The patriarch of Sanibel Island
by John Dudley ’95
Francis P. Bailey, Jr. ’43 at Bailey's General Store in Sanibel, Florida.
The entire time I was on Sanibel Island, I was afraid I was going to refer to Francis Bailey as George Bailey. I couldn’t get It’s a Wonderful Life out of my head. It was not until I learned the complete story of Sanibel and the Baileys—Francis and his brother Sam—that I understood exactly how much Francis Bailey’s life had in common with that timeless Christmas classic.
For all practical purposes, Francis P. Bailey, Jr. ’43 is Sanibel Island. His father moved there at the age of 24, when land in the tropical paradise off the southern Gulf Coast of Florida was only a few cents more than dirt-cheap. Though he was born only a few miles away in Ft. Myers, Francis Bailey is nearly a lifelong citizen of the island. Except for a few years in prep school, four years at Hampden-Sydney, and a stint in the Army, Bailey has lived his entire life on the island. Of course, his brother, Sam Bailey ’46, who was born on Sanibel and died in 2010, forever joked that his younger brother was not a true Sanibel citizen.
At 91 years old, Francis Bailey has seen many changes on the island, some good and some not so good. His family’s “general store” in Sanibel has evolved from the seed and supply store established in 1899 by his father into a fully stocked grocery store, hardware store, and coffee shop that serves thousands of locals and tourists seven days a week. Bailey’s General Store also offers its own line of salad dressings and salsas. All of the locals know Francis Bailey. He and his brother Sam have been honored with parades, celebrations, and story-telling dinners. Sanibel Island would not be the place it is today without the Baileys, and no trip to Sanibel is complete without stopping at Bailey’s General Store.
The Baileys are as much a part of Sanibel as the warm weather and seashells on the beach. A vibrant nonagenarian, Francis Bailey still goes to work at the store every day to keep an eye on the business and community he helped build.
In 1899, Francis and Sam Bailey’s father, Francis P. “Frank” Bailey, Sr., started Sanibel Packing Company. Though the island was sparsely populated, there were a number of farmers growing a variety of crops during the milder part of the year; summers were simply too hot to grow anything. Frank Bailey, the youngest of nine children, was 24 in 1885 when he moved to Sanibel with his mother and two of his brothers. They were a Virginia family but had been living in Covington, Kentucky, before the move south. Why did they pack up everything and move hundreds of miles to a remote Gulf Coast island? “I really and truly don’t know,” says Francis Bailey. “I think it had to do with too much John Barleycorn.”
“Daddy was a city boy coming down here. The first job he had was hauling watermelons for two cents apiece and he made more money than anybody else. The other haulers couldn’t figure out how he did that. Well, the mule wagons had a seat in them. What he did was take the seat out; he would walk and carry more watermelons in the wagon.”
Like most families in Sanibel at the time, the Baileys turned to farming. The warm winters meant they could grow crops that were out of season elsewhere.
“There was truck farming here, although I don’t know if you had a truck because you couldn’t get a truck over here those days. Our big crops were tomatoes [which Bailey calls toe-MAH-toes] and peppers and watermelons and eggplants. You couldn’t grow year round. In the summer it was too hot and they hadn’t developed the wilt-resistant varieties that they have now.”
As do most people with a lifetime of memories, Bailey lets his conversations meander from one topic to another. Thinking about early farming on the island reminds him of a trip abroad. “One of the biggest surprises I ever got was in London,” he recalls. “I went into Harrod’s produce department—I thought they were just clothing but they had a huge produce department—and they had produce from all over the world and they had blueberries from Florida. I didn’t even know we had blueberries. But there they were.”
To supplement their farming, the Bailey family opened a general store beside the dock where the mail boat arrived three times a day. The constant flow of locals and island visitors proved to be a comfortable, though not necessarily lucrative, source of income.
“Our corporation is Sanibel Packing Company and that’s what the business started out as,” explains Bailey. “The store started as an adjunct to it. Somewhere you had to get supplies and we saw a need. We didn’t stock vegetables—everybody had their own vegetables. We had flour and grits and meal, dried beans, white bacon, and all those things. It was all in bulk in those days.”
Childhood on the island likely was similar to early 20th-century life in any rural area, but the population fluctuated with the seasons. Bailey says, “The most children we ever had in the school—and there were eight grades—was 32, and that was only in the middle of the winter augmented by the ‘snow birds,’ as daddy called them. Some people do this now, but the way tourism was in those days, people would come down by the first of November and leave by the first of May.”
