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Fort Pierce breathes new life into Old Florida

A visit to downtown Fort Pierce hardly allows one to ignore its history. You’ll find Old Florida on almost every street corner.

Nor can you escape references to A.E. Backus and his influence on the cadre of famed landscape artists known collectively as The Highwaymen. There’s a museum and gallery here dedicated to their work.

A stroll down nearby 2nd Street shows signs of new life to old buildings, freshly scrubbed and painted, at the center of the city’s renewal efforts for Main Street Fort Pierce, boutiques, art galleries, antiques, new restaurants and a craft brewery.

Even the Smithsonian has set up shop here.

The U.S. Navy has a colorful history in Fort Pierce as the World War II training ground for frogmen preparing to clear a path for the D-Day Invasion of Normandy.

But the story that perhaps intrigued me the most was a curious historic marker on 2nd Street honoring St. Lucie County’s first sheriff, who was killed in an alley off historic 2nd Street in a gunfight with a “city marshal.”

Fort Pierce Historic District

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This curious historical marker I encountered on 2nd Avenue in downtown Fort Pierce certainly leaves unanswered questions, prompting me to dig deeper.. (Photo by Bob Rountree)

About that gunfight …

The encounter between Sheriff Daniel Stephen Carlton and city marshal James Disney was not a chance encounter, and the two lawmen were not exactly pals.

It’s also worth noting that Disney’s title of “marshal” is a bit misleading. He had no official government position, having been hired by a local business as a night watchman. These days, we’d call him a security guard.

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Sheriff Daniel S. Carlton, killed in a gunfight.

Sheriff Carlton, on the other hand, had an official position, appointed first to the office by St. Lucie County Commissioners and subsequently elected to the post by county voters.

On the night of the shootout, Carlton deliberately sought out Disney. The sheriff was angry about something.

“Residents were astounded when the peace of a Saturday night was shattered by a fusillade of pistol shots,” according to a 1987 recount of the gunfight in the Miami Herald. “As the shots ceased echoing through the streets, Sheriff Carlton, pierced by four bullets, lay dying on the board sidewalk, and Disney, bleeding from three wounds, was staggering into the sandy street.”

There are varying accounts on what exactly led to the shootout. An account by the Florida Historical Society suggests the two men had a longstanding feud, while another account pointed to a dispute Disney had with Carlton’s chief deputy, possibly over a card game.

The sheriff’s family believed Disney was hired by local bootlegging interests who wanted Sheriff Carlton ‘out of the way’ because he was ‘hurting business,’ according to Forgotten Heroes, Police Officers Killed in Early Florida 1840-1925, written by Dr. William Wilbanks.

Some suggested the sheriff himself was protecting bootleggers and was killed by Disney at the instigation of ‘reformers,’ according to Wilbanks.

Disney was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to five years in prison.

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Walking tour of downtown Fort Pierce

Old Florida Coffee House, P.P. Cobb Building

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Looking for a great breakfast, brunch or lunch in Fort Pierce’s historic downtown?

Try the Old Florida Coffee Shop, the newest tenant in Fort Pierce’s oldest structure, the P.P. Cobb Building, built in the late 1800s as a trading post.

We checked it out on a recent visit and enjoyed the tastiest crepe ever, accompanied by a guava con crema Floridaccino. Quite a treat and unexpectedly good for a coffee shop.

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The 1905 Seven Gables House in Fort Pierce.

For a more traditional breakfast, head north on Indian River Drive to the Captain’s Galley, which was recommended to us at the Fort Pierce Visitor Center, itself a historic landmark in downtown Fort Pierce, the 1905 Seven Gables House.

The 1905 Seven Gables House is a good place to start your walking tour of Fort Pierce’s historic downtown. The Visitor Center has flyers, maps, menus, Chamber swag and plenty of free parking.

Next door, you’ll be able to visit the A.E. Backus Gallery and the Manatee Observation and Education Center, both of which are ideal starting points for your visit to Fort Pierce and your stroll through the historic district.

Backus Museum
A.E. Backus Museum in Fort Pierce.

A beloved son of Fort Pierce, A.E. Backus was a renowned landscape artist who notably mentored The Highwaymen, a legendary group of African-Americans who sold their artwork along Martin County highways in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s.

Backus, who was white, defied the norms in the 1950s when he invited talented young African-Americans into his studio to help them perfect their painting skills.

The museum features Backus’ work as well as works by his proteges, including popular Highwaymen artists Alfred Hair and Harold Newton.

I have a personal connection of sorts. Back in the 60s, my aunt purchased a painting from Harold Newton on U.S. 1, where he had set up his “gallery” on the side of the road. It’s been in the family for years, as have the stories of those talented Black artists who displayed their artwork along U.S. 1 for passing tourists.

Maps of “The Highwaymen Trail” are available, but the trail is not really walkable and the map is not very good. We drove it, and it wasn’t easy to follow. The highlight, if there is one, was Backus’ home at 122 A E Backus Ave. The house is now the headquarters for the Main Street Fort Pierce redevelopment agency, an art gallery and host of art exhibitions.

