Color-tinted photograph of Arthur Mayfield Hill and Catherine Richey Hill hangs on the living room wall of Linda Hill, widow of Hill’s grandson Arthur M. Hill III. It probably dates from the Hill family’s early days in Vero around 1920.
An innovative Vero developer was nearly forgotten until an accidental finding brought his achievements back to life
BY MARY ANN KOENIG
Of all the people remembered during the celebration of Vero Beach’s centennial this year, citrus developer and businessman Arthur Mayfield Hill may be one of the most underappreciated.
Hill moved to Florida 102 years ago on the premise of bringing development to an undiscovered east coast enclave. It was just prior to the incorporation of the city of Vero (the word Beach was added later as a marketing tool), and Hill made his mark, clawing back marshland to develop citrus groves, initiating agricultural experimentations and donating land for a city park.
Yet with all the contributions of this early Indian River County pioneer, who should have left a well-established legacy, Hill’s influence was nearly lost to history. An accidental discovery by a teenage boy in the 1990s would help preserve Arthur M. Hill’s historical record and document his impact on the fledgling town of Vero.
Hill was born in Indiana, but like a true 19th century pioneer, he moved west. Settling in Colorado Springs in 1897, he met Dr. John LeRoy Hutchinson, a dentist turned property speculator (not the namesake of Hutchinson Island). Together they formed Hutchinson, Hill Land Sales Company and would become life-long associates and partners.
Hill and Catherine Richey, also of Knox, Indiana, had married in 1892. They raised two children, Arthur Jr. and Edith, in Vero. Catherine was an admired local woman involved in civic activities, such as the Vero Beach Woman’s Club. She was the first woman to register to vote in Vero.
In 1909 Hill and Hutchinson became the local Colorado agency selling property on behalf of the Palm Beach Farms Company. That business opportunity had brought Hill to Florida for the first time in 1907 to view the developing properties in Palm Beach, a project that would eventually become Lake Worth. Hill ventured north and found abundant agricultural land in what is now Indian River County.
Even before he moved to Vero permanently in 1917, Hill would partner with Herman Zeuch, A.W. Young and Hutchinson to create the Indian River Farms Company, which in 1912 constituted 45,000 acres of undeveloped marshland and scrub pine forests.
But these early futurists had enough imagination to envision the citrus industry and other agricultural commerce alongside a thriving residential community. They saw more than backwoods and alligators. They saw an expansion that would result in an engineering marvel of drainage and mosquito control that would lead directly to the creation and prosperity that is Vero Beach today.
The headline from an Aug. 14, 1924, Vero Press article names A.M. Hill, Herman Zeuch, A.W. Young, and John LeRoy Hutchinson as those whose “Vision Brings About Vero’s Development.”
Hill was busy in those days. He was president of the Indian River Drainage District, a director of Vero Beach Bank & Trust Company, a member of the Board of Realtors, on the Board of Directors of the Seminole Building Company and an officer of the Vero Finance and Improvement Corporation. He also planted and industrialized one of the first citrus groves in the area, nearly 300 acres west of Vero.
As a developer, he and his partners recognized a need for accommodations for the visiting speculators and prospective buyers of all the land that was changing hands.
The Sleepy Eye Lodge was a venerable institution that played a pivotal role in Vero’s growth. Investors and developers attracted to the area, including Waldo Sexton, made the lodge their temporary residence. Visitors were collected at the train station and brought by automobile to the new, modern hotel.
The lodge had many names and owners throughout the early years. Hill and Young were among them. Vero Beach City Councilman Tony Young, a retired Army colonel, recalls the details of the lodge. A.W. Young was his grandfather, a state senator and also Vero’s first mayor.
According to Tony Young, “The Sleepy Eye Lodge was the center of gravity, the nucleus for the creation of Vero.” The lodge’s place among early Vero’s long-gone relics is of top significance in the city’s early development.
EARLY VERO SETTLERS
“Prospective land buyers and new arrivals would stay at the lodge,” says Young. “All the early settlers would know this place well. (Engineer Robert D.) Carter, Sexton, and Hill, the whole gang would meet there and tout the vision of farms and opportunity.”
A St. Lucie Tribune article in 1913 reports that “distinguished guest Alexander Graham Bell” came to stay at the lodge while traveling to his winter home in Palm Beach.
