Harmonious hamlet Lush greenery, friendly folks make tiny town feel like home
BY MARIA SONNENBERG
FOR FLORIDA TODAY
In his spare time, Steve Gaul, the mayor of the town of Melbourne Village, enjoys making and playing racketts, medieval
instruments that, to put it kindly, sound like dyspeptic ducks. Gaul, like his 707 constituents in this tiny hamlet that abuts West Melbourne, marches to the beat of a different drum. Or rackett.
Since its birth as a social experiment in 1946, Melbourne Village has attracted individualists in touch with their inner
environmentalist. For decades, this egalitarian enclave has been home to the well-heeled and the poorly shod who shared the
vision of a laid-back lifestyle attuned to the rhythms of nature.
The village people were sometimes pegged as eccentric tree-huggers by residents of other Brevard County communities.
"There's freedom to do your thing here," said Gail Griswold, who's lived in the village since she was 12 years old.
You didn't move to Melbourne Village on a whim. You wanted -- or felt you needed -- to live there.
"It was considered a weird place to live in and there was plenty of other land in Brevard," Gaul said.
As nearby pastures and woods have been razed to make way for housing and business parks however, Melbourne Village has caught the eye of the rest of Brevard.
"Now, there's a lot of draw because the place has lots of land," Gaul said.
Maybe those tree-huggers had something there.
With 325 houses, the village actually is smaller than many of the developments in neighboring Melbourne and West Melbourne, but the sizes of the heavily wooded lots, which run from a third-acre to three acres, are considerably larger.
Within its .6-mile boundaries, the village also maintains 11 parks for the enjoyment of its residents.
Just a block into the village, away from busy Wickham Road, the trees muffle the traffic noise.
It is the green feel of the town that always has enticed people.
"It's the kind of place where you see the trees and say this looks like home," Gaul said.
He moved to the village looking for a place where his children could be children.
"This is a place where my kids could disappear all day and I didn't have to worry about them," he said.
Now at age 60, Melbourne Village may be facing its biggest challenge. Change may be inevitable as old residents die and new people bring in new ideas of what the town should be.
"We're feeling pressed from the development all around," Griswold said.
Some people are moving in to get away from the cheek-to-jowl pseudo-Mediterranean developments that dot Brevard, yet some of the townsfolk fear these newcomers may want to gentrify the village, tame its wildness and turn it into a copy of the places they left.
Gaul is concerned that as old 1950s-era homes are torn down to make way for new construction, "McMansions" may become the preferred type of architecture.
"Some people want to recreate the suburbia they had in Viera," he said.
The town has a stringent tree ordinance that allows for the removal of live trees only if they are in the way of construction, yet that still doesn't stop some people from trying to cut down trees and replace them with manicured lawns.
Concern for what some villagers call out-of-scale building has led to the formation of a committee to consider how to maintain the original vision of the town while allowing new blood into it.
The town has instituted building restrictions through next April, when the committee is expected to issue its recommendations. Until that time, new construction must encompass 25 percent or less of the lot size.
Melbourne Village was supposed to have been a bold social experiment to help people surmount the economic hurdles of the
The seeds for Melbourne Village were sown in the 1930s by Virginia Wood, Dr. Elizabeth Nutting and Margaret Hutchinson, miles away in Dayton, Ohio.
It was the time of the Great Depression and the women sprouted a plan based on the concept of "productive homesteads." They figured that if people could live simply by working their small plots of land, they would have pretty much licked the problem of poverty.
"The idea was that you could have a productive homestead, that you could grow everything you needed or barter with someone else to get everything you needed," Gaul said.
By 1935, however, the New Deal was providing relief for the unemployed and these "intentional communities" slowly faded away. Nutting, however, still wanted to give the idea one more try.
In 1946, Dr. Norman Lennington of Melbourne met Nutting and persuaded her to take a look at land he was promoting in his hometown.
Nutting and her friends established the American Homesteading Foundation, bought a chunk of former ranchland, and sold memberships into the new development through ads in "green" magazines such as Organic Gardening.
In the early days, residents cleared their lots, built their homes, planted gardens and experimented with cottage industries ranging from growing hydroponic vegetables to creating silk screen fabrics and even raising chinchillas.
A community store offered an outlet for products along with regular groceries. A folk craft school was planned, but never took off.
Fear of annexation by Melbourne or West Melbourne prompted the community to petition the state for a town charter, granted in 1957.
"If we had to apply for a charter now, we'd be denied because we're so small," Gaul said.
