A Brief History of Melbourne Beach
Juan Ponce de Leon discovered Melbourne Beach. The Spanish explorer was long thought to have come ashore near St. Augustine while searching for gold. He landed here instead, April 2, 1513. It had been a month-long voyage of discovery up through the Bahamas from Puerto Rico. Ponce de Leon, as governor of Puerto Rico, had been charged by Spanish government with finding the fabled "Island of Beniny" which was alleged to contain all manner of gold and silver. Instead the explorer bumped into the North American continent. He found nothing here but palmetto, heat, and sandflies.
Historian/Navigator Douglas T. Peck discovered the actual landing place in 1992 after long study of nautical charts, wind, and currents peculiar to the voyage.
Under nearly identical conditions, Peck duplicated Ponce de Leon's voyage, landing here, not far from the park just south of Melbourne Beach named in his honor.
This momentous discovery has rewritten Florida history books, and by extention, all American history books. A state historical marker marks the site.
A huge celebration marking 500 years since Juan Ponce de Leon's discovery is being is being planned for April, 2013. The Quincentennial Celebration Committee is hard at work.
Up until the present time, Melbourne Beach's founding has been celebrated by a far later event, the coming to our shore on the Indian River of Cyrus E. Graves in 1883.
Present day Melbourne Beach happened in the grand tradition of 19th century capitalism. It happened as a commercial venture in the grand tradition of the 19th century capitalism. It was the tradition of settling virgin lands (rattlesnake infested scrub), planting crops (pineapples), and fending off the enemy (mosquitoes). People invested and came to our town for a dream, for a hope, for restored health, for the proverbial pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. A few found their Eldorado during these early years. Most did not.
In 1883, a Yankee veteran, Major Cyrus Graves, began buying government land comprising present-day Melbourne Beach for the modest sum of $1.25 an acre. He and others who formed a stock company planned a resort that would fully equal or surpass Palm Beach and Daytona Beach which at that time were also in the planning stages. In the meantime, he and other investors successfully went into the business of growing pineapples on their beach property.
During the winter of 1888-1889, present day Ocean Avenue was grubbed and cleared, the huge palmetto brush piles being burned on the spot. A pier, identical to the present day one was constructed and a railroad soon ran the length of Ocean Avenue and out onto the pier. The present 12-inch artesian well was drilled at the river, while a bathhouse was constructed on ocean where Sands Restaurant now stands. The Melbourne and Atlantic Railroad, pointing straight as an arrow east and west up Ocean Avenue, ran one modest pushcar. Later, in 1909, the newly incorporated Melbourne Beach Improvement Company purchased an eight- passenger gasoline powered Buda motor tram, with trailer, and erected the quaint structure that later became our Town Hall and Post Office and today proudly serves as the Town History Center.
One should remember that Melbourne Beach was the only access to the ocean for many miles in either direction unless one hacked his way through the brush. No streets of any kind were built on the island until incorporation in 1923. Transportation across the river was provided by Beaujean’s ferry, the earliest family to settle. It would dock on the finger of the pier and passengers and supplies could be loaded onto the tram for the journey up Ocean Avenue.
During the winter of 1888-1889 the first house, Myrtle Cottage, was erected. It stood at the northeast corner of Ocean Avenue and Pine Street. In 1892 the Community Chapel was built just west of it. Homes built during the 1890’s and still standing are at 522 and 517 Ocean Avenue, 905 Riverside Drive (then River Road), and 325 Avenue A. The Villa Marine, a hotel, was built in 1912. It still stands at the corner of Ocean Avenue and Riverside Drive.
Through there were successive grunts of activity, as in 1912 when the Villa Marine was constructed, life remained quiet and serene and primitive. A few dozen winter visitors might come over on the ferry during “the season” their main diversion perhaps riding back and forth from the river to ocean on the tram. Crosstie walking contests were popular. Our town did not exactly boom, though after World War 1 when the toll bridge from Melbourne to Indialantic was constructed (which was just being settled), a boom of sorts did occur, in common with the rest of Florida at this time. Incorporated in 1923 for the purpose of floating bonds for street paving, our town finally opened to the automobile age. Besides A1A, the shell road that linked Indialantic with Melbourne Beach, for many years thereafter the only streets in
town were Ocean Avenue, Atlantic Street as far as Third Avenue, and River Road (now Riverside Drive) between Second Avenue and Sunset Boulevard.
