Walking tour steps lively into history of Melbourne Beach

Pineapples. That’s the one-word explanation Frank Thomas gives for Melbourne Beach’s existence.

Well, one word that leads to a few thousand more, but it’s where the town historian likes to begin a tour of Brevard County’s oldest beachside community.

About 40 people chose to start 2018 by joining Thomas and his sidekick, Bruce Morgan, for a 10 a.m. New Year’s Day walking tour of historic points along Ocean Avenue.

Thomas’ style is to keep the narrative short and interesting, and he expects listeners to have general knowledge of history, or at least a smartphone to Google the missing pieces.

“Pineapples. There were pineapples all up and down this river. In 1894 a huge freeze killed them off. They tried to restart it. Then we had the Spanish-American War and we got Puerto Rico, which started growing pineapples! So that was the end of our pineapple trade,” he said. Short and sweet.

The tour, “always free and always fun,” explores the early days of community landmarks.

Thomas is wearing a mic and Morgan pulls a Radio Flyer loaded with priceless historic photographs and the loudspeaker. In order, Morgan pulls photos from the wagon to illustrate Thomas’ narrative.

The tour is underway and the group is led through Ryckman Park to the 650-foot riverside pier that truly was the starting point of the town. Long before a causeway linked the barrier island with the mainland, ferry boats ushered people and provisions across the Indian River Lagoon. The ferries and the occasional steamship would dock at the pier, built in 1889 at the corner of Ocean Avenue and the not-yet-created Riverside Drive. Visitors were met with a rail car on what was one of the country’s shorter tracks, at 7/10ths of a mile from start to finish, or river to ocean. It was a straight shot in the Buda Motor Car to the Atlantic, with the settlement growing along a natural cove that offered mainlanders one of the shortest routes to the seashore.

“If you look to the north and you look to the south, you will see we are between two points of land. This is Fisherman Point,” Thomas says while gesturing northward. “And this is Crab Point,” he says while pointing south. “This is the nearest way to the beach. There was a footpath already here, from the Ais Indians,” he said of the aboriginal tribes inhabiting the Central Florida coast before European settlement.

It sounded like heaven on Earth: “There were rattlesnakes! There were mosquitoes! It was thick with mangroves! Impassible!”

On this day, adults fished in the shade of the covered pier while children chattered and sang, laughed and trotted around the deck. The first of the week’s cold fronts had not yet hit and the river slowly undulated with small, lazy waves.

Thomas holds up a group photo taken on the pier of every man, woman and child resident on Easter Sunday in 1919. A count puts that number at 43, about three more people than were on this tour. Then with an eye to future town historians, Thomas had all gather in the same spot for a modern group shot.

He leads the troupe back toward land and turns his attention to the building on the corner.

“This is Villa Marine,” he said, “The dentist office now, built in 1912-1913. The blocks came from the sand right here. It was a hotel. Well they called it a hotel. They would try to scratch out a living somehow,” he said. Thomas noted that the proprietors were well-known for serving lean Sunday dinners, and not the healthy kind.

“The story is that they once served 17 chicken dinners from one chicken!”

He doesn’t sugarcoat the town’s past, though there’s nothing of which to be ashamed. Melbourne Beach wasn’t born of scandal nor blood.

“Melbourne Beach was started as a real estate development and it failed,” he said.

Thomas, 81, and moving slowly with two painful knees, stood in front of the replica 14-foot-by-12½-foot cottage that one Capt. Rufus Beaujean built for his family in 1889. The one-time Union Army private became known as Capt. Beaujean as he was the operator of the ferry. But he also was a talented carpenter and can be credited with building the Community Chapel and the Ryckman House, among others.

“We rebuilt this in 1991,” Thomas said of the cottage and attached post office for the 20-resident settlement. “I found the remains around the corner back in 1989. We wanted to restore it but the wood wasn’t usable. Capt. Beaujean and his wife Adelaide (the first of three) had two boys, Claude and Don, and they all lived in the tiny wooden cottage. The post office came in 1891.”

Next on the tour was the Ryckman House, built by Beaujean in 1890 for Jacob Fox. Both men were original investors in the stock scheme, making the house the perfect spot to elaborate on the settlement’s initial, faltering steps into the modern era.

“In 1909 they formed a stock company, called the Melbourne Beach Improvement Co. It was the worst investment anybody ever made! It just didn’t make it. People didn’t settle.

“In 1923 the settlement was incorporated for the purpose of paving the streets. They couldn’t find anybody interested in capitalizing the place, like in Palm Beach and Daytona Beach. There were no big money people here,” he said.

The bright lights of the big city were not switching on in Melbourne Beach.

The house gained its name from Garrett E. Ryckman, a vintner from New York and a major shareholder in the stock company, who bought the house in 1908.

It would remain in the family until it was bequeathed to the town by his daughter, Ruth, when she died in 1979 at the age of 89.

Back across the street, the group entered the Community Chapel of Melbourne Beach. First-timers oohed and aahed quietly, respectfully.

“Our famous Melbourne Beach chapel deservedly has the reputation as the seat of Christianity on the beaches. It was built in 1892. Capt. Beaujean did everything,” Thomas explained as he stood in front of the altar.

The land was donated by Henry Whiting, another early mover and shaker, on the condition that it forever remain nondenominational.

The little chapel has become a favorite of couples tying the knot.

“It’s not a wedding chapel but people love to get married here,” he said.

With the cold front moving in and rain starting to fall, the tour ended at the Community Center, built in 1920. Thomas sat in the back, greeting guests and autographing books with his daughter Amy by his side. His wife, Annie Hellen, to whom he had dedicated one of his books, provided cookies and punch. The tour, which he has been conducting since 1973, has itself become a part of Melbourne Beach’s story.

Article by: Cynthia Van Gaasbeck

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