Step back in time to the turn of the century with a visit to the House of Refuge Museum at Gilbert’s Bar, Martin County’s oldest building, has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1974. The Refuge is currently undergoing restorations and hopes to re-open fall of 2022.
The history of the House of Refuge dates to 1876, when the U.S. Life-Saving Service, constructed ten “houses of refuge,” or life-saving stations, along Florida’s Atlantic Coast. These houses were staffed by “keepers,” who, with their families, led solitary lives in order to find, rescue, and minister to those who fell victim to Florida’s treacherous reefs and shoals. Prior to construction of these houses, many shipwreck victims made it to the isolated shore and then perished of starvation and thirst. Today, the House of Refuge at Gilbert's Bar is itself a survivor; it is the only one of the original ten houses of refuge to remain on the Florida Coast. It tells the story of the region’s significant maritime heritage and the Floridians who endured hardships for the sake of humanitarian service.
A look at turn of the 19th to 20th century living along the coast is found within the museum. Areas available for public viewing are the boathouse, kitchen, dining room, parlor, bedroom and a lookout tower constructed during World War II. New exhibit space includes a timeline of Hutchinson Island dating from 2000 BC to the hurricanes of 2004. As the result of hurricane damage sustained to the nearby shoreline in 2004, an Indian midden was uncovered on site. This inspired and exhibit about the indigenous peoples of the area, known as Ais.
The Ais were a tribe of Native Americans who inhabited the Atlantic Coast of Florida. They ranged from present day Cape Canaveral to the St. Lucie Inlet, in the present day counties of Brevard, Indian River, St. Lucie and northernmost Martin. They lived in villages and towns along the shores of the great lagoon called Rio de Ais by the Spanish, and now called the Indian River. Little is known of the origins of the Ais, or of the affinities of their language. The Ais language has been tentatively assigned by some authors to the Muskogean language family, and by others to the Arawakan language family.
Observations on the appearance, diet, and customs of the Ais at the end of the 17th Century are found in Jonathan Dickinson’s Journal. Dickinson and his party were shipwrecked, and spent several weeks among the Ais in 1696. By Dickinson’s account, the chief of the town of Jece, near present day Vero Beach, was paramount to all of the coastal towns from the Jaega town of Jobe (at Jupiter Inlet) in the south to approximately Cape Canaveral in the north (that is, the length of the River of Ais).
The Ais had considerable contact with Europeans by this time. The Spanish became acquainted with the Ais in middle of the 16th century. In 1566 Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, founder of St. Augustine, Florida, established a fort and mission at an Ais town, which the Spanish called Santa Lucía. After the Ais attacked the fort, killing 23 of the Spanish soldiers, the fort and mission were abandoned. Spain eventually established some control over the coast, with the Ais regarding the Spanish as friends (comerradoes) and non-Spanish Europeans as enemies.
On exhibit are artifacts and educational materials about these fascinating people of the coast.
page information credit: House of Refuge Museum at Gilbert's Bar, The Elliott Museum, Florida Memory Project, Wikipedia Commons
photos from the sources listed above, as well as publicly posted online sites with thanks to the contributors