In 1906, Chokoloskee at the tip of Everglades City in southwest Florida had a post office, store and Indian trading post founded by C.S. “Ted” Smallwood. Now a museum open to the public, you can learn about Florida history and its interesting residents such as Totch Brown, Edgar J. Watson, Native Americans and Smallwood himself.
The town of Everglades was the building headquarters for the Tamiami Trail highway from Naples to Miami “through the swamp,” according to a historic plaque. Everglades City incorporated in 1953, and the road opened in July 1955. So, now it is easy to get to; back in the day, not so much!
The Chokoloskee post office was established in 1891 after C.G. McKinney secured a dozen signatures on a petition supporting a post office between Fort Myers and Key West, and then proved consistent mail delivery was possible in the area. To accomplish that, captains of commercial fishing boats, run boats and any passing ship were asked to circulate the mail. After a year of consistency, the post office for “Comfort, Florida” was granted, according to signage at the Smallwood Store.
Ted Smallwood was a captain of one of the sailing mail vessels in the late 1890s. Smallwood married Mamie Ulala House in 1897 and the coupled had six children. Smallwood became the postmaster on Chokoloskee Island. He ran the post office and store from his home. In 1917, after building the store at its present site, the post office moved into the waterfront location. In 1973, the post office moved out of the store to elsewhere on the island.
Smallwood built the store at ground level and dredged a channel from the deep water to a dock so boats could access his business. In 1924, a hurricane knocked the building off its foundation. With his oldest son Robert, a Seminole named Abraham Lincoln and the use of a railroad jack and pilings, Smallwood raised the store about six feet. Subsequent storms have reached the floor level but never caused extensive damage.
Smallwood read extensively, played the violin, and spoke three languages: English, his native tongue, and Seminole and Miccosukee because these were the languages of the populations he was most likely to encounter. Museum signage tells us despite his third grade education, he was a successful entrepreneur, in part due to his photographic memory.
Smallwood liked to swap tales with the Indians, appreciating their traditions and wanting to be more than just a business owner and trading partner in the area. The Seminoles would pole dugout canoes 30 to 40 miles to trade and because of the effort involved would stay a week or so camping on the beach near his trading post. He would sit around the campfires with them, and stay in a bedroom at his store as needed. The bedroom was convenient as well when supply ships ran late. It was also convenient when his kids needed a nap!
Smallwood retired as postmaster in 1941, and died a decade later. His two unmarried daughters, Nancy and Thelma, continued to operate the business. The store and museum remain in the family’s ownership. It is now operated by his granddaughter, Lynn McMillin.
The store was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974, and restoration and opening as a museum took place in 1990. The museum does not have all kinds of fancy touch-screen displays but it does have a couple of videos that enable one to sit a spell and enjoy the history of the area. Mostly, it’s a place to wander and wonder about the objects used in yesteryear, before the railroad, and the highways, and the land clearing and the Everglades draining, all in the name of convenience and development. According to a museum plaque, the Seminole Indians did not like paper money, so other than food trading, they came to shop with 8-pound lard buckets of silver coins. Smallwood’s daughters re-lined his pockets with canvas because the silver coins weighed so much!
Historic soaps, medicines and potions are displayed.
Entry to the museum is $5 for adults. Florida books are for sale as well as other items. To learn more, visit www.smallwoodstore.com.