by Jeff Blakley
South Dade County has a rich and complex history that has not been explored as much as that of Miami or the Florida Keys. Jean Taylor, in her book The Villages of South Dade, did a lot of important work by gathering stories and photographs from pioneers and their descendants, but she was only able to relate a small part of the story. There is a lot more to the early history of South Dade County than what she was able to document. She devoted 12 years of her life to gathering information and stopped doing so in 1981 so that she could concentrate on writing her book. Taylor interviewed hundreds of people and wrote short biographies of them and their families. Gathering information in the 1970s, she was able to speak to pioneers and first-generation descendants about their experiences in the early years of the 20th century. That was important work and is a foundation for other historians to build upon. However, she did not have access to the resources that historians now do so she was unable to write anything about those who had left, leaving little trace of their presence.
There were many homesteaders who only stayed long enough to sell off their property at a tidy profit after receiving the patents on their property. They left no trace except in the documentary record. One, Dana Dorsey, Miami’s first African-American millionaire, homesteaded the quarter-section at the northeast corner of Krome Avenue and Bauer Drive.1 Two years after receiving his patent on August 22, 1910, he sold his homestead to Ernst Bitte.2 There were a number of other homesteaders who did the same. In this article, I’m going to focus on one man, William W. Culbertson, who claimed a homestead of 160 acres one-half mile northwest of where William Anderson later established his general merchandise store. He did not sell his property quickly after receiving his patent on it, but he, like Dana Dorsey, did not live here.
On April 20, 1897, William W. Culbertson paid $10 to file a claim for the NW 1/4 of 17-56-39. This quarter section is bounded by Hainlin Mill Drive on the north, Tennessee Road on the west, S.W. 224 St. on the south and Farmlife Road on the east. The other quarter-sections in 17 were patented by Charles W. Hill (the future father-in-law of William H. Cauley) in 1903, James S. Castellow in 1905 and Charles R. Ross, an early teacher at Silver Palm School, in 1909. Culbertson paid cash for the claim on September 1, 1901. His patent on the property, signed by C. H. Brush, Recorder of the General Land Office, was dated September 2, 1902.
On May 10, 1906, The Miami Metropolis reported that a Commissioner’s Deed had been issued for 160 acres in section 17, township 56 south, range 39 east. Fred S. Morse was the commissioner and Lucy H. Culbertson was guardian. The deed was in favor of Gaston Drake, who established the Drake Lumber Company’s sawmill in Princeton in 1907, for $1,900. Frederick S. Morse was the land agent for the Model Land Company, Flagler’s real estate subsidiary and Lucy H. Culbertson was the wife of William Wirt Culbertson. A commissioner’s deed is issued when a property owner defaults on a mortgage and the mortgagee files a foreclosure suit against the mortgagor. In this case, what apparently happened is that William mortgaged his property to Gaston Drake and defaulted on the mortgage. Tracking the ownership of properties in Dade County is difficult and expensive but what is known is that the SW 1/4 of Culbertson’s property was owned by Frank J. Carey, who had “a nice grove already underway” in 19123 and that part of the SE 1/4 was owned by George J. Ross, who had established a grove before 1913.4 The 1912 Miami Metropolis map, which showed that the property was still owned by the Culbertsons, was in error. It is possible that the default was not satisfied and that Gaston Drake ended up with the property, cut down all the marketable pine trees and then sold it to new arrivals.
Who was William Wirt Culbertson?
William W. Culbertson was born on September 23, 1835 in the little town of Belleville in Mifflin County, Pennsylvania, the oldest son of Samuel and Ann Kennedy Culbertson. He was baptized on August 7, 1836 in the West Kishacoquillas Presbyterian Church. His father, Samuel, was a merchant who moved to Adams County, Ohio when William was about 2 years old and then moved on to Washington County, Iowa, then to Greenup County, Kentucky in 1844 and finally to West Union, in Adams County, Ohio. William learned about business by clerking in his father’s stores, which were located in towns which grew up in areas where iron ore was mined and then refined into iron in furnaces. After attaining the age of majority, he became a store-keeper at Clinton Furnace in Scioto County, Ohio, the bookkeeper and assistant manager at Vinton Furnace in Vinton County, Ohio and lastly, clerk and manager of the Ohio Furnace in Scioto County.5 6
During the Civil War, Culbertson was the captain of Company F of the 27th Ohio Vounteer Infantry and fought in a number of battles.7 After mustering out in the spring of 1864, he took charge of the Pine Grove and Buena Vista Furnaces, both in Greenup County, Kentucky and became the treasurer of the firm of Culbertson, Means & Culbertson. He went on to become the president and secretary of the Ashland Foundry Company in Ashland, Kentucky. In February of 1865, he married Sarah Jane Means, the daughter of Thomas W. Means, the Means in Culbertson, Means & Culbertson.8 Their son, Thomas Means Culbertson, was born on November 13, 1870 in Hanging Rock, Lawrence County, Ohio.9 Sarah died, probably due to complications from giving birth, at the age of 25 in 1874. William then married Lucy O’Hara Hardie in 1880 in Frankfort, Kentucky.
