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Coral Gables History

Florida - The Rise Of Coral Gables

( Originally Published Mid 1930's )

While Carl Fisher and N. B. T. Roney were developing Miami Beach to the east of the city, George E. Merrick, son of the Reverend Solomon Merrick of Coral Gables, who had given up a law career to come home and manage his aged father's plantation, undertook to carry out a dream which had been growing in his mind for years. That was a residential development in Florida designed not for millionaires, playboys and free-spenders but for people of moderate means and simple tastes who would like to live under the spell of Miami's sunshine in peaceful quiet. That was the ideal back of Florida's largest and most widely known development, Coral Gables.

Young Merrick proved himself a veritable wizard of organization and salesmanship. He enlisted the support of men of wealth who recognized the profit possibilities and came in with the necessary capital to expand the project, from the original Merrick homestead of 160 acres, to the thousands of acres into which it grew. George Merrick himself was responsible for the adoption of the Spanish type of architecture, which set the standard for most of the other Florida developments of the early boom period. It was he who conceived and carried out the idea of appealing to the class of people whom he had envisioned as the future inhabitants of his gigantic suburb, by engaging the Hon. William Jennings Bryan, former United States Secretary of State and thrice the Democratic party's candidate for the Presidency of the United States, to give daily lectures to the crowds of prospective buyers of lots and homes whom his real estate salesmen brought to Coral Gables by the thousands from every part of the United States. Mr. Bryan had spent most of his winters for fifteen years in Coconut Grove and was sincerely and irrevocably "sold" on Florida and Miami, so that he could put the ring of genuine sincerity into his talks to the assembled prospects. He earned for Coral Gables many times the $100,000 annual salary which Merrick paid him.

It was George Merrick's idea, too, to establish in Coral Gables a University in which a large part of the work could be carried on out-of-doors. The families whom Merrick was bringing or trying to bring to Coral Gables were the type of middle-class folk who would appreciate and utilize higher educational facilities for their children. The idea captured the fancy of many people in educational circles and of some wealthy folk who contributed to the endowment and building fund. Plans were made for an elaborate group of University buildings, and the corner-stone of the first of them was laid with appropriate ceremonies in which Mr. Bryan took a prominent part. The boom collapsed and the fortunes of George Merrick and Coral Gables collapsed with it, before the rather grandiose University project could be carried out. But the University idea did not die, and today Miami University is a live, going concern with several hundred young men and women students from every part of the United States and several foreign countries. Its administrative offices and in-door classrooms are housed in a triangular building whose promoters intended it for a hotel at Coral Gables. It carries on a College of Liberal Arts, Schools of Education, Business Administration, Music and Law, an Adult Education division and a Winter Institute of Literature, in which many wellknown authors take part.

An interesting and unique course is that in Marine Zoology, carried on by classes in bathing suits and diving equipment in the waters of Biscayne Bay off Soldier's Key. The Miami University School of Music has won an excellent reputation in musical circles and among its students have been many who have developed into popular musicians of high rank. The University's Symphony Orchestra has a reputation extending far beyond Miami.

George Merrick went broke, but Coral Gables stands, a beautiful community of homes, as a'monument to his genius and initiative. And in the middle 1930's Merrick staged an unexpected comeback, rebuilt his efficient real estate organization and by 1937 had again become one of the largest real estate operators in Florida.

James E. Bright, a cattle man from the West, came to Miami, flew over the back country one day with Glenn Curtiss, noted the wide, grass-covered prairie on the edge of the Ever glades and thought it would be a wonderful place for a cattle ranch. Curtiss thought it would be good country for airplane landing fields. Raw land back of Miami was worth whatever the owner could get for it, from $2 or $3 an acre up, in those pre-boom days. Curtiss and Bright bought several thousand acres. Before they got either a cattle ranch or a flying field started, the Miami real estate boom began. Some sporting promoters looking for a site for a racetrack paid Curtiss and Bright several times as much for a slice of their land, which they named Hialeah, as they had paid for the whole tract.

