Leaving Volusia County behind us, but carrying the picture of a typical Florida region which it showed us as characteristic of the major phases of life and activity throughout most of the peninsula, we need make but a few brief stops on our way down the East Coast, to get an impression of the outstanding things which make one community different from another.
From New Smyrna U. S. Highway No. 1 leads us through a succession of small coast towns, through Titusville at the head of the Indian River to Cocoa, the metropolis of the Indian River country, although Melbourne, further south, may dispute that title. Its oranges, grown on Merritt Island and for 150 miles along the coast of the mainland, on a narrow strip of hammock soil which stretches from New Smyrna almost down to Palm Beach, have given the Indian River an international reputation. The river itself, a part of the intra-coastal waterway, is a long, narrow sound between Merritt Island and the mainland, bridged at Titusville, Cocoa, Eau Gallie and Melbourne.
Merritt Island is a geological freak. Instead of being pure sand, as most of the keys on the Florida coast are, it is a high, fertile, hardwood hammock, itself protected against the ocean by an outlying key, Cape Canaveral, with a wide watercourse, the Banana River, lying between Canaveral and Merritt Island. Who first discovered that the soil of Merritt Island would produce a finer quality of oranges than any other part of Florida history does not relate. It was a discovery made very early in Florida’s history. Many of the groves and plantations on Merritt Island date back to colonial times, and there are remains of ancient structures which appear to have been built during the Spanish occupation. Merritt Island oranges and grapefruit command a premium above the regular market price of from fifty cents to a dollar and a half a box. Many Merritt Island groves have been in the same family for generations and are still supporting their owners in comfortable wealth.
The town of Cocoa, on the mainland, together with its adjoining community, Rockledge, is an increasingly popular winter resort. It is a center for both commercial fisheries and game fishing. An important and interesting industry here is the packing and shipping of both fresh and canned crab meat, of which the Indian River is the nation’s principal source of supply. One of the finest yacht basins on the intra-coastal waterway is maintained here by the municipality of Cocoa.
Melbourne, the attractive little seacoast town at the mouth of the Indian River, is the eastern terminus of the principal cross-state highway running from Tampa through the ridge country to the Atlantic.
Southward the shore highway passes through the same belt of Indian River citrus fruits, with a rich agricultural background, to Vero Beach, county seat of Indian River county. The Spanish settlers and their early English successors planted sugar cane throughout this region. Now, while sugar cane is grown for syrup as a farm field crop in many parts of Florida, its product becomes sugar at only two points in the state, one of them at Fellsmere, in the back country of Indian River County, near Lake Wilmington, where a 2,000-acre sugar plantation keeps in operation a sugar mill and the only sugar refinery in Florida. The much larger commercial sugar plantation and mill at Clewiston has no refinery attached.