Explore Waldo’s Secret Garden

Charlotte Tripson oversees a ‘whimsical world of tranquility’ created by her great-grandfather, Waldo Sexton

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Charlotte Tripson. Photo by Steven Martine
Charlotte Tripson. Photo by Steven Martine

Did you know that nestled between residential communities, buffered from the hustle and bustle of daily life, there’s a secret garden? It’s not your typical garden, mind you; it’s where pioneer, entrepreneur, and eccentric architect Waldo Sexton settled when he arrived in Vero Beach over a century ago. Only 13 acres remain of the sprawling homestead where he planted citrus, raised beef and dairy cattle, established Vero Beach Dairy, and built two family homes.

Today, an unmarked road off 12th Street takes visitors back to a simpler, grittier time when people worked the land from dawn to dusk, counted neighbors as close friends, and never thought about locking their doors.

Not far from the entrance, a narrow driveway with a hand-painted sign welcomes you to Waldo’s Secret Garden, where a smaller sign cautions, “Slow: Grandparents at Play.” If you stay on the main road, you find yourself winding past weathered buildings, various types of machinery, and an odd but fascinating assortment of artifacts.

It’s a mini-glimpse into what Old Florida might have looked like, and we have Sexton’s great-granddaughter Charlotte Tripson—born in Vero Beach and raised on the homestead that her parents, Mark and Hildie Tripson, purchased in 1980—to thank for keeping Waldo’s legacy alive and the land she and her family treasure accessible.

The tree house on the property was built by Waldo Sexton for his daughter Barbara and her new husband, John Tripson. Photo by Steven Martine
The tree house on the property was built by Waldo Sexton for his daughter Barbara and her new husband, John Tripson. Photo by Steven Martine

“When I was growing up, the back of the property was rented out by another dairy operation called Velda Farms,” Tripson explains, “so basically I had a built-in ice cream truck when I came home from school. I remember family dinners every night, raising farm animals alongside my brothers, making flower arrangements with my mother, getting an idea and building things.” She smiles fondly as she recalls these moments in time.

“The roots of Waldo’s Secret Garden go deep, as does the love and care the Tripsons have shared for this special place,” she says. “The rich history of the land and the development of it, when it was nothing but trees and swamp, into a thriving farm and dairy and now an event venue makes me want to continue transforming it into a beautiful place for others to enjoy.” Tripson shares the garden’s quirky charm and enduring appeal by hosting weddings, special events, and community celebrations.

Marjorie McCabe, a newer resident of Vero Beach, gets a tour of the garden from Charlotte Tripson, having originally discovered the property and its history from a recent community open house. Photo by Steven Martine
Marjorie McCabe, a newer resident of Vero Beach, gets a tour of the garden from Charlotte Tripson, having originally discovered the property and its history from a recent community open house. Photo by Steven Martine

“We call the garden ‘secret’ because the property is nestled in a hammock in town, protected by a lush jungle,” she explains. “We let the jungle run its wild course and manicure it where we see fit. When people arrive, they’re transported to a whimsical world of tranquility.

“I love watching the utter amazement in people’s eyes as they see the natural beauty and what my great-grandfather created. He had a way of thoughtfully placing a menagerie of objects that draw your attention throughout his other structures in Vero, and the way he built his homestead was no different.” Tripson is referring to McKee Botanical Garden’s Hall of Giants and Spanish Kitchen, the Driftwood Inn and Waldo’s Restaurant, the Ocean Grill, the former Patio and Szechuan Palace restaurants, and the gone-but-not-forgotten Waldo’s Mountain.

None of it would have happened if the Hoosier Sexton, who arrived in Vero Beach in 1914 thinking it was nothing more than an overnight sales stop, hadn’t needed to stay at the Sleepy Eye Lodge 10 additional days due to a delivery delay. That gave him time to take a good look around. Sensing opportunity, he purchased 160 acres a world away from what Vero Beach was at the time—a dusty crossroad with a few buildings on what would become 14th Avenue.

He married Elsebeth Martens, whom he had met at the lodge, and set about building a two-story house, room by room, where they would raise their two sons and two daughters. In what was to become Sexton’s signature style, it was rustic, rambling, and furnished with items that struck his fancy.

Quirky and historic articles are found all around the property. Photo by Steven Martine 1
Quirky and historic articles are found all around the property. Photo by Steven Martine

When his daughter Barbara married John Tripson, Sexton set about building what is fondly referred to as the tree house. With an open kitchen and dining area on the lower level and the family’s living room and three bedrooms above, it’s equally rustic, rambling, and adorned with items that struck his fancy, such as wrought iron gates and decorative tiles as well as an odd assortment of other items, including Buddhas, safari sculptures, and wooden tables, all salvaged from the remains of Palm Beach mansions.

Marjorie McCabe, who moved to Vero Beach last fall, took it all in during a community open house held early this year. “It was a beautiful day and I was curious to see what the Secret Garden was all about. Surrounded by new communities, it’s like an oasis out there,” McCabe enthuses.

Charlotte Tripson embraces life on the property, working to transform the space for others to enjoy. Photo by Steven Martine
Charlotte Tripson embraces life on the property, working to transform the space for others to enjoy. Photo by Steven Martine

“After I walked around and looked at everything, I talked to some of the family; they all have such an attachment to the land. Afterwards a few of us sat around on benches listening to Sean [Sexton, a grandson of Waldo] read poetry. I’m such a fan of his. The whole experience was wonderful.”

That’s music to Charlotte Tripson’s ears, as maintaining the garden where she and her father, Mark, continue to live (her mother passed away three years ago) is an ongoing labor of love. There’s always something that needs to be repaired, replaced, or rearranged.

“There are days that I don’t know why I do it,” she admits; “however, the garden has the ability to put a spell on you, and you see all of its glory and potential. It can be frustrating at times, as the structures are older and the upkeep is constant but worth it.”

“My family and I have also been reorganizing decades’ worth of collections that have deteriorated due to being in the elements, and that has been quite a process,” says Tripson, a graphic artist who received a BFA in digital media from the University of Central Florida.

Around every corner are items collected and displayed on walls, patios, and throughout the garden. Photo by Steven Martine 2
Around every corner are items collected and displayed on walls, patios, and throughout the garden. Photo by Steven Martine

“I always knew I wanted to pursue a career in entertainment, marketing, and art, which was a winding road, but I fell into it eventually. Turning our family home into an event venue has given me the opportunity to have an unconventional schedule—which I love and thrive on.”

“I envision the property being used for multifunctional events or a place for people to visit, like a pocket park,” Tripson continues, referring to small spaces where people can escape the busyness and noise of everyday life, surround themselves with nature’s beauty, and simply breathe.

“I love to paint and create,” she says. “Owning the garden has allowed me to take my ideas and put them into reality. New ideas give me a glimmer of excitement. I get to design things I envision on a daily basis, and with the garden I’m using exactly what is in front of me to repurpose the perfectly imperfect for others to enjoy.”

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