Tuesday, February 22, 2005


Book captures the essence of the city before the storms

Six months after the hurricanes ripped our community, some are ready to write ‘finis’ to the saga of the storms. “Get over it,” they say, as they cash their insurance checks and celebrate their new pool cages.

.But Punta Gorda residents, like many other folks from Arcadia and Port Charlotte, know better. For every broken brick or bit of smashed siding, there’s a heart or psyche also rent that may take much longer to heal than any bit of brick and mortar.

That’s why it’s good to look back to what was before the summer of storms, and rejoice in memories of an era and lifestyle that we’ll never see again.

Angie Larkin’s book, “In Old Punta Gorda,” speaks to that need to remember. The slim volume, produced by Old Punta Gorda, Inc., offers a whimsical look back made even more poignant by the damage the little city sustained.

The book is available at the Peace River Writers Center and the old train depot, or by calling 639-1887.

Larkin understands the essence of history, in that recorded words and memories are not the provinces solely of kings and rulers, but rather should reflect the voices and thoughts of common men and women. Hence a book that pays homage to the giants of the city’s history, by conveying the words of average men and women who remember what Punta Gorda was like before the bigger hurricane, that of development, blew into town.

Larkin wrote a regular column for years for the old Punta Gorda Herald, and carried her work into the modern manifestation of that paper, the Charlotte Sun-Herald. Just as folks anticipated her column because of its emphasis on local people and places, so will those who read “Old Punta Gorda” find remembrances of common things past.

Here’s how Gussie Peeples Baker, whose family seems to have come with the bricks to Punta Gorda, remembers a ride with her father, Vasco Peeples, through what is now Punta Gorda Isles.
“Her dad took her on a jeep ride to “Fiddlers Flats,” as the point was sometimes called. They bounced along the marshy land, looking at the vast expanse of muck and mire.

‘The mosquitoes like to have hauled us right out of that jeep,’ Dad said, ‘We’re going to build a road down here. We think the area is going to grow.’ I said. ‘Don’t bother, you’ll be wasting your time.’

It’s fortunate Baker didn’t make her living in real estate, since her prediction about growth in the former mud barrens was off by a few thousand new residents.

Today Punta Gorda Isles rules the city. All five City Council members live in or near the finger piers of dredge-and-fill design that make up PGI. But, as Larkin’s book reminds us, there was a PG long before there was a PGI. And what a rip-roaring little city it was! Here’s how Larkin describes the shoot-‘em-up days of yore.

“Law and order came slowly to the little settlement of Trabue/Punta Gorda. Kelly Harvey, the original surveyor of Trabue described the village as ‘overrun with bums, riffraff, gamblers, toughs and adventurers. There were five murders in the year 1886 alone.’ The first lock-up was an old boxcar and it was usually filled. In 1904 City Marshall John Bowman was gunned down in his own living room while playing with his children! The Marshall (sic) had been for a long time in the pursuit of a gang of thugs, ‘the Tigermen,’ but they managed to ambush him instead.”

There’s such a thing as a little too much color, so I suppose modern residents should thank Police Chief Chuck Rhinehart for keeping the peace a little better than did the unfortunate John Bowman. Now, that wild and wooly action is confined to City Council chambers!

Those excerpts give the read an idea of both the book’s substance and Larkin’s lively style of writing. All too often the fun’s beaten out of history by well-meaning lecturers and authors. But Larkin understands how human nature is unchanging, and infuses her accounts with the spirit of that nature.

To her credit, she includes a healthy section on the city’s black community, which is too often neglected when describing Punta Gorda’s past.

The result is an edifying and unifying account of life in the city past, a sure balm for those of us working to rebuild what was lost during the summer of storms.

James M. Abraham, an independent book reviewer, can be reach at book-broker@hotmail.com.

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