A Glance Back: The Calusa Nature Center and Planetarium

Sustainer articles published in Gulf Glances celebrating the journey of JLFM history while staying on the future.

By Sandra Raak, JLFM Past President & Kathleen Williamson, JLFM Past President & Shamie Kelly, Sustainer

Did you know that the Calusa Nature Center and Planetarium was “literally born in a suitcase”? In 1967 the Junior League of Fort Myers (then the Junior Welfare League) identified a need for local children to learn more about the natural and cultural history of our area. They created a series of suitcase exhibits, built in large steamer trunks, which included displays of insects, reptiles, sea life, and fossils, and topics such as the history of the Native Americans, Earth sciences and astronomy. As they presented these “traveling suitcase museums” to schools and community groups, it became apparent there was a need for a more permanent museum/educational facility for young people in Southwest Florida.

Born out of a suitcase, plans for the “Nature Center” began in 1969. Founded by the driving force of the Junior Welfare League, a cooperative arrangement with the City (who leased 105 acres at $1.00 a year), and a State Department of Natural Resources grant, groundbreaking for the Center occurred in 1976. The goal was to be an “environmental learning ground for both young people and adults and would house indoor exhibits and feature outdoor nature trails where an abundance of the area’s animal, plant and bird life exist in their natural state.” A ¾-mile boardwalk allowed for exploring of natural plant and animal life, and the large auditorium included rooms for FL wildlife displays, marine life, fossil exhibits, and laboratories for teaching young people science, chemistry, and taxidermy.

Throughout the years the Junior League remained a major partner in the growth of the Nature Center by obtaining grant money to build a state-of-the-art planetarium featuring full-dome, full-surround planetarium shows, moving and restoring the historic “Iona House” to the site which now serves as a gathering and meeting place for the community, setting up and staffing a gift shop, volunteering as trail guides, and building a 400-gallon aquarium. The Junior League has continued to support this signature project by funding improvements through Done-In-A-Day Projects such as creating a Zen Garden with meditation benches and helping to refresh the butterfly garden.

The Junior League provided seed money of $5,000 for a feasibility study in 2001 for growth of its current facility and programs. Isn’t it amazing that a natural history museum, which started in a suitcase, now includes live native and teaching animals and exhibits about the animals, a Butterfly House, a Raptor Aviary, and a place to rehab rescued creatures. The Calusa Nature Center and Planetarium staff no longer work out of suitcases but have a “home” for educational outreach to local schools and civic groups.

This past year, Sustainers donated $900 from their 2019-2020 Sustainer Project to promote the Nature Center’s mission of “Inspiring People to Connect with Nature.” Please take the opportunity to visit our original signature community project! You will find the old suitcases stacked up on display as a testimony to the dedication of those community-spirited women, traveling to local schools to teach lessons in science and nature. Not bad progress for a project that began with a few dedicated Junior League volunteers and a supportive community!