One of Vero’s most treasured landmarks, the Driftwood Inn, came into being through the wondrous interaction of fate and vision. In Nov. 1913 a young plow salesman from Indiana named Waldo Sexton arrived in Vero Beach to demonstrate the Spalding Deep Tilling Machine to the owners of Indian River Farm Company. After staying over at “the Farm’s” Sleepy Eye Inn, Sexton fell in love with the paradise he stumbled across pushing a plow. He stayed on, and within six months he became the Agricultural Representative for Indian River Farm Company, taking over the Cleveland, Ohio sales territory.
Throughout his life, Sexton brought many influential people to Vero to invest in the area’s promise. Sexton himself invested all of his $500 savings as a 10 percent down payment on two parcels: 100 feet of oceanfront property and 160 acres on 12th Street. Over the next few years, Waldo settled in Vero and became successful in developing and farming. He had a wife and four children by the time a hurricane destroyed his family’s barn in 1933. The old barn boards were resurrected and hauled over to the island to that 100 foot strip of beachfront, where he started building a four-bedroom beach cottage as a weekend retreat.
The Rivenbark family of carpenters was hired to build the structure, not from plans but solely from Waldo’s verbal instructions. He had the concept in his head and would sketch it out on the beach. Fortunately the Rivenbarks understood Waldo’s eccentric ways and understood his vision. Sexton’s creation was referred to as the Breezeway because it was built with two rooms on the first floor separated by a 25-foot wide-open area that did not restrict the view of the ocean. The second floor had rooms directly over the ones below but a combination kitchen-dining room bridging over the breezeway connected them to each other. Hand crafted furnishings were built from driftwood, mahogany, cherry and walnut from North Carolina. The unique buildings created a stir locally and even before it was finished there were requests to rent the rooms.
The only other oceanfront hotel at the time was “the Casino”, where the Holiday Inn now stands. Waldo’s wife Elsebeth saw opportunity knocking and decided one Sunday morning to set up business. She went into town and convinced the grocery store owner to sell her groceries, took the food back to the beach cottage, made up some beds, set out some towels and put a “for rent” sign in the windows. There were no bellboys, no room keys and no room service, but the down home charm and uniqueness of the Driftwood Inn quickly drew visitors from all over the nation.
Waldo was “green” long before recycling was popular. He used large slabs of wood from barns, demolished houses, and washed up driftwood to build doors, tables, and furniture. He collected oddities from around the world including a child’s iron casket and mastodon bones. He furnished the rooms with chairs from the studies of presidents, bishops and swindlers and beds from the sleeping chambers of notorious queens. There was really no rhyme of reason to his collection. He just loved the thrill of the hunt and the joy of finding a treasure in someone else’s junk!
Bells were his passion and one time he had over 250 of them in all shapes and sizes. They were hung in convenient places so that the guests could ring them. It was customary that when a guest would leave the Driftwood, every guest and employee on the property would ring a bell to “whang” him on his way. If they didn’t want him to return, the bells were not rung.
Business was booming under Elsebeth’s charge and sometime in 1938-39 a second wing was added which included three rooms upstairs and three rooms, a locker room and public facilities on the first floor. This brought the capacity to 14 rooms, which did not change until after WW2. Around this time a gigantic timber floated up on the shore and Waldo got a group of friends to haul it up the beach. He then enlisted the city of Vero Beach to assist him in erecting the beam as a flagpole. Because of its massive size, it had to be buried 6 feet in the ground for support.
After the war, tourism became big business and in 1947 the Driftwood expanded by acquiring an additional 100 feet of property to the north. $500 bought all the War Surplus cottages at the Army Demolition Camp and they were moved the four miles to the north edge of the property and finished with cypress paneling and oak flooring.
With the additional rooms to rent, the existing dining room was inadequate. A new two story structure was built to house the new dining room, office and living-room type of lobby on the first floor, and four rooms on the second floor. The entrance to this new dining area, now the home of the restaurant Waldo’s, brought visitors through massive wooden doors with tile inlay. Three immense “outrigger” type timbers support the second floor porches. Guests sat informally side by side at enormous solid mahogany tables 25 feet long and were served family style meals.
In the early 1950’s Waldo acquired five discarded crates that had been used to ship bulldozers and converted them into rooms for rent. That part of the property was called “skid row” or “Barbary Coast” but they served their purpose for nearly a decade. They were replaced in 1963 with a modern, two story building housing 14 studio apartments. Two years after Waldo’s death in 1967, his son Ralph added a four-story addition containing 30 apartments.
Hurricane David devastated the property in 1979 and Ralph sold the property to timeshare developers. Many thought that transition would be the kiss of death, but the developers took great pride in maintaining the charm and character of the original Driftwood. It still remains the gem of Vero Beach and was named to the National Registry of Historic Places in 1994.
The Driftwood Inn is a lasting legacy to Waldo Sexton, a bold and courageous pioneer with the courage and tenacity to follow his dreams! Stop at Waldos’ soak up some history and folklore and toast to an eccentric man whose spirit still lives in the walls of his cottage by the sea.