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Desert Inn | Photo © 2019 Bullet, www.abandonedfl.com

Desert Inn

City/Town:
Location Class:
Built: 1898 | Abandoned: ~2000s
Historic Designation: National Register of Historic Places (January 3, 1994)
Status: Demolished
Photojournalist: David Bulit

Jackass Crossing

The intersection was called “Jackass Crossing,” named for the ranchers who would come riding in on their burros. The story of why the name changed depends on who you ask. The most common tale claims the name was changed due to the construction of Florida’s Turnpike through the center of the community, so state legislators changed the name to something less offensive. Another tale claims the name changed when Standard Oil wanted to build a station but they weren’t going to build it someplace called “Jackass Crossing.” And the name Yeehaw Junction? Simply put, it’s the sound a jackass makes.

The Desert Inn

The Desert Inn dates back to the 1800s when it was just a small depot and trading post for local cowboys and lumberjacks. The original building was built in 1898. At the time, there were no trails or roads. No written documentation of its construction but Osceola County property records state that the current building was built in 1930. Oral tradition though indicates that it was built by E. P. “Dad” Wilson in the mid-1920s.

Not much is known about Wilson, but he came to own the Desert Inn one way or another in the early 1930s and named it Wilson’s Corner. Over the years, he improved upon it by expanding the building, adding Sinclair Oil gas pumps, and opening a brothel on the top floor of the building. The story goes that Wilson was fired from his railroad job and abandoned the train in Yeehaw Junction where he settled down. By then, the roads were paved which made traveling easier, so cabins were built behind the original building for any weary travelers and tourists. The cabins would be replaced in 1948 with a more modern motel.

desert inn postcard
Mid-20th century postcard of the Desert Inn and Restaurant. Jim Seelen Motel Images Collection

Architecture and Layout

The architecture and layout of the Desert Inn is described and laid out by the National Register of Historic Places as thus: “The main (east) facade is dominated by the overhanging second story, which is supported by four boxed columns with solid triangular brackets. This overhang originally formed a canopy that sheltered the main entrance and provided a protected area for servicing automobiles from gas pumps located between the supporting columns. The central entrance is flanked by display windows asymmetrically placed. The first-floor exterior, including the columns, is stuccoed. The second-floor overhang is clad in asbestos shingle with wood trim. Double jalousie windows flank an advertising sign that takes up the center third of the second-floor facade.

The south elevation exhibits five asymmetrical bays separated by boxed pilasters and irregular fenestration. Three doors on the first floor lead to the barroom, a stairway to the second floor, and a storeroom giving access to the kitchen. A 1-story extension of the exterior wall encloses an open utility area leading to a walk-in cooler, and a shed-roofed storage and laundry room addition complete this elevation.

The north elevation is distinguished by a projecting ell at the rear and a deck and fire escape stair from the second floor. A side entrance provides access to the first-floor restaurant. Double, sliding pane windows are predominant in the irregular fenestration.

The rear (west) elevation is nondescript, exhibiting the vertical exterior wood paneling of the storage/laundry addition against the stuccoed finish of the main building.

The exterior trim is sparse and simple. The entire building is painted white with green trim, the historic color scheme reflecting its long association as a Sinclair gasoline service station.

The interior reflects the evolution of the building. The flooring is cypress on the first floor (photo 9) and heart pine or plywood on the second. Ceilings and walls are unsheathed except the dining room and the front apartment on the second floor. A U-shaped bar dominates the dining room, and a paneled partition separates the dining room from the package store.

Three non-contributing ancillary buildings are located at the rear of the main building. A wood frame, gable-roofed storage building sheathed in asbestos shingles, originally a restroom facility, is hidden on the south side by a paneled screen. Immediately behind it is a larger, wood frame, board, and batten building housing a diesel generator and a workshop. A ten-unit, stuccoed, cement block motel building resting on a concrete slab stretches along the rear of the property. These buildings were either substantially altered or newly constructed to replace earlier buildings in the 1950s.

The Cheverette Family

Fred and Julia Cheverette took over ownership of the Desert Inn in 1946 and quickly grew a reputation for being good-natured and having a good sense of humor. Julia was a bit of a prankster and had fishing lines stretched out across the ceiling attached to plastic spiders and rubber worms, and would drop them on unsuspecting customers.

George and Stephanie Zicheck bought the inn in 1986 from the estate of the Cheverette family. Their daughter, Beverly Zicheck, began operating the business in 1987. The business ran smoothly until new CDL laws were passed, making it so truckers couldn’t buy beer and liquor from the inn’s package store anymore.

To revitalize interest in the inn, Beverly Zicheck began working on getting the building listed on the National Register of Historic Places. She also had the unused rooms above the restaurant converted into a small museum. One room had a bordello theme with red carpeting, lace pillows, and a swing. After months of work, the Desert Inn was finally placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1994 with a marker dedicating it right out front.

Decline

By the mid-2000s, Zicheck was suffering from health problems and was ready to quit the business. She was outspoken about wanting the inn to be preserved for many generations to come. She put the property up for sale in hopes someone would purchase it but unfortunately, there wasn’t enough interest in it.

After Zicheck’s passing in 2014, Steve Mason leased the property the following year, continuing to operate the inn as a restaurant. Unfortunately, the changes he made didn’t sit well with the locals and regular customers with many saying Mason was a “Yankee” who didn’t understand the appeal of the Desert Inn. The Desert Inn closed in 2018.

The Osceola County Historical Society gained control of the property with a few sources reporting that the closure was only temporary while the building is renovated, reopening as a museum, restaurant, and hotel. In its 120-year lifespan, the Desert Inn has operated as a trading post, bar, brothel, gas station, dance hall, and according to Zicheck, even as a cat house. Today, the remaining gas pump only acts as decor, the dance hall has long since burned down, and the restaurant sits empty collecting dust.

Destruction

On December 22, 2019, a semi-truck crashed into the front of the building. The driver, Mareo Crawley, told Florida State Highway Patrol that he was driving northbound on U.S. Highway 441 at Yeehaw Junction when he turned west and slammed into the building. He said it was dark and he didn’t realize he had driven off the road. When the truck was pulled out of the building, part of the Desert Inn collapsed. Due to the amount of damage, the building will most likely be demolished, although it remains standing as of May 2024.

Photo Gallery – 2019

Photo Gallery – 2024

Bullet

David Bulit is a photographer, author, and historian from Miami, Florida. He has published a number of books on abandoned and forgotten locales throughout the United States and continues to advocate for preserving these historic landmarks. His work has been featured throughout the world in news outlets such as the Miami New Times, the Florida Times-Union, the Orlando Sentinel, NPR, Yahoo News, MSN, the Daily Mail, UK Sun, and many others. You can find more of his work at davidbulit.com as well as amazon.com/author/davidbulit.

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