Boom and Bust: Landscapes of Economic and Cultural Transition
A Field Trip along Florida’s Treasure Coast
Wayne Brew, Montgomery County Community College, and Scott C. Roper, Castleton State College
In early 2011, the authors were asked to plan a day-long field trip in the Stuart area as part of the Pioneer America Society’s annual conference. The theme, “Boom and Bust: Landscapes of Economic and Cultural Transition,” had been chosen by Artimus Keiffer prior to the 2010 annual meeting in Castleton, Vermont. But with Artimus’s passing in 2011, the Pioneer America Society’s conference committee lacked anyone with more than cursory knowledge of South Florida. In fact, those of us familiar with the intense development of the region over the last half-century wondered if we would be able to locate significant “landscapes of economic and cultural transition” to justify a full-day tour.
We need not have worried, for Artimus’s “Boom and Bust” theme perfectly lends itself to a field study of South Florida. We see this theme in Dodgertown, the influential Spring Training facility of the Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers from 1948-2008, the rise of which accompanied the post-World War II boom in Vero Beach. In Fellsmere we witness a community shaped by human responses to nature — early drainage attempts that allowed the land to be settled proved less than successful in the 1920s — as well as to economic incentives relating to sugar and transportation. The “Stuart Arch” on what formerly was the border between Stuart and Jensen (and which today is located in neither community) illustrates the growth and decline that accompanied the boom-and-bust cycles of the 20th century. We see effects of similar cycles in the small communities scattered along the Florida East Coast Railroad, the Old Dixie Highway, and US Route 1 — communities such as Quay/Winter Beach, Wabasso, Viking/Fort Pierce Farms, Jensen, and Hobe Sound/Picture City in which remnant landscapes less than a century old are quickly disappearing.
Yet in our travels, we also identified a second theme, one probably encapsulated to some degree by Artimus’s idea of cultural transition: landscapes of race and racial segregation. Florida was segregated until the 1960s, a situation that transcended the boom-and-bust cycles of the early- to mid-20th century. We attempt to address this theme in stops at Dodgertown and in downtown Vero Beach, Gifford, Fellsmere, and Fort Pierce, all of which bear scars of segregation.
Overall, Atlantic South Florida is a historic region with significant historical landscapes. Economic and cultural pressures inevitably cause change, and the changes in South Florida threaten to obscure or destroy many of the region’s relic landscapes. This field guide is an attempt to document some of the landscapes that existed in 2011, and hopefully raise awareness of Atlantic South Florida’s cultural heritage.
Taken for a Ride (Part 1)
The geologic history of Florida is an interesting one. With the break-up of the super-continent Pangaea about 225 million years ago (give or take; what is a few million years amongst friends?) a sliver of Africa joined North America and hitchhiked a slow ride to where it is today. Florida now shares the same latitude as the Sahara, but has a much wetter seasonal climate (summer rain, winter drought) because it receives moisture from large bodies of water on both sides. The pay-back to North America stealing (or is it borrowed?) this bit of land is that the storms that become hurricanes get started of the west coast of Africa and travel across the Atlantic to sometimes hit Florida. If you read beyond this paragraph you will see that “stealing” and “land” become major factors and a recurring theme in the human history of Florida.
But first, we have a few more things for you on the physical setting of Florida. Get ready for a shocker: Florida is flat, especially in the area we will be exploring on our field trip. The highest elevation is 345 feet above sea level at Britton Hill, which is in the far northwestern part of the state on the border with Georgia. The highest elevations in the Stuart area are most likely the overpasses and landfills we will see along I-95. Much of South Florida would be under water (like many of the current home mortgages) if not for the extraordinary efforts to drain the swamps (please refer to our first stop on the tour below). To paraphrase one early settler, “I have bought land by the acre before, but in Florida you by it by the gallon!”
The earliest occupants of Florida are reflected in the amazing diversity of flora and fauna that has evolved to thrive in a wet, tropical environment. A summary of such a biological smorgasbord is beyond the scope of this essay, but it did eventually attract humans at least 13,000 years ago. In fact, the Treasure Coast was home to “Vero Man,” an archaeological discovery of fossilized human remains existing among remains of Pleistocene animals that some believed to have provided the first proof that humans had inhabited North America prior to the end of the Wisconsin Ice Age. Unfortunately, the remains were lost in 1947, prior to the invention of C-14 dating. In 2011, however, researchers announced that a carving of a mastodon on a piece of bone found at a nearby site dates from 13,000 to 20,000 years ago, possibly making it the oldest piece of artwork found in North America.
The earliest Native Americans occupied different environments and practiced different adaptive strategies. Evidence (in the form of large shell middens) suggests that some Native American groups led a settled existence without growing crops and were able to live from the abundant plants and animals readily available. Later groups took advantage of the abundant game, but also practiced a settled way of life that included growing corn. Researchers have also found evidence of more nomadic lifestyles employing all the strategies for living described above.
Historians debate how many Native Americans lived in the Americas prior to the first European contact, but it appears that there was perhaps 20,000 or so in South Florida. Several encounters with Spaniards and the diseases they carried greatly reduced in the number of Native Americans, so that fewer than 200 remained by 1750. Not until the late 1800s (and the building of the railroads) would the number of humans in South Florida once again reach 20,000. | Return to top
Taken for a Ride (Part 2)
Florida became a pawn in the global reach of European colonizers. Spain came first (1513), with a brief flirtation by the French (1565), a short period of control by the British (1763-1784), before Spain returned. Florida then became part of the United States after Andrew Jackson (first provisional governor) marched in unopposed, as he was wont to do when no one was looking. A final treaty was negotiated by John Quincy Adams, and the United States officially purchased the peninsula from Spain for $5 million. (Prior to the collapse of the real estate market in 2007, this was considered a bargain.) At the end of Spanish control Florida became a haven for escaped African slaves and Creek Indians from nearby states. The estimated number of 5,000 runaways living in Florida by 1821 were referred to as “Cimarrons” by the Spanish, a word which was corrupted to “Seminoles” in English.
The relationship between the Spaniards and Native Americans was mostly hostile, and this dysfunction continued when the United States became the landlord. This situation was exasperated when the U.S. demanded the return of runaway slaves and began to demand more land from the Seminoles. A series of broken treaties, fort building (Fort Myers, Fort Pierce, etc.) and conflict ran hot and cold until 1855, in the process involving up to 40,000 U.S. Army and militia cycling through against about 1000 Seminole warriors. Some historians refer to this as America’s first Vietnam-style conflict.
The Civil War continued the disruption as the U.S. Navy played cat-and-mouse with the blockade runners. The end of the war brought peace, but South Florida had still not “developed,” at least not according to accepted Western standards of so-called “civilization.” A bankrupt Internal Improvement Fund, which Florida had set up in 1850, impeded development. A very wealthy Philadelphia saw manufacturer (also may be referred to as a carpet-bagger depending on your point of view) named Hamilton Disston was lured in and invested a million dollars to make the fund solvent again. In return Disston ended up with 4 million acres of Florida land. Now that the fund was solvent Florida was able to give land to investors as an incentive to build railroads. It worked; in 1880 there were 500 miles, in 1890 2500 miles, and by 1900 3200 miles had been completed.
Water Does Run Downhill (and so do Other Things)
While the relatively higher elevations and dryer land of Northern Florida continued to attract settlers, very few ventured into South Florida. In the late 1800s and early 1900s many characters (politicians, frontiersmen, investors, and shysters) developed or promoted plans to drain the swamps. All these schemes were sold with the promise that draining the Everglades would be quick, simple and cheap; not one of these assumptions was true. Not until the Federal Government (US Army Corps of Engineers) was lured in were drainage schemes successful, almost completely destroying the natural treasure of the Everglades. It may hard to believe, but the Corps of Engineers did not want to get involved with projects that did not directly relate to navigation, but that changed as more of their projects fell under the umbrella of flood control. Reluctant at first, the Corps eventually became enthusiastic participants as more people demanded protection from flooding from their federal politicians which meant more money in US Army Corps of Engineers coffers. The amazing details of this story are told extremely well in Michael Grunwald’s book, The Swamp.
