Saturday, April 4, 2015

McKee Jungle Garden

McKee Jungle Gardens Historical Sign and Giants Hall
McKee Jungle Gardens
(Flickr user Rain0975/CC)
Before Interstate 95 and before Dodgertown, Vero Beach still had an attraction to lure Florida visitors. These days all that is left of the attraction is is the McKee Botanical Gardens.

In 1929, Waldo Sexton and Arthur G. McKee purchased an 80-acre hammock along the Indian River. They had intended to plant orange groves, but were so impressed by the natural beauty of the existing stands of live oak, cabbage palm, and pine that they decided to take a different route with the land.

The partners hired tropical landscape architect William Lyman Phillips to design trails, streams and ponds through the property. Plants were brought in from around the world. Indeed a notable feature of the gardens were important collections of orchids and water lilies. They also brought in monkeys birds and animals from around the world to add to the jungle environment.

The attraction opened in 1932 to tourists as The McKee Jungle Gardens. The Florida Society of Horticultural Sciences noted in their 1935 newsletter:
Somber, winding vistas of Nature's cathedral aisles; massive columns of lofty oaks and native palms entwined with clinging vines and garlanded with moss and epiphytes; bright sunlight filtering down through in arched tree tops forming an ever shifting filigree pattern of lights and shadows on forest floor; dark pools where variegated water lilies raise their heads above green masses of lily pads; disintegrating, prostrate trunks of forest monarchs-mute evidence of departed grandeur; solitude and stillness, broken only by faint sound of rippling water and occasional note from feathered choir o'erhead; the forest primeval, preserved unspoi1ed from the devastating hand of man; a quiet eddy, as it were, close by the mad, onrushing traffic stream, where one may  relax from nervous tension and find composure and rest in Nature's sanctuary. 
McKee Jungle Gardens Postcard
(Flickr user Jubula 2/CC)
McKee was the plant collector. Sexton designed and built the buildings, His creations were described as architectural fantasies and were constructed of many found materials, particularly driftwood from Vero Beach.

The TC Palm describes a few of Sextons architectural creations:
In 1940, Sexton built his two-story Hall of Giants, built around the world’s largest mahogany table. He drew his building plans in the dirt and his friends and sons helped build it. His other Vero Beach landmarks were designed the same way — the Ocean Grill, the Patio and the Driftwood.
His Spanish Kitchen was designed after one Sexton saw in Mexico. On weekends, he’d cook 100 steaks at a time, with swamp cabbage and potatoes cooked in rosin.
Hall Of Giants McKee Jungle Gardens
Hall Of Giants
(Flickr user boxer_bob/CC)
Hall Of Giants McKee Jungle Gardens Giants Table
Inside The Hall Of Giants Today
(Flickr user Rain0975/CC)
Spanish Kitchen McKee Jungle Gardens
The Spanish Kitchen Today
(Flickr user Bart Everson/CC)
As time went on the Jungle Gardens became one of the more popular attractions on the Florida roadside attraction circuit. During the 1940's the gardens would attract over 100,000 visitors a year. Parties and banquets would happen in the evening. On Sundays a local church was allowed to use the park for baptisms,



By the late 1960's the opening of Interstate 95 cut deeply into many of the now bypassed coastal tourist attractions. In 1972, the opening of Walt Disney World in Orlando. Disney's park drew tourist to the center of the state and away from the coast. By 1976, McKee Jungle Gardens would close its doors.

Much of the land was sold to developers who built a condominium development and golf course. But 18 acres of the old property were not razed for the construction. They just sat idle...for almost 20 years.

The Indian River Land Trust purchased the 18 remaining acres in 1995. Work was begun to restore the area to its former glory as in the days when the tourists would flood in as stop on the road to Miami.

Original plans were consulted. Plants were replanted, trails cleared, and other landscaping was done. The long looted and half decayed buildings on the property were restored. A gift shop, restaurant, and visitor center were added.

In 2001, the parks was reopened as the McKee Botanical Gardens. It is listed as both a Florida Landmark and a National Historic landmark and has returned to its status as a great Florida roadside attraction.


