Interviewee: Mamie Nelson
Interviewer: Pat Hazel, WGYL News Radio, "Pinpoint" (Narrated by Pete Nowell [PN])
PN: This is the WGYL Pinpoint Interview Program, a weekly show featuring subject of
interest "To and About The Treasure Coast," and this is a special edition of
Pinpoint, "A Look Back at the Roots and Growth of the County," as related by the
pioneers and their sons and daughters during interviews conducted by Pat Hazel
[H] of WGYL. This program was produced by WGYL FM Radio in Vero Beach
as part of the celebration of the 60th Anniversary of Indian River County. When
the first settlers arrived, there was little civilization. Mamie Nelson [N], vintage
N: December 26, 1910, my first husband and I and my little boy, about five years
old, landed in Vero.
H: What was it like?
N: And, it was just a wilderness. It was a wilderness. We lived on the river. We
lived in a houseboat for a while, while the new house was being built. Then,
we went down the Oslo on the river, and my husband opened up a fishery down
there. That was about the main way of making a living down here at that time
because the fishing was real good.
PN: Even when a little civilization began creeping in, sophisticated advantages were a
long way off. Ike Reams [R], born on John's Island, 1903:
R: We went to school here in Vero. We went to school, and it was only a one-room
schoolhouse up to...we did not even have school when we first went...through the
eighth grade. All the people was in one room and two teachers. Old Man
Charlie Gifford, who was Dr. John Gifford's father ran the only store in town, a
general merchandise store. He sold everything from stake pins to steamboats,
almost, and he had the only store, right across the road from the schoolhouse.
H: Is he the one who used to sell jellies and that sort down by the bank?
R: Yes. Grandma and Grandpa Gifford. Yes, he used to sell jellies, walked the
streets. Yes, he was a lively old fellow, Uncle Charlie Gifford.
H: Yes, he was.
R: And he gave away more candy than he sold to the kids. We used to walk two
and a half to three miles to school, the kids did. On rainy days, he carried more
kids home and kept them from getting wet. He would pick up the kids and take
them home, before we had school busses.
PN: When John's Island was settled, it was not by the wealthy. Roy Howard, Sr.
[RH] went to church there, the hard way:
RH: I can remember years ago, Pat. We had to get in a boat here at river edge, and
they would row us across the river. I do not remember who it was, Mr. Jones or
Jeffrey, who would meet us over there with a team of mules, and they would
carry us all the way up to John's Island to the Baptist church. We would go up
there and have services for a day and come back home. That is how we went to
John's Island to church, and I thought it was a real good trip, you know. I
remember years ago when you would go across in a boat here and go on up to
Pavilion, the boardwalk, which is now Humiston Park.
PN: A retired circuit court judge, D. C. "Bo" Smith [S] told us about the delightful life
of a boy growing up along the river, and about the oyster industry:
S: Of course, mullet in those days; the river was brimming with mullet, and we
caught a lot of them.
H: Cook them?
S: Yes, sir. You bet we did.
H: You still like mullet, I bet.
S: Yes. Also, by the time I got old enough to remember, it was not in operation
anymore, but as the family came to the Wabasso area, there was quite an oyster
operation right there immediately north of the community dock. I am told, well,
they had a railroad sliding down to this canning plant. The six or eight years that
it operated, they got a tremendous mound of shell down there, and I think they
put the railroad track down there, probably, to haul the shell away to use it on
some roads. As best I remember, they said that they would ship 75 to 100
gallons of oysters away from there daily. That was a big operation. And the
oysters were abundant out there.
PN: As people moved in, the crossing of the river by boat just became unacceptable.
Richard Jones [J], another island dweller, tells us about the Winter Beach
J: Well, I will tell you. See, it was in three sections. The main section, of course,
the draw section, the draw section, was on this side, where the channel was.
The draw was a swing draw and a narrow draw which only permitted one car at a
time. You could not pass on it. It was a wood bridge, and it got in pretty bad
condition. It was the second bridge built in the county. Vero Beach Bridge was
the first bridge. I believe that one came in 1920 or 1921. I am not sure about
those years, but my mother told me of taking me to that big celebration on the 4th
of July when they opened that bridge. There was a picture in Historical Society
down here the other day. I saw that picture. It was showed to me. Anyway,
shortly thereafter, they built the Winter Beach Bridge in 1925, I think that was. I
am not sure about these dates too much, now, but it is close. Then, they built
the Wabasso Bridge, and Grover Fletcher was a contractor on all that. That is
young Grover, the ex-county commissioner's grandfather. He built those
bridges. In fact, he built the bridges at Cocoa, and, I think, even the ones in Fort
Pierce. Grover was quite a marine engineer of his day. These mosquitos, Pat,
were so bad until in the evenings--and the sand flies--until my dad had an old
car-I could show you the picture of it-and he said, let's go to the other side of the
river where they are not so bad. So, my two sisters, they were six years older
than I, we loaded up in that old car and bumped across that old bridge. We
went over to my aunt's, and we would stay sometimes until ten o'clock,
sometimes maybe a little later, listening to that old Atwater Kent radio. Amos
and Andy was the program that we always [listened to] and, of course, we bought
Pepsodent Toothpaste. Anyway, that was quite a treat for us to get out of these
PN: Of course, the first settlers in this area really were the Indians. One of the
legacies they left behind was soon utilized. Rodney Kragel [K], born here in
1903, whose father was the first wildlife officer for the first bird refuge in the
United States, Pelican Island off Sebastian--their first home here:
K: Well, he chose it because he liked Barker's Bluff. That was where they built
the home. It was on top of this big shell mound right down on the river here. It
is all gone now.
