Of Curtiswood Drive
by Elisa Curtis Bailey
My mother, Muriel MacDonald Curtis, arrived in Miami with her mother and sister via the Clyde-Mallory Steamship Line on Easter Saturday in 1926 to join her father, A.W. MacDonald. Mom was 10 years old at the time. Within a few months they would experience the catastrophic hurricane that hit Miami in 1926. Mom told me that in the middle of the storm they had to evacuate to the neighbors’ house because the fireplace collapsed into their house.
Muriel attended Riverside Elementary, Ada Merritt Junior High School, and Miami Senior High. As a teenager, she became youth tennis champ for Miami. After graduating high school, she attended Florida State College for Women, which became FSU in 1947. After her freshman year she received a tennis scholarship to the University of Miami, where she earned her degree. At the time UM didn’t have a women’s tennis team, so she just practiced with the men! Many members became lifelong friends and Miami residents themselves.
After graduation, she went into teaching in New York City. When she returned to Miami, she taught at Miami Shores Elementary and St. Theresa’s (Coral Gables) and was a substitute teacher at Key Biscayne Elementary.
My dad, D.H. (Curt) Curtis, was born in Chicago. He went to Northwestern University and was in the Naval Reserves. He met my mom in New York on a country holiday and they got married in ‘39. Eventually they found their way to Miami with two children in tow, Karen and Don, to be closer to family. At first, they settled in a house near SW 8th Street and SW 57th Avenue. Dad worked for a few years at Pan American Airlines and eventually took a position with The Mackle Brothers on Coral Way. He went on to work for General Development Co. after it acquired The Mackle Brothers – the first development company on Key Biscayne.
The Curtis family started looking for a new home when the arrival of baby number three, Barbara, made their current home a bit crowded. What better place than the island the Mackles were developing? Growing up I often heard my parents tell others that “the Key was actually one of the cheapest places to buy a home at the time.” Depending on how many blocks off Crandon Boulevard you were, the price went up $100 dollars per block. We were eight blocks down, so our house went for $12,800 in 1951. Many years later, after the devastation of Hurricane Andrew, I remember having to count those blocks in order to find our way back home!
Key Biscayne was a pretty close-knit community those first years. Residents worked on improving the community and had a great time doing so. Muriel and Curt were no exception. They were founding members of the Key Biscayne Yacht Club. Curt was a founding member of the Key Biscayne Lions Club and played on a couple of the baseball teams along with helping coach youngsters’ teams. Muriel was a founding member of Key Biscayne’s first Garden Club, The Carissa Club. She was also a founding member and first president of the Key Biscayne Woman’s Club. She was a board member and president of the Key Biscayne Beach Club. Mom was also a founding member of St. Agnes Catholic Church.
Both mom and dad were bridge players and played with different groups and friends around the Key. Mom was a history nut. Her main focus was Key Biscayne and the Florida Keys. After I got older Mom started substituting at Key Biscayne Junior High and Shenandoah Junior High. Not many Key kids missed out on her history lessons from Jim Woodman’s “Key Biscayne, The Romance of Cape Florida,” nor her favorite poems.
She also was a guest speaker on the history of Key Biscayne to many scout troops, Kiwanis, Miami Pioneers, and the Villagers. Mom started taking a Florida history class at Miami-Dade Junior College taught by Marjory Stoneman Douglas. Ms. Douglas wasn’t comfortable driving at night at the time and Mom drove close enough to her house that she ended up giving Ms. Douglas a ride to and from class. Mom thought it would be a wonderful opportunity for me to meet Ms. Douglas and attend class with her. It was great and I learned so much about early Miami from two women who witnessed so much of Miami history. Ms. Douglas signed and corrected my mom’s collection of her works.
I was born in the summer of 1955, SURPRISE! Growing up on the Key was the best! Granted I probably didn’t appreciate it that much, but looking back, we had the life! One of my early memories of the Key was attending Little Island Playhouse for nursery school and kindergarten. This included taking naps in the afternoons and ballet, tumbling and tap classes after school was out. Friday afternoons before we were let out we sat in a circle and received little trinkets or gold stars for perfect attendance or other achievements during the week.
I also remember going to the Beach Club in the mornings with my mom and meeting up with others. The moms talked while the kids would either have swim lessons with Mr. McClain or just play in the water. Just before I turned 5 my sister Karen got married to her high school sweetheart and fellow Key Rat Curt Ross. I got to be a flower girl! Barbara was a junior bridesmaid. My mom made our dresses, and it so happened that one of the Seabelles functions at the Yacht Club was a luncheon and fashion show of members’ creations. Barbara and I modeled our dresses and mom came away with an award.
The Yacht Club played a major role in our lives. At a young age I remember the rendezvous that were part of our lives, going to places near and far. As I got older dad enrolled me in sailing lessons. Eventually, dad got me my own pram to race and sail. I did fairly well and traveled across the bay to represent the KBYC in numerous regattas. I remember the time I convinced my dad to let me sail around the island in my pram. That was a really long day and treacherous. I will say that dad followed me around in the motorboat and offered to tow me in numerous times, but I was pretty stubborn.
I spent a lot of time on the waters around the Key, as many Rats did while growing up. Some of my first memories are of my parents taking me out in our boat. Dad would fish off the Stiltsville Flats while Mom, Mindy Horn (next door friend) and I would walk the flats picking up sponges and exploring the critters inside and having sea cucumber wars between Mindy and I. Mom knew the owners of the A-house in Stiltsville, and we used to hit the docks to eat lunch or visit with the Hardens if they were using the house.