Also known as Hotel Park Vero and Vero Hotel in those early years, the lodge was closed for a year in 1917, moved to a new location down the street and reopened for the season on Dec. 10, 1919. At one point, Young’s grandmother, Irene, managed the lodge, and the new dining room was the social place to be seen.
Sleepy Eye lodge was originally located at what is now a prominent downtown Vero intersection — on the southwest corner of 21st Street and 14th Avenue, diagonally across from Pocahontas Park, now the Arbor Center and the offices of the Cultural Council of Indian River County.
In those early days, Hill owned the land that is now Pocahontas Park. For a while the park was home to a make-shift zoo, a menagerie that Michelle Wagner, Indian River County Library genealogical librarian, describes as “a collection of animals, including alligators, raccoons, a bobcat, and two black bears.” One of the bears, Suzy, belonged to the Hill family, who donated her to the zoo to keep the other bear, Alice, company.
Hill donated the property to the City of Vero to create Pocahontas Park. The zoo was eventually closed and the animals relocated.
The Arthur Mayfield Hill archival file in the genealogy center at the Indian River County Library holds pages of land transactions on which Hill is recorded as the grantor, selling properties and exchanging acreage with many Vero settlers who were making their mark in real estate, citrus and farming, such as Sexton, Zeuch and Alex McWilliams, among others. In the late 1920s, Hill, Young and Hutchinson formed a company with this business letterhead, “Owners and Developers of Vero Beach Properties.” Many of the properties in the transactions are from the A.M. Hill Company to that venture.
One stand-out transaction among Hill’s property contacts is the sale of 10,929 acres north of Indian River County, what is now the town of Micco.
But much of the evidence of Hill’s expansive force on the development of Vero and Indian River County might have been lost except for Joel Dobbs, the teenager who saved the local pioneer’s legacy.
The Hill family homestead, a 20-acre parcel on 49th Avenue and 20th Street, was near where Dobbs grew up. The house was situated at the back of that land down a winding lane, in a heavily wooded tract. It was home to two generations of the Hill family over the decades. Arthur Hill’s only son, Arthur Jr., died in the house in 1990. The property and home were left abandoned and fell into disrepair, which is when Dobbs entered the picture.
He and two friends ventured onto the property one day on their bicycles, riding down that twisting driveway to explore. They entered the vacant house and saw evidence of what Dobbs described as “vagrants” living there. In a bedroom, Dobbs found a small dresser that contained a trove of Hill family history: papers and approximately 65 photographs from the early 1920s through the 1940s, along with their original negatives.
Dobbs kept those artifacts until 2006 when he contacted the Indian River County Library’s archive center and donated the collection of priceless photos.
Hill’s citrus business contained elements of plant experimentations, a horticultural endeavor he passed on to his son who became a pioneer in tropical plants, introducing many exotics to the area. His greenhouse/laboratory was built adjacent to the family home.
According to Wesley Davis, Indian River County property appraiser and Vero Beach native, there were numerous exotic plants growing on the property and important horticultural experimentations were conducted there.
Dobbs explored the greenhouse during his adventure at the Hill homestead, finding bottles of chemicals labeled DDT and silver nitrate. The encounter would connect to his own interests, as Dobbs went on to study horticulture at the University of Florida and now has a thriving plant business in Vero.
Arthur Mayfield Hill died in 1947. Catherine had died suddenly in 1924. Hill had remarried, and his second wife, Hazel, would outlive him by nine years.
Hill left a revolution behind in Vero. The citrus industry was thriving, development was underway and roads, bridges and farms were growing out of the acres of marshlands he encountered when he first had come to Vero in 1907.
His obituary in the Vero Press is extensive, detailing his interest in “citrus culture,” and he’s listed as a member of Modern Woodsman, Masons and Shriners. Twenty-eight honorary pallbearers were listed, including a galaxy of city and county luminaries: Sexton, Young, McWilliams, Carter, and numerous others.
Arthur Jr. joined the Navy during World War II and served on Douglas McArthur’s staff. Among Dobbs’ discoveries were Arthur Jr.’s mementos and official Navy photos from his deployment in the Philippines.