The early industries of Florida were primary in nature, namely agriculture (citrus, sugar, and cattle), fishing, and timber. Some of these early industries first depended on ships, but the extension of the railroads changed the way these products were shipped. One of the early crops grown for export in this part of Florida was pineapples which were referred to as “pine plantations.” Though short-lived, the legacy of this crop can be seen in the local landscape with names of businesses. Growing pineapples quickly depletes soil fertility and the railroads, which controlled shipping rates, soon found a cheaper supply grown in Cuba. Oranges and other citrus were also grown in this area, but freeze events have pushed more of this activity further south and most of the citrus groves you will see have been abandoned. One devastating freeze event in 1893 killed almost three million trees in Florida. The groves near the Indian River were protected by the warm waters and many survived this freeze. Citrus is still a significant part of the agricultural economy, especially in Indian River County where farmers have branded their citrus products and sell under that well-known name. Sugar is also a significant crop in Florida, but most is grown in the interior of the state. Sugar played a significant role in the survival of Fellsmere, as we will see later.
Timber and related products were harvested in scattered areas through Florida starting with the Spanish. Florida was a leading producer of “naval stores” (resin from pine trees used to seal wooden ships) and turpentine from the 1890s to the 1930s. However, many of the people responsible for working the camps were convicts (prior to World War I) or debtors (between 1919 and 1946). In fact, it was not uncommon for turpentine companies to entice poor (particularly African American) laborers into working in a camp, then transporting them to the camp and charging them for the transportation. Once in debt, it was almost impossible for the laborer to repay the company and regain his freedom.
This brief and exhaustive use of the pine forests soon depleted the resources and is no longer practiced. The same can be said for the export fishing industry. The fish supply along the shores and inlets of the east coast of Florida seemed inexhaustible and the fishing industry (fishing and fish houses for processing) thrived with nineteen fish-processing plants between Stuart and Titusville in 1895. The fish proved to be exhaustible and the degradation of the waters by the influx of pollution and fresh water coming from drainage projects had a profound effect on this industry.
When it comes to the development of the East Coast of Florida it was not until a fabulously wealthy former oil man (and partner of J.D. Rockefeller of Standard Oil) named Henry Flagler got involved with building hotels and railroads in the 1890s did things really take off.
You’ve been Flaglered!
Prior to Flagler, one found little railroad construction in South Florida. Yet Flagler spent the fortune he made with Standard Oil on a railroad, the Florida East Coast Railroad (FEC), from Jacksonville to Miami. He reached Miami in 1896, three months before the city was incorporated. He then financed (at a cost of $27 million, or the equivalent of a half-billion dollars today) and built the “Eighth Wonder of the World” by connecting Miami to Key West. A nearly blind and deaf “Uncle Henry” rolled into Key West in 1912 (the year before he died) on the road bed (and bridges) to which critics had referred as “Flagler’s Folly.” It did prove to be a folly when the trade possibilities he imagined would open up with the completion of the Panama Canal did not materialize. The final straw came in 1935, when large portions of the rail line were destroyed by a deadly Category 5 hurricane that hit the Keys in 1935. The line through the Keys was officially abandoned in 1936 and portions formed the roadbed (and bridges) of US Route 1.
Flagler’s legacy (beyond the town name “Flagler Beach” and a handful of grand hotels) was in creating the east coast of Florida by making this area accessible to rest of the United States. Eventually he was able to shorten the trip from New York to Miami to 24 hours. As a result, Florida became a destination for snowbirds and retirees. By the 1920s roads were built to accommodate the many auto travelers, the rich were building second homes, and many were attracted to try their luck in the booming real estate market. | Return to top
Taken for a Ride (Part 3)
Most people are familiar with the story of the Florida real estate boom in the first three decades of the 20th century, so the terms “taken for a ride” and “underwater” may suffice to summarize this story. A combination of factors caused the boom to go bust, namely a growing public awareness that they were being swindled, incomplete drainage projects, the devastation brought by two hurricanes, and the global economic depression of the 1930s. The federal government, starting with President Herbert Hoover, stepped in to improve the infrastructure to alleviate flooding, and during World War II the government built military bases in the region. The drainage/flood control projects and other infrastructure (Interstate Highways) created new areas for farming and housing which boomed after World War II. Today one can safely say that South Florida is one large upside-down U-shaped conurbation with the degraded, but now better-protected Everglades in the middle.
The factors that created this post-war boom are familiar to most, and the statistics are staggering. During the war approximately two million soldiers were stationed and/or trained in Florida. The invention of DDT and cheap reliable air-conditioning made South Florida a bit more attractive to these military personnel (and many others) who had experienced “sand in their shoes.” Of course many other factors played a part, including the post-war economic boom, the generous GI bill and FHA mortgages, huge investments in road-building, drainage and flood control projects, cheap air travel, and Social Security and other retirement pensions. All these factors supported education, mobility, and home ownership (as long as you were white) along with low taxes, and they fueled a renewed boom for South Florida.
And boom it was (which can readily be seen outside the bus window). Florida grew at four times the national rate, from approximately two million residents in 1930 to over 16 million today — making Florida the fourth-largest state, and giving it the power to occasionally wreak havoc in national elections. In 2004 Florida attracted over 76 million tourists, and you, the reader, are likely one. Need we say more?
One More Diversion that is Not Water-Related
There are some interesting stories behind many of the place names we will be visiting or passing on our trip. Some of these places will be discussed in more detail later on, but some need to be mentioned here. We will be passing through three different counties; all smaller versions or pieces of larger counties of the past. When “Old Hickory” became the first governor of the territory in 1821 he split Florida into two large counties; St. Johns (everything east of the Suwannee River) and Escambia County to the west. By 1925 Florida stopped new county creation at 67. Interestingly (only because there are several connections that are discussed) this is the same number of counties as Pennsylvania (just trivia or conspiracy; we will let the reader decide).
Being honest and/or not thinking that it may put a damper on immigration (as Homer Simpson would say, “D’oh!”) much of this area was in “Mosquito County” until 1845. Present day Indian River County (the northern-most part of the field trip) went through three more name changes after Mosquito County lost favor — including St. Lucia County, Brevard County, and St. Lucie County. Indian River County broke off of St. Lucie County in 1925, as did part of Martin County.
In the southern end of our field trip is Martin County, which was carved out of Palm Beach County and St. Lucie County in 1925 during the height of the real estate boom. The good people of Stuart (county seat named after Homer Stuart Jr. the son of an early resident and land owner) felt that all the improvements from their taxes were being spent in Palm Beach to the south put together a group of local dignitaries to petition the state for a new county. The committee was having little success with the legislature proposing the names “Inlet” and “Golden Gate” before making a direct plea (and a strategic name change) to the incumbent governor John Wellborn Martin who thought it a grand idea to have a county named after himself.
St. Lucie Canal and Lock System (2710 SW Canal Street, Stuart)
Our first stop on the field trip is part of the large investment in infrastructure made in South Florida for flood control, drainage, and transportation. The current St. Lucie canal and lock system was completed in 1941; an earlier lock was constructed in 1925. The buildings associated with the locks are the utilitarian concrete art deco style that the federal government often used in the 1930s. The canal leads to Lake Okeechobee and connects the Intracoastal Waterway from the East Coast of Florida to the Gulf of Mexico (keep that in mind when we see the Stuart Arch later today). This is one of five locks in the system and for the real canal geeks has a lift of 14.5 feet and is used by approximately 10,000 vessels a year, 91 percent of which are recreational in nature.
