By Jeff Blakley
At the turn of the 20th century, Florida City (originally known as Detroit) was marketed by its developer, the Miami Land & Development Company, as a planned agricultural community. While Homestead, to the north, had its roots in 160 acre quarter-sections of land homesteaded by individual settlers, Detroit had its roots in a marketing scheme promoted by the Tatum brothers, a very prominent group of developers that had been active in Miami since the end of the 19th century. The land that the Miami Land & Development Co. purchased was classified as “overflow” land by the Federal government and was given to the State of Florida. It was not eligible to be homesteaded. There were homesteads located west of Detroit, in the Longview area, and the Brooker brothers also homesteaded west of Detroit.
In an article written by Adam G. Adams that appeared in 1957 in Tequesta, the Journal of the Historical Association of South Florida, Adams wrote that the Tatum brothers (Judson H., Bethel B., Johnson R. and Smiley M.), who owned the Miami Land & Development Company, subdivided 35 sections (22,400 acres) of land “in South Dade from Biscayne to Florida City … $200,000,000 worth of this property was sold by contract. Few of the contracts were fulfilled. (p.40)” The land actually amounted to 37.5 sections – the plat is available from the Miami-Dade County Clerk of Courts website. The property extended from Krome Avenue east to Biscayne Bay and from what is now Campbell Drive (S.W. 312 St.) east of Homestead south to S.W. 376 St., which is labeled Missouri St. on the plat but is not drivable. A portion of the property, amounting to five sections, lay south of Missouri and straddles what is now U.S. 1 – it was the railroad in 1916, when the plat was recorded, on March 24.
Even though the company invested large sums of money in the project and using innovative marketing tactics, the company was not able to sell enough land, as Adam G. Adams wrote in his article, and the Miami Land & Development Company failed in the late 1920s, a victim of the collapse of the South Florida real estate boom of that time.
An enterprising Sicilian named James Sottile, along with some partners, purchased the bonds that the Miami Land & Development Co. had floated to purchase the property from the State of Florida for pennies on the dollar. He and his partners paid about $300,000 for those bonds, thus gaining control of the property. James Sottile was born on June 1, 1887 in Gangi, Palermo Province, Italy. At the age of 12, he had emigrated to the United States, along with his mother, arriving at the port of New York on November 13, 1899. He and his mother settled in Charleston, South Carolina, joining the rest of his family, who had already emigrated to this country. James became a naturalized citizen of the United States on December 2, 1909. Sometime between 1920 and 1930, he and his wife, Louise, moved to Miami, where they lived at 1533 N.W. 9th St. According to the 1930 U.S. census, his occupation was given as “capitalist” and his business as “investments.” Sottile’s plan was to drain the land and lease it farmers using a system modeled on the land tenure system, the latifundium, that had existed in Sicily. He invested heavily in digging drainage ditches and in building roads so that farmers could gain access to their land. Large pumps were used to move the water into the Florida City canal, which then drained into Biscayne Bay. He called his new company South Dade Farms. For many years, the equipment storage shed for South Dade Farms, a very large metal building with a corrugated steel roof, stood at the southeast corner of North Canal Drive and Farmlife Road. It was demolished in about 2011 to make way for a Walgreen’s store.
The demographics of Florida City gradually changed from the mostly mid-Western early settlers to a population that had numerous Italian-Americans in it. By the early 1940s, the Italian-Americans had come to dominate the political and social life of Florida City. Many of the iniitial purchasers of Miami Land & Development Company land sold their property to the new arrivals, repeating a story that has happened many times in American history. Sottile, ever the enterprising businessman, donated the land for the State Farmers’ Market, farm worker housing for Blacks southwest of Homestead Air Force Base and established the South Dade Farmer’s Bank on S. Krome Avenue in Homestead. That building is now occupied by the American Legion. Sottile also donated the land for Homestead Bayfront Park to Dade County. Homestead Bayfront Park was dedicated on January 28, 1939 but development wasn’t completed until the late 1940s due to the property being leased to the U.S. government for training purposes until 1947. The park opened on February 2, 1951.
African-Americans have been a part of Florida City from the very beginning but have been poorly documented. Like their white neighbors, they farmed, bought and sold land and built homes in Florida City. For many years the Black population of Florida City was numerous enough to influence local elections but wasn’t able to because they didn’t have enough clout in the voting booth. It wasn’t until Otis T. Wallace, who worked a full-time job while attending the University of Miami Law School at night, organized a voter registration drive in 1976 to increase African-American participation in civic affairs that African-Americans attained any significant success. No doubt in response to this registration drive, the mayor and the city commission of Florida City appointed a African-American commissioner. Otis was elected as a city commissioner in 1976 and later was elected Mayor, a position he still holds. In 1984 Florida City elected its first majority African-American commission.
In recent years Florida City has prospered with the arrival of some major retailers along U.S. 1. This surge in economic development is largely due to the welcoming economic policies of the Florida City city government and to the fact that Florida’s Turnpike ends at Palm Drive in Florida City.
There is much more work that needs to be done to write even a skeletal outline of the history of Florida City. This post is just an outline. In the future, I will try to develop some of the points that have been touched on in this post.