Mae Williams and the Good Old Days

By Jeff Blakley

The following article was generously shared with us by Robert Fuchs, the owner of RF Orchids in Homestead, Florida. In it, Margaret Mae Stull Williams, Robert’s maternal grandmother, relates how she and her husband came to Homestead in 1919. These reminiscences were the source document for Jean Taylor’s entry on the Williams family in her book, The Villages of South Dade. Since Mae (20 Sept 1894 – 8 Dec 1993) gives her age as 80 at the end of the article , that means that it was created sometime in 1974 or 1975.

I have published this article as I received it. I do not know if this piece was originally an oral history that Jean Taylor conducted and was then transcribed by persons unknown or if it was handwritten by Mae Williams and then transcribed by her or someone else. Perhaps Robert Fuchs will be able to fill us in on those matters.

Margaret Mae Williams Remembers

Pioneer = Trail Blazer = Settler , so I guess we would come searching for better things under the heading of “Settlers” as the trail had already been blazed a few years before. Even pioneers must have a starting place. Ours was in Clarkesville, Pennsylvania, as small town 40 miles south of Pittsburg, up the Monongahela River, we, by “we” I mean my husband and I (Casper and Mae Williams), had been married three years. It was 1919, just after the close of WWI, and we were about to begin an entirely new experience.

Casper and his father had a big truck farm, specializing mostly in tomatoes. Dad Williams was looking for something better and had made trips to Florida, the west, and Maryland but seemed to favor Florida. One day, Casper came in saying “how would you like to go to Florida? To this date my traveling had been very limited so it sounded wonderful to me.

Dad Williams (Charles A.) had purchased 400 acres of glade land and the old Hattie Bauer place on Dixie Highway near Homestead Florida. At that time, land was selling for approximately $50 an acre. In September, 1919, we left for Homestead, not knowing what lay ahead for us.

There was quite of procession of us, two Ford cars and Casper and I in a large Studebaker truck, loading with things we thought we could not live without and when we arrived, we found we were right! There were eight in our party: Casper’s brother, Dan, his two sisters, Ruth and Ethyl, cousin John Williams with wife and four year old daughter. The mode of dress for traveling then was quite different from today. We wore suits, hats and gloves. We stayed at hotels as motels were unheard of and paved roads through Georgia and the Carolinas were nonexistent.

Our trip with a drive to Baltimore, Maryland by way of National Pike Route 40. There we loaded a freighter, the US Howard, which took us a well as our vehicles and belongings to Jacksonville Florida. Our trip was marred by a very hard storm off Cape Hatteras which had hit Florida a few days earlier. We saw demolished buildings and roofing wrapped around the tall pine trees, as testament of the fury of the storm, as we drove down through Florida after docking in Jacksonville. At the time, we didn’t realize how far away Homestead was from Jacksonville. This distance coupled with the lack of paved roads in Florida as well made the journey more of a task than anticipated.

We enjoyed seeing Jacksonville, St. Augustine, and our first avocado pears. Everything was lush and green up there, even the large palmettos were beautiful to me. In a day or two, we started for Homestead over hard, shell roads broken for miles at a time with stretches of white sand. We had to cross many swamps on long stretches of wood planks on pilings, to the tune of clackety, clackety clack.

The only setback for this leg of the journey was a clogged gasoline line in one of the cars which forced our first introduction to Florida mosquitoes along the Indian River. They were something terrible in that white sandy trail. The sickening odor of sulfur water only made matters worse. No, we did not encounter any Indian attacks as they did in covered wagon days, but I think we fought the mosquitoes about as bad. Now this discomfort, bites all over we were beginning to wonder if Florida was as beautiful as it sounded, but we were young and determined (I was 24 and Casper was 28) and knew that grass would be greener in Homestead.

I do not remember how many days we were in coming down the Florida peninsula but on September 17, 1919 a very hot afternoon, we pulled up in front of the Redland Hotel in Homestead where we spent the night. I guess we must have looked pretty worn out as everyone was standing around looking us over while we unloaded. People were friendly enough and we did have a good supper and night’s rest. However, Homestead was not what I had pictured it to be with this nice sounding name and my dreams of a lovely cottage surrounded by a picket fence were just that – dreams! I did not realize just what pioneering meant.

The next morning, we started looking for a place to live. Dad Williams had located a vacant house for rent in Modello, three mile north of town with four rooms and a kitchen. As we were anxious to get settled, we took it. Little did I realize when I was admiring the palmettos in Jacksonville and trying to coerce Casper to dig one up for me to bring to my new home that I would soon be living in the middle of a huge palmetto patch of my very own. The house was built well and strong from Dade County Pine with a red tin roof. We called it “Old Red Top.” We lived there for two years and I loved every minute of it. Casper did not like it too well, I guess he missed the mountains, but he was soon too busy with the tomato crop to be homesick.