He recalls with a chuckle, “We had eight grades in one room, one teacher, one front door, one stove, one pencil sharpener, but we had two two-hole outhouses.”
After the “snow birds” left Sanibel for the summer, the Baileys remained. Of course, there was no air conditioning and the hot, muggy weather was perfect for breeding mosquitoes “that were so thick you could take a quart can and swing it above your head and get a gallon of mosquitoes.”
Escaping the mosquitoes was a constant struggle. Bailey says, “We had smudge pots and you always brushed off the screen door before we came in and were careful not to leave it open. Threaten to shoot the dog if he pushed it open. If you had to go some place in the evenin’, you’d get everybody all set together and run to the car and drive down the road with the doors open.”
Despite being only a ferry ride away from Ft. Myers, Sanibel Island might as well have been on another planet. “We had no paved roads, no sidewalks, no drug store, no furniture store, no barber, no beauty shop, no movie theater. It was just here. Nobody felt deprived. That’s what we had.”
Maybe his attitude is simply a lesson of living through the Great Depression. Maybe it says more about Francis Bailey as a person. His mother died when he was only 14 years old and his father, who never stopped thinking of himself as a Virginian, was determined that he and his beloved wife be buried in Richmond’s Hollywood Cemetery. During the trip to bury Bailey’s mother, his father enrolled him in Lynchburg’s Virginia Episcopal School, a last-minute change of plans over Staunton Military Academy. At 14 years old and recently without a mother, Bailey began his life in a new state and at a new school, spending the night away from his family for the first time ever.
Though the summers on Sanibel Island were full of mosquitoes and oppressive heat, Bailey didn’t mind going back home at the end of the semester. “I was happy to be here. I was keeping bees at the time. My father kept them for me while I was away; that’s what helped us pay for school. We had up to a hundred and some hives, but the hurricane [HUR-a-kin, as he says] in 1944 kinda put a dent in that.”
Bailey ended up at Hampden-Sydney rather by accident. He says, “There was a $50 scholarship and nobody wanted it. I think that’s literally how it was. I don’t know how I got it, but they gave it to me. My uncle helped send me there and then there was the National Recovery Act where we got paid 35 cents an hour to work on campus.” He worked a variety of jobs at Hampden-Sydney. “Sortin’ dirty socks was one of ’em,” he says. He also worked as a waiter in the dining hall, the current location of Parents & Friends Lounge in Venable Hall.
“We had eight people at a round table and we tried to get there early and get out of the kitchen and get to the food. They would load your plates up and you’d take ’em. Well, if you were careful, you could put all eight plates on this one tray. Of course, you know, we were strong then. But we had dogs all over the place; sometimes they’d get in. I always walked fast anyway and one night I came charging out with these eight plates and somebody threw a crust of bread or somethin’ between my legs—on purpose. The dog went after the bread and I got mixed up in the dog’s legs. Well, stuff went everywhere.”
There were still boarding houses in these days. Miss Emma Venable ran the boarding house behind Cushing Hall; it is now Hampden House, the home of the Alumni Office. He lived there his freshman year, then two years in Cushing, and most of his senior year in the Kappa Sigma house. Bailey and others graduated in February 1943 to enlist in the war effort.
“My freshman class had 140 or 120 in it, or something like that. That was the biggest class they’d ever had up to that point. With attrition, of course, by the time I got out of there in February of ’43 there might have been only 200 students at the school. I don’t know if there were even that many there.” During World War II, Hampden-Sydney, like so many colleges across the country, was having difficulty keeping enough students to stay open (the eventual arrival of the Navy V-12 unit would solve that problem). Nearly every able-bodied young man was serving in the military; even two assistant Tiger football coaches were called to active duty during the 1942 season.
“We had a graduation ceremony in McIlwaine Hall. McIlwaine was everything at the College for years. Morton Hall was finished in either the first or second year I was there. Bagby was where we had all of our classes and all of the various organizations had their offices there; the Tiger had its headquarters there.”
Because Morton Hall was new, hard-nosed faculty insisted that students treat it well. “I had ‘Snapper’ Massey in Morton. He assigned seats to you. You sat in his class and you didn’t cross your legs because you would scratch the back of the seat in front of you. I was sitting in the front row—Bailey—so I could do that,” he says with a laugh. “He had an uncanny way of calling on you if you weren’t prepared. I don’t know; we must have all had guilty looks. He could pick us out, aye yi yi.”
At Hampden-Sydney, he was on the football team but didn’t play much. He says, “I loved it, I just didn’t have it.” His brother Sam was the football player and he parlayed his athletic prowess into a successful career in athletics.