The rancher and the flier decided to go into the real estate development business themselves. They laid out a community which they called Country Club Estates and made a lot of money selling lots and building houses. They had another development called Opalocka under way when the boom broke. They lost on that, but still had plenty left from their earlier project. Their greatest contribution, however, was the discovery of an enormously prolific vein of pure, tasteless fresh water, when they sunk an artesian well on their Country Club Estates property. Now the community is known as Miami Springs, and water from its deep-lying source is piped through huge mains to supply the city of Miami and across the bay to Miami Beach, solving the problem of water supply which had bothered and almost baffled the pioneer promoters.

The authors are aware that in all that has been said so far about the Magic City no explanation has been given to justify Miami's existence and its dreams of the future to carp ing critics steeped in the doctrines of classical economics. To those who hold that a city must serve commercially a far-flung and prosperous hinterland producing wealth from the soil; that a seaport cannot thrive as such unless it originates or is the concentration point for a great volume of freight; that you cannot, in short, build an enduring city on no sounder foundation than sand and water and air and sunshine, the answer is that Miami has done just that. From any conservative point of view that is indeed magic, if not pure insanity.

The explanation is that Miami's wealth-producing background is not limited to its immediate area nor to the Florida peninsula. Its back country is the whole United States. The wealth of the iron mines of Minnesota, the rich acres of Iowa, the pastures of Wisconsin, the steel mills of Pittsburgh, the automobile factories of Michigan, the oil wells, the gold mines, the industries and the agriculture of the whole nation finds its way to Miami in the pocketbooks and bank accounts of those who build and live and spend their incomes in the communities around Biscayne Bay, and of the tourists who come in Winter by the hundreds of thousands with money in their pockets representing slices of the wealth produced thousands of miles away.

They come to Miami as they come to the rest of Florida, to buy Florida's principal commodity current in the world's market, sunshine overhead, clean white sand underfoot, glit tering waters and healing breezes, opportunity to relax and enjoy themselves in comfort and contentment. Miami has become what it has because it has found the way to put up those universal Florida commodities in a more attractive package, to surround them with more dazzling facilities for recreation, and it imposes fewer restrictions upon the individual conduct and tastes of those who dwell within its gates than are imposed elsewhere.

That is the magic secret of the Magic City. Its economic soundness as a foundation upon which to build greatly seems to have been demonstrated by the success with which Miami has recovered its economic balance since the collapse of the boom and the subsequent widespread depression. At the height of the speculative fever the leading banker of Miami, E. C. Romfh, had to hide to escape the importunities of wealthy men who wanted to borrow more money with which to speculate in real estate. He was bitterly denounced at the time. But his bank was the only one in Miami which remained solvent when the crash came, and the very men who denounced him then for his "stinginess" now praise him for having saved them from utter ruin. True, millions upon millions of paper profits vanished into thin air. Thousands of individual investors' equities were wiped out. That happened in business and industry everywhere from 1930 to 1934. The point is that the "water" has been squeezed out of the boon-time promotions and developments, and Miami's public and private finances are now on a sound basis.

Capitalists threw their money into the early developments of Miami, in the days of easy money, in a speculative mood.

Now, in a more cautious era, they are putting money into Miami in an investing mood. To single one name out from among the hundreds of men of wealth and vision who have contributed with their capital to the stabilization of Miami may seem invidious, but to list them all would take more pages of space than the reader would have patience to wade through. Miamians themselves give a high, perhaps the major, credit for the rehabilitation of Miami and other parts of the Florida East Coast to Col. Henry L. Doherty, chairman of the Cities Service Company, who came into the picture in the early days of the depression and took over a score or more of the most pretentious hotels, inaugurated an extensive publicity campaign designed to repopularize Miami, and contributed in various ways to the city's recovery, stimulating Miami to hold up its head and once more look out upon the rest of Florida and the world with its accustomed proud and somewhat supercilious air.