Culbertson became quite wealthy and influential because of his business dealings and served as the mayor of Ashland, Kentucky, was a state representative in 1870, a state senator in 1873 and a U. S. Congressman from 1883 – 1885.
In 1887, William and Lucy Culbertson and their two children, William W., Jr. and Lucia H., moved to Coconut Grove, where William’s son by his first wife, Thomas Means Culbertson, became an early member of the Bay Biscayne Yacht Club, founded by Ralph M. Munroe that same year.10 They subsequently became the parents of five more children, Julia R., Henry H., Alex McKee, Wallace D. and John F. At the time he claimed his homestead in South Dade County, he was 62 years old.
In 1900, he was enumerated separately from his wife, Lucy. He lived near Frank and John Slaven and Charles Gossman, all early pioneers in South Dade. His wife, Lucy, lived on S. Bayshore not far from Caleb Trapp and his wife, Henrietta.11 12 The Trapps had also come to Coconut Grove in 1887 and Henrietta was the Coconut Grove school’s first teacher. William W. Culbertson, Sr. died in 1911, allegedly in Butler County, Ohio and was buried in Ashland, Kentucky. The gravestone shown on FindAGrave is for John J. Culbertson (1848 – 1870), not for William W. John may have been a brother of William’s.
Since William was enumerated in Coconut Grove in 1900, this would indicate that he did not live on his homestead. Perhaps that fell to his son, William W., Jr., born in 1881. He did, however, receive the patent on his claim – he did not forfeit his claim, as others did, for not living on it. Businessman that he was, he apparently used his equity in the property to engage in further business ventures.
Culbertson, because he was already wealthy and influential, did not really need to claim a homestead. He was already retired, after all. Perhaps he did so to teach his son, William, Jr., the ways of the world. William, Jr. went on to become the cashier of the First National Bank of Miami and Culbertson’s daughters married into the Matheson and Romfh families, both prominent Miami names. Julia married Malcom Matheson, a son of William J. and the brother of Hugh M., who donated the land for Crandon Park in exchange for the construction of the Rickenbacker Causeway. Lucia married George B. Romfh, Jr., the nephew of Edward C. Romfh, the president of the First National Bank of Miami.13 The bank was established in 1902 and Romfh employed William W. Culbertson, Jr. as the cashier.
The William W. Culbertson home, at 2461 S. Bayshore Drive, was adjacent to the home of Thomas M. Culbertson, which was at 2425 S. Bayshore Drive.14
Culbertson played a role in the history of South Dade County unlike those featured in Jean Taylor’s book because he was an absentee landowner. He claimed a homestead adjacent to Charles Ross, Charles W. Hill and James Castellow but was not a resident, did not attend church in the area nor did his children play a role in the history of the area. His story clearly illustrates the fact that men came here to make money, not to help create a community, a fact that is not mentioned at all in other histories of the area. Many homesteaders filed their claims, sold off the timber rights to sawmill operators, planted groves and sold their improved land for tidy profits as soon as they could. We don’t know much about the history of the Culbertson property, though. Those who sold quickly included Pinckney M. Bauknight, who donated the land for the Longview School; Arthur W. Chapman, who was one of the voters to approve the formation of the Town of Homestead; Junius T. Wigginton, a Miami real estate man who married the daughter of John S. Frederick, the civil engineer who laid out the Town of Homestead in 1904; Colonel O. Boaz, who was with Krome on the 1903 – 1904 Cape Sable survey; Henry H. Harrison, who homesteaded what became Black Point at the intersection of Silver Palm Drive and U.S. 1; Claude Jenkins, who was a friend of Dan Roberts; Minnie Lampher, Lyman B. Gould and William Johnson in Goulds; Joe Frankie Lofton, who homesteaded south of Leonard Mowry and Henry Brooker in Homestead and Elbert H. Ring in Detroit. There were many more. There were also many who did not homestead but purchased land from homesteaders and also only stayed long enough to make a good profit so they could leave for the proverbial greener pasture. Those who were not successful left the area. Those who became wealthy from land speculation often moved on also. A few successful arrivals elected to stay and those are the men and women whose stories have dominated the history of this area ever since.
