Yeehaw Junction, Florida: right near… nothing; in the middle of… nothing. It’s nearly an hour inland from the sea and an hour south of Orlando, the two common reasons for visiting the state. Set among drainage canals and swamp, Yeehaw Junction exists as little more than a rest stop along Florida’s Turnpike. I wouldn’t have any reason to fixate on this insignificant chunk of scrubland were it not for its colorful name.(1)
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The "town" (and I use that term generously) seems to be personified by a single structure, the Desert Inn and Restaurant. At first glance, one would be hard pressed to conclude that this is a Florida Heritage Site and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It looks like a million other roadside Americana motels from the pre-Interstate era. The National Register records its period of significant as 1925-1949 based on "social history and commerce." The Desert Inn truly represents a vestige of Old Florida from the days prior to its amazing population boom and decades before Disney World became a gleam in Walt’s eye.
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The State of Florida erected a roadside historical marker in 1996. It describes the situation in about the level of detail appropriate for short attention spans such as mine:
The Desert Inn was founded as a trading post in the late 1880s. The present building dates before 1925 and served as a supply and recreational center for cattle drovers, lumber men and tourists during the era when much of Osceola County was still undeveloped wilderness. Cowmen working the free ranging cattle on the palmetto prairie and lumber men cutting timber in the nearby pine lands came to the Desert Inn to eat, drink, and dance at this "oasis" where they could enjoy some relief from their arduous labors. Local patrons of the trading post and restaurant included African Americans and Seminoles, who had separate dining facilities in the era of segregation. The construction of roads in the 1930s brought tourists to the area, and a set of overnight cabins were erected behind the original building. Today the Desert Inn continues to be a popular destination for tourists and local residents. It was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1994.
As the story goes, old-time laborers and ranchers would ride their donkeys to the trading post at the crossroads. It gained the nickname Jackass Junction which didn’t really matter at the time because they were out in the middle of nowhere and nobody cared. Things changed during the golden age of automobiles and the first highways. Florida’s Turnpike came rolling along and the crossroads became a logical place for a Sinclair gas station. It also served as a stop on a Greyhound Bus route. Outside meddlers forced a name change so residents took it down a notch, renaming the crossroads Yeehaw Junction. One could interpret that as a bit of passive-aggressive behavior I suppose.
The official history left out the best part. Why do they always do that? I suppose Florida believe an error of omission isn’t a lie, and maybe that’s correct in a technical sense, but it certainly lacks historical completeness. The Desert Inn during its heyday was also a brothel. Is that what the marker means by "a recreational center for cattle drovers, lumber men and tourisits?" That might offend certain sensibilities if it were embossed upon a permanent plaque. However, undeniably that was a central purpose of this structure during the period of significance that led to its inclusion on the National Register.
This didn’t embarrass the person who owned the Desert Inn until recently. Staff would provide tours of the upstairs rooms upon request for a buck as described on Best of Florida. The inn hadn’t served that purpose for generations but that didn’t stop the owner from trying to capitalize on its seedy reputation. Check out this 2006 photo essay from the St. Petersburg Times, and particularly the image of the red velvet swing adorned with feather boa. A bit campy, and doubtfully accurate from a historical perspective, but a genuine roadside attraction.
It’s difficult to find current information on the Desert Inn. Apparently it’s been sold. Even the domain name for its website has lapsed. Ironically some of the rooms that formed the former bawdy house may become a Bed and Breakfast. I’m having trouble reconciling those two vastly different purposes.
When people live in a place saddled with a colorful name like Yeehaw Junction they can choose either to ignore it or to embrace it. The locals chose the later. They use the grounds of the Desert Inn for an annual Bluegrass festival, now in its sixteenth year. Yeehaw Junction is even the name of a bluegrass band although, inexplicably, they are based in Charleston, South Carolina instead of central Florida.
Change may be in the winds. Land is still cheap in these rural stretches of Florida interior. A developer purchased more than 25,000 acres surrounding the Desert Inn on three sides and envisioned a planned community of more than 75,000 people to be called Destiny. This was back in 2006 and in the meantime Florida has been particularly damaged by the burst in housing prices. Once things recover however, my guess is that an influx of upscale residents aren’t going to appreciate living near something called Yeehaw Junction. It’s on borrowed time. This vestige of the rural south just doesn’t seem to jibe with the image of "America’s First Eco-Sustainable Community."
(1)I found it quite by accident while looking for Zip Code anomalies, if you must know. Exciting life I lead. Seriously there are some amazingly wacky zip code boundaries and I’ll feature them in a future article.