It should not be inferred that Miami is utterly lacking in a wealth-producing back country in its immediate environs. Exactly the opposite is true. The richest of all Florida's agri cultural lands, in some respects, lie in Dade County, of which Miami is the county seat, to the west and south of the city. Miami is on the edge of the Everglades. The longest of the Lake Okeechobee drainage canals cuts through the city to discharge the swamp waters into Biscayne Bay. But the wet muck lands merge, as the great swamp nears this lower East Coast, into a type of soil which is unique in Florida and perhaps in the world.

Stretching in a broad strip for a hundred miles, from just westward of Miami down nearly to the end of the peninsula, is the region from which come the earliest of all of the toma toes, beans, peppers, new potatoes, and other truck crops shipped to the northern market. It is the section of the United States that is closest to the tropics and the freest from even occasional frosts. The grapefruit and orange groves of this region rank in quality of their product second only to those of the Indian River country, and in volume of production per acre are said to exceed those of any other part of Florida. Down in this Redlands country is centered Florida's largest output of avocados, and here are some of the most promising developments of the new Persian lime.

The marl lands of this region are commonly known as "glades" and are used during the winter months for vegetable farming. This soil is of a greyish color and holds moisture for several months. It is very easily plowed, which is done mostly by tractor. The principal crops grown are potatoes, tomatoes, beans and squash.

On the pineland, where the citrus and avocado groves are planted, as well as other tropical fruits, the soil is known as "high, rocky pineland." This land is cleared by a scarifier which is used to loosen the soil and rock sufficiently to be used for tree planting. The only vegetable grown on this soil is pineland tomatoes, which are planted in the fall during the rainy season, and a few squash. This rock is porous, however, and by capillary attraction seems to bring from below not merely water, but considerable fertilizing matter.

Many of the finest groves of citrus fruits, avocados and papayas in all Florida flourish on this rocky pineland. Here again, as everywhere in Florida, the character of the soil varies. One tract of about 20 miles square has a red clay soil from which the name "Redlands" given to this region is derived.

There are 1,300,000 acres in Dade County, practically all of it agriculturally productive, depending upon the extent and effectiveness of the drainage system. The farther south one gets in Florida the more productive is the rich Everglades muck; and this Miami back country is the farthest south in the whole United States, 500 miles nearer the Equator than Los Angeles.

In the well-drained sections lying north and west of Miami poultry and livestock flourish. The largest dairy farm in Florida, milking nearly a thousand pure-bred Dutch Belted and Guernsey cows, is not far from the Hialeah racetrack. It was established in 1923 by a local physician, Dr. J. C. DuPuis, who found it impossible to obtain a regular supply of high-grade or certified milk for the children under his professional care. He started with a few cows for a limited clientele; now his "Black-and-White" dairy has become a huge commercial institution, setting the pace for the numerous other dairy farms necessary to supply Miami's demand for milk, and shipping the by-products, butter and ice cream, to all South Florida.

The temptation to indulge in agricultural and horticultural experimentation on this well-watered land under tropical sunshine is almost irresistible. An outdoor botanical garden is maintained at Chapman Field by the Federal Office of Foreign Plant Introduction. A movement is on foot to establish a still larger and more comprehensive arboretum, to be called the Fairchild Tropical Garden, in honor of Dr. David Fairchild, plant explorer, who has played such an important part in the introduction of new tropical varieties into Florida. Under the stimulus of his leadership, horticultural experiments have developed numerous new fruits, many of which have found profitable markets, notably the mango, the avocado and papaya.

