Kenansville: Henry Flagler's Divorce
by Mike Miller
(Mount Dora, Florida)
Kenansville is a spot on US-441 about halfway between Yeehaw Junction and Holopaw. Most travelers whiz through without knowing anything about the history of the place. It's name ties into the history of one of Florida's iconic developers, Henry Morrison Flagler.
Henry is the man who really opened up Florida to tourism. After making a fortune as John D. Rockefeller's partner in Standard Oil, he retired and focused his business skills on ventures in the Sunshine State. His projects and invested capital in the 1880's through 1912 transformed Florida forever.
He started with big hotels in St. Augustine, bought a railroad, and then extended his railroad and hotel empire down the east coast of Florida until he finally made it all the way to Key West. The Overseas Highway follows the roadbed of Flagler's Florida East Coast Railway.
Flagler's first wife had died, and his second wife had been institutionalized for mental illness for many years. You might say he had been unlucky in love. At last, however, he fell in love with a lovely young lady named Mary Lily Kenan, and wanted to marry her.
In those days, it was almost impossible to get a divorce in Florida. Flagler convinced the Florida Legislature to pass a bill allowing a spouse to get a divorce if their mate was mentally ill. It was considered a scandal at the time, but Henry Flagler got divorced. He and Mary Lily got married and lived happily ever after in Whitehall, their Palm Beach mansion.
One of Flagler's railroad spurs headed south close to the route of what is now US-441. One of the little communities along the way offered to name the town after him if he ran the railroad through it. Flagler declined the name offer, but asked them to name it after his wife instead. And thus was born Kenansville.
Most Floridians know the town as the home of the Heartbreak Hotel. Rumor has it that Elvis stayed there and named his song after the place. The truth is the owner of the hotel liked the song and named his hotel after it.
The picture above is of Heartbreak Hotel in 2003. I believe one can still rent a nice clean room there and be surrounded by the quiet of the old Florida prairie.