Stuart Heritage Museum, for the Ages
By: Steve Winston
When they named this area of Florida the “Treasure Coast,” they weren’t thinking about this old building. They were thinking about the numerous shipwrecks off these shores during the 1800s… and the numerous treasure chests lying at the bottom of the ocean.
Yet, this red-and-white wooden building constructed in 1901, with the words “Stuart Feed Supply” on top, is a treasure itself – and, to the people of Stuart, Fla., just as valuable as the gold buried offshore.
Located 125 miles north of Miami, Stuart has preserved its historical treasures in this building. And when you walk into the Stuart Heritage Museum, this history comes alive, along with some fascinating stories.
“It was built in 1901 as the G.W. Parks General Merchandise Store, by George Parks,” said Mary Jones, Executive Director of the museum. “Parks also eventually built a Gulf gas station and a small refinery behind the store, at the docks overlooking the St. Lucie River. But he died in 1943, when the refinery caught fire. The family sold the store, and it became Stuart Feed Supply. It stayed that way until 1982, when it finally closed down. The city bought it in ’88. And they turned it into a museum in 1992.”
When you open the doors and walk in on the original creaky wooden floors, it’s like 1901 again. And you’re transported back to a world when Florida was, essentially, America’s last frontier.
“Stuart was just starting to grow, then,” said Alice Luckhardt, the museum’s historian. “The Florida East Coast Railroad started coming through here in 1894. And the local folks didn’t want people passing through to think of us as an uncivilized frontier town. So they built a church next to the railroad station, in the hopes of changing our image.”
Fittingly, the Stuart Heritage Museum has old photos of the railroad station and the church. There are signs created for Mr. Kitchings, an Englishman who ran the post office and a boarding house on the second floor of the Parks store. There are Seminole Indian artifacts, from the original inhabitants of this area. There are photos from the incorporation of the town of Stuart.
There are photos, too, of Trapper Nelson, an early-20th-Century legend in these parts. Trapper Nelson lived in the Loxahatchee Wilderness to the south of Stuart, in a log cabin he built himself, and came into town only when he needed supplies. Six-foot four and well over 200 pounds, he was a mountain of a man – just ask any of the alligators he trapped and wrestled. Trapper Nelson, though, managed to make some enemies, from locals with whom he had land disputes, and, apparently, from some jealous husbands whose wives sometimes found their way to his cabin.
Trapper Nelson was found in his cabin in July, 1968, dead of a gunshot wound. To this day, no one has ever solved the mystery of his death; some say it was self-inflicted, as he was apparently convinced he was dying of cancer. In the Stuart Heritage Museum, however, the legend of “The Wild Man of the Loxahatchee” lives on.
There are mementoes of other colorful local characters here, as well. For example, the John Ashley Gang.
“They were a gang of local men and women who considered themselves self-styled Robin Hoods,” Mary Jones said, “robbing from the rich and giving to the poor. John Ashley first lost his eye in a shootout with police. Then he lost his life in a shootout with police – as did every member of his gang – in 1924.”
In this wooden building, however, John Ashley and his gang live on, in the photos and artifacts of their misadventures.
The exhibits are laid out in chronological order, starting with life-sized figures of Seminole ladies in their colorful beaded dresses and hats, and paintings of stern-faced Seminole chieftains. You’ll find antique sewing machines, telephones from the early-20th Century to the Seventies (remember push-button phones?), old gasoline stoves, bathtubs, refrigerators from the 1920’s, and Victorian sitting chairs.
And that’s just a start. You’ll also see old Coca-Cola signs. Ladies’ dresses from the old Dyer department store here, along with flowered hats, jewelry, and beaded purses. Wooden kaleidoscopes with colors as brilliant today as they must have been a century ago. Photos of some of the rich and glamorous who chose to live in this pretty town instead of Tinseltown – among them singer/actress Frances Langford, bandleader Vaughn Monroe, and entertainer Perry Como. There’s even a re-created parlor with “people” sitting around a fireplace and listening to a primitive radio.
There’s a counter from an ice cream shop, too.
“When the owners decided to shut down,” Mary Jones said, “they just left the counter on the curb outside their shop. The next morning, when we arrived at the museum, it was – miraculously - sitting in front on our curb!”
Mary Jones was born and raised here. And her family is noted more than once in this museum.
“My grandfather was a builder,” she said, “and he built many of our local landmarks, like the Lyric Theatre and the Jensen Beach Arch.”
As you open the door and enter the Stuart Heritage Museum, prepare to buckle up for a time-machine ride through the ages.
If you go…
Stuart Heritage Museum
161 SW Flagler Ave.
Stuart, Fla. 34994
Photos by Peter W. Cross for VISIT FLORIDA