90 YEARS SOUTH MIAMI – Starting the Tenth Decade

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On June 25, 1927, W. A. Forster was sworn in as South Miami’s first Mayor, and the City began its nine decade journey. While we celebrate the 90th anniversary of the establishment of our municipal government in 1927, the roots of our community were planted in the late 1880’s by new settlers.

When the first strains of “America the Beautiful” were sung in 1895 and New Yorkers were pondering the largest structure on either side of the East River with the building of the Brooklyn Bridge, around the same time a man from Tennessee was heading with his family toward the settlement of Miami and yet further south.  It was the home to Indians, deer, panther and wildcats.  Civilization extended along the bay front reef from Little Hunting Ground (now Coconut Grove) to Big Hunting Ground (Cutler) with a wagon trail that was to become part of Ingraham Highway.

And then arrived Henry Flagler’s Florida East Coast Railway, and the new city of South Miami became the first T.O.D.D. (transit-oriented development district) on his southern trek to Key West.

In May of 1983, Metrorail service began to serve the transit needs of a sprawling metropolitan urban community. The US1 transit corridor will continue to challenge further development for decades to come, and define how we live in our new urbanism.

In this and the five subsequent issues of SOMI Magazine during this 90th Anniversary year, we will chronicle the history of South Miami and provide some publisher’s perspectives along the way.

On June 25, 1927, W. A. Forster was sworn in as South Miami’s first Mayor, and the City began its nine decade journey. While we celebrate the 90th anniversary of the establishment of our municipal government in 1927, the roots of our community were planted in the late 1880’s by new settlers.

When the first strains of “America the Beautiful” were sung in 1895 and New Yorkers were pondering the largest structure on either side of the East River with the building of the Brooklyn Bridge, around the same time a man from Tennessee was heading with his family toward the settlement of Miami and yet further south.  It was the home to Indians, deer, panther and wildcats.  Civilization extended along the bay front reef from Little Hunting Ground (now Coconut Grove) to Big Hunting Ground (Cutler) with a wagon trail that was to become part of Ingraham Highway.

And then arrived Henry Flagler’s Florida East Coast Railway, and the new city of South Miami became the first T.O.D.D. (transit-oriented development district) on his southern trek to Key West.

In May of 1983, Metrorail service began to serve the transit needs of a sprawling metropolitan urban community. The US1 transit corridor will continue to challenge further development for decades to come, and define how we live in our new urbanism.

In this and the five subsequent issues of SOMI Magazine during this 90th Anniversary year, we will chronicle the history of South Miami and provide some publisher’s perspectives along the way.

The close of the nineteenth century was an era in which Wilhelm Rontgen discovered X-rays, H.G. Wells published The Time Machine, Guglielmo Marconi sent his first wireless communication, and the steam locomotive was the king of overland travel. It was also a time when pioneers were settling the extreme southern frontier of Florida. In their quest for land and an extended growing season, many farmers traveled south on the newly-completed Florida East Coast Railway.

Wilson A. Larkins, Age 27, Katie Estelle “Essie” Burtsashaw, Age 18. Photo taken in 1897 in Sumter County, Florida.

The early development of what was to become the City of South Miami is inextricably linked to the establishment of Henry Morrison Flagler’s Florida East Coast Railway (FEC) in Miami and the rail’s southward expansion to Homestead and Key West. Arriving in Miami in 1896, the railway became essential to the prosperity of those pioneers who came to the region to establish homesteads, farm the land, and cut the timber. The railway provided those living in what was ostensibly an outpost serviced by unpaved trails, a sophisticated link to ever-expanding markets for their products.

 

One of those pioneering families was headed by Wilson Alexander Larkins (1860-1946). Larkins was 36 years old when his wife, Essie, and their five children arrived at Fort Dallas (Miami) in April 1896.  Larkins built a home near what is Davis Road (80th Street) and a two-story general store at Rubber Tree Corner which is now Cocoplum Circle. By 1899, Larkins had successfully petitioned the government to establish a branch of the post office in the store he had built to serve the growing number of settlers. This required the establishment of a town. Influenced by the Spanish-American War, Mr. Larkins was partial to “Manila.” Instead, the majority of residents chose “Larkins.” On July 6, 1899, the post office was created.

The Town of Larkins grew up around the circle. Six years later, when Henry Flagler began taking his railroad south, Larkins opened a branch post office at Sunset Drive and US1. Very soon thereafter, the general store followed. With the advantage of a nearby rail to move goods and produce, the town grew and thrived.

Eventually, Mr. Larkins owned scores of acres of farm land, operated a small dairy, the post office, a general store and with the coming of the rail line to what is now Sunset Drive and South Dixie Highway, a commissary, packing house, and siding with station where the tracks crossed Larkins Road (Sunset Drive). Along with other growers and lumbermen, Larkins purchased land closer to the FEC railway as the center of the small settlement shifted westerly. The railroad and those who came to south Florida as tourists, laborers, and servicemen on their way to the Spanish American War (1898), helped to fund the businessmen and homesteaders who created what officially became the City of South Miami on June 24, 1927.