“No Sleep ‘Til Brooklyn”
No naps yet, for we are now heading north along I-95 toward Dodgertown, the former Spring Training home of the Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodgers (thus the Beastie Boys song reference above). You can witness some of the agricultural landscapes along the way, namely cattle ranching (still exists) and citrus trees (much of it abandoned). If you do stay awake during our trips along I-95 you can see the highest local elevations, namely overpasses and landfills a bit larger than the Native American middens. Speaking of shell middens, these proved to be a valuable resource for archeologists (see link below), but unfortunately many were used for more “practicable” reasons before they could be studied: to build shell roads.
Dodgertown/Vero Beach Sports Village (3901 26th Street, Vero Beach)
Spring baseball has been a continuous part of Florida culture since at least 1913, when the Chicago Cubs first opened a pre-season training camp in Tampa. (The first recorded spring training camp took place in Jacksonville in 1888 and involved the National League’s Washington team.) The practice of “spring training” in Florida grew through the Florida boom years of the 1910s and 1920s, and despite competition from Arizona, continues today. In fact, fifteen major-league teams — or exactly one-half — call Florida home each February and March.
“Dodgertown,” in Vero Beach, has often been cited as the prototypical spring training facility in Florida, and was listed as the tenth most important destination in Josh Pahigian’s book 101 Baseball Places to See Before You Strike Out. Now known as Vero Beach Sports Village (because the Dodgers won’t allow the county to use the name anymore), Dodgertown was the spring-training home of the Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodgers from 1948 through 2008, as well as the preseason training facility for the National Football League’s New Orleans Saints for much of the 1970s. The site is important as a reflection of baseball’s integration process (the Brooklyn Dodgers were the first major-league baseball team with a racially integrated roster), and the training complex influenced the design not only of current spring-training facilities across Florida and Arizona, but also of major-league baseball’s third-oldest stadium — Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles.
In October, 1945, Brooklyn Dodgers president Branch Rickey made national headlines when he signed Jackie Robinson to a contract to play in the Dodgers’ organization. This move, followed by the signing of four additional African American players, led to the integration of minor-league baseball in 1946, and to the integration of baseball at the major-league level a year later.
When Jackie Robinson reported to Dodgers spring training camp in Daytona Beach in 1946, he faced intense racism. Segregation proved a problem not only in restaurants and hotels in Daytona (Robinson could not stay at the same hotel or eat in the same restaurants as the team’s white players), but on and off the field in other cities as well. For instance, during an exhibition game in Deland, a police officer came onto the field and told Robinson to leave the field or risk going to jail. As the Dodgers’ Montreal minor-league club (for whom Robinson played in 1946) traveled north, it found its games in Jacksonville, Savannah, and Richmond cancelled. As a result of these and other problems, Rickey arranged for the Dodgers to train in Havana, Cuba in 1947. But even here, Robinson, Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe, and other African Americans found themselves living in a hotel separate from their white teammates, and several miles from the ballpark. Rickey sent his Brooklyn players to train in the Dominican Republic in 1948, but he still hoped to find a location in Florida where the organization’s other 700 players could train without racial problems.
Meanwhile in Vero Beach, the end of World War II led to a number of changes. Most important for the development of Dodgertown, in 1947 the federal government returned the Vero Beach Naval Air Station to the city, which subsequently leased the airport to Bud Holman. Holman, a Vero Beach auto dealer, had previously been responsible for the creation of the airport and the establishment of commercial service in the 1930s via Eastern Airlines. (At 3600 people, Vero Beach was the smallest city in the United States with regular commercial air service.)
Rickey apparently became interested in Vero Beach on the recommendation of his daughter. Bud Holman learned of Rickey’s interest from an Eastern Airlines executive and invited Rickey to see the city and vacant city-owned property adjacent to the airfield. Rickey was impressed, but not convinced; therefore, in November, he dispatched Emil “Buzzie” Bavasi to Vero Beach, Fort Pierce, and Stuart.
Bavasi was an important part of Rickey’s plan to integrate the Dodgers. He was one of four men chosen to investigate Jackie Robinson before Rickey decided to assign Robinson to Brooklyn in 1947. He had also been largely responsible for the smooth integration of Brooklyn’s New England League farm club in Nashua, New Hampshire, in 1946. In January of that year, Bavasi chose Nashua as the location of the club because of its large French-Canadian population, open-minded newspaper editor (whom he would name club president), and relatively small population — in fact, at about 36,000 people, Nashua was roughly half the size of the league’s next-largest city. Bavasi hired the unknown Walter Alston to manage the team, correctly believing him capable of looking beyond race. Eventually, the Dodgers would send Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe to Nashua, making it the first integrated professional baseball team based in the United States. Because of his success in integrating the Nashua Dodgers, Bavasi found favor with Rickey and Brooklyn’s other owners, including Walter O’Malley.
In November 1947, after closing out the year’s business in Nashua, Bavasi boarded a train for Vero Beach. But once in Vero, Holman refused to allow him to continue on to Fort Pierce or Stuart, instead inviting him to a stag party at his ranch 30 miles west on Blue Cypress Lake. It did not matter; Bavasi felt that the barracks were suitable for use by the Dodgers (he did not notice the leaking roofs or the fact that plumbing and heating fixtures had been removed), and that playing fields could be built. The location was also ideal not just because of the proximity to the airport (the Dodgers were the first team to own an airplane), but also because it was within walking distance to the downtown, yet theoretically far enough away to enable the Dodgers to avoid racial incidents such as those they found elsewhere in Florida. The Dodgers agreed to a lease that had Brooklyn’s minor-league players train in Vero beginning in 1948, and the team’s major-league players starting in 1949, though the Dodgers would continue to play most of their exhibition games at larger facilities throughout Florida into the 1960s. Like Nashua in the New England League, Vero Beach would be by far the smallest among Florida’s ten spring-training communities.
That Vero Beach was not as amenable to the Dodgers’ African American players as Rickey had hoped soon became clear. Bars, beaches, golf courses, some restaurants, and the town’s better stores remained off-limits. African-Americans who wanted to see a movie or have a drink might have to travel to Gifford (see below). Police segregated African-American fans from whites at Dodgertown, and in one incident, when Don Newcombe began to argue with a light-skinned catcher for the Philadelphia Athletics, he set off a furor that led to rumors that he would be lynched. Yet the arrival of Jackie Robinson in Vero Beach in 1948 helped to galvanize Gifford. In fact, members of that community paid for a full-page advertisement (most other ads were considerably smaller), signed by 36 residents, welcoming Robinson. The ad appeared in the game program printed for the first exhibition at Dodgertown between Brooklyn and its minor-league affiliate from Montreal. Robinson responded by hitting a home run on the game’s second pitch. The ball landed in the African American section of the crowd.
In 1950, Walter O’Malley bought out Branch Rickey and became the Dodgers’ majority owner. He immediately began a program to develop Dodgertown even as he stepped up efforts to secure an improved playing facility for his team in Brooklyn. In Vero, his first major project was the construction of Holman Stadium, named for Bud Holman and completed in 1953.
Holman Stadium was designed by famed New York architect Norman Bel Geddes and equally famed engineer Emil Praeger. Built in 90 days at a cost of $100,000, the stadium was considered innovative for its open-air dugouts, a roofless grandstand that put people close to the playing field, and — most important — the excavation of the playing surface and the re-use of soils both to support the structure of the grandstand and to form the outer edge of the outfield. A row of palm trees originally bounded the outfield, but a 1989 freeze and the 2004 hurricanes destroyed many of them. (The trees and the mound beyond the outfield fence were in the field of play until the early 1970s, when outfielder Dick Allen ran into a palm tree while chasing a batted ball. The fence was added soon thereafter.)
When the stadium was dedicated in March 1953, Boston Braves owner Lou Perini called on O’Malley and Major League Baseball Commissioner Ford Frick, all of whom retreated to a nearby conference room and missed the opening game. Within a week, Perini would announce that he was moving the Braves to Milwaukee for the 1953 season. At an owners’ meeting, O’Malley made the motion to allow Perini to move the team, making the Braves the first major-league team to change cities since 1903. This precedent allowed O’Malley to move the Dodgers to Los Angeles in 1958, after his attempts to construct a domed stadium in Brooklyn failed. When O’Malley constructed Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles between 1959 and 1962, he hired Emil Praeger, who incorporated many of the ideas he first on Holman Stadium. (Praeger also designed New York’s Shea Stadium and the Tappan Zee Bridge.)