Manatee Observation Center

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The Manatee Observation and Educational Center across the Visitor Center parking lot from the A.E. Backus Museum.

The center has an observation deck overlooking the freshwater Moore’s Creek, once a power plant discharge waterway that spills into the Indian River. Although the power plant has shut down, Moore’s Creek is still a magnet for manatees throughout the year but mostly in winter.

Inside the center, learn about the endangered Florida manatees through hands-on exhibits and informational displays. Outside, you’ll find a two-story observation deck along the creek bank, a butterfly garden seeded with native Florida plants, and a replica of a natural spring, a common habitat for manatees in cooler winter months.

Boat tours and guided kayak tours into the Indian River Lagoon are also offered by the center. Boat tours are seasonal and depart from the Fort Pierce Marina, which is next door. The kayak guided tours are offered every Sunday at 9 a.m. from North Causeway Inlet Park. Reservations are required for both. (See information box below)

Manatee Observation and Education Center, 480 N Indian River Drive, Fort Pierce. Phone: 772-429-6266. Open Tues-Sat, 10 am-5 pm; Sun, 12-4 pm. Summer: Thurs.-Sunday. Admission: $2 per person. To book boat tours: Call the Vanishing Mermaid Gift Shop at 772-429-6267. Kayak tour: Call the center’s main number at 772-429-6266

Sailfish Brewery

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Craft beer is brewed onsite at the Sailfish Brewery on 2nd Street. (Photo by Bob Rountree)

Craft breweries traditionally incorporate local themes and ingredients in their craft beers, so it’s only natural for the Sailfish Brewery to locate in the heart of Fort Pierce’s Historic District, just a block from the city’s fishing center at the Fort Pierce Marina, where sail fishing is king.

Florida’s Treasure Coast, anchored by Fort Pierce and Stuart, is known as the Sailfish Capital of the World. In winter, the offshore waters here are teaming with sailfish.

Like craft brewpubs everywhere, the Sailfish Brewery casts itself as a neighborhood pub. Spacious and friendly, we found it to be a fine destination for beer with unique pizza options featuring hand-tossed, fresh dough. Other than a few appetizers, the food menu doesn’t go much beyond pizza, wings and salads.

On our visit, my wife and I sampled a couple of interesting brews, settling on the “Glazed and Infused” Imperial Stout, “treated with glazed Dixie Cream Donuts, vanilla and lactose.” We found it delicious but expensive at $1 an ounce, or $8 for an 8-ounce glass.

I considered ordering a 32-ounce growler to take back to our RV, but there was no discount for growlers to go. So, at $1 an ounce, the price was $32 plus $5 for the growler. $37 is a big hit for two quarts of beer. Not in my budget.

We went next door for a quick visit to the 2nd Street Bistro Tap House and Eatery, located in a historic 1929 building, but decided to dine instead at Casa Azteca Mexican Restaurant, a half-block away. The food and service at Casa Azteca were excellent. The eatery offers both outdoor and indoor dining, as do Sailfish and 2nd Street Bistro.

There are numerous other restaurants in the area, which should be a draw for new businesses to occupy the district post-pandemic and seasonal visitors return in late fall.

I regret not visiting the historic Arcade Building at Kraaz Square, which was built in 1926. When built, it was the largest building in Fort Pierce. Today, this impressive Spanish Colonial building houses a shop featuring African art, antiques and gifts, a boutique, deli and other shops.

Colorful sidewalk displays of African art at the corner of U.S. 1 and Orange Avenue immediately capture your attention. My only regret was not following my instincts and paying a visit. Next time.

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12A Buoy, an Old Florida fish house

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On the northern edge of the historic district, below the South Causeway Bridge, may be the best restaurant in town, to which both visitors and locals attest on TripAdvisor. We agree.

Nothing fancy here except the food. 12A Buoy is distinctly an Old Florida fish house, serving fresh, locally caught seafood. You will be hard-pressed to find better. Anywhere.

Reservations are not accepted, and you will likely experience a wait to be seated, even in summer. Your patience will be rewarded.

Once seated, we found the service attentive but not in your face. Kathy ordered the daily catch, which was a fresh and tasty swordfish with a tomato-cucumber-tequila sauce, and I had yellow-tail snapper, butterflied and seared, then roasted in a lime oil blend.

Both were served with colorful edible flowers to effect the presentation. The flowers were good, too! 🙂

12A Buoy, 22 Fisherman’s Wharf at Indian River Drive, Fort Pierce. Phone: 772-672-4524. Open: Sun, Mon, Wed, Thurs, 11 am-9 pm; Sat-Sun, 11 am-10 pm. Closed Tuesdays. Reservations not accepted.

Things to do nearby

St. Lucie County Aquarium

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You don’t get much more historic than the Smithsonian Institute, which has established a satellite research center on the South Causeway.

The research center itself is off-limits to the public, but their exhibits are on display at the St. Lucie County Aquarium across the causeway, which is maintained by Smithsonian staff.

The aquarium’s large tank was originally in the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History in Washington D.C., where it was one of the first living reefs ever on display.

Although the aquarium is small as aquarium’s go, it’s educational. There’s a living reef exhibit and a variety of smaller tanks and exhibits to pique your curiosity and satisfy the urge to learn.

