How It All Started…
Today the Fort Myers Beach Shrimp Festival raises tens of thousands of dollars for charities like local eye surgeries and eye cases, scholarships for area students, Florida Lions Eye Bank, Southeast Guide Dogs, large print books for the local library, little league and youth soccer, Beach Elementary and Cypress Lakes High School student needs. But how did all this Beach tradition and fun began?
The first Shrimp Festival was held in 1959. Prior to that an event called “Beach Day” was held on the Sunday after the Edison Festival of Light Parade in Fort Myers in mid-February. St Raphael’s Episcopal Church sponsored the Blessing of the Shrimp Fleet which was held on the Beach Pier, and sold shrimp rolls in the county park on the Beach.
Also, the Beach Improvement Association held a beauty contest in the park. The idea of the Shrimp Festival was to provide the Beach with its own celebration, and to build on Beach Day.
Initially the festival was to be held on the weekend nearest the full moon after the Edison Festival, but not closer than two weeks after it, a confusing sounding schedule. It was scheduled that way because the Beach shrimping fleet was in port around the full moon as shrimping is poor during full moons and the port is deeper at this time because of the tides and it can therefore accommodate the full boat loads beautiful pink treasure. For those of you who don’t know, our local shrimp are pink and have been coined ‘pink gold’ because of their value to our local economy.
The first year was a weekend only event. The Fort Myers Beach Lions Club sponsored a parade from the Beach School to the county park, the same parade route it takes to this day, and sold Bar-B-Que chicken dinners to attendees to help raise money for the club. A few years after putting on the ‘shrimp festival’, Lions member Pete McCagg questioned why they were selling chicken at the shrimp festival… After all, if it was to be a Shrimp Festival, Lions should cook shrimp rather than chicken…
McCagg stated, “We cut lots of buttonwood logs on Friday, dug a pit and started the fire about five o’clock in the morning Saturday to boil the shrimp. This was the primary fundraiser, though we also held a raffle. For the first few years we raffled a television set and later a small boat, motor, and trailer. One year we got very daring and raffled an automobile.”
In the years of 1962 through 1970, the Beach Lions raised money by sponsoring a Gopher Turtle Derby. This had been a project of the Fort Myers Lions Club as part of the Edison Festival for several years. They paid the Seminole Indians 25 cents each for about 50 gophers. The Beach Lions wanted to make their own event and agreed to pay the Fort Myers club 50 cents and they would save the gophers for the Shrimp Festival. The savvy Beach Lions turned around and resold the turtles to Beach businesses and/or individuals for $5.00. They in turn painted the turtles shells with watercolor paints and strapped lightweight decorations on their backs as advertisements. Gophers in heats of 6 to 8 were put in an inner circle, and the first to reach an outer circle won. When the Festival was over, all gophers got to be released back into the wild thus saving the turtles. The turtles made many folks needing glasses or eye operations very happy as they benefitted from the proceeds of the event.
It was about this time that the Lions decided that the Shrimp Festival event had owtgrown their club’s capabilities and that it should be a Chamber of Commerce project. After one year, the Chamber decided that it was too much work, and the Lions Club agreed to take it back. Local Fort Myers Beach Lions have sponsored the Shrimp Festival every year since with the pride of knowing that tourists make their vacations plans around the Festival dates, Beach businesses count on the revenue from the attention generating event and that there are residents who live and love the Festival as part of their local heritage.
See you at Shrimp Festival, an old fashioned American Treasure!