Ironically, although Dodgertown was racially integrated, the stands and other public facilities at Holman Stadium remained segregated until 1963, when community leaders from Gifford brought the matter to the Dodgers’ attention. | Return to top
Subsequent Changes and Vero Beach Sports Village
Subsequently, O’Malley and his son Peter made other improvements to Dodgertown. They replaced the infamous barracks with residential-style housing (inspired by Holiday Inn motels) in 1973, and added a conference center (1974), offices, and batting cages (1980s-2003). Walter O’Malley also designed a 9-hole golf course west of Holman Stadium as well as an 18-hole course nearby, a pool, a heart-shaped pond (dedicated to his wife) to the south of the stadium, and a small housing development to the northwest. In addition to Holman Stadium, the complex incorporated six practice fields.
The Dodgers first explored a move to Arizona after the O’Malley family sold the team to Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. in the mid-1990s. The team’s latest owners, Frank and Jamie McCourt, finally moved the team’s spring-training facilities after 2008, prior to the start of their highly publicized divorce proceedings. Today, the Dodgertown site is owned by Indian River County, which is prohibited from using the name “Dodgertown” by the Dodgers and Major League Baseball (the Dodgers plan to use the name to designate the area around Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles). The re-christened “Vero Beach Sports Village” is currently operated by Minor League Baseball as a training facility for high-school and college athletes. The former 9-hole golf course, which is now abandoned, is being developed into additional sports fields, including a softball field just south of Holman Stadium.
Vero Beach Municipal Airport (3400 Cherokee Drive, Vero Beach)
The Vero Beach Municipal Airport opened in 1930. Unlike many small-town airports that opened during that time, however, the airport has remained opened, aided by several factors: the decision of Eastern Airlines to operate a passenger and mail service out of it in the 1930s; takeover of the airport by the United States Navy as a training ground in the 1940s; use by the Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers during spring training; the decision of Piper Aircraft to establish its home there; and the development of an affluent tourist industry. (Well-known seasonal residents/visitors reportedly include Michael Bloomberg, The Rock, Gloria Estefan, Tommy Lee Jones, Fred Barnes, Jon Bon Jovi, Billy Graham, and Prescott Bush Jr. When he was alive John F. Kennedy Jr. often visited as well, and he received his flight certification at the Vero Beach Municipal Airport).
Downtown Vero Beach
Before we go to the Dixie Highway we will pass through downtown Vero Beach, which first saw service by Flagler’s Florida East Coast Railroad (FECRR) in 1893. The Town of Vero was a boom town (the word “Vero” means “truth” and was chosen by the wife of the town’s postmaster, probably to advertise the “truth” supposedly found in the wild promotional literature related to the town). Incorporated in 1919, the name was changed to Vero Beach in 1925 to cash in on the tourism trade during the boom years. Vero grew quickly during 1920s, establishing a downtown during that period and becoming the largest city in Indian River County.
Vero Beach Depot/Indian River County Historical Society (2336 14th Avenue, Vero Beach)
The first Vero railroad station was constructed circa 1893. In 1916 a new and larger one was built at the original location on Commerce Avenue between 18th and 19th streets. The station was enlarged in 1936 and is typical of the designs used by the FECRR. It has been moved and restored, and was added to the U.S. Register of Historic Places in 1987.
Vero Beach Heritage Center/Indian River Citrus Museum (2140 14th Avenue, Vero Beach)
The Vero Beach Heritage Center and Indian River Citrus Museum occupy a building which began its existence in 1925 as a small public-park facility with restrooms. Ten years later, the building was expanded with meeting rooms, a stage and kitchen. In 1943, with the coming of the Naval Air Station to Vero Beach and the increased use of the facility by servicemen, a wing was added to the building to provide amenities for the military.
Vero Theater (2036 14th Avenue, Vero Beach)
Designed by Frederick Trimble in the Mediterranean Revival style, the Vero Theater opened on October 14, 1924 as the city’s first motion-picture theater. (At the time, the Mediterranean Revival style was popular in Florida, and particularly in Vero Beach, because promotional literature of the period compared the local climate to that of the Mediterranean.) Because Sunday blue laws prohibited the showing of films on Sundays, the theater became the center of the movement to secede from St. Lucie County. As a result, when Governor John W. Martin created Indian River County, he did so by signing legislation in the theater in May, 1925. The theater remained active until 1985, when owners found that they could not compete with a multiplex theater that had opened in the area.
The first film shown at the theater was Hunchback of Notre Dame in 1924; ignominiously, the final film was the Madonna vehicle Desperately Seeking Susan in 1985. The theater was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1992. It is currently vacant.
Vero Beach Diesel Power Station (1246 19th Street, Vero Beach)
The Vero Beach Diesel Power Plant was constructed in 1926 to provide power to the growing community during the 1920s boom period. Designed by Carter and Damerow, Architects, this building was the city’s first public utility building, and remains the city’s oldest municipal building. By the 1950s, a new power station was built several blocks to the east along the Indian River, and the diesel plant became outmoded. The 1926 structure was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1999, and was extensively renovated in the 2000s.
A final word about Vero Beach (and another on Stuart)
Prior to the Coast Guard, the U.S. established the Life-Saving Service who constructed “Refuge Houses” along the east coast of Florida. Five were completed by 1876 with five more added later. Each house had a keeper and they were built approximately 25 miles apart with numbered wood posts every mile posted along the beach to guide shipwreck survivors to the nearest one. The first one was constructed on the coast near Vero Beach and was referred to as Bethel Creek House of Refuge (it burned down in 1917). The only house of refuge still standing is near Stuart on Hutchinson Island, the Gilbert’s Bar House of Refuge. If you have time before you leave on Sunday (and have a car) check out the house (museum) and the interesting rock outcropping on the beach (Anastasia Formation) nearby.
Old Dixie Highway (Gifford to Wabasso)
The Old Dixie Highway stretched from Michigan and Chicago southward to Miami. Inspired by the Lincoln Highway, the Dixie Highway was planned in 1914 and created by local governments between 1915 and 1927. The route was marked with a red stripe (usually on telephone poles) containing within it the letters “DH” in white and usually with a thin white stripe above and below. As the main road through eastern Florida, it was not uncommon to find monuments or other structures along the road marking county or city boundaries.
The portion of road on which we are traveling was completed in 1924 as part of the highway system’s Eastern Branch. This branch connected Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan with Miami via Saginaw, Detroit, Toledo, Dayton, Cincinnati, Lexington, Knoxville, Chattanooga, Atlanta, Savannah, Jacksonville, and West Palm Beach. Soon after its completion, however, the importance of the Dixie Highway in this section was supplanted by US Route 1, which connected the Florida Keys with Calais, Maine, and portions of which run along the same route as its predecessor. US1 became a 4-lane highway in the 1950s.
Gifford (4000 Old Dixie Highway)
Located less than three miles from downtown Vero Beach, Gifford is the first of three railroad stops along the Old Dixie Highway between Vero and Sebastian, and is among the oldest African American villages in Indian River County. It was first settled by Georgia farmer William Brown, who brought his wife Dulois and eight children to Gifford in the 1890s. Soon after, James T. Gray established a general store there, and in 1904 began offering lots for sale east of the railroad. Twelve years later, W.E. Geoffrey offered two hundred lots of sale near Gray’s division. Most settlers were native Southerners, and many were railroad employees or farm hands. This continues to be the African American section of Vero Beach; today, most residential buildings are located to the east of US Route 1. Many of the businesses in this community are related to agriculture, particularly oranges. Although a grocery store and other businesses may be found elsewhere in the community, the business blocks at the corner of the Old Dixie Highway and 41st Street constitute the town’s old commercial district — which, in 1948, included a movie house, a drug store, a barber shop, and a pool hall.
