Step back in time

James Odell Jr. and Talissa Wilson, Civil War reenactors

James Odell Jr. and Talissa Wilson, Civil War reenactors, regale event-goers with stories about early Fort Pierce during the Treasure Coast History Festival. ED DRONDOSKI PHOTO

Inaugural history festival uncovers a treasure trove of stories


With Fort Pierce’s old-time aura, it is easy to imagine early settlers and Seminole Indians brushing up dust on the same streets. Everyone knew each other and strangers were easy to spot, yet still made to feel welcomed at the Buckhorn Saloon or Peter P. Cobb’s general store.

Homesteads were beyond hollering distance, but close enough to keep a watch over each other to make sure that everyone was getting by. Neighbors tended to the elderly and sick and watched to see the children stayed out of mischief.

That is how many of the creative types who are experiencing a revival gravitated to each other and survived in a time when there was no such thing as quick money. In the city’s early days, Crayola inventor Edwin Binney became a major benefactor, dredging the Fort Pierce Inlet, creating the Port of Fort Pierce and saving the local bank during the Depression. Fort Pierce was a haven of creativity for artists like A.E. Backus and the Highwayman painters. Author Zora Neale Hurston spent her final years here.

As a city that honors its past, Fort Pierce was chosen as the site for the inaugural Treasure Coast History Festival, produced by Indian River Magazine Inc., publisher of Fort Pierce Magazine, with co-sponsors Main Street Fort Pierce and the Sunrise Theatre.

Readers have deeply connected with the history stories featured on the pages of Indian River Magazine and Fort Pierce Magazine. With that in mind, publisher Gregory Enns approached Main Street Fort Pierce and the Sunrise Theatre about a Treasure Coast History Festival featuring local pioneer families and authors who share a past with the city. The result was an incredible thumbs up.

It was the historical version of Comic Con, but instead of Superman and Iron Man, Civil War reenactors and Florida cowboys walked the streets of downtown on Jan. 14.

The Black Box Theatre was standing room only most of the day as one speaker after another shared their stories while other visitors lined up for ghost tours and historical trolley rides. Even the food connections at the festival included locals like the Summerlin family and Hassie Russ of Granny’s Kitchen fame.

“Fort Pierce has the best sense of history of any place in this area,” said Alesha Fuller, a visitor who was enjoying Summerlin hush puppies while visiting with her friends.

Authors who have either a connection to the Treasure Coast like Hurston, who found her way here in her later years, or natives like Sally Putnam Chapman drew interest with their life stories. Festival-goers had a chance to meet and hear about their connections to Fort Pierce’s rich and colorful history.

A dozen authors were also on hand to speak to fans in the makeshift Authors Alley across from the theater including Janie Gould, who wrote and recorded the Floridays series; Terry Howard, author of three books on local commercial fishing; local history writer Lucille Rights and many others.

It never fails to attract listeners when a storyteller begins a ghost tale, especially when they are about buildings within walking distance. So what better activity to add to the historical fun than a ghost-walking tour?

Larry Lawson, a paranormal investigator, spent the day spinning tales of local sightings. The tour’s popularity at the festival has him considering a regularly scheduled Fort Pierce tour in the future.

“There’s a ton of stories from the Sunrise Theatre and also the Boston House, especially from the former tenants,” said Lawson, whose team has personally experienced paranormal activity. “The best viable story comes from the ’80s at the Boston House when a copier repairman saw a woman in white upstairs and came down shaking and reported it that minute. That is very real. There are also reports of typewriters going off all at once, computers turning on by themselves and even a fake palm tree blowing over like a hurricane was going through it.”

Festival-goers ate up the eerie tour experience and wondered how scary it would be if it were held at night.

Never in their wildest dreams did Enns and Main Street organizers think that the event would be so well received; that participants would reveal so many previously unheard stories.

There was even a discussion of a new article written by Hurston, which was recently found in a desk drawer of the late Ralph Sexton, a Vero Beach businessman/rancher. It had been commissioned by his late and famous father, Waldo Sexton.

Marvin Hobson, an associate professor of English who teaches a course on Hurston at Indian River State College, appeared on the Hurston panel with two of her former students, Hassie Russ and Marjorie Harrell. He said the discovery was very interesting and he was anxious to see the letters and the short article Hurston had written for Sexton.

“My interest in Hurston began as just literary, but in trying to retrace my family’s history in the South and reading Zora’s work in the time period, was me learning about my family and not just reading literature,” Hobson said. “I have read virtually all of her work. These letters will be a deeper sense of who she was and the relationships she forged not only with African-Americans, but with all kinds of people.”

As friends, relatives and authors who wrote about local legends talked about their books or their relationships to a Fort Pierce pioneer, memories came flooding out from others including stories about Amelia Earhart; tales along the roadways by Highwaymen artists; and relationships cemented in the dust and river water of the Treasure Coast. Luckily, that leaves more stories to be written on the pages of the magazines.