Francis recalls with a smile that nearly everyone except him and a handful of others at VES played football. “I didn’t go out for football and everybody thought I was a sissy. So, I went out for boxing and straightened ’em out.”
The 1942 football season, Bailey’s last season as a Tiger, was not the best in our long history. Hampden-Sydney played many current ODAC rivals as well as the likes of William & Mary, the University of Virginia, and the University of Richmond. The Tigers beat Roanoke College at Homecoming and that was about it. “We didn’t win many games that year,” says Bailey. “But I know we either won or tied Randolph-Macon, so we had a successful season.”
Of course, even then college was about more than classes and football. There were also plenty of parties. “My freshman year, the Comity Club—a big, open, dirty-lookin’ barn—was havin’ a dance. I keep thinking we had both of the Dorsey brothers there; we couldn’t’ve had. Maybe we had Jimmy [it was]. The thing burned down maybe a week before the dance. So President Gammon let us have the dance in the gym [now Graham Hall]. The way we did it in those days, you danced with your girl and anybody could cut in on you. The popular girls sometimes didn’t take two steps; there was just a line of ’em. But if you got stuck with a girl for three or four minutes, there was something wrong with that. You always had somebody cut in, but with some girls it wasn’t so frequent.”
“They quit those parties in the fall of ’42 and a guy named John Sivell [’42], who was a KA and one of the tackles on the football team, and I were good buddies. He was president of the Monogram Club; I was the treasurer. I don’t know how it got started, but we decided to put on our own dances. So we went and rented a jukebox from a place down the road, decorated the gym, we even bought Cokes and—I didn’t think of it; another guy did—put them in the women’s restroom. We did that three or four times during the year and had some really good parties.”
Life on The Hill seems simpler then: class and chapel during the week, football games and dances on the weekend. Maybe it was just simpler for guys like Francis Bailey. “I had no money. On Saturday, we’d go to town and go to the movies. I wasn’t into drinkin’ in those days, so I didn’t have to pay for beers, and I wasn’t dating, so I didn’t have to pay for that. We’d go to the movies and then come back and play bridge an’ use all kindsa cheatin’ methods.”
Of course, the young guys loved playing pranks on each other. He laughs when he talks about throwing water bombs—folded up newspapers filled with water—out of First Passage windows onto unsuspecting passersby.
“The different fraternities intermingled a lot. We all got along real well. One of my best friends, White, was a KA. We went up to Lehigh or one of those Pennsylvania colleges we played in football and you weren’t exactly welcome if you were a poosie-doopsie with a noopsie-noopsie or whatever they are.”
The Virginia weather for the Florida boy was the source of a lot of fun, too, as he recalls in a story about a snowstorm. “Freshman year—we ate in Venable [now Parents & Friends Lounge], not the basement; that’s where the football players lived—I lived in Mrs. Venable’s house. Anyway, in January or February—it was after Christmas—we had the biggest snow reportedly of anywhere in the country. I’ve pictures of guys—Judge Hay [William P. Hay, Jr. ’42] in Farmville who was a year ahead of me and a guy named Sullivan [Frank E. Sullivan ’40] who was the center on the football team—standing outside with snow up to their waist. You get a six-inch snow in Virginia and everything’s broken down. On the corner across the street from Shannon’s [in Farmville] the snow was stacked up above my head. That was something else.”
The simple life ended in February 1943. Bailey entered the Army and served for three years. He went home and wondered what he was going to do with his life. His brother Sam had signed up to play professional football, so the two of them started hitchhiking from Sanibel, Florida, to Hershey, Pennsylvania. Francis considered jobs in Florida and Tennessee but nothing really appealed to him. He also considered returning to Hampden-Sydney for another year, but Dean David C. “Turret Top” Wilson persuaded him to go into teaching.
He says everyone at Hampden-Sydney, even the professors, had a nickname. Dr. Joe Frierson, the chemistry professor, was “Lil’ Joe.” The head football coach, Frank Summers, was lovingly called “Pig Eye.” Even the College President, Dr. Edgar Gammon 1905, was called “Rip,” a nickname he had picked up as a student. Francis Bailey went by “Moon.”
Bailey recalls, “My sophomore year we were in Cushing having a big ‘bull session’ in there, and this guy named Preston Watt [’44]—he was a fraternity brother, a Kappa Sig—came in the room and said, ‘Moon Mullins, you banjo-eyed bum.’ Moon Mullins was a cartoon character back then. Somehow, just the name Moon stuck. Forever after, that was what everyone called me. No one ever used first names anyway. You went by a nickname or last name.”