That fall, the men planted 80 acres of tomatoes and built a packing house as well as quarters for our black help. Black laborers were found in Miami and were available for the asking. Most of these people were natives of Nassau or the other Bahama islands and were called “Saws” by local settlers. Farming was done with the aid of mules. The glades were filled with water through the summer so the men would ridge the seed beds up high in order to have plants ready by late fall. The canals have since drained most of the Glade land so planting is done much sooner now. I will not get into the farming because that is another story, one Casper should tell, but will go back to “Old Red Top.”

We had very little money and neither one of us had ever paid a cent of rent in our lives. We had to pay $15 a month rent which seemed exorbitant to us. There was no electricity, so we used kerosene for lights, cooking, and heating. There was no plumbing either. We sued pitcher pumps located outside the house. Oil lamps were a new experience for me so when we went into Horne’s’ Hardware to purchase one, I bought a one dollar one. We did not have much light for a while. Gasoline lights came out a little later and we got one of them. Furniture was another matter to be reckoned with. We took the truck and went to Miami where we found a second hand place on Avenue D called Garfunkel’s and Son. At that time, all avenues had letter names. Avenue D later became Miami Avenue. We found a stove, table, chairs, bed, and just the things we needed. I found that field crates stacked up with a curtain around them made a very good dresser with shelves. Refrigerators were called ice boxes then and we had to haul our ice from Tracy’s Ice Plant in Florida City. We had a three burner oil stove with a tin oven that set on top of two burners when you wanted to bake. We soon got things organized and began to realize how true the saying “Your wants are many but your needs are few.” We did not have close neighbors but found everyone very friendly.

Modello or Model City was platted by S.A. Murden and his son, Neal, who was a carpenter. They had built a big home on the corner of Newton and Dixie Highway called “The Arches.” Dixie Highway was the main thoroughfare at this time, running parallel with the railroad which had been built a few years earlier. Modello had a post office just south of what is now Biscayne Drive. A very pleasant, jolly old fellow, Mr. McCaskill, was the post master. He also had a few groceries. An interesting fact to note here is that Mr. Murden, the realtor, saw to it that the post office boxes began with 100. One day I was in the post office visiting with Mr. McCaskill, I asked him if there was a cemetery here as I had not seen one. Mr. McCaskill replied “they did not have one for a long time then they had to kill a man to start one.” The cemetery was located just south of Naranja.

There were a few nice homes around and some very nice people. We soon made many friends. Within walking distance of our home (approximately one mile), there were the families of: Dr. Dennis – retired, Collins, Whitneys, Wymans, Hinmans, and Petersons. There was one old fellow with a long beard who lived a little nearer to us. His name was Mr. Akers and we had come to know him quite well. When November came around, I offered to take Mr. Akers to the elections as he was a Republican and so was I who had never known anything else. The Williams were all Democrats but I didn’t hold that against them and even went so far as to marry one of them. I realized early that being a Republican down here was just like throwing your vote away so I soon became a Democrat. However, I believe Mr. Akers died a Republican.
We had a little trouble getting accustomed to the coral rock but even though it was hard to get around on, I preferred it to the white san of the area north of Miami. Back in the Redland section, the roads were all made of white rock which was very hard on everyone’s eyes. Most of the area was covered with pine trees and palmettos. The hunting was very good. Casper would hunt all over what is now Leisure City for quail and he and Doc Smith would even hunt for wild cats there. Our glade land was just east of Leisure City.

This area was a safe place to be and we never gave a moment’s thought to anyone bothering us. In fact, Casper would make out the payroll and I would go to the Bank the next morning, get the money, then take it to the glade for them to payoff. Never once did I have any fear.

Economic and social facts of early Homestead are interesting when compared to present circumstances. Labor was $1.50 to $3.00 for a ten hour day. I could take five dollars to town on Saturday and come home with a nice rump roast and groceries for the week. Milk was the one thing that was very high. We go ours from a Mr. Core who lived in the Redlands and we paid 25 cents per pint. We attended both north and south Methodist churches as we had friends in both. Later these two churches united using the north building as it was considered to be in better shape.

Though we lived in Modello, Homestead was our town. There was not much to the town back then, most of the activity took place east of the railroad. After you crossed the railroad and started north on Krome Avenue, you were soon out in the woods. Life on that side of the tracks considered of Fuchs Grocery, Citizens Bank, the drug store, and Horne’s Hardware but east of the railroad was the Redland and Seminole Hotels, a movie house, and a J.U. Frees Big Variety Store. The movie house had wooden benches for seats and the picture changed twice a week. Of course, we went.

