Life Sweet As Honey For Island Family
HONEYMOON ISLAND - It was called Hog Island when a young Swiss immigrant named Henry Scharrer made it his port in a storm one rough night in 1888. He anchored his newly purchased 30-foot sloop, Anna, on its sandy beach and secured the sails before riding out the gusts in the cabin below. It would become home for the rest of his days. Nearly 100 years later, his only child, Myrtle Scharrer Betz, wrote of his life and hers on what became Caladesi Island and Honeymoon Island after a hurricane split the six-mile strand in 1921. The book, "Yesteryear I Lived in Paradise," was recently re-released with a timeline and family photos by her granddaughter, Terry Fortner. Betz was 96 when she died in 1992, and her ashes were scattered in the Gulf waters off Caladesi, her birthplace.Her book includes this passage about Scharrer exploring the barrier island the morning after the storm: "The first thing Henry noticed was a great swarm of birds. There seemed to be every kind, size and color. They were on the ground, in the trees and the air. It was the most beautiful sight he had ever seen ... As he walked around, there were lovely, daisy-like flowers covering the ground. Several huge oaks with glossy green leaves spread their limbs over a hundred feet. "Every plant and tree looked fresh and green. A deer bounded away and a brown turtle hurried across an opening to disappear in a burrow. This, to the young man, looked like paradise." Fortner, 54, stands barefoot on a beach at Honeymoon Island and looks across Hurricane Pass toward Caladesi. "Mr. Scharrer fell in love with it," she says. "He went back to Tampa to find out how he could acquire the land. He became a citizen and fulfilled the homesteading requirements." The island was his home for the next 46 years, until his death two days before Christmas 1934. He was cared for in his final days by Betz, who lived just a short row away in Dunedin. From Cabin Boy To U.S. Traveler Scharrer spent his childhood in Switzerland. After his parents died when he was 12, he signed on with ships as a cabin boy and traveled the Mediterranean Sea. He later studied in public schools, graduated from the University of Zurich, climbed the Alps and hunted wild chamois. The extended family produced cheese and dairy products and, in 1883, dispatched 23-year-old Scharrer to Wisconsin to investigate the different taste of the cheese being made there by Swiss immigrants. Betz wrote: "Henry could only say it was the difference in the fodder, as Wisconsin grass was not the Alpine vegetation." He spent the next five years exploring America by foot, horseback, train and stagecoach, making his way to San Francisco, New Orleans and, eventually, Tampa. He worked where work could be found, landing a construction job at the Tampa Bay Hotel, now designated as a National Historic Landmark and home to the University of Tampa and Henry B. Plant Museum. His daughter later wrote: "A very well-dressed, dignified man came where Henry was cutting rafters and started asking questions. Henry, becoming worried about being held up on his work, said he must get busy. The man told him there was no rush, that he was the owner, Henry Plant." Scharrer used some of his wages to purchase wood for a house and supplies needed to farm and fish on Hog Island. He sold smoked fish, honey and the produce he grew on the island by going door to door in Dunedin. He met his wife, an Irish immigrant named Catherine McNally, while visiting the Malone family there. "He was portrayed as a recluse but was gregarious and outgoing," Fortner says. "He sometimes took the wealthy Northerners wintering here on fishing excursions." Poet-novelist Carl Sandburg, World War I flying ace Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker and Austrian violinist Fritz Kreisler were among the famous island visitors Betz recalled in the book. Fortner is the daughter of Marion Ann Thorp, 79, the only child Betz had with her husband, Herman Betz, a carpenter who built a second house on the island near Scharrer's. Myrtle Betz sold the island to a developer in the 1940s with the stipulation that the original 160-acre homestead remain a park. The state eventually bought it and turned the islands into parks. Caladesi was named the No. 2 beach in America in 2007 by Stephen "Dr. Beach" Leatherman, a Florida International University professor. Honeymoon is Florida's most visited state park, attracting nearly 1 million guests this year. But for all the foot traffic, the islands have retained the Old Florida charm that attracted Scharrer. A Feeling Of Belonging Fortner can see the islands her great-grandfather settled from a vantage point near her home across St. Joseph Sound in Ozona. "I have this wonderful feeling of belonging to this area," says the Montessori teacher, a minister's wife and mother of two grown children. She recalls camping on the island as a young girl: "We were all alone out there like Henry and Myrtle were." She keeps bees, just as her grandmother and great-grandfather before her, and can name the birds and plants on the island just as they could. She points to goldenrod, notes the song of a towhee sparrow. Betz wrote her book in 1981 and '82, and it was first printed in 1984 as a surprise gift for her 90th birthday in 1985. A second edition, sponsored by the Palm Harbor Junior Women's Club, was printed in 1991, and sales benefited the Henry Scharrer Memorial Scholarship Fund for area students. The previous printings were self-published. Fortner says it was her own daughter Jenny, then a small baby, who inspired her grandmother to take on such a project. "Myrtle said, 'Oh, my great-granddaughter has been born. I may not live to know her.' She wrote the book as a result of that thought. She told me, 'If Grandma Moses could start painting at 70, why can't I write a book at 87?'" She wrote it longhand in a binder, journal and spiral notebook. Her work assured that many besides Jenny, now 25, would get to know about the idyllic life of a girl who grew up on an island paradise that her father tamed without tarnishing. "We feel rich having this book in the family," Fortner says. "And the islands themselves are better than a bank full of money." THE BOOK Yesteryear I Lived in Paradise WHAT: Written by Myrtle Scharrer Betz and re-released this year with a timeline, additional photos and a cover painting by Tarpon Springs artist Christopher Still. Printed by The University of Tampa Press. HOW MUCH: $30 hardcover, $20 paperback WHERE: Available at the Sandpearl Resort Marketplace on Clearwater Beach, Dunedin Historical Society Museum, the Dunedin Fine Art Center, Cafe Caladesi on Caladesi Island and two Honeymoon Island locations: Cafe Honeymoon and the Rotary Centennial Nature Center.
Reporter Steve Kornacki can be reached at (813) 731-8170 or [email protected]