A great deal of land speculation occurred, with such companies as Indian and Atlantic Ocean Homes, Gulf Stream Land Company, and Melbourne Beach Estates doing their share. At this time an oceanfront business called the Casino had a glass-enclosed second story. Here the salesmen would gather with their potential customers. From this vantage point one could see the whole area. It is not too difficult to imagine the cajolery, the backslapping, the expensive cigars, the wheeling and dealing: “Why over there,” would say the salesman, expansively pointing in the direction of a certain portion of rattlesnake infested scrub, “over there will be our Drug Store. And beside it, why, we already have a definite commitment for a Buick Motor Car Agency and . . . What’s that? When will the street
be put in? Well now, my boy, I see you lack faith, you lack vision, why just next week we’ve been promised---.”
But the Boom busted, the bottom broke, investors were ruined, and the town government came very close to following suit. In 1933 only $609.00 was collected in taxes. It was said that in those Depression days a dog could lie all day in the middle of Ocean Avenue and not a soul would come by to disturb him. Weedsgrew in the streets, their wooden curbs disappearing under a blanket of sandspurs. The little town slept, like Rip Van Winkle, for 20 years.
World War II startled us awake with the sinking of merchant ships by German U-boats in early 1942. While burning vessels lit up the eastern night sky, our fewer than 100 apprehensive residents found great relief with the War Department’s hurried construction of nearby Banana River Naval Air Station and Melbourne Naval Air Station.
The development of our nation’s Rocket Program at Cape Canaveral beginning in the late 1950’s wrought enormous change to surrounding areas. Our town’s measured response to that change is a credit to the cultural values of newcomers over the past 50 years. In spite of growth all around us, a busy two-lane state road jogging through town, and the necessity to finally install a stoplight, we retain a wonderful illusion of the past, of stability and simplicity. Everything one needs is within walking distance, and bicycles are everywhere. Today 3314 of the most contented people on earth think of Melbourne Beach as “Our Town”. Our long-ago discoverer, Juan Ponce de Leon, the first European to set foot on land that became the United States of America, would be
positively amazed by what his discovery has turned into.
Melbourne Beach History
Frank J. Thomas, Town Historian
All accurate information on the east central Florida community of Melbourne Beach comes from the research of Frank Thomas. Using primary sources in the 1960’s, the historian has a writer’s eye and ear.
Some Interesting Historical Facts about Melbourne Beach
The Women's Club - Now known as the Community Center, it was built in 1920 by a group of ladies known as the Rambler's Club. They raised $5,200.00 to fund the building by giving dinners, theatricals,
and other activities. It still has the original pine paneling, oak flooring and enclosed bookshelves plus two fireplaces.
The Ryckman House - Built in 1889 by Jacob Fox of pine and cypress with two rooms upstairs, a large room downstairs and a large porch. It was purchased by G. E. Ryckman who is listed as an
Incorporator in the Melbourne and Atlantic Railroad Company.
Old Town Hall - Originally built in 1908 in Ryckman Park facing the river. The Old Town Hall has been moved to a new location and rehabilitated, it now shows exhibits of history such as Ais Indians, Juan Ponce de Leon, Spanish shipwrecks, and development of the Town of Melbourne Beach. The Old Town Hall History Center is open Saturdays and various holidays from 11:00am to 3:00pm. For more information please call 321-952-7322.
Fraser Estate- The first residents were Mark and Ella Oliver in the early 1900’s. In 1953 it was purchases by Mr. and Mrs. John Fraser. The Fraser’s bought the house and some adjoining houses for guests and an art studio. Son Hilton Fraser (of Beyond and Back Travel) grew up here. The lovely gardens include a wide variety of plants and
trees including 50-year old mango trees. In 1996 Dr. and Mrs. Richard Moore purchased and remodeled the house and call it Mango Manor.