Winter Beach (6500 Old Dixie Highway)
Located less than three miles north of Gifford, Winter Beach was first organized in 1894 as “Woodley,” a name provided by settler J.T. Gray, who had owned a plantation in Georgia by that name. In 1902, residents — who by this time included farmers, farmhands, railroad employees, and a few storekeepers — renamed the settlement “Quay” in honor of U.S. Senator Matthew Quay of Pennsylvania. Quay, an ally of Theodore Roosevelt who sometimes was referred to as Florida’s “Third Senator,” maintained a winter home in St. Lucie Village near Fort Pierce. Quay was particularly beloved in the area for sponsoring an appropriation to improve the Indian River for transportation. Then, during the land boom of the 1920s, land promoters renamed the unincorporated settlement “Winter Beach,” and advertised it as the place “Where Sunshine Spends the Winter.” The late-1920s bust curtailed the town’s growth. Although the community still is not incorporated, it does maintain a post office along the Old Dixie Highway.
Pleasant Ridge School/Quay School (6514 Old Dixie Highway, Winter Beach)
The Quay School was built in the Spanish Mission style in 1919, during the Great Florida Boom. (In the context of Florida, this style is a Mediterranean Revival style.) It was designed by Vero contractor J. Hudson Baker and constructed for $5000. Once completed, the school included two classrooms and an auditorium. It was expanded in 1927 for $5200. It was heavily damaged in the 2004 hurricanes (Francis and Jeanne), and has been abandoned since that time.
Update: The Pleasant Ridge/Quay School was demolished during the week of December 25, 2011, just over two months after the PAS:APAL tour.
Wabasso (8500 US Route 1)
Located a little more than two miles north of Winter Beach, Wabasso was originally known as Lowanna when it was settled in the 1880s. For unknown reasons the name was changed to “Wabasso” by 1897. The community’s first subdivision came in the 1890s, and the community seems to have been settled primarily by southerners (particularly from Georgia) who established successful citrus farms in the area. In fact, the large African American community that continues to occupy an area west of the FEC tracks owes its origins to the migration of African Americans and West Indies laborers who worked for citrus farmers James Dodge and Alfred Michael in the early 20th century.
By 1925, the town had grown to the point at which 36 registered voters met in the Deerfield Groves Company hotel and voted to form a municipal government. Subdivisions brought new residents, and orange and grapefruit growers met with unbridled success. At the same time, a new $75,000 bridge brought citrus products to Wabasso from the barrier island. In fact, agriculture was so successful that the American Fruit Growers established its main east coast packing house in Wabasso.
Despite the continued importance of citrus to this area, the late-1920s bust and the construction of US Route 1 significantly altered the town’s character, as has development along that route since the 1950s. Some signs of the past can be still be seen, however: the old Grace Methodist Episcopal Church (1917, near US Route 1 on the left) and several 1910s-20s Bungalow-style houses attest to the Great Florida Boom of the 1910s-20s.
Sebastian and Pelican Island
Sebastian was a fishing village as early as the 1870s and known for a time as Newhaven, but was founded officially as St. Sebastian in 1882. (For reasons unknown, the “St.” was dropped when the town was incorporated.) Although some early settlement seems to have been German in origin, the town became part of Florida’s nineteenth-century English colony movement at least as early as 1883. By the 1890s, thanks to the FEC, the area became part of an early land boom and also produced turpentine and naval stores from the region’s pine trees. Drainage projects commenced during the Progressive Era, however, allowing the area from Sebastian to Oslo (south of Vero Beach) to become an important citrus producer.
One of the extractive (and wasteful) early industries not mentioned above is the “harvesting” (a polite way to describe the massive slaughter) of plumage from birds. This was easy money for locals and the hat manufacturers loved the steady supply of feathers. In some cases, like the buffalo of the American West, tourists would indiscriminately take pot shots at birds for “sport.” A few were not so happy and after the practice was exposed nationally, laws were enacted (with steep fines) to protect the water birds in Florida. A former plumber who “saw the light,” Guy Bradley, ended up losing his life, shot while attempting to arrest a man killing birds. The man was later was exonerated by a local jury, having claimed “self-defense.”
Pelican Island, in the Indian River adjacent to Sebastian and accessible only by boat, was one place where birds were being slaughtered indiscriminately. Concerned by this situation, a group from the Audubon Society visited with President Theodore Roosevelt in 1903. As a result of that meeting, President Roosevelt created a National Bird Sanctuary on the island on March 14, 1903. This would be the first National Wildlife Refuge established in the United States.
County Road 512 (a/k/a Fellsmere-Sebastian Road)
In 1917, motorists traveling to Fellsmere from the South along the Dixie Highway turned left just before they arrived at an archway advertising “Fellsmere — West Nine Miles.” The “Fellsmere-Sebastian Road” was designed by a Fellsmere Farms engineer and completed in 1916, and boasted of one mile paved with Ojus rock imported by rail from Miami and the remaining eight miles with marl or crushed shell. At nine feet wide, the road was considerably thinner than today’s four-lane road. Soon after it was constructed local travelers started clamoring for a 15-foot-wide road.
Fellsmere-Brookside Cemetery (9765 Watervliet Avenue, Sebastian)
The Fellsmere Cemetery dates from the late nineteenth century, and was given to the City of Fellsmere after the city’s founding in 1911. Despite its location seven miles east of Fellsmere, the city gladly accepted the gift, as the high water table within the city makes burials there impossible.
The oldest part of the cemetery lies toward the north (rear), and many of the graves are unmarked. The Indian River County Historical Society believes the first interments to have been African Americans and prisoners who worked in the local turpentine camps nearby. (Florida did not have a prison system until after World War I; prior to that, convicts worked in labor camps.) It continued to serve as the African American section of the cemetery during the Jim Crow era, and still sees the occasional burial as recently deceased are buried near loved ones. The lack of markers, misspellings, and vernacular markers produced during a period in which commercial gravestones were common speak to the relative poverty of many of those buried here. The apparent lack of spatial order in burials here is similar to the lack of order found in antebellum slave cemeteries in Virginia and elsewhere in the South.
The older “white” sections of the cemetery are somewhat more typical of twentieth-century cemeteries in the lowland South, though not perfectly so. In such grounds, bodies are typically oriented with feet pointed to the East (toward Jerusalem), often with the wife positioned to the left of her husband. Above-ground crypts (which are usually more decorative than functional) might be present on some graves, and many might feature a casket-length slab of stone or concrete over the grave. Unlike Upland Southern graveyards, which may feature scraped-earth, grave houses (or “grave sheds”), and fences with lichgates to separate the dead from the living, the Fellsmere cemetery features only one of these characteristics: a fence, which was added to the grounds in the last decade to help keep supposed “devil worshippers” out of the grounds at night. | Return to top
“The Dinky Line”
County Road 512 roughly parallels the path of the 9.83-mile-long Fellsmere Railroad (in fact, this line ran between the Fellsmere-Brookside Cemetery and Burger King). This line connected Fellsmere to the Florida East Coast Railroad line in Sebastian up to four times per day, hauling express, mail, and agricultural tools and products between the two communities. The original rail line was built in 1896 when the Cincinnatus Glades Company attempted to create a settlement in the area of Fellsmere, a project which was abandoned after the destruction caused by hurricanes in 1907 and 1908. The Fellsmere Farms Company took over and repaired the line in 1909.
The original plan to run traditional locomotives over the track proved economically problematic, particularly after 1915 when the company extended the line six miles westward to its proposed town of Broadmoor. Flooding and the subsequent failure of the Fellsmere Farms Company led to cost-cutting measures, at which time the railroad ran its locomotive only to haul heavy loads (particularly as peat and sugar became important exports). In its place, the company operated converted automobiles capable of carrying 12 passengers and express shipments. By 1928 the renamed Trans Florida Central Railroad owned three cars built from Ford one-ton Model A trucks, and within a few years operated a converted International Harvester truck capable of pulling a full-size railcar. As a result of these small, unusual vehicles, sometimes referred to as “critters,” the line became known as the “dinky line.”
