Introduction to More Tales of Sebastian

by Daniel Clark
c 1992 Sebastian River Historical Society, Inc.

Sabal palms, live oaks, egrets, pelicans, a river, a lagoon, a seashore - the abundant natural beauties of Sebastian are in large part why people move here. But how we move here has more to do with machinery than manatees.

Machinery, like railroad trains.

Granted, right now the iron horses charge through Sebastian without a stop. To benefit interests to the north and south, the long freight trains sound their boisterous whistles, impede the local flow of our cars and trucks, and limit the number of roadways going westward from US 1. To the average resident, the locomotives are a nuisance - a flaw in our peaceful paradise.

But a century ago, things were different.

Train tracks were the only long distance "highways" in Florida. Folks wanted the advantages of progress, and progress arrived on the shiny ribbons of steel.

The man behind the machinery was Henry Flagler.

From his opulent hotel in Daytona, Flagler looked southward in 1891 toward the next leg of his track-building journey to Miami. Tourists were on his mind, but work-a-day plans too. Agricultural products then being shipped by steamers up and down the narrow east coast lagoon could ride faster on his carrier, the Jacksonville, St. Augustine and Indian River railroad.

The rapid movement of people and products made possible by Flagler's enterprise would change Sebastian irrevocably.

By the 1880's, about 40 pioneers had migrated to the village south of the St. Sebastian River. The modest surge in population resulted in some degree from a new statewide mood. Reconstruction was over. Now began the so-called "Bourbon Era" of Florida politics. Governor George Dean called for "the greatest protection to individuals and industrial enterprises at the least expense to the taxpayer."

It was the signal for the developers to descend on the peninsula. Three Henrys - DeLand, Plant, and Flagler - came first, building towns, hotels and railroads. In 1881 the state sold Hamilton Disston four million acres for swamp reclamation and canal dredging. Government and business printed tons of promotional brochures. National magazines printed articles praising Florida's climate and its other attractions. The rush was on, and Sebastian felt its impact.

By the time of the "Gay Nineties", not only Sebastian but also Roseland had a post office. The river steamboats had become luxury liners bringing tourists to the newly built Ercildoune Hotel on the mouth of the St. Sebastian River, and the town had its first church building. Rev. Blackburn held the first service in the United Methodist Church. "The building was still incomplete," writes historian George Keyes, "but the eager parishioners had laid boards for a temporary floor and placed planks on nail kegs for benches."

That was 1893. The same year, people in Sebastian were deeding strips of land to Henry Flagler. No sooner were the documents recorded than the crews came, grading the track beds and laying the rails.

On December 11, 1893, a crowd of Sebastianites turned out to greet Number 23 as it chugged into town.

The modern era was upon them, and there was no turning back.

But why would anyone want to turn back? By boat and wagon it had taken three days to get from Jacksonville to Sebastian. By train it took only eight hours. That meant a lot to those journeying south. And if you were gravely ill in Sebastian, and the doctor decided your only chance was to go north to the nearest hospital(in Jacksonville), it meant even more.

As an added benefit, the railroad's telegraph became the town's link with the rest of the world. For decades, if you wanted to send an order to a store in Fort Pierce, you had the station master do it for you by wire. Or, one of the kids he'd taught Morse Code would do it.

The first big change wrought by Flagler's locomotives was the increased importance of commercial fishing in Sebastian. Fishing of the subsistence and recreational varieties had flourished since the time of the Ais Indians. But long distance transport of the perishable product to northern markets was difficult until ice was available for packing fish for shipment by rail.

It didn't take long for the fishing business to expand. The town's newly established companies shipped 103,890 pounds of pro- duce in 1895, and the total kept on growing. The next year the Sample family moved down from North Carolina and built an ice plant and barrel factory.

Although over the years hundreds of fishing-related interests have operated out of Sebastian, the largest and longest lasting of them has been the Sembler family concern. Starting as Sembler & Hicks in 1901 and ending as Sembler & Sembler Wholesale Fish Dealers in 1990, the business's history traces the fortunes of fishing and shell fishing in 20th century Sebastian.

To improve his health, Andrew Sembler moved from New York state to Tavares, Florida, after the Civil War. Ned, Andrew's son, stayed behind, but moved south with his two children after the death of his wife in the late 1890's. Relocating from Tavares to Palatka and then to Titusvtlle, Ned met with good luck. In Titusville he married again and arranged a partnership with one T. B. Hicks in a fishing business.

Sembler and Hicks brought their families and their business to Sebastian in 1901. At the height of the concern's activity in the 1970's, Sembler & Sembler was shipping two million pounds a year.

