by Jeff Blakley
In my post on Walter Arthur Frazeur, I mentioned John U. Free in connection with telephony in early Homestead. In this post, I want to present a brief biography of him. I am aware that there is an extensive account of the J.U. Free family in Jean Taylor’s book, but her account has a number of errors in it. Ms. Taylor wrote an invaluable account of early life in South Dade, but much of it appears to have been based on oral history and oral history is often muddled or incorrect. What follows is from documented sources such as the federal census, marriage and death records, and other publicly available sources.
John Ulric Free, Jr. was born in Senoia, Coweta County, Georgia on March 6, 1881. His father, who was John Ulric Free, Sr. (1833-1884), was from Switzerland. His mother, Emma Allen (1849 – 1917), was from Georgia. John U. Free, Sr. died in 1884 and is buried in Coweta County, Georgia. After her husband’s death, his widow, Emma Adeline Allen, married Charles J. Burton in Meriwether County, Georgia on 26 December 1888. By her second marriage, she gave birth to Joseph Lee Burton in October of 1889 and Dewitt Burton in May of 1893. In the 1910 census of Atlanta, Georgia, the occupation of both Charles J. Burton and his son, Joseph L. was “groceryman.” In the 1920 census of Homestead, Charles, 60, widowed, was living in the household of Joseph Lee and Robbie Lee Massey Burton, his son and Joseph Lee Burton and John Ulric Free, Jr. were half-brothers. Dr. Joseph Massey Burton and John U. Free, Jr.’s son, John U. Free, were first cousins.
Henry Brooker, Sr., Sid Livingston and William D. Horne founded the Homestead Mercantile Company in July, 1912. Joseph L. Burton opened a store in the Horne Building, on the other side of Krome Avenue from Homestead Mercantile, in the early 1920s. At some point thereafter, Burton took control of the Homestead Mercantile Co. and renamed it Burton’s. Burton’s daughter, Miriam, married Lonnie Hood and the store later became Hood’s Department Store. Prior to the founding of Homestead Mercantile, the “go to” store in Homestead was the Campbell Brothers Store, located just south of the Homestead Inn on Railroad Avenue. That store burned down on November 10, 1913 and was not rebuilt until 1921.
In 1900, John U. Free was enumerated at the Columbia Barracks, which was near Havana, Cuba. He was a private in the U.S. Army hospital corps, having enlisted in Savannah, Georgia on December 13, 1898 at the age of 18 years and 8 months. At the time he was enumerated, his address in the United States was in Atlanta, Georgia. He was discharged from the Army at Camp Wallace, in Manila, Philippine Islands, on December 12, 1901. His wife, Lula Carmichael, was from Tift County, in southern Georgia. They were married on November 2, 1904 in Berrien County, Georgia. I don’t know what John was doing in Berrien County, which is in south central Georgia, but it had experienced a population boom of 81% between 1890 and 1900, according to Wikipedia. No doubt, he was there to work. According to Jean Taylor, Free owned a grocery store in St. George, Georgia, which had been founded in 1905. St. George was a boom town for several years but because its founders didn’t follow through on their promises, settlers began to leave. The Georgia Southern & Florida Railway, which passed through St. George on its way to Jacksonville, may have furnished Free with an easy means of leaving town, for he then moved to Palm Beach in about 1906.
The 1910 census for John U. Free is very interesting. He appears in two different censuses: one in Key Metaenabe, Florida (Key Matecumbe) on April 29, 1910 and again in Homestead on May 2, 1910. According to Jean Taylor, the Frees were in Bahia Honda when a major hurricane swept over the area on October 12, 1909 (hurricane eleven). Again according to Taylor, Free had been given a job by William Krome as a foreman for Flagler’s railroad in the Keys. He was enumerated while in the Keys and also in Homestead where his property was located. I don’t doubt that he knew he had been counted twice, but he must not have given the matter any thought.
