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The history of the lush, weird, magnificent Kampong

Miami is a city of hidden gems: arrowheads in the soil, sacred circles beneath buildings, history and cultural narratives hidden in the limestone.

While urban sprawl threatens to deprive the city of its rich density, the green spaces here are still vibrant, precious, and filled with rare fruits. The best known might be Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, established in 1936 by Robert H. Montgomery and named for his good friend, Dr. David Fairchild, the botanist and explorer whose plants still grow in the garden today.

But Fairchild’s former residence, the lesser-known Kampong in Coconut Grove, is smaller and equally lush. In 1916, Fairchild and his wife Marian, an artist and the daughter of Alexander Graham Bell, purchased the property from Countess Florence Baldwin Nugent, who’d occupied the residence with her husband James Nugent, a French count, since 1910. Fairchild named the home a few years later.

As he explains in his book The World Grows Round My Door, “By the time we had finished putting up houses and moving shacks about there were so many buildings on the place that it suggested a little village—a Javanese Kampong.”

Fairchild loved the island of Java. In a 1941 article from The Miami Daily News Roto-magazine chronicling Fairchild’s travels, the author writes: “The most interesting tropical garden in the world, say the Fairchilds, is Buitenzorg Garden in Java.”

It might have been his love of Indonesia that fueled his love of Miami.

“Although I did not realize it then,” he says in his book, referring to a lull between travels, “I was already predisposed in favor of a life in the tropics.” He recalls Marian’s reaction during their first visit to the property: “Marian gazed a moment at the blue waters of the bay […] and said very simply and in a strangely decided way: ‘We’ve got to have this place, David.’”

The Kampong is located across nine acres in Coconut Grove, fertile with coco plums, mangos, bignay fruits, and white sapote. Registered as part of the National Tropical Botanical Garden, it’s the only garden in the institution located outside of Hawaii. In addition to offering tours of the Fairchilds’ home, The Kampong is an educational resource, with a tropical botany intensive course taught by Dr. Walter Judd, a professor of Biology at the University of Florida and, in partnership with the International Center for Tropical Botany at Florida International University, an upcoming expansive tropical botany program.

The Kampong, with its lush, weird magnificence, also hosts unique events. The Yawanawá Tribe of the Brazilian Amazon recently performed and this December artist and choreographer Ana Mendez will perform there. O, Miami, the month-long poetry festival, sets up programming each April. The Instagrammed flora evokes awe among those who’ve never seen Miami’s hidden garden.

There’s a mysterious energy at The Kampong, as Fairchild noted:

Jack Peacock and his relatives, Captain Simmons and his remarkable wife, give a setting to The Kampong that is not commonplace in any way, and I am proud of them all. Their ghosts—if I believed in ghosts—would gather around me when I go out to see my mango fruits silhouetted against the face of the full moon[…]

The first resident was probably John Thomas “Jolly Jack” Peacock, who named his settlement Jack’s Bight. But the first to legally claim it was J. William Ewan, the “Duke of Dade,” who purchased a claim from Peacock and filed for a land patent in 1882. A colleague of Julia Tuttle’s, Ewan was a liberal spender who left little behind. Dr. Eleanor Galt Simmons and Captain Albion R. Simmons, who’d served in the army, purchased the property in 1892, reportedly moving there for Albion’s health during the first chills of winter.

At a time when being both a woman and a medical practitioner was inevitably challenging, she became the first woman to receive a medical license in Dade County. HistoryMiami’s archives reveal her interest not only in medicine, but in reptiles. She received several letters and specimens from the Smithsonian, noting her “drawings of reptiles” to be used in a monograph, Reptiles of North America.

While in Miami, Dr. Simmons set up an office—built of Dade County pine—and treated members of the Miccosukee tribe, made rural house calls, and became fairly renowned for her ability to treat difficult cases (gunshot wounds included). Albion ran a guava jelly factory, its contents detailed in a document hidden beneath the fireplace and discovered by Lindley DeGarmo, a tenant. The letterhead read:

A.R. Simmons, Manufacturer, Bay Biscayne Florida Brand

  • Guava Jelly
  • Guava Cheese
  • Guava Vinegar
  • Wine of Pineapple
  • Pineapple in Glass
  • Mango Jam
  • Wine of Guava

His death is equally noteworthy. Albion had a pact with a friend, Kirk Munroe, to be buried at sea; he died while Munroe was traveling and was subsequently buried. When Munroe returned, he exhumed the body to carry out his friend’s wishes; it reportedly took undertaker H.M. King two tries to sink the body. He resorted to a 500-pound anchor.

In 1910, the aforementioned Nugents moved in. Florence Baldwin Nugent was a Cornell University graduate; her husband, Count James Nugent, was a truck farmer and, according to Zuckerman, “an active member of the Coconut Grove community.” After his death, Florence sold the property to the Fairchilds.

The family’s time on The Kampong was rich, and though it served primarily as their winter home, the house was consistently lively. It became Fairchild’s introduction garden, where he experimented with new seedlings and plant cuttings he’d found; the family hosted visitors like Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and Marjory Stoneman Douglas.

Fairchild stayed at The Kampong until his death in 1954; Marian passed away in 1963. The garden’s future was determined by a chance meeting between Catherine “Kay” and Edward Sweeney eight years after they read Garden Islands of the Great East. In 1963, Elva Fairchild, wife of Graham Fairchild (David and Marian’s son) met Kay in Panama by chance, and mentioned the garden’s then-availability. The Sweeneys purchased The Kampong. Twenty years later, Kay entered the garden into the National Register of Historic Places, then gifted it to the National Tropical Botanical Garden.

Musing about The Kampong’s magic, Schmidt says, “I think David would be happy that it’s been preserved the way it was.” Fairchild, though, was unassuming about The Kampong’s future — he seems to have accepted that nature ebbs and flows.

As he explains toward his story’s end: “We have come to feel that making anything permanent out of a private garden is something that cannot be done. And it does not matter much anyway, for life is a moving, changing affair […] So what does it matter what happens to The Kampong after Marian and I have gone?”

Today The Kampong is a bit hidden, tucked away off of Douglas Road just a couple blocks up from bustling downtown Coconut Grove. Visiting info here