The Trans Florida Central continued to operate the line until 1952, and the Fellsmere Sugar Producers for a few years after that.
“Head South Young Man?”
Actually we are heading west, but when Turner proclaimed the closing of the frontier in 1893 boosters in Florida called out to attract settlers to the new final frontier in the interior of South Florida. One of those men was originally from New Zealand and and was the namesake of the development we are going to visit next: Fellsmere.
Although Florida set up publicly funded drainage projects, three local, large, privately funded projects existed in this area: Fort Pierce/Viking (see below), Indian River, and Fellsmere. The largest of these projects was master-minded by E. Nelson Fell (born 1858), an engineer originally from New Zealand who was trained at the Royal School of Mines in England. Fell traveled widely, employed for projects in Brazil, Colorado, and Siberia, among others. In the 1880s he moved to Narocoosee, Florida to supervise a drainage project for the growing of sugar cane. There he established a home and became involved in local politics. He was lured to the Klondike Rush in 1897 and soon after moved to Siberia to manage copper mines. Fell retired from the family business in 1907 and moved to Virginia, but ended up back in Florida to establish the Fellsmere Farms Company in 1910 as part of the English Colony movement. The company bought over one hundred thousand acres of wetlands and pine forest and proceeded to start draining them for agriculture. Approximately one square mile was reserved for the town of Fellsmere, with elaborate plans for a bustling community designed on a grid with divided boulevards and parks. The east-west streets are named after states (one of which is Pennsylvania, but Scott asks, “where is New Hampshire?”) while the north-south streets are named after trees, except for the main north-south street named Broadway. (It appears that the tree-named streets are opposite of Philadelphia). The town’s African American section also diverges from the town’s naming convention, with roads named for Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant. Fellsmere was the first incorporated town (1915) in what became Indian River County.
Within a few years of its founding Broadway became a business district, complete with a paved road, sidewalks, and electric street lighting (all by 1915), and several churches were established. For a brief period Fellsmere grew rapidly and thrived, becoming the county’s largest city. But the growth slowed as major flooding events and the crash of land prices put a damper on the development of Fellsmere. Although the gravity-based drainage system was designed well, Fell never anticipated the amount of rain that could arrive in one event. In 1915 a 9-inch rainfall overwhelmed the system and Fellsmere flooded. The flooding was so bad that Broadmoor, a town five miles west that was established (ironically) by Dutch investors, was abandoned.
In 1917 the Fellsmere Farm Company declared bankruptcy and Fell “fell” out of the picture, leaving only his name behind. The torch for the town was picked up by Frank Heiser, who migrated to the area as a young man in 1912 and became a successful citrus grower. In 1918 he re-organized the Fellsmere Drainage District and teamed up with Oscar Crosby (an original investor with Fell) to promote sugar cane production.
Florida and sugar cane have a long history, starting when the Spanish introduced sugar cane to Florida in 1565 when it was grown for local consumption in St. Augustine. The British established small commercial operations from 1767 to 1776, but a long gap followed before the U.S. started short-lived operations in the 1850s. After the Civil War, Disston (remember him?) backed a mill that closed in 1896. The stop-and-go nature of sugar cane production in Florida did not dampen Heiser’s enthusiasm for sugar. Although several attempts in Fellsmere failed, Heiser was determined to prove that sugar could be successful as a commercial operation north of Lake Ockeechobee where it was already established. Heiser faced many challenges including the failure of Fellsmere, the end of the land boom (1925), and the stock market crash (1929), but with the support of a Texas investor (Edward Hughes) he was able to convince some New York investors to provide limited capital.
In 1931 Heiser got started and with a shoe-string budget was able to take advantage of depressed wages to improve the infrastructure (drainage, land clearance, and roads). He was also able to piece together parts of dilapidated sugar mills from Cuba and Louisiana along with sections of a failed on-site “muck” (wet organic peat dried to make a fertilizer stabilizer) processing plant to create a sugar mill on the cheap. The effort was a success and helped to stabilize the local economy by offering year round employment and capital to maintain the drainage system.
Despite setbacks from a hurricane (1933), a deep freeze (19 degrees Fahrenheit in December 1934), and unfavorable federal agricultural quotas, the operation continued to be successful. Up until 1934 the plant sent the partially processed sugar to Philadelphia for final processing. Heiser then rolled the dice, put up his citrus farm and was able to get other investors to construct a refinery and had it up and running by 1935. By the summer of 1936, five-, ten-, 25-, and 100-pound sacks of “Florida Crystals” were being sold all along the east coast of the U.S. You can see some of the artifacts and pictures of sugar production while you have lunch at Marsh Landing.
Fluctuating prices, the start of World War II, and federal quotas made for unstable conditions, but in 1943 a group of Puerto Rican sugar producers bought the Fellsmere operation, bringing a tidy profit for Heiser and the other investors. Heiser left Fellsmere for Jacksonville, but periodically returned to consult for the new owners. Sugar production continued for 20 more years, until the new owners shut down the Fellsmere plant.
Remains of the sugar operations and Broadmoor no longer exist, but there are many buildings of interest in Fellsmere. Many of the buildings date from 1911 to 1925, and are indicative of the variety of styles that were popular during this period.
Fellsmere School (S. Orange Street, Fellsmere)
Our first stop will be a brick school completed in 1916 at a cost of approximately $40,000. The Prairie-style school was designed by Frederick Trimble and continued to serve as a school into the 1970s. This is Fredrick Trimble’s first major project and he went on to design many other major buildings in Florida (including the Vero Theater we saw earlier) during the boom period of the 1920s. Trimble was born in Canada in 1878 and worked as an architect for the Methodist Episcopal Church in China for several years before moving to Florida in 1914. He practiced out of Fellsmere until 1916 when he moved his practice to rapidly growing Orlando. By 1930 Trimble had designed 50 schools in Florida. He also designed dormitories and hotels using a variety of styles (Classical, Colonial Revival, Craftsman, Prairie and Mediterranean) popular during this eclectic time period. He has also been attributed in the design of the Fellsmere Post Office (since demolished), the library (see below), and several homes in Fellsmere.
The City of Fellsmere took possession of the school and used the building for various purposes until the 1990s. Fellsmere did not have the funds to undertake a restoration and considered selling the building. A number of stakeholders got together to save the school and collected well over $100,000 to pay for the architectural services that provided a basis for the restoration. The City of Fellsmere’s decision to undertake the restoration was cemented by a planning session conducted by Florida Atlantic University’s Design Institute. During this initiative concerns arose about the prospect of moving the City Hall from its existing location in the City’s historic center to recently annexed lands along I-95. If such a relocation occurred, it was hypothesized, the downtown might wither and lose its rightful focus. This study generated a discussion by Council that resulted in a policy statement to utilize the Old School as the City Hall. The restoration took over two years and $3.2 million and created a true focal point for the City of Fellsmere. The building served as the focus of the city’s centennial in 2011. As a City Hall and Boys & Girls Club, this historic structure will continue to affect the lives of residents for years to come. The school is listed on the National Register of Historic Buildings.
The oldest building in the business district is the Fellsmere Inn which was constructed circa 1910 by the Fellsmere Farms Company. The building has survived floods, many foreclosures, and name changes over the years. Nearby, the Bank of Fellsmere was built in 1913 in a Masonry Vernacular Style and the Hall and Saunders building was constructed in 1914 using a wood frame vernacular style.
While most of Florida boomed during the 1920s Fellsmere saw limited growth. Despite little growth two major existing buildings were constructed in the 1920s. The Spanish Mission-style Fellsmere Estates Corporation Building was completed in 1926, and the Craftsman-style First Methodist Episcopal Church in 1924.
