by Jeff Blakley
I transcribed this article from the October 17, 1918 issue of The Homestead Enterprise and added links and footnotes to explain some of the events mentioned in the article.
Dan Roberts married Annie Margaret Fitzpatrick, the daughter of Byrd and Alice L. Fitzpatrick on September 22, 1906. She was the sister-in-law of Annie Mayhew Fitzpatrick, the well-known musician and writer of poetry and non-fiction. Dan was born on January 2, 1876 in Lake City, FL and filed for his homestead on Coconut Palm Drive and S.W. 182 Avenue on April 27, 1900. He was a prominent nurseryman and well-respected horticulturalist who established the Mason & Roberts Nursery as early as 1907 with his brother-in-law, Benjamin Mason.1 Early in 1911, the name was changed to The Homestead Nurseries Co., which was apparently later purchased by William H. Cauley and renamed the Dade County Nurseries Co., Inc. Roberts later established his own nursery, the Roberts Nurseries, and ran that business until at least mid-1925. Dan was a founding member of the Board of Directors of the Bank of Homestead in 1912 and served in that capacity until at least 1926. Roberts Road, S.W. 182 Avenue, is named for him.
By Dan M. Roberts
In the spring of 1898 I left Volusia county from a point on Lake George in company with a fellow by the name of Claude Jenkins. We had heard of the Homestead country as a land famous for good hunting and it was said that the soil was red similar to that of Cuba.2 We were both very fond of hunting and camping in the woods so the idea struck us so hard that we both decided to quituate (sic) from school and do some exploring. Our plans were to take a boat with a separable sail and follow the St. Johns River from Lake George across the Blue Cypress and Allapattah Flats west of Ft. Pierce and enter the Everglades at the north end, pass through Lake Okeechobee and finally land up on the Indian canoe trails along about Miami or Cutler. It was also in our plans to look the Homestead country over and then go to Cuba as we were tired of trying to raise groves and nurseries in Volusia on account of the freezes.
However, our plans could not be carried out for as we reached Lake Winder after following the curves of the St. Johns river for a couple of hundred miles to a point about west of Rock Ledge or a little southwest of Cocoa, the river suddenly ended in a vast bonnet bed as far in every direction as you could see. The weather was extremely dry and stayed so for five months after we reached this point. There was not enough water in the bonnet bed to float a match and the large roots ran along the surface like palmetto roots, making it impossible to pull a boat through it as a man could get no toe-hold except on the bonnet reeds and when his feet slipped he would go out of sight in the mud.
We decided to wait for rain but in the meantime we had to make a living so we fell to killing ‘gators for their skins and after five months stay we had killed six hundred of these reptiles 3 and sold their peelings to buyers at Cocoa. The skins brought us on average about 75 cents apiece. We had some terrible fights with some of the larger specimens. Most of the hunting was done at night along the river with a bullseye lantern which we took by turns and were on our heads to find the gators by shining it in their eyes and shooting them with a rifle. One night my partner made a poor shot on a monster and then broke the rule by not chopping him on the head with an axe when he dragged him into the boat. He said it was no use to chop him as it was only a little ways to the camp and we were homeward bound then, but only after a moment the gator was scratching on the bottom of the boat and I asked my partner to shine the light back; that this gator is coming to life. The partner turned the bullseye around on the gator and as soon as he did the gator got on his feet, turned around and made for him with all his might, with his mouth open wide enough to have swallowed him whole. The partner could not shoot for fear of either killing me or shooting a hole in the bottom of the boat. There was little time to think of anything so he backed off over the bow of the boat in 20 feet of water and the big gator went right in after him. The partner soon came to the top, lantern out and the gun gone to the bottom. The old gator was cutting up jack snorting and swallowing the water with his tail near the boat and between spells of laughter (from me, not from the partner) I finally paddled the boat to the shore, which was only a few feet away. Next day we went back and had a diving match for the gun and recovered it after about an hour.
