Florida is steeped in history. Paleo–Indians were among the Americas’ first human inhabitants. Juan Ponce de Leon was the earliest known European explorer. St. Augustine is the United States’ oldest city. Yet one of the greatest stories in Florida and American conservation history is largely unknown — to residents and tourists alike.

Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge is doing something about that.

On Jan. 9, refuge staff and volunteers are spearheading the inaugural Pioneer Festival in Sebastian, FL, to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the birth of Paul Kroegel, the nation’s first refuge manager. Thereafter, the refuge plans to use Kroegel’s life story to reenergize its visitor services and outreach programs.

Kroegel came to Sebastian in 1881. It was an era when Florida was undeveloped and wild, a jungle–like landscape with no air conditioning, no mosquito control, no modern conveniences. It was also an era that tolerated the slaughter of brown pelicans, egrets and herons.

Kroegel was 17. His mother had died in his native Chemnitz, Germany. Now, he, his father and brother were immigrating to Florida, homesteading on a shell midden along the west bank of the Indian River Lagoon overlooking tiny Pelican Island. Two decades later, he would become the first volunteer, first game warden and first refuge manager in what is now the National Wildlife Refuge System.

“Kroegel had a hard childhood and was resolved to work for things he considered important, such as wildlife conservation,” a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biography says. “Although initially he had no authority to protect the brown pelicans on the small island opposite his home, he did his unofficial best as a citizen warden of sorts. He tried to position his sailboat and 5’6’’ frame between the faster boats of gunners. He wore a big hat and carried a double–barreled 10 gauge shotgun to make his point.”

Eventually, Kroegel was named warden of Pelican Island. He was paid $1 a month by the federal government and $7 a month by Audubon societies to protect the birds. Even after President Theodore Roosevelt declared the five-acre island a federal preserve in 1903, Kroegel was forced to supplement his salary with boatbuilding and farming.

The Pioneer Festival, which will commemorate the life and times of Kroegel, is designed to reconnect the city of Sebastian and its business community with the nation's first refuge. It is also designed to inform Germans about their native son's legacy in America. Barbara Ludwig, the mayor of Chemnitz, is traveling to the festival to hear in person Sebastian Mayor Bob McPartlan proclaim Jan. 9 as "Paul Kroegel Day."

The festival will include live music authentic to the pioneer era and tastings of pioneer food such as swamp cabbage, heart of palm salad, oysters, smoked fish, clams and honey. There will be demonstrations of duck decoy carving, wool spinning, beekeeping, cast netting, quilt stitching and boatbuilding, all pioneer-era activities. Also scheduled: storytelling by Kroegel's granddaughter; fishing in the biologically diverse estuary; and bird walks.

Ironically, the story of Pelican Island Refuge – home of the centennial boardwalk and iconic Refuge System habitat – is largely unknown locally. So, in coming months and years, the refuge will emphasize its rich past in visitor presentations and will encourage nearby schools to weave refuge history into their curricula.

That way, local students from kindergarten to 12th grade, snowbird retirees, college spring breakers, European tourists and residents of Florida's central east coast alike will know what the Service has known for decades: Paul Kroegel's work to protect the dynamic ecosystem of the Indian River Lagoon is worthy of global respect.

Kevin Lowry is the visitor services manager at Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge.

Photo of Kroegel statue
This statue in Sebastian, FL, honors Paul Kroegel, first volunteer, first game warden and first refuge manager in what is now the National Wildlife Refuge System. (Kevin J. Lowry)