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Remembering Rob Wells of Cabbage Key

April 19, 2024
By Garland Pollard

Robert Wells Jr., the founder of the modern Cabbage Key and the Tarpon Lodge, died Tuesday.

Wells, and his wife Phyllis, purchased Cabbage Key in 1976, after he left a job as director of admissions at High Point College in North Carolina. Today, son Ken Wells manages Cabbage Key and son Rob Wells III manages The Tarpon Lodge. Wells III posted on Facebook this week that he was “lucky to call him Dad.”

“As a 3-year-old, I vaguely remember he and my mom, Phyllis, leaving secure jobs in education, loading me up in a Ryder truck, and driving from North Carolina to Cabbage Key to start a new life on an island, only accessible by boat, with a ship to shore phone and generator power. That sense of adventure and willingness to chase a dream and make it happen is an example of what he was made of.”

Reached Thursday by phone, Robert Wells III said that the idea about the purchase came after visits to the Outer Banks. Being from North Carolina, his parents had seen what had happened there, and they knew that Florida’s barrier islands here had similar appeal.

“He couldn’t understand why it wasn’t more popular,” said Wells.

The parents left two good jobs back in North Carolina. While it was a risky proposition, his son said that “he was a believer that you had to make your luck.” 

His wife of 56 years was a partner in the ambitious project.

“Mom was right there with him,” said Wells. “She ran the whole back office.”

Even in his retirement from active management, his father continued to be involved with both properties, as a resident, and was not shy about stepping in where needed. When he raised an issue, he told his sons about it like a vigilant local.

“If I was retired and lived in a community, I would have to report It,” said Wells, quoting his father.

John Lai, president and CEO of the Sanibel and Captiva Chamber, called Wells a “visionary” in tourism. Lai, vice chair of the state tourism agency Visit Florida, serves with his son, Rob III, on that board. He said that Wells was not just recognized in Lee County but across the state for his work.

The family’s purchase, and stewardship of the Tarpon Lodge in Pineland further enhanced both of the properties. The two resorts are now connected by shuttle boats and day cruises.

“He created a destination within a destination,” said Lai, of the two resorts. “His family has not only been a tourism advocate, but a phenomenal steward of the island and the places they own.”

It was the 1978 Jimmy Buffett song “Cheeseburger in Paradise” that gave the island international fame; legend had Buffett coming from Boca Grande to visit the island and write the song. But the preservation of the island’s character, and its low-key, old Florida feel, was protected by Wells. 

“Mr. Wells made Cabbage Key a place people could go to forget about the stress of everyday life for a few hours,” said Roger Chapin, a Boca Grande resident, captain and a 40-year-plus visitor of Cabbage Key. 

Through the years, and from the beginning, the Wells family has been omnipresent at Cabbage Key as the boys have grown up and taken over the operations. 

“It was like Swiss Family Robinson,” said Chapin, of the early days.

Chapin cited Wells, and his “common touch” as important factors in the place. The elder Wells was omnipresent, and many guests did not initially know they were talking to the owner.

“If you were lucky enough to sit with him and hear his stories it would make your day,” Chapin said. “But he would listen to your stories as well.”

The two resorts under the Wells family have grown without losing their charm. “It’s a complicated and serious business operation,” Chapin said. “It just doesn’t come off that way, which is the key to the charm and authenticity.”

The Inn survived Hurricane Ian, though much of the marina was destroyed. It reopened a few weeks later, running on generator power. 

Memorial details were not yet available at press-time.