Interviewee: Merrill P. Barber, Jim Vocelle
Interviewer: Bill Turner
T: Merrill P. Barber, when did your family come to Indian River County?
B: Bill, my family came to what was then St. Lucie County, which was a combination
of what is today Indian River and St. Lucie Counties. They came to little old
Vero in 1913. At that time, I was exactly three years old.
T: Well, it could not have been a very big area, and there had to be a number of
major changes. So, you actually were not born here?
B: No, Bill. I was three years old when my parents brought me to Vero. It has
been my privilege to see Vero grow out of, I might say, the alligator swamps and
the prairies into this beautiful little community that we now have as Vero Beach.
T: What did the Barber family start with? I mean, what did they get into? Your
father and mother came here with a certain object or goal in mind. What did
they intend to do?
B: Bill, my father came to Florida for his health and was one of the first northern
property owners in this county. He bought a piece of property out on what is
called Barber Avenue, I think it was forty acres, from the Indian River Farms
Company. Incidentally, a very fine gentleman who did a lot in starting our area,
Tony Young, Senator A. W. Young and Herman J. Zeuch and John Leroy
Hutchinson were a part of what was known as, I believe, the Indian River Farms
Company. They sold dad this forty acres of land, and he developed one of the
first citrus groves in the area developed by a, we will say, a northerner.
T: Is this property still in the family.
B: No, I am sorry to say.
T: It has passed on down the line.
B: That is right. No.
T: How about you, Jim Vocelle? When did your family start here in Indian River
V: Well, Bill, I moved my family down here in 1924. At that time, it was known as
Vero. I believe the census of 1920 gave it about 500 people.
T: You said Vero; was that the real name at the time?
V: Yes, it was. Merrill was just mentioning about the Indian River Farms Company,
and I think it might be interesting to note right here that, originally, what is now
Vero Beach west of the railroad and on out through the Indian River Farms
drainage district was about 50,000 acres of land purchased by the Indian River
Farms Company from two gentleman by the name of E. W. Thompson and L. T.
Jackson. The Indian River Farms Company was organized in Davenport, Iowa.
I was talking to Warren Zeuch, Sr. the other day about that, and he tells me that
the Indian River Farms Company was organized, and the future town of what is
now Vero Beach was laid out in his father's home in Davenport.
T: In your early recollection, who were some of the pioneer names or some of the
families who were very well established when you came to this area?
V: Well, there was the late John Knight, his family, the other Knight family of
Freeman and Jimmy and Gordon and Marvin and Albert. Then, of course,
Merrill just mentioned Tony Young who, at one time, why, was the chief political
figure here, the man who might really be called the father of Indian River County.
B: That is right, Jim. If I could interrupt for just a second, I believe Senator Young
was our first mayor, was he not?
V: First mayor of Vero Beach, as I recall.
B: And, I think, was the first representative of Indian River County when it became a
county. Then, he was the first senator of a local residence who served in the
V: That is correct.
T: Now, does Indian River County have a history of citrus agriculture as being the
foundation of the county? Did it develop from that from the very beginning, or
was it plowed out originally as a farm community? What was Indian River
County in its early years?
V: Of course, that goes back to a little earlier than either Merrill or I can remember, I
guess, but it is my feeling from what I know about it that there were a few pioneer
families who moved down here and braved the mosquitos and whatnot. Take
the late A. P. Michael of Wabasso, who was one and who was known as Mr.
Citrus in Florida. My personal observation is that it could be said that agriculture
and citrus and fishing were the main backbone of Indian River County and were
responsible for its growth and development. Would you agree with that, Merrill?
B: Jim, I certainly do agree with you and, at that particular time, I believe one of the
finest farming areas in the state. Of course, there was not much to the state at
that time but little old Johns Island, inhabited at that time by some of our old very
fine pioneers. I hate to mention a few names, pioneer names, because of
offending many who I probably should mention. But, when we talk about Johns
Island and the farming over there, I think immediately about the Harris family and
the Joneses. Many of the good old timers who lived over there had a school
and did a lot of farming. Then, in the Winter Beach area, then called Quay, I
believe-am I correct, Jim?
V: That is correct.
B: There was considerable farming there.
