On Monday, December 27, 1920, the long-gone Iona Drainage District filed with Lee County a plat indicating that three parallel canals were to be dug from points east of the Tamiami Trail (US 41) west to Hendry Creek, a tidal estuary emptying into Estero Bay.
The canals designated as Canal K and Canal T marked the northern and southern boundaries, respectively, of a somewhat square 420-odd acre tract of timbered-over but still raw land. The third canal, designated Canal S, ran through the center of the property and with the others was part of a scheme to drain semi-swamp land for mosquito control and possible agricultural use.
The canals eventually were dug in 1927, mainly to realize their original intent but also to drain water left behind by a hurricane that in September of that years, hit the southwest coast of Florida, including flooding the Tamiami Trail to depths of as much as four feet.
The principal “crop” on the newly drained land turned out to be an almost impenetrable proliferation of melaleuca trees, imported early in the century from Australia. By nature thirsty, melaleucas were to help dry the spongy land. The trees soon began to elbow aside native tees and vegetation.
Inhabiting this forest-like tangle was an array of less than hospitable wildlife. Rattlesnakes, many in the four-to-five foot range, water moccasins, coral snakes, bobcats, alligators and feral boars discouraged all but the most intrepid of outdoorsmen. Nonetheless in hunting seasons and out, gunfire market to dispatch of deer, ducks, fox, quail and the occasional wild turkey.
In all, then, hardly a promising spot upon which to forge a high-end gated golf course community. But almost 40 years ago, just about anything seemed possible to optimists David Swor and John Santini.
Swor, originally a Kentuckian, met Santini, a native of Fort Myers, in 1974 when both were active in brokering area real estate. They soon joined forces as Swor & Santini, Inc., their principal business being forming real estate syndicates as tax shelters. This activity in turn led the partners into the high risk world of Southwest Florida real estate development.
On a fall day in 1978, it was suggested to Swor that he talk to the owners of a piece of property considered by most observers of the area’s real estate market to be too remote to be of much immediate value. It had been the intent of its owners to build a golf course, but at the time the nation’s economy was in a slump and financing for such speculative ventures was scarce. What’s more, have been told building a golf course on the property really wasn’t feasible, they were anxious to bail out.
Initially, Swor & Santini’s interest in the property was in brokering its sale. But within a day or two of meeting with the property’s owners, Swor strolled into Santini’s office and half-kidding said, “How’d you like to own a golf course?” His partner impulsively replied, “Why not?”
Accordingly, an option contract entered into in the late fall of 1978 calling for the partners to buy the property for $3,100 an acre. They had in mind a 27-hole layout around which both high-end residential condominiums and single family homes would be built. They called the development Timberlakes, it’s club to be the Timberlakes Country Club.
Based on their past experience as developers, they determined they’d need at least $1.8 million to get the project underway – i.e., building both the golf course and the needed infrastructure of roads, power lines, water lines, sewer lines and so on.
To raise the money, they formed a syndicate called Timberlakes Limited, which eventually numbered 30 limited partners. Once the $1.8 million was raised, Swor and Santini met a man named Bill Maddox, a golf course construction contractor, who at the time, was building the Spanish Wells course in Bonita Springs.
Swor told Maddox that two golf course architects had said it wasn’t possible to build a course on the proposed site because the elevations, ranging from 3-6 feet overall, were too low. Maddox, who had built a golf course near New Orleans where some of the ground was 21 feet below sea level, expressed interest in what the partners had in mind and agreed to look at the project.
Although Timberlakes would remain the development’s “on-paper” name, those working on the project, ever mindful of its heavily wooded expanse, began referring to it as “The Forest” which soon thereafter became its official designation site. The next day, after looking over as much of the property as was accessible in a four-wheel drive vehicle, he said he’d first want to clear out the 3 canals, which since being dug in 1927 had become overgrown, their flow into Hendry Creek choked off. If clearing them adequately drained the surrounding land, the contractor said he could build the partners a golf course.
The involvement of Maddox proved providential, for if a key man was needed to turn raw, swampy acreage into what eventually would become a luxurious golf course community, he was that man. Armed with experience, a “can do” imagination and a “heavy duty bulldozer and a lot of dynamite”, Maddox mounted an all-out assault on the site’s 420 acres.
After first clearing out the tree drainage canals, he then hacked out areas where the proposed roads, residential areas and similar features of the needed infrastructure could be located.
Once the property was surveyed and the required permits applied for and obtained, the almost overwhelming task of turning dreams into reality began in earnest. Ground was officially broken in late 1979 and that the whole came into being at all is a tribute to the determination and perseverance of those charged with bringing it off.
While the golf course was under construction, work began early in 1980 on Phase I – installation of water and sewer lines and systems, power lines, the building of roads, the staking of home sites, even the construction of residential units. An on-site sale office had been set up in the waning months of 1979 but initial sales were less than brisk. From the very beginning, survival of the project was touch and go.
“For the first 4-5 months, most of our lot sales were to locals”, said Swor. “After that, the out-of-towners just started showing up. As it worked out, word-of-mouth was probably our best advertising”.
While the partners were wrestling with adequately financing the project, work on Phase I forged ahead. The infrastructure was in place, 96 single family home sites were staked out, 56 condominium units (Partridge Place) as well as 17 detached villas (Pheasant Court) were under construction. It already had been decided that roadways designated as streets would be named for animals and that multifamily units would be named for birds. Exceptions would be made later on, but most of the original names remain and serve to lend The Forest much of its undeniable ambiance.
Adding to that ambiance was and is the distinctive gumbo-limbo tree upon which The Forest logo is based. It still occupies a prominent spot on the road leading to the clubhouse.
In October of that same year, 1980, construction began on the 16 condominium units of Partridge Court. At about where the golf practice range is now, four tennis courts were built. Also put up was a small building that doubled as a clubhouse and golf and tennis shop. Behind the present tee on the north end of the practice range, where the small putting green is now, a swimming pool was built. The golf course, designed by Gordon Lewis, was completed and opened for play in December of 1980.
Golfer were quick to find the course a challenge – thick woods right and left and several fairways appearing almost punitively narrow. What is more, uncertain as to how cranky the property’s previous occupants might be about having been so rudely dispersed, there was a certain mystery involved in what might be lurking in among the thickets. Accordingly, shots straying into the trees and palmettos tended to be written off as lost.