By Steve Winston
Life in early-20th Century Vero Beach wasn’t easy. It was often a hardscrabble rural existence, in which hardworking families either made a living with small farms or citrus, or didn’t.
The Hallstrom family, though, was different. They were Indian River County royalty. And, thankfully, the beautiful Hallstrom House in Vero Beach is perfectly preserved for visitors today.
Axel Hallstrom moved to Minneapolis from Sweden in 1898, and quickly made a name for himself in the railroad business. But when his wife, Emily, became ill and her doctor said she needed a warm climate, the Hallstroms moved to Vero Beach. Unfortunately, it didn’t help. Emily died a few years later, leaving Axel with a four-year-old daughter, Ruth.
Axel built himself a thriving pineapple and citrus business on 100 acres. And a home that was the envy of everyone in Indian River County.
He had only a sixth-grade education, but the house he designed for himself amazes modern architects who tour it even today.
“Axel wasn’t an educated man,” says Ruth Stanbridge, Indian River County Historian. “But he was born with a thirst for knowledge, and a discriminating eye. He loved to travel with Ruth. And when he returned from his trips, his trunks were filled with items he had purchased.”
As a result, his home is filled with plush Victorian rugs, elegant china and linens, European paintings, rare vases, and heavy, dark-wood furniture. And, it may be the only house in Florida with a basement. Because it’s situated on the Atlantic Ridge, a row of hills just inland – as opposed to the usual “beach sand” just under the surface in Florida – Hallstrom was able to build a basement under the top three floors.
The Hallstrom House in Vero Beach is a living museum of the pieces he and Ruth picked up on their travels. The exterior red-brick is from Georgia. The chandeliers are Egyptian Gothic. The china’s from Czechoslovakia. The dinner dishes are from his homeland of Sweden, as are the ornate figurines. The grandfather clocks are from England. (The red Chevrolet Corvette convertible that Ruth owned was very definitely American).
The front of the house has a large porch, with white wicker rocking chairs, and large stone stanchions topped with artful renderings of the item that made Axel rich – pineapples.
Doors throughout the home are oak. There’s a wood-burning stove in the kitchen, and a “wringer” washing machine – in which you wrung out your wet clothes – on the rear screened porch. And there’s a “widow’s peak” room at the top of the house, with a balcony overlooking Dixie Highway – then pretty much the only road in town.
Ruth’s bedroom is filled with portraits of her, young and old, including a few with her prized Corvette. Her fancy black dress still lies on her sofa.
Amongst all the exotic foreign items in the house, however, there’s one distinct Florida touch -- the paintings of “Old Florida” tropical scenes. Five of them were done by Alfred Hair, founder of the Highwaymen, a group of self-taught African-American artists who used to sell their beautiful paintings on the side of the road to tourists driving by.
“I’m amazed at the condition of the house,” said Meryl Braverman, of Coral Springs, Fla. “The beauty, the history, the old books and clothes still in the bedrooms…”
If you’d like to see how “the other half” lived in turn-of-the-century Indian River County, visit the Hallstrom House in Vero Beach.
If you go…
1723 Old Dixie Highway S.W.
Vero Beach, Florida 32962
For more information, visit the Indian River County Historical Society online at http://irchistorical.org or call (772) 778-3435.