by Jeff Blakley
In this post, I am continuing to explore the lives of ordinary working stiffs in early Homestead. The subject of this post is Willie Alonzo King.
Susan Dryer, the owner of Ages Ago Antiques in Homestead, donated a booklet to the Town Hall Museum entitled, Hand-Me-Downs. It is a collection of stories that were written by the sophomore class of South Dade High School in 1997 when they were members of the English Honor Society. The sponsor was Judy Hood.
In reading the stories, I was intrigued by one, Battling Nature’s Obstacles, written by Scott Richards, who was the grandson of a Mr. King, who told the story in 1994. The story is about the harsh winter of 1933 in Homestead, when the story-teller, Mr. King, stated that there was a hard freeze and the temperature got down to sixteen degrees. Scott wrote about the “smugpots” used to protect the trees in the groves and also described a fierce mosquito plague during the summer of 1933 when he wrote that one “local farmer lost 26 cows in one night because the cows inhaled mosquitos (sic) through their noses when they tried to breathe.”
According to Scott, “Mr. King was born in Hendersonville, North Carolina, on November 9, 1907. He had five brothers and one sister. He was the oldest boy, but his sister was older than he. He went to a small unnamed school on ‘Pace Hill’. Since he was the oldest boy, he often had to stay home and plow. Eventually, his dad became sick and he quit school and stayed home to work. He quit in the fifth grade.”
I found this essay fascinating because historians often use oral history as a starting point to discover more about the past. The essay has fantastic elements in it (temperatures dropping to 16 degrees and cows dying from inhaling mosquitoes) but such is the nature of oral history.
I want to use this essay to show how I discovered who Mr. King, who is not further described in the essay, was.
Using the birth date given, I did a search in the census records available on Ancestry.com for the surname “King”, born in Hendersonville, NC in 1907. I found a WWII draft registration card in the name of Willie Alonzo King who worked at the Parman-Lehman Packing Company. I then found a memorial for him on Find A Grave, which listed his siblings and his parents. He was the oldest of five boys and had an older sister, Marie Louise King. I had found the right person because Willie died in 1996. The details about him in the essay matched what I had discovered.
I clicked on the link for the 1920 census and found that Willie’s parents were William A. and Ann E. King, 44 and 36. In 1920, they had 5 boys and one girl. Louise was about 2 years older than Willie and his brothers, Ernest, Guy, Craig, and Otto were all younger than he.
I then went back to the 1910 census and found just three children: Louise, 4; William, 2 and Ernest, 1.
Clicking on a link in that census for the father, William A. King, produced his death certificate. He died in 1928 at the Mission Hospital in Asheville, NC, which explains why Willie quit school to help support the family when his dad became sick. A link to a memorial for William Alonzo King on Find A Grave produced the fact that his mother was Margaret Pace (1853-1940), which explains the name of the school Willie, one of Margaret’s grand-children, went to on “Pace Hill.” The memorial also produced the name of the 6th son: Judge Dick King, who was killed in action in France shortly after his unit landed on Utah Beach on D-Day. Guy King, the other son named, may have died as a youth.
In about 1929, he married Dorothy Sue Stepp and they had four children. Dorothy Sue died in Dade County in 1943 and Willie then married Beatrice Pace in Hendersonville on August 24, 1944. The Pace family is an old one in the area of Hendersonville – it goes back to at least Burrell Pope Pace, who died in the area in 1816.
In 1931, Willie A. King got a job working for W. K. Waldin, according to Scott – he wrote that Willie was an expert in grafting avocado trees. Scott is in error here – “W.K. Waldin” was William K. Walton, who owned a nursery business in Homestead. The names “Waldin” and “Walton” are often confused because they sound so much alike. During WWII, he worked for the Parman-Lehman Packing House. When it opened in the spring of 1935, it was located “in the warehouse building of the Lehman Transfer Co., opposite ‘Fertilizer Row’ on S.W. Flagler avenue,” according to a front page article in The Leader Enterprise of April 19, 1935. The company was founded by Lee H. Lehman, an early pioneer in Florida City and Clarence J. Parman, who was the architect who designed the Lily Lawrence Bow Library, a wing of James Archer Smith Hospital, a number of houses in the area and the National Guard Armory, among other buildings. His house still stands – it is located at 27250 S.W. 177 Avenue. Lehman homesteaded west of Detroit (now Florida City) on what is now S.W. 212 Avenue and S. W. 344 Street in 1911. Later in life, Willie started his own grove but retired after Hurricane Andrew and sold it, according to Scott’s re-telling of his grandfather’s story.
The statement in the essay that there was a freeze here in Dade County in 1933 when the temperature went down to 16 degrees is a wonderful case of how facts get distorted in oral history. There was a severe freeze in Florida on December 11-12, 1934, not in 1933. In that freeze, temperatures went down to 14 degrees in the Tampa area but never went below freezing here in Dade County. Interestingly enough, the Future Farmers of America chapter in Homestead had a field of tomatoes 3 miles from Biscayne Bay on the south side of the Florida City canal. People driving out to the FP&L plant at Turkey Point now would never guess that tomatoes were once grown that close to the Bay.
It’s hard to know what to make of the statement that cows died from inhaling mosquitoes, other than to say that it is very unlikely. There were at least three dairies in the Homestead area in the 1930s – Pioneer (owned by H. H. Ewing) was west of Florida City, Alpine (owned by O. B. Parker) was north of Homestead on Krome Avenue and there was also a dairy owned by Harley Core in Silver Palm.
Oral history offers valuable insights into the past of any community but has to be used with caution because it is often wrong. However, it provides clues to what really happened, but discovering that truth requires documentation.
Willie was not a wealthy man nor did he figure prominently in Homestead history – he was just a working man raising a family, like so many other forgotten people in the history of this area. In the 1970s, he worked as a nurseryman for Harold E. Kendall and lived in a modest home west of Krome Avenue on Epmore Drive.
It is good to remember that when writing history, these “forgotten people” vastly outnumber the figures that history so often focuses on.
Postscript: I wrote this article in May of 2017 and recently had the good fortune to sit down and speak to Ardel Parman Price, a daughter of Clarence Parman. She confirmed for me that Willie King managed the groves of her father.