Sally Tapager's dream of a friends' group for Cayo Costa State Park, and for a day to commemorate the history and habitat of the island, came to full fruition on Saturday.
Nearly 500 people descended on the barrier island for a day of storytelling and exhibitions during the inaugural Cayo Costa Heritage Day at the park.
The event was put on to support Friends of Cayo Costa, a group Tapager helped put together. She died Feb. 20, but her spirit and vision was on full display.
A tombstone at the island’s gravesite at the Cayo Costa Heritage Day event Saturday.
"It was her vision to start the group. It was her dream to have a heritage day to promote the history of the island, including the fishing families," said Elaine McLaughlin, executive director of Friends of Florida State Parks.
The purpose of the group is to supplement what the state can't do for parks due to budget constraints, McLaughlin said.
"Our goal is to keep the parks open and make people aware of this asset," McLaughlin said.
Area boat companies pretty much donated their boats to bring people to the event, offering discounted $20 tickets for those who wanted to attend.
For those on the Tropic Star out of Bokeelia, it was an hour-long trek shortly after sunrise to the island. There, they were greeted by volunteers who took them to the myriad of special events throughout the park.
"This is the first significant event where we invited people to taste paradise," said Margi Nanney, chairperson of Friends of Cayo Costa State Park and a 30-year island resident. "It's unheard of to find an undisturbed island in its natural state."
Among the activities were the historic nature tour and the Beach/Shell walk, where people got to know about the shellfish on the island and the history of those who first came here.
Kirk Walter, author of "Boat Goat: Memories of Pine Island Sound," told stories of the original residents, the Caloosa Indians, and the fishermen who came in the late 19th century to ply their trade.
Unfortunately, not many of the pioneer folks are still around.
"There are few descendants left from that generation. There are 22 modern homes here, none owned by early fishing folk," Walter said. "We were hoping for lots of them, but they couldn't come because they were ill."
One who did come was Virginia Padilla Morton, whose father once lived on the island and grandfather was the first to live there. She brought an album loaded with old family pictures and mementos of a bygone day.
She was soon joined by Carmen Padilla Parker and her husband, Ken. Carmen and Virginia are first cousins, but had never met until now.
"This is my first time to the island since I was a kid," Carmen said. "To camp out is a little warm, but to see it all is enjoyable."
By the gulf, Sharon McKenzie, executive director of the Barrier island Park Society, gave a lesson on shells before taking them to the shore for shelling.
"We're working hard to showcase the island and tell people what our mission is," McKenzie said, before talking shells with New York resident Lela Lathrop.
"We don't do nature things, but it was a chance to learn about the island and nature," said Bill Lathrop. "Our grandkids would love to do this."
Among the other activities was a castnetting demonstration from local fisherman Ricky Gomes and cabbage palm weaving with Nancy Kilmartin, who taught Cayo Costa resident Tina Crosby a thing or two.
"This is the biggest event I've known since I've been here," Crosby said. "I made a point of coming to it. There are rare things here you don't find anywhere else.
Of course, there was food. And the complimentary picnic included smoked mullet, cabbage palm slaw, black beans and pulled pork that brought many back for more.
Mark Duncan, assistant park manager of Barrier Island parks, said the event pretty much sold out, but doesn't know if this will become an annual event.
"That's to be determined. We're looking at other events that are more educational and with families and kids," Duncan said.
But as the visitors got back on their boat to return home, many said they wouldn't mind seeing it again.
"It was lovely. I loved the history of the schools and how the students travelled by boat," said Jackie Hartman of Bokeelia.
"It was lots of fun. My daughter got to see a snake," said Dora Karp, who brought her daughter, Giovina, 6. "It was frightening, but very exciting. When will she ever get that experience again?"