Once upon a time, signs everywhere beckoned you to get off Florida’s Turnpike for a quick stopover in Yeehaw Junction to buy gas and get your discount coupons for Orlando hotels, theme parks and other attractions.
“We Pay Your Toll” was the standing offer repeated on sign after sign along the Turnpike.
The signs are gone now, but nostalgia remains at this busy crossroads where cowboys once herded cattle to greener pastures and Florida crackers snapped their whips on mule-drawn freight wagons loaded with lumber.
Today, 18-wheelers packed with oranges and grapefruit scream through the intersection of State Road 60 and U.S. 441. Truckers and cow punchers alike still stop for lunch or a beer at the legendary Desert Inn, which has maintained its vigil on the same corner since the late 19th Century.
The Desert Inn dates back to the 1880s as a trading post. No roads, just trails. The current building was built in 1898. The 1930s brought paved roads, and the intersection earned the nickname “Jackass Crossing,” a nod to the cowboys and lumbermen who relied on mules for working cattle and hauling timber.
Easy travel brought a bordello to the Desert Inn, where truckers, travelers and cowboys were entertained. A few cabins were built out back to accommodate the occasional tourist trickling west toward the Gulf Coast.
When Florida’s Turnpike cut through in the 1950s, state legislators decided Jackass Crossing could be offensive to tourists, so the name was officially changed to Yeehaw Junction.
The 1898 Desert Inn still stands, still serving travelers and cowboys as a restaurant and a bar, and there is an 11-unit motel out back. Nothing fancy. Don’t expect much. “Clean rooms with showers, $45.”
I’ve been stopping at the Desert Inn for years to grab a bite to eat on my way to Tampa Bay. The menu has changed a little under new management, but you wouldn’t really notice — unless you were hankering for gator bites and frogs legs. Turtle burgers are no longer on the menu, either.
But you can’t go wrong with the juiciest, tastiest hamburgers on the planet Earth. (Five Guys, eat your heart out.) Like Five Guys, the fries are freshly cut, not frozen. (One change: Burgers now served on ciabatta rolls.)
The complete menu is “raht behind ya on the board, honey.” Crunchy fish sandwich; Fried Green Tomato, Fish & Chips…
The horseshoe-shaped bar, wooden booths, witty signs and oddball knick-knacks are classic Old Florida, including the ever-present Indian couple with their papoose. These wooden mannequins have been moved to the other side of the dining room, but they are still there.
Cowboys who work nearby ranches continue to be regulars, as are truckers, businessmen, blue-color workers, bikers and tourists. One minute the bar is full, empty the next.
Discount coupons for Orlando attractions are long gone, as are the highway signs.
But even today, Turnpike travelers would be well-served by skipping the Fort Drum Service Plaza for a taste of Old Florida at the Desert Inn.
More about the Desert Inn:
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