If there’s one thing about Merritt Island that everyone knows, it’s that pride runs deep.
Merritt Islanders love their island.
And they’ll be the first to tell you that. Look around and it won’t be long before an “I love my Island” bumper sticker zooms by on the back of a car. Visit Merritt Island High School and see that they don’t just do things with style, they do it with “Island style,” meaning they do things a “cut about the rest,” said former principal Gary Shriffrin.
Could anything possibly stump these proud islanders? Maybe, but knowing this spirited island, this may be a hard task to take on. We’ll try anyway.
1. Deaf people worldwide can hear thanks to this Merritt Island man
Meet Adam Kissiah, the Merritt Island man whose invention brought the gift of hearing to deaf people worldwide. Kissiah, a NASA engineer, invented the electronic digital hearing aid in the 1970s and later patented it. The invention went on to become what is known now as the “Cochlear Implant,” according to NASA documents. The invention is “a surgically implantable device that provides hearing sensation to persons with severe-to-profound hearing loss who receive little or no benefit from hearing aids,” according to NASA.gov.
Kissiah retired from NASA in 1989 and has since been inducted into the Space Foundation’s U.S. Space Technology Hall of Fame. He died in 2014.
2. Pineapples, not oranges, were the island’s first major crop
Tales of old Merritt Island tell of vast orange groves and the families that prospered off of the citrus industry. However, the first popular crop on Merritt Island wasn’t the iconic orange, it was the pineapple. Pineapples flourished in the island’s soil after disease hit Hawaii and opened the door for Florida to jump in on the pineapple business, said Pine Island education center coordinator Martha Pessaro. Merritt Island was among the first places in the state to harvest the prickly plant. That was, until freezes hit Florida in the late 1800s and wiped out hoards of pineapple plants. Focus shifted more heavily to oranges after that.
3. The oldest house in Brevard is on Merritt Island
Nestled in the woods on North Merritt Island sits the oldest house in Brevard County: The Sams Cabin at Pine Island. The home was built in 1875 and originally was located in Eau Gallie. John H. Sams, who built the home, decided to move it to Merritt Island in 1879 by deconstructing it, floating it up the Indian River Lagoon and reassembling it on Merritt Island, according to documents from its museum. The 600-square-foot structure housed a family of four adults and six children in three bedrooms. There was no kitchen in the home, as all of the cooking was done outdoors, said Pessaro. A larger house was later built in 1888 just adjacent to the cabin. Both still stand today and can be toured at the Pine Island Conservation Area.
4. Merritt Island is reality-TV famous
Spike TV’s Jon Taffer, host of “Bar Rescue,” filmed June 16, 2017, at Kings Duck Inn on Merritt Island. Facebook Live video hosted by Heath Chapman, for FLORIDA TODAY. FLORIDA TODAY
At least four reality TV shows have links to Merritt Island.
- Tyler Pratt, a 2009 Merritt Island High graduate, appeared on MTV’s “Are You the One.” Pratt’s team won the $1 million prize on the show in 2014. (On an infamous note, he was later arrested for an out-of-county warrant for reckless driving).
- Connor Hughes, another Merritt Island High graduate, appeared on VH1’s “Dating Naked.” The 26-year-old now lives in Cape Canaveral.
- “HGTV Dream Home” filmed an episode on Merritt Island. The show transformed a 3,150-square-foot riverfront home off South Tropical Trail. Connecticut man David Rennie won the sweepstakes for the home in 2016, but took the cash option. The house later sold for $1.3 million.
- The most recent reality TV appearance happened this year after “Bar Rescue” made a pit stop on the island to help save the King’s Duck Inn. The episode, titled “Ground Control to Major Jon,”aired in April.
5. Merritt Island is the “most historically significant landscape” in the Southeast
Between the ancient Ais Indian burial mounds (which can be spotted across the island and on property of Kennedy Space Center), abandoned ghost towns, archaeological dig sites and plantations, Merritt Island overflows with historical significance, said Layne Hamilton, manager of the Merritt Island Wildlife Refuge, and was once pegged “the most historically significant landscape in the Southeast.” She counted at least four hidden cemeteries located on property of the refuge and accessible to the public. Those just add to the dense history of the area.
Here are a few highlights:
- The Elliott Plantation, which is accessible, but very hard to find on the wildlife refuge, was the “the southernmost and earliest British Colonial period sugar plantation in North America,” according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. It dates back to the late 1760s. A sugar mill, buried deep in the refuge, still stands.