How they achieved their success, and how, eventually, the company had to give up fishing and adapt to a changing economy, is the story of the next phase of Sebastian's growth. The pioneer times were over (though not the hard times) and the commercial fishing days had begun.

Ned Sembler's son, Charles, was 11 when his dad's fish business opened in Sebastian. Later in life he reminisced about his youth for the Melbourne Times.

"After putting their boats into the water about 3 or 4 p.m.", Sembler recounted, "the fishermen would sail south and fish all night."

Sembler recalled that the phosphorescent glow on the river at night was beautiful. "It made the fish look immense," he said.

But it could get cold.

"Sometimes we would go ashore, light a fire, and make coffee to get warm."

About daylight they started rowing back toward home.

"Our nets were cotton and linen in those days," said Sembler. "When we got back home we had to spread the nets out to dry. Then we went to bed and slept all day."

His wife remarked to the reporter that "the womenfolk had to keep the kids quiet all day so the men could sleep."

The catch in the lagoon was mostly mullet and trout. A good haul was considered to be about 1,000 to 1,5OO a day. The lagoon also "used to be covered with ducks until it looked like you could walk across the river on them," said Sembler. As a sideline to fishing, he used to shoot the birds and sell them for a dime each.

When Charles was in his late 20s during World War I, he pitched in with a third attempt, led by R. 0. Couch of Grant, to dig an inlet across the barrier island to open up a Sebastian access to the ocean for commercial fishing. It failed, as previous attempts had. Subsequently, R.O. Couch, with Sembler and others, formed the Sebastian Inlet Association and applied for a permit from the War Department to dredge a permanent channel. It was granted, work got underway, and the "permanent" cut did stay open for a while.

Successive battles between humanity and wave-driven sand continued. Only in the 1950s was the Inlet wide enough, deep enough, firmed up enough, jettied enough, and redredged enough to afford reliable passage between ocean and lagoon. A decade after that, the A1A bridge was built, and the inlet bearing the town's name took on the appearance it has today.

Access to the salt water added snapper, grouper, and other species to the fish houses' product lines. It also attracted the sport fishing industry to Sebastian, where it remains as a colorful and successful part of the town's economy.

The lagoon, though, has ceased to be a source of fish or shellfish in the amount necessary to keep a commercial venture going. Pollution, resulting from the very industrial development that made the large scale of the business possible, has dealt it a death blow.

The Sembler family - now in its fifth generation in Sebastian - has made a transition from going out in fishing boats to aquaculture and politics.

Two other fisheries of importance to the local economy are operated by the Judah and Archie Smith families.

Flagler's railroad made a big impact on the area's agriculture too. An early concentration on pineapple was followed by the dominance of what we now consider the hallmark of Indian River produce, citrus. The largest grove in the Sebastian area was run by the Vickers family. They had established a dry goods store across from the railroad station around 1910. The name Vickers soon became prominent as brothers and sons got elected to the city council and ran successful businesses, including orange and grapefruit groves.

The Sebastian station of the Florida East Coast Railroad became the eastern terminus of a new line, the Fellsmere Farms Railroad. It was built to bring to market the produce from a vast tract of farmland created out of drained land to the west. The Tallahassee government of these Progressive years subsidized such large land reclamation projects.

In 1910 Sebastian was the largest com- munity in what is now Indian River County, with 226 residents to Vero's 202. African-Americans had their own section, and the Macedonia Baptist Church opened its doors to worshipers in 1908.

Along with land reclamation (and a generally anti-railroad policy), the populist politi- cians in Tallahassee funded extensive roadbuilding projects. The major east coast thoroughfare was the Dixie Highway, which made its way through Sebastian in 1915. (It was enlarged and rerouted as US 1 in 1925) Exactly who owned the first car in town is a matter of dispute, with Paul Kroegel and Dr. David Rose both claimed as number one with a Model T Ford. The road from Sebastian to Fellsmere was also built at this time.

Under the influence of liberal Governor Napoleon Broward, the state was encouraging the construction of public schools. Sebastian's old wooden school was built in those prewar years, and graduated its first class in 1918.

Replacing the ferry, a wooden bridge was constructed across the mouth of the St. Sebastian River in 1909.

Life was still pretty rugged here in the days before electricity and paved roads. Ruby Miller Anderson's recollections of those times were recorded in a local publication, Crossroads, dated 1985. She'd moved to Sebastian in 1910 as a young girl.

"There was always weeding to do in the garden," Anderson recalled. "Then there was weeding to do in the nursery, and my father taught all of us how to bud trees. I can bud trees now. My whole family liked anything that grew outdoors.