H: What caused the mound of shells?
K: The Indians ate oysters and built their campfires there and just kept throwing the
shells out for thousands of years and finally built this big mound. It covered over
an acre of ground and was almost 100 feet high, solid shell. So, my grandfather
homesteaded the place and built this home up on top of the shell mound. That
way, you could see up and down the river, you know, and had a good vantage
H: A good foundation, too.
K: Yes, and Pelican Island was directly across the river. My dad loved the birds,
and he had a good point there where he could observe them.
PN: His grandfather later sold that shell mound to the county, and it was used to build
many roads. The crops from this area ranged from beans to citrus, but one of
the unexpected crops was pineapple. 82-year-old Ike Reams [R]:
R: They thought they saw a better opportunity to move down here and start citrus
groves and pineapples. Now, there were a lot of pineapples growing between
here and Fort Pierce, all along that ridge. All that back country was not drained
then. There was water everywhere.
PN: Citrus was a part of area dating back beyond memories, really. It slowly grew
until the freeze of 1895, which brought many more growers south, and then
another freeze in the early 1900s brought it into the status of a major part of the
county's development. One of those who cast their lot with citrus was also a
newspaper publisher, John Schumann [S], and one of his decisions was what
type to plant:
S: Oranges or grapefruits or tangerines? He said, well, it could be oranges and
grapefruit, but he said, or grapefruit; if you planted it all either one, there would
be years when you would wish it was the other one. So, he said, I would mix it,
which I did. These here oranges, marsh seedless, which were before the
H: That is good fruit.
S: Yes, it is.
H: I still like the white marsh seedless better than anything else.
S: It is better.
PN: What really made citrus boom, though, was the west county drainage. Arnold
Helsit [AH], whose family settled the Oslo area in the 1900s:
AH: The people who lived here decided to go ahead with this drainage program, went
ahead and formed a drainage district and made arrangements to get some of
that heavy equipment from Panama brought up here on barges. Out there
where Kings Highway crosses Route 60, now, was about six or seven feet of
water back then. It is hard to realize it. Then, they would float these steam
shovels on barges. Of course, they had it laid on, had it staked down, and they
started digging. Then, when they got some laterals dug, they started on the
mains. They got the first main down to the river, and there was nothing left to do
but dig out that last pile of dirt. When they did, it was like pulling the plug of a
bathtub because water just rushed up and dry land appeared.
H: I guess I have never thought of it that way.
AH: What a tremendous undertaking that was.
PN: As far as the men who initiated that drainage district, Warren Zeuch [Z] talks
about his Grandfather Herman:
Z: So, in 1911 and 1912, Grandfather bought up all the property in his name and
then formed the Indian River Farms Company, which was composed of Tony
Young and Mr. Thompson and Grandfather and other developers in the
Indiana/Illinois/lowa area. They then proceeded to try to market this not as
subdivisions for homes, but on the basis of five-acre farm tracts because of
course, by that time, they were growing pineapples down here, they were
growing citrus, and they had truck crops in the rich muck soil, and so on and so
Z: Beans. That was the main idea of the development. He was instrumental in
bringing R. D. Carter, Marvin's grandfather, here. The story goes that he asked
him to estimate what it would cost to ditch and dike and drain the land, and R. D.
said, well, it will take them a little time to do this. Of course, he went off and
eventually before long came back with an estimate that was about $300,000.
Before they got through, it cost over $1,000,000 to do the job. Grandfather
Herman said to R. D., R. D., why didn't you tell me it was going to cost us a lot
more than $300,000? R. D. said, I knew, for sure, if I told you, you would not
develop it! You would not spend that kind of money.
