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Happy anniversary Big John

Downtown Cape Coral landmark turns 40

August 3, 2009

Big John is a Cape Coral landmark, one that harkens back to the city's fledgling history. It speaks to a time before the Cape was dotted with a plethora of shopping opportunities, a time that most current residents would take for granted.

If Cape Coral has a symbol, the 28-foot-tall statue might not qualify as first choice for city leaders; but ask anyone who owns a business in the downtown corridor how they give directions to people looking for their establishments. Nine out of 10 times they probably start by asking: "You know where Big John is, right?"

Though the big guy's look has changed over the years - the grocery bags have been removed from his arms and he's had several paint jobs - the statue is still the same, while most everything around it has changed.

Article Photos

Michael Pistella

Big John today welcomes all with open arms to the Cape Coral Town Center between Cape Coral Parkway and Southeast 47th Terrace.

As part of Big John's Discount Food supermarket that opened in 1969, both the store and the statue represented how much, and how quickly, Cape Coral had grown.

Though the Cape had Elmer's, a small grocery store at the time, it didn't have the full fledged shopping opportunities that Big John's represented.

"For you to get a quart of milk and a loaf of bread in those days it took an hour (because you had to go to Fort Myers)," said Elmer Tabor, current owner of the statue and namesake of the original Cape grocery store. Elmer's father named the store after him, and was original owner of the plaza, now known as the Cape Coral Town Center.

"As the city grew and grew, Big John's really provided a full supermarket ... it had a dynamic deli, a great deli where you could get roasted chicken. It really was a supermarket in those years."

John Hollingsworth was the store's original owner. He and his wife have since passed away, and their son Craig, who managed the store, has moved away as well.

Tabor recalled his relationship with Hollingsworth warmly, calling him a "father figure," one that kept him tied to the grocery business.

"To give you an idea about the size of Big John's, my dad's original store was 3,500 feet. Over time Big John's eventually grew to 43,000. It really grew as the city did," Tabor added.

There are only four of the Big John statues left, according to Tabor. Hollingsworth bought what was then a chain of grocery stores called Big John's, and imported the chain to sunny Southwest Florida once he retired. The remaining statues are scattered around the Midwest, or so Tabor thinks, but doesn't know for certain.

As our Big John made his way south to Cape Coral, he lost his head. literally. Going under a 14-foot underpass in Atlanta, the 15-foot top section of the statue was decapitated. The statue is actually two big pieces that separates at the waist.

"I remember the truck driver was telling me a drunk driver was behind him and saw the head rolling down the middle of the street toward him," Tabor recalled with a laugh. "The driver realized he had had enough to drink."

Celebrating his 40th year as a Cape Coral resident, Big John has officially become part of the history books.

His story is featured at the Cape Coral Historical Museum, in the many books that have been written about the Cape and talked about with affection by Cape historians like Paul Sanborn.

Sanborn said it has become a "great symbol" of the downtown area over the years, even though the store is no longer there.

He happily recalls how the store served fried chicken, how family oriented it was, how everyone at the store, whether working or shopping there, knew each other.

More importantly, though, Sanborn remembers the arrival of the store marked a huge population growth.

"It was really growing. The population was such that it could warrant the store," Sanborn said. "The population could really support these types of businesses."

Both Sanborn and Tabor have been asked by John Jacobsen, director of the Community Redevelopment Agency, to craft a history tour utilizing the free trolley system. Of course, Big John would be a big part of those tours.

"John Jacobsen has talked about utilizing the trolleys and using Elmer and I doing a narration - me on one trolley and Elmer on another," Sanborn said. "I've already written a script for the drivers to use."

Although the progress of the tours is uncertain, one thing is certain when it comes to Big John - the big guy has ingrained itself into Cape Coral lore, becoming part of the city's ever growing history.

Tabor, who had the original grocery bags removed from the statue's arms, said he felt Big John is really "welcoming people" to Cape Coral.

He's thought about maybe putting the grocery bags back - he still has them - but he said as long as he owns Big John he will continue to stand tall, maybe for another 40 years.

"As long as I'm alive, it'll be there," Tabor said. "He's getting ready to get another face lift, too. It's not easy to find a place that will paint a 28-foot-tall statue."



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