Naples celebrates its centennial anniversary this year. On December 1, 1923, Naples was incorporated as a municipality; 20 years later the population was recorded at around 1,200. Today, the U.S. Census Bureau reports nearly 20,000 people (snowbirds not included). To learn more about how our area has transformed, we sought out current residents from multiple decades—from someone in their 40s to someone in their 90s. Through chats about their longtime lives in Naples, we unearthed when they came, why they came, what they remember, and their feelings about the evolution of Naples through the years.
Minka McDonald, 47
Minka McDonald moved to Naples when she was just 3 years old. Her family, including her grandparents, fled Jamaica, a country in political turmoil and on the verge of communism in the 1970s.
McDonald remembers Naples as a tiny beach town. After only one year, her family decided to move to Atlanta, Georgia, for business opportunities. “We lived in the Southern city for 11 years,” she says, but “we always returned to Naples and Marco Island for our family vacations.” Her parents had purchased a condo on Marco Island, making this possible. In 1991, at 15 years of age, McDonald and her family moved back to Naples in the middle of the school year; she and her sister enrolled at Barron Collier High School.
“We left our city, school, and all our friends and moved to this quiet town. We thought we were going to die,” she recalls. Fortunately, while attending Barron Collier High School and really “into running,” the sisters joined the track team, quickly finding themselves spending their weekends at the beach with a growing group of new friends—boating, tubing, and wakeboarding. “We fell in love with Naples.”
Her family rented a single-story house on Bayview Avenue that overlooked the bay directly at The Ritz-Carlton, Naples. The beach was at the end of the street. Watching sunsets on the beach became the activity of choice.
McDonald’s mother opened her own interior design company—Jinx McDonald Interior Designs—in 2000. Soon after, McDonald once again made Naples her permanent home and worked as her mom’s design assistant. At that time, she recalls thinking the town was booming and blowing up. “I couldn’t have imagined then that it could grow even more,” she says. “The recession slowed things down for a few years, but Naples keeps going and going.”
Did she ever think Naples would turn into the place it is today?
“It has been amazing and unbelievable to watch this town grow into a thriving city where everyone in the world wants to live. I lived in different places in my 20s and some of my 30s—I was so happy to move back to Naples and settle down. I love running into old friends and acquaintances at the grocery store. I love that my dentist is an old friend and former track teammate. I could go on and on!”
Mark Stahlman, 58
Mark Stahlman is a rare true native—he was one of the first babies born at Naples Community Hospital, the oldest child of Russell and Edriess Stahlman. His father began Stahlman Property Maintenance Service in 1965, which at one time was located on Third Street South, where The Continental restaurant now operates. Stahlman recalls how the street was often lined with “20 green trucks.” In 1968, the property maintenance company included a nursery and became Stahlman & Sons, moving just north of Pine Ridge Road on undeveloped land.
Raised in the Aqualane Shores neighborhood, Stahlman experienced a pleasant childhood and has many good memories growing up in what he describes as a relaxed and low-key atmosphere with no crime. “You knew everyone,” he says. “Many of the Naples families owned the businesses, and we all supported each other.”
As a kid, he remembers building forts on the numerous empty lots surrounding his home, spearfishing at Gordon’s Pass, hunting on east Trail in the marshlands, and hearing ice being made and delivered by Naples Ice House. He could often be found watching the shrimp boats unload at the Turner and city docks or playing softball at Cambier Park. The movie theater was in a Quonset hut near the Beach Store (on Third Street South). Local businessmen would gather on Sundays at the dove fields—where Costco now stands—to hunt. Annual anticipated events included the Swamp Buggy Parade and an Easter egg hunt in Cambier Park.
He remembers empty streets, which allowed his brothers and him to ride their bicycles everywhere; eventually they upgraded to Cushman three-wheel utility carts to traverse the town.
For Stahlman, “water sports were everything.” At 17 years of age, he was one of the country’s top young water-skiers. A newspaper article about him at this time states he thought he might make skiing his career—possibly opening a ski school in Naples. Having come from a family business of landscaping and irrigation, he instead founded Stahlman Irrigation in 1980. He grew the company and today serves as founder and vice chairman of the board for Stahlman-England; he also gives much of his time to industry-related groups. Devoted to his community and faith, Stahlman is involved in charitable organizations, including St. Matthew’s House, Habitat for Humanity, Guadalupe Center, and the YMCA.
Did he ever think Naples would become what it has today?
“No, I never had a clue—even when Golden Gate started in the 1960s—they were just houses far out of town,” he notes. “Naples really didn’t take off until Coquina Sands and the Moorings developments began around 1965. It truly was a little fishing town that developed into a major city. I am so proud to be a native of Naples!”