PN: Another sign of progress for the county in its early days was the arrival of Nurse
Garnet Raydon [R]. In 1931, she nearly single-handedly brought the first
hospital into existence:
R: I was asked by the three doctors in town if I would help them out a little bit. So,
as I was working with them in the homes and in the county, I noted that there
was a great need because when they had to go to hospitals, they had to send
them away. So, I talked with the doctors a little bit about it, and they thought it
would be something that they would be glad to support. So, I built up the
foundation, and opened in 1932.
H: Where did you open?
R: Well, it is down on Old Dixie. It was a small hotel building which had been built
and was only open for a very short time, about six months, and closed. So, I
bought the building.
H: It is now Klein's Apartments?
R: That is correct.
H: On 10th Street, about?
H: Okay. How many rooms did it have, as far as hospital...?
R: Well, we were able to get twenty-one beds and five bassinets.
H: What kind of diseases did you treat most in those days?
R: Of course, we had pneumonia, which you have today, but we had a lot of tetanus
cases. We had a lot of typhoid. We had a lot of yellow fever. We had
accident cases, many times, which would develop into gas gangrene type things.
H: Some of these things are hardly noticeable anymore...
R: Well, typhoid, you hardly ever know about.
H: You do not even see much yellow fever anymore around here.
R: No because, of course, their preventative measures that have done an awful lot
for that. Tetanus shots prevent a lot of that, and your typhoid shots prevent that.
In those days, we had no antibiotics for treating. We just had to treat very
H: Was there much malaria?
R: Quite a lot of malaria, yes.
H: With the disappearance of the mosquito, I guess that has gone...
R: That has something to do with it and, of course, they can treat it much better
PN: Things did not really start getting civilized around here until the war on mosquitos
began. Attorney Sherman Smith [S] talks about the bug that earned this area
the original name of Mosquito County:
S: Elig MacWilliam was the first chairman of the mosquito control district. We had
the first district in Florida. While I was in the legislature, we established the
bureau of entomology at Oslo, which is still there. It is a research center for the
sand fly and the mosquito, I am told now, the finest one in the world.
H: Well, it appears to be. We do not have the kind of problem we did thirty-five
years ago or, even worse, before that.
S: That is for sure. I think that is what made Vero Beach a place that people could
enjoy living. There was very little pleasure in living in Vero before the sand flies
and mosquitos were controlled.
H: I remember putting something on my screens in order to keep the sand flies out.
They would hit that stuff, and it would kill them.
S: Hm-mm. It was a combination of diesel oil mixed with an insecticide.
H: And it caught a lot of dust as well as the sand flies.
S: That is right and, finally, the screens would not even let the air pass through.
H: That is right.
S: The story was that Vero Beach, this area between Vero and Fort Pierce, had
more sand flies and more mosquitos of different varieties than any place else in
Florida. They were worse here than any place I have ever seen. How they
originally started, Pat, was digging ditches in the marshes to let the fish in to eat
the larvae, but that was a long way from being 100 percent controlled. The
Navy started the spraying.
H: When they had the airbase here in Vero?
S: That is right.
H: They had something else down in Fort Pierce.
S: Fort Pierce had the amphibious base and training, and those poor guys were
living over there on the island. Nobody else was living there, and the Navy just
had to do something. So, they started spraying DDT.
H: And that is why it is only recently that the island has started to grow.
S: That is correct. I would say, until the spraying programs started, my memory is
there were only two families living year-round on the island in Vero Beach. One
of them was Elig MacWilliam and his family at Rio Mar.
H: Even Rio Mar was not built then, in the time you are talking about.
S: The winter residences were there, but the people were there only for a month or
H: And not during sand fly season?
S: That is correct.
PN: Many people remember the mosquitos, such as Warren Zeuch [Z]:
Z: The Navy was instrumental and working with DDT, which was the first mosquito
control which made it kind of tolerable to live down here. Before that, in the
summer, we wore more clothes than we did in the winter almost, because we
had to evade or avoid the mosquitos.
PN: The end of the war left this area with no military, and an old airbase. What to do
with it? Former State Senator and Mayor Merrill Barber [B]:
B: Pat, it was my privilege to be elected mayor right at a time when Branch Rickey,
who was then the head of the Brooklyn Dodgers and their twenty-seven ball
clubs, were trying to make a contact somewhere in Florida where they could train
the big club and all their minor league clubs. So, the morning after I was
elected, I got a phone call early that morning from Bud Hollman, telling me that
he had just found out through his friend Eddie Rickenbacker of Eastern Airlines
that Branch Rickey was interested in Vero Beach. World War II had just finished
by a few years, and we were saddled with the naval air station out there. We
thought that if we could get Branch Rickey in here to look at those facilities that
he might like to come here with his entire organization, and history speaks for
itself. They did. Mr. Rickey and his organization came in here. We showed
them all through [and] worked out a deal where they would take over parts of the
old abandoned naval air station. The result is what you see out there today, one
of the most beautiful baseball training facilities in the United States.
