Early Days in the Homestead Country
By Jeff Blakley
I found the following article recently at the Town Hall Museum in Homestead. It was written by Flora Harvey Anderson, who was a sister of Will Anderson, of Anderson’s Corner fame. She was born on September 9, 1875 in Martin County, Indiana and died here on April 19, 1966. She is buried at Palms Memorial.
I do not know who wrote this article or when it was written, but most likely, it was written shortly after the Florida Pioneer Museum was established in Florida City in 1962. There are a number of similar articles, written about other early residents, so it appears that someone associated with the Museum sat down with these people and wrote down their stories.
by Flora Hill Connelly
In the year 1905, I came to Dade County to live in what was then called “the Homestead Country.” My brother, the late Will Anderson, had taken up a Homestead and he asked me to help him prove it up. At the time of his request, I was living in Live Oak, Fla. As my husband, the late John H. Hill, was located in Key Largo, helping to build the Flagler East Coast Extension Railroad, I thought it would be a good idea to come to South Florida to help my brother. My husband tried to discourage me. He said the mosquitoes were terrible and that it would be hard for me and the children to endure them and other hardships of the area. After due consideration, it was decided that I could make the move. After the furniture was packed, crated and “deadheaded” to Miami, the children and I boarded the Seaboard to Miami; then we transferred to the Florida East Coast Extension, a mixed train, that ran as far south as Homestead. Since my husband was a railroad man we did not have to pay fare; the children and I traveled on passes.
My brother, Will, met us with a horse and wagon at Gossman’s Siding, now known as Naranja. When he came into the coach to get us, I noticed mosquitoes, full of blood, hanging on his face and arms. He was covered with them! I recalled my husband’s words of warning and thought to myself that I had probably made a mistake in coming to such a place. Nevertheless, I was there, and there was no turning back. The first few days were spent with the Charlie Gossmans as the place that was to be our home was not yet fully equipped for housekeeping. No groceries had been bought as my brother thought I should help decide on what we would need.
Old Cutler was the closest place for supplies and the trip had to be made by horse and wagon. There were no roads except those made by the Homesteaders who cut down necessary trees and knocked off the tops of rocks with grubbing hoes. The “trails” would wind around stumps now and then; often the path was so narrow that the wheels of the wagon would almost scrape. The trip to Old Cutler, a very jolty one, was a distance of fifteen miles and it took all day. In due time we made the trip and brought back enough groceries to last several weeks.
Will’s house that was to be my home was one long room with a kitchen and porch tacked on the east side of the building. The furniture consisted of a bed, a dresser and four home-made benches. There were no chairs. The kitchen was equipped with a wood-burning stove, pots and pans and a rough table. The two smaller children and I slept in the bed. The rest of the family slept on the floor. Mosquitoes were really terrible. They actually darkened the sun. We had no screens. The first few nights we managed to survive by means of my brother’s smudge pot. This was a large pot or bucket into which he would put a few splinters off a “lighter knot” (better known as fat pine) and ignite them to get the fire going; then, he would add palmetto roots; on top of that he would place damp fertilizer bags to smother the flame and make a smoke. This didn’t really kill the mosquitoes. It seemed to make them doze a few hours. I told Will we would have to do something about screens. We made another trip to Old Cutler but couldn’t get any screen wire. He got some mosquito netting, which we tacked over the window and door of the main room. We closed off the front door completely. My brother also brought back some insect powder to burn on tin lids which helped a lot. This, along with the “smudge pot” and the netting made the line of attack from mosquitoes as the netting gave out before we got around to the house windows. Will had to stand over me with a brush when I cooked to keep mosquitoes out of the food.
It was some time before I developed any sense of direction. All I knew was “straight up.” Trees were everywhere around the house. Just enough had been cut down to set the house. The Homesteaders had to clear their own land by hand. There were no bulldozers or other equipment at that time. Trees were felled with cross cut saws. Logs were rolled by man power or with the assistance of mules and horses. Palmettoes had to be grubbed and stumps burned out. One can understand why a Homesteader would only clear a small tract at a time. He then proceeded to build his own home. It was the only way because there were no contractors or builders to do it.
