Museum keeping Immokalee history alive

Posted 7/7/16

Everyone needs to have a sense of themselves - of their past - of what created their world. The same can be said for communities.

The Immokalee Pioneer Museum at Roberts Ranch is the keeper of …

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Museum keeping Immokalee history alive

Everyone needs to have a sense of themselves - of their past - of what created their world. The same can be said for communities. The Immokalee Pioneer Museum at Roberts Ranch is the keeper of Immokalee’s own unique history. From the area’s proud Seminole past to those hardy cattlemen and farmers who braved the hardships of the inland swamps, Roberts Ranch sets out the Immokalee story for all to see. Bob and Sarah Roberts came to Immokalee by oxcart in 1914 and raised their nine children at the ranch. The family built the Red Cattle Company, starting with 60 acres in 1932. Only 15 acres is left of what once sprawled over 160,000 acres throughout Florida, but it’s enough to provide 21st Century Immokaleeans and visitors with a glimpse into the world of Florida’s inland pioneers, especially with so many of its original buildings restored. The house, built in 1926, bunkhouse, sheds, smoke and hide house and more display original ranch implements and home goods that sustained the Roberts family - and so many others of that day. The tiny First Baptist Church building, from 1916, has been moved several times, but is permanently situated at the entrance to the grounds, off Roberts Road. It was in 1994 that the Roberts Family Trust signed over 6.2 acres of their original property to the state, including the homestead to the Collier County Museum. In 1999 the county purchased another 8.8 acres. A state grant restored what was left of the original buildings and on October 4, 2003, Roberts Ranch was added to the National Registry of Historic Places. Since the retirement of Lee Mitchell, the museum has been looking for a new manager. Filling in as Museum Assistant Hilda Garcia, has been employed there for just over a year. She spent two years at the main museum in Naples. In very short order, she discovered that this is a job she loves. She never worked at a museum until she went to work at the Collier County Museums and said “it doesn’t feel like work!” She says that every time she does some research it feels like she gets a reward. Hilda lived in Immokalee for a time when she was young and much of her family is still here after 40 years. In fact, her own grandfather had a ranch in Corkscrew. When she took him on a tour of the Roberts Ranch, she was thrilled to watch how he related to the many common items of that era. She said she never realized there was so much history in such a small area when she lived here. Now she’s amazed. She said she loves the fact that so much of what is there is original to the Roberts family, opening a window to a bygone day. Museum Maintenance Specialist Juan Aviles, lives in Immokalee is originally from Brownsville, Texas, and came to Immokalee in 1987. Every day he opens all the buildings on the ranch and sets about keeping everything in top condition. Juan has been at the ranch since last October and loves caring for the old place. He said he enjoys the “vibes” around the grounds - peaceful and tranquil. Hilda and Juan would like the community to become more aware of and involved with its museum. It’s about every individual in Immokalee and it’s free and open to all. The community is welcome to come and walk around the beautiful, well maintained grounds that were the backdrop for the pioneering Roberts family and the famous Red Cattle Company. They are working to promote and upgrade the Pioneer Museum, building on what others have done before them. You used to have to call the museum to schedule a tour because it was mostly closed. Now the museum is open Monday-Friday 9-4 and a grand opening reception is being planned for later in the year. Hilda said they’re looking for a main event for the museum, something like the Old Florida Festival at the main museum in Naples. Immokalee has always been a place where cultures blended and it remains so to this day. A community’s past is encapsulated in its museum. In Immokalee, Roberts Ranch more than any place else, is a direct link back to this community’s past, filled with people from many places and cultures who came from far away to build better lives for themselves and their children.