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Historic house completes move to Indian River State College

Photo: The historic Laura Riding Jackson home on its final journey on the Wabasso Causeway.

The three partially dismantled structures were hulking, barely discernible shadows as dawn broke over the island.

The historic Laura Riding Jackson homestead – a 110-year-old Cracker house and pole barn – was about to  embark on its final journey from the Environmental Learning  Center just off the Wabasso Causeway to its new home at the 140-acre Vero Beach campus of  Indian River State College.

The fragile house’s kitchen, porch and bedroom wings had made the trip a week before.  The final pieces – the main section of the house, roof and rangy pole barn – rested on painstakingly placed bases awaiting first light. 

Brownie Structural Movers chose the time, a Sunday morning, and the zig-zagging northeast-to-southwest route, with only two major highway crossings, to avoid as much traffic as possible. A trio of sheriff’s officers would escort the convoy and control traffic flow.

At dawn, the deputies took positions at either end of the Wabasso Causeway bridge and the parade eased out onto the road: In front was the pole barn, weighing 8,000 pounds, on a trailer pulled by a backhoe operated by Kim Brownie, the company’s highly-experienced owner; then the main house, weighing roughly 40,000 pounds, behind a Mack truck, with Brownie’s son James at the wheel; and finally the roof, behind another Mack.

The expertise of the moving crew was immediately obvious – and impressive. Brownie’s crew has moved thousands of structures, most far larger and more complicated than this one, and had studied every aspect of the route. It was thrilling to watch as they negotiated corners, curbs, traffic lights and overhead cables with the precision of a jeweler cutting a facet on a diamond.

Crew member Joseph Massenet rode on top on the house, to ensure sufficient clearance. From time to time, he lifted the lower cables that crossed the roads, and once he manhandled a traffic light out of the way. The clearance seemed mostly measured in inches.

Just after crossing the U.S. 1 intersection on 510, there was brief delay. The Florida East Coast Railway official who was required to “escort us” over the tracks had gone to the wrong crossing. He arrived shortly, walked to the tracks and waved.  We could proceed.

“That was the most expensive wave you’ll ever see,” said James, explaining that the FEC charges movers for this “escort service;” over the years, he’s received invoices ranging from $200 to $1,500.

On the causeway bridges and scattered along the route, people grabbed photos and waved while drones recorded the event from above. We clipped along a brisk 8 mph past  some of Indian River County’s prettiest rural land – palm-dotted pasture, horses, cattle, the ghosts of abandoned groves – a lot of natural beauty mostly unnoticed from within an air-conditioned vehicle traveling 55 mph.

On the longer stretches, along 58th and 66th avenues, James mentioned that we were able to “pick up steam,” accelerating to maybe 10 mph. “Be careful your papers don’t start flyin’ around,” he advised, laughing.

Traffic was halted at the State Road 60/66th Avenue intersection, and drivers snapped phone shots as the southbound convoy crossed the highway and headed to College Lane on the final leg.

At last, the trip was over. It had taken about an hour and a half on Sunday morning, but, actually, the journey had taken more than two years.

When the Laura Riding Jackson Home Foundation was informed, in the summer of 2017, that the Environmental Learning Center’s  ambitious expansion plans  did not include a place for the historic structure, which had stood there for a quarter-century, the Foundation board scrambled to find another location while also striving to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to fund the relocation.

 It was an uncertain, stressful time, but once the college enthusiastically offered a .71-acre site on its campus as a new home for the historic house, it became quickly obvious that the partnership would be a major win-win.   

At the college the quaint house will continue to serve as a historical beacon, providing learning and teaching opportunities in the disciplines of Florida history, literature, poetry, culture and environment for students of all ages.

Reconstruction is expected to begin immediately.