There are two important and unexplored themes in the history of South Dade County: transient demographics and investments by men who did not live in the area. In the historical record, there are many mentions of community events and an equal number of mentions of people leaving their “many friends” in the area as they moved on. The demographics of this area have always been very fluid. The histories written about this area give an inaccurate picture of a stable community over time. What community existed was based in churches and civic organizations, as is true in many other parts of the country. Outside of those organizations, however, there was little commitment to anything larger. New residents arrived, joined a church or business organization and, when they learned of a greener pasture to graze, they left. Land speculation, now called “flipping,” was and still is the foundation of the economy in Dade County. Outside capital played a very important role in the development of this area. South Dade was not isolated from the larger Florida economy. While a fairly large and unquantified number of early pioneers came here from an area centered in Lake City, Florida, a lot of the money and the knowledge that it took to develop this area was furnished by men and women from all over the United States. Those include J. C. Baile, from Missouri; the Rutzkes and Berneckers, from Utah; Thomas Brewer, from Kentucky; Walter Peterson, from Wisconsin; Benjamin F. Forrest, from Illinois; W. O. Talbott, from Kansas; Gaston Drake, from Missouri; William Geronimo, from Connecticut via Arizona; Joseph L. Ishmael, from Illinois; Ike and Lilburn Nixon, from Missouri; Elbert Ring, from West Virginia; Andy Terburg, from Holland; Jim Tosto, from Italy; Frank Bartmes, from Illinois; Joseph Kahl, from North Dakota; William S. Burkhardt, from Ohio; Edward Stiling, from Michigan; Alexander C. Graw, from Philadelphia; James Powers, from Illinois; the Fredricks and Kufeldts, from Wisconsin; Richard Carney, from New Jersey; the Tatum brothers, from north Georgia; Karl Walton, from West Virginia and Col. Hugh Johnston, from Kentucky. And, as it always seems to be in the historical record, the role that women played in the development of this area has been badly neglected. Lily Lawrence Bow and Annie Mayhew Fitzpatrick are featured prominently in the historical record, but there were many others, single and married, including Isabelle Krome and Joe Frankie Lofton in Homestead, and Martha Burden and Mary Barcus in Naranja. The role of women in the development of this area is a subject that needs to be addressed.
The Culbertson family, featured in this article, was just one family which owned property here but neither lived in South Dade nor worked to establish a viable community. The history of South Dade County as written so far has focused on the so-called Founding Fathers: Horne, Brooker, Burton, Fuchs, Caves, Bow, Free, Mowry and a few other families. There were others – lots of others. It is time for those others to receive some attention from historians also.
- Dorsey filed his claim on July 3, 1907
- The Miami Metropolis, August 16, 1912
- The Miami Metropolis, November 22, 1912, p. 2
- The Miami Metropolis, December 30, 1913
- Clinton Furnace
- History of Kentucky and Kentuckians, E. Polk Johnson, pp. 1313-14
- ibid, p. 1313
- Obituary for Mary Pollard Culbertson, The Miami News, February 5, 1951
- The Miami Metropolis, June 1, 1911
- Plat made by Samuel Rhodes and recorded in Book B, page 16 of the Miami-Dade County records. Recorded January 15, 1897. Samuel Rhodes was Henrietta Trapp’s brother. Substitute ‘2000’ for ‘B’ if you want to view this plat.
- Miami and Dade County, E. V. Blackman, 1921
- Plat made by Samuel Rhodes and recorded in Book B, page 16 of the Miami-Dade County records. Substitute ‘2000’ for ‘B’ if you want to view this plat.