Historic Beginnings

(Portions of this article were published in 2002 in the Fort Pierce Tribune.)

Located near the midway point of Florida's East Coast, St. Lucie County is nestled within one of the oldest continually settled regions in the United States. Some of the earliest settlers in this area, excluding the pre-historic Indian tribes, were the Ais Indians. They were a tall people with an average height of more than six feet. They were excellent hunters and were drawn to this area by the abundance of fish and game in and along the scenic Indian River Lagoon. Temporary settlement and migration ofpeople continued along the lush Florida east coast over the years but permanent settlement did not occur until the early part of the 1840's, when Fort Pierce was constructed as a military outpost during the Second Seminole War.

Beginning with the establishment of St. Lucie Village in 1842, a number of small settlements developed along the west bank of the Indian River during the late 19th century. Farther up the coast, Henry M. Flagler built the opulent St. Augustine Ponce de Leon hotel and bought a narrow-gauge railroad in 1885 to lend support to the hotel. This was the beginning of the Florida East Coast (F.E.C.) Railway and the end to the relative isolation of the area. Flagler eventually extended his railroad to West Palm Beach in 1893 with whistle stops at strategic points along the way.

Early in the 1890s, a Dane living somewhere in north Central Florida was writing glowing articles about Florida which were published in a Danish newspaper, "The Danish Pioneer", in Omaha, Nebraska. Danes all over the United States avidly read this paper. Prompted by the combination of promising news articles about Florida and Flagler's interest in promoting further development of Florida's east coast, a group of mid-west Danish people organized and decided to colonize in Florida. A committee of six, filled with a pioneering spirit, was selected and sent as scouts to what is now known as White City.

By this time, the railroad had reached Titusville and from there the six scouts went by river steamer to Jensen. There they rented boats and made their way up the St. Lucie River. Camping along the way, they looked for a suitable site on which to settle. Finally, when the six scouts reached a sandy bluff on the southwest side of White City, which was known in later years as the old Gustafson place, one of the six stopped, took a deep breath, and is reported to have said, "This is as far as I go. Let's locate here."

As it turned out, the very spot they chose lay within a Flagler land grant which occupied a large portion of what is now St. Lucie County formerly Brevard County). The state had subsidized the Flagler System with 8,000 acres of land adjacent to the railway right-of-way for every mile of track that was laid along the east coast of Florida. In return for the State's generous endowment, Flagler encouraged immigration and settlement into these areas and built schools, hospitals, churches, fire stations, city halls, courthouse and utilities all along the Flagler's steel highway.

Many of the Danes, who were in the planning stages of this small Scandinavian community, had attended the Chicago World's Fair in 1893. They were so impressed with Daniel Burnham's Great White City that they named their little colony "White City." They also named the road that ran through the center of town "Midway" after the fair's main entertainment attraction, Midway Plaisance.

In 1894, a sinister figure appeared in the fledgling town of White City and began announcing great plans for the community. Colonel Myers, reportedly a slick promoter from California, quickly set up a land scam and was eagerly taking deposits on land parcels. He excavated a parcel of land for a bank and took charge of the funds slated for deposit there. He also encouraged the settlers to bank their surplus funds with his bank.

Sadly, sometime later, Colonel Myers skipped town. He reportedly hid away in one of the baggage cars of an FEC train and rode north, out of the lives but not out of the memories of the hard-working people who had placed their trust and resources with him. This was a terrible setback for such a new community, but the stouuthearted residents, as tough as the situation was, stiffened their resolve to get on with their lives.

To make things tougher, if possible, the winter weather of 1894-95 almost wiped out many farmers and growers throughout Florida. Bitter, freezing weather struck the state and the plunging temperatures destroyed crops everywhere. Trees split open from the sap freezing beneath the bark and fruit hung on the trees like ice balls. Many of the farmers, with their monies and resources depleted, left the area. Those who stayed worked off their indebtedness and gained deeds by improving the land and the interest due by building roads.

The railroad and canal companies, to whom the lands belonged, had opened a commissary just east of the river and allowed each settler a credit of $30 a month. This continued for more than two years and the people gradually paid off their debt and even gained deeds to allotted parcels of land. This marked, finally, the road to recovery and White City eventually emerged from the shadows of their adversities as a thriving community. The residents now were able to return to relatively normal lives and enjoy the fruits of their labor.

The first location of the White City Improvement Club was in the old recreation center on Midway Road just a few hundred feet east of the St. Lucie River. Both the Danes and the non-Scandinavian residents of White City attended or belonged to White City Improvement Club. Only men of good character could belong since there were too many heavy drinkers and rough brawlers who liked to attend the dances and dinners and cause trouble. Only members and their guests were allowed to these affairs.

The Scandinavians loved to dance the waltz and schottice [schottische] while others favored the square dance. To resolve the problem and keep order at the gathering, two sets of fiddlers were on hand to alternate the dances evenly and keep everyone happy.

Bill Jorgensen, whose interview contributed the majority of the material used in this column, once said, "The White City Improvement Club gave one really good party-a New Year's Dinner [at which] a huge copper boiler was used to make hot rum or whiskey punch and was a feature of every dinner. Even at a tender age, I managed to sample some and it was very tasty."

Some say that the White City Improvement Club started as a legal ruse to exclude the more raucous residents of the community and to prevent them from disrupting an otherwise enjoyable gathering with their drinking, roughhousing and fighting. Others say that the club was started mainly to aid the immigrant settlers in their adjustments to life in a new community and to guard against those such as the infamous Colonel Myers who would threaten the safety and prosperity of the town. Regardless of which story is believed, the residents of White City and the members of the White City Improvement Club have maintained to this day a safe, proper and desirable community in which to live.

(This article was written from material taken from the William Jorgensen interview, collated data by Pat Ferrick, phone conversations with key contributors, and personal research) ~ Stan Hill

© 2008 White City Improvement Club Inc.
Revised 11/09/2015 by Richard Gardner ~ mail to:rleonardgardner@bellsouth.net