PIECES OF THE PAST: Protecting and Preserving Indian River Citrus

Tacy CalliesPieces of the Past

Indian River

By Brenda Eubanks Burnette

I was recently at the Indian River Citrus Museum in Vero Beach for the dedication of its Florida Citrus Crate Label Trail. The visit made me think back to the early 90s when I was selling citrus label calendars for the museum’s gift shop to Millie Bunnell, who was the director there at the time. She was the workhorse behind saving the Heritage Center (where the museum is located) from demolition in 1991 and getting the building listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1993. She created the Indian River Citrus Museum that same year.

Though small, the museum is well done and tells the story of the pioneers who established the Indian River as one of the most distinguished citrus areas in the world — so much so that local growers became concerned over the misuse of the name. William Fee, of Fort Pierce, organized several prominent growers and petitioned the Federal Trade Commission to issue a cease-and-desist order prohibiting the use of the term “Indian River” on citrus not grown in the Indian River Citrus District. Fee was inducted into the Florida Citrus Hall of Fame in 1970.

Various artifacts, photographs and memorabilia are displayed throughout the museum, including a three-dimensional model of the very first packing and processing plant in Vero Beach. Other exhibits include citrus machinery, farming artifacts, historical photographs and, of course, citrus crate labels from the area. In addition, there is a brief history of the area and Vero Beach founder Herman Zeuch, who was president of the Indian River Farms Company.

The citrus museum is located at 2140 14th Avenue in Vero Beach. Originally built in 1935 during the New Deal Era, the Heritage Center was then known as the Vero Beach Community Building. It was a project that provided social and entertainment activities during the Great Depression. At one time, the building hosted a zoo (in what is now Pocahontas Park) that included a bear named Alice, an alligator, monkeys and other animals.

During World War II, a north wing was added as a servicemen’s center hosting dances, parties and events for the many service members at the local Naval Air Station in Vero Beach. After the war, it continued as a city facility and became the Physical Arts Center for the city’s Recreation Department. In 1991, it was restored and renovated with the north wing as the new home of the Indian River Citrus Museum. Though still owned by the city, it is maintained and operated by Vero Heritage, Inc., a private non-profit dedicated to preserving the facility.

The museum’s regular hours are Tuesday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. It is also open for special events and by private appointment. Admission is free, and donations are appreciated. For more information, visit VeroHeritage.org or call 772-770-2263.

Brenda Eubanks Burnette is executive director of the Florida Citrus Hall of Fame. Pieces of the Past is presented in partnership with Florida Southern College’s McKay Archives Center in Lakeland.

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