Families were few. Our nearest neighbors were the Charlie Gossmans who lived about a mile and a half through the woods from us. I could more or less tell that direction by listening to the cackle of the guinea hens. Panthers and Bobcats roamed the woods at will. I kept a .303 rifle close at hand. Hardly a night passed but what I would hear the bay of hounds, then the crack of a rifle and know that someone had shot some kind of wild animal. All of the early settlers had chickens and it was difficult to keep the animals from carrying them away. Another threat was hawks. A gun was a necessity at all times. Men even carried their guns to church.
Every family had a garden. We raised all of the vegetables and fruit that went on the table. We had to drive stakes around the garden and run a rope around them and then tie white rags to the rope to keep the deer from eating the plants.
The closest Post Office was Old Cutler. Any homesteader who made the trip there brought everyone’s mail. It was out in a milk box and nailed to a tree on the corner of Henry Gossman’s Homestead, now known as Tennessee Road and Silver Palm Drive. Later on Brown and Moody who owned and operated the store and post office at Old Cutler decided to move to Gossman’s Siding. They asked permission to move the post office. Before permission was granted, the name of the place had to be changed. Naranja was the one selected and the move was made. Thus, the community began to progress.
At this time the Redland Community reached as far east as what is now Krome Avenue; as far south as Eckman Drive; as far north as Silver Palm Drive; and as far west as the Everglades. The Redlands was developed by a people who were foresighted, intelligent and hardworking. They wanted to see things move ahead. As time went on, they felt the need of a place to move so that they could discuss ways and means to bring progress to the Homestead Country. No building was available; so, they decided to build one. Thus the Guild Hall came into being. It served as a civic center where plans were discussed for better living conditions; it served as a cultural center for lectures, art classes and music classes. I remember in particular a lecture by William Jennings Bryan, the silver-tongued orator, who spoke on the Origin of Man to establish the fact that man did not spring from monkeys as Darwin tried to make us believe in his book, The Origin of the Species. The Guild also served as a social center. The Women’s Club, organized in 1913, held their meetings there. The Saturday Night Dance was an event looked forward to by the young people. Sometimes weddings were held there. Bunny Caves took a bride there.
In 1907 when the mixed train pulled into Homestead, a man by the name of Gaston Drake stepped onto the platform. He was looking for a place to locate a saw mill. After being jolted around all day using a horse and wagon to look over the various possibilities, he decided to locate at what is now known as Princeton. There was nothing there at that time but the railroad track. After the mill was established, he had to find a name for the place. After some consideration, he named it after his Alma Mater, Princeton University. Here was another step in the progress of the Homestead Country. Mr. Drake made arrangements with the Homesteaders to buy their timber for $2.50 per acre. In order to get the logs to the mill, he decided to use Tram Roads. To find a man to build the Tram Roads was another question. My husband had just finished supervising the building of his part of the Over-Seas Florida East Coast Extension Railroad to Knight’s Key and Mr. Drake asked him if he would consider the job. He accepted and the roads were started at once. When they were finished, Mr. Drake bought a locomotive from the F.E.C. Railway, rented some flat cars, and put in a skidder. He was in business. The first lumber was used to build houses for his help. The mill remained in operation for many years.
Small schools were dotted around through the country. In most cases one teacher would teach all of the grades. Children walked to and from school or rode bicycles. They carried lunches in pails. The schools were not equipped with plumbing or sanitary facilities for drinking water. About the year of 1912, people began thinking about improving the schools. Meetings were held in the different school localities. Eventually all patrons got together and decided that a consolidated school would be the answer. It would give the children the advantage of a high school education at home. To find a central location was a problem. Princeton wanted it located there because they said the school should be near the railroad. Redland wanted the school there, and Silver Palm wanted it in their area. My brother, Will Anderson, offered to donate ten acres of his Homestead on the corner of Cocoanut Palm Drive and Farmlife Road for the school site. It was put to a vote. Redland voted with Silver Palm for the location where the school stands today. My brother’s offer was accepted. The school opened its doors to grades one through twelve on September, 1917 and was named “Redland Farmlife School.” Buses were provided for children living in the out-lying areas. The school, equipped with electricity, plumbing, drinking fountains, a science laboratory, a home ec. department, auditorium, and cafeteria was a dream come true, a result of tireless efforts of the Homesteaders.