The Haden mango, winning a rapidly broadening market at from $1 to $2 a dozen at wholesale, was developed in Dade County from the rather unpalatable, to American tastes, mango of the West Indies. This section is the only place in the United States which produces chayotes (pronounced "shyoat-ies" with the accent on the "oat") which has been described as a one-seeded squash. Brought to Florida from the Yucatan peninsula, where it forms a staple article of food for the descendants of the ancient Maya civilization, the chayote can be fried like egg-plant, used raw in salads, boiled like a summer squash or baked in a shell like the winter or Hubbard squash. They are likewise made into sweet pickles, often served candied. They have a nut-like flavor unlike any other vegetable.

From this rich farm country the visitor to Florida who wants to explore the state to the very end finds himself, as he proceeds southward, travelling practically over open water from island to island over the 110-mile string of outlying keys which curve around the southern tip of the peninsula to end at the most famous of all, Key West.

A series of catastrophes reduced Key West from its once proud estate as Florida's largest city, to such a state of poverty that half of its 11,500 population was on relief when, in 1934, the city and county declared a state of emergency and surrendered their charter rights. The Federal Emergency Relief Administration took over the town, and started to work on a program planned to beautify the city, publicize its attractions and convert it into a winter resort. Then the hurricane of 1935 blew the last prop out from under the city. It destroyed the railroad.

Bereft of everything but its civic pride, Key West rallied to its support all the influence of all its friends in the state and nation. The result is the new highway over the keys and the promise of a greater prosperity than the "Gibraltar of America" has ever known.

When Henry M. Flagler dreamed in 1905 of a railroad running out to sea over massive concrete viaducts he never dreamed that one day automobiles would speed at seventy miles an hour over those same viaducts. People called the Key West railroad "Flagler's Folly," but it was finished at a cost of $50,000,000 in money and 200 human lives. It ran for 23 years, until the disastrous Labor Day hurricane of 1935 tore up the ties and twisted the rails and left Key West all but cut off from access to the United States. Flagler died the year after his "Folly" was finished, but it earned $10,000,000 for his estate in its first ten years of operation. Much of that was due to the heavy freight traffic with Cuba, carried across the Florida Straits in huge car-ferries.

Key West had prospered long before the railroad was built. Its decline began when shipping routes were altered, the U. S. Naval station removed, the cigar industry, torn by labor troubles, moved to Tampa, and the center of the sponge fisheries shifted to Tarpon Springs. The railroad brought back a measure of prosperity, but Key West never regained its lost leadership among Florida cities.

Now, with the $57,000,000 highway built on the ruins of the railroad, Key West is staging a come-back. There is no such motor highway anywhere in the world. For 110 miles the motorist has much the sensation of piloting his craft over the open sea, except that the surface over which he travels is not agitated by waves. There are points at which he seems to be almost literally out of sight of land, between the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. One of the succession of bridges which carry the highway from key to key is the longest ever built over water. For seven miles massive concrete piers rise out of the sea, springing from bedrock 30 feet below the water level, supporting the steel girders over which trains once rumbled. The wooden cross-ties have been replaced by steel beams and 10-inch-thick concrete slabs, cemented over and braced with steel from below. The belief of engineers is that this construction will enable the new road to withstand the worst that the Caribbean can offer in the line of hurricanes.

Key West has an exotic charm which lures one who has once visited this ancient stronghold of Caribbean pirates irresistibly back again. Its buildings, its atmosphere, the manners and customs of its people and their outlook on life seem much more closely akin to Cuba, 90 miles across the Straits, than to the United States. Once the chief center of the sponge fishery of the Gulf, and still a not inconsiderable factor, Key West is now more widely renowned as a rendezvous for amateur fishermen who take their sport seriously. Lying between the Gulf and the Atlantic, almost in the very center of the Gulf Stream as it flows out of its natural "boiler" to carry its warm waters north and east and make America's Atlantic seaboard habitable, Key West is the happy hunting ground for those who would pursue the giant marlin, tuna, tarpon, sailfish and other gamy denizens of tropical waters. The town's largest tourist hotel was purchased in 1937 by the Dupont estate, refitted and reopened. Key West's commercial fisheries include an interesting and picturesque sea-turtle farm.






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