Farming at Fellsmere

The town of Fellsmere is located just west of Sebastian off Interstate 95 in Indian River County. It was one of many small communities wrestled from the swampy plains of South Florida in the early 20th century to serve the growing number of farmers making their living in the region.

Excerpt from a 2014 Florida Department of Transportation map showing Fellsmere and its surroundings.

Excerpt from a 2014 Florida Department of Transportation map showing Fellsmere and its surroundings.

Fellsmere was one of several Florida development projects devised by E. Nelson Fell, an engineer from New Zealand who arrived in the Sunshine State in the late 1880s. Fell and a number of other investors were drawn by the prospect of striking it rich with large citrus groves and winter vegetable farms located in the rich muck soils of South Florida. Private investors and state agencies worked hand in hand during this era to dredge canals and drain large tracts of land to prepare them for cultivation.

In 1910, E. Nelson Fell helped organize the Fellsmere Farm Company. The corporation bought up 118,000 acres of swamplands west of the Sebastian River at cheap prices and embarked on an ambitious drainage project. By the end of 1915, over 250 miles of canals had been dug, along with a protective levee system. Altogether, about 45,000 acres of farmland emerged from this phase of the project. The Company quickly began advertising the project nationwide to secure investors and residents for the new community.

Map of Fellsmere included in a 1912 booklet advertising the Fellsmere Farms Company operation, from the collections of the State Library of Florida.

Map of Fellsmere included in a 1912 booklet advertising the Fellsmere Farms Company operation, from the collections of the State Library of Florida.

Plan of the elaborate system of drainage canals planned by the Fellsmere Farms Company, taken from the 1912 promotional booklet - from the collections of the State Library of Florida.

Plan of the elaborate system of drainage canals planned by the Fellsmere Farms Company, taken from the 1912 promotional booklet – from the collections of the State Library of Florida.

The promotional literature for Fellsmere Farms Company described the project in glowing terms. A 1912 booklet spared no expense to include numerous photos of railroad and dredging equipment, proud landowners standing in plots full of healthy vegetables, and happy residents enjoying their new Florida homes. The booklet boldly boasted that a single acre of Fellsemere land could turn out as much as $500 worth of tangerines, $800 worth of strawberries, or $1,000 in celery per year!

"Beans and Cabbage - Making the Ground Produce to the Limit" - taken from the 1912 promotional booklet by Fellsmere Farms Company - from the collections of the State Library of Florida.

“Beans and Cabbage – Making the Ground Produce to the Limit” – taken from the 1912 promotional booklet by Fellsmere Farms Company – from the collections of the State Library of Florida.

As people began moving into the Fellsmere area, the Company established the services needed to support them. A school was founded in 1911 with help from the local county Board of Instruction. The Company laid out a townsite of one square mile on the eastern edge of the property, incorporating it as Fellsmere in May 1915. By 1920, the town had its own newspaper, the Fellsmere Farmer, a hotel, a post office, a bank, a railroad connecting the town with the Florida East Coast Railway, and three parks.

Street scene in downtown Fellsmere (circa 1920).

Street scene in downtown Fellsmere (circa 1920).

Several historic structures from Fellsmere’s earliest days still survive, including the original building of the Fellsmere State Bank at 56 Broadway. It was designed by Jacksonville architect C.F. Streeter and constructed in 1913. It later served as Fellsmere’s City Hall. The Fellsmere Inn, built by the original development company in 1910, still stands at 107 N. Broadway. It also went by the names “Broadway Inn” and “The White House” at various times over the years.

State Bank of Fellsmere (circa 1917).

State Bank of Fellsmere (circa 1917).

 

Hotel at Fellsmere (1912).

Hotel at Fellsmere (1912).

Fellsmere never sold enough land or crops to completely fulfill the rosy predictions put forward by its promoters. The Fellsmere Farms Company was sold and reorganized several times in the ensuing decades, and the population had only grown to a mere 400 persons by 1924. In the 1930s, much of the land was devoted to sugar cane production. Fellsmere Sugar Company, founded in 1931, was the first factory in Florida to refine sugar from locally grown cane plants. Its products were marketed under the name “Florida Crystals.”

Sugar mill at Fellsmere, home to

Sugar mill at Fellsmere, home to “Florida Crystals” (circa 1937).

Fellsmere is one of many small Florida communities whose earliest promotional materials may be found in the collections of the State Library & Archives. Visit info.florida.gov and search the Library and Archives catalogs to find more of these rare documents!

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5 thoughts on “Farming at Fellsmere

  1. My family owned the Fellsmere Inn for 10 years. We had restored it ,to save it from being demolished. We brought it up to code, remodeled it. It was no small project, termites, carpenter ants,you name it,it was in there. My mother had an Antique store in it,selling everything from glass ware to clothes. It had 28 rooms upstairs,15 downstairs. Ballroom,bar were existing from its earlier owners.people would stop in from all over the country,looking for fried catfish! They said ,it was the best they had ever eaten.

  2. I moved to Fellsmere, in 1950, went to school their, watched the sugar Co. burn off the cane to allow the cane cutters to cut the cane, you would not believe all the different animals, that ran out of those burning fields, I really loved growing up in Fellsmere, My Fathers home that we lived in as a child is still their.

    • Hi Misty,

      Thank you for contacting us. The first step to finding more information about your great-grandfather is to check census records, which are available for free on Family Search (https://familysearch.org/). This search might also produce other military and land records.

      After this initial step, you might be able to find more information by visiting the State Library and Archives in Tallahassee or the local library and county courthouse where he resided. You can use the city directory to find his home address and business address, if he owned a business. From there, check probate and deed records, which most likely reside at the county courthouse in the county where your great-grandfather lived (we also have copies on microfilm at the State Library and Archives). The county courthouse could possibly have marriage records for your great-grandfather. Additionally, if he belonged to a church, check to see if the church he attended is still in existence and maintains an archive. They could have records about him as well. The Office of Vital Statistic in Jacksonville holds death and birth certificates.

      Checking these sources should give you basic genealogical information. Names of other family members, friends, and business partners will most likely be revealed as you research your great-grandfather and doing research about them will give you an even broader understanding of your great-grandfather’s life.

      I hope this information is helpful to you. If you have more questions, please feel free to contact us by email at archives@dos.myflorida.com or by phone at 850.245.6700.

  3. Did the Hotel once have a restaurant with wooden picnic type tables? This would have been in the late 60s. My dad would drive us there, from Coral Gables, FL, on Sun, I think, to have delicious home cooked meal. Sometimes we arrived a little late but we were allowed to go into kitchen and serve iurselves from what was left .

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