Florida’s historic Desert Inn will once again serve wayward travelers after a full renovation is complete this fall.
If you take Highway 60 southeast, passing through first Bartow and then Lake Wales, you will enter the wild, almost endless marshes of South-Central Florida.
Keep driving a bit further and you’ll find yourself at the only intersection for miles in every direction, a two-lane crossroad that geographically is both the center of everything and also the epicenter of nothing.
Its name is Yeehaw Junction and it has been the lonely home of the Desert Inn and Restaurant for more than 100 years, luring wayward travelers and curious tourists like a desert oasis that serves beer and hamburgers.
That the Desert Inn is still alive and kicking is nothing short of a miracle, especially in an area where both patrons and supplies are hard to come by. Credit both the resourcefulness of its owners over the years and its location, which, until the construction of the Florida Turnpike in the early 1960s, was (and still is) the quickest route from Tampa to Ft. Pierce and Miami.
“I first pulled up on my motorcycle in the 1980s because it was on the way,” Steve Mason says. “You don’t realize it until you get there, but it’s in the middle of nothing and also about 30 miles from everything.”
Though he never thought he would one day own the Desert Inn, Mason recognized its strategic location over 30 years ago.
“A lot of people use it as a meeting place,” he says. “It’s just us for a long way in every direction.”
The Desert Inn’s long and colorful history can be traced as far back as 1885, when the current location was a watering hole and general store for cattle drivers, cowboys and railroaders passing through.
A tavern with an upstairs brothel was built in 1895 and soon became popular with bootleggers and traveling businessmen. This building would be named the Desert Inn after a small motel was opened out back, but the main building itself would remain relatively untouched for the next 75 years.
No less than five people died in the upstairs brothel of the Desert Inn across its 120-year history, prompting numerous ghost stories to arise over the years.
Originally known as “Jackass Crossing,” when herds of donkeys and mules used by ranchers crisscrossed the dirt highway, legend goes that conservative-minded mapmakers changed the name to “Yeehaw” Junction when labeling the intersection in the 1960s. Some still refer to it by its dubious colloquial nickname of “Malfunction Junction” because of the car accidents that sometimes riddle the two-lane highway.
Despite anti-prostitution laws, the brothel succeeded until the mid-1970s, when it was finally shuttered, occasionally serving as a bedroom or storage space.
One way or another, the Desert Inn survived the 20th century, experiencing housing booms and economic slumps from the peripheral, while catering to the same type of just-passing-through customers.
The location hasn’t deterred business, but it does have its limitations, says Head Chef Mike Dinello.
Full-service water wasn’t installed until 1978. A former segregated dining room in the back now serves as the restaurant office, and antique knob-and-tube electrical wiring was brought into the 21st century only recently.
“The kitchen is small because it was built in the 1800s,” Dinello explains. “You’re limited to what you can [sell] because you’re limited on refrigeration space. And it’s not air conditioned well, so it’s hot.”
Dinello, who lives down the East road in Port St. Lucie, once served as banquet chef for the Jupiter Beach Resort, general manager at the Wyndham Mountain Ski Resort and executive chef in a number of East Coast country clubs.
Though possessing an impressive resume, he says he’s had to rethink his approach to dining when facing a slow stream of one-time guests. “We get tons of people that say ‘we go past here all the time and never stop,’” Dinello says. “We’re hoping to get more repeat customers.”
The locals in South Osceola County are few and far between, making tourists and hungry travelers the restaurant’s only steady source of income. To cater to wider palates, Dinello cooks popular favorites like cheeseburgers, chicken dishes, fried green tomatoes and salads — at bargain prices.
Now “semi-retired,” Dinello says he’s working at the Desert Inn part-time at the request of friend and now owner Mason.
Mason himself acquired the property from the late and dearly missed Beverly Zichek, one of the longest-tenured former owners and known in South Osceola County as “Mayor of Yeehaw Junction.”
A longtime fixture at the restaurant even after she sold the property rights, Zichek once successfully lobbied the county to ban a neighbor’s use of foul-smelling chicken manure fertilizer, a brief and unusual episode that is credited with boosting business in the mid 1990s.
The sixth owner of the Desert Inn in the past seven years, Mason says he wants to emphasize its road-friendly atmosphere, similar to Archie’s Seabreeze in Ft. Pierce. A longtime favorite biker stop, some Sundays have seen more than 100 motorcycles parked at the intersection.
Though the Desert Inn’s property lease is still technically with Zichek’s lawyer, Mason says he is wasting no time in renovating and repairing the business for a planned reopening in November. He expects to turn the upstairs into a museum, recreating the brothel atmosphere as it was more than a century ago, and the motel will be completely redone and ready at $35 a night.
“By January, we’ll be polished and ready to go for tourist season,” Mason says, anticipating the annual “snowbird” migration down to south Florida. He adds, “If we do it quick it might fall apart, but if we do it slow, we’ll do it right.”
Photos by Derek Herscovici.