• Business
  • Personal

Key Biscayne Historical and Heritage Society

Now And Then

By Frank Caplan 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

Every now and then, in the midst of our contemporary preoccupations, we’re inclined to muse about the good old days. When reminiscing with friends, celebrating traditions, visiting old haunts, or perhaps when stuck in traffic with unwelcome time to reflect, our thoughts turn to earlier times, sometimes invoking that sepia-toned sense that things were simpler and better in the bygone age. At this moment in time, as so many newcomers are making full-time homes here, just as old-timers are dwindling in numbers, with new construction proliferating and sugar-cube house variations changing the streetscapes, with daily traffic delays causing snarls both in mobility and mood, as major public works projects engender a sort of shock and awe, it seems a good time to look back on Key Biscayne as it was, in different days.  

Fortunately, there are resources to draw on.  Long-timers now in their late 60s and beyond have memorialized vivid recollections which, unsurprisingly, repeatedly feature friends and neighbors whose own recollections are much the same.  We see this over and over in the Lions Club Family Stories collection and in the video interviews maintained with Historical and Heritage Society. Different pioneer families recall the same or very similar good old day Island life experiences, shared with and enhanced by their friends who treasure much the same memories from the 1950s, 60s and 70s.

This commonality of experience is not merely an interesting historical perspective, but also a telling insight about today and tomorrow.  Because in glancing back in time, we find timeless characteristics that still persist today; lasting qualities that continue to animate the wonderful experience of living here. Yes, our Island Paradise has changed enormously, but not so much in some important ways.  Conditions that drew families here in the ‘50s still feature in that special, casual, unique Key Biscayne vibe that we treasure today.

Family Stories from the 50s reveal a lost era in physical terms. Think of Crandon Boulevard with one lane in each direction. The Plantation Big Barn at Crandon and East Enid. The abandoned Lighthouse. The future Heather Drive was a canal. No traffic or traffic lights. No streetlights. A payphone. No private telephones. Acres of straight lines of coconut palms. Memories of Mac, the Bahamian Plantation manager, who survived the 1926 hurricane clinging to the rafters of the Big Barn as the water rose. Woods and wilds and empty beaches for adventures, discovery and daring-do.

Early commentators recall preschool at the Plantation Commissary re-purposed as the Little Island Playhouse, and the teacher, Miss Claus, beloved even after the kids realized that she wasn’t in fact related to Santa. Several stories allude to a bikini-clad Mrs. Revere riding her Plantation-stabled horse down the beach or on Crandon Boulevard. One could discern that Mrs. Revere would be found at the English Pub by the presence of her horse tied up in front. We find details of the compact box-like houses with concrete roofs, none past Woodcrest for a time, but spreading inexorably, prices increasing by $100 per block west of Crandon. The cooling effect of terrazzo floors without air-conditioning. Cross-ventilation from ocean breezes through open windows. The exotic not-too-distant lions’ roar carrying through the quiet night from Crandon Zoo, with a different, woeful tone that time a lion had a toothache.

Examples abound. Family Stories from the 1950s cite recurringly to a strong sense of community; pride of place; appreciation for natural beauty; a casual, outdoorsy lifestyle defined by free-roaming kids, neighborliness, and shared family traditions evolving into multi-generational friendships.

Early families found like-minded souls in their neighbors. Many were dedicated to community building, investing personally and generously in founding and developing our service organizations and social and recreational clubs; building local family-owned businesses that feature with such affection in so many stories; establishing houses of worship; supporting schools and athletics – all the cultural conduits that contribute massively to what we recognize as quality of life. And the founders’ philanthropies and public engagement were inherited and brought forward by their kids and grandkids, whose own lives and stories feature the same dedication to community building. We see this more or less indistinguishably from the first generation, from their Baby Boomer kids, and their kids and grandchildren. Millennials and Gen Zers grew up savoring Island life much the same as their parents and grandparents.

Time passed and the community evolved, but lived experience on the Island – the early Key Rat experience – remained much the same in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Many Family Stories have a Swiss Family Robinson flavor. Elisa Curtis Bailey (yes, that’s why it’s Curtiswood) shares memories of her solo-circumnavigation of the Key in a home-built Pram, shadowed by her dad in the motorboat, assuring help if needed. Her stories and many others tout sailing, swimming, water skiing, fishing, searching for treasures in the flats, and biking everywhere, to school, all over town, in Cape Florida, all the way to Crandon Marina, enabling a stop at the Zoo and a search for peacock feathers. Endless hours at the Beach Club. The Yacht Club. Climbing trees and hanging out in tree forts and secret hideouts. Rope swinging into Pines Canal. Flashlight tag through multiple backyards. Swarms of fireflies and butterflies. Kick the can. Cookouts. Campouts. Kids constructing elaborate concealed “people traps” on the beach, ostensibly to discourage population growth, and concocting ways to distract the Nixon secret service detail.

