On Sunday, October 29, hundreds of people gathered at the Cocoa-Rockledge Garden Club to wish George “Speedy” Harrell a happy 90th birthday. The venue was full all afternoon as family and friends came and went to the “open house” style event that featured refreshments, a slide show of images featuring Harrell, and, of course, birthday cake.
Harrell was seated in a rocking chair at the center of the room, greeting a steady stream of well-wishers.
While his actual birthday is September 28, Harrell decided to postpone his birthday celebration so that relatives from Texas could join the festivities.
“Speedy” Harrell was born on River Road in Rockledge, and has lived in Central Brevard County his entire life. He remembers a time before DDT was developed as an insecticide. He says that if you put your hand on a window screen on the shady side of a house, it took only a few seconds for the mosquitos to form a solid black mirror of your hand as they attempted to bite you through the wire mesh. Everyone had window screens, because there was no air conditioning.
Harrell graduated from Rockledge High School in 1945, with thirty-two classmates. He remembers using a “mosquito beater” to keep the blood suckers off of his mother as she put laundry on the line to dry, and to protect his brother as he milked a cow. Florida pioneers like the Harrell family would lash together palm fronds to create “mosquito beaters” to brush away swarms of the biting insects.
In 1986, when George “Speedy” Harrell decided to organize an annual gathering for people who lived in Brevard County prior to 1950, he chose to name the group Mosquito Beaters. Harrell says, “I thought it would be great if we had one day that we get together, not a funeral or a wedding.”
Every year, about 1,000 people attend the Mosquito Beaters Annual Gathering. The event is so popular that local high school class reunion activities are planned to coincide with it. There are no formal presentations or academic discussions. The gathering is just a large group of friends and family coming together to remember old times and talk about the way it used to be in East Central Florida.
Harrell was only 14 years old when the United States entered World War II in 1941. He was too young to serve in the military immediately after Pearl Harbor, instead earning the nickname “Speedy” playing football as a high school freshman. He remembers everybody making sacrifices during wartime.
“The rationing of everything was set up to conserve what we had,” says Harrell. “Gasoline was rationed weekly based on need. I was a growing boy with big feet, and would have to go to the Rationing Board and explain that I needed a new pair of shoes to get it. Tires for your automobile, you had to go before the Rationing Board and show that you needed a new tire.”
Harrell turned 18 before the war ended, and was sent to serve the U.S. Army in Germany. That was the only time he lived outside of Brevard County.
In the 1950s, the population of Brevard County exploded.
While the Mosquito Beaters was originally formed for people who had lived in Brevard County prior to 1950, that requirement has relaxed in recent years. Harrell explains, “If we stayed with ‘before 1950’ they’d all be dead and I’d be there talking to myself.” He says that now anyone is welcome to attend the gathering, “if they don’t tell us how they done it back home.”
In addition to founding the Mosquito Beaters, Harrell started the Space Coast Post Card Collectors Club, and the Florida State Knife Collectors Club. He has co-authored four books on Central Brevard County and the St. Johns River.
The Mosquito Beaters have an office in the Library of Florida History on Brevard Avenue in Cocoa, where their collection of photographs and documents is held. The building was originally a 1939 WPA-era post office, where Harrell worked as a postman before his retirement in 1982 as a Post Office Superintendent in Brevard County. Now, he can be found there almost every day, working as a volunteer.