They Were Honest Men

Author, Lila Zuck

Because “they were honest men” was the reason given by the residents of Naples when asked why six men in particular were chosen on December 1, 1923 to be the First Fathers of Naples upon incorporation on December 1, 1923.

Speed S. Menefee, First Mayor of Naples, 1923-1925.

One of the chosen six was Speed S. Menefee, appointed Mayor. Born on April 2, 1878 in Lexington, Kentucky, he settled in Naples in 1908.

His mother, Elizabeth Williamson Speed, was a descendant of John Speed, the Fifteenth Century English historian and cartographer whose maps of the countries of the world drawn in the late 1590s were accurate 200 years later. From her family he inherited his disposition. Of the Speeds it was said “They have stood well in every community where they have lived, and by industry and integrity, have made the name respected everywhere, so that all who bear it have a good passport and are presumed to be worthy. Some of the family have achieved more than ordinary distinction, but ostentation is unknown.”

His father, Richard Jouett Menefee, was a businessman and the son of the great statesman of Kentucky, the Honorable Richard Hickman Menefee, the skilled attorney who had the distinction of having won five consecutive cases in courtroom battles with opposing attorney the great Henry Clay.

Evidence of Speed Menefee’s skill as an artist surfaced during his boyhood years, when it was remarked that he would someday paint as well as Kentucky’s famous portrait artist Oliver Frazier, a trait he inherited from Mathew H. Jouett, his great grandfather’s son, who was as renowned in Kentucky as Rubens was in Flanders.

Before relocating to Naples in 1908, Speed Menefee studied art at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, and spent several years painting in France, Belgium, Switzerland, Holland, Southern Spain and North Africa.
He trained for five years under an artist who became one of the most renowned in the world, Kentucky-born Frank Duvenek. Among the galleries where his paintings were displayed was Louisville’s renown Klauber Gallery. His portrait of political orator Richard H. Menefee was hung in the Kentucky Hall of Fame at the Kentucky Capitol, an accomplishment of which Speed Menefee never spoke.

In Naples, the thousands of birds and blooms and myriad variations of sunlight streaming through the profuse vegetation inspired him to paint daily. He loved children and taught the few who lived in Naples at the time how to paint, not for any reason, he mused, other than to keep them occupied.

Upon arriving in Naples in 1908, Menefee resided briefly at the home of newly appointed Naples Postmaster Captain Charles Stewart, who lived in a cottage on the east side of the Napes Post Office at the foot of the Naples Pier.

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The Naples Post Office is the structure in the forefront of the picture on the left. Captain Stewart’s home is the structure beside it.

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Speed Menefee sitting on the steps of the Post Office, c. 1908.

Soon after, Menefee moved into a houseboat on Naples Bay, which he purchased for $75, refurbished and named the Molly-O, in honor of a dear friend, Molly Hamill Ordway. Rose Cleveland, who began spending more time in Italy in 1902, sold her home on two lots six blocks south of the Naples Pier to Molly’s father, James K. Hamill, Jr. when she settled there permanently in 1910. Molly’s father, who became mayor of Naples in 1932, sold the southern lot for $1 and one painting to Menefee for the construction of a home.

Speed Menefee’s home is the one-story beside the former Cleveland residence.

Molly was Speed Menefee’s fishing companion. Together they explored the waters of the Ten Thousand Islands along the southern coast of what was still Lee County. Menefee felt most comfortable outdoors, where not only painted, but also guided hunting and fishing parties, treating them to roast duck or fish over open pits at the end of a day’s excursion.

Speed Menefee, avid fisherman and hunter, 1920s.

Speed Menefee’s brother, prominent Louisville physician Dr. Jouett Menefee, followed him to Florida, settling in Everglade. There he met, and in 1921 married, Lottie “Dot” Storter, the daughter of George W. Storter, Jr. The couple later moved to Bonita Springs, where Mrs. Menefee’s sister Bertie Storter Sumner was living. Still standing today is the home Dr. Menefee built at the west end of Pullen Avenue, on the Imperial River.

Speed Menefee pioneered the establishment of local charities and handled all emergencies in the early days when Naples was without roads, churches or doctors. He was asked to officiate at funeral services before Naples had a resident minister. A seat was reserved for him in the lead car of every motorcade beginning with the arrival of the Seaboard Air Line Railway’s Orange Blossom Special in 1927 and the opening of the Tamiami Trail in 1928.

He enjoyed sharing his experiences as a world traveler with the community, revealing his paternally inherited skill as an orator. A simple, kind and gentle man, he had an aura of dignified charm.

He made sure every mother “with child” had fresh eggs daily, which his chickens laid. He made sure each female tourist he encountered at the Naples Pier received a gardenia, personally picked from his gardenia tree, known to have carried over 5,000 blooms a year.

Speed Menefee declined when asked to run for mayor in 1925, citing he preferred to serve the community through his continued involvement with local charities, and especially the American Red Cross.

As his eyesight began failing during the mid-1950s, the sunlight he masterfully captured on canvas became dimmer. The First Father of Naples never picked up his pallet knife again, finalizing the number of his portraits and landscape paintings that found homes all over the world.

In the absence of nursing homes in Naples at the time, when Naples Community Hospital opened in 1956 the Board of Directors promised to provide care for the community’s elderly. In October 1960, one month after Hurricane Donna swept through town displacing Speed Menefee from his beachfront residence, he was offered a room at the hospital to call home for as long as he liked.

He spent the last years of his life at Naples Community Hospital welcoming friends to stop by and chat with him as often as they liked. City officials took him up on the offer, as did school children, who each received a nickel from their first mayor.

In 1958, when he was named “Personality of the Week” by The Collier County News, Speed Menefee said if he could have one wish fulfilled it would be to spend the past 50 years over again, just as he had spent them in Naples.

Speed S. Menefee was 90 years old when he passed away at the hospital, the evening of Tuesday, November 26, 1968. Memorial services were conducted by Reverend Richard T. Lambert at Port Royal’s Trinity-by-the-Cove Episcopal Church.

He was eulogized in the Fort Myers News Press in a 32-line unsigned poem, which praised his love for his fellow man, his ageless youth, and “his soul unbowed.” Speed Menefee’s body was flown to Louisville, where he was buried at the prestigious Cave Hill National Cemetery, resting grounds of fallen Civil War soldiers, the Menefees, the Haldemans, Henry Watterson, and other notables.

Speed S. Menefee, 1952.

The First Mayor of Naples was indeed a talented, caring and respected… honest man.