Capt. Beaujean's Original House and Post Office - This is a replica of the Original House located just south of the pier. It was built in 1889 and ferryboat Capt. Beaujean brought his wife Adelaide
and two sons, Don and Claude, to live in it. In 1891, postal service was instigated, and he used a side portion of the house for the Post Office. Capt. Beaujean built a very nice large house on Riverside Drive in 1909, and the small rustic structure was moved to the empty space behind the Riverside Drive houses where it deteriorated. When it was discovered, it was not possible to restore and move it, so a group of citizens, headed by Mr. Frank Thomas, and the Melbourne High School Trades Department built this replica.
The Walter Brown, Pink House- Walter Brown was a Calvary instructor for the Kentucky Military Institute which has its winter campus in Eau Gallie. He grew to admire the area and eventually bought this house, built in 1916. The Brown family traveled extensively but spent winters in Melbourne Beach and named the house Port d’Hiver
(Winterport). The living and dining rooms were furnished elegantly and the upstairs bedrooms had balconies facing the ocean. There were lovely gardens and a carriage house that Mr. Walter’s used as an art studio. The house has recently been purchased and is now a quaint little Bed and Breakfast.
The Community Chapel - After purchasing 20 acres of land from Major Cyrus E. Graves, Mr. and Mrs. Henry Whiting donated one lot for the Chapel. It was constructed in 1892 byCapt. Beaujean for a cost of $200.00 It was a simple building with portico entrance and could only seat 70 persons. Since then there have been many additions and improvements. Note the lovely stained glass windows and the bell in the belfry furnished by a Children's Fund Drive in 1928.
The Red Bird House- The house was built around 1937, and an early resident was a Mayor of Melbourne Beach. Later, Mr. and Mrs. Allen bought the house and adjoining cottage to the south, as one property. The Allen’s we avid bird watchers and named the two building Red Bird and Blue Bird. Many residents remember the Allen’s taking pictures,
giving slide shows and promoting appreciation of the area’s wildlife. There are many portions of the original structure, including “swamp pine” floors from a mill on Merritt Island. The Allen’s willed the houses to the Audubon society.
Connecticut Governor’s Vacation House- This 1940 winter house was built by Connecticut politician Robbins Stoeckel and his wife Mary Jane. There is a roof-top apartment that may have been reserved for a housekeeper or driver. Additionally, the property to the west was originally part of this property and has an above-ground pool
and small house for domestic helpers. The Stoeckel’s mini-estate encompassed approximately seven surrounding lots. They were host to the Connecticut Governor when he came to vacation in Melbourne Beach.
The Help House - This little house began as a place for the "help" to stay in. These were African-Americans who were hired by Don Beaujean and others to work on the construction of buildings and roads and may have helped in the pineapple fields. Since it was not easy to go to their homes each night by boat, having small quarters near the work was the solution. It was located near Don Beaujean's house by the park. Later it was moved near Sunset Avenue and eventually was moved to Avenue A. The house still has the original floors, windows and doors of hardwood pine.
The Shannon House- This quaint cottage was built in 1924 by developer Ed Shannon and the Shannon name appears in the street that begins in Melbourne Beach and continues through the Town of Indialantic. Local author Frank Thomas lived in this house until it was purchased in 1968. The house has natural cypress walls, pine floors, and a cellar.
The Fisherman's Cottage - Recently remodeled, this attractive house dates back to 1921. It was built of Miami Dade pine, (floors, ceiling and walls) and has a great fireplace of coquina rock. There is a cellar with shower. The previous owner, Mr. Chandler Young, was an avid fisherman (Harry Goode's fishing buddy) and on one day caught over 100 bluefish which his wife photographed. His niece was inspired to make a sculpture of her uncle with the fish, and that piece of art is on display in the house.
The Cistern at 1102 Pine St. - An above ground cistern, built to match the house, illustrates the necessity of storing water before city water was available. These cisterns collected rain water or stored water from artesian wells.
The Capt. Beaujean House - Son of Capt. Rufus Beaujean, Don Beaujean was very instrumental in the formation of the town and the subsequent growth and development. The house was built in 1910, and has been remodeled several times, but it has a unique location and is part of the history of the area. Click here to view the diaries of Rufus W. Beaujean