a house rich in HISTORY

Florida Weekly Correspondent

A HISTORIC HOME AND GARDEN IS enjoying a second life as a site for weddings, lawn parties and tours, but to some folks’ dismay, it’s no longer marketed as a ghostly attraction.

In years past, those seeking a subtle thrill in the weeks leading up to Halloween could embark on an evening ghost tour at the Historic Rossetter House Museum & Gardens, but those outings have been discontinued in favor of promoting the house and grounds for their historical beauty. Located in a quiet residential area just south of the Eau Gallie arts district, the museum encompasses the 1892 Roesch House, the 1908 Rossetter House and Gardens and the 1865 Houston Cemetery. But perhaps more compelling than the homes and antiques is the story of its former owners, particularly Caroline (Carrie) Rossetter, who defied socially accepted roles to become a successful businesswoman in the early 1920s. She lived in the house along with her sister, Ella, until both women passed away — Ella in 1983 at age 82 and Carrie in 1999, at 101. Neither sister married or had children.

1. An old Rossetter mailbox can be seen at the rear or east side of the home, a reminder of when mail was delivered by boat. 1. An old Rossetter mailbox can be seen at the rear or east side of the home, a reminder of when mail was delivered by boat. Along with Emma Haselow, historic tours and events coordinator, site manager Johny Fontaine takes great pride in retelling Carrie Rossetter’s accomplishments, “What a great story we have here,” he said. “We tell the story of her family and how it was just devastated by her father passing and the successes that came out of that hardship. It’s really an endearing, thoughtprovoking story that shows what the American dream is all about.”

A colorful history

Among the first inhabitants of the Eau Gallie area were members of the Houston family that settled there in 1859. The original portion of the Rossetter House is believed to have been the slave quarters built by John Carroll Houston’s 10 slaves. During the Civil War, Mr. Houston operated a refuge and staging area for Confederate blockade runners. He later served as Brevard County commissioner during the Reconstruction era, 1864-1874, and established the county’s second post office in 1871. Mr. Houston, his wife, son and several family members are buried in the Houston Cemetery.

2. Majestic oaks stand just outside the Houston Cemetery. 2. Majestic oaks stand just outside the Houston Cemetery. Mr. Houston’s daughter, Ada Louise, inherited the property when her father passed away. She married William Roesch, who was the first town treasurer of Eau Gallie and later its mayor, postmaster and founder of the area’s first newspaper, The Eau Gallie Record. They built onto the original slave quarters and lived in the home for several years. All six of their children were born in the home between 1887 and 1895. All but one child died in infancy or early childhood, and they are buried in the Houston Cemetery. The Roeschs sold the home in 1900 and built a new home across the street, which is now known as the Roesch House.

3. The ladies parlor in the Rossetter House is still set for afternoon tea. 3. The ladies parlor in the Rossetter House is still set for afternoon tea. The Roeschs’ former home was purchased in 1904 by James Rossetter, who is said to have brought the commercial fishing industry to Brevard County and also worked as an agent for the Standard Oil Company. The Rossetters added onto the home yet again, moving another structure, the 1890 Aspinwall House, by barge up the Indian River and connecting it by breezeway to the existing home.

‘Grit, determination and necessity’

After James’ death in 1921, his oldest daughter, Carrie Rossetter took over her father’s business and the family home. Just one year after women earned the right to vote, she became one of the area’s most prominent business leaders.

4. Ella’s 1931 Model A Ford at the Rossetter House. 4. Ella’s 1931 Model A Ford at the Rossetter House. “Everybody expected her to fail, a woman in the oil business,” recounted Mr. Fontaine. “This lady really showed what can be done with grit, determination and necessity. She turned a hopeless situation into an oil empire, and she ran that company for around 40 years. She had all the clout of having a lot of money in a town that was just starting out.”

Prior to her death, Ms. Rossetter established the Rossetter Foundation to designate her family home as a monument to Brevard County history. Her will was contested by extended family members, who felt she was not competent enough to make such a decision. But, recalled Mr. Fontaine with great pleasure, “After three years in court, it was proven that right up to the last day, she was all there.” The museum opened in 2004.

The Rossetter House has been restored as it stood in 1908, complete with the family’s impeccably preserved Victorian antiques. The home features an elegantly appointed ladies’ sitting area set for afternoon tea and a windup mechanical bird that still sings. Across the hall, a gentleman’s parlor stands ready to greet guests with a game of mahjong and an antique cigar humidor.

The table in the dining room remains set for a ghostly dinner party with rare Limoges porcelain featuring a fish pattern, paying homage to the Rossetters’ roots in the fishing industry. Upstairs, Carrie’s and Ella’s bedrooms still display their personal effects, including a German-made porcelain doll, hats, gloves and a few early 1900’s fashions, including Ella’s fashion-forward wooden handbag in the shape of a boat.

The four-bedroom Roesch House contains offices for the museum, a parlor that can be set up for small events, an upstairs bedroom that is often used as a dressing room for bridal parties, and Ella’s Closet gift shop. Ella’s 1931 midnight blue Model A Ford stands poised for an afternoon spin in a garage adjacent to the grounds.

Lingering spirits

While some have said that lost souls wander on the grounds around the cemetery and that visions of old men, women and former slaves occasionally whisper to guests or make themselves known, both employees say they’ve never witnessed anything out of the ordinary. The only thing that lingers here, they say, is the evidence of hard work, a zest for life and a love for the community.

Ms. Rossetter was “a very philanthropic, very determined, very directed woman,” Mr. Fontaine said.

“She was really a sparkplug. By having such a calling in life, she ended up having 101 really good years on this earth, keeping busy, staying in tune, having something to do every day. …

Because of what she was able to do in her lifetime, she was also able to leave this whole area so we can have a place to come and visit that history, that period.” ¦

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2012-10-18 digital edition

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