History Bytes: The Davis brothers remember some of their best years

By Karen Grace, Boca Grande History Center

Doug and Frank Davis spoke for themselves, their sister Robin Davis Melvin and Doug’s wife Gail Coleman Davis at the Feb. 9 History Bytes presentation. During the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, the Davis family lived in Arcadia and in Belle Glade but their summers and holidays were spent in a house on Gilchrist, across from St. Andrew’s Church, that was haunted. The ghost they called George appeared regularly. A bedroom door would open, a bright light would be seen – Doug says it looked like someone had turned on the hall light – then a figure would appear. Once they found footprints on the hall floor in some spilled body powder Robin or her mother Judy used before going to bed. And their dog, Coco, growled at sounds of footsteps coming up the stairs but there was no one there. While startling at first, George was not threatening and they learned to live with him.  

In later years, they researched some of the history of the house and found that the house, once owned by Seaboard Railroad, had a card room and that someone who lost at cards later killed himself in an upstairs bedroom so surmised George might be the ghost of this man. The house was generally considered by local families to be haunted so when Doug first dated Gail, she refused to come into it. But, both Doug and Frank reiterated, the ghost never harmed anyone or anything.  

Frank and Doug recounted that, as children, they would get up very early every morning to get to the beach before their father although they rarely succeeded. They’d arrive at the beach – they say the beach near the house was called Drug Store Beach – only to see their father’s distinctive footprints in the sand. After the beach, they went home, had their breakfast then had the rest of the day to ride their bikes and, most importantly, to fish. They caught salt water trout on the beach, snook on the rocks by The Gasparilla Inn golf course and more snook at the south end phosphate docks.  

Sometimes they sold the trout to Tommy Parkinson at the fish house so they could buy candy at the grocery store (at first called Whidden’s and later Hudson’s). On Saturdays they spent afternoons at home watching the “Creature Feature” on the VHF television channel. They remember that the house was not air conditioned, it was summer and they fought over who got to sit closest to the fan. 

They also fished the railroad trestle at the north end of the island which was challenging because the train still ran. When the train arrived, they ran to a wide spot on the tracks until it passed. Doug managed to break his leg on one of these trestle fishing outings.   

As teens, when their father was off-island, they would take his 17-foot Dusky into the Pass for tarpon fishing.  Doug commented on the comradery among fishermen and especially the fishing captains who would radio each other that “the Davis boys are out here, so let’s keep an eye on them.”  Like other kids who grew up on the Island, they remember they had total freedom but that adults watched out for all of them. If they got in trouble, the sheriff’s deputy would bring them home and let their parents deal with them.  

The phosphate port was a favorite place in spite of lots of phosphate dust. The boys visited the weighmaster, Jake Van Patten, who would reach into the phosphate conveyor belt and pull out shark’s teeth as big as a fist. When he was older (14), Frank worked on the phosphate docks for port pilot, Capt. Johnny Johnson. He described one of his jobs as catching the very thick lines from the 60 foot or bigger ocean-going phosphate ships, jumping to a buoy that was slimy with bird droppings, then jumping back to the dock. He did this four times connecting four lines to hooks on the buoys and earning $25 per line.  

He remembers that he bought the best bike in Boca Grande with some of his earnings. He also remembers that he never fell in the water – a good thing considering he knew that there were sharks in the Pass.

Frank studied agriculture science and business in college but came back to the Island and mated for Billy Hathcock, Babe Darna and Freddy Futch before becoming a guide with a 24-foot Morgan named “The Native.”  He said guiding meant taking clients fishing three, sometimes four, times a day for three months during tarpon season. Frank won the World’s Richest Tarpon Tournament in 1994 with a fishing party from England.  

After their father, Ed Davis, retired, he became the Island’s mosquito control agent. Ed and Judy built a house on Palm Avenue. Judy and daughter, Robin, opened a fashionable shop called Special Effects – first located in a building behind Hudson’s then in a building next to the Barnichol and now on Park Avenue in a shop that once held an earlier fashion store, Miss Rachel’s. Robin studied fashion and brought her talents to each shop. When Ed died, he requested that his ashes be put in his favorite location, the Boca Grande Pass. Judy wanted hers to go into the Gulf at her favorite 19th Street beach. Both interments were christened with favorite drinks – a Manhattan for Ed and wine for Judy.

Gail Coleman Davis was unable to attend History Bytes but sent Betsy Fugate Joiner who creates all of the History Bytes some stories of her family who go back to the Padillas of Cayo Costa. Gail comments that “there weren’t that many people who lived on the Island year-round, and there weren’t that many kids. So all of us kids were like brothers and sisters.” 

The roads, she says, weren’t paved but were a combination of shell and asphalt that left some permanent scars if one fell. Her father, Richard, was captain for many years for the Engelhards and took both President Lyndon Johnson and his wife Lady Bird in his boat. Lady Bird especially loved boat trips and continued to visit the Engelhards after her husband’s death. Doug told a story of his father-in-law who once had some of the Miami Dolphins football players out tarpon fishing when they got involved in various antics and inappropriate behaviors. In typical Boca Grande fishing guide fashion, Captain Coleman took them back to the dock and kicked them off his boat. There was a code of fishing behavior that the guides enforced.  

This season History Bytes is presented in honor of Patti Middleton who died in 2021. Patti was a wonderful artist, muralist and the originator of the “Keyboy” cartoon which appeared for many years in the Boca Beacon. She was also a loyal volunteer with the History Center and a great friend to many in Boca Grande. History Bytes has been sponsored for many years by Bank of America Private Bank, formerly U. S. Trust, under the direction of Kimberly Bleach, Sr. Vice President and Private Client Advisor.

History Bytes takes place at 11 a.m. every Wednesday in February and this month’s remaining programs include stories from Kelli Becton about Eleanor Aherne (Feb. 16) and history of the Boca Grande Hotel (Feb. 23). Register for these free programs at bocagrandehistoricalsociety.com or call the History Center at 964-1600.