Mary Molter Cohen, 63
Mary Molter Cohen was born in Fort Myers at the Lee County Memorial Hospital. She moved to the Pine Ridge neighborhood in 1963, when her father purchased five acres of land on Hickory Road (when Pine Ridge Road was dirt and gravel). “We lived out in the boonies,” she recalls.
Molter Cohen was from a large Catholic family—one of nine children. Attending mass was an important part of her life. “We drove to Saint Ann’s every Sunday before Saint William was built in 1980,” she says. Molter Cohen explains she loved school and attended Sea Gate Elementary, Gulfview Middle School, and Naples High School, involving herself in various after-school activities and clubs. Molter Cohen was the first recipient of the Elizabeth E. Barnett scholarship (created by former Naples mayor Bill Barnett in honor of his late mother), affording Molter Cohen the opportunity to obtain a college degree—the first in her family who did.
“Everything in my world centered around the beach and intercoastal waterways. If you had a friend with a boat, it was ideal. Sunset watching was popular,” remembers Molter Cohen. “Naples Pier, North Lake Drive, and Horizon Way were the top three beach sites for sunning and swimming. Hot spots were the Beach Store on Third Street South—it was a drug store with lunch service and a movie theater; Dairy Queen was popular, as was the 7-Eleven on Twenty-second Avenue.”
“I always considered Naples to be an idyllic small town where ordinances were strict and standards were high,” relates Molter Cohen. “Our medians on US 41 were beautified early on. Naples was charming—a quiet place where we really could not find trouble as teenagers.”
After graduating from college, Molter Cohen moved to Marietta, Georgia, working in the adult beverage industry—focused on wines—for 37 years. In January 2022, following a successful career (for several years as a single mother), she retired. Twenty-nine years ago, she married Barry Cohen, and together they raised a blended family of five children. She and Barry have been full-time residents of Naples since 2008.
Molter Cohen runs the annual Molter Memorial Golf Tournament to benefit Folds of Honor, honoring the sacrifices of military and first responders by educating their legacies. She also stays involved with Youth Haven. Often on her mind these days as well, she tells, is “keeping Naples affordable for those who provide vital services.”
Did Molter Cohen ever think Naples would become what it has today?
“Naples is a place that, no matter how much it has grown, represents happy, healthy, and benevolent people who do their best to help those most in need, especially the children, while generously supporting the arts, culture, and spiritual foundations and still preserving a charm and a small-town personality.”
Peter Van Arsdale, 74
Peter Van Arsdale’s parents, John and Betty Van Arsdale, first visited Naples in the spring of 1956. They were traveling the perimeter of the west coast, searching for a place they could operate the Provincetown-Boston Airline (PBA), which they founded in 1949, during the winter months when demand for travel to the Cape Cod airfield slowed. They didn’t necessarily discover Naples as a beautiful town in which to live or retire (as so many do today)—they saw a business opportunity.
Peter was born in 1949 in Provincetown, Massachusetts, becoming a snowbird at only 7 years old. From November to May, he attended Naples Elementary on the grounds of what today is Gulfview Middle School, claiming he was “the smartest kid in the class.” When he returned to school in Massachusetts, however, his mother quickly discovered he was lagging behind his peers and sent him off to a boarding school.
Van Arsdale’s father trained him to fly. And, although he was going to pursue a career in banking, he—with a wife in tow—returned to Naples in 1972 to work for PBA. In 1980, he and his brother, John, purchased the airline from their father and continued to expand the Florida routes. In 1984, PBA became a significant airline in Florida, growing from a small niche carrier to the largest commuter airline in the country with 113 aircraft transporting mostly vacationers.
He and his wife lived in a small condo on Gulf Shore Boulevard; daughters Joslyn and Nina were born in 1975 and 1978 respectively. The family’s recreation time was spent boating and enjoying water-based activities. “Dinners out might be at St. George & The Dragon or The Pewter Mug—seemingly light years away in north county,” says Van Arsdale.
In 1977, he bought a small home in the Port Royal neighborhood for $250,000. “When you walked in the front door, you could see for miles—all the way to Gordon Drive,” he relates. In 1989, People Express Airlines, the first domestic low-fare airline, purchased PBA and Van Arsdale pivoted to the construction industry, later teaching flight safety courses. After leaving the area for 10 years, he is once again a snowbird, splitting his time between St. Louis, Missouri, and Naples.
What does he think about how Naples has developed over the years?
“Naples is a late bloomer,” he says. Although he considers change inevitable, Van Arsdale admits he likes what is happening in Naples. “The town has shown remarkable restraint over the years; development is being done so well—it doesn’t mean everyone likes it, but it is amazing how the grid, platted in the late 1800s, survived in Naples, including no high-rises from the former Naples Beach Club south to Gordon Pass. Naples had strong leaders, like Roy Smith, an early mayor in town.” Van Arsdale also remembers his term on city council and spearheading the revitalization of Fifth Avenue South, marveling at the bustling destination street it has now become.
