Mandy Baca is a food- and history-obsessed Miami native, and author of Discovering Vintage Miami (Globe Pequot Press, 2014) and The Sizzling History of Miami Cuisine: Cortaditos, Stone Crabs and Empanadas (The History Press, 2013). With 2015 in full swing, we asked her to take us back in time and tell us what Miami was like 100 years ago. With celebrity-studded spectacles, boating, and biking, Miami history shows that our city has changed quite a lot, and yet hardly at all.
Having been incorporated in 1896 by 400 individuals, Miami in 1915 had grown up a lot. Records show that at the end of 1914, the city’s population was 14,672 and by the end of 1915, it grew to 15,592.
There were tons of goings-on about town for locals and tourists alike. For those who wanted to stay on the mainland, they could go to the circus at the Grand Theatre featuring Elsie St. Leon, a master equestrienne who appeared as Polly, attend a play like “Is Married Life A Failure?” at the Dixie Theatre, or catch a Paramount picture like “Behind the Scenes” featuring Mary Pickford at the Fotosho. Across the Collins Bridge on Miami Beach, lunch at Joe’s was popular as well as dancing to “corking music” at Olin Finney’s Casino.
The trek to Miami was a long one, no matter which way you traveled, so visitors often stayed for weeks or months at a time to justify the journey. These days, we call them snowbirds and they still stay for the season. For those who were more adventurous, affluent, and needed a vacation from their vacation, a trip to Cuba was in order.
The race was on at the Miami Regatta
To attract more visitors, investors, and residents, as well as to showcase the beauty of Biscayne Bay, Carl Fisher created one of the city’s finest events – The Miami Regatta. Held over January 15 and 16, 1915, Fisher put in the entire financial backing for this event from the trophy cups to the building of the grandstand and dredging of the course. Grandstands were located on what was then known as Alton Beach, between 15th and 20th Streets on the bay side of Miami Beach. An estimated 15,000 people showed up from all around the country to watch this event.
Of course, Fisher, not one to back away from competition, entered his boat Shadow II into the Regatta. This was further publicized as his boat famously went head to head with another local pioneer James Deering and his newly acquired boat, Sayonara. Coincidentally, Deering purchased Sayonara from Fisher.
A Miami Metropolis article from the day of the race highlighted the thrill:
One of the most thrilling moments of the race was when the Sayonara and the Shadow were rounding the curve at the judges’ stand at the end of the third lap. The Sayonara, a much larger boat, was compelled to describe a wider circle while the Shadow invariably cut in between the Sayonara and the buoys. When rounding the buoys at the end of the third lap Mr. Fisher left the wheel and, with Fred Johnson, mechanician climbed out and hung at arm’s length from the side of the boat on the inside curve, lending their weight to tip the cruiser so it would cut the corner closer.
The race ended with Sayonara as the winner, only 15 seconds ahead of its fierce opponent.
Celebrity spotting and Snowbirds at The Royal Palm Hotel
Or as Marjory Stoneman Douglas famously stated: “Miami’s Only Reason for Being.”
The Royal Palm Hotel reopened for its 18th season, on January 3, 1915, one day before the reopening of the Florida East Coast Railway’s full season schedule. This particular season lasted approximately 3 months. One day later, on January 4, the Royal Palm Casino opened. Back in the day, casinos were not the gambling dens we know as today, but recreational facilities that usually included pools and provided guests with sporty activities like swimming and diving. During the off-season, the pool was open to the locals. Admission ranged between $0.15 and $0.25. Also a big deal was the grand opening of the Greenleaf & Crosby shop inside the hotel.
The hotel was the second largest in Florida with 450 rooms and a capacity for 650-750 guests. At this point in its existence, the hotel was always packed. This was true of all hotels in the city and early Miami residents frequently complained about just how packed it was around town. Sound familiar?
Unlike other hotels of the time – Hotel Halcyon, The Royalton, The Fort Dallas Hotel, San Carlos Hotel, and the Hotel McCrory – which featured rates in the newspaper, The Royal Palm Hotel was incredibly posh and catered to the rich and famous. Rates were available upon inquiry only. However, they did love posting the comings and goings of guests in the newspaper. Some of the hotel’s most famous visitors included Carl Fisher, Andrew Carnegie, John Jacob Astor, and Glenn Curtiss.
