(The following article was published in the Spring 2009 issue of "The Express", newsletter of the Indian River County Historical Society. It is reprinted here with permission)

Paul Kroegel and the Story of Pelican Island

Ruth Stanbridge, Indian River County Historian

Take a trip back in time to the period of the 1880s when the Sebastian area had no roads and very few trails and the Indian River was the “highway”. There were alligators, poisonous snakes, and hordes of mosquitoes. It was a frontier where living was hard and dangerous.

Under the Federal Homestead, land in Florida was open to all settlers with the provisions that five acres should be cleared and held for five consecutive years. In 1881, C. F. Gottliob Kroegel with his sons, Paul and Arthur, filed for one of the first homestead patent in the area.

In June of 1889, he was awarded a homestead of 160 acres with 143 and 18/100ths acres on upland and the rest lying in the Indian River. His land included a large Ais Indian shell mound known as Barker’s Bluff, located on the side of the Indian River and south of the small fishing community of Newhaven. In 1884 Newhaven would be renamed Sebastian and was part of Brevard County.

Barker’s Bluff was one of the largest shell mounds along the Indian River and had been a landmark for river travelers for centuries. It was reported to have covered more than five acres and Frieda Kroegel Thompson, Paul’s daughter, wrote, “The mound was 1,000 feet long, 400 feet wide at its widest point and higher than the tallest palm trees.” Living on top of this mound, Paul was able to see and study the River and its birdlife, especially the brown pelicans. He could even see the tiny mangrove island where hundreds of these birds roosted and nested year after year.

Paul’s love of these birds would influence his life, his community’s life, and be part of the history of his new country. He became increasingly disturbed by the plume hunters and the sportsmen on yachts who shot birds as they flew up when the boats went by. He often took to his sailboat and tried to discourage the shooting, but there were no laws, and no legal protection for the birds.

In 1893, the American Ornithologists’ Union made Paul a game warden and he began to lobby for protection of the pelicans. Dr. Frank Chapman, an ornithologist, who was fighting the plume hunters in other places in Florida, wintered at Mrs. Latham’s Oak Lodge across the Indian River from Micco.

“Ma” Latham, as she was called, kept Paul informed via the mail boat when someone was coming to visit who might help in the cause.

The efforts of these scientists and naturalists, spearheaded by Paul Kroegel’s dedicated work, finally paid off. On March 14, 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt signed an Executive Order creating the Pelican Island Reservation. On April 1, 1903, Paul Kroegel was appointed the Nation’s first warden at a salary of $1 a month.

After Paul assumed his place as warden, he was given a large flag to place on Pelican Island, but he put it by his dock instead, so approaching boats would blow their horns in respect. This was a signal for Paul to get in his sailboat and place himself between the pleasure boats and Pelican Island, sometimes shooting off his gun as a warning.

For many years stating in 1901, George Nelson, a botanist, zoologist. And photographer at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology came to Florida to study brown pelicans during the winter months. Rodney Kroegel, Paul’s son, would go with him to the Fellsmere marshes and to collect live snakes, turtles, and other specimens. A collection of George Nelson’s hand-painted glass slides of wildlife, especially pelicans and other birds, now belong to the local Environmental Learning Center.

From 1905 to 1918, Kroegel served as the County Commissioner for the northern part of St. Lucie County. Kroegel lived until 1948, having been warden of the Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge until 1920, when the federal government discontinued the services of a warden.

St. Lucie was created from Brevard County in 1905; Indian River County was created from St. Lucie County in 1925.

The Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge and the sensitive lands of the Indian River have not always been secure. Critical times occurred in the decades of the 1960s, 1980s, and 1990s. During these uncertain times, the local citizens would stand up to defend Pelican Island.

In the 1960s, the threat came from Florida’s Trustees of the Internal Improvement policy of selling state-owned submerged land to developers and permitting these lands to be filled. When developers tried to purchase river bottom next to Pelican Island, the local citizens became angry and formed the Indian River Preservation League to stop any sale. The League was successful and in 1963, instead of selling to developers, the Trustees leased the river bottom to the Refuge. In the same year, 1963, Pelican Island was declared a National Historic Landmark.

In the 1980s, local citizens, again, rallied to “Save Jungle Trail.” This historic and scenic public road had provided a buffer between upland developments and the Refuge waters and was now under attack by developers wanting waterfront lots. Jungle Trail was saved and is now a designated Florida Greenway and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It also led to a public viewing area of Pelican Island.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, additional uplands were acquired to extend the buffer for Pelican Island and to connect it with the beaches of the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge. Today, the Pelican Island Wildlife Refuge had over 4,359 acres of mangrove islands, bottomlands, and uplands with public facilities, hiking trails, and a unique boardwalk that walks back through history.

One the 90th anniversary of the Pelican Island Wildlife Refuge, the Sebastian Area historical Society and the Indian River County Historical Society composed a little booklet. The Kennedy Family sponsored its printing and Sue Kennedy Holbrook penned the following lines.

“The story of the preservation of Pelican Island is the story of commitment … the commitment of Indian River County’s earliest settlers to the surroundings they called ‘home’. It is a story of their descendants’ preserving the past to protect the future.”

Today and every day, we need to reaffirm that commitment to protect and preserve our natural and historic heritage for our children and our children’s children.