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Ladies of the Lagoon

Years before there was an I-95, steamboats plied the Indian River, bringing guests to dozens of riverside hotels.

The Sleepy-Eye Lodge, built by the McKee-Sexton Land Company, originally catered to potential buyers of home sites in Vero. It was rebuilt after World War I and served tourists while continuing to serve as the headquarters for land speculators during Florida’s “Boom” of the 1920s.

The Sleepy-Eye Lodge, built by the McKee-Sexton Land Company, originally catered to potential buyers of home sites in Vero. It was rebuilt after World War I and served tourists while continuing to serve as the headquarters for land speculators during Florida’s “Boom” of the 1920s.

Long before Henry Flagler built his string of luxury hotels on Florida’s East Coast, tourists flocked to the Indian River Lagoon to vacation in one of the last virgin areas of primeval beauty in the United States. Yet the 1870 census showed that fewer than 2,500 persons permanently occupied the vast area between Titusville and present-day Miami.

Many of the early settlers in the region were Confederate veterans seeking a new start in the wilderness that surrounded the waters of the Indian River. Others came with the idea of recreating the same kind of agrarian system that had sustained them in regions to the north.

Unfortunately, the sandy, largely infertile soil proved useless for the cultivation of traditional southern crops like tobacco and cotton, and the lack of a viable transportation system to take crops to market further limited their ability to eke out much more than subsistence crops. Experiments with growing sugarcane, citrus and pineapples proved promising, but once again the lack of means to ship these agricultural crops to northern markets limited them to little more than experiments.

Read the entire article in the January 2010 issue