Visiting the History of Fellsmere

The Kitching Switch Trailhead, Marsh Landing Restaurant, and Marian Fell Library tell of Fellsmere's past and present

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The Trans-Florida Central Railroad Trail is a popular place for runners and cyclists to exercise. Photography by Steven Martine
The Trans-Florida Central Railroad Trail is a popular place for runners and cyclists to exercise. Photography by Steven Martine

I’ll admit I didn’t know much about Fellsmere, other than the fact that it’s called the Frog Leg Capital of the World.

Then I spent a morning with Ruth Stanbridge at the Kitching Switch Trailhead exhibition shed at Commissioner Fran B. Adams Park, formerly called North County Regional Park. If anyone can make the past come alive, it’s our county historian, who authored the storyboards inside the small wood structure, a replica of the motor shed used by the Sebastian-to-Fellsmere railroad in days gone by.

With words and images, the boards tell of the north county’s early days, from the Spanish land grant to the dream of a Trans-Florida Central Railroad that would take passengers from Sebastian to Tampa, with stops in between.

Broadway Street in Fellsmere was once a well-traveled dirt road. Courtesy the Collection of the Indian River County Historical Society
Broadway Street in Fellsmere was once a well-traveled dirt road. Courtesy the Collection of the Indian River County Historical Society

The dream started small, with the local line opening to the public in May 1911. Tracks ran from Sebastian, through an area known as Chesser’s Gap, over the St. Sebastian River south prong, to Fellsmere, and back again.

“There were two passenger stops, one at River Bridge and one at Kitching, where Silvanus Kitching had a general store,” Stanbridge explains. “The locals dubbed the railroad ‘Little Dinky’ because the car was a Model T or truck that ran on tireless rims along the tracks.”

Meta Chesser Keen remembers what it was like. “I was about 3 or 4 years old, and my mother and I would board the train in Fellsmere and ride all the way to Sebastian to visit my grandparents. We would make a day of it, go shopping; it was an adventure,” she says, a smile in her voice.

The Railroad Trail follows the original railroad corridor from the early 1900s, with an attractive pedestrian overpass traversing I-95
The Railroad Trail follows the original railroad corridor from the early 1900s, with an attractive pedestrian overpass traversing I-95.

The now-77-year-old attended Vero Beach High School, where she met her husband, Jerry Keen, whose family was in the grocery business. Today, her son Jason Keen owns and operates the Village Beach Market.

But back to Stanbridge’s storyboards and the 1915 offshore tropical storm that flooded Fellsmere’s farm-lands, prompting many to seek higher ground elsewhere.

The future looked grim.

The Fellsmere Trailhead Preserve and Welcome Center exhibition gives great detail on the history of the Fellsmere area
The Fellsmere Trailhead Preserve and Welcome Center exhibition gives great detail on the history of the Fellsmere area.

Yet by early 1920, the farmlands had dried out and the Fellsmere Farms Land Development Company was up and running full steam ahead. It was the “roaring twenties,” enthusiasm was high, and so was the desire to own Florida property.

The land rush was on.

Then came the 1929 stock market crash followed by the Great Depression. The boom went bust, and the dream of a Trans-Florida Central Railroad went with it.

In its early years, the current Marsh Landing Restaurant building was home to Fellsmere Estates Corporation offices. After the onset of the Great Depression, it became the headquarters of Florida Crystals sugar company.
In its early years, the current Marsh Landing Restaurant building was home to Fellsmere Estates Corporation offices. After the onset of the Great Depression, it became the headquarters of Florida Crystals sugar company.

The dinky railroad managed to sputter along until 1952, when it was finally abandoned, opening the door for Indian River County to purchase the right-of-way and construct the westbound lanes of County Road 512.

Today, the former railroad corridor is home to the Trans-Florida Central Railroad Trail, a 2-mile walking and biking trail that begins at Fran Adams Park, heads west roughly parallel to CR 512, crosses over I-95 via a double-arched pedestrian overpass, and ends at the Fellsmere Trailhead Preserve and Welcome Center, which can be a launching point for further hiking or biking.

Statistics from the Indian River County Metropolitan Planning Organization show that 180 people a day trekked the trail in 2020.

In its early years, the current Marsh Landing Restaurant building was home to Fellsmere Estates Corporation offices. After the onset of the Great Depression, it became the headquarters of Florida Crystals sugar company.
In its early years, the current Marsh Landing Restaurant building was home to Fellsmere Estates Corporation offices. After the onset of the Great Depression, it became the headquarters of Florida Crystals sugar company.

That number increased during the pandemic as people sought the fresh air and change of scenery nature provides, and Stanbridge feels more and more hikers and bikers are taking advantage of what is literally in their backyard. “The Trail is a wonderful example of repurposing what it was used for so many years ago into something everyone can enjoy today.”

