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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.”
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!