As I mentioned in an earlier blog we came to Vero Beach to visit Sharon’s cousin John and his wife Penny. When we drove over to Vero Beach to meet up with John he took us to where Pam was volunteering at the Mckee Botanical Gardens.
Penny decided to give us a private tour of the gardens. Now before I talk more about the tour I must include a bit of the history of these gardens. They were founded in 1929 when a couple of entrepreneurs named Waldo Sexton and Arthur G. McKee purchased 80 acres near the Indian River that was with live oaks, cabbage palms and lots of pine trees. Their plan at first was to developed the land to plant citrus groves.
However after surveying the land they decided it was simply too beautiful to alter and instead decided to make it a garden. Now Waldo E. Sexton was not your typical entrepreneur as he was known to be a bit of an eccentric genius and some even referred to him as being “an irresponsible screwball.” However , he was also known as a man that “was a genius at making money.” And thus came to life the gardens known as the McKee Gardens.
Initially Sexton had developed several structures made of all sorts of items he had requisitioned. The coolest item that is housed in one of his structures that he designed as a Polynesian ceremonial palace. Inside is one of the largest tables I have ever seen and what makes this table unique is that it was made out of a huge single 35 foot piece of mahogany that he had originally seen at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in 1904. He obtained it and it is still here today…
The gardens officially opened as a tourist attraction in 1932 and were known as McKee Jungle Gardens. The gardens became home to a large collection of orchids and water lilies and today is home to some 10,000 native and tropical plants. In its early days it was also home to a collection of critters. There were monkeys, chimpanzees, a baby lion, alligators, parrots, flamingos and even a bear they named Dr. Doolittle. Today there are no such critters and what happened to them I don’t know. However, I did find out what happened to the bear… During the World War Waldo’s son said the family ate the bear because “meat was hard to find.”
Sadly the entrepreneur's dream came to an end when the McKee Jungle Gardens shut down in 1976. Much of the original 80 acres was sold for development and what was left was simply left alone for twenty years until the Indian River Land Trust purchased it in 1995. With funding the remaining 18 acres were salvaged and nurtured into what is now known as the McKee Garden.
Waldo died in 1967 at the age of 82 but left behind this beautiful garden. He also developed the nearby Driftwood Resort. In 1958 there was a “Waldo Sexton Day” in Vero Beach where they dedicated a park called of Sexton Plaza.
Waldo and Arthur would be happy to know that at least a part of their original 80 acres that once drew 100,000 visitors a year in the 1940s had survived the wrath of time. The current McKee Garden was formally dedicated in 2001 and is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. If you are in the area you would be remiss in not visiting these beautiful tropical gardens. Thanks Penny and John for taking us to this beautiful spot…