The family homestead was torn down just a few years after Arthur Jr. died at age 82, luckily after Dobbs had made his discovery. Arthur M. Hill III, A.M. Hill’s grandson, made the decision to demolish the house as it had continued to decay.
Arthur Hill III was a Vero Beach natural in all respects. He grew up working in the family citrus industry, graduated Vero Beach High School and joined the Navy like his father. When he returned to Vero in the 1960s, he went to work at the original diesel power plant, and when that plant closed, he began working at the Vero Beach Power Plant on Indian River Boulevard. Altogether he put in 36 years working for the City of Vero, like all the Hills, contributing to the welfare of the city.
The Indian River County legacy of the Hill family stretches back decades and continues today. Hill III passed away in 2016, but his widow, Linda, still has flowering plants and shrubs growing in her yard, taken from the old Hill homestead, courtesy of her husband, Arthur.
Linda Hill possesses one of the Hill family’s most unique artifacts, the original bell that sat on the front registration desk of the Sleepy Eye Lodge.
Also documented in Arthur Hill Jr.’s handwriting, in a historical book with a photograph of the Sleepy Eye Lodge’s dining room, is a note that the Hill family took a bedroom and living room from the lodge to construct the Hill house.
That property was sold to a developer in 2016 and will become a gated tract community later this year.
A colorized photograph of Arthur M. and Catherine Hill hangs on Linda Hill’s living room wall.
That 1924 Vero Press article touting Zeuch, Hill, Young, and Hutchinson as the visionaries developing Vero, has a sub-headline: “City Built Where Wilderness Stood But Few Years Ago.” Vero Beach’s forefathers worked in survival mode, in the Florida wilderness. What could be more fitting for a pioneer?
A WOMAN WITH THAT PIONEERING SPIRIT
BY MARY ANN KOENIG
Catherine Richey Hill was a pioneer in many ways. She came to Vero Beach in the early 20th century and helped shape the landscape and culture of an undeveloped Florida town that held a wealth of possibilities.
Her public record has receded into history, even though she holds a valuable distinction that must have marked her courage as well as her expectations for the future.
She and her husband, Arthur Mayfield Hill, married young and left their hometown of Bicknell, Indiana, in Knox County to move to Colorado Springs, Colorado, in 1897, with a one-year-old baby girl, Edith.
They made their home there as Arthur worked in the land development business, which eventually brought them to Vero permanently.
Catherine was a diligent wife and mother and helped plant and maintain the large parcel of land on 20th Street that was the Hill homestead. She and Arthur had four children, but only two survived, their daughter, Edith, and a son, Arthur Jr., born in 1907.
She was a member of the Vero Chapter of the Order of the Eastern Star, a Masonic group which allowed women to join. She was in good company with other strong women members, including Clara Barton, the pioneering nurse who founded the Red Cross, and Laura Ingalls Wilder, whose children’s books were the basis of the television series Little House on the Prairie.
Catherine was also a member of the Vero Woman’s Club, a group that originally held their meetings at the Sleepy Eye Lodge until the Indian River Farms Company donated property on 21st Street for the group. That building was added to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places in 1995.
The club focused on literacy and education projects in town. One of the group’s most enduring ventures was the creation of Vero Beach’s first library.
When the Hills moved thousands of miles to Colorado in the late 19th century and later to Florida to help carve a new town out of drained swamp land in a tropical wilderness, they relied on Catherine’s pioneering spirit. It was an attitude that undoubtedly extended to her personal life.
Beginning in the 19th century, women struggled to advance their rights and were particularly focused on obtaining suffrage. The battle for a woman’s legal right to vote in the United States had been fought for nearly 80 years, when finally, on Aug. 26, 1920, the 19th amendment to the Constitution confirmed that right. It also seems to have been a significant milestone for Catherine Hill.
A Vero Press headline from Labor Day, Sept. 6, 1920, announced that registration books were now open in all precincts, and that women may register without paying a poll tax.
Five days later, the paper reported that Catherine Richey Hill was the first woman to register to vote in Vero. It was also noted that, “there will be many more.”
In 1924, she collapsed at her home and died just hours later. She was one of Vero’s best known and most respected women, according to her obituary. On the day she was laid to rest, the obituary states, “many of the business houses of the city closed their doors during the funeral as a token of respect.” Catherine was 44 years old.