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Sharing the wealth

Bay Tree Lodge

Bay Tree Lodge in Martin County has had an impressive chain of owners that offers a veritable who’s who in American history. The lodge was destroyed by fire in 1990 and later rebuilt to echo the design of the original. ROB DOWNEY PHOTO

Once a haven for the rich, Bay Tree Lodge serves as a retreat for Kiplinger employees


Behind a magnificent shroud of palms hugging a bluff beneath a high coquina ridge in Sewall’s Point is a century-old retreat. Camouflaged by cypress-shingled walls, Bay Tree Lodge blends into the landscape near the southern end of a peninsula separating the St. Lucie and Indian rivers. Named for a tree that has been lost to time, the stately private resort has been a fixture on the Treasure Coast for longer than anyone has been alive. So what is Bay Tree Lodge? Where does it stand in our history, and who is using it now?

It was trees, presumably oaks and pines, that began the lodge’s trail of private ownership, as recorded in public records. They were going to be cut down. In 1813, a man who had supplied the king of Spain with soldiers was entitled to receive a large grant of land. His name was Samuel Miles, and he intended to erect a saw mill and go into the lumber business near “the mouth of the Santa Lucia.” So, according to dusty case law, the Spanish governor of Florida gifted Miles a grant of 5 square miles. That vast tract of land included 10 acres where Bay Tree Lodge would be built some 96 years later.

Miles never did build his saw mill, and so the trees remained. Not long after Florida became a U.S. territory, the Spanish land grant became tangled up in title litigation for many years. John M. Hanson and other purchasers of Samuel Miles’ property were forced to take their ownership issues all the way to the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. In 1842, America’s most powerful justices untied most of the legal knots. Hanson and his heirs won recognition of a handsome share of Miles’ original land, which was thereafter called the Hanson Grant, or sometimes the Miles-Hanson Grant.

Toward the end of the 1800s, the Hanson Grant came into the possession of a middle-aged former merchant marine named Henry Sewall. Although Sewall’s holdings included thousands of acres on the mainland side of the St. Lucie, he chose to live near the point where the St. Lucie and Indian rivers meet. In 1891, Sewall built a home overlooking the inlet. He established a post office, too, which made the Sewall’s Point name official, but the region was still a wilderness.

In 1894, Henry Flagler began to draw national attention to his newly developed tropical resort in Palm Beach, some 35 miles south of Sewall’s Point by sea. That’s where the Standard Oil tycoon built the largest wooden structure in the world. It was a luxury hotel called the Royal Poinciana. Wealthy snowbirds flocked to Flagler’s winter paradise via Flagler’s new railway down the coast. And so began the North’s long love affair with South Florida, precipitating many migrations to follow.

Among the rich northerners who vacationed at the Royal Poinciana in Flagler’s time was Chicago industrialist James Viles. Viles and his wife, Anna, spent at least two winters there: in 1908 and ’09. But he headed upriver, too. News stories about former President Cleveland’s expeditions to Stuart had publicized the fact that the St. Lucie River was chock-full of fish, including tarpon and other heavy-fighters. That must have been what lured him to Sewall’s Point.

Viles ended up buying a 10-acre river-to-river parcel from Sewall, where he built a fine winter residence of his own. He shared his new retreat with wealthy fishing buddies, like bigtime banker Granger Farwell and copier king, Albert B. Dick, who held the license to manufacture Thomas Edison’s mimeograph machine. They fished all day and played cards at night. The 54-year-old Viles had made his millions as a mogul in the meat-packing industry, an unsanitary business at the time, or so a muckraking novel by Upton Sinclair insisted. That 1906 bestseller, The Jungle, caused such public uproar that Congress had to pass the Pure Food and Drug Act. But by that time, Viles had switched to manufacturing diesel motors and railroad supplies. His company serviced 85 percent of the railroads in the country.

Viles needed a caretaker for his winter home, and he found a first-rate gardener at the Royal Poinciana Hotel. Edward L. Hosford, a 39-year-old horticulturalist, had worked for Flagler for 13 years. Hosford agreed to take up residence at the isolated lodge, which he was destined to manage for 37 years. He cleared and manicured the land, bringing boatloads of lush greenery and flowers up from Palm Beach. Hosford would place a long-lasting legacy on the landscape, but Viles’ daughter gave the property its more permanent name.

“While there that first winter, Miss Helen Viles named the place Bay Tree Lodge,” Hosford wrote in an unpublished memoir. “There was a large bay tree by the walk leading to the stairway by the dock. From that tree the place got its name after a delightful but short winter season.”

In the early years, all access was by boat. A tram was built to mount the bluff, which was how they hauled furniture and supplies up to the ridge. The tram was powered by a gasoline engine. By 1917 the Viles family could be chauffeured back and forth to Stuart in a seven-person automobile via a shell-paved road through Rio. (There was no bridge to Sewall’s Point until 1958).

After James Viles passed away in 1919, his widow Anna Underwood Viles decided to sell. A well-known New York lawyer named Phelan Beale, who at one time was married to an aunt of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, bought the property in April of 1923. But Beale was only a middleman for a famous client named Hartwig “Harty” Baruch, to whom he transferred Bay Tree Lodge the very next month.

