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'I don't want to see a city out here'

By KRIS HUNDLEY
Published June 4, 2006



Beverly Zicheck has run a bar, raised donkeys and ridden hundreds of miles on horseback. But even Zicheck, who owns the Desert Inn here in southern Osceola County, can't control Destiny.

Destiny is the new city planned for nearly 28,000 acres of ranch land just south of Zicheck's restaurant at the gear-grinding intersection of State Road 60 and U.S. 441. Starting with a vast parcel that's about the same size as Walt Disney World's, developer Anthony V. Pugliese III wants to create a community of universities, shops, businesses and homes for up to 100,000 people.

The thought of such plans are like a punch in the gut to Zicheck, who has lived on acreage adjacent to her restaurant for 20 years. Though she heard rumors of the sale from ranch hands who frequent her bar, Zicheck never thought the view out her front door would change.

"And I don't want to see a city out here,'' she said, clear blue eyes flashing.

The allure of Yeehaw Junction has been that it feels like the middle of nowhere though it's just a mile west of the Florida Turnpike and 60 miles south of Orlando. Once known as Jackass Crossing, Yeehaw Junction is a place where you can have chickens roaming the parking lot of your eating establishment which Zicheck does and donkeys grazing next door (ditto).

At the Desert Inn, you can get a gator tail dinner for $9.95. A room in the motel on the edge of the parking lot is $33.90 (no refunds and don't expect the Ritz). A tour of the old whorehouse above the bar, which dates from the turn of the century and is on the National Register of Historic Places, is completely at the whim of the owner. (Imagine red carpet, lace curtains, a swing and stirrups. Yee Haw!)

If Zicheck, who has three college degrees and is a CPA, had her way, Pugliese would carve his sprawling new kingdom into 5- and 10-acre home lots, recouping his $137-million investment by selling to fewer people for more money.

"This would separate the men from the boys,'' she said of her idea for a huge subdivision for the super-rich. "And it would leave it looking pretty much the way it is.''

Though Zicheck talks about rallying neighboring ranchers behind her McMansion proposal, her heart isn't really into it. Her mother, who persuaded Zicheck to buy the Desert Inn two decades ago and lived in the motel, died last summer at age 97. Nagging health problems have been making it harder for Zicheck to put in the 12- to 15-hour days required of a bar owner. So when Destiny appeared on the horizon, Zicheck, who refuses to disclose her age but appears to be past 60, took it as a sign.

A few months ago, she put the 3.49-acre property up for sale for $2.4-million. The only hitch: The contract will ban the buyer from tearing down the restaurant.

"I'm into history,'' said Zicheck, who has explored ancient ruins in Egypt, Greece and Mexico. "And this is all the history that's left in Osceola County. I want to see it preserved.''

The Desert Inn got its start in the late 1880s as a trading post. Lumber men and cowboys were the earliest customers for the Desert Inn's drink and diversions. With the construction of roads in the 1930s came tourists.

Today the restaurant, which is regularly rocked by the roar of truck traffic, looks like a throwback to an era of Model T's. Zicheck, who is seeking old photos and memorabilia for a documentary film on the Desert Inn, considers the place a preservation project as much as a paying business. The two-story exterior looks much the same as it did in a postcard from the 1950s, with big letters advertising BAR & RESTAURANT to passersby. (One change: The gas pumps out front are gone, replaced by benches and a sand-filled toilet for an ashtray.)

Inside the Desert Inn, a plaster family of Seminole Indians sits at a corner table. Snakeskins, steer horns, jack-a-lopes and spiders on strings adorn the ceilings and walls. In the ladies' room, a male mannequin stands by the toilet. At one time, curious customers who touched the statue's zipper set off an alarm. "It's been sprung too many times,'' Zicheck said of the well-worn practical joke. "I've got to get an electrician in here.''

Zicheck said that when first-time visitors wander into her restaurant, they stand open-mouthed, staring at the decades-worth of doo-dads decorating the place. "Then they'll see people sitting at tables and eating and they'll say, 'Are you serving food?' '' she said, shaking her head in disbelief. "I say, 'No, those folks brought their food with them.' ''

These days, fewer strangers are dropping by. Zicheck said business is steady, but half what it was 20 years ago. Out-of-towners come in looking for property. Businessmen who zip across the state stop by for hand-battered onion rings. And if the weekend falls on the 15th or 30th of the month, there are plenty of locals flush with paychecks at the bar.

Dale Massey is a regular who stops by about midday on his way to work in Vero Beach. Before he slides onto a stool, Zicheck has set a cold can of Budweiser on the counter. Massey, one of fewer than 300 permanent residents of Yeehaw Junction, called the Desert Inn "an oasis" and said he hopes it remains standing after Zicheck moves on.

"It's a piece of old history, and I wouldn't want to see it change,'' he said, then adds, "Maybe a Hooters would be nice, though.''

SEEKING ITEMS: Beverly Zicheck is looking for old photos and memorabilia from the Desert Inn for a documentary being made about the historic restaurant. For more information, see her Web site, www.desertinnrestaurant.com.

Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report. Kris Hundley can be reached at hundley@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2996.

[Last modified June 4, 2006, 06:49:45]


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