After five months of this kind of work we decided that we had had enough of the gator business and sold our boat to a hunter on Lake Poinsetta, west of Cocoa. We then took the steam boat on Indian River and came down to West Palm Beach, reaching there sometime in the fall. Palm Beach was then in Dade county. My partner got a job at a milk dairy near Palm Beach and I planted a farm on shares with a land owner near Palm Beach. The farm froze out so it looked as if Jack Frost was after me. My partner, like myself, was ready to move again, so we planned another exploring trip. This time we would take a small boat with a separable sail and go down the Lake Worth canals to Biscayne Bay, stop at Cutler and look over the Homestead country and if things did not suit us we would go to Cuba. After exploring in the Homestead country for a couple of years and killing many deer we both decided to enter claims adjoining. So, the partner entered the claim that W. H. Cast lives on now and I am still living on mine.
When the Homestead exploration was planned there were two others joined us at Palm Beach. These were P. L. Jenkins 4 and Jim Prevatt. When we started out from Cutler we were told to put on our worst shoes as the rocks would ruin good shoes. We didn’t know any better than to do this, with the result that when we reached our first night’s camping place about 12 or 15 miles out we were all practically barefooted. We made our first night’s camp out in front of John Brinsell’s house and he told us a lot of things about this kind of rock being a gold-bearing rock and signs of pirates having their headquarters here in years past. Our young friend Prevatt lay with his head on a palmetto root and listened to Mr. Brinsell’s yarns about the rock. Among other things Mr. Brinsell said rock if pulverized would make good fertilizer and to this Prevatt said he knew a way better than that, which was to put the rocks in a pot and boil them until they were soft and then pour them along the rows for fertilizer. The next morning Prevatt deserted us and I have never seen him since, but in the next two or three days we went back to Cutler and found a note from him saying that we could have his interest in the boats and other things there; that he had gone back to Palm Beach.
At this time Brinsell 5 was the only man living on his claim. This was the same claim bought by L. R. Nixon and is located immediately south of the Baptist church at Silver Palm. Mr. Brinsell’s business was to locate newcomers on claims and he charged $10 for this. There had been a great number of claims entered before I came down here but none of them, except Mr. Brinsell, lived on them. 6 Finally, Charley Gossman, Will Anderson, C. W. Hill and possibly a few others came out and took up permanent residence on their claims.
Not many years after this there was a great rush of people entering claims on the mistaken idea of proving up by visiting the claim once in six months. Numbers of people from Miami had entered claims, all hands and the cook, while a large part of them had never seen the land and never expected to except to guess when he was on it and camp one night out of each six months. About this time the government sent down a very shrewd man by the name of Stanford for the purpose of making a tour of the country to ascertain who was complying with the law and who was not. This man never approached the defendant in the case but went to talk to everybody else to ask questions about him, so that there was no way of getting around him. When he left this country, he carried away the hopes of many would-be homesteaders. A few parties were fined for their manner of proving up, others had to buy their land with script, while the majority abandoned their claims without any effort to prove up. During this rush I made considerable money building log cabins for the would-be homesteaders. I probably built a hundred, scattered all over this country, all of which have been destroyed by woods fires years back.
About the time of the government clean-up, those who were left began to make some improvements on their places and I got practically all this work. I cleared and planted on acre in grove for Chap Brown 7 on the place where Mr. Capello 8 lives at present. I also cleared and planted at the same time a two-acre grove for Isaac Brown 9 on the place where Mr. Miller 10 lives now. These were the first groves planted in the country. There were scattered trees all over the country about the shacks but the first grapefruit tree to bear fruit was in the Chap Brown grove. The little tree bore 18 fruit with a silvery white skin and many home-seekers would pass along and look at it.
Frank Brown, 11 who is now postmaster of Miami, helped me do considerable of this work. We made a two-acre clearing for Henry Gossman 12 where his oldest grove now stands. Frank and I camped in a little shack just south of the work on the Charley Gossman claim, where we found a Dutch oven to cook in. We stayed there for a week or two determined to finish up our work before leaving. Our grub gave out entirely just as we finished the work and we painted a sign with smut from the oven, naming our place, “Camp Starvation.”
As time went on people moved in rapidly and it finally got to where there were real strangers living here, which was something new to my mind and had to be reckoned with; the idea that there could be a stranger in the Homestead country. About the time the railroad started from Miami people poured in from all directions, until I finally got used to seeing strangers.
As the population increased the business increased with it and I have been increasing the size of my nursery business from time to time, beginning with a ten-dollar nursery until my nursery sales for the year 1913 alone amounted to $35,000.13
Almost all the old timers are still living around here and it is noteworthy that they all have the greatest confidence and trust in each other.