Outside the Broadway Business District are many wood-frame vernacular and Craftsman-style houses, along with a few Mission houses. One of the more interesting structures is the Marion Fell Library. Marion, the daughter of Nelson Fell, was never a resident of Fellsmere, but wanted to promote literacy and donated money she made from the translation of Russian Literature. Her donation resulted in the construction of a small library and the acquisition of books. The library was completed in 1915 in a wood-frame vernacular style and remains open to this day. It was listed on the National Register in 1997.
After lunch, we will depart Fellsmere and head south along I-95 past the Vero Beach/ Dodgertown exit toward…
Indrio and the Fort Pierce Farms Schoolhouse (4852 Emerson Ave, Ft. Pierce)
Indrio was first settled in 1892 by Major B. Daniels. Daniels was joined a few years later by Jens Helseth and other Scandinavian settlers, because of whom the growing village along the Indian River became known as Viking. (Only a few miles north along the Florida East Coast Railroad line, another Scandinavian settlement developed at the same time; that one is still known as Oslo.) The new settlers developed a healthy pineapple industry in the area, and before long the village boasted a post office, a school, and a flag stop on the FEC.
During the Great Florida Boom, a land developer named R.N. Koblegard initiated a scheme similar to the one at Fellsmere Farms, this one called Fort Pierce Farms. Although located much closer to the Florida East Coast Railroad than Fellsmere, it, too, would have included a short railroad running westward from the FEC tracks near Indrio. Koblegard proposed to develop 36,000 acres, and began by digging approximately fifty miles of canals which drained water into the Indian River. Canal diggers were generally African Americans. Had it been successful, the settlement would have greatly dwarfed Fort Pierce to the south. However, the hurricanes of 1926 and 1928 slowed the boom, and the stock market crash of 1929 ended it altogether. Nevertheless, at least one building remains from the development: the Fort Pierce Farms Schoolhouse, which was constructed in the early 1920s. Today the building it is one of St. Lucie County’s recreational facilities, and is rented out to groups throughout the year.
The cheap importation of pineapples from Cuba (after the completion of the FEC railroad extension to Key West in January, 1912) helped lead to the failure of the pineapple industry in Viking/Fort Pierce Farms, after which local farmers turned to citrus. Yet during the boom years of the 1910s and 1920s, the area continued to grow. For instance, in 1911 Edwin Binney (inventor of the Crayola crayon) bought 1,000 acres of citrus groves at Fort Pierce Farms and split his time between Florida and his northern home in Greenwich, Connecticut. In 1922, Binney played an important role in establishing Fort Pierce as a port and an inlet, complete with a refrigerated terminal for holding fruit. At some point prior to his death, his wife Alice came up with a new name for Viking: Indrio, which combined the Spanish word for “river” with the first three letters of the Indian River. (Alice Binney similarly came up with the name “Crayola,” from the French word “craie, “ or chalk, and “ola, “ short for oleaginou or oily, as Crayola crayons are made from a petroleum-based wax.)
The Highwaymen, a name coined by art historians in the 1990s, were a group of African American landscape painters based in Fort Pierce and other nearby communities from the 1950s-1980s. The group consisted of at least twenty-five men and one woman, all of whom were directly or indirectly influenced by Fort Pierce landscape painter A. E. “Beanie” Backus, whose house can be found near the city’s downtown historic district. Yet while Backus had been influenced by the Hudson River School of painters, the Highwaymen developed their own recognizable styles which at times fused realism with elements of impressionism, pop art, and (in rare cases) cubism.
A typical Highwayman work of art consisted of a Florida landscape (usually variations on places known to the artists painted from memory) painted in oil on upson board and framed with white-painted (and sometimes antiqued) crown molding. An artist might be able to complete more than a dozen works over the course of a day, then sell them — often before the oil had cured — out of their cars, on street corners, or in business lobbies. The standard-sized painting might be sold for $25-$35, a sum which — though modest — enabled many of the artists to escape work in the orange groves. (During the Jim Crow era, few African Americans could expect a better fate.) Yet because of the commercial nature of these paintings, color palettes changed with popular taste, from bright oranges and teals in the 1950s to earth tones in the 1970s. In fact, most Highwaymen pieces were dismissed as “motel art” until toward the end of the twentieth century. Today, these paintings are highly sought.
The Highwaymen produced and sold more than 150,000 paintings. According to art historian Gary Monroe, the Highwaymen played an important role in solidifying an image of Florida in the popular imagination. Their paintings “had the essential ingredients with which to imagine the state: wind-swept farm trees, billowing cumulus clouds, the ocean, the setting sun. The intense and vivid colors of the images seemed otherworldly, just as an idealized Florida must have appeared to northerners. The Highwayman’s work became a popular representation of how Floridians wanted to see themselves and how they wanted others to see the state.”
Fort Pierce was founded in 1838 as — you guessed it — a fort, named for Col. Benjamin K. Pierce of Hillsborough, New Hampshire. (This trip is full of New Englanders and Pennsylvanians, isn’t it?) Pierce was the fort’s builder and first commander, not to mention the oldest brother of future US President Franklin Pierce. The original fort was erected along Indian River Drive, just south of the current downtown area, during the Second Seminole War. It was decommissioned in 1842 at the war’s conclusion, and burned a year later.
The first non-Native American civilians to live in the area arrived in 1842. Most were farmers who experimented with a variety of export crops, but after the Civil War many people in St. Lucie County turned to cattle. Cattle were driven westward to the Gulf of Mexico along the line of forts that had been established during the Seminole Wars, starting at Fort Pierce. Florida cowboys wore felt hats, large yellow oiled slickers, and cow whips with a foot-long wooden handle and woven cowhide whip tipped with a buckskin strip, called a “cracker” due to the sound it made when properly utilized. This could be the reason why rural Florida farmers and ranchers were known as “crackers,” though other theories abound. (Far fewer theories exist to explain why so many St. Lucie County ranchers were known by the nickname “Teet” — as in Teet Alderman and Teet Holmes.)
Yet the growth of Fort Pierce had less to do with cracker-ranchers than with its strategic location on one of the Indian River’s few inlets to the Atlantic, not to mention the arrival of the FEC Railway in the 1890s and drainage projects that permitted agricultural development in places like nearby Viking/Indrio. Prior to the railroad, and even after its arrival, Fort Pierce provided a safe harbor from which to ship agricultural products, while the FEC encouraged tourism in the area.
Today, in addition to being the place where Wayne and Scott moor their yachts during the summer, Fort Pierce boasts of a vibrant historic downtown (which is well worth the time to see — unfortunately, our trip will not allow us that time). Notable buildings include Historic City Hall (constructed 1925 in the Mediterranean style; architect William Hatcher), the Platts/Backus House (1895, home of A.E. Backus in the latter half of the 20th century), the Arcade Building (1926, Spanish Revival), the Boston House (1909, Neo-Classical/Georgian Revival styles, built by FEC engineer William T. Jones after receiving a settlement for a work-related accident), the P.P. Cobb Building (built as a trading post in 1882 by Benjamin Hogg), and the magnificent Sunrise Theater (constructed 1924 in the Mediterranean style, architect John N. Sherwood).
Downtown Fort Pierce received the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s 2011 Great American Main Street Award. | Return to top
In the 1880s, Hutchinson Island — a barrier island bordered by the Atlantic Ocean and Indian River — was home to a pineapple plantation owned by Captain Thomas E. Richards of New Jersey. The venture failed, however, when the pineapples all died or were eaten by bears. Today you won’t see pineapples or bears here, but at Jaycee Park you can walk on the beach or visit the modern bathrooms.
However, Capt. Richards was successful at growing pineapples on the mainland. There, he even constructed a building to produce and bottle a “pineapple digestive” to “help relieve indigestion.” In this way Richards could use the pineapples that had become too ripe to ship. Unbeknownst to the Captain, however, the digestive became so strong that it had the alcoholic content of wine. He closed his pineapple digestive company when government officials notified him of this fact.
