Shell Show History

How it all began - The Shell Table 

By Mrs. Howard Schriner
Circa 1968

This article appeared in a local newspaper in the late 1960's. It tells the story about how a shell table was raffled off at the Shell Fair during the early days of what has become the Sanibel Shell Festival. Originally, the Sanibel-Captiva Shell Club was responsible for donating the shells to put in a table that was raffled off as a fund raiser for the Sanibel Community House. Although a shell table may not be offered as a raffle prize at today's Shell Festival, the raffle is still held as a fund raiser for the Sanibel Community Association. The article also gives you a glance into the past and tells how the Shell Festival began.

If you had been “baby sitting” the 1968 Shell Table, you would have been hit with all sorts of questions about the shells, the table, the best places to shell on the islands, but most of all, about the Annual Shell Fair itself. Written records are sketchy or non-existent, and only a few “old timers” are left to talk to about it. Priscilla Murphy’s attic produced a picture story carried in the Fort Myers News Press in 1953 and several back copies of The Islander from the years 1935, 1936 and 1937 that also featured The Shell Show. (Incidentally The Islander was priced at 10 cents per copy. Who says everything is higher today?)

The first Community Fair was held in 1928 on the porch of the Old Island Inn and was a miniature county fair with baked goods, “fancy work,” and homemade gifts offered for sale by the ladies of Sanibel to help the community. It was considered quite a success. As a matter of adding interest the ladies brought boxes of their pretty Sanibel shells to show the visitors. This had so much appeal that the next year when the Fair was held on the porch of Casa Ybel Hotel, more shell displays were added and people began to come across on the ferry from Fort Myers to see them. They also came to take home some of the toothsome fresh coconut pies and cakes that the island ladies baked for the sale. Thomas Edison and Henry Ford were among the more distinguished visitors at this Fair. Pictures taken of them on the porch of Casa Ybel viewing the shells are still in existence.

By the next year, the Fair had grown in size and popularity to such proportions that the men of the community got together and decided to build the existing Community House to take care of this, by now, annual event. Francis Bailey remembers that at one of the early fairs they had produce and poultry shows because he recalls getting a ribbon for his Bantam chickens, although he isn’t sure whether it was first or second place award.

After the Community House was finished and the Fair activities were held there, the ladies added a specialty of serving soup. They gathered several days before the event at the Island Inn kitchen to cut vegetables and make this never to be forgotten treat that was served on the fair grounds. Even at last year’s Fair, some people were asking where they could get “the soup” or coconut cakes and pies. The main hall (the North Room) was always attractively decorated with shells and sea life just for people to show their wondrous collections of Sanibel shells. According to the rules of the original Charter, competition was not permitted and the Fair was strictly a Sanibel project. At this time, the road connection between the two islands was non-existent and the only way to get from one island to the other was by boat.

As near as anyone can remember, it was around 1932 that someone thought it would be a good idea to give away a box of Sanibel shells at the Fair. No one knows for sure how this was handled, but Clarence Rutland made the first shell box and people on the island donated the shells to go in it. These early boxes were made of sea grape wood and were highly prized for their sturdy beauty. They were a genuine island creation.

The March 1936 issue of The Islander stated “The Shell Exhibit will show a profit of $150.00 or more, and this profit is to be used for making necessary repairs in and about the Community House.” This was the first time in its history that the Fair ran over a three-day period and all the booths were sold out well in advance of the closing of the Fair. The ladies just weren’t prepared for all the publicity they received from newspapers all over Florida.

According to these early editions of The Islander, the ladies who seemed to be the moving force behind this event were Dr. Louise Perry, Charlotta Matthews, Lillian Cockerill, Mrs. Bailey, Pearl Stokes and, no doubt, many more. The 1936 Islander speaks of an Associated Press article carrying the story of a sea horse giving birth to young at the Live Exhibit. In the 1937 Islander, the Shell Show was again reported “to be most successful. An estimated 1,000 people saw the Show and we couldn’t count all of them.” (This past year’s Shell Fair, an estimated 5,000 people saw the Show and again, we couldn’t count them all.)

After the 1944 hurricane that did so much damage to the island, many records were lost and a new Charter was formed allowing for a competition show. The first ribbons were thought to be exclusively for children, but this is not known for certain. To the best of anyone’s knowledge the first real ribbons for competition were given about 10 or 12 years ago. These were for Sanibel and Captiva shells and were judged mostly for their beauty. In 1963, the Philadelphia Academy of Sciences Trophy was added to the awards given annually and the shell displays were augmented to include worldwide shells.

Again, no one recalls the exact year that “the Shell Box” developed “legs” to become “the Shell Table,” but according to one old timer, this donated collection of Sanibel and Captiva shells was given at The Fair somewhere around 1955 or 1956. It has never been won by a permanent resident of either island, although several early winners later became permanent residents after winning the table. One winter resident who won an early collection left it in his beach house when he sold it to Mrs. Will Glass about seven years ago.

In the past five years, this table that started as a box on legs has been developed into a lovely piece of handmade furniture made by Charles LeBuff, Sr. of Naples. Over the years, these tables have been sent to many states: Connecticut, New Jersey, Ohio, and Illinois to name a few. Recipients have reported, not only their delight in winning, but also that the shells have always arrived in perfect condition. They have carried the romance of the islands into homes far from Sanibel.

Everyone who has seen this year’s table as it has been making the rounds of some of the island shops, exclaim over its beauty, as well as they should. The table itself is handcrafted of Australian blackwood and Honduras mahogany, and it holds a Florida collection of 97 shells that anyone would be proud to own. There are only 85 varieties because some of the more spectacular shells were repeated in different color forms. A reputable shell dealer estimates the value of the table and shell collection at $500. The shells were donated to the Community Association by some of the island’s shops and by private collectors on the islands.

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