The modern colonial grand 5-story Flagler yellow hotel was lush with hundreds of royal coconut palms and located in front of the ever-popular Royal Palm Park. The grand veranda, for which the hotel is known, wrapped around the eastern end of the hotel overlooking the Bay. Among other things, it also featured the city’s first electric lights, elevators, and swimming pool. Most impressive was the decked-out main dining room, which seated 500 guests.
In the hotel’s first week, 5 separate parties were held at the hotel. The Miami Metropolis highlighted one such lavish affair: “Mr. and Mrs. John B. Reilly’s table was attractively decorated with poinsettia blossoms and their guests were seated by means of oblong place cards, decorated with sprays of holly. Red cups filled with nuts made attractive favors. Seated about Mr. and Mrs. Reilly’s table were Mr. and Mrs. Edward Coleman Romfh, Mr. and Mrs. Bethel Blanton Tatum, Mr. and Mrs. Everest George Sewell, Mr. and Mrs. Edwin A. Waddell, Mr. and Mrs. Calvin Oak, Mr. and Mrs. Robert Marshall Price.” Miami’s society pages in the making.
The most important event of the month, however, occurred on the afternoon of January 12. A Miami News article from February 1987, which is a reprint of Howard Kleinberg’s weekly column, “Miami: The way we were” recaps it here:
Early white Miamians, while strict segregationists, still held the pioneer blacks in high esteem. As evidence, there was the mid-winter festival of the Magic Knights of Dade, a 1915 forerunner of the Orange Bowl Festival. As part of the festival, floats were assembled to depict the history of this area, starting off with a Christopher Columbus float. There also was a float for the Spanish settlers and one for the Seminole Indians. Following this will come a float showing the first laborers who did the first work in Miami. On this float will ride six of the twelve African Americans who did the first clearing and turned the first sod for the Royal Palm Hotel.
The parade was held on the afternoon of January 12 and The Miami Metropolis reported in its editions that day:
…The committee on historical features made a big hit with the next float which represented, or rather exhibited, the first African Americans brought to Miami to work after the decision of H.M. Flagler to extend his road to this city. The very men who came here in 1896 for this purpose were used on this float, their names being Riley Mangrum, A.W. Brown, Warren Merraday, Jim Hawkins, Jim Clory, and another whose name could not be learned…
Bikes were a big deal
If only this trend had continued, maybe Miami cyclists wouldn’t be so scared on the road today. In a Miami Evening Record article from January 5, an announcement of the opening of Miami Cycle Co., “The largest bicycle store in the South” appeared. They opened two locations – one in Riverside (north of the river) and the other on the Miami River (south of the river). The owner, Mr. McGill, opened the stores to handle their fast-growing bicycle and motorcycle business.
The Miami Cycle Company began on the first day they opened their doors to see how many regular customers they could make by giving them their money’s worth and good service. We have always given our patrons the best we could for least money, whether they knew the price of what they were buying or not. We have stuck to quality. You may sell a man an inferior article for less money, but when you do you lose a customer.
Writing sure was different back then. It’s interesting to note that the owner’s name was simply listed as Mr. McGill. I guess those who knew Mr. McGill, just knew him. Not much else is known about the company, other than the fact that they were good with advertising.
They weren’t the only business in town. They faced stiff competition from J.W. Harper who served as special agents in Dade Co. of the Pennsylvania Rubber Co. Famous Three Star line of Bicycle Tires.
Speaking of, how much did bikes cost back then? A full bike set would set you back anywhere between $27 and $35; spare tires between $3 and $5. That’s roughly between $600 and $800 today.
Just how popular were bikes before the advent of the automobile? A Miami News article from May 18, 1985 took us back in time to recount the story of one of Miami’s early residents (T.V. Moore). She recalled moonlight bicycle parties “around the square.” Parties consisted of ice cream from Seybold’s and soda from Dr. Ericson’s drug store. She also noted the following about our favorite venue, the Royal Palm Hotel: “Here’s an odd phase – closing of the Royal Palm hotel at the end of the season meant cuttings and seeds of rare tropical plants for the home folks, for from such botanical collections, at first, developed the present colorful front and back yards of today.”