The nickname was so pervasive that he was referred to as “M. Bailey” on his fraternity composite and in football programs.
Nicknames aside, Bailey did teach for two years at VES and worked during the summers at a boys’ camp in Vermont. By 1948, though, he had decided it was time to return to Sanibel. A hurricane in 1944 had severely damaged the island’s citrus crops, including the acres and acres cultivated by his father.
“We were existing,” is how Bailey describes the state of the family business when he returned home. The packing company was closed. Farming was way down. However, the family store struggled on.
As I said, originally Bailey’s General Store was along the shoreline where locals—and the many vacationers—disembarked from the ferry. A stop at Bailey’s store was one of the first things visitors would do, which proved to be relatively lucrative for the family. As the island grew, the store also grew. They enlarged it by closing in a porch. Later, the Baileys built a new Standard Oil station on the island along Periwinkle Way, which had become Sanibel’s main thoroughfare. The island, though only a few miles from Ft. Myers, was still remote and in a perpetual state of recovery from hurricanes.
Everything changed in 1963—on May 23 to be precise. That was the day the bridge connecting Sanibel to the mainland opened to traffic.
“At the time, I thought it would instantly change the island radically. It took two or three years for us to notice any big change. The island was growing—or regressing, depending on how you looked at it—anyway, but it was two or three years before we noticed any appreciable spurt. I think some of the real estate speculators started saying, ‘Hmm. It looks pretty good over there’.”
The beginning of the bridge was the end of the mail boat, which put Bailey’s General Store at the end of a dead-end road. Three years later, in 1966, the family moved the store to its current location on Periwinkle Way. The store also grew substantially. During the last 45 years, the store has evolved and offers a wide variety of products, from baked goods and fresh vegetables to hammers and beach toys. If Bailey’s General Store doesn’t sell it, you probably don’t need it on the island.
As Francis Bailey shows me around Bailey’s General Store he is so busy greeting shoppers that “Good morning” sounds like a punctuation mark: “This is the produce department that my daughter runs, good morning;” “Do you want some coffee? We have all kinds of fancy coffee drinks over here, good morning;” “We recently started renting movies, good morning.”
At first, it seems like he knows everyone who walks through the door, but I soon realize that folks who greet him first know who he is and those who don’t say hello he quickly and cheerfully welcomes to the store. Without a doubt, Francis Bailey is a local celebrity; he is a Sanibel institution.
Outside Bailey’s General Store, I meet Billy Kirkland, of Billy’s Bike Rentals, who is quick to describe Francis Bailey as “a wonderful person and a part of Sanibel history.” He says, “We were having a charity auction a while ago and one of the items for bid was lunch with Francis Bailey. He and I were standing beside one another when I bid $500. Francis looked at me all surprised and said, ‘Billy, you don’t have to pay to have lunch with me, you could just ask’.”
Community is vitally important to Bailey. If Sanibel loses that, to him, it has lost everything. During the 1970s, when the county wanted to turn Sanibel into another Miami Beach, Bailey and the rest of the island community organized and incorporated into an independent city. The city council, of which Bailey was a member for many years, preserved the community atmosphere while still accommodating the tourists on which the economy depends. The beaches are lined with cottages and small hotels and the main drag across the island houses local restaurants and shops rather than national chains.
But you can’t stop progress, or “retrogression” as Bailey calls it. Sanibel is seeing more and more very large houses, even some gated communities, which Bailey can’t stand. “There’s always exceptions, but the majority of these folks aren’t interested in integrating into the community. They only come down here to go to their mansion. I don’t know if they know that we have a community association or a church or whatever. They come and go. Maybe they are here a week; they just are not a part of the community. I don’t like that.”
Francis Bailey loves people. You can see that in the way he talks to his family, his employees, even complete strangers. When friendly, happy, social people come to Sanibel—to visit or to live—he is a happy man.
“I’ve said for years that the kind of people we want to come down here are people who want to live, work, and play. You get some people who’ve been here for six months and you’d think they’ve been here forever; they’ve just blended into the community, become part of it. They’re friendly. Then there are others who are just different.”
What took George Bailey a cinematic lifetime to learn in It’s a Wonderful Life, Francis Bailey may have known all along. George Bailey desperately wanted to flee his hometown for adventure, but circumstances kept drawing him back to Bedford Falls. But Francis Bailey loves Sanibel, and every time he left, he was drawn back to the island life, the community, and his lifetime of friends.
If I had mistakenly called Francis Bailey “George,” I know he wouldn’t have cared. He’s the kind of person who is happy to talk, maybe have lunch with. All you have to do is ask.