Legendary chickee builder O.B. Osceola, 83, constructs his last hut in Naples
O.B. Osceola sat under the shade of thousands of cabbage palm leaves thatched into a roof over the dock at the Cove Inn on Naples Bay. The beams supporting the roof still smelled of freshly cut pine.
A handful of workers marked out with tape where they will install an outdoor bar to complete the hut.
“It never gets easier,” Osceola, 83, said of what will be the last chickee hut he builds commercially. “It’s always the same. It’s always hard work.”
Osceola’s retirement will end an era of old guard Seminole builders who put up the chickee huts that have become landmark shelters, band stages and outdoor bars around Southwest Florida and the Caribbean.
Osceola and his father were among the first to build chickee huts commercially.
“He’s a legend,” said Jim Jenkins, a builder working with Osceola on his final project.
Osceola helped build the roof of the original chickee hut at Cove Inn decades ago. The hut was flattened during Hurricane Irma when the roof of the hotel was blown on top of it.
Although he is trying to step away from active building, Osceola said he wanted to be the one to rebuild this hut.
“I’ve been trying to retire, but we’ve been busy since the hurricane,” he said.
Chickee shelters — thatched roofs with open sides and no floors — were developed by the Seminoles in the 1800s.
The tribe had been living in log cabins, but during the Seminole wars they were uprooted by encroaching Americans and started building more temporary and easily disposable shelters.
“It started as we were running for our lives,” said Osceola’s daughter Tina. “Then, as the wars evolved, so did the shelters. From the 19th century on, as we were able to stay in one place, the villages formed around chickee, as it’s known today.”
O.B. Osceola has been building the shelters since he was 8 years old, starting as a helper for his father, handing up thousands and thousands of cabbage palm leaves to him to be woven and nailed into a leakproof roof.
He lived in chickee shelters for half his life, riding out Hurricane Donna in 1960, one of the most powerful storms to hit Collier County, in a chickee home he had built in Ochopee.
“We never ran from hurricanes,” O.B. Osceola said.
The huts are often able to withstand storms and hurricanes as long as they don’t take a direct hit from falling debris — or hotel roofs.
O.B. Osceola grew up in Ochopee and went to school in Everglades City. He worked odd jobs at gas stations and for a friend’s air-conditioning company and built chickee huts during the weekends. Sometime in the 1970s, Osceola started to build the huts full time.
Chickee has become an art form, Tina Osceola said.
“It’s not just shelter,” she said. “It’s something that blends so well within the natural environment. It’s something that people are taught all their lives how to do — how to fold the leaves and create something that’s not going to leak.”
For O.B. Osceola, chickee shelters were about survival, literally from the elements and financially as a way to put his children, Tina and O.B. Jr., through school.
There have never been a great many commercial chickee builders, but O.B. Osceola has watched the style grow over the decades.
“It started out that you’d have people who were not Indians helping out,” he said. “Then they learned how to do it. Next thing you know they really took over.
“It’s like everything else. If you build something that sells, then everybody has it.”