The Town of Indialantic Turns Sixty

From work by Karen Raley


On November 17, 2012, the Town of Indialantic, Florida, will be 60 years old. Indialantic plans a number of celebrations the weekend of March 9 to 11, 2012.  Although the events mark sixty years for the town, the community itself is older. From pioneer plantations through 1920s real estate speculation and Space Age development, Indialantic’s location has been central to its identity. The character of the community, first as a subdivision and then as a town, has depended on the use and preservation of the area’s natural assets. 

The first phase of settlement on the barrier island between the Atlantic Ocean and the Indian River east of Melbourne began in the late 1800s. At Cape Canaveral, lighthouse keeper Mills Burnham began to grow a pineapple crop in the 1840s. In “East Melbourne,” south of the Banana River, entrepreneurs from Eau Gallie and Melbourne established pineapple plantations. The Indian River Nurseries opened in April of 1887.

 J. H. Phillips built a home on his plantation in the Indialantic area in 1892. Growers in Melbourne Beach also planted the crop. Produce was carried by boat to the railhead in Titusville, where it was shipped north. Profits were good and cultivation of the fruit expanded through the early 1890s. 

Meanwhile, land values increased dramatically. Homesteaders like C. J. Hector, Jessie Goode, E. P. Branch, Maggie Johnson, and Frederick Webb paid the government $1.25 an acre in the 1880s. A decade later, land on the island was selling for over $1,000 an acre. Then the disastrous freezes of 1894-95. One Eau Gallie family, John and Juliet Aspinwall, lost 150,000 pineapples on their barrier island property. The industry would never return to this area. 

Eau Gallie, Melbourne, and Melbourne Beach continued to grow after the freezes, but it would not be until 1916 that Indialantic began to emerge from the sandy scrubland to become a community. The person most responsible for this change was Ernest Kouwen-Hoven. 

Coming south for health reasons, Kouwen-Hoven brought his family to Melbourne in 1915 and stayed at the lovely Carleton Hotel on the bluff. He remained past the usual season and rented a small cottage in town. After taking several trips across the river, Kouwen-Hoven began purchasing land on the barrier island east of Melbourne. The next year, when he returned to Melbourne from Chicago, he subdivided the land into residential lots, streets, areas designated for hotels, ferry slips, a golf course, and a public beachfront. Kouwen-Hoven’s subdivision of “Indialantic-by-the-Sea,” named by his friend, Mrs. Frank L Bills, had been born.

In 1917, Kouwen-Hoven moved his family into their new home on the shore of the Indian River (where Eastminster Presbyterian Church now stands). Daughter Phyllis Hoskins later wrote of those days when she and her family were the first and only residents of Indialantic-by-the-Sea. “Provisions, mail and travel were by water alone....A Delco system provided electricity; a surface well with a pump supplied our water....[My brother] Jack and I attended school by boat....Our amusements were crabbing and aquaplaning....Summers were spent in California because those days were horribly warm and buggy.” 

Lots being slow to sell at first, Kouwen-Hoven decided that he needed a bridge across the river if his subdivision were to succeed. In the face of popular skepticism and lack of public funding, Kouwen-Hoven sold bonds for $100 each (another $20 would buy a lot) and began to finance the bridge himself in1918. Using lumber from his own portable sawmills 16 miles west of Melbourne and on Merritt Island, Kouwen-Hoven completed the 1 7/8-mile bridge in 1921. The final cost was more than $100,000, half of which was covered by bonds Kouwen-Hoven repaid at 6% interest.

Because of the bridge, land sales on the island soared. Cleared, 50’x100’ lots sold for $400-1,000 each, and Kouwen-Hoven promised “cement sidewalks” and other improvements. Between 1919 and 1922, he was able to sell hundreds of lots, all the while increasing the size of Indialantic by acquiring and subdividing more acreage to the south.

In 1922-3, the developer sold the bridge and almost all of the remaining lots in Indialantic to Herbert R. Earle, who continued to promote and guide the development of the community. In 1924, two key edifices were the Indialantic Casino and Indialantic Hotel.

Kouwen- Hoven’s original plat set aside lands for both these buildings as well as for a large golf course behind the hotel. Unfortunately, by 1925, the U.S. economy was beginning to weaken. The spree of investing in Florida lands came to an end after two disastrous hurricanes hit the state in 1926. Faltering badly by 1927, local economies began a deadly downward spiral as the Great Depression approached. Earle lost his holdings to his lawyer, Harold Emmett.

As did every other community in Brevard, Indialantic lay in the doldrums during the early 1930s. Very little building was accomplished in the 1930s, and properties changed hands at well below the prices they had originally cost. Some of the lots and homes in Indialantic would not reach their 1926 value until well into the 1950s and 60s!

By the late 1930s the old wooden bridge now owned by the State Road Department, needed replacement. Planners proposed that a causeway be built in order to reduce maintenance costs. The presence of two Naval Air Stations during the war revived the local economy. Housing was in short supply. Work on the bridge was suspended because of wartime construction needs at the bases. Finally completed in 1947, the new access was open just in time to accommodate Space Program traffic on its way from the mainland to Patrick Air Force Base. Commuters poured through the little community. Soon a new housing boom would be underway in Indialantic.

Desiring to protect themselves from unplanned development and discontented about the condition of their roads, a group of residents formed the Indialantic Civic Association in early 1952, a membership of about 170.

Newly-elected Town officials pose at the Trade Winds, November 17, 1952.  Councilman Hal Guerin, Town Clerk Hazel Helm- rich, Mayor John McLean. Rear, L-R: Town Marshall Lou Mussler, Council- men Walter Hay- ward, Roger Broome, Walter Rolland (Council President), and Don Scott.

Residents met for the next few months to discuss problems and options, finally concluding that forming a municipality was the best plan. That Fall, they laid out their immediate goals: zoning, improving roads, and retaining public ownership of the beach. Long-term aims included fire and police protection, a public water supply, civic beautification, and the numbering of houses for postal service. An election of freeholders was held on November 17, 1952, and the Town of Indialantic was born. Its new officials had their photograph taken at Indialantic’s social center, the Trade Winds Club.

As soon as the Town was formed, the new leadership of the Civic Association began to compete with it for local power, attempting to dissolve the municipality the Association had just spawned. The issue, of course, was taxes. Realizing that no town could exist without revenue, the membership of the Association failed to support its leadership and the first major threat to the new town ended. Indialantic was off to a running start as it quickly passed effective zoning and other ordinances. Milestones in the town’s growth include the development of fire, police, water, and sewer services; the construction of Indialantic Elementary School (1958); the paving of roads, sidewalks, and a bike path; the completion of town beautification projects; the presence of Seaside Art Show (1967-85); the creation of numerous parks, including the preservation of the public beachfront and boardwalk; the construction of two new high-rise spans across the river; and the development of a highly successful business district along Fifth Avenue and A1A.

To this day, the ideas of the founders have a marked effect on Indialantic. Primarily a residential community, the town has controlled commercial and other development to preserve high real estate values and aesthetic appeal. About 3,000 people live in Indialantic presently.

The author thanks Carol Andren, Ruth Bardolph, Paul Beckwith, Bob Gross, Mary Hayward, Marcia Littlejohn, and Dian Milligan for their help in the preparation of this article.

Sources: Florida Star, 9/22/1892 Indian River News, 2/24/1887