By: James Kennedy
The creep of urban sprawl is about to claim another victim. LJ’s Lounge and Package. Billed by the owner and founder Linda Flaitz and her husband and partner, Marc Murray, as “The Last Cracker Honky Tonk in Lee County,” LJ’s is facing its last day on Feburary 4th, 2024, at the time this paper went to press. This bastion of redneck revelry and country nightlife has been a fixture in East Lee County for 33 years, starting initially at a location in Fort Myers Shores on State Road 80, also known as Palm Beach Blvd and is. After a couple of years, LJ’s eventually moved around the corner just a little ways down State Road 31, which may be a more fitting home for this humble establishment. But, what used to be somewhat of a back road, just a little off the beaten path, is developing into a heavily trafficked artery thanks to the establishment of the new urban center of Babcock Ranch, the latest blow to the rural heart of Florida.
Marc says he will remember the kindness and friendship that flowed from LJ’s, a manifestation of Linda’s kindness. While the old watering hole might have had a rough demeanor, the days have passed when bouncers were called for, but the generosity of the owners and patrons hasn’t. Marc said they have done benefits every year they’ve been open, and Linda has always tried to help those in need. When the lights are turned out, another thing that will fade will be this unofficial community center’s acts of benevolence.
When talking to the patrons of LJ’s there’s a noticeable sadness in their eyes and voices as they recall memories spanning the last three decades. The recollections are held close, many joyful and wild, some, well, somber for lack of a better word. Some folks have been coming here since the doors opened; some found it yesterday. There is a unique air to the place. This old honky tonk was more than just a bar, entering the youthful lore of youngsters excited to rub elbows with older friends and local legends. In its own way, it became a home away from home, a wild and wooly community center, hosting a range of social events from weddings to wakes and benefits to birthdays. Now, sure, not everybody that went through the doors was a rough and tough cracker cowboy or biker; the crowd has been a mix of everyone from tradesmen to doctors and lawyers and such. An eclectic mix of the friendly people that live out east. Besides being a spot to decompress from a hard day or an oasis of down-home charm, LJ’s played host to many bands, more than anybody seems to be able to count.
The creation of Babcock Ranch, or maybe, more accurately, the reinvention of Babcock Ranch as a sprawling town center in the middle of formerly productive agricultural land, was the final straw for LJ’s and the slower-paced rural outreaches of SWFL Florida. Nothing lasts forever. In the case of LJ’s, the memories made there will preserve a unique aspect of life in Florida’s rural country circles.
When LJ’s doors close for the last time, it’s not just the closing of a bar or the passing of a cultural symbol. It’s a loss like that of a home or a friend. Some wonder where they’ll go to visit their friends who held onto each other using LJ’s as a gathering place. It may just be a bar to some, but it was a treasure to others.
Check back next month for our follow-up article and pictures from the closing.
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