Desert Inn Memories
The following story is submitted; the author asked to remain anonymous.
The Desert Inn was an oasis from the hot asphalt Highway 60 that miraged its way through long expanses of Florida pastures and marshes. It was an icon of our childhood, indelibly, nostalgically imprinted upon so many of us. Far from any city, the 2-story stucco building loomed up out of nowhere, stood sentinel at its lonely crossroads, an idiosyncratic spot, set in the triangle of 2 converging roads.
A black wrought iron railing circled the upstairs second floor balcony. The roof line was lit up by a yellow-orange neon strip, lending the upstairs a gaudy aura of mystery. Truckers traveling through stopped for late night coffee. Others parked their big rigs and stayed the night upstairs with one of the waitresses they met in the cafe. They waited, drinking black coffee from thick white cups, while the women waited the tables. Or they ordered liquor from the wrap-around varnished wood bar.
Outside in front, a bougainvilla bloomed purple against the creamy stucco walls. Amaryllis were a medium orange color, certainly an unplanned but eye-catching color combo with the neon pulsing across the face of the building. These words were painted on the stucco, in black, highlighted with the neon outline:
There were four gas pumps lined up to serve passersby. Now locked, the gas pumps had frozen at 69c per gallon.
We were families living in the lake-sparkled center of the state. It was an occasional Saturday treat when Mom & Dad & kids piled into the station wagon travelling 60 miles on Hwy 60 anticipating the salty clear blue ocean & white sand beaches of Vero Beach or Ft. Pierce. The back seat bunch got restless on that long flat stretch of hot highway & fortunately, midway there was our oasis: Yeehaw Jct, The Desert Inn, awaited us.
Greeting you just inside the door was a green cast mermaid to the right. Next, a four foot rattlesnake skin was draped over longhorn cattle horns on the wall. A large gray wasp nest hung over it. On the counter was a green plywood rectangular box; a cage. Painted on its side were yellow hand-scrawled letters: MONGOOSE WILL BITE HANDS OFF.
Here was the delicious part of curiosity mixed with disobedience. A little curious peek couldn’t hurt. You had to suppress your startled squeal as the coiled spring jumped out & you imagined everyone looking at you as you stuffed the spring back in the box. Then, eyes adjusting to the dark interior, the sheen of the varnished pine wood floors caught your eye next. The bar had a red vinyl top and was lined with liquor bottles; the stools were black vinyl circled by silver chrome. Now here at the Desert Inn oasis was what we were anticipating: sitting on the bar counter under a glass dome were the doughnuts (now enshrined in memory). These doughnuts were the specialty of the Inn. They were the hole in the doughnut (large, round solid …. about the size of a golf ball) & you had to choose between cinnamon sugar coating or powdered sugar. Both of them would melt in your mouth & sometimes were still warm.
We each got to eat one there, … and then we ordered a bag to go. A brown paper bag with 6 more … and the bag inevitably was grease-stained by the time we ate them hours later.
The Robinson brothers remember the homemade pies behind glass: peanut butter pie; pecan, apple, and Boston cream pie. That’s what their family got at the Desert Inn.
Families headed to the salty beach with the sweet taste in our mouths. On the return trip supper was an option: fried catfish. But most memorable to us kids were the rubbery black tarantula-sized spiders suspended on strings in the rafters and lowered into a diner’s mashed potatoes or green beans by the grinning waitress behind the bar.
I remember puzzling over a separate entrance, a screen door into a dark room where black people were allowed to eat a meal.
These were the childhood memories of special family day trips, but then there were the teen years and beyond, as we continued to stop at what we would learn was a historic crossroads. Through its 100 plus years of existence, Yeehaw Junction had a small sawmill & railroad depot. It was a stop-over for early pioneers, Cracker cattlemen, fishermen, loggers, Seminoles who travelled the early trails and roads. In 1994, the Desert Inn was listed on the National Register of Historic Places for its significance as a historic structure and crossroads (also rumored to be the only brothel raised to that designation).
As a teenager, there were more memories to be made as we got to travel independently to the beach.