As the town continues to change, he notes: “There are still serious issues, but there exists a strong will to make things right and better.”
Judy C. Sproul, 82
Judy C. Sproul moved to Naples 50 years ago. Born in New York City, she’s the daughter of Barron Collier Jr. and his wife, Barbara. Her grandfather, Barron Gift Collier, was an American advertising entrepreneur who became the largest landowner and developer in the state of Florida.
“I have always loved Florida,” remarks Sproul, who as a child fondly remembers visiting Boca Grande and staying at The Gasparilla Inn & Club, which was owned from 1930 to 1961 by Barron Collier/The Collier Corporation of Useppa Island and New York. “Before people started buying second homes in Florida, they stayed for weeks at a time at hotels,” says Sproul.
Sproul’s father worked in the financial industry in New York and, after his two brothers passed in the 1950s, was needed to run the Barron Collier family business in Florida. At that time, the county seat was in Everglades City. Sproul’s mother decided that was not an option as a place to live, so when Sproul was 11, they moved to Palm Beach. Sproul attended college for two years, studying finance; she then met and married Earle “Bud” Sproul. They settled in Connecticut and together had three daughters. Her husband died when the girls were very young, so in 1973, Sproul decided to move to Naples to work in the family business and raise her family.
She discovered “Naples was a good ole boys’ town, and most of the women didn’t work,” declaring that she had to make her own way in the business world. Sproul chose to keep her maiden name private as she wanted to make a name for herself—something she accomplished. Today, Sproul serves on the board of Halstatt, a family-owned investment firm that she founded, and is a general partner of Barron Collier Companies.
Sproul arrived at what she views as an “exciting time” for the town of Naples and considers herself a pioneer of the era. One of Sproul’s greatest achievements was developing Grey Oaks Country Club. “I was land rich and cash poor,” she admits, so she sold some land in trust for her and her daughters to help fund the development. It quickly became her fourth child.
Fifty years later, what does Sproul think of the popular town she helped create?
In her opinion, those who chose to move to Naples wanted a more friendly town than what they found on the east coast. She believes this happened because the town developed slowly. She does fear that a way of life that includes and celebrates the natural beauty of Florida is getting lost—one of the reasons she built a home in a remote, rural location east of Immokalee that she often visits.
It is the interweaving of people from different places, bringing a variety of experiences, that Sproul concludes made and continues to make Naples so great.
Thelma Hodges, 94
On November 18, 1955, at 27 years of age, Thelma Teresa Rapa, born in Lawrence, Massachusetts, moved to Naples. A registered nurse, she was recruited by the first administrator of Naples Community Hospital (NCH) to help open the new hospital.
As nurses, “we lived at the Nightingale Apartments, located between Third and Fourth avenues,” says Hodges, who notes they paid $68 per month. “There was only one stoplight in town—at the Four Corners [Tamiami Trail and Fifth Avenue South]. Grocery shopping was done at Don Wynn’s Sunshine Grocer on Fifth Avenue; church was at Saint Ann’s Catholic Church.”
Hodges remembers dining out at The Anchor or The Flaming Fountain. “We went to the movies in the Quonset hut on Third—but if it rained, they would have to stop the movie because it had a steel roof.” The Junior Women’s Club and the Beach Club hosted parties; an annual Tinsel Ball was held in December—where she reminds, “girls could invite boys.” It was at this ball that she met Earl Hodges, an ambulance driver in Naples. They married in 1958 and opened Hodges Funeral Home in the early ’60s.
What were her impressions of Naples as a place to live?
“When I first arrived, it was what everyone said it was: a fishing village. There was nothing here.”
Hodges maintains the hospital helped change that with the help of Mrs. Briggs (of Briggs & Stratton engines), a very civic-minded person. As a champion of the hospital, Hodges recalls Briggs tending to every detail—even the selection of silverware and china for the dining room.
“But the real impact was Hurricane Donna,” says Hodges. “It devastated Collier County in the same way Ian devastated Lee County. It leveled us. Slowly and steadily, we came back. We needed every kind of workforce imaginable. Many skilled workers came from up north, expecting to stay until particular projects were complete. Instead, many decided to stay. Marriages occurred, families emerged, schools were built—all thanks to Donna and determination.”
Did she ever think the town would become what it has today? Did she see the potential?
“It all unfolded. Once I met Earl, every day was exciting. He loved the whole idea of living in a community and contributing to its development.” For Hodges, being a Neapolitan is “a privilege. A blessing, really,” she adds.