McKee Gatekeepers enjoyed damp but decorative Holidays at McKee

A few hearty souls braved the elements for a Gatekeepers Preview Party, getting a glimpse of a damp but decorative Holidays at McKee. Good gardeners all, the volunteers and supporters of McKee Botanical Garden who attended were pragmatic about the rain, appreciating its contribution to the lush tropical landscape, even if it came at an inopportune time.

As a result of the inclement weather festivities took place inside the Education Center, where guests looked on in fascination at the large scale model train display, set up by the Florida Garden Railway Society, Vero Beach Division.

According to member Harry Halbert of Vero Beach, enthralled by model trains since his first one at age four, Brackett and Company sponsored the purchase of the tracks five years ago and there has been a holiday display ever since. Halbert and the other four local members constructed all the buildings for the remarkable village using 1/24th scale lumber; they’re fabricated to scale, just as full-sized buildings would look. It’s all an amazing work of craftsmanship, with three layers of trains, an intricate trestle bridge, tunnels, and all the little characters that bring the village to life.

“We try to set the town up a little differently each year,” said Halbert. “Everything comes apart to be stored except the hills and the background which has to be done from scratch every year.”

Jack Nutbrown, another Railway Society member noted that it takes approximately 12 hours just to set up the structure and scenery; then each level of train is put in and tested before adding the next level. Total set-up time is about 30 hours, but it’s worth it to see the delight as people try to take it all in.

Entertainment was provided by the talented young boys of the Stringsations Quartet, all eighth-grade students at Gifford Middle School. And of course, no Christmas celebration would be complete without Santa Claus. Santa at McKee is played by Ed Amaral, McKee’s business manager.

“He makes the perfect Santa,” says Christine Hobart, McKee’s executive director. “It’s the highlight of his year.”

The Gatekeepers of the Garden, top supporters of McKee, were the evening’s honored guests; many of them have been instrumental from the beginning. The original 80-acre McKee Jungle Gardens had been sold in 1976 and all but 18 acres were developed by Vista Properties. The purchase of McKee was the Indian River Land Trust’s first project. After obtaining the option to buy in 1994 fundraising began and it was purchased in December, 1995 for $1.7 million. An additional $9.1 million was raised to restore the gardens and buildings.

Lilla Miller of The Moorings has been a supporter since its inception. “It all started in the parking lot; we brought tools and started ripping vines and cutting trees. I got the worse case of poison ivy I’ve ever had. My doctor told me, “don’t ever go there again,” but I kept coming.”

Miller brought her friend Marcy Porter along to entice her into becoming a Gatekeeper. Miller had been a guide for many years and, umbrellas in hand, the two happily went off for a walk around the gardens despite the rain.

Susan Schuyler Smith, another long time Gatekeeper and former board president was chatting with relative newcomers Paul Landry and Roz Allen, who spend half the other half of the year in Maine. The two are actively involved with the Maine Botanical Gardens and say they never visit a city without going to the local gardens. “McKee is a great asset to the community,” said Allen.

Smith first visited McKee when it was all overgrown and they were working to raise the money to save it. “I walked in to take a tour and thought; oh my, what can I do to help? Vista had fortunately kept this part, but it was about to become condos.”

Walt Franca, a retired foreign-language teacher from New York who recently began training as a guide at McKee, said he fell in love with the gardens the first time he saw them. He said with a laugh, “I was part of the Garden Club at St. Francis Hospital in Poughkeepsie and I like to play with dirt.”

Another longtime supporter, Jill Kaneb currently serves on the board of the Indian River Land Trust. She noted that the gardens had originally been designed by William Lyman Phillips, who studied under Frederick Olmstead, designer of some of the nation’s oldest public parks, including Central Park in New York. “It just seemed criminal that this could be plowed under for condos; it would be like plowing down a historic building.”

Holidays at McKee runs through December 21, 6 to 8 p.m. $9 Adults, $8 Seniors, $5 Children ages 3 – 12. Garden members admitted free. (772) or 794.0601  {igallery 126}

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