Dennis and Ann Duffala watched Cape grow from its infancy
When Dennis and Ann Duffala moved to Cape Coral about 50 years ago with their families, the unincorporated community was a world away from the one the teens had come from.
“It was kind of a barren wasteland at that point,” Dennis laughed.
Dennis’ family relocated to this then rural area in 1958 from Solon, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland, when Dennis was 12. His father, Clarence “Butch” Duffala, was a high-end home builder who saw an opportunity in building a community from the ground up. The Duffalas were the third family to move to Cape Coral.
“He saw this an an opportunity to be both creative and build homes,” Dennis said. “He thought it would be a good place to raise his family.”
Four years later, at age 15, Ann Finkernagel moved to the community with her father, mother and two siblings. Robert Finkernagel Jr. had taken a job as the managing director of Cape Coral for the Gulf American Land Corporation. Finkernagel had been a manager of the chamber of commerce in Gainesville.
Gulf American Land Corporation was the developer behind the city.
“I was very distressed to be leaving Gainesville because it was and still is a university town,” Ann said, adding that Cape Coral was “very, very rural at that point.”
“I was not impressed at all,” she said of the unincorporated community.
Under a deal with her father that he would make arrangements for her to return to Gainesville to finish out her school years if she would try it out for one year in the Cape, Ann settled in and watched the city grow around her.
A lot of the early construction going on in the Cape, Butch Duffala and his son had a hand in. According to Dennis, out of the first 500 residences built in the Cape, about 250 to 300 of those could be attributed to Butch’s business. Gulf American wanted him to work for the company as a developer, but he chose to remain independent.
After building homes, Butch moved into the commercial and industrial field. Dennis said his father built the first gas station in the Cape, Bic’s PURE Gas Station, on the corner of Cape Coral Parkway and Del Prado Boulevard. He also built the first pharmacy, Roberts’ Pharmacy, and the Cape Coral Bank.
Located across from one another on Cape Coral Parkway, the first bank and the pharmacy were found between Del Prado and the Caloosahatchee River. Butch built the shopping center that at the time housed Elmer’s grocery store, now known as Big John’s plaza. Out of the first 10 churches, he constructed five or six, and he also built the community’s first factory, a clothing factory, Dennis said.
“Being in the construction, we literally, and I personally, worked in many of the original buildings,” Dennis said. “I swept out floors, carried concrete blocks.”
The community had a feeling of welcomeness and togetherness, he explained. The original families to settle in the town were pioneers with a true pioneer spirit.
“Being part of a brand new community,” Dennis said, “nobody had locked doors. Any child was welcome in any other home.”
“It was like one giant community,” he said. “A real community spirit.”
Since Ann’s father purposely had the family home built without the swimming pool that was available with that model, the teen was forced to get out and make friends. She soon found herself also drawn into the community spirit.
“I was very involved in the community, as were most people at that point,” Ann said.
The Cape Coral Yacht Club offered a Teen Club, where only the teens in the town had keys to the facility. It now houses the Tony Rotino Senior Center.
“It was an idea for the teens, to think that this was their place,” she said.
“Everything was a first,” Ann added.
Cape Coral Parkway was the most northern road in the city and everything else was located south of it. Travelers had to take Del Prado Boulevard north to Pondella Road to cross into Fort Myers and it took about an hour one way for Ann to make her way to school. She attended Fort Myers High School.
“It was a very isolated, a very insular feeling because of the lack of access,” she said. “In those days, they had a curtesy van if you wanted to go into Fort Myers.”
Over time the original families watched as the Cape Coral Bridge was built and Del Prado Boulevard was widened. Soon the city became more accessible to the world outside of it. According to Dennis, one drawback of the growth was that as new families moved in, that community spirit began to fade.
“You lose touch with the new ones on the fringes,” he said.
Ann’s father went on to become vice president and was a founding director of the Cape Coral Hospital. He played a major part in the Cape Coral Bank and other community banks, later on. Ann voiced pride for his accomplishments.
“Most of his input was still continuing to market the Cape, build the Cape,” she said. “In retrospect, I have tremendous pride and am awestruck by what he did.”
As the year of the city’s incorporation approached and passed – 1970 – Ann went on to college and later married Dennis. Dennis had spent one year at college before joining the U.S. Marine Corps. He lost both legs in Vietnam. Moving from Largo to Tallahassee, the couple continued their education and later decided to start a family.
While pregnant with their first child, Ann said she and Dennis returned to Cape Coral. Their parents, who still resided in the city, were taking care of Ann’s and Dennis’ grandparents, offering the kids a rich family upbringing.
“We had the three generations,” Ann said.
The couple had Jennifer and then Seth. Ann was a stay-at-home mother before opening a private practice in 1983 for school psychology and mental health counseling. Dennis took a job with the Lee County Sheriff’s Office as the agency’s first crime prevention officer. He served as the director of Crime Stoppers for nine years before he was promoted to chief deputy.
When former Sheriff Rod Shoap took office, Dennis retired. After spending two years in retirement, Dennis returned to the agency to oversee the Crime Stoppers program and the public affairs department. He retired for good two years later. In all, Dennis clocked 27-plus years under three LCSO sheriffs.
Ann retired in 2004.
Asked about his views of the city now versus then, Dennis said his opinion is split.
“I’m surprised and somewhat disappointed,” he said.
“I’m pleased it has been successful,” Dennis said. “Like any political entity, it has problems. But it works to overcome those problems.”
“I’m proud to still live here,” he added.
Dennis explained that his disappointment is for the lack of community sense.
“It has grown so large now that, again, that community spirit, that initial one, it only extends as far as neighborhoods,” he said. “So I think that’s kind of a down side.”
“The early years were very special,” Dennis said.
However, he added, he believes Cape Coral has developed as expected.
“It’s developed exactly into what the Rosen brothers said it would,” Dennis said. “There are homes, there are people, there are enclaves of businesses developing.”
Ann called the changes between past and present “phenomenal.”
“It just all progressed from there. How quickly those things were accomplished,” she said. “Everything that the original developers planned, in my opinion, has come to fruition.”