In the dining room a large round clock hung high on the wall, imprinted with the names “Fred & Julia” at the top, circled by the hours of the day: 1 O’clock, 2 O’clock, 3 O’clock, 4 ….. time has ticked by. The owners, Fred & Julia are gone now but their past remains, better than one might expect in these days of Florida’s fast changes. Fred had some tangles with the law, they say …. but no could exactly say what. That left a certain intrigue to the place. Julia looked like a big Mama, her jet- black hair piled up on top of her head, and a prominent mole on her cheek. Her girls were hard, mean-looking; all except for Wahneta with her red-headed, fat gaiety. Eunice could make laughter freeze in your mouth. Her coldblond good looks were housed in a tall raw-boned hard beauty. Girlvester was scrawny and bold, feisty & quick … & especially sharp-tongued. She scrutinized me as I walked up to the juke box …. but mellowed a bit with my selection: Hank Williams “Moaning the Blues”, Charley Pride crooning, “Just Between You & Me”. Throbbing out tunes as we pumped the quarters in the slot. The record clasped in a metal arm, turning, gently eased down on the turntable & started to spin.
I didn’t realize then … how different our converging worlds were ….. We were passing through for a day’s fun and leisure at the beach/they were working meal shifts; then the night shift, too. On the ladies’ room door a faded note was written in pencil: “This room is typical of the rest of the place. All idiosyncrasies inherited over last 30 years, A tradition.”
Turn the knob on the heavy dark brown door. Then push through the swinging saloon- style doors, only to be startled by a man standing in the corner. The man is a mannequin named George and you can’t help but gasp, even when you expect him to be there! Feeling a bit awkward as he stands in his red flannel shirt and faded jeans, staring across the room . Over time, he gathered signatures on his shirt and chest; once a banana peel on his head….. Folks in the know, waited for the next unsuspecting woman to open the door and let out a squeal.
Sometimes we drank coffee from heavy white cups with scalloped saucers; sometimes cold Busch beer. The waitress brought oval white plates of catfish & hushpuppies to the high-backed vinyl booths where we sat by the window. On each table was a vase with flowers dried or drying. The cloudy water was halfway down the vase of marigolds & dried roadside weeds. A country man with hair slicked down wore khaki pants and shirt. He was smoking and singing along with the juke box wailing Hank Williams’ “Cold, Cold Heart”. As he was leaving, he handed us money to keep the songs going. We played Jerry Lee Lewis; then “Good-Hearted Woman in love with a Good-Timin’ Man”. Patsy Cline sang “I Fall to Pieces.”
As we ate the hot fried catfish and listened to the jukebox, the waitress stood behind the bar at the controls of an intricate network of the black plastic spiders the size of a small woman’s hand. They hung in the rafters positioned neatly to land in your grits. At the whim of the waitress, watching expressionless, she would pull the string lowering the spider onto your plate, then grin gleefully at the response. I’m sure it broke the tedium of her daily work ….. She told us, “I didn’t used to lower the spider on men until one time I got such a good reaction.” A man and lady were eating when she lowered the spider, dangling it over their plates. The man stood up startled, hamburger still in hand, and in a quick-jerk reaction, launched his hamburger like a Frisbee across the room!
The last time we stopped for a meal, there was a one-man band playing. The young man played electric guitar and sang Ricky Scaggs songs. Sitting at a table in the corner by the bar, there were two wooden Indians, life-size, where they had always been. The guitarist’s wife and child sat with them and were a rapt audience, everyone else busy talking & eating. The Indian woman held her papoose and a can of coke; the Indian man sat cupping a Budweiser. Behind them were trinkets and gadgets for sale; T-shirts with donkeys kicking. On a rack by the juke box were over-sized post cards: gaudy, bawdy Florida postcards of naked women sun-bathing and men making comments to each other. There were oranges and orange blossoms and flowers of all shades of pastel with palm trees in the background.
Then the Desert Inn closed but still I always checked on it going by to visit friends in Ft. Pierce. One day, the lights were on again, a man was outside pruning the bougainvilleas. I walked in: the wood floors were freshly cleaned and varnished, most of the idiosyncrasies intact. I sipped good Cuban coffee, listening to great blues music & ordered a BLT & fried green tomatoes off a tall chalkboard of a few menu options. And it was good.
One night in 2019, a big rig entered the crossroads. The truck scraped through the side of the building ripping the supports to the upstairs balcony and wedged its way into this crossroads landscape of memories.
The Desert Inn got its start about 1932 as Wilson’s Corner gas station. With a series of owners over the years, it eventually became known as The Desert Inn and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1994. The property was bequeathed to Osceola History in 2015. The building was severely damaged in the accident on December 22, 2019. The future of the building and property have not been determined at this time. (7/22/2020)