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Dennis Duffala has fond memories of Cape’s earliest days

By TOM HAYDEN - Cape Coral History | Apr 29, 2021

Councilmember Tom Hayden

Dennis Duffala will occasionally drive the Cape Coral neighborhood where his father, Butch, built their home.

He will remember moving into this modest two-bedroom home in the spring of 1958 with Jalousie windows and no air conditioning on Riverside Drive. That 12-year-old boy will remember looking out those windows and seeing nothing but sand flatlands, marshes, an occasional critter or two. It seemed he could see for miles with only nature in front of him.

When he leaves the neighborhood where large, modern homes seem to dominate the old neighborhood along Riverside and Flamingo Drive, those early days and present times resonate through him.

The Duffalas were the second family to move into a Cape home, following the first family, the Schwartzes, in 1958. Based on my research, Dennis Duffala has maintained a residence in Cape Coral longer than any other person.

“We felt like pioneers early on,” Dennis said.

From a handful of people now to over 200,000, this city has changed in many ways for Dennis from the place, where:

* Butch Duffala, a custom home builder who moved his family from Ohio, helped build the community’s first bank, the first gas station, the first factory called Cape Coral Togs (makers of women’s clothing) and several of the first churches. Dennis hung the bells in the tower at the Lutheran church.

* Dad built the first plaza where the father of his good friend Elmer Tabor opened the first grocery story, called Elmer’s Super Market.

* Dennis used to swim through three canals with a knife between his teeth (to fight off any water critters) to get to the house where the love of his life and now wife, Ann, lived.

* Entertainment ranged from boys and girls meeting at one of the country’s first teen clubs, located in the current Tony Rotino Center (they all had keys and could come and go as they wanted) to hunting to racing boats along the largely unoccupied canals.

“We had a lot of confrontations with Val Everly (the Lee County Sheriff’s deputy) who was community’s first law enforcement officer,” Dennis remembered. “He was a wonderful man who gave us breaks.”

The home Butch Duffala built was for another man, but the family rented place for over a year. Soon, other families came. The Duffala home at 5736 Riverside and the other seven original homes that were built as the Rosen brothers and Gulf Guaranty Land and Title Company (it eventually became Gulf American Corporation) started to bring this community to life are still there, near the Yacht Club.

When Dennis gets nostalgic, he will drive by the Perkins restaurant on Cape Coral Parkway, which was the site of the community’s first eatery, the Surfside Restaurant. Not far from Surfside was the first motel – the Nautilus Motel – which Butch Duffala also helped build.

“It was a dream from the beginning (that the city would reach 200,000), but I never thought we would reach that kind of population,” Dennis said. “My mother, who is 98, was overwhelmed to see what the city has become.”

After the Duffalas came to the area, the Cape Coral Bridge was still six years from opening. Most of the roads were narrow and mostly constructed of shell and dirt. Gladiolus farms carpeted the area as did ranches. In fact, the Duffalas had a 5-acre ranch near where Cape Coral High School is located now. Getting anywhere was difficult, but the kids found ways to get around that. Their favorite mode of transportation was the speed boat. Most were about 15 feet in length — and they would rocket through the canals to see friends, camp, swim and to hunt. A favorite spot was a plantation owned by Ogden Phipps.

“In the plantation, my father befriended the owner and he gave us keys to the gates. He put in a hunting preserve and there were all kinds of animals, even exotic ones,” Dennis said. “We used to shoot the rattlesnakes.”

Dennis Duffala spent two years at North Fort Myers high school before transferring to Fort Myers High, where he met Ann on her first day of school. Ann’s father, Robert Finkernagel Jr., who was managing director for Gulf American Land Corporation, wasn’t too sure about Dennis. He saw a boy who drove too fast – on land and on water.

“My father told me there were three boys I could not date,” and one was Dennis “because he drove too fast,” Ann said.

Dennis responded: “I eventually charmed him.”

On their first date, Dennis took Ann to Little Shell Island — one of two small islands that still exist today near Tarpon Point. At the time, the island was home to a snack bar and a fuel pump for boats.

Dennis, now 75 years old, also served in the Vietnam War as a U.S. Marine, losing both legs after stepping on a land mine. The Bronze Star and Purple Heart recipient returned to his beloved home and he and Ann also received degrees from Florida State University. Dennis went on to a distinguished career with the Lee County Sheriff’s office.

The Duffalas love Cape Coral and say they will never fully leave the city, although they spend time in Franklin, N.C., where they recently moved into their fourth home.

“I still have a pull to the Cape,” Dennis said.

Tom Hayden is a Cape Coral Museum of History board member and Cape Coral City Council member, representing District 3. He writes a column twice a month for the Cape Coral Breeze on the city’s history.