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The Little Museum that Could

It’s poetic that the Vero Heritage Center, that old white building in the heart of the historic district of Vero Beach, was built during the Great Depression. For Heather Stapleton, it is a connection that means more now than ever. Heather is the Executive Director of the Heritage Center and Indian River Citrus Museum and even though it wasn’t exactly what she considered her life’s calling, today she wears the rich history and every little detail of this place like a second skin. Her encyclopedic knowledge of the building gives you the impression she was born and raised inside those walls that, as recently as 1991, some said were only held together by termites. Some people even wanted the building demolished.

The majority of the quaint and diligently kept space at The Heritage Center serves mainly as a popular rental venue for events like meetings, weddings, family reunions and such. Attached is a tiny, yet exceptionally charming museum and gift shop with cleverly exhibited artifacts and displays from the old Florida citrus heyday and pretty much everything there is to know about the history of Indian River Citrus. Last year the little museum hosted over 5,000 visitors who were treated to engaging tours by Heather and staff and then bought stuff. Lots of delightful, irresistible “citrussy” stuff that would commemorate a brief yet fun and informative visit. Things were going well, and then COVID arrived. Like everything else, operations came to a grinding halt. The museum was closed for 2 months and cancelled were all of the large gatherings which make up 90 % of the nonprofit’s income. It seemed like the future of the Heritage Center was at risk but when the museum was able to open again, a serendipitous thing happened.

One of the local artisans that regularly sells handcrafted candles to the gift shop had been making super cute citrus motif fabric masks in her spare “covid” time and donating them to the gift shop that was in turn, able to sell them for around $10. Around that time there was a meeting at of the Indian River County Citrus League that took place at the Heritage Center and some photos were circulated around social media. The attendees weren’t wearing masks, and someone posted a negative comment. Heather contacted George Hamner Jr., an attendee and leader with Indian River Exchange Packers to give him a heads up. Long story short, he ordered 115 of those masks immediately.

But how does one person suddenly produce 100 masks? Well, they don’t. So, museum staff sprang into action. It takes a village and they got one in short order with several volunteers coming together. They set up tables, put on their masks, socially distanced themselves, got to work cutting fabric, and voila! It all came together, and Mr. Hamner had his masks which he distributed to all his employees. These adorable masks have turned out to be an effective fundraiser for the Heritage Center. The story itself inspired a $500 donation and, since then, the museum has sold over 200 of them.

The masks are not the only success story from The Heritage Center. The staff, like so many others facing the tremendous challenges posed by the pandemic, was brainstorming early on about creative ways to raise money without events and visitors during the shut-down. That’s when the idea for a jigsaw puzzle came up. It was a perfect “fit” because not only were these puzzles invented during the depression, but they still endure today a popular pastime when people are stuck at home. The 500-piece puzzle features a beautiful photo of the building and is perhaps one of the best souvenirs the museum has to offer.

The Indian River Citrus Museum at the Vero Heritage Center is one of those stops that you just can’t miss. It’s like visiting Disney without getting your photo taken with a character. You haven’t seen all of Vero Beach unless you visit that little museum that could!


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