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Pioneer Picnic is huge reunion, blast from the past

May 1, 2019
By CHUCK BALLARO (news@breezenewspapers.com) , Pine Island Eagle

Hundreds of people came to the Lee Civic Center's Tinsley Pavilion on Saturday to reunite with old friends to catch up on their lives and reminisce about older and simpler times.

The 70th annual Pioneers Picnic brought back more than 600 residents of a much different Lee County than we know now -?a time when Daniels Parkway was a dirt road; there were only four high schools, which were segregated; and Fort Myers seemingly ended around Colonial Boulevard.

Pat Mann, president of the Pioneer Club of Lee County, which was formed to put on this picnic, said people were arriving at 9:30 a.m. for an event set to start at 11.

"They would come just to shake hands, hug each other, and be fiends because they hadn't seen each other in years," Mann said. "We have four high schools here celebrating their 50th graduation anniversary. We've had a large turnout, even for first one back in 1950."

The vast majority of residents in 1969 resided in Fort Myers, as Lehigh Acres and Cape Coral were in their infancy. One of them was Jerry Ellis, who graduated from Fort Myers High School in 1959 and would become one of the top submarine commanders in the Navy, becoming a two-star admiral.

Today, Ellis, who brought his uncle, Verdon "Cotton" Ellis, is working at the War College in Monterey, California, and chairs the Undersea Warfare Program. He has served the country for 59 years.

Of course, the day was about getting to know old friends, of which he had a lot, thanks to the works of his father.

"My dad owned and operated the Snack House Restaurant, which was downtown for 44 years and was supposedly one of the first air-conditioned ones in the city," Ellis said, who was gone for decades before returning briefly. "It was like the Richie Cunningham 'Happy Days' kind of life."

"I was impressed. It's clean, very good looking and found very few homeless, which in California is a huge problem," Ellis said. "I'm proud to have come from here."

John and Sandra Wilkes, who have lived in Lee County almost their entire lives, joked they came in a covered wagon and have come to the picnic for 15 years. The changes are like night and day.

"We're losing all our history, left and right. People from the north want to change things to the way they're from," Sandra said. "Today we get to see some of the people we haven't seen in years

"We had only three high schools, Fort Myers, Alva and Dunbar, and that was segregated. Plus, we went from five red lights to 100,000," John said.

Many from the Classes of 1969 were there, including Linda Stewart, who graduated from Fort Myers that year. She said the area was small and everybody knew everybody.

"We rode to school in the back of the truck and weren't allowed to wear pants unless it was really cold," Stewart said. "The best thing is that a lot of us still live here."

"They built the Edison Mall in that time and it was a dirt trail. We had no I-75, so it took longer to get out of the state by car than it was leaving the country."

"Everything ended at the mall. We had a drive-in theater next to it," said Terry Hall, whose father taught at Fort Myers.

The event honored those who were the oldest, longest married and who came the longest way.

June Sheets Knipper, 92 was the oldest woman, while Jim Sciple, 94, was the oldest man. Norma and Jerome Hoffman, both from the Class of 1950, had the longest marriage (69 years), while Rick Hardy came the furthest, from Northern California.

Glenda Chambers Dunlap said she loved the event and got to see many old friends.

"I've been coming for six years. We catch up with people we knew who were in other classes beside us and it's great to run into old friends," Chambers Dunlap said.

 
 

 

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