|City/Town: • El Jobean|
|Location Class: • Commercial|
|Built: • ~1923 | Abandoned: • 1995|
|Historic Designation: • National Register of Historic Places (September 29, 1999)|
|Status: • Abandoned|
|Photojournalist: • David Bulit|
The Town of Southland
The El Jobean Hotel is a historic hotel built in the town of El Jobean, located in what was once part of Manatee County. The area located on the northeast bank of the Myakka River near Port Charlotte became part of DeSoto County in 1881. In 1921, it became part of the newly formed Charlotte County.
In 1887, Daniel and Jane MacPherson from Scotland purchased 1,071 acres of land at what was then known as Myakka Landing and planned out the town of Southland. Other than the establishment of a small fishing camp for sports fishermen, there was no development on the land and the property eventually went into receivership due to years of unpaid county taxes.
The Charlotte Harbor and Northern Railway extended its line to Southland in 1907, constructing a railway bridge over the Myakka River along with a small railway terminal.
In 1908, three men from Maryland bought the Southland property for its unpaid taxes. Years later, they resold the property to two men who constructed a turpentine distillery on the property in 1920, making turpentine a major industry for Charlotte County. The business though did not last long as the distillery went into foreclosure. The entire 1,071-acre tract of land that was Southland was sold to Joel Bean in 1923, sole owner of the Boston and Florida Realty Trust Company. The old Southland town plans were discarded and replaced with Bean’s own plan for the new town of El Jobe-an, which he billed as the “City of Destiny”.
The Town of El-Jobean
The plan for El Jobe-an called for dividing the city into six wards, each with its own civic center border on a circular central plaza surrounded by a boulevard from which six thoroughfares radiated outwards in the shape of a hexagon. Six other streets would extend outwards from the central plaza and connect with the other wards. Lots bordering the central plazas were reserved for businesses and public buildings. There were also lots set aside within each ward for churches, schools, and recreational facilities. A casino, dance hall, and bathing pavilion were to be erected on the city’s waterfront. Plans were also developed for a large modern railroad depot constructed in the center of town and an 18-hole golf course.
Joel Bean constructed the El Jobean Hotel, a post office and general store, and a small cottage he built for himself which doubled as a sales office, as a means to attract tourists and buyers to the new community he was developing. Bean wanted all of the buildings in El Jobean to be constructed in the Mediterranean Revival style of architecture which was popular in Florida during the 1920s land boom, and these early buildings were to eventually be demolished.
The development was bound for success as Northern buyers began purchasing lots, putting down modest down payments, and taking on large mortgages without even visiting the area. Much of this was due to a land boom that had begun to gather momentum in 1921. Spurred on by reports of large fortunes made in Miami Beach by buying and reselling properties, buyers sought out properties throughout the rest of the state of Florida.
The Great Depression
The land boom began losing momentum around 1926 and finally came to a complete halt when the stock market crashed in 1929. This forced landowners to abandon the mortgages on their lots, and the Boston and Florida Realty Trust Company folded as a result. Only early residents, fishermen, and Joel Bean remained.
While the hotel mainly catered to fishermen, then called the Grand Hotel and Fishing Lodge, Joel Bean used it to house Metro-Goldwyn Mayer movie crews who came to El Jobean in 1931 to film Tarzan serials and a feature-length film starring Ann Sothern and Adolphe Menjou. World War II improved the economy of the area when the Army Air Force Base, now the Punta Gorda Airport, was built in nearby Punta Gorda. The El Jobean Hotel continued to attract numerous customers, including entertainers and fishermen.
Joel Bean died in 1942 at the cottage he built in El Jobean. Neighbors took it upon themselves to start a collection to help pay for his funeral expenses. He was buried at Indian Spring Cemetery in Punta Gorda.
Leopold Carl Simon
After Joel Bean’s death, the property was purchased by Leopold and Donna Simon, who were entertainers in various traveling circuses. The Simons spent their winters in El Jobean throughout the 1930s while on break from their performances and purchased the property so they may continue to enjoy the area.
According to three public birth records, Leopold Carl “Leo” Simon was born on April 19, 1906, in San Antonio, Texas, the son of Leopold and Emilie Carolyn Mueller Simon, although his death certificate and tombstone indicate he was born in 1905 which is an error. His only sibling, Emilie Carolyn “Milly” Simon Morris married Patrick John Morris who had two daughters, Millicent and Nuala.