From the get-go, you had to be a member of the American Homesteading Foundation, or AHF, to live in the village.
"Every effort is being made to see that new members will be people who have shown that they can be good neighbors," one of the town leaders was quoted as saying in the May 2, 1947, Melbourne Times.
New Melbourne Village landowners still sign an agreement that gives AHF the first right of refusal of anyone who may want to buy your property.
Prospective residents must meet the approval of the AHF, and while it's rare for the AHF to nay-say a new homeowner, it has happened.
Buying into the village took a lot less back in the 1940s, when $700 would get you membership and a third-acre lot. These days, you still have to be a member to move into the village, but joining will cost you $2,000, not including the land, which the last time Steve Gaul looked, was selling for $100,000 for half an acre.
Mary Wood first saw Melbourne Village in 1947, when the first house was under construction and the only road was made of dirt.
Her mother-in-law, Virginia, was one of those three famous Dayton women.
"There were a lot of adventurous people in the village," Wood said.
Wood, like the other villagers, appreciates not only the green landscape, but also that feeling of neighborliness that is nonexistent in many developments.
"A lot of things bring the villagers together," she said.
The town hosts a New England-style town meeting every March, followed by a village dinner. In fact, dinners are plentiful, as are activities such as hayrides and Easter egg hunts and work parties to clean up the parkland.
The village women play bridge at the village hall, a squat-looking building that has seen its share of weddings, parties and performances of groups such as the Brevard Theatrical Ensemble.
Every year, the town hosts a history walk where new residents can chat with the old-timers.
After hurricanes Frances and Jeanne, it was just natural for villagers with chainsaws to go out and see who needed help with tree debris.
It's a friendly town, usually very forgiving of how you keep your castle.
"The only time we get in the paper is when we have a fight," Wood joked.
When cars pass by, villagers see neighbors, not strangers.
"If you drive in the town, people will wave at you," Gaul said. "They figure that if you got so far into the village, you must live here."
Before taking up the post of Melbourne Village police chief, Jack King worked for the Newark, N.J., police department, where things were a tad differently.
"We had three cars stolen in front of the precinct," King said. "We had drive-through shootings in front of the building."
In Melbourne Village, crime is not in the same category.
Yes, somebody stole $200 from a resident sometime this year, but the police recovered it.
That's pretty much it for the crime scene.
For the most part, King and his officers mainly worry about the Fast Freddies who try to speed through the village and avoid the traffic snarls on New Haven Avenue and Wickham Road.
Drivers who cut through Melbourne Village usually attempt it once, because, unfortunately for those in a rush, Melbourne Village speed limit is 25 mph, and King, his two sergeants and two officers are eager to keep it that way.
As a social experiment, Melbourne Village may have failed, but for 60 years the town has succeeded in providing sanctuary for humans and nature.
"This is a place where there's a lot of community," Gaul said.
American Homesteading Foundation
With a concept that seems more at home in New England than in Florida, the American Homesteading Foundation was formed in 1946 in Melbourne to create a Utopian community where folks could make a living by living close to nature. Although the idea of homesteading years ago was abandoned by most Melbourne Village residents, the town still adheres to the principle of living with the land. Today, 60 years later, the nine volunteer trustees of the American Homesteading Foundation screen any prospective homeowners and have the right to refuse their membership. Membership, which costs $2,000, in the AHF is required to live in Melbourne Village. Each member family has a vote in village issues.
Erna Nixon: The quintessential Melbourne Village resident
Erna Nixon, perhaps the quintessential Melbourne Village resident, was instrumental in the preservation of the 54-acre Florida hammock and nature preserve now known as Erna Nixon Park. When she moved to Brevard in 1955, Nixon discovered a little oasis of old Florida pine flatwoods and oak hammocks surrounded by a commercial district. In the 1970s, Nixon found out the land was zoned for warehouses. She couldn't bear the thought of bulldozers toppling 300-year-old oaks and flattening delicate serpent ferns and butterfly orchids. Nixon, with the assistance of the Junior League of South Brevard, persuaded the county and the state to purchase the land. "She had a way of making her point get across to people by persistence and perseverance," said Melbourne Village town clerk Gail Griswold, who grew up next door to Nixon and now lives in her old home. The park opened in 1976. As the natural spaces shrink in South Brevard, the park has become a vital habitat for many birds and animals, from gopher tortoises to Indigo snakes and bobcats. -- Maria Sonnenberg, for FLORIDA TODAY