"In later years we bought a place [the Miller house] right in downtown Sebastian. It was a big place and my mother took in roomers. Back then there were no motels in Sebastian.

"There was a lot of washing to do, especially if you had overnight guests. We had no electric pumps. In fact, we didn't have electricity. We had carbide lights in the house. There was a carbide tank and it ran through little pipes. Then we lit it like a gas flame, and that's the light we had.

"We had one little two-burner thing that warmed up food. My mother cooked on a big wood stove.

"We had a big cistern at the house which was full of rain water which we had to pump up. Mother would heat water on the wood stove, and we scalded the sheets. Then we had a two-tub cylinder frame with a wringer in the middle of it, and that was my job. I wrung those clothes through that wringer. It wasn't hard, but it took a lot of manpower.

"Life was pretty good, and I have enjoyed living here. In fact, I would not live anywhere else.

"I prefer life in the 80s. It's a lot easier. We had it hard in those days.

"But we all enjoyed it. If anything happened or you needed help, the neighbors would always come and help. You didn't run to the doctor every time you had a toothache, or a toenail hurt. You did it yourself."

Neighborliness was sometimes tainted by crime in the peaceful community, though. The court record from the First District of St. Lucie County from May, 1915, to May, 1916 shows 27 offenses and their punishments. The usual occurrences of disorderly conduct and minor infractions like illegal fishing are joined by more serious incidents such as assault, petit larceny, carrying a pistol, taking a mule without permission, and selling whiskey without a license. One case of "bastardy" was also tried.

After World War I (and its austerities, like the rationing of certain items) came the 20s, a decade of sharp contrasts.

Progress continued. But progress often takes its toll, as residents learned in 1920 when young James Carroll Grant (1905-1920) was killed trying to board a moving freight train in Roseland.

The town did play host to rum runners from the Bahamas. Prohibition, starting in 1920, made smuggling a growth industry. The Inlet was put to new use as a transfer station for contraband. Docks and buildings on the lagoon received clandestine cargo.

Cash flow improved. It was the start of the statewide building boom. A new mood prevailed. Conservatives won the 1922 elections and prevailed until the New Deal. Why? Governor Tebeau felt that "Floridians resented federal interference with individual freedom."

More dollars in town made it possible for the Bank of Sebastian to open its doors in August of 1924. It was quite a year. The first newspaper, a weekly called the Sebastian Star, hit the stands. It lasted for about a hundred editions.

The county registered Sebastian as a municipality. The first mayor, T. B. Hicks, was elected at a mass meeting.

In December, the town council enacted its ordinances. Among the forbidden acts were these:

"To race or otherwise drive or ride in a furious manner any horse or horses, or cattle, or to drive any animal or animals or vehicles any faster than an ordinary trot through the streets of the Town."

"To ride a bicycle on the streets of the Town at a faster rate of speed than 15 miles per hour."

"To hitch any horse, mule, or any other animal to any of the shade trees upon the streets or within public parks, or on any private premises without the permission of the owner."

"To play at any game of chance for money or any other thing of value."

"To maintain, manage or control any lottery, wheel of fortune, or any other gambling device."

Big-time crime came to town, if only briefly. The notorious Ashley Gang - moonshiners, train robbers, jail breakers, cop killers - were caught here in 1924 while motoring through. Sheriff Merritt and county deputies shot the four desperadoes to death at the St. Sebastian River Bridge.

These were the years when Rodney Kroegel ran a hand-cranked movie projector in the town hall (later the Woodmen of the World meeting place, now the commercial building at 1125 US 1). His cinema shows became the high point of the town's social life for the decade.

The good times rolled on during 1925. The council called a special meeting to discuss extending Fellsmere Road to the New Dixie Highway. A referendum was held, and the citizens voted 35 to 0 to issue "$50,000 in bonds for the purpose of purchasing, constructing and maintaining a combined municipal electric light and ice plant."

Among the year's other projects were grading the streets to a uniform width, levying taxes, and drawing up plats and subdivisions for the municipality. In a general election in December, George Badger narrowly defeated Hicks for mayor, 39 to 35.

A new county, Indian River, was set up by the state. Roads were paved: Main Street, Dixie Highway, and the bridge approach.

AT&T came to town in 1926, putting up its poles and wires and connecting house after house with the rest of the world.

And the real estate boom reached what came to be known as its "final ecstasy" in the fall.

But what goes up must come down. Deals made with worthless paper fell through. Bust followed boom.

A big hurricane made land at Miami in September, 1926. Sebastian was hit hard as it turned north. Even worse was the one two years later that made land at Palm Beach.

