Drive south from the concrete jungle of downtown Miami, through Coral Gables and past Palmetto Bay and you’ll see the landscape slowly give way to a lush green. Continue even further south and you’ll pass rows and rows of fertile farmland, eventually reaching a mesmerizing, flowing river of grass.
“Miami-Dade County is unique in that it has the eighth largest population of urban community in the country, and it has … a considerable farming belt, it’s unusual. And that’s South Dade,” explained local historian Paul George.
Encompassing the southern area of Miami-Dade County, South Dade is loosely defined as the area below Palmetto Bay, including the Redlands, Homestead, Florida City, and extending down to the Everglades.
It’s a region that has gone through tremendous change between the first catalyst of growth, the extension of the Flagler Railroad, and the devastation wrought by Hurricane Andrew a century later.
A marshy, flooded, mosquito-filled wilderness
Let’s take it from the beginning. The history of South Dade as we know it — an area largely known for its agricultural land, but one that is slowly developing with more and more residential communities — began as the Second Seminole War comes to an end, in 1838.
The area was largely a marshy swampland at this time, according to George, a Miami historian who wrote the book “A Journey Through Time: A pictorial history of South Dade.”
Prior to writing this book George says he himself knew very little about the region. (And prior to writing this story, we too, knew very little about the fascinating history of South Dade!)
”Unbeknownst to the publisher, writing it was a learning process for me, too,” he laughed. “But I knew by researching and writing that book I could learn a lot about it.”
One reason people came to South Dade even before Flagler’s railroad extended south — which is credited for much of the region’s development — was the Federal Homestead Law of 1862, which opened up a lot of land for homesteaders. The law provided 160 acres of federally owned land if residents cleared five acres of it for farming and built a permanent home on the property. After five years, the land was theirs to keep.
Sounds like a pretty sweet deal, right? But it was complete wilderness with frequent flooding and full of buzzing mosquitoes. Those who took on the challenge were “hearty people,” according to George, who slowly transformed the fertile land into a farming area.
Many homesteaders chose was an area called Silver Palm, today known as the Redland District. It was elevated, so it was easier to avoid flooding.
Here comes Flagler’s railroad
The real catalyst of South Dade’s development, however was the extension of Henry Flagler’s railroad in the early 1910s.
“Without that, it’s a wilderness with scattered roots of farmers along Cutler, which is where the Deering Estate is. You had mostly scattered farming communities going back to the mid-1890s,” George said.
Henry Flagler decided to extend his railroad south from Miami through Homestead as part of his dream to build an overseas railroad through the Florida Keys.
“The railroad knit together the scattered farming communities,” George said.
After Flagler’s railroad was built, settlements arose in the vicinity of the tracks – modern-day Kendall, Benson, Perrine, Goulds, Princeton, Naranja, and Homestead, among others. The population grew from just a hundred to a few hundred.
Many of the builders of the railroad were African-American settlers recruited from Jasper and White Springs in Northern Florida. They were able to buy land of their own at low costs because one of the first African-American landowners, William Randolph, believed they should own their own farms and sold them the land cheaply.
Soon a Federal Highway Administration grant enabled the building of US-1 down to Homestead, which ran parallel to the railway track.
“Now that the train was there we needed a way to move people by roads, so federal builders … looked into a crystal ball and said there will be [more people moving around].”
As the communities grew around the railroad, so too did roads, supermarkets, and post offices.
A boom, a storm, and a bust
The real estate boom of the early 1920s brought prosperity throughout Miami-Dade County. In South Dade, the City of Homestead experienced the greatest growth. The city’s “first citizen” William J. Krome, who arrived there while overseeing the completion of the railroad, considered it an agricultural paradise. He and his wife acquired land there. They were terrific farmers, and especially keen of avocados, according to George. (Same.)
By the early 1920s more than 1,000 people lived in Homestead. But the collapse of the housing boom and a devastating hurricane brought that growth to a screeching halt, destroying homes, buildings, and more than 7,000 citrus trees — the area’s primary cash crop.
The Great Depression further stalled South Dade’s growth through the 1930s, but President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal slowly began revitalizing the area with new construction. Tourists riding trains south to the Florida Keys brought a steady flow of business to Homestead as well.
Soon attractions like the Monkey Jungle, Parrot Jungle, the Fairchild Tropical Gardens and Coral Castle revealed a new economic strength: tourism.
By the early 1960s institutions like the Knaus Berry Farm and the Robert is Here fruit stand opened up, bringing people from all over to experience South Dade’s rich agricultural industry. Following Marjory Stoneman Douglas’ “Everglades: A River of Grass,” which urged the preservation of the wetlands, in 1947 President Harry S. Truman dedicated the Everglades a national park.
After World War II, the demand for produce grew. Business boomed in South Dade. Migrant laborers from Puerto Rico, Jamaica and the Bahamas found work here.
Later many Haitian and Mexican workers would also move to South Dade looking for work.
“It was tough, they lived in block houses and were bussed to the fields each day. … it was rough work,” George said. “There were no unions so bosses could work them really hard.”
By the 1990s South Dade, encompassed 18 percent of Miami-Dade’s population — amounting to 375,000 people.
“Between 1961 and 1990, the value of vegetables raised in Dade County tripled,” reads George’s book. The region was the country’s largest producer of tomatoes in the winter, and provided 95 percent of the lemons to the whole country.
But while there was some prosperity, there were also deep divides. Poverty was a serious problem in Florida City, Perrine, and Goulds where many migrant labor populations lived — many who worked long hours for low wages.
The impact of Hurricane Andrew
The region continued to develop with the opening of the Homestead Campus of the Miami-Dade College and the Metro Zoo, but it was completely derailed on Aug. 24, 1992, when Hurricane Andrew smashed through the region.
In Homestead more than 7,500 people were left homeless and more than 85 percent of the housing was damaged. The Homestead Airforce Base, the Aviation Airport, and agriculture were all completely destroyed.
The farm losses exceeded $41 billion, according to George.
Dazed and destroyed, South Dade slowly started to rebuild. The Homestead Airforce Base eventually reopened, and is now known as the Homestead Air Reserve Base. The Homestead-Speedway race car track was built a year after Andrew to help revitalize the area as well. Florida City with its high poverty rate and large migrant worker population is still rebuilding today.
Onward and forward
Today the region is “bustling,” says George. “The whole county is bustling, financially and otherwise. South Dade is a big growth area and potential for growth … there’s a lot of land owned and waiting for development that remains undeveloped. It’s all about timing.”
George suspects that this current building boom throughout Miami-Dade County, South Dade included, is coming to an end.
“I have a friend in South Dade who has $30 million of land and can build 4,000 residential structures, but he’s sitting on it at this point. That’s an example of what’s going to happen [in the next few years],” he said.
Future growth, he suspects, is going to come at the expense of the farmland, but South Dade will remain a tremendous farming community. And even as it develops, South Dade’s geographical uniqueness and rural, lush ambiance will continue to be a draw for tourists and farmers alike for decades to come.