Vero Beach Centennial
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.
After much debate and quite a bit of rancor among citizens and politicians alike, Indian River County was born in 1925 through state legislation that carved both Indian River to the north and Martin to the south out of St. Lucie County, leaving three separate counties in the place of one. Local legend has it that the forced Sunday closing of the four-month-old Vero Theatre (later the Florida Theatre and now Theatre Plaza) on 14th Avenue in 1925 was the reason many Vero Beach citizens and officials demanded the creation of a new county.
Just about every community, town or city had its origins with pioneer families who, sometime in the past, decided to put down roots in a particular location. They may have settled because nature provided a means of survival (farming, hunting, fishing), but as their communities grew and economies developed, those families diversified by providing services that catered to their neighbors. Then a second wave of settlers came with skills and enterprises further fueling the growing community.
Indian River Magazine is proud to present this special issue marking Vero Beach’s centennial celebration, which begins this month and continues through October 2019.
It began as a casual conversation nearly 16 months ago between City Clerk Tammy Burick and Councilman Tony Young. The two had worked together on Vero Beach’s 75th and 90th anniversary celebrations and thought the city’s centennial celebration should be bigger and better.
12,000 B.C. — Signs of the region’s earliest human habitation are traced to the Ice Age after a skull is discovered in 1915 in Vero but is misplaced before carbon dating is conducted.
2000 B.C. — The region from Cape Canaveral to St. Lucie Inlet is inhabited by native Americans known as the Ais, people who lived in towns consisting of small collections of huts framed with sticks or wood and covered on the sides by palm fronds.
1696 — Jonathan Dickinson and his party are shipwrecked at Jupiter Island. By Dickinson’s account the chief of the Ais town of Jece, near present day Vero Beach, was supreme among all others. Disease, slavery and warfare eliminate the Ais by 1760. Some archaeologists locate the town of Jece on Barker’s Bluff near what is known today as Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge.
Vero’s beginnings are rooted deep in ancient history. The first indications that people visited the area thousands of years ago were discovered when human bones were uncovered in 1915 and 1916. And from 2014 to 2017, four archaeological excavations further explored this presence and the importance of the Old Vero Site. When did these people first arrive? This question, like Vero Beach, is 100 years old.
Long before the first people of European origin settled in what is present-day Vero Beach, an ancient people known as the Ais roamed the coast.
And, according to the research of two scholars, it was on a large shell midden near what is Pelican Island National Wildlife Sanctuary in Indian River County that the Ais located their capital, known as the paramount town of Jece.
Like many latter-day retirees who visit towns up and down Florida’s east coast before deciding to settle in Vero Beach, a Vermonter named Henry T. Gifford checked out Titusville, Fort Pierce and the swamps now known as Miami before moving to Vero in 1887, when it was unnamed, unknown and mostly uninhabited.
World War II brought permanent changes to the homefront, even to towns as small as Vero Beach in the early 1940s.
Better bridges and roads, mosquito control and eventually, the widespread use of air-conditioning, even in public schools, made Vero Beach attractive to new residents during the postwar Baby Boom.
For 61 years from 1948 to 2008, Vero Beach was a familiar name to baseball fans. Dodgertown was the classic major league spring training site. Then it was gone, and Vero survived.
When walking the streets of downtown Vero Beach today, it is difficult for anyone to imagine the Vero of 100 years ago. By 1919, when the small hamlet of Vero was officially born (“Beach” would not be added to the name for six years), the population was less than 800 souls, for the most part farming families who came here to leave the cold north behind for the promise of a better life. What there was of downtown existed primarily at the intersection of Osceola Boulevard and Seminole Avenue, now 20th Street (State Road 60) and 14th Avenue.
With mosquitoes as thick as the dense palmettos and being only accessible by boat, the barrier island of Vero Beach was deemed uninhabitable by early settlers.
In the 1920s, even before there was an Indian River County, there was entertainment. Movies were shown at Vero Theatre, where, it’s said, Sheriff Billy Frick and his wife, Adelaide, former entertainers, created Vero Follies, featuring talented people from the community. The Civic Players presented plays in the 1930s and the seasonal Tourist Club had a mixed chorus that sang in community concerts and put on variety shows.