Cape Coralites considered the Cape Coral Yacht & Racquet Club ‘the hub and the heart’ of their new community
60th Anniversary: A look back
The Cape Coral Yacht Club is steeped in history from that opening event on June 9, 1962, to significant meetings that changed the course of the city to the many gatherings inside and out of this iconic area.
Before the Yacht Club facility was built residents were already gathering on the site. On Sept. 2, 1961, the day of the building’s groundbreaking, the tennis courts and Olympic-sized swimming pool opened at the $1 million complex, which also included the beach and eventually the youth center.
Dennis Duffala, an early resident, also was one of the original lifeguards at the pool. “We all got trained and would sit there on benches above the pool,” Duffala said. “When people would come from out of town that would be one of the first places they would hit. All of my friends were down there.”
Gulf American Corporation Vice President Connie Mack Jr. was already pushing the merits of the community in a letter to residents — he called them “Cape Coralites” — on the day of the groundbreaking.
“Between the luxurious accommodations (especially priced to homesite owners) at the Nautilus Motel, and the fun facilities at the Yacht and Racquet Club, with a round or two of golf at our Country Club course — topped off by a bit of boating and fishing when the mood suits you — well, let’s face it! Who could ask for anything more … or want to?”
Ann (Finkernagel) Duffala, who is Dennis Duffala’s wife and also one of the first residents, remembers walking with friend Ann Sanborn (whose father Paul Sanborn was Gulf American Corporation’s communications director and general manager of the Yacht Club) to the facility. “At the very beginning, it was the hub and the heart of the whole thing,” said Ann, whose father, Bob Finkernagel, was GAC general manager. “The main thing was it engaged everyone in the community, made everybody a part of it. Anything south of the parkway, the teenagers would just meet there.”
“Dad was not home much. (The Yacht Club) was his second home,” said Mary (Sanborn) Rieser, Paul Sanborn’s daughter. “I have a lot of memories there in dad’s office. I spent a lot of time hanging out there.”
Mary also remembers having Fourth of July celebrations on the beach “because there were so few people there.”
And a few teenage pranks. “The kids used to put soap suds in the fountain and dad would have to go take care of it,” Ann said.
Yes, the Yacht Club was a critical part of the community’s development.
In 1958, boats that gave prospective land buyers a view of their future, tied up to a small dock that would later become the yacht basin. One of those boats was called Trident.
In the winter of 1959, the Gulf Land and Title Company — the original name of Gulf American Corporation — put concrete blocks together and built a 15-foot grill, where residents would gather on what is now the Yacht Club site to cook steaks and hamburgers. They sang state songs like “Back Home Again in Indiana,” “Beautiful Ohio,” and “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny,” according to a story by H.D. (Andy) Anderson in the Cape Coral Breeze 20th anniversary edition.
The decking for the 620-foot Cape Coral fishing pier was placed in early 1960, with the “T” of the pier to be added later. The pier became a popular fishing destination and even withstood the wrath of Hurricane Donna later that year.
“We used to spend a lot of time down there,” Dennis Duffala said. “There used to be a lot of regatta races down there. I had a boat then, and we lived on the canal.”
He also lived at the original bait shack at the foot of the pier, where live bait could be purchased. “My father had an account there, and I would just sign my name,” he said.
The pier was also special for Damian Minko, another of the first residents. It was a fishing mecca, where everything from big tarpon to much smaller varieties were often reeled in. “It was great fishing back in those days.
He also remembers a petition signed by residents protesting the pier. “It obstructed the view of people living on Riverside at the time,” Minko said. That petition didn’t catch on.
Eileen Bernard, one of the first residents, wrote in 1978 that she remembers slipping a note into the pocket of GAC President Leonard Rosen at a stockholder’s meeting in 1961 in the Yacht Club area, about making the new bridge from Fort Myers to Cape Coral a tourist attraction, with possibly plants or water. They talked about having water spraying over the two-lane bridge, which opened in 1964.