T: When you consider the terrible difficulties of living back in those days and the
problems with the mosquitos, the transportation back and forth across the river,
or one thing or another, what was the attraction? I mean, what could be the
attraction to leave what you might call a far more developed area, such as
Philadelphia or Pittsburgh and the Eastern Seaboard and coming to what would
at that time have been considered a rather desolate area?
B: I guess I would say probably just the spirit of the pioneer. As I mentioned a
minute ago, my people came here because of dad's health.
T: Carving something out of the wilderness?
B: After we arrived here, why, it was a real challenge. We felt that we were a part
of building it. I cannot help but mention this, Bill Turner, sitting here next to my
dear friend, Jim Vocelle. I remember when Jim first came to little old Vero back
in those days. I remember him very well because he was my scout master. I
do not know whether you remember that or not, Jim.
V: Well, scouting has always been very dear to my heart, Merrill, because not
digressing but I have always felt that it is one of the finest organizations for the
development of American youth that there is.
B: Incidentally, Bill Turner, Jim Vocelle, I think, was probably our third city attorney.
We were visiting a little while ago before we went on the air, and I think we both
agreed that a gentleman by the name of Compart was our first city attorney, and
Judge Elwin Thomas was the second city attorney. Now, Jim Vocelle was the
third, and he is back again with us and doing an outstanding job as our city
T: Land acquisition then, of course, was a very important thing in the development
of the county, as it is now. Land turnover, ownership-has there been a vast
turnover in ownership, or has it been pretty stable in this last, say, seventy-five
years? Has it been very stable?
V: I think there has been a tremendous turnover in land ownership.
B: No doubt about that.
V: If I might get back to a question that you asked a moment ago, Bill, about what
caused people to come here, I think Merrill hit the nail on the head, but I think
that the spirit of adventure and the pioneering spirit which was largely
responsible for the development of our West, I think that this was one of the
things that attracted people. There is something fascinating about it. Then,
too, of course, a great many people came here as Merrill spoke about his father,
came here for the help in order to get away from the rigors of the winters
elsewhere. When I first came here, and I know Merrill can remember it, the
question of battling mosquitos was really fierce. That is why I think with so many
of our new residents, and we have had so many wonderful people to move in
here, and we welcome them so much, and we are glad to count them among our
friends and neighbors here, but I think sometimes we do not think enough about
what the pioneers had to go through in order to carve these kind of places out of
the wilderness, so to speak.
B: Jim, do you remember the little old joke that we used to say, that you could take
a quart can and swing it through the air and get a gallon of mosquitos at any time
you wanted to?
V: Well, I do not think that was really a joke. I think there was more truth than
poetry in that. [Laughter.]
T: Well, what did you do to combat them, or did you just forget it or try to live with it?
Were there any actual combat tactics?
B: No, just the old crude types, such as mosquito switches, as we called them then,
made out of-what was it, Jim-palmetto fans, I believe, and then smudges and, of
course, screens. All of the houses were screened.
T: One wonders today if there is any truth in the old adage, if there is an immunity to
mosquitos? Is this an old wives' tale, or did the pioneers actually develop an
immunity to them, or just sort of forget them and let them go by their way?
V: Let me give you a concrete example of that. Some years ago, my good friend
John Knight, who has passed on, asked me one day if I would take a ride with
him. He was going up to look at one of his groves. I was not doing anything at
the moment, so we got in the car and we went up to one of his groves north of
here. There was an old pioneer family--I say old--a man and his wife sitting on
the front porch, no screens or anything else. They lived on the grove, and they
were both barefooted. I could hardly stand to be out of the car with all of the
mosquitos, and they were sitting on the porch, barefooted, unconcerned, and,
apparently, had worked themselves up to immunization.
T: That is just fantastic. Well, we have covered some of the growth, the agricultural
background, or the economic background. Was there any industry here to
speak of seventy-five, fifty, years ago?
B: Oh none whatsoever, absolutely not. As Jim mentioned a while ago., farming
and fishing, and citrus. That was it, in this part of the country. In fact, I doubt if
you could really realize what Jim and I found when we came to Vero Beach, just
a few little shacks for stores and just a few people living in the outskirts of what is
now Vero Beach.
