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An Encounter With The Key Biscayne Historical
And Heritage Society

By Frank Caplan, Ann Taintor and Nora Camejo
In collaboration with the Key Biscayne Lion Club, for the permanent collections
of the Key Biscayne Historical and Heritage Society and the Key Biscayne Lions Club

Key Biscayne Historical Society

Anecdotes and Artifacts

Anecdotes and artifacts help to personalize the past; to make history accessible, understandable, interesting. It’s always a good time to reflect on this truth, especially now as June 2021 marked the 30th anniversary of incorporation of the Village of Key Biscayne. The community-wide celebrations for this milestone anniversary were suspended due to COVID-precautions. COVID protectiveness notwithstanding, this most recent anniversary spawned a good deal of reflection about the arc of history in our community, as anniversaries tend to do. We’re always in the midst of change, even as we’re anchored in sustaining ways by our Island heritage. Our traditions, the strength of our institutions and clubs, the binding ties of community help keep us oriented; help keep us true to who we are.

For a small island, Key Biscayne’s history is comparatively ancient, rich, interesting, and well-documented. There are so many stories, so many photos and maps and deeds and records, one would think there’s not much left to discover about this little speck of sand in the vast world. But that would be to misconstrue history as received truth; frozen and intact, when in fact history involves exploration; an organic ongoing process of preservation and discovery.

Exploration and Dissemination

Enter the Key Biscayne Historical and Heritage Society. Founded in 2007, the Historical Society emerged from the Key Biscayne American Legion’s interest in sponsoring a series of historical lectures. That effort, and similar seed work by others, spawned recognition that Key Biscayne had a unique and colorful history, and a host of avocational historians armed with a lot of good stories, not to mention quite an ad hoc collection of curiosities. A group of volunteers, led by Bob Bristol, Dr. Bob Maggs, and Ed Meyer, formed the Society as a non-profit entity, appointed a board, and began to assemble and preserve a treasure trove of photographs, news clippings, and all manner of materials. High interest in local lore fed the mission and Society membership grew as social and substantive gatherings garnered ever-broader community participation. As the Society matures, archiving, curating, presenting and programming are becoming more ambitious and sophisticated.

True to its mission statement, the Society is active in collecting, preserving, interpreting and displaying photographs, documents, artifacts, artworks, biographies, oral histories, legends, memorabilia and information of historical, cultural or environmental significance to Key Biscayne. The Historical Society endeavors to stimulate community interest and civic engagement through a variety of programming, including lectures, videos, publications and social gatherings built around relevant topics. The resulting products and activities place our local history in broader context, helping newcomers become grounded in this special place, and old-timers to reminisce and celebrate, and encouraging public participation and healthy civic engagement; all worthy goals.

Key BIscayne Historical Society
Key Biscayne Historical Society
Key Biscaune Historical Society

Unity; Uniqueness
The Historical Society is a portal for Key Biscayne’s identity and brand. The very fact that our history and local culture is so interesting is itself a source of value to the community. That’s because the resulting attention, study and appreciation sharpen and reinforce a collective identity, in turn building a sort of unity; a sense of uniqueness. Is there value in stimulating a broader and deeper appreciation for our history and culture? Is it a useful and positive initiative to help make new and deeper friendships, to expand local knowledge, to build a videography library of the old-timers and their stories? Of course it is. And, apart from personal and civic enrichment, this promotes our one-of-a-kind island identity, here and across the bridge.

The Nickel Tour
One might ask: how much is there to research and talk about? Well, we could start with the fossilized reef at Bear Cut, carbon-dated to near the time of Christ. Carbon dating aside, it is no exaggeration to claim a long historical line. In fact, our purely local time-line goes back at least to the edge of the European experience of the New World – the first exploration of the Americas by European snowbirds. About 15 years after Columbus sailed the ocean blue, a European in the person of Juan Ponce de León stumbled upon Key Biscayne. A few years ago, at the Turtle Pond Plaza, we celebrated the 500th anniversary of Ponce de León’s landing. History suggests that he named Key Biscayne “Santa Marta,” claiming it for the Spanish king, and by invoking a saint, perhaps suggesting that he was pleased with this particular landfall and the restorative fresh water springs and pond they found. How lyrical is it to think that the fabled fountain of youth might have been a fountain of fresh water on Key Biscayne, revitalizing parched sailors after a sea voyage.