McKee Botanical Gardens planter with cannon
Planter With Cannon
(Flickr user Bart Everson/CC)
McKee Botanical Gardens entryway arch
Entryway Arch
(Flickr user boxer_bob/CC)
McKee Botanical Gardens Flowers
Flowers in The Garden
(Flickr user boxer_bob/CC)
McKee Botanical Gardens Grass Hut
Grass Hut
(Flickr user boxer_bob/CC)
McKee Botanical Gardens Jungle Trail
Jungle Trail
(Flickr user boxer_bob/CC)
McKee Botanical Gardens Sausage Tree
Sausage Tree
(Flickr user boxer_bob/CC)
McKee Botanical Gardens Lush Garden Scene
Lush Garden Scene
(Flickr user boxer_bob/CC)
McKee Botanical Gardens Pond and Bridge
Jungle Bridge
(Flickr user Ste Elmore/CC)
McKee Botanical Gardens Pond and Lilies
Famous Water Lilies
(Flickr user boxer_bob/CC)
Playlist Additions
Amazon Store

This weeks trip to the Jungle gardens is perfectly suited for an exotica duel between legends of the tropical lounge sound, Martin Denny and Les Baxter both perform their interpretations of the exotica classic, Jungle Flower.

An old time calypso number follows from calypsonian Wilmoth Houdini. Monkey Swing makes our list in tribute to the monkeys that were a featured part of the McKee Jungle Gardens experience.

Michael Hurley follows. Michael Hurley is an Oregonian who has deep connections to the Holy Modal Rounders, Les Clamtones,and the Freak Mountain Ramblers. His The Monkey Song is on his out of print vinyl album Land of Lo-Fi available in the amazon store link for this post.

Diana Krall slows things down with her romantic garden visit, Garden In The Rain from her album Love Scenes.From there we take a classical folk turn with In the Garden a track from the album Uncommon Ritual by Edgar Meyer, Bela Fleck and Mike Marshall.

You probably have never heard of the last track, but you may have heard the story behind it. The song is Growin In The Garden by Jacobs Ladder. It came with a book titled The Far Out Story Of Vortex I .

The book tels the story of a music festival that was approved an encouraged by Oregon Governor Tom McCall as a diversion for young people who might otherwise protest against the Vietnam War at an American Legion convention being held in Portland that summer. Hippies were pulled over by police and state troopers and invited to attend the party being hosted by the state in the woods outside Portland. The event was a legendary, unorthodox  Oregonian success story.

Jacobs Ladder was a headline act that festival in Oregon in 1971 called Vortex 1. We close this weeks playlist with Growin In The Garden, probably not a song about growing waterlilies and orchids.


  • Jungle Flower Exotica! The Best Of Martin Denny Martin Denny 1:51
  • Jungle Flower The Ritual Of The Savage Les Baxter 2:45
  • Monkey Swing Calypsos (Decca Album 78) Wilmoth Houdini / Royal Calypso Orchestra 3:13 DOWNLOAD SITE
  • The Monkey Song Land Of Lo Fi Michael Hurley 8:27
  • Garden In The Rain Love Scenes Diana Krall 4:56
  • In the Garden Uncommon Ritual Edgar Meyer - Bela Fleck - Mike Marshall 5:31
  • Growin In The Garden The Far Out Story Of Vortex I-Live Set From Jacobs Ladder Jacobs Ladder 2:13

Signing off And Coming Attractions

I'd love to hear from anyone who has been to McKee Botanical Gardens. Or even better, it would be nice to hear from an old timer who might have been to the Jungle Gardens when it was open. Let me know about it in the comments section.

Next On Route 66: Chicago, Illinois: We conclude our look at the life and times of the Blues Brothers
Next On Highway 101: San Diego, California: Leaving Sea World, we continue North through San Diego to Torrey Pines State Beach.
Next On Interstate 95: Vero Beach, Florida: Returning to the Interstate, we continue North heading towards our next Spring Training baseball stadium.


Mileage Stats

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Highway 101: 26 Miles/2 Countries/1 State/641 Tracks/407 Videos/31 Posts
Interstate 95: 143 Miles/1 State/96 Tracks/156 Videos/16 Posts

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