Key life meant (and still means) interconnectedness with others. The Family Stories frequently name friends and neighbors, reflecting warm affections undiminished over many years. Key Rats married Key Rats; childhood sweethearts for life. Neighbors on Curtiswoodwhose daughters were each named Barbara Anne agreed on a naming convention – one would be Barbara, the other Anne, thus eliminating confusion when calls to come home for dinner rang out. The stories are rife and rich with details of life-long friendships that persist today among neighbors we know today. Memories are specific and personal. We hear stories not just of swim lessons, but lessons with Mr. McClain or Mr. Cutera. Not just tennis, but lessons with Bill Hardie and friendly matches with Andy Garcia. Ace Noonan. Melissa Trantham Tyler recalls singing at the Little Island Playhouse, but not just singing, singing Andrews Sisters tunes, trying in vain to hit the familiar harmonies. Dr. Handwerker as Uncle Sam. George Earl’s debut in “Stalag 17” at the Calusa Playhouse (formerly the plantation workers’ barracks and later the first home of St. Christopher’s By-the-Sea). Many grateful allusions to Mr. Sykes and successor drum majors leading the Chowder Chompers with a toilet plunger at the 4th of July parade.

Friends from the old days recount the same stories. Criss-crossing through backyards or walking along the seawalls, without a thought to the multiple private properties crossed without permission or controversy. Living in nature. The free-range kid stories with full latitude to explore every nook and cranny – just be home for dinner. It’s interesting to confront different friends’ take on the same moments. The distracting kites overflying the secret service post, for example. Prudence Gill speaks about the family pet raccoon, Hurtsel Racketty Mascarado Gill. It’s very sweet that Jan Read, in telling her family’s rich story, would think about Prudence’s raccoon after some 60 years, not to mention her coral rock resistant feet and also her early experience with advocacy, objecting in a Miami News piece about the Island House development which would interfere with Hurtsel’s play area.

Island life means you get to know each other in a hurry. And the choices or coincidences that lead people here, for many reasons, from many places, help to demonstrate what a small world it can be. For example, the Loveland Family Story relates that Steven Loveland, originally from Pittsburgh, served in World War II as a navigator on an Army Air Corps B-17. He survived a high-altitude bailout when his plane was shot down on a bombing mission. Steven was captured (at the point of a pitchfork) and incarcerated in a POW camp, Luftstalag III (the site of the Great Escape). How odd that George Coleman, originally from Calgary and another future islander, also served as a navigator, on a RCAF Halifax. His plane too was shot down on a bombing mission. The entire crew was lost except for George, who also survived a high-altitude bail-out, was captured, also at the point of a pitchfork, and interred in the very same Luftstalag III. When the camp was evacuated with the Russians pressing west, both Steven and George survived the frigid Death March. Later, Steven, the American, settled on West Enid. George, the Canadian, on Harbor Drive. Small world. Their kids know their stories and are sharing them, with pictures and letters, now. Another small world story.

The Family Stories repeat over and over that residents back in the day worked on improving the community, forming friendships, having fun and finding purpose in doing so. This is our great legacy and we continue to fulfill it. It fueled the incorporation movement and continues still, guiding ensuing generations in realizing the fullest potential of self-governance. This imparts confidence that newcomers will know in their own ways and in their own time the wonderful experiences of old time Key Rats.

Conchita Suarez and many others recall an occasion when Key Biscayners, linked arm-in-arm, formed a human barricade on Crandon, intending to derail the County’s plan to remove trees to build an overpass to the Tennis Center. It’s a reassuring thought to consider that we’re still arm-in-arm, friends and neighbors invested in the community and caring for each other and the Island Paradise that is our home. This is a great legacy. And we Island Keepers carry on with confidence that Key Rats today and tomorrow will create their own Family Stories, replete with adventures and with contributions to our Island life.

Island life has changed of course. But with all the changes, we find continuity. This a critical theme. With all that’s changed what’s most important abides. Its wise and worthwhile to consider certain timeless verities. Key Biscayners have always been visionaries. That remains true. The natural beauty of this place still shines, as does our appreciation for it, our embrace of the outdoors, and our striving for good stewardship. The best historical constants defining Key Biscayne persist. People self-select this place. We’re not generic. Key Rats are sensitive and tough. Residents were always and are still engaged in the community, dedicated to each other, generous and involved in the public life; in building and supporting our clubs and institutions.