Per his two nieces, the family pronounced the surname Simon as “Sea-mon”. Their uncle Leo, who they referred to as “Polo”, had red hair and blue eyes, and was born partially deaf. He was known as “Polo” to them because when first learning to talk as a child, his sister Emilie couldn’t say Leopold and instead pronounced it as “Polo”.
Leo ‘Suicide’ Simon
Many would later believe he was a maniac who grew up in a tumultuous household, but in reality, Simon came from an educated family. His father was a pharmacist who ran his own drug store. In the 1920s, Simon began working as a carpenter, and later as a construction foreman, where he worked on some of the most prominent commercial buildings in San Antonio. The San Antonio newspapers wrote about him once as being “a proficient high-board diver at the Brackenridge Park swimming pool.”
In the late 1920s, Simon worked for the Bill Hawkerson Air Circus where he performed delayed parachute jumps and old-time barnstorming aerial stunts. Around the 1930s, he began his fire-diving act which involved him climbing a minimum 80-foot tall ladder, dousing himself in gasoline, and setting himself on fire. He would then perform a swan, jack-knife, or somersault dive into a 6-foot pool of water. The water was topped with flaming gasoline and encircled with spikes that would have killed him instantly if he ever missed.
It’s theorized that Simon survived these high dives due to the flips and the wind friction the flames generated as he dove. A thin film of kerosene on the surface of the water reduced its tension, just enough to dampen the hit. Finally, the bottom of the tank was sloped allowing Simon to slide. After breaking bones in his back and neck for the third time, he came up with a performance in the mid to late-1940s that he described as being “less hazardous”.
The Human Firecracker
In an interview in the March 1950 issue of Popular Mechanics, Simon explained how he got an idea for a new act after watching Captain Frakes, an ex-Hollywood stuntman, blow himself up in a casket. Frakes never told him how he did, but Simon figured, “If Frakes can do it, I can do it too.” He bought some dynamite and detonator caps and took them to El Jobean. That winter, he experimented with five steel plates at first, then three and two, until he got the dynamite to work how he wanted.
He tested the pressure within the wooden box with a milk bottle, and the bottle did not break. He climbed into the box himself and set off the dynamite. The blast sent him spinning like a whirligig for over 20 feet, and if he hadn’t known how to roll and tumble, he might have been killed. He made changes and found that a quarter stick of dynamite hurt him much more than a full stick of dynamite did since it didn’t make enough vacuum. He explained the secret to the act was the placement of the dynamite which was no more than six inches from his head. “There is a vacuum formed by the blast like a hurricane,” he explained, “Three feet away and I’d be blown to bits.”
He found a stick and a half was the minimum amount of dynamite needed for his act, although he would regularly use more than needed as the bigger explosion made for a better show. Sometimes he miscalculated and used too much dynamite at times. He would be knocked unconscious, not by the blast, but by a piece of the box hitting him in the head. “If everything goes all right,” he said, “I just feel a slight thud. If everything doesn’t go just right, I don’t feel anything; I just wake up in the ambulance on the way to the hospital.”
While he was partially deaf, he wore an Army helmet under an old football helmet and fortified it with cups to protect what was left of his hearing. He used no protection other than that helmet, a padded jacket to protect his neck, and a one-inch thick steel plate between his head and the dynamite. The box was also wrapped in wire to prevent pieces of wood from flying into spectators. If the act went as planned, the blast would disintegrate the box, leaving Simon unscathed who would get up and slowly walk away.
While traveling, Simon lived in a trailer he converted from a railroad boxcar. He invented a wind turbine that provided electricity to the trailer and air brakes to aid in its transportation. One of his early wind turbines can be found at the Bean Depot Cafe and Museum located across from the El Jobean Hotel. On the road for three months out of the year, he would perform once every weekday and multiple times on weekends; twice on Friday and Saturday, and three times on Sunday. The rest of the time, Simon enjoyed alligator hunting in the Everglades, fishing for snook and grouper in the Myakka River, and entertaining his guests at his hotel in El Jobean.
Throughout his years as a stuntman and entertainer, he carried many monikers; Leo ‘Suicide’ Simon, “Captain Leo ‘Suicide’ Simon”, “Fire-Diver”, the “Human Firecracker”, and the “Dynamite Devil”. He explained a sponsor wanted to bill him as “Simple Simon” which he took offense to.
