his base of operations for construction of the Tamiami Trail, the first road to plow through the wilderness and link southeast and southwest Florida. In exchange for funding the road, Collier, a New York City-based advertising magnate and owner of 1 million acres of Florida land, had just one humble request: that a new county be created and it be named after him. Thus, Collier County was sliced from Lee County in 1923 with Everglades City as the county seat.
Collier converted the old Storter house into a hunting and fishing club for his esteemed friends and guests. The club proved a popular place, attracting rich and powerful men during the winter months eager to drink, smoke, and slaughter creatures out in the boonies. At least five U.S. presidents visited, as did tough guy celebrities such as Ernest Hemingway, John Wayne, and, er, Mick Jagger. (I really want to know the circumstances that brought the Rolling Stones frontman and his then wife, Jerri Hall, there in 1991.)
Everglades City had a brief boom during construction of the Tamiami Trail, boasting a few thousand residents and a trolley at its pinnacle, but the Great Depression halted the growth. Hurricane Donna inundated the town in 1960, and both the Collier Corporation and county government hightailed it for higher pastures. Everglades City and nearby Chokoloskee gained notoriety in the 1970s and 1980s when a number of citizens were busted in drug smuggling crackdowns. Today the community of about 400 people mostly survives on the money brought in by recreational fishermen and eco-tourists who venture into the nearby Everglades National Park. Elevated modular homes–often seasonal residences–are the most popular modern building type. But many Everglades City lots sit empty.
Collier died in 1939, and the Rod and Gun Club remained in the hands of the Collier Corporation until 1962. Now open to the public, the club has been owned by the Bowen family since 1972. I visited on a scalding day earlier this month. I was prepared for the cash only policy; I wasn’t prepared for the lack of air conditioning. The rooms in the original building are no longer rented out because of the fire safety risk, so overnight guests are relegated to the newer–and air conditioned–duplex cottages nearby. The Bowens make no qualms about the lack of upgrades and write on the club’s website: “The Rod and Gun Club does not cater to the needs of all vacationers but to those whom are seeking to experience a piece of history!” My wife and I had lunch on the veranda. It was hot, but the ceiling fans and breeze off the Barron River made it bearable. The food was decent, but the service left a lot to be desired. It didn’t matter. Opportunities to experience a place like the Rod and Gun Club are rare.