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Tales of local history, murder mysteries and environmental changes tantalize guests as they join Smallwood Store Boat Tours through Everglades National Park in the Ten Thousand Islands.

Dolphins jumped in the boat’s wake as Capt. Corey McMillin of Chokoloskee’s Smallwood family shared humorous quips and intriguing stories of the area on the popular “Bloody Watson” tour.

The boat tour leaves from the Smallwood Store and takes tourists to Watson’s Island to see what remains of the homestead established by the notoriously hotheaded, murderous Edgar J. Watson, who was killed by the Chokoloskee townspeople following a huge hurricane on or about Oct. 10, 1910, according to reports. It was a revenge killing that was also meant to protect the people of Chokoloskee, because Watson was murdering people instead of paying them for their work or goods, as the stories go.

Some people say it was the entire town, others might pin it on the wrong guy, said McMillin.

On the way out to Watson’s Island, a parcel that is a bit larger than 40 acres, McMillin told the tales of the outlaws and murders, and the revenge eventually enacted upon Watson outside McMillin’s family store, the Smallwood Store, which is now a historical site. McMillin’s grandfather, Ted Smallwood, who founded the U.S. Post Office and trading post there in 1906, was not part of the murder, the McMillins have said.

“Watson’s Place has gumbo limbo, which are trees that grow on high land, high ground. We call them ‘tourist trees’ because they turn red and peel in the sun, just like the tourists,” McMillin said, then grinned.

He pointed to an avocado tree on the island.

“Santini brought the avocado. Watson cut the throat of Santini in Key West after a fight,” he said.

Adolphus Santini survived the attempted murder.

It seemed ideal timing to tell that story, as McMillin grabbed his machete, leading the boat tourists off the boat and onto the wooden dock at Watson’s Place. The island is now a campsite that can be reserved through Everglades National Park.

Watson’s Island seems the ideal place to tell ghost stories around a campfire, too. The bloodiest part of a summer stay these days could be due to the mosquitoes.

McMillin noted a new sign erected by the National Park Service as he cleared parts of the overgrown trail with his machete. Somehow, he seemed to attract all the mosquitoes to his calves, keeping most of them away from his guests.

McMillin pointed to the old cisterns, still holding water, and described the two-story house and remains of sugarcane refining there. He knows stories of generations of outlaws, most of whom arrived in the area around the turn of the century to stay in seclusion, away from law enforcement and rules, he said. He also knows the native plants from the nonnative plants, and offered a unique perspective on the changes of the landscape over the decades.

“That’s mother-in-law’s tongue,” McMillin said, as he gestured toward a plant. “Because the leaves are long and they have a point.” It was a popular funeral plant of the day and is left among many of the islands in the area, he said.

Watson was especially cantankerous when he was drunk, Mc-Millin said: “People would work for him and when it came time to pay them, he’d pop ’em in the back of the head, put chains and bricks on ’em and drop ’em in the water.”

Watson was known for having a very good shot from a distance, as well. A federal marshal arrived as Watson was sitting on his porch drinking, said McMillin.

“As the marshal held up his badge, a bullet shot his mustache off,” he added. “He didn’t do it to scare him. He was trying to kill him. He was just drunk.” Somehow, the federal marshal got out alive, Mc-Millin said.

Watson was known to go walking in the woods and disappear whenever anyone came looking for him. He had lots of money stashed there, according to legend.

McMillin also pointed out areas among the islands where marijuana was stashed during decades past.

Planes landed on Watson’s Island and smuggler Totch Brown hunted deer there because they were among the biggest in the country, said McMillin.

“Now, you couldn’t even land a helicopter here. The mangroves have swallowed up the land and taken it all over,” he said.

Many of the old-time families remain friends—including the Watson descendants, who still spend time with the Smallwoods and Mc-Millins, they said.

Many of them, including McMillin’s grandmother, owned dozens of acres or more of land that was taken over by eminent domain in the establishment of Everglades National Park. The family members have mixed feelings about that—partially glad that some undeveloped land remains, and also missing opportunities to live out the lifestyles of earlier generations by no longer owning private islands.

He recalled a time when there were more grasses on the land instead of so many mangroves. The threatened American crocodile is spotted among the islands, but it’s hard to count on where they will be during mating season, said McMillin.

“The older crocodiles get up to 20 feet long and are as big around as a manatee. They’re built like a torpedo. And when they’re big like that, their heads are gnarly,” said McMillin.

The two-hour tour concluded back at the Smallwood Store.

“This is the most fun thing I’ve done in the two years since we’ve been in Florida,” said Nigel Heinsius, who moved to Fort Myers from Seattle two years ago.

To book these and other boat tours, visit smallwoodstoreboattour. com, call 239.695.0016 or email info@smallwoodstoreboattour. com.

The Smallwood Store is located at 360 Mamie St., Chokoloskee, where the tours begin and end.

This story was published in The Naples Press on May 17.

Copyright 2024 Gulfshore Life Media, LLC All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without prior written consent.

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