The Happehatchee Center is situated amidst a scenic five-acre site that has been deemed historical and sacred, yet it is also encompassed within a larger parcel of precious acreage that’s now up-for-sale.
The administration, staff and volunteers affiliated with the not-for-profit Happehatchee Center are bracing for impact, yet vowing to fight for the protection of their historic five-acre compound following a move to sell some 80 acres surrounding their property located near the intersection of Hwy 41 and Corkscrew Road in Estero.
On the evening of Jan. 17, the region’s most recognized landscape photographer and environmental advocate, Clyde Butcher, will lead a presentation as part of a new campaign to promote awareness and appreciation for the Happehatchee Center which is, in fact, officially deemed a Lee County Historical Site.
“For everyone at Happehatchee, this is a really big deal,” says Business Development Manager Jennifer Cleary. “It’s scary and we think it would be awful to see this space impacted by what developers may want to do.”
The Djamoos family, owners of the acreage surrounding the Center, listed their property for sale in November at a price of more than $34 million.
Estero community leaders have advanced ideas that the property would be suitable for a mixed-commercial/residential development, but as Cleary notes, “No one can be sure what a developer will do after purchasing the land.”
She says Happehatchee supporters are not totally opposed to development; their intent is to ensure that whatever happens has no impact on their five acres. To that end, Cleary says, “We’re preparing for a fight.”
Of course, some could easily miss what the Happehatchee contingent is so concerned for, just as one could easily miss the entrance to Happehatchee Center.
A small, hand-painted sign along Corkscrew Road is really all to indicate something more exists there beyond a path lined by palmettos and old oaks. After parking in a grass-covered clearing, one still has to stroll down the path to reach the main compound. It’s a short walk and one can observe wooden benches, a campfire area, a butterfly garden and a small wooden fort before reaching a platform with a log staircase that ascends to a narrow bridge fashioned from rope and wooden planks.
It’s quite picturesque in its suspended span above the Estero River. The bridge isn’t actually open to the public, yet the grounds are, as is the other infrastructure that has served as venue for various social affairs or teaching of various classes. Given the beauty of its natural setting beside the banks of the Estero River, it is easy to see how these grounds became essential to facilitating programs essential to Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts.
Though these very grounds were once traversed by Calusa Indians and acquired by followers of the Koreshan movement who founded Estero, Happehatchee’s official historical significance harks back to an era 80 years ago when it was known as Camp Caloosa. This was Lee County’s first Girl Scout Camp. For decades, scouts have come here to learn camping and more.
Scout Leader Eve Glore says programs today involve lessons on everything from art and agriculture to biology, environmental sustainability as well as survival skills. Glore credits the scouts with planting the gardens, building the benches as well as the small fort on the site.
“It would be a shame to see Happehatchee suffer; it has been integral to the history of scouts in our area,” says Glore.
The Girl Scouts House at Happehatchee is also tied to local military history. Prior to being placed on the grounds, this structure served as a WWII-era barracks at Buckingham Air Field. Ownership of the property changed hands over the years, but ultimately passed to the late Ellen Peterson in 1972 (for $35,000).
A news headline once referred to Peterson as a “Hell Raiser” in accounting for her participation in Washington and Tallahassee protests advocating for causes involving rights of women, minorities or migrant farm workers. Peterson was also an advocate of environmental initiatives and she envisioned that Happehatchee would serve as a private retreat that promoted programs on ecology and spirituality. Prior to her death in 2011, she deeded control of the five acres to a board of directors who now oversee the grounds as part of a non-profit corporation.
Beyond the scout activities, yoga classes and other programs that take place at Happehatchee, Cleary notes an interesting aspect as to how Mayan Indians view the site as sacred. It started with migrant farmers from Immokalee who ventured to these grounds for ceremonial rituals unique to their culture.
“Four times a year, the Mayans still come here to conduct ceremonies … they’ve come to recognize our grounds as sacred,” says Cleary.
For now, Cleary and staff at Happehatchee are hoping to gather public support as they believe this is necessary to ensure their footing within an ever-changing landscape. Beyond the challenges they’ll confront in development issues, Cleary says improvements to the Girl Scouts House are needed as well as other improvements. She feels the Jan. 17 program with Clyde Butcher will help them spread the word, but says other programs are being planned.
“We’ve launched this campaign with hope to find support from others who’ll want to help us preserve and protect this beautiful and historical piece of land.”
For more insight on events, activities and support needs at The Happehatchee Center, click here.