Dr. James Archer Smith and his wife, Ada, came to Homestead that same year and we became good friends. Charles and Elizabeth Fuchs were also very good friends. They had a bakery at the time and we knew the Fuchs family because they all worked in the grocery store. There was not a lot to do entertainment wise so every Saturday night we would go to town and park our car where we could see people come and go, always trying to find a parking place in front of the drug store as it seemed everybody went there. There were many nice places back in the Redland where people had homesteaded and they always came in to town on Saturday. On Sunday after church and dinner, we would drive up to Miami, enjoy Bay Front Park, walk through the Deering Estate, go out on the old wooden Elser Pier and see the fish, buy popcorn, etc. Sometimes we would go across the wooden bridge to the beach where we could pick up shells and walk for great distances enjoying the beauty of a nearly deserted beach, a short-lived experience. We also enjoyed driving around the Redland on a Sunday afternoon.

My friend and I became very interested in making needle baskets from the dried needles we found in the woods. We turned out some very pretty things. My neighbors here in Modello belonged to the Longview Club and they asked me to join them, which I did. The club met west of Florida City where a Mrs. Tucker had a loom. She wove beautiful rugs and the other members did hand work while enjoying a wonderful fellowship. They were all older than I but I loved them. After I had accomplished the art of pine needle basketry, the club members wanted me to teach them. We turned out some very pretty pieces. That year, 1920, we had an exhibit at the Miami fair where we sold everything and took orders for more to be delivered to the hotel in Miami. Our profit was $100 which we spent having our clubhouse painted. We all looked forward to these days of getting together.

We lived in “Old Red Top” two years now while it was a good old house the roof was starting to leak. When spring and the rainy season came we had to take the oilcloth from the table and spread it over our bed to keep it from getting wet. We bought an acre on Dixie Highway from S.A. Murden. My father, who was a carpenter came down from Pennsylvania and together with Neal Murden built our home. They used Dade County Pine, good strong wood which is fast disappearing. We are still living in that house though some repairs and a Florida room addition have modernized it.

One thing we looked forward to in our new house, was the passing of the trains which ran from New York to Key West where passengers took a ferry to Havana, Cuba. It was a lovely train with Pullmans and dining car and friendly people being served their breakfast as they passed us. They waved to us who were living a different style.

We made two trips to Key West before the 1935 storm destroyed the railroad on the Keys. It was quite an experience as you could not see the trestle and it just seemed and looked like you were plowing on through the water. The train spent three to four hours in Key West before returning. There was very little to see there anyway.

We had many ups and downs. Some years our crops were good other years saw destruction by a hurricane, too much rain, or a freeze. We had a wood fire in our living room and spent many cold nights there, hoping and praying our crops would not freeze. Casper and his brother Dan would make frequent trips out to the glade, checking on the plants. Farming here was a big gamble. We had on packing house burn down in 1923 just three weeks before picking season started. Then in 1926, a hurricane destroyed one and then another in 1945. These were old wooden buildings. Our last packing house was a concrete block structure which now stands as Tahitian Inc. in Modello. Most of the lumber for the first two houses was milled right here at local saw mills.

It was bad when the Citizens Bank closed paying us $.10 on the dollar but we kept on and were able to keep our heads above water. This was 1922 now and more people were coming in and putting in a crop. We kept increasing our acreage. We had built a big three story boarding house and a commissary to take care of the packers when they came. Everyone seemed glad to see new people coming in to settle.

Our first baby girl was born in 1922 here in our home. Doc Smith charged $35. Our second daughter was born in 1925 in a little hospital in Homestead operated by Mrs. Fisk. It had four or five rooms in it.

Homestead as well as all of Florida was a dead place in the summer. Everyone who could, left this mosquito-ridden heat for the cooler north. My parents were still living in Pennsylvania so when the crop was off in April or May and the mules were turned out to pasture in Hialeah, we left too. We were always glad to get back in the fall for another chance. We had a Ford car and the roads were still bad up through Florida and Georgia. There were no road maps, just the Blue Book. We would set our speedometer on 0 and drive so many miles until we arrived at where the Blue Book said we would. This usually took you from county seat to county seat. The worst place was Folkston, Ga. where mules pulled the cars across a stretch of road. They had convicts working with their chains on in the mud. It was a sad sight.

Well now I am 80 and Casper is 84. We have seen many changes but I think we are both happy to have been among the first settlers of Homestead community. The end.

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