Born from that conversation was Waltzing Waters, purchased by the Rosen brothers while they were in Europe. Otto Przystawik of Germany designed the attraction. Its first home was the original Rose Gardens (where Tarpon Point is now). Developed on a 2.5-acre lake, Waltzing Waters would send more than 800 jets of water as high as 85 feet. The water would change colors to various musical scores. It closed in mid-1970s.
During the summer of 1963, Marily Shumaker had the first swimming classes at the Yacht Club. “There, 15 kids too small to touch bottom hung tightly to the sides of the pool and learned to swim, corner to corner,” Dorothy Needham reported in a Cape Coral Breeze article. “By the end of the summer, those little tots would dive off the board and swim the length of that Olympic size pool.”
“Every little kid learned how to swim there,” Mary Rieser said.
“It was our home away from home. Everything that happened or was important in our lives happened in that building,” said Cape Coral City Council member Gloria Tate, who moved to the city as a child in 1960. “My sister and I played the organ as we had our church service there. It was the gathering place for any activity in Cape Coral. I grew up in that swimming pool. Every lesson I can think of I learned at the Yacht Club.”
The drive to incorporate Cape Coral came to life at the Yacht Club in 1969, with the formation of a citizen’s committee. About 500 people attended that first meeting. Restaurant owner Chester M. Grunsten was named general chairman. Residents were upset they were paying taxes to Lee County but seeing few of the benefits. On Aug. 18, 1970, voters approved incorporation.
One of the city’s boldest predictions was delivered by Leonard Rosen in a speech at the Yacht Club. He told his mother Cape Coral would have population of 12,000 by 1968. His mother responded. “How can you say such a thing. You can’t even keep your room clean.” Leonard was close. The population reached approximately 11,000 then.
Well-known events also took place at the Yacht Club, including Florida Miss World in 1966, with famous broadcaster Larry King the master of ceremonies. Women gathered from across the state to compete for the coveted title. Ann Duffala remembers her father actively involved in promoting the event. She also got a lifelong friend out of it.
As a student at Florida Presbyterian College (now Eckert College), Duffala remembers seeing a woman wearing a turquoise bathing suit. The women competing in the Miss Florida World pageant wore those suits and Ann also had received one of the suits. Ann walked over to the woman and asked where she got the suit? The woman responded she was in a beauty contest in Cape Coral. “We remain good friends to this day,” Duffala said.
The Yacht Club area also has been the site of expansion, renovations and additions over the years. A pair of homes were purchased by the city for approximately $1.8 million in 2003 and 2004 to make way for increased parking and picnic areas. Talks also started then for a parks master plan that included moving the boat ramp, building a parking garage and increasing boat trailer parking. Sound familiar?
A new playground and trailer parking were added by 2007.
About every club that currently exists in the city got its start at the Yacht Club, including the Social Club and Garden Club, as well as various organizations created for residents who moved here from other states.
The German American Social Club also met at the Yacht Club and had successful Oktoberfest and Carnival dances. The club outgrew the facility and moved to its current location on Pine Island Road.
The area’s first teen center, called the Key Club, also was created about five months after the Yacht Club opened. By 1977, the facility became the Cape Coral Senior Center and underwent expansions in 1978, 1988 and 1995. City Councilman Tony Rotino spearhead funding for those projects and the center was eventually named for him. Rotino remains the city’s long-serving council member, holding the seat for 16 straight years from 1978 to 1994. He made only $1 a year as a councilman, but the time he spent with residents, listening and helping, was worth much more.
“I served with Tony on city council for 10 years. He was a true public servant who loved to help people,” former mayor Joe Mazurkiewicz once said. Rotino passed away on Dec. 22, 2009, at the age of 95.
The city took over operations of the Yacht Club in September 1973, paying $100,000 to GAC, which reported the club had been losing money. The youth center closed that year as well.
In 1998, the Cape Coral City Council adopted a resolution declaring the “the Yacht Club Community Park as an historic and/or cultural resource as provided in the city of Cape Coral historic and cultural preservation ordinance.” It was signed by then mayor Roger Butler on April 23.