The same can be said for Marsh Landing Restaurant, where frog legs, catfish, gator tail, fried green tomatoes, and swamp cabbage are menu favorites, thanks to Fran Adams and her daughter Susan, who serve up generous helpings of early-Florida cuisine and history.

A step inside the popular landmark on Broadway Street is a step back in time. Historical newspaper articles, documents, and photographs line the walls next to a stuffed alligator. You almost expect to see John Wayne saunter around the corner.

After a stint housing Fellsmere’s police department, the building lay dormant before blossoming as Marsh Landing Restaurant, with much of the past 100 years of history displayed on its walls.
After a stint housing Fellsmere’s police department, the building lay dormant before blossoming as Marsh Landing Restaurant, with much of the past 100 years of history displayed on its walls.

Marsh Landing is one of those “you have to be there” experiences, especially on Thursday nights—bluegrass nights—when the Penny Creek Band has people tapping their toes and grinning from ear to ear.

The building itself was constructed in 1926 for the Fellsmere Estates Corporation. But after the stock market crash of 1929, it became the Florida Crystals sugar company’s headquarters, which it remained through the early 1960s. For a few years after that it housed the police department before being sold to the city. It was eventually boarded up in the 1980s.

In 1995, Fran Adams bought the building at public auction with plans to restore it and open a restaurant. She did just what she set out to do. Marsh Landing opened its doors in November 2002, just in time for Thanksgiving. There was a full house.

After a stint housing Fellsmere’s police department, the building lay dormant before blossoming as Marsh Landing Restaurant, with much of the past 100 years of history displayed on its walls.
After a stint housing Fellsmere’s police department, the building lay dormant before blossoming as Marsh Landing Restaurant, with much of the past 100 years of history displayed on its walls.

Adams, a former Indian River County commissioner, had grown up in the restaurant business, and Susan, a current county commissioner, shares her mother’s love of cooking and community. It’s a win-win, with the biggest winners being those who have discovered Marsh Landing.

Barbara Lawrence found that out when she attended a meeting there. Impressed with what she saw, she told her husband, Trent, they needed to go there for dinner. They did and were sold.

“We try to take first-time visitors there because it’s so different from other places,” says Lawrence. “I love the building itself. When I drive by in the early morning, there will be an older gentleman sitting outside, sipping coffee and talking to someone. That seems so ‘old Florida’ to me. As a former history teacher, I think preserving the history of a building, a town, and a time period is very important, so I’m very grateful to the owners of Marsh Landing.”

Indian River County Children’s Librarian Patti Fuchs can be found at the Marian Fell Library on Tuesdays, with volunteers staffing Thursdays and Saturdays each week
Indian River County Children’s Librarian Patti Fuchs can be found at the Marian Fell Library on Tuesdays, with volunteers staffing Thursdays and Saturdays each week.

Not more than a block away on North Cypress Street is another historical landmark, the Marian Fell Library. The county’s oldest library opened its doors on May 1, 1915, thanks to Fellsmere founder Edward Nelson Fell’s daughter, who used royalties she received from translating the works of Russian author and playwright Anton Chekhov into English to pay for the library’s construction.

Marian Fell, the daughter of town founder E. Nelson Fell
Marian Fell, the daughter of town founder E. Nelson Fell.

Inside the 940-square-foot building, books line shelves, a colorful children’s area beckons, and computers provide internet access. Volunteers man the desk on Thursdays and Saturdays, with Indian River County Library System Children’s Librarian Patti Fuchs there on Tuesdays.

When she moved to Vero Beach 26 years ago, the first place Fuchs checked to see if there was a job opening was the Main Library. There was. “I started working at the information desk about the time the Children’s Library was being set up, so I began helping out with programming. You offer something fun for children to come in for, and while they’re here you get them involved and give them a library card,” says Fuchs, reaching for one of the digital cards used throughout the county library system.

“We’ll go to any public school and talk about what we have here. The library is for everyone. This week and next, the Boys & Girls Club is coming in at 4 o’clock. We also have the Lego Club every Tuesday, but students can come in anytime we’re open and play with them. The library is a great combination of cerebral and creative,” Fuchs enthuses.

The Marian Fell Library, the oldest library in Indian River County, opened its doors in 1915 thanks to financing by its namesake, the daughter of town founder E. Nelson Fell
The Marian Fell Library, the oldest library in Indian River County, opened its doors in 1915 thanks to financing by its namesake, the daughter of town founder E. Nelson Fell.

Even a tiny local library is a dynamic place with a key role in the community. Fuchs points out the pattern of progress over the years: “It’s been a constant challenge to move with changes, and I’m really proud of what we’ve accomplished.”

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