Charlotte Lockwood, in Florida's Historic Indian River County, described how one man was affected.

"Like so many other families," she wrote, "the T. B. Hicks family suffered great loss in the late 20s. The hurricane of 1928 destroyed Hicks' docks and boats. That disaster, coupled with the total loss of personal assets in Sebastian during the Depression, destroyed his health. Tom Hicks never recovered completely. Never again did he remark with a playful smile, "We don't have to worry about anything. Everything is all right."

The storms weren't the only plague. In 1929 the Mediterranean fruit fly attacked Florida's orange groves. A thousand groves couldn't ship. Three quarters of the trees in the state were afflicted. Production fell almost a half in 1930. The results: unemployment, bank loan defaults, and weaker banks.

The bank of Sebastian failed in 1929.

In 1931 the Florida East Coast Railroad went into receivership.

But in 1933, in spite of it all, the City of Sebastian was created by an Indian River County ordinance. The pretty little fishing village was still alive.

Mayor Badger got a barrel factory going in his back yard and reckoned he could make a hundred a day if necessary.

The mangroves on the islands in the St. Sebastian revived, after being stripped of their leaves and killed back by the big wind of '28. You could still grow plenty of potatoes and huckleberries and guavas, and you could always enjoy a nip of grapefruit wine.

Maybe Otis Ashley of Micco would give free rides in his seaplane from Hardee's dock.

The place wasn't so bad in 1934, recalled Mrs. William Thornton. She moved here that year. A teenager then, she worked as a clerk in the grocery store in the building True Value hardware has since taken over.

Main Street was "more busy than we are now," she observed. Within a few blocks were the grocery, a dry goods store, a hardware store, a laundry, an ice house, the post office, the railroad station, and the city jail.

And there was the drug store on the corner of US1 and Main.

"It was fabulous," said Mrs. Thornton.

"You could go in and get your sandwich and your soda or whatever else you wanted to." She fondly remembered the kids blowing drinking straw paper wrappers at each other.

A block away, at the corner of Indian River Drive and Washington Street, Rodney Kroegel built a store for his Sebastian Electric and Plumbing Company. After he moved out, it too was a grocery store for a while. These days we know it as the Pottinger Funeral Home.

Neighborliness remained strong. Folks sat up with the sick, especially at night, and would bring in chicken soup to them. If it was hot, they'd fan the ailing friend for hours and hours, while sponging forehead and wrists.

When death came, neighbors would bathe and dress the body - it was called "laying out." Flowers for the funeral would come not from the florist shop but from home gardens. Friends dug the grave.

One of the more confusing aspects of Sebastian's history during this period is the variation in routes taken by the Dixie Highway.

"It kept moving around," said Mayne O'Connor, who grew up here during the 20s.

Rodney Kroegel remembered a portion of it as "just two shell ruts" that deteriorated into "a big sand bed." He'd had to get off his motorcycle and walk through that part.

It was the main road from New York (or indeed, Montreal) to Miami - which may explain why folks usually took the train.

For most of its existence, the road entered the north end of town along what's still Old Dixie Highway in Roseland and went down North Central Avenue. It then took Main Street and turned south along Central Avenue (now US 1). Just before Fellsmere Road it went west back across the tracks, and then continued down the present Old Dixie Highway to the south end of town, where it went across the train tracks and back again another time.

An early attempt to develop the west side of town was a 1920s village called Kitching. It was established where the railroad to Fellsmere had a stop at its junction with Fellsmere Road and the St. Sebastian River.

"That was what we called the 'dinky railroad'," O'Connor said. "It was run by a motor from a Model T."

She recalled a post office and a store at Kitching. Kroegel remembered that "There wasn't much of a town there. Maybe half a dozen people."

Things we think of as bad had a different look to some people during the Depression. Like killing manatees for food. Many said they couldn't have survived the rough years without doing it.

There were the communities on the fringes of the dominant society: the gypsies traveling through, the blacks in "colored town" who were kept from voting by the imposition of a poll tax.

The lush natural foliage contrasted with the starkness of the carefully raked and weeded white sand around the town's houses.

The migration into Sebastian over the half century from 1885 to 1935 was not that of the rich and the privileged. The middle class came here. They'd heard of job opportunities, of a climate better for their health. They were ordinary Americans by the standards of the day - which means by our standards they were living life close to the bone.

Sebastian certainly didn't pamper them, as you'll read in the reports to follow.

One woman summed it up: "We may have been as poor as Job's turkey, But we were happy and that's what counts."

From that strong fiber they wove the nets that held Sebastian together.