Let’s face it: if any one of us was plucked from our comfortable, air-conditioned existence and taken back in time 100 or so years, most of us would find it very difficult to survive life as a settler in the area we now call Miami Shores. The only respite from the heat on hot days was under a shade tree, or in the relatively cool waters of Biscayne Bay. Mosquitoes were often an inescapable torment and, with the Everglades and wet praireland nearby, venomous snakes like rattlers and cottonmouths were a constant threat. Settlers fished, farmed and foraged for foods that we can easily find in any number of nearby stores.
Read Carol Hoffman-Guzman’s fascinating history of early farming in the area, and imagine yourselves in the shoes — or bare feet — of the early pioneers.
Vegetable and fruit farming has long been an essential aspect of life in the greater Miami Shores area, starting with the Seminole Indians and the later homesteaders in the mid-1800’s. Let’s take a look at the evolving history of gardens, farming and agriculture among the early Miami Shores settlers.
Various history books give hints about the settlers and their gardens. The earliest pioneers often survived on local plants, fish and game gathered from the surrounding environment, as did the prehistoric tribes such as the Calusa and later the Seminoles. Thelma Peters, in her book “Biscayne Country,” suggests that we should think of the Biscayne area as a wooded island surrounded by a grassy, wet prairieland. Many homesteaders soon realized that the wetlands were not decent for long-term homes or gardens, so they settled on the higher wooded area, called the Piney Woods. However, this area was primarily a rocky limestone ridge that didn’t offer much in the way of good soil. Additionally, the available plant life was rather thin – mostly scrub palmettoes, pines, and coontie plants, along with some native “weeds.” In the photo below, you can easily see how sandy the soil was.
Miami Shores settlers from North Florida, Georgia, Alabama, and the Carolinas were mostly poor people from the back country. Seth H. Bramson, in his book “Boulevard of Dreams” about the Biscayne area, states, “The first settlers were essentially subsistence farmers. . .” (see footnote 1). Their focus was on simply growing enough food to feed themselves, their families and occasional visitors. Initially the output was only minimal, with little or no surplus food for trade. These Southerners also knew which native plants were edible, including pokeweed, sorrel, dock and other greens that were good in stews and soups. Huckleberries, wild Muscadine grapes and elderberries also grew in season in some areas in Florida.
Some early homesteaders brought with them plants from their prior gardens: tomatoes, sweet potatoes, beets, carrots, celery, eggplants, corn and peppers – some survived, some didn’t. New settlers also brought with them fruit plants and trees from their home states in the Southeast and Midwest. Such fruits included strawberries, oranges, limes, pears, peaches, and oaks with edible nuts. Local and tropical fruit trees were later adopted to their diet. Despite the poor soil, Mrs. Sturtevant, an early settler, wrote in 1875:
“‘We will persevere in our pleasant work and have the oranges, lemons, limes, tamarinds, figs, bananas, pineapples, mangoes, sappadillas, alligator pears, Jamaica apples, Japanese plums, sugar apples, guavas, papaws, and dates in readiness for our visitors. Mammee apples and cocoanuts require more time: a few of the latter have attained considerable size and may be expected to fruit in three years, but there are plenty in bearing in our neighborhood’” (see footnote 2).
As Thelma Peters points out, Mr. Sturtevant used to take a handcart to the bay to gather seaweed which he used to mulch his plants (see footnote 3). Given the fertility of their garden, he was clearly on to something by adding organic matter that enriched the soil and kept it moist.
Early settlers gained some information about native plants from their Seminole neighbors, who occasionally canoed up the small waterways to visit and trade with the settlers. The Seminoles showed them how coontie roots could be safely processed to remove a neurotoxin to make starch. They also introduced other plants that were good for food and medicine, including the edible hearts of the local scrub palmettos and the small “Indian pumpkins” that grew in vines up into trees.
Early settlers began to augment their diet of local fish and game by raising chickens, geese, pigs, and cows (mostly for milk). Branded pigs were allowed to run loose and occasionally they interbred with wild hogs brought previously to Florida by the Spanish.
Subsistence farming was indeed the initial emphasis, but “truck farming” for sales to neighbors, outsiders and stores became a later interest. This business eventually became commercialized by families and companies, which purchased acres of land, especially for pineapples, coonties and various fruits that tolerated the sandy soil and dry season. Florida arrowroot starch made from coontie roots was sold locally and at markets in other towns, and was eventually shipped to other parts of the country. Packinghouses also shipped pineapples and other produce through new nearby railroad depots. Common garden plants, including fruit trees, could eventually be purchased from stores in Key West and later in Lemon City – and then be shipped or transported into the Biscayne and Shores areas. Local sawmills opened to harvest the formerly ubiquitous Miami-Dade slash pine in response to a growing need for houses and farm buildings.
Joe Blair, who arrived in the area in 1928 to escape cold winters up north, opened a business selling fertilizer and livestock feed to farmers in the area (see footnote 4). Although tillers and livestock feed have long since been replaced by lawn mowers and leaf blowers, Joe Blair’s is still open on 79th Street. Later, in 1949, Mercer’s Seed Company opened in downtown Miami Shores, and quickly became a favorite gathering place for residents of the Shores who were interested in growing fruit and vegetables, and in landscaping their property.
Over time, as a community develops and increases in size, various farming practices and customs change. While vegetable and fruit gardening has long been a component of living in Miami Shores, many of us today are almost completely cut off from the nature upon which the early settlers’ lives depended. Our farming roots were further severed by changes to the landscape code that forbade the planting of vegetables in front yards, thereby depriving some residents of the ability to grow their own food. One current case, in which a resident is suing the village of Miami Shores over this part of the landscape code, is under appeal, and oral arguments are scheduled for August 21, 2017 (see footnote 5).
Carol Hoffman-Guzman, PhD
Our village is certain to face many difficulties in the years ahead, with climate change and rising seas. The early settlers can teach us valuable lessons about resiliency under difficult conditions. Perhaps it is time to examine more closely the idea of coming full circle, and creating urban farms in the Shores. Mary Benton, Founding Director, Bound by Beauty
1. Seth Bramson, Boulevard of Dreams, A Pictorial History of El Portal, Biscayne Park, Miami Shores and North Miami (Charleston, SC: The History Press), 11.
2. Thelma Peters, Biscayne Country 1870-1926 (Miami, FL: Banyan Books, Inc. 1981), 12.
3. Peters, Biscayne Country, 12.
4. Erik Bojnansky, “Restoration Road: Once a seedy and dangerous thoroughfare, Miami’s 79th Street is looking up.” Biscayne Times, Vol. 16, Issue 6 (August 2017): 22-37.
5. In August 2016, a local judge found that, “the prohibition of vegetable gardens except in backyards is rationally related to Miami Shores’ legitimate interest in promoting and maintaining aesthetics,” and the Village’s decision to prohibit such plantings, therefore, “passes constitutional scrutiny.”