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