Captain F. F. Frakes
Simon never took credit for originating the stunt. In an interview, he stated that he took inspiration from Captain Frank Foster Frakes who was the first man to blow himself up in such a way. Frakes was a barnstormer, stuntman, and aviation legend whose act involved “cracking up planes” which involved flying a Curtiss-Wright biplane into burning buildings, barns, and cars, and walking away from the crash.
The Civil Aeronautics Authority (CAA), the precursor to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), did not much care for Bowser’s occupation. When it was announced that Frakes was doing a show in town, CAA agents would alert local authorities to arrest him. Toward the end of his career as a crack-up pilot, Frakes would feign injuries after a crash and head straight over to the waiting ambulance. Once out of view of the spectators and authorities, he would have the ambulance diverted to either his hotel room or the local train station.
Despite his attempts to evade authorities, he would routinely be arrested for these stunts. On September 9, 1938, Frakes hopped into the back of an ambulance but before the car took off, two men climbed into the back with him. He assumed these were doctors when one of them said they were going to the hospital. To this, Frakes replied, “No! I’m all right, hurry up and get me to my hotel so I can get out of town.” “Well,” retorted one of the men, “If you’re all right then we’re going to the jail, not the hotel.” These two men happened to be the town sheriff and one of his deputies. In the end, Frakes was fined $154.55 for the stunt.
Although his shows were continually halted and his associates arrested, Frakes was known nationwide for his death-defying stunts. He flew as a stuntman in thirty-four movies, including Hell’s Angels and Devil Dogs, and even starred in his own motion picture, “Devil With Wings,” in 1939. At the height of his career, he was sponsored by Camel cigarettes and featured in many of their print ads.
In his fifties, he decided he needed an easier act than cracking up planes and developed the “Casket of Death.” Similar to how Simon would perform it years later, Frakes would lay in a casket lined with dynamite, seal himself inside, and someone would light the fuse. The casket would explode, leaving Frakes alive and unscathed. Another act that he developed involved him riding a rocket and having it explode in midair.
El Jobean Hotel
In 1932, he married Donna Alice Eslocker who always traveled together with Leo as he performed his daredevil stunts. When the Simons purchased the El Jobean Hotel in 1942, their carnival lifestyle followed. A number of carnival and circus performers took up residence at the hotel during the winter months and later, made it their permanent home. Among these were the famous “Flying Wallendas” who would practice their high wire and trapeze acts behind the hotel.
The hotel operated until 1969 when the Simons retired due to Leo’s failing health. He peacefully passed away in 1972 in El Jobean and was buried at Gulf Pines Memorial Park in Englewood, Florida. Donna continued to live at the old hotel, appointing herself the unofficial historian of El Jobean, gathering and preserving artifacts until her death in 1995.
Prior to her death, Donna sold the property to the Berini family, acquiring the artifacts, intellectual property, and likenesses pertaining to Simon, including a screenplay based on his life written by Judi Ann Mason. Tim Berini and other investors formed El Jobean Historical Properties and set to work on rehabilitating the former post office into The Bean Depot Cafe and Museum. Unfortunately, the hotel and old circus trailers have been left to the elements.
On September 29, 1999, The El Jobean Hotel was added to the National Register of Historic Places. It is one of two of the original buildings located in the old center of El Jobean, the other being the former post office building. The cottage Joel Bean lived in was destroyed by fire in 1991.
Tim Berini’s son, Don Berini, has since taken over the family business after his own passing in 2019. Don plans to recreate the hotel’s original facade and front rooms, and turn the back end of the structure into a brewery or distillery. Not much can be done with the rest of the building due to the unsalvagable state it’s in. He also wants to take one of the trailers and repurpose it for the cafe’s tiki bar.
The Columbus Telegram. (September 10, 1938 p.1). Frakes Is Fined for Air Crash
Latimer County News-Tribune. (October 6, 1949). ‘Suicide’ Simon To Blow Self Up With Dynamite 22 Times At Fair
Historic Maury County. (2018). Columbia’s “Crackup”
Florida Memory. (January 1, 2015). The City of Destiny
Popular Mechanics. (March 1950). Suicide Simon
Port Charlotte Sun. (July 24, 2021 p.T5). ‘Suicide’ Simon’s second act