“I was up there for two years. It was beautiful, though it was away from the water,” Marian explained. “Then I came back to train a new manager, and realized how much I missed it here. This is home. This is where I belong. So I packed it all again and came back.”
Born in Florida, Marian first came to Boca Grande when she was six years old. Her family stayed at the Palmetto Inn on Palm Avenue. Her father, who was a citrus grower in central Florida, liked the island so much that he bought a home on Palm Avenue and the family spent most of their time on the island.
“I was his shadow,” Marian said of her father. “He had boats here, and he fished here. This was his playground.”
Schneider grew up with the run of the island. Her parents bought her first boat when she was seven, even before she got her first bicycle. She kept it tied up at the L-dock, alongside her father’s boats.
One of her favorite things to do was to go to Whidden’s Marina and fish for the day.
“I’d go out to the end of the dock there, with a can of pork ‘n beans and my cane pole, and I’d catch pin fish all day. That and play with Capt. Whidden’s monkey, Chico. He was my best friend on the island,” Marian smiled.
Before too long, she was fishing for grouper in the Pass with her father. “It wasn’t anything to bring in 200 – 300 pounds of grouper in a day back then. My dad would let me take it to the icehouse next to where Miller’s was, and I’d sell the fish. They went for as much as ten cents a pound. He would let me keep the money, which back then was a huge amount,” she shook her head and chuckled.
She went through the usual woes of a teenager growing up on an isolated island. “When you are a kid, you love it. Then you hit your teen years and there is no way off of the island. Of course, then you leave and realize what a wonderful place you grew up in,” Marian reflected.
After the bridge connected the island to the mainland, the island house was eventually sold and replaced with a cabin in Placida.
When Marian left Placida, it was to go to the University of Miami. She received a degree in Medical Technology and Cytotechnology, and then went to work in a lab.
“I’ve done work in hospitals, path labs, I’ve even done work in cancer research. It was an interesting career,” she recounted.
In 1968, she took her knowledge to Zambia, where she volunteered with the Catholic Church to set up a lab in a bush hospital. With no electricity, she had to learn how to use equipment that she had taken for granted in a whole new way.
“The microscope, since we didn’t have lights, we would take it outside and use a mirror to reflect the sun. To keep samples cool, there were kerosene refrigerators. You light a wick just like a kerosene lamp, and it chills everything,” she marveled. The conditions were a bit of a shock for Marian.
She explained, “I went from a modern hospital, to the airport, and 24 hours later I was in a Zambian bush hospital. There were 100 beds and 300 patients. Two Irish nuns who were doctors and 16 other nuns who were nurses ran it. It was unbelievable. I cried for six months when I got there because I didn’t know what to do, and after two years, I didn’t want to leave. The two places in the world that I haven’t wanted to leave are Placida and Zambia.”
She spent the 17 years after her return to the United States working in a hospital near Orlando. Every weekend, she came back to Placida, usually bringing friends.
“I took them all over the island, out on the water for fishing or just to explore. One day I realized that I should be charging for showing people around,” she laughed. “While I was still working, I went and got my 100-gross ton Master License from the Coast Guard, with the idea that one day I would retire here and maybe make money from my boat.”
In 1989 Marian decided that it was time to leave her job as a nurse. She had a boat built, Recovery Room I, and started Grande Tours at the Fishery.
She knew the Albrittons, who owned the Fishery, from her childhood.
“I rented one of the fish houses on the property, and that was my store front for years,” she said.
After founding the company Marian spent three years working nights at Englewood Hospital for “grocery money,” and wondering if Grande Tours would work.
“My specialty, the tour that people really liked, was the Boca Grade tour,” she said. “I would circumnavigate the island, telling people the history and stories from my childhood.”
In 1993, she had an ‘aha!’ moment at a tourism meeting in Fort Myers.
“They used the word eco-tourism at the meeting, and it was like a light bulb came on,” she said. “It was what I had been doing all along, but now it had a name. I came home as fast as I could and made a new sign.”
Though it started out in the Fishery, Marian knew where she wanted the company to eventually move.
“There was this little piece of land, everyone thought it belonged to the Coles or the Gaults, because they owned the land on either side. But I went and checked, and this one spot belonged to the Spadero family. I wrote Mr. Spadero a letter – in pencil – and then forgot all about it until a few months later. Out of the blue a man called me. Mr. Spadero was dead, and his nephew was interested in selling. Once he got everything appraised, I got a call from a lawyer in Venice with a price. I was in the office signing paperwork in an hour,” she remembered.
Marian began building a little at a time. One year it was fill, the next year a sea wall. Finally, in 1997, she moved the entire company to the new locaion.
“My house is here. My life is here. I tried to retire once, now I plan to die at my desk,” she laughed. “For the first five years, it was just me. No days off, no vacation, unless it rained. I worked pretty much every day.”
In 1994, she hired her first employee, Capt. Al Pettersen, who is still with her today. All of her guides are Master Naturalists, which fits in perfectly with Marian’s history in Charlotte Harbor.
She has spent years fighting to protect the small islands that dot the waters around Gasparilla Island.
“One island, there was a hermit who lived on it with seven dogs, so it ended up named Dog Island,” she said. “After he died, people started going out there to camp and have parties. They left it a mess. I called the DEP for years to try to get them to take care of it. Finally, I convinced them that having a camping concession there would help to protect it.”
A few times every year, Marian lets the Scouts and local environmental groups use her equipment to go out and clean up. "It’s a great way to keep Dog Island in good shape," she said.
Over the last few years, Marian has shifted the focus of her business. Fewer tours and more kayak rentals are now her focus. She still has one tour boat, though.
“Every time I go out, it’s like the first time,” she said. “Every time I see a dolphin, a manatee or a tarpon. That sense of wonder never goes away. I keep the Recovery Room so I can share that with my friends and people who are interested. I’ve always liked introducing people to nature. We have a program where we take kids out and let them catch and release their first fish. Picture, certificate, the whole nine yards.
She continued. “The best part of my life has been all of the friends that I’ve made. My customers have become friends, family. I’ve spent vacations in Maine, Alaska, on Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard, all with people I’ve met through the tours. You know, looking back, the only thing I would change? I would have gotten out of nursing sooner.”
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