After the consolidated school was completed, the small community schools were for sale. The Redland Women’s Club bought the one at Redland. Although the Club suffered many hardships and setbacks, it survived them all and is now a strong prosperous club with a good enrollment. The people of the Redland area built the Redland Community Church which has outlasted several other churches built at that time in other localities. It has stood the storms of many years and still stands as a symbol of Christian worship for mankind.
The main industry of the Homesteaders was tomato cultivation. The closest shipping point was Old Cutler. The hauling was done by horse and wagon at night. During the daylight hours the horseflies were so bad that it was inhumane to take the animals out. The crates of tomatoes were loaded onto a barge at Cutler and taken to Miami where they were transferred to boxcars and shipped to northern markets. About this time a few citrus groves were coming into bearing and Homesteaders began to dream of a great citrus industry for the area. They recalled the terrible freeze in 1895 in the central part of the state. Reasoning that the Homestead Country was south of the frost line (so they thought) it appeared to be a good paying proposition. It seemed that everything was in their favor and that they couldn’t lose. They began to clear land in the same manner they did for their homes. They cut down trees, grubbed palmettos, burned out stumps, hauled trash and made bon-fires out of it during the evening which helped to chase the mosquitoes. Soon vast areas of oranges and grapefruit were planted and northern capital became interested. Henry Flagler planted a seventy-five acre grove at Kendall. Many other moneyed people who wished to become richer invested in the industry. A large Community Packing House was visualized with railroad lines running out to the plant with box cars on sidetracks waiting to be loaded. Not only would the growers send their fruit to northern markets; they would also send it overseas. How fine it would be to sit on their porches, smoke their pipes, and plan how to spend the money.
Groves came into bearing and the fruit sold well … for awhile. The packing plant never came into being; neither did the railroad lines dreamed of. The Central part of the State failed to have the anticipated freeze. The market soon became glutted and it then was a race as to who could get his fruit on the market first. About this time the government had the idea of draining the Everglades to extend the Farming Industry. After this was done, the water level was lowered so much that it was almost impossible to grow anything on pine land without irrigation which few could afford. The Citrus Industry began to dwindle. The Homesteader’s dream was falling apart. They would have to try something else, but what? Groves were not paying for the upkeep. Some were abandoned entirely. Men had to find jobs in one way or another. Some farmers could make out a living with what farming they could do on the Glades. With the help of their wives and children they managed to survive. The price of land began to go up. This was another thing that hurt the citrus industry. Eventually, as the price of land soared, groves were plowed under and the area turned into housing projects.
The Homesteaders deserve the credit for the development of South Dade County. It was they who sacrificed, suffered hardships, and furnished brawn, will-power, and “stick-it-to-ivness” which brought the area out of the wilderness to the civilization it enjoys today. It is a most desirable place to live. People today, literally running over one another to get a place to build a house, are unaware of their heritage. Few realize the suffering, the toil and the sacrifice it took to develop this land which was inhabited only by wild animals hiding in the swamps and underbrush, sitting in the branches of trees, eyes glaring, ready to spring on its prey, whether man or beast. It was survival for the fittest; it was no place for a tenderfoot. A few came to the area, only to leave on the next train.
Friends, when you survey the beautiful homes, equipped with every modern convenience, remember that there is a story back of it which made it possible. There are few Homesteaders, those wonderful, hard-hitting, courageous people, left to enjoy the fruit of their labor. Those who have passed on, I am sure, would be happy to know that they helped make it possible for YOU to do so.
My husband is the great, great grandson of R.E. Caves. We live in North Georgia now. I am looking for a copy of Jean Taylor’s book “The Villages of South Dade”. We would love to share some of the stories with you that he was told by his family.
Excellent conclusion and great piece of writing.
I tell my students all the time that we stand on the shoulders of giants who have since physically returned to land but their spirits are watching us make it better and paying it forward or not.