Mindy’s parents, Lou and Vickie Horn, would take us out lobstering or skiing all the time. Mindy and I both learned to ski at a young age, and the two of us continued to have fun on skis as we got older. The freedom we kids had on the Key and on the water was something that would be unheard of these days. I remember walking home or riding my bike to and from school every day. There were days when groups of us would ride the new bike path up to the Crandon Marina, maybe stopping at the zoo to look for peacock feathers. I remember many nights that Jeff Griffin and Lou Horn would take us into Cape Florida to look for nesting sea turtles. Even then many a night we didn’t find any, but it was always special when we did. It was always an adventure driving on sandy roads and the beach. I learned all kinds of tricks to get out of soft sand.
Living on an island meant you had to worry about hurricanes. I barely remember Hurricane Donna in 1960. One of the strange things that I do remember the adults doing was finding the neighbors who had empty carports. We would then take the “good” vehicle and raise the car up on blocks to prevent saltwater damage. The same was achieved by finding a parking garage off the Key and leaving your vehicle there. We would all buy gas for generators, freeze water in our freezers, and buy Sterno. If you had boats on trailers in the yard, they would come off the trailer and be filled with water. Bigger boats went up the river to ride out the storm. We would also fill our bathtubs full of water. It was not for drinking – it was for flushing toilets. However, I never remember losing water during a storm.
During Hurricane Donna I remember our house did not flood but came awfully close to it, the water within inches of coming in the door. We had the drawers of dressers pulled out and set on other furniture and legged furniture in pots and pans in case there was water intrusion. We had phone service the entire time and many people came over to use it. Word got out quickly. The Horns were generous with their generator, and we’d switch on and off to keep refrigerators and freezers going. Everyone shared food and helped throughout the neighborhood. I remember after Hurricane Betsy the lobster came out because it was thawing! Yum! After a couple of days, I remember asking for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich because I was tired of lobster!
One of the first ventures after the storm was to the Beach Club. The sand was pushed all around and very deep, and the Key Biscayne Hotel Villas took a big hit. It was always a great time to check out the beach to see what, if any, treasures were deposited or exposed. Before Andrew I told my parents they shouldn’t stay on the Key; they needed to stay with one of my siblings in South Miami. It turned out the house on the Key had the least damage of all the houses in town. We had no floodwater in the house.
The 4th of July on the Key was a favorite of mine! Kids decorated bikes in red, white and blue streamers and flags. We started planning as soon as school was out. The first few years we didn’t have button sales; instead small American flags were sold to support the festivities. I remember the parade went through the streets of the Key, not just down Crandon. After the parade there was a gathering at the Yacht Club. The men of the Key built a big wooden gazebo where a band from Patrick Air Force Base would play. Band members were hosted by residents of the Key.
I remember the parade was the result of T.O. Sykes (and many others) wanting to show his girls an old-fashioned patriotic 4th of July celebration. I remember him leading the Chowder Chompers band with his toilet plunger. Numerous parades stand out to me as the event continued to grow. There was the time Gerry Vickers and someone else started the parade with a “fly by,” flying very, very low. In fact, many claim it was so low that there were palm fronds caught in the underbelly of the plane. One year the Cuban residents, some of whom I think had just received American citizenship, walked in the parade. Another year I got to ride on the Key Biscayne Yacht Club float, and the previous year we took a Volkswagen Beetle and turned it into a whale. This project took place in the Hodges’ driveway.
There were bands that came from near and far, from the Hialeah Mummers to the Bahamian Junkanoo musicians. The Curtis family used to set out chairs early on the morning of the parade, and that is where mom and dad watched the parade. Afterwards all of us kids and grandchildren returned to the house to have hamburgers and hotdogs and mango ice cream and mango cake for dessert. At the end of the day, we would venture out into the bay and watch the Yacht Club fireworks. It was always a long day, but so much fun celebrating with friends and family.
Halloween was another great holiday to celebrate on the Key. I remember my dad taking Mindy and me around the neighborhood collecting candy when we were young. Moms made our outfits for the night. There were a couple of houses that were not to be missed. The Horns’ house next door was one of them. Lou and Vickie went all out with a smoking caldron that you reached into for your treats…but watch out for the peeled grapes and cooked spaghetti! I remember one year the Yehle house had ghosts that came flying at you as you walked up to get your candy. As we got older it was great that our parents didn’t worry about sending us without adult supervision; it was a night of mischief for sure and you got to be out after dark even on a school night!
Growing up on the Key was such a fantastic experience. It was the people, the location, and the times. For me, 675 Curtiswood Drive will always be home. It was the crookedest street on the Key but filled with the best neighbors.
Mom and dad finally moved off the Key and resided down in Eastridge retirement community. Karen Curtis Ross and Curtis Albert Ross lived around the United States and Europe thanks to the U.S. Air Force. Both have now passed. Don Curtis joined the Navy to see the world and he too returned home after his stint in the Navy. He married a lovely gal from Coconut Grove, Carol Lee Amos, and they settled on the Key for two years. Carol Lee became a teacher at Key Biscayne Elementary. Barbara Curtis Tkac married a fellow Miamian, John Tkac. They lived in Georgia for a few years and finally moved back to the Miami area. She was a teacher and they eventually moved to the Delray area.
I, Elisa Curtis Bailey, went to Florida State University and fell in love with the seasons of North Florida. I stayed there and worked for the City of Tallahassee. I finally got married to a wonderful Air Force G.I., Jeff Bailey, and moved to Navarre Beach, which is just east of Pensacola. I recently found out there is still a Curtis family at 675 Curtiswood Drive. I hope they build as many good memories as this Curtis family did!
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