St. Lucie County Aquarium, 420 Seaway Drive, Fort PiercePhone: 772-462-FISH. Open: Tues-Fri, 10 am-4 pm; Sat-Sun, 12-4 pm. Admission is $4,

Heathcote Botanical Gardens, largest bonsai garden in U.S.

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The Heathcote Botanical Gardens is home to the largest public bonsai garden in the United States, the offspring of Bonsai Master James J. Smith, whose affinity for tropical species and native Florida trees is on full display. (Photo by Bob Rountree)

The bonsai garden occupies 10,000 square feet within the five-acre gardens, which also include an orchid house, rainforest, a Japanese garden, butterfly garden, herb garden, children’s garden and, tucked away in a far corner, a replica of a 200-year-old Florida Cracker House tucked into a field of native Florida vegetation.

Personally, I’m not a “garden guy”, but my wife Kathy was in her glory and quickly latched onto a caretaker who was resuscitating a bonsai tree near the rear of the exhibit. He walked her through his techniques for removing fungus from the roots, apparently a fairly common bonsai problem.

Each of the 100 bonsai trees displayed along a winding path in the garden had its own pedestal with signage explaining the species.

The location is south of Fort Pierce proper, just off U.S. 1, and conveniently for us on a direct route to our campsite in the Savannas Recreation Area.

Heathcote Botanical Gardens, 210 Savannah Road, Fort Pierce. Phone: 772-464-4672. Open Tues-Sat, 10 am-4 pm. Closed Sundays, May-October. Admission $8 for adults, $6 for seniors., $3 for children (under 6 free)

Savannas Recreation Area & Savannas Preserve State Park

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I’ve wanted to camp at this St. Lucie County park for a couple of years, and we finally made it! (Photo by Bob Rountree)

Going in, I thought the Savannas Recreation Area would be ideal for kayaking because it appeared the waterfront campsites would make a great launch point. Not so much. You can kayak here, and you can launch from your campsite, but the paddle trail abruptly ends in a pond a few hundred yards out. Still great for fishing and wildlife observation.

My recommendation would be to leave the kayaks at home and bring bicycles. A paved trail extends north of the campground, taking you more than a mile deep into the serene savannah.

The campsites were great. Plenty of breathing room and great views of the savannah. The photo above was taken at dawn from the rear window of our travel trailer. Water lilies in the canal bloomed as the morning progressed.

Don’t confuse the county-run Savannas Recreation Area with nearby Savannas Preserve State Park, about 8 miles south. The state park does not have a campground.

Both parks preserve these sweeping coastal prairies from bulldozers, offering wildlife a haven from the bustle of suburbia.

  • Savannas Recreation Area, 1400 E. Midway Road, Fort Pierce, Fl 34982. Phone: (772) 464-7855. Park is open sunrise to sunset. Entrance is free. Office hours: 8 am-5 pm daily. Call the office for campground reservations. Camping fees: Primitive, $5.38; Tent, $17.93; RV sites with hookups, $22.42,
  • Savannas Preserve State Park, 2541 S.E .Walton Road, Port St. Lucie FL 34952. Ranger office: 772-398-2779. Hours: 8 am-sundown, 7 days. Entrance fee: $3 per vehicle. No camping.

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Fort Pierce is the birthplace of early Navy frogmen and underwater demolition teams, who trained on these beaches before deployment to Europe and Pacific theaters during World War II.

Known then as “Scouts” and “Raiders”, these highly trained frogmen would eventually become a permanent part of elite U.S. Special Forces known as SEALS.

The history and equipment used by Navy SEALS and Underwater Demolition Teams are on display, including some fascinating underwater attack vehicles.

These early frogmen were initially deployed to seize and establish beachheads for invasions, a role soon expanded to include search and rescue, clear sea channels, erect markers for incoming assault crafts, then going ashore to clear beach obstacles for incoming forces.

These teams were not actually known as SEALs until 1962, when President John F. Kennedy recognized their value and commissioned them as Sea Air Land Teams, again expanding their mission beyond their traditional role.

During the Vietnam War, the SEALs were one of this country’s most effective combat forces, gaining an almost mythical reputation among the Viet Cong as the “Devils with Green Faces.” During the war in Afghanistan, they were deployed with special forces to rout terrorists from mountain hideouts.

Aside from the museum, evidence of their WW II training years can still be found off the beaches here, especially Pepper Park Beach behind the museum and Avalon State Park, a few miles north.

The Navy trained frogmen at Avalon State Park for the D-Day invasion of Normandy, and you can still find underwater hazards of steel and concrete embedded below the surf.

Snorkelers and divers are drawn to shallow reefs less than 100 yards offshore, as well as remains of the wreckage of the Urca de Lima, a Spanish sailing ship destroyed in a 1715 hurricane in about 20 feet of water.

Pepper Park Beach features rest rooms, pavilions, picnic tables and grills to help make a day of your family’s visit to the museum.

More things to do near Fort Pierce

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Horse riders return to Frederick Douglass Park on Hutchinson Island. (Photo by Bob Rountree)

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