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Living History

Reflections on eight decades in Vero Beach

Downtown Vero Beach was much smaller in the 1940s, 
but looking east along Route 60 it’s easy to imagine the town we know today.

Downtown Vero Beach was much smaller in the 1940s, but looking east along Route 60 it’s easy to imagine the town we know today.

I arrived in Vero Beach with my parents, Kit and Sis Johnson, at age 3 in 1936. My father had a medical condition that required he retire to Florida. Vero’s motto then was “Where the Tropics Begin.” We rented a cottage in Riomar.

My first memory was the hospital, a former two-story boarding house on South Dixie, where Dr. Hardee repaired my finger after it was smashed in an accident. Mrs. Garnett Radin, the hospital’s founder, was the nurse. 

I soon began to understand the community where I lived. Riomar was the only collection of homes on the island, strictly a winter colony. The Driftwood Inn and Beachland Hotel were on the ocean, plus a few cottages. Humiston Park had a couple of thatched huts. The Ocean Grill opened, a family favorite for all these years. There was no A1A. The bridge over to the mainland was wood and rattled as you drove across. Mr. Wood, the one-armed bridge tender, manually cranked open the draw to allow boats to pass. Beachland Boulevard was a tunnel of trees to the beach.

Downtown Vero Beach was small, with the basic structure that exists today and as it was built in the boom years of the 1920s. I knew the Florida Theater, Indian River Citrus Bank, McClure’s Drug Store, Jun’s Market, Mr. Gifford’s filling station and Loy’s Men’s Store. There was always a group playing shuffleboard in Pocahontas Park. The railroad station was two blocks away, near the power plant. Trains ran daily to New York and Chicago. With my mother, I would take the train to West Palm Beach to see the eye doctor. Eastern Airlines’ DC-3s flew in and out of the airport a couple of times a day. Bud Holman, the local Cadillac dealer who would later bring the Dodgers to Vero Beach, was on Eastern’s board. Vero was the smallest town in the U.S. with regular airline service. The old Delmar Hotel sat right across the street from the Florida Theater. The Parkway and Royal Park Inn, east of the railroad, were full in winter. Vero Beach’s population then was 3,500, with maybe 10,000 total in the county. Alex MacWilliam was the longtime mayor.