H: Absolutely. That same year, you became involved with politics on the state
B: Yes. I was appointed to the Florida Highway Commission, a commission
composed of five men with districts, Florida split into five separate road districts.
I had a pretty good sized district. Of course, all the others did, too. But, my
district extended from the Sebastian River down to Key West, through Miami,
Fort Lauderdale, West Palm Beach, all that fast-growing area, and all the way
over on the west coast to Naples. So, I had my hands full attempting to use
what monies we had allocated around through the areas where they were
needed the worst. Of course, as far as needing the worst, the project that
needed the most attention in my opinion at that time was the deplorable condition
of our bridge. We had an old crooked, very narrow, two-lane bridge bridging the
mainland with our beautiful beach area. So, one of the first things in addition to
take care of the big cities, big counties, big areas, I was determined that I was
going to give us some relief here at home, among the other, so we built the
PN: And it is named the Merrill Barber Bridge. One of the better qualified people to
comment on the growth of the county is a newspaper publisher from the 1930s
on, who was also the post master, J. J. Schumann, Sr. [S], of the Press Journal:
S: It is interesting how these towns in Florida just like the orange trees. They have
a flush of growth, and then they are quiet. You watch them. The trees all grow
up six to eight inches of growth all everywhere, called a flush of growth. Well, I
have been through several flushes and recessions. Well, now, just take back in
1934 to 1944, when I was post master, that was the best job in town.
H: I'll bet.
S: It was, because I got paid, regular. Of course, back then, that was a political
job. Now, it is civil service. I could not do it now. But, I had my office at one
end of the alley and the post office at the other end of the alley and called it
Schumann's Alley. This is hard to believe...Merrill, you can remember back how
things were somewhat. I would print the papers on that flatbed press. See,
there, I would stamp them with my foot. I had the type set on galleys, and I just
put them in the machines. Your foot pedal advanced them name by name.
You had to work your hands, too, with your foot. I got a name and address and,
as I said, everything went through the post office. We did not have any
deliveries, no mail delivery, no press general delivery either. All post office. So, I
would put them in a cart, push that thing up the alley, unlock the back door, take
them in the post office, and put them in the boxes.
PN: For another comment, again, Sherman Smith [S] and mosquito control:
S: I just know that Vero Beach would have been nothing in the sense that it is today
without it. People who refer to Vero Beach as being a "God-created paradise"
just do not know what they were talking about. They were not here at that time.
The paradise was created by men working to control the adverse circumstances
we had here, and they were sand flies, mosquitos, water, jungle, gators, snakes.
It was tough living.
PN: But the question that keeps coming up, was it better in the 1930s and 1940s, as
opposed to now? Elvira Buckingham, whose dad and Waldo Sexton, creator
of the Ocean Grill mementos, worked together, she says:
B: Naturally, I liked the old days because people were friendly. Everybody went to
see everybody else. Everybody would stand on the street corners slashing the
mosquitos away and talking and letting your car run while you ran into the store
to get something. You left your children in the car, and somebody would come
along and then stand there and watch them because you did not turn your car
off. You might not get it started again. But, people went to see each other and
they were neighborly. If you needed anything, all you had to do was call up and
ask somebody, if you could get them, with what few phones we had, and they
would lend it to you, whether they ever got it back or not. And doctors never
sent bills. That was a disgrace to the community for a doctor to send you a bill.
H: How did he get paid? You just did it automatically?
B: You just did it out of your heart. When a woman had a baby, if they could not
pay anything, well, that was absolutely unheard of for the doctor to send the
family a bill, especially if there was a baby concerned.
H: Things have changed.
B: But, they were good. I mean, we never had locks on our doors. We never
thought of such things as locking our doors. And we fed everything that came
along the roadside. When people came along, walking families to Miami to try
and make a living, you would have chocolate pudding made up in gallon pans to
give the children. And the families would have homemade bread. They would
come along, and you would feed them and send them on to somebody on down
the line through the county. They did not ask who you were. You were a
human being and you were hungry and you wanted something to eat. It was
your business to feed them, and it was a joy to help them.
H: Things have changed.
H: Maybe the good old days were better.
B: They were, I mean, because I believe people were more interested in other
people, and they were anxious to help them.
H: Have we gotten too busy surviving to think of other folks?
B: I think we have gotten too interested in money and buying things for yourself
instead of sharing with other people.
PN: The bottom line: living is easier today, but people were closer together then.
Take your choice. I am Pete Nowell. You have been listening to Pinpoint, a
weekly interview program produced by the WGYL News Department. Join us
every Wednesday at 6:05 p.m. for Pinpoint.
[End of the transcript.]