This week’s History Byte, which was held on Wednesday, March 21, was brought to you by what may be the oldest family in Charlotte Harbor. Though at this point, the word family may not be appropriate.
The descendants of Tarivo and Juanita Padilla have married into so many local families that running into someone downtown is probably a small family reunion.
The Colemans, the Darnas, the Joiners … well, the families are a Who’s Who of this year’s History Bytes series.
In 1820 Tarivo Padilla, who became the patriarch of the family group that settled Cayo Costa, was born in the Canary Islands. He immigrated to the United States and became a citizen of the country in 1862. In the early 1870s he and his wife Juanita settled on the north end of Cayo Costa and started a fishing rancho. The family remained on the island until the 1970s, when it became a state park.
Three members of the various branches of the Padilla family were at the Johann Fust Community Library today to share the story of their family and their experiences growing up on Cayo Costa.
As odd as it may seem to anyone who visits the island today, Cayo and neighboring Punta Blanca were once pretty busy places. There was a ship yard, a school, a post office and for many years, the Port Boca Grande Quarantine Station was situated north of the island.
For the first few decades, the Padilla’s lived in pretty primitive conditions. Their homes were simple palm thatch cottages, quick to build and easy to abandon when the Customs Agents came looking for smugglers. The Padillas caught mullet. There wasn’t much of a market for the fish in south Florida. The family dried and salted the fish, then took to Cuba to sell or trade.
On the way there and back, they avoided the Customs Station in Key West. On the return trip, they were often transporting “non-tax paid beverages.” Eventually Customs sent agents after the family, and after a game of cat and mouse, managed to chase them off of the island.
The family returned within a few years and continued their trade. To this day, there are descendants of Tarivo and Juanita fishing in Charlotte Harbor.
One member of the Padilla family that shared her story was Trudi Darna Berry, who grew up on the island and at one time ran the School Boat, which ferried children from Cayo Costa to Boca Grande for classes. She recalled growing up without much in the way of material possesions, but always with something to do. She learned to play guitar by stealing her brother’s and hiding to practice with it.
Trudi was one of seven children born to her parents. She had relatives all along the length of Cayo Costa, from her grandmother Sofia on the north end to the Cole family, her mother’s family, in the middle. Her parents were a study in contrasts. Her mother was Irish and English, with a dash of Portuguese. She was a small blonde with blue eyes. Her father was very Spanish, with curly black hair and beautiful green eyes.
The family never wanted for anything. As Trudi said, they may have been poor, but they never knew it.
Stanley Darna also spent his childhood on Cayo Costa, though his family eventually moved off of the island when Lee County cancelled the school boat to Gasparilla Island. He recalled many early mornings the year that the boat was cancelled, some days getting up as early as 2 a.m. to come across the Pass with his father.
He stayed at his aunt’s house here on Gasparilla Island until it was time for school, and then made the trip back home in the evening. Stanley remembers his father as an intensely private man. Throughout his life, he received many requests for interviews from historians, and he always turned them down.
The entire extended family was very “what you see is what you get,” and they were protective of one another. If you said something about a Darna, you stood a good chance of having the Bell family show up at your door to discuss your opinions with you.
Milton Bell spilled the true secret of Gaspar the Pirate ... he never existed. See, legend has it that the last member of Gaspar’s crew to survive was Juan Gomez, Panther Key John. Thing is, Milton is related to Juan through his grandmother, Mary Gomez.
Juan was not cabin boy for a bloodthirsty pirate. He was actually a charter boat captain. There was no pirate. There was no treasure other than the mullet that ran through the harbor, and the family that took care of its own.
Next week the 2012 series of History Bytes will conclude with the Knight family.
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