Baruch was a colorful character. Born in South Carolina, he was the son of a Jewish Confederate Army surgeon, captured at Gettysburg and imprisoned by the Union. As a young man, Baruch enjoyed an impressive acting career in New York. His stage name was Nat Hartwig. But the limelight of Broadway was never bright enough for his mother’s sense of prestige. She persuaded his younger, more famous brother Bernard — a powerful Wall Street financier — to give him a seat on the New York Stock Exchange. Even after a 20-years absence, Baruch pondered a return to the stage, according to a 1921 story in The New York Times.

After making Bay Tree Lodge his winter home, Baruch added an electric light plant. Prior to that, illumination came from a carbide lighting system. He and his wife, Arline, lived large and did lots of entertaining at the lodge, according to Hosford, the caretaker. But as the Roaring Twenties waned, the Baruchs spent more time at a 200-year-old mansion in Virginia, where Hosford was recruited to bring them tubbed palms by boat. A few years after the stock market crashed, Baruch sold Bay Tree for a song. Then his wife divorced him.

Coffee money came next. Robert S. Cheek, a beneficiary of the Maxwell House fortune, bought Bay Tree Lodge in 1932, but not until after Baruch helped arrange for the then 62-year-old Hosford to remain as caretaker. He retired at 75.

Robert had worked for his father, Joel O. Cheek, a man with a genuine rags-to-riches story. The elder Cheek started as a traveling salesman peddling wholesale wares to grocers in backwoods Kentucky — on horseback. His family increased by eight sons and a daughter, so he moved them to Nashville to make ends meet. For years, he continued to slug it out as a salesman. All the while, he tried to come up with a better blend of coffee for his customers. When he finally found a perfect combination, he tested the new brew at the Maxwell House Hotel.

The blend was so successful, Joel quit his job and went into the coffee roasting business with his lawyer, John Neal. The famous hotel allowed the Cheek-Neal Coffee Co. to use its name for the flagship product. It was the advent of the Age of Advertising, and Joel understood how mass media might be used to build a brand. When a product becomes a celebrity of sorts, everybody wants it. His sales became enormous. He became a multimillionaire, and he shared the wealth with his children. Robert, who had been a company vice president, used some of his proceeds to buy Bay Tree Lodge, and he shared the vacation spot with his dad.

It should be mentioned that Joel was a religious man, who believed in treating others as he would like to be treated himself. In a 1915 speech to leaders of the National Coffee Roasters Association, he told his audience that it is not enough for employers to just give people a job. Business owners should love their employees like family, he insisted. He said the greatest compliment he ever received was when one of his workers told fellow employees that Mr. Cheek was not a boss, he was a father to them.

The Cheek family’s 20-year reign at Bay Tree Lodge ended when the property was purchased by a newsman publisher, who also cherished his employees. Willard Monroe “Kip” Kiplinger became famous for the staccato of his informative prose. Starting on a shoestring in the 1920s, the former Associated Press reporter began filling a single sheet of paper, mimeographed front and back, with as many economic facts and forecasts as he could cram in. He called it The Kiplinger Letter, and it didn’t turn a profit for five years. Kiplinger kept himself afloat financially by writing freelance stories for The New York Times and other prominent publications.

It was Kiplinger’s access to insiders in the Roosevelt Administration that really made his weekly publication soar. Always keeping sources sacredly confidential, Kiplinger could come up with scoops like nobody else. During the upheaval of FDR’s experimental legislation during the Great Depression, businessmen and investors wondered what was going on. Kiplinger told them. He made forecasts they could bank on, and they made him a millionaire. When his son, Austin, joined the company, a cluster of magazines were added and Kiplinger Washington Editors’ profits reached the stratosphere.

Knight Kiplinger now heads the Kiplinger financial media company. He tells the story of how his grandfather, Kip, first came to Stuart in 1952, reluctantly, at the behest of a lovable public relations man named H.O. “Bish” Bishop. (Bish has been immortalized in a story in Ernie Lyons’ book The Last Cracker Barrel). Kip had already been turned off by some of Florida’s tourist meccas, but Bish proclaimed, “Stuart is Florida for people who think they don’t like Florida.”

So, Kip and his wife, LaVerne, booked a vacation at the Sunrise Inn, which used to command a view of the river from the mainland across from Sewall’s Point.

“He wakes up,” Knight Kiplinger told Indian River Magazine, “and looks out over the river and says, ‘Bish is right — this is absolutely marvelous!’ ”

Knight’s grandfather headed straight into tiny downtown Stuart and found a real estate broker, Charlie Arbogast, who showed him Bay Tree Lodge.

“Immediately my grandfather said, ‘This would be a great small resort for our employees.’ Our company was already legendary for unusual employee benefits,” Knight continued, “but a resort in Florida where your employees and their friends and families could vacation free was an unusual benefit even for our company. It was a brilliant idea and that’s how Bay Tree has been used for 66 years.”

When the main structure burned down in 1990, the Kiplingers did not hesitate to rebuild a faithful replica. And still today, each and every employee of their company, from top executives down to the cleaning crew, can reserve two weeks a year at the private resort that was once the exclusive hideaway of the rich and famous only.

“There are young adults all over America today,” Kiplinger adds, “who grew up coming with their family to Bay Tree, who wanted to have their wedding at Bay Tree. We’ve had a number of weddings of employee children who just love the place — and we intend to keep Bay Tree Lodge as a retreat for our employees for as long as we remain in the publishing business.” So may it ever be.