Henry Morrison Flagler (1830-1913), although fabulously wealthy, was no less a pioneer than Wilson Alexander Larkins. Flagler’s determination to build a railway along the east coast of Florida from Jacksonville to Key West was a massive, risky and extremely expensive undertaking. As a young man Flagler worked to make his fortune, finally deciding to invest in an oil business started by an acquaintance, John D. Rockefeller. In his partnership with Rockefeller and Samuel Andrews, Flagler received 25 percent of the company’s shares from his initial $100,000 investment. On January 10, 1870, the partnership became the highly successful Standard Oil Company and the source of Mr. Flagler’s abundant wealth. In 1885, Mr. Flagler began investing in the tourist trade in Florida, constructing the Hotel Ponce de Leon in Saint Augustine in 1888. Understanding that tourists need to get to their destination in a reasonable amount of ease and comfort, he began to purchase existing rail lines that became the nucleus of the Florida East Coast Railway. This system of acquiring and constructing railroads and hotels was a formula that Flagler employed all the way to Miami (incorporated as a city in 1896), where he built the luxurious Royal Palm Hotel in 1897.

The efforts of Flagler and homesteading pursuits by those like Larkins crossed paths many times. Mr. Larkins sold milk and fresh meat to the Royal Palm Hotel, and food and provisions to the railroad laborers. Twice daily, Larkins made the seven-mile trip into Miami on his bicycle. It had been fitted out with special milk tanks which were mounted on the handlebars and frame.

Farming and entrepreneurial families settled or established businesses in and around the Town of Larkins: Dowling, Dorn, Opsahl and Galloway, among others. Brothers Harold and Robert Dorn from Chicago settled in the Miami area about 1910. Writes Harold, “We came with farming in mind.” And that they did– principally tomatoes, grapefruit, mangoes, and avocados. “We had started to ship avocados and mangoes ourselves in 1913, and in 1914, we built a packing house [Dorn Fruit and Vegetable Company] on the Larkins side-track of the Florida East Coast Railway for all local produce, vegetables as well as fruit,” wrote Harold in a 1950s article.

The Dorn brothers also acquired more property and erected the lush Riviera Theater, the bank building (corner of US 1 and Sunset Drive), the Dorn-Martin Drug Store and apartments.

With the railroad, Larkins’ fortunes rose. It became a center for packing houses and agriculture to be shipped north on Flagler’s railway.

That proximity to the rails was essential to the development of nascent communities in south Florida is borne out by the story of the settlement of Cutler (known earlier as the “Big Hunting Ground”). Cutler was an important port for moving produce by ship from the Redlands. The locals got greedy when it came time to sell land to Flagler, so he bypassed them. Later, the settlement of Cutler ceased to exist.

The FEC continued on its way south to Homestead. Once established here in 1904, Mr. Flagler tackled his dream of continuing the railway to Key West (an important port and once among the most highly populated cities in the state).

He is purported to have announced, “Gentlemen: the Railroad will go to the Sea!” And so it did. In 1905 construction began on the mainland and in Key West. An army of laborers recruited from New York and another army of boatmen from the Bahamas worked on the railroad. Raw materials by the schooner-load were brought in carrying cement, timbers from Florida and Georgia, and steel from Pittsburgh. The longest span, the “Seven-Mile Bridge,” was built on 546 concrete piers most of which were submerged 28 feet below the water line. On January 22, 1912, the first train arrived in Key West. Mr. Flagler attended the opening day celebration, traveling in his private railway car. In failing health, the 82-year-old entrepreneur said of his great gift to the making of modern Florida, “Now I can die fulfilled.” The fortunes of the Overseas Railway had a fairly brief lifespan, and in 1935, Flagler’s railway went into receivership. The passenger station in South Miami was razed in the early 1960s.

The City of South Miami continued to develop as others settled here to conduct business and raise families. In the second installment of the History of South Miami, we will focus on the decades of the 1930s to the 1950s.

Marshall Williamson (1890-1972) is among the early settlers who came to South Florida at a time when the farming and lumber industries were expanding to larger markets thanks to the growth of the railroads. Williamson left his native city of Madison in north Florida, an agricultural and industrial area which became the County seat, to settle in the relatively new and sparsely populated Town of Larkins in 1912.  He is credited with being the first black landowner in Larkins. He purchased land spanning from today’s SW 64th to SW 66th Streets and from SW 62nd to SW 65th Avenues on which he built houses.

Unlike the white pioneers who came to the area, Mr. Williamson was unable to own or live on land east of the FEC railway. As an African American, he was prohibited by the South’s “Jim Crow” laws passed in the late 19th century as a way to legalize racial segregation.

Williamson, standing at 5’4,” was known affectionately as the “Little Mayor” of the African American community. An astute and generous businessman, he was integral to the community, improving it in countless ways over his lifetime. He donated land on which Saint John A.M.E. Church was built on SW 59th Place in 1916 and for J.R.E. Lee School located on SW 62nd Avenue. The area around the church became known as “Madison Square” after Williamson’s hometown in northern Florida.

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