T: Where did you live when you first came to town?
B: On the old home place, as we called it, which is located almost on the corner of
Barber Avenue and Lateral A, as we call it. Bill, I can well remember when
McCahon's Park was nothing but a prairie, not one single house there. Jim, I
am sure, remembers the first house that was built, I believe by a man by the
name of Sellars? Jim, was he not the first secretary of the Vero Beach
Chamber of Commerce, or the Vero Chamber of Commerce?
V: I believe so.
B: This is a factual statement, and I am sure that Jim will verify it, that we both
remember when where the downtown fire station is now located, where the City
Hall was located, was an alligator hole, and I mean with live alligators. The
same thing is true of the beautiful park where the community buildings are now
located. That was an alligator hole. Am I correct on that, Jim?
V: You are correct.
T: When you lived that far west, where did you have to go to school?
B: Bill, it so happened that I had the pleasure and privilege of going to one of those
T: Where was this located?
B: John Schumann, Jr. and his pretty little wife were in here just a few minutes ago.
[Eugene] Gene Gollnick, her father, and I went to that school. The one-room
school was located on Kings Highway, just a half a mile north of Walker Avenue,
between Walker Avenue and Barber Avenue. We had Mrs.--bless her heart,
she died a few months ago--Mrs. Rodenberg, taught all of us from the primer, as
we called it, right on into the high school years.
T: I am going to test your memory. Can you name a few of your classmates from
B: Gene Gollnick, Kathy's father, the Klinsick boys, a fine old time family here in
Indian River County, the Twitchells, Lyman Twitchell, and Al Herndon's wife,
Valera Herndon...the one person that I guess I owe as much to any other one
person in this world, outside my immediate family, and that was Mary Calsward,
Mary Everetts. She now has a very fine position for the First Federal Savings
and Loans. Mary literally took me by the hand and led me to school as a
frightened crying little boy when I first went into the primer grade at school. If it
had not been Mary Calsward, I doubt if I would have ever gotten off to a start in
the field of education.
T: Well, Jim Vocelle, where did you live when you first came to town?
V: I lived out in what is known there as Osceola Park subdivision. I believe it was
the first subdivision that was added to the original town of Vero. It is out now
near where L. N. Dullerman, Sr. lives.
T: This presumed to be a certainly more attractive, obviously, area for residential
development than later years. There seems to have been a change there. In
other words, you fellows moved to the west side, and then your families
apparently came down into town further.
B: Royal Park, where Jim Vocelle and I both live now, was a complete jungle and
wilderness at that time.
T: Well, what was it like out there where you lived?
B: Where I lived at that time was more in the prairies, but where Jim and I now live,
in Royal Park, was actually jungle, heavy, heavy jungle.
T: It had not been carved out the way it has been now. That is very interesting, as
far as the development of the area.
V: Let me add right in there a thought that came to me. Mr. Louis Harris, whom
Merrill and I, of course, remember so well and vividly, was one of the pioneers
here. I believe he came down here and settled on John's Island to begin with.
Mr. Harris was one of our very finest citizens and a county school superintendent
here for many years, and he was president of what used to be the Farmers' Bank
of Vero. When I came here, it was a small red brick, one-story building on the
corner where the Indian River Citrus Bank now is. Mr. Harris told me that he
recalled when that was swamp, on that corner.
T: Now, when you fellows as young men were here, you keep referring to John's
Island. Explain John's Island, what it was and how it has developed since then,
and where it was.
B: Now, Bill, it so happens that John's Island has not developed since then. It is
not inhabited at this present time, but I predict some day, it will be one of the
most beautiful area spots in the entire area because it certainly has beauty
beyond words. I am sorry I cannot give you this information as to why, but for
some reason, the families moved off of John's Island over here to the mainland.
I say I do not know why, but probably because of convenience. I believe that, to
get to John's Island at that time, they probably had to go in a boat or launch or
rowboat or something like that.
T: Where is it?
B: North of Vero Beach, a little north of where--close to where Roland Miller lives
and the Fred Turk home.
T: Approximately three miles?
B: Yes. It is north of town and west of, approximately, where the Roland Millers
and Fred Turks now reside. Jim, I am correct on that, I believe?