- Burial mounds can be found all over the island, but perhaps some of the oldest reside on the refuge in a place once known as “Shiloh.” Village sites of ancient Native Americans date back to 800-900 A.D. There is a historical marker that sits about a half mile north of the Haulover Canal. A burial mound is not far from the marker. Ais indian burial grounds were also recorded a Ulumay, which is now protected land and a public park.
- Several lost communities in North Merritt Island were hubs for free slaves who established homesteads and small agriculture towns. “Haulover,” “Clifton” and “Shiloh” were all African-American towns in the post-Civil War era and were a place where black Americans were able to own land and manufacture goods. Kennedy Space Center took over these lands, but remnants of their existence (including cemeteries) still exist.
- Fossil hunters hit the jackpot in Merritt Island. Fossils discovered in archaeological surveys of the area include remains of a mastodon, giant land tortoise, camel, glyptodont, horse, mammoth, giant armadillo, peccary and tapir.
6. Before it was Merritt Island, it was at least 23 different communities
Remember Georgiana? How about Courtenay? Audubon? Those names may seem familiar to islanders who pass reminders of these places every day. There’s a school named Audubon, Georgiana cemetery is noted as one of the “most haunted” places in Brevard, and Courtenay, well it’s the congested road everyone loves to hate.
Before Merritt Island was clumped together as one big place, it was first 23 smaller communities, many with their own community centers, stores, schools and churches, said Roz Foster, a local historian.
7. The largest windsurfing event in the country takes place here
Thanks to local company Calema Windsurfing and Watersports, Merritt Island lives in the limelight when the largest windsurfing event in the United States takes place near Kelly Park East: The Calema Midwinters. The event was first hosted in 1985 and generally happens in March. It hasn’t been hosted the past two years, but may be back in March 2019, said owner Susie Dornellas. Her husband, legendary windsurfer Tinho Dornellas is one of only two master windsurfers in the United States. He not only trains instructors, but developed a program to teach children and has designed windsurfing boards. Calema’s location in Kelly Park is known worldwide.
8. There was once a fort … and a castle … on Merritt Island
Rewind to the days of the Second Seminole War in Florida and discover there was actually a fort on Merritt Island: Fort Ann. Built in 1837 near current day Haulover Canal, the fort served as “a garrison for United States troops as well as a depot for supplies and equipment,” according to North Brevard Historical Society documents. It was positioned so that goods could be transported from the lagoon to the river. Later in 1852, the original Haulover canal was dug by slaves. Fort Ann is no longer standing.
Then there was the castle …
Another long lost piece of Merritt Island history is the Dummitt Castle that once stood near the Haulover Canal. It was built in 1881 by the Duke of Castilluccia. It had three stories and 20 rooms. It sat unoccupied for several years, and in 1967 it was burnt down.
9. A dragon once guarded the tip of Merritt Island … and will again in the coming years
Dragon Point, a colorful piece of Merritt Island history, once was the nesting spot for Annie the Dragon. Annie, a 20-ton dragon statue built in the 1970s, guarded the southern tip of Merritt Island where the Indian and Banana rivers meet. That was, until her demise in 2002. Even dragons are no match for hurricane-force winds. The remains of the legendary dragon site, along with its dilapidated mansion were sold for $800,000 in 2015. The new owners have since demolished the mansion and are planning to build a new home and a new dragon (Annie’s offspring “Rojak” the dragon) to guard the point once again. Rojak is a 60-foot-long, double-headed dragon.
10. Merritt Island … isn’t technically an island
We saved this one for last because we knew Merritt Islanders would stop reading as soon as they saw this. It’s a hard pill to swallow for many proud islanders, but Merritt Island isn’t actually an island, it’s a peninsula. The Florida Geological Survey confirmed that Merritt Island is, by definition, a peninsula. Hamilton at the wildlife refuge, also confirmed this. Merritt Island touches the mainland where State Route 3 intersects with U.S. 1 in Volusia County.
Don’t worry, islanders. You’re secret is safe with us.
— Merritt Island actually had its own bird, the “Merritt Island Sparrow.” More officially known as the “Dusky Seaside Sparrow.” The bird was discovered in 1872 and only lived in the salt marshes of Merritt Island. Thanks to construction, the Kennedy Space Center takeover and mosquito reduction efforts, the birds went extinct by 1975.
— The Merritt Island Wildlife Refuge has one of the most diverse bird populations in the country. According to FWC, 358 species have been identified on the refuge.
Contact trends reporter and columnist Jessica Saggio at email@example.com, 321-242-3664 or follow her on Twitter @JessicaJSaggio.