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Tractor-trailer crashes into Desert Inn & Restaurant, a historic Florida landmark

Yeehaw Junction’s defining landmark was closed at the time of the crash.
A tractor-trailer plowed into YeeHaw Junction’s Desert Inn and Restaurant on Sunday morning, causing major damage to the historic Florida landmark.
A tractor-trailer plowed into YeeHaw Junction’s Desert Inn and Restaurant on Sunday morning, causing major damage to the historic Florida landmark. [ MICHAEL BROWN / SOUTH FLORIDA WANDERER | Michael Brown/ South Florida Wanderer ]
Published Dec. 22, 2019
Updated Dec. 23, 2019

For over a century, the Desert Inn and Restaurant welcomed visitors of all types — from cowboys and lumberjacks in the late 1800s, to weary road-trippers seeking a burger and fries at one of Florida’s oldest bars.

On Sunday, the historic inn had an unwanted visitor.

A photo of the Desert Inn while it was closed on Aug. 26, 2019.
A photo of the Desert Inn while it was closed on Aug. 26, 2019. [ Jonathan Fuss ]

A tractor-trailer carrying orange juice plowed into Yeehaw Junction’s Desert Inn and Restaurant around 3:30 a.m., causing major damage to the Florida landmark.

Photos from the crash show that the truck ran directly through the front of the inn — causing parts of the century-old building to collapse around it.

Florida Highway Patrol troopers say that the driver, 50-year-old Mareo Cawley, could face charges. Alcohol was not a factor in the crash.

“I couldn’t see nothing last night, It was dark,” Cawley said in a Facebook live video in front of the building. "This whole corner right here was dark. There wasn’t any street lights. There wasn’t any lights on (at the inn), all of the lines in the street disappeared, then I end up hitting this building right here.”

Cawley said it was his first-ever crash in over 20 years of driving trucks. He appeared uninjured while he spoke.

A tractor-trailer plowed into Yeehaw Junction’s Desert Inn and Restaurant on Sunday morning, causing major damage to the historic Florida landmark.
A tractor-trailer plowed into Yeehaw Junction’s Desert Inn and Restaurant on Sunday morning, causing major damage to the historic Florida landmark. [ MICHAEL BROWN / SOUTH FLORIDA WANDERER | Michael Brown/ South Florida Wanderer ]

“That was a mistake. I made a big mistake,” he said. “I don’t even drive at night. I made a mistake when I got up and drove at night. I shouldn’t have done it, but I did.”

The Desert Inn is roughly two hours southeast of Tampa, just off the Florida Turnpike at exit 193 in southern Osceola County.

A tractor-trailer plowed into Yeehaw Junction’s Desert Inn and Restaurant on Sunday morning, causing major damage to the historic Florida landmark.
A tractor-trailer plowed into Yeehaw Junction’s Desert Inn and Restaurant on Sunday morning, causing major damage to the historic Florida landmark. [ MICHAEL BROWN / SOUTH FLORIDA WANDERER | Michael Brown/ South Florida Wanderer ]

Though it closed in June 2018, it remained Yeehaw Junction’s most iconic landmark. So much so, the ‘census-designated area’ of 240 got its name in large part because of the inn and the guests it’d attract.

Yeehaw Junction was originally named “Jackass Crossing” in reference to the burros that ranchers rode on their way to the Desert Inn, according to the Orlando Sentinel.

Even as the Florida landscape changed and population grew, the inn and restaurant still kept its old-Florida feel. It didn’t install full-service water and electricity until 1978. The inn offered rates as low as $45 a night, even in its final year of operation, according to an archived version of its website. It was open every day of the year except Christmas, Thanksgiving, and, as the website put it, when its owners were on vacation.

The Desert Inn was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1994 and operated as Yeehaw Junction’s only hotel until its closing.