St. Lucie Nuclear Power Plant (6375 S Ocean Drive, Jensen Beach)
Located on Hutchinson Island about eight miles southeast of Fort Pierce, the power plant consists of two units: Unit One dates from 1976, and Unit Two from 1983. The plant generates 1.7 billion watts of electricity, reportedly enough to supply 500,000 homes with electricity for an entire year. (Currently, the population within 10 miles of the plant is 206,596; within 50 miles the population is nearly 1.3 million.) Three-quarters of the property remains a wildlife preserve and is home to about 180 species of birds and animals.
Located on a barrier island with exposure to both the Atlantic and the Indian River, the plant is elevated 20 feet above sea level and was built to withstand earthquakes “stronger than ever recorded in the region,” according to FPL’s web site. (The Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s estimate of the risk each year of an earthquake intense enough to cause core damage to the reactors is 1 in 21,739.) In case the plant loses power, several on-site systems can provide emergency power to the plant’s critical systems for about seven days. Operating licenses for the two reactors were renewed in 2003, to 2036 for Unit One and 2043 for Unit Two.
Notably, the plant does not have the classic hyperboloid cooling towers found at many inland reactor sites because it uses ocean water to cool the secondary system.
Jensen Beach (SR 707)
Jensen Beach is an unincorporated settlement in Martin County. Settled in 1881 by John Laurence Jensen of Denmark, Jensen Beach became known as the “Pineapple Capital of the World” by 1895, shipping one million boxes of pines (pineapples) annually by that time and attracting hundreds of immigrant laborers from the Bahamas. Yet a freeze that year devastated local pineapple plantations, and fires in 1908 and 1910 did not help matters. The completion of the FEC line to Key West, which made Cuban pineapples more readily available helped to finish off the industry, and local farmers turned to citrus. Yet Jensen’s former status as an important pineapple producer is commemorated today in the annual pineapple festival, which is held in downtown Jensen Beach in November.
Stuart Arch (2387 NE Dixie Highway, Rio)
So wake up, think, and answer the question, “Is Stuart really the gateway from the Atlantic to the Gulf?” And while you are thinking of that, figure out why the arch is so freakin’ far from downtown Stuart! The Stuart Arch was built in 1926 over the Dixie Highway on the border of the expanded city limits (that answers one question; you have go back to the first stop to answer the first question). Stuart shrunk in the 1930s, so now the arc is entirely in unincorporated Jensen Beach. Go ahead take a picture, and while you’re at it take one of the abandoned ice cream business. We know you want to.
Today, Jupiter is the full- or part-time home of Burt Reynolds, Tori Amos, Jack Hanna, Bill Parcells, and lots and lots of athletes, and was once home to the late Perry Como and “Trapper” Nelson. Originally the area was called Hobe, or “Ho-Bay,” after the Native Americans (a branch of the Jeaga) who lived in the area. Spanish cartographers spelled the name “Jobe,” but later English cartographers assumed the name to be a variant of “Jove,” the Latin name for the Roman god. In their effort to claim Florida as their own, the name was Anglicized as “Jupiter.”
The first documented European incursion into this area was by Ponce de Leon on April 21, 1513, though some researchers believe John Cabot may have sailed into the inlet in 1496 or 1497. Either way, they would have found a Native American population of no more than 300 people, who were joined by a contingent of Spanish settlers who established Fort Santa Lucea in 1566 (the year after the founding of St. Augustine). Unfortunately, the Spanish did not get along well with the Hobe, so the Spanish abandoned the fort. The English did not permanently colonize the area either, nor the Spanish after them. In fact, the town of Jupiter was not settled until 1855, when it was incorporated into a 9,088-acre military reservation centered on Fort Jupiter and its 85 officers and enlisted men.
Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse and Museum (500 Captain Armours Way, Jupiter)
In 1853, Congress appropriated $35,000 to build a lighthouse of the “first order” (the most powerful of six lighthouse categories) in Jupiter, whose reefs lie close to the Gulf Stream. George Meade, who later led Union forces against Robert E. Lee at Gettysburg, designed a 90-foot brick tower with iron stairway, a Fresnel illuminating apparatus, and a one-storey, 26-by-30-foot building for the lightkeeper and his family. Illness among workers and the Third Seminole War delayed construction, but on July 10, 1860, the $60,860 lighthouse finally opened.
According to journalist and local historian James Snyder, the red-brick tower “stood 105 feet atop the 48-foot dune. It was double-walled both for greater strength against a hurricane and for circulating air to keep bricks as dry as possible in the constant humidity. The outer base was 31 inches thick and the top 18 inches. It was 65 feet around the base and 43 at the top. Inside were 105 cast-iron steps twisting around to the top. … The first-order lens stood eight feet, six inches in diameter and weighed 12,800 pounds.” On a clear night, its light could be seen by ships 18 miles out to sea.
Because Florida seceded from the Union in January, 1861, a group of Confederate sympathizers were able to extinguish the light and hide pieces of the lamp until after the Civil War. The lighthouse was relit in 1866. Today, it is lit by a 1000-candle-power electric lamp set behind the Fresnel lens.
The lighthouse is surrounded by a 126-acre reserve, Congressionally designated as an “Outstanding Natural Area” — part of National Landscape Conservation System administered by the Bureau of Land Management. The lighthouse is also part of the Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse and Museum complex, which is managed by the Loxahatchee River Historical Society. The museum is housed in a World War II-era military barracks building, and the grounds include the George and Mary Tindall Pioneer Homestead, a one-time pineapple plantation whose buildings are among the best surviving examples of 1890s South Florida “cracker” architecture.
Hobe Sound/Picture City (1200 SE Old Dixie Highway)
What would Hollywood have looked like if it had developed in Florida? A possible answer can be found in Hobe Sound’s “Picture City.”
Hobe Sound was founded by pineapple and citrus growers in the late 19th century. In 1894, the property was purchased by a group of English investors acting as the Indian River Association, Ltd.; the investors acted as absentee owners while the farmers continued their activities as tenants. The timing was not good, however, as an 1895 freeze ruined the citrus and pineapple industries of the area. By 1905, the group had reorganized its Jupiter-area holdings under the name of the Hobe Sound Company, and during the land boom of the next two decades (aided by the arrival of the FEC Railroad) it developed the area as a winter tourist destination.
In 1923, the Hobe Sound Company sold its property to another investment group, the Olympia Improvement Company, whose vision for the town was to create an east-coast Hollywood. The company planned a classical Greece-themed town called Picture City, and attempted to attract production companies and film stars to the community. Streets were given names of gods and other characters from Greek and Roman mythology, and the company oversaw the construction of the Picture City School, a railroad station, ice plant, roads and sidewalks, and concrete light posts. However, the land boom collapsed in 1926, and the Hobe Sound Company abandoned its Picture City plans after the 1928 hurricane. Although the Hobe Sound name was restored to the town after 1928, the school (now known as the Apollo School, last used as a school in 1962), a water tower, lamp posts, street names, one Italianate business block, and a handful of 1920s houses continue to serve as reminders of Picture City today.
The landscapes of the Atlantic coast between Jupiter and Fellsmere are representative of most of South Florida. Access by rail and road, drainage and flood-control experiments, and segregation have left notable marks, but each successive boom-and-bust cycle threatens the region’s historical landscapes. While a few organizations do attempt to preserve that history (most notably in Jupiter, Stuart, and Fellsmere), many sites in smaller communities or at isolated locales are ignored. We hope that this field guide will help to promote appreciation for the region’s heritage and historic landscapes.
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Wayne Brew is Assistant Professor and Coordinator of Geography at Montgomery County Community College in Blue Bell, Pennsylvania. He received B.S. degrees in Earth Science (Geology) and Geography from Penn State University and an M.A. in Geography from Temple University. Research interests include the cultural landscape, vernacular architecture, historical and urban geography.
Scott Roper is Associate Professor of Geography and coordinator of the geography program at Castleton State College in Vermont. He is currently working on a project relating baseball in early twentieth-century Manchester, New Hampshire, to immigration, Progressive politics, material culture, and the rise of labor movements.