People who lived in Brevard County, Florida during the first half of the twentieth century will tell you shocking stories of dealing with mosquitos before DDT was developed as an insecticide. For example, they say 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.
Brevard County native George “Speedy” Harrell graduated from Rockledge High School in 1945, with thirty-two classmates. Harrell 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.” The Twenty-ninth Annual Gathering of the Mosquito Beaters will be held Friday March 14 and Saturday, March 15, at the Walter Butler Community Center in Cocoa.
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.
Prior to 1950, there were more mosquitos in Brevard County than people. The primary jobs here before World War II were in citrus groves or commercial fishing. In 1948, the Banana River Naval Air Station was converted to Patrick Air Force Base and in 1949; President Harry Truman established a long-range proving ground for missiles at Cape Canaveral. By 1959, NASA was launching lunar probes from Brevard County.
In 1950, the population of Brevard County was only 23,000, but by 1960 that number had exploded by more than 371 percent.
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.”
There have been many poignant moments at Mosquito Beater Annual Gatherings over the years. Friends who had not seen each other since going to war in the 1940s, former high school teammates, and estranged family members have all been reunited through the Mosquito Beaters. Harrell says, “There has been several occasions that one person would come to it and I would see them enjoy themselves enough to pay me for what work I’ve done on the thing.”
The Mosquito Beaters are dedicated to preserving the history of Central Brevard County, including Cocoa, Rockledge, Merritt Island, Cocoa Beach, Cape Canaveral, and the surrounding area. They collect photographs and stories in an annual publication called the Central Brevard Mosquito Beaters Memory Book. The publication is sold at Florida Books and Gifts, located in the Library of Florida History in Cocoa.
The Mosquito Beaters have an office in the Library of Florida History, where their collection of photographs and documents is held. The building was originally a 1939 WPA-era post office, where Speedy Harrell worked as a postman before his retirement in 1982 as a Post Office Superintendent in Brevard County. Now, Speedy Harrell can be found there almost every day, working as a volunteer.
The twenty-ninth Annual Gathering of the Mosquito Beaters will be held Friday, March 14, 2014 from 6:00 pm to 10:00 pm. Attendees are asked to bring “finger food” to share. The event continues Saturday, March 15 from 10:00 am to 2:00 pm, with food provided by Kay’s BBQ. The Walter Butler Community Center is located at 4201 N. Highway 1, Cocoa.
Dr. Ben Brotemarkle is executive director of the Florida Historical Society and host of the radio program “Florida Frontiers.” The show can also be heard online at myfloridahistory.org