V: That is correct. That is it.
B: You might be interested in this. I can well remember when my mother and
father and I would come to Vero every Saturday to buy groceries. We would
come in a wagon drawn by two mules, and it would take us a good full day to
make the trip and spend, probably, an hour or so in Vero.
T: Dad would sit around the steps and chew a wad with the fellows, and mom would
do her shopping, and you would get out and romp?
B: That is right.
V: And fight the mosquitos. Let me interject right there, if I may, before I forget
about it. We were talking about bridges. Merrill, of course, will remember this.
Just before I moved to Vero Beach in 1924, they had the celebration of the
opening of the beautiful bridge across the Indian River, now the Merrill P. Barber
bridge, named for the fine service that Merrill has rendered here in getting that
and so many other things for the development of this community in his public
service. But, I understand that before that, there were a few people who lived
over on what we call the island, where all the development is on the beach, and
they had to cross on a boat, a sailboat. It was either late 1923 or early 1924 that
the first bridge was built across the river.
B: Jim, I cannot help but interrupt because I do not want to forget it, and I know you
do not either. I think that at this time, we should all pay tribute to Elig
V: I was going to mention that.
B: One of our founders. If you are prepared to do that, and I know you are, I will
just leave that for you, but we certainly do not want to overlook him because if
there is one man who is Mr. Vero Beach, it is certainly Elig MacWilliams.
T: We intended that our series dealing with the historical background of Indian River
County include an interview with him, and I am sorry it came too late.
B: I would like to interrupt by just suggesting that we ask Jim Vocelle, who played a
very important and prominent part in the division of St. Lucie County into Indian
River and St. Lucie. Let us let Jim give us a little story on that because, as our
attorney at that time, he was right in the middle of everything.
T: Right in the middle.
V: Well, that was one of the most interesting political battles that I have ever
engaged in. It began--there had been some agitation. In fact, when I moved
here in 1924, there was some talk about it because Vero Beach and Fort Pierce,
there had been sort of a rivalry between them. In fact, sometimes it got to be a
little acrimonious. But, the thing that really culminated was that the late William
Atkin, who is father of Sarah B. Cochrill, was president of the Vero Bank Trust
Company. The company that he was president of had built the theater.
Incidentally, when it was first built, the newspaper said it had the longest
marquee of any theater in Florida. But, not to get off in too long of a discussion,
he decided that they were going to open it up on Sunday and, at that time, that
was a rather unheard of thing down in this section as well as many other places.
They did open it up, and some of the Fort Pierce people got quite concerned
about it. The sheriff came up one Sunday, and he arrested everybody in the
theater, and ran them all out and closed it up, and they got great agitation over it,
and then, they all decided, well, now is the time to succeed from Fort Pierce.
So, the late Tony Young, who was really a masterful tactician in political affairs
with St. Lucie County representing him, and he introduced the bill to create
Indian River County. He got into quite a muddle over it because the people
down in Stuart decided it was the time to create a county down there, and it really
put Mr. Young on the spot because it took cutting St. Lucie County up rather fine.
But, Governor [John W.] Martin [of Florida, 1925-1929], and everybody is
human and I was very fond of him, a great man, but he was determined that he
wanted a county named for him, so we had to create both Martin and Indian
River [counties]. Incidentally, there has only been one other county in Florida
created since that time. So, after a tremendous battle in Tallahassee over this
situation with the masterful work on the part of Mr. Young and many others
concerned, Indian River County was created by act of the 1925 legislature and
came into being on the first day of June, 1925. There were a lot of people, as
there are with so many new things, that felt that it was going to be detrimental all
the way around, but I think everybody today would agree that it is a fine thing for
T: Well, gentlemen, I am sorry our time is gone for this particular interview. You
have given us a most interesting insight into some of the background of Indian
River County, its people and so on. In the days and the weeks ahead, we are
going to look forward to the development of the retail, the transportation, the
business growth, of Indian River County. We sincerely hope that you will join us
again. Our thanks, once again, to Senator Merrill P. Barber and to James T.
Vocelle for their unusual and especially exciting discussion on the development
of Indian River County. Until we meet again, so long for now.
[End of the interview, followed by tribute song of Treasure Coast.]