Human wayfarers on Key Biscayne predate Ponce de León by a long time. Archeological evidence of Tequesta settlements date back a thousand years or so. Fast-forwarding, we can see a precursor to our earliest industry – salvage from shipwrecks – in the 16th and 17th century maps depicting vividly the dangers around and about Cape Florida’s reefs and shallows. We come to the first Spanish Land Grant in South Florida and the subsequent early homesteading on Cape Florida in 1805. Then onward to the Davis family matriarch – Mary Ann Davis – who in the 1820s purchased the original tract from the sovereign grantee and later sold a few acres to the federal government for an army base and a warning light for passing ships. Then to the 1825 Cape Florida Lighthouse, said to be the oldest man-made structure in South Florida, and the focus of the 1836 Seminole attack on Key Biscayne.

The KBHHS values original research and scholarship in establishing facts and information. In the 1990s, while researching for her book, Key Biscayne and the Cape Florida Lighthouse, our most eminent and beloved local historian, Joan Gill Blank, tracked down Davis family heirs, gleaning new or forgotten historical facts and records. As Joan reported, Waters Smith Davis built Key Biscayne’s first waterfront home, Cape House, in the 1890s. Although Cape House no longer stands, burned to the ground in the 1950s, the Cape Florida Lighthouse still guides wayfarers – now joggers and walkers in the Key Biscayne Lighthouse Run, itself historically significant in its 44th consecutive year as Florida’s longest continuous road race event.

History On Display
After some years of planning and effort, in early 2020 the Historical Society, working in collaboration with the Village Council and administration, and with its valued partner, the Key Biscayne Community Foundation, took a step toward a long-sought goal: the establishment of a museum. A ribbon-cutting and celebration of the new KBHHS Pop-up Museum was scheduled for March 2020, but unfortunately, COVID-19 forestalled that event. Nevertheless, the Society was able to complete a video tour of the inaugural installation, hosted by Ann Taintor and noted South Florida historian, Dr. Paul George. The tour and Dr. George’s commentary can be viewed by visiting the Society’s website (www.kbhistory.org).

The video portrays an interesting potpourri of curiosities and local lore: A 1926 survey map depicting the Matheson landholdings; reflections about the wind-driven salty climate and coconut palms; the remnants of a large Tequesta settlement, unearthed by Hurricane Andrew; stories of swimming bears traversing the fast current between Virginia Key and Key Biscayne; images of the Causeway opening and information about the development of the community that became the Village of Key Biscayne; and more.

The Pop-up Museum supplements and strengthens the Society’s ongoing efforts at community outreach, first evident in the “iconic stuff” display in the wooden cabinets on the first floor of the Community Center. The KBHHS long-term goal of a first class historical museum and archives, worthy of the Island’s present and future collection and programming, gained traction pre-pandemic. Engagement with the community was building with historical talks and displays for students at the Community School, and by reaching and including a younger group of next generation leaders for active participation and program development in the Society, as well as by instituting contemporary archival practices for the Society.

Future plans for the Pop-up Museum include a regular refreshing of the displays and expanded locations, such as the library and schools. A new display, dealing with the incorporation era, was ready for installation, but was deferred due to COVID. While COVID precautions remain in effect, tours of the Pop-up Museum, located on the 2nd floor of the Village Hall, can be arranged as noted on the website.

History Under Foot
After visiting the Pop-up Museum, those inclined toward a more aerobic encounter with our distinctive Island heritage would do well to explore the Heritage Tail, discussed in greater detail in the Historical Society’s 2020 Lion’s Club article. For a quick and easy reminder, the Heritage Trail is a self-guided tour from Bear Cut to Cape Florida and from Ocean to Bay, featuring 26 bronze plaques mounted on oolitic limestone rocks, and marked by the fertile image of a sprouting coconut palm – a new tree from seed. This symbol of renewal in the tropics brought to mind our incorporation as the Village; an unlikely new municipal life emerging from the husk of County indifference and even opposition.

Walk, bike or scooter the Heritage Trail and track the footsteps and footholds of prehistoric Tequesta, early planters, shipwreck speculators, entrepreneurs, and homesteaders drawn to our Island Paradise. Explore Cape Florida, an important place-name in the earliest history of the Americas.

