Profile: Louise du Pont Crowninshield, fairy godmother of Boca Grande

mrs crowninshieldIn honor of Mother’s Day this past Sunday, we wanted to do something special for our profile. After much consideration the only path we found suitable was to pursue a profile about Louise du Pont Crowninshield, who did so much for our little island community for so many years.

BY MARCY SHORTUSE  – When Colonel and Mrs. Henry du Pont of Delaware had a baby girl on August 3, 1877, they had no way of knowing how important she would be to our island community. By the time she passed away in 1958 she had been nicknamed “the Fairy Godmother of Boca Grande,” and rightly so. She was responsible for building the Crowninshield Community House, she was one of the original founders of the Boca Grande Health Clinic, and she was a pioneer of racial equality during a time when it was not the norm.

Mrs. Crowninshield first came to Boca Grande in 1915 with her husband, Francis Boardman Crowninshield. According to the book “The History of the Louise du Pont Crowninshield Community House” written by Lynne Hendricks Wiehe, “Louise did much to improve the lives of those she knew in Boca Grande. She was a generous grandmother to the island’s youngsters, a confidant, friend and supporter of young women and men setting out to make their way, and a woman with an uncanny knack for solving people’s problems.”

Mrs. Crowninshield never had children of her own, but she dearly loved them. Many students who would have never had an opportunity to go to college were able to go with her financial help. She knew every child’s name, what type of candy or sweet they preferred, and who needed a little extra help or an ear to bend.

It was in1928 she decided the island needed a new school, so she purchased the land where The Island School currently stands, at 1st Street and Palm Avenue (1st Street then was known as Alphabet Street) with floating bonds. When interest in the project seemed to be lukewarm at best, Mrs. Crowninshield purchased the bonds herself. Once the school was established, she realized that there were extra-curricular activities off-island for the children that they could not attend easily because, at that time, there was no bridge. She had her personal driver pick those children up in her very large Cadillac, drive them to Sam Whidden’s boat (he was her guide), and he would take them to the mainland. In her mind, and with her finances, there were no problems that couldn’t be overcome.

Eventually Mrs. Crowninshield realized there was no formal gathering place for the youth of the island, and plans for the Crowninshield House started to take form. In 1936 she made a deal with the county to lease the land where the Community House stands for 99 years, and Griffin Builders went to work building the facility.

Prior to World War II the House served as a meeting place for everything from the local Boy’s Club to the Red Cross. A jukebox stood against one wall, and there were couches and a ping pong table as well. But when World War II began, Mrs. Crowninshield realized something more important was needed. The House was turned into a USO headquarters, and locals and soldiers coming in from the Port would meet there.

In another book written by Lynne Hendricks called “The History of the Boca Grande Health Clinic,” one anecdote about Mrs. Crowninshield stood out. A young island woman named Jonnie Thompson was expecting her beau to return from World War II, a boy named Pershing (who later became one of the founders of the Boca Grande Health Clinic). Pershing’s return was even more celebrated because he had been believed dead in the war, then found to be alive. To celebrate his return Mrs. Crowninshield sent away for a dress from Lord & Taylor for Jonnie. It was even in the correct size.

As years passed Mrs. Crowninshield started using the building as a meet-and-greet spot for when Santa Claus came to town. She hosted a Christmas pageant for many years, and between her and Santa the island’s children all had presents every year. To this day, Santa Claus visits the Crowninshield House in Louise’s memory.

In 1938 Mrs. Crowninshield opened the first medical facility on the island. Prior to that year, sick and injured patients had to be taken by hand cart across the railroad trestle, and would then make the long trip to Tampa or Arcadia to a hospital. While it was still quite a few years before a doctor was in residence on the island, Louise made sure that everyone had a chance to be diagnosed for whatever malady they suffered. It wasn’t until 1947, though, that she helped to found the current “official” Clinic and helped them receive their charter.

Whether a person’s skin was black or white, Mrs. Crowninshield didn’t see it. She only saw the color of a person’s soul. When she found out that black moviegoers at The Old Theatre Building had limited viewing options, she made sure the theater auditorium was redone. When it was time for island high school children to finish high school and contemplate college, she didn’t care about any racial divides. She simply sent them to college. If someone was in need, if someone was sick, all she saw was a person in need. And she helped them. Racism was a burr in her blanket, to say the least, and while she was alive and living in Boca Grande, she did everything she could to make sure it didn’t exist.

When Mrs. Crowninshield left the island for the last time, it was apparent to everyone she wasn’t well. According to the Health Clinic book on the day the train pulled out with her aboard, island publisher and past Clinic president Frank Oliver heard a young black woman sobbing on the street. He recognized her as Mrs. Crowninshield’s laundress. When he asked her what was wrong she replied, “Mr. Oliver, I went to say goodbye to Mrs. Crowninshield. You know she’s been good to your people and good to my people. I think when her time comes there won’t be room on her crown for all the stars … they’ll have to put some on her robe.”

Bumps Johnson, an island resident who has since passed away, said in an interview once, “Nobody has done as much for Boca Grande as she has.” Pansy Cost, another resident and long-time librarian of the island from another time said, “Being good to people, it made her feel good.”

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