On your way to the Lighthouse, visit the old iron cupola, originally installed by an army engineer, George Meade, who raised the height of the existing tower and whose career-path placed him in command of the Union army at Gettysburg only a few years later. Ready yourself for a hike up 109 steps to the top of the Lighthouse and gaze towards the Gulf Stream, imagining sailing ships racing to wreckage on the shoals or safely pursuing commerce in the Caribbean and beyond. Visit the Keeper’s Cottage and Cookhouse, and watch the informative video produced by our wonderful Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park historians. Check out the marker for the Davis family park, former site of the Island’s first waterfront residence and its caretaker’s cottage, the recorded birthplace in the early 1900s of the Island’s first known children of African descent. Follow the natural paths traversed by the Tequestas through native hammocks of gumbo limbo, cocoplum, buttonwood and seagrape. You may spot some of the same types of migratory birds John James Audubon cataloged around Cape Florida in 1832. Rest at No Name Harbor, a wildlife ecosystem and refuge for pirates, smugglers and happy hour.

Key Biscayne Historical Society
Key Biscayne Historical Society
Key Biscayne Historical Society

Moving north, imagine the busy commercial wharf once at Hacienda Canal. Imagine Carnegies and Mellons and Vanderbilts on their grand yachts enjoying the Gilded Age hospitality of William J. Matheson and family at Mashta House. Channel political history at the site of President Nixon’s Winter White House on Bay Lane. Meander to the Island’s interior and imagine the tropical nursery and botanical research that flourished on Key Biscayne, hints of which may be seen in the towering Kapok, Baobab and other specimen trees in the Village Green and in Crandon Park. Imagine the thriving coconut plantation established in 1908, mementoes from which are in the collection of the Historical Society, including a foreman’s weather diary found by Cliff Brody when he a was young boy. Imagine the first general store and the original one-room schoolhouse, precursor to the 1950s vintage Key Biscayne Community School. Walk down Nassau Street-now East Heather Drive-and visualize a line of coconut trees shading the white-frame cottages housing Bahamian plantation workers, much the same as the surviving frame houses in West Coconut Grove. Many remember the Worker’s Dormitory, whose second life was the original St. Christopher’s-by-the-Sea before transforming into the Island’s first theatre, Calusa Playhouse. The Lake Park may bring to mind the freshwater wells and ponds noted by British surveyors in the 1770s and by Ponce de León more than 250 years earlier.

Continue north into Calusa and Crandon Parks, past mangrove preserves, winding through wetlands and our rich and diverse barrier island ecology. Pass through archeological preservation zones protecting Tequesta fishing camp-sites discovered in 1992, dating circa 1,200 A.D. On the bay side, at the Links golf course near the 18th tee, you might find the 1855 Coast Survey Monument, if your tee-shot goes astray. This is the sibling of a similar granite monument in Cape Florida, that together mark the northern and southern ends of the Island. Coastal surveyors used the markers to map reefs and keys between Key Biscayne and Key West. On the ocean side, you will encounter the enchanting Quiet Gardens, formerly a zoological park. Moving northward beyond the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Biscayne Nature Center, you will come to Bear Cut and the prehistoric fossilized reef, Key Biscayne’s black mangrove “petrified forest,” carbon-dated to around 50 A.D.

The Heritage Trail reveals our unique lineage from ancient and early settlements giving way to a military camp, giving way to a plantation, giving way to a Village. It also reminds us as we travel the length and breadth of the Island, from park through community to park, that the setting hasn’t changed so very much. We see the same stars at night. Time is marked by the same tidal changes, the arc of the sun and shadows in morning and afternoon. Island Paradise rings true because we’re so interconnected with nature, in a relationship between the transient and eternal; the built and natural.

Experiencing our Island’s environment helps sharpen one’s appreciation for nesting sea turtles and aquatic birds along our shores and sheltered in our parks and natural preserves. We can better appreciate this ecological treasure of sand, wetlands and woodlands, home to the human species and others, tucked between bay and ocean at a favorable latitude right off the Gulf Steam. Island Paradise takes on a larger meaning the more we know about our own natural resources, wildlife and history.

We care about the tangible manifestations of the past – anecdotes and artifacts. Many of us feel a kind of ghostly connection with Island features that are gone, replaced, but not forgotten.

A few years ago, standing on her balcony at Mar Azul, Joan Gill Blank circumscribed with her finger the footprint of the little plantation cottage just off the dune where she and her family lived when she was a young bride and mother. It’s still there in her minds-eye. In fact, the remnants of that cottage are in Crandon Park today.

Key Biscayne Historical Society
Key Biscayne Historical Society
Key Biscayne Historical Society
Key Biscayne Historical Society