There was a provision in the Homestead Act of 1862 which granted a veteran the time he served in the military towards the five year time requirement for proving up a homestead claim. Apparently, that provision was amended to include veterans of the Spanish-American War, as John filed his claim on November 7, 1907 and only spent 31 months on his land before receiving the patent (136484) on his claim on June 13, 1910. He had claimed the E 1/2 of the S.E. 1/4, the S.W. 1/4 of the S.E. 1/4 and the S. E. 1/4 of of the S.W. 1/4 of section 7 in T57S, R39E. That property straddles S.W. 172 Ave. (theoretical McMinn Rd.), north of S.W. 312 St. (Campbell Drive). 40 acres of the homestead extended from S.W. 308th St. (now N.E. 11th St.) on the north to S.W. 312 St. on the south on the west side of theoretical McMinn (it stops at N.E. 11th St.) and the eastern border of the remaining 120 acres of his homestead, an L-shaped parcel, was Tennessee Road. His property was bisected by the FEC, which pretty much ran through the middle of it. Much of J.U. Free’s property is now taken up by commercial parcels on both sides of U.S. 1. north of N.E. 8th St.
John and Lulu’s daughter, Annie Vivian, had been born on August 23, 1905 in Georgia and, according to Jean Taylor, she and her mother had arrived in Homestead in December of 1907 from Palm Beach, where her husband had been a “bridge foreman.” Presumably, John was employed by the FEC there, but apparently not for long, as he filed for a homestead in November 7, 1907 in this area. John and Lulu’s first son, John (he should have been a III), was born on November 8, 1910, apparently in Homestead. Their third child, Wilbur Allen, was born on March 23, 1915.
An interesting sidelight to the names of John Ulric Free, Jr.’s children: they were named after his father (John Ulric), his brother, Wilbur Allen (1882 – 1900) and his sister (Annie, ca. 1885 – ?). He apparently believed in keeping everything in the family and in confusing future researchers!
John’s WWI draft registration card is very interesting: it was signed by W.D. Horne, the registrar for the board, on September 12, 1918. On the card, John gives his occupation as “Farmer and Merchant” and signed his name as John Ulric Free.
In the 1920 census, John U. Free is living on his homestead with his wife and three children: Ann Vivian, John U. III (though that is not in the census record) and Wilbur A. His occupation is given as “truck farmer.”
Taylor says that Free was something of a real estate developer, because he “bought 50 acres and cut it up into lots for Homestead’s first subdivision.” He was, indeed. Free hired Richard L. Bow to subdivide his homestead, for which he had not yet received a patent (that happened in 1910) in late 1909. In 1911, he recorded a plat for 1.5 city blocks at Krome and Mowry. In 1913, he recorded J.U. Free’s 2nd Addition, a portion of his original homestead that had been subdivided in 1909. Taylor was right about Free being a developer, but I have not yet found the 50 acres that she says, in her book, that Free bought to subdivide. Other names that appear on the plats from 1910 – 1912 are Brooker, Walbridge, Miller, Horne, Moser, Beidler, Hogard, Tatum and King. In 1913, in addition to Free, there were at least eleven other subdivisions recorded. Real estate sales were booming, likely because of the completion of Flagler’s railroad in 1912.
Free built a number of buildings in the downtown Homestead area, including a two story building south of the Bank of Homestead that later was known as J. D. Redd’s store.
This store is not the same one as shown in the picture of J.D. Redd’s store in my post on J. D. Redd, though. That store was built adjacent to the one shown here – the wooden building in this picture was torn down and the new one was built in 1922 if the date at the top of that building is correct. This store is where the Dade County Telephone Company was located, on the second floor. Ms. Taylor, in her book The Villages of South Dade says that it was J. D. Redd’s dry cleaning store. It was later, but at the time that the Dade County Telephone Company was established, the building was owned by J. U. Free. So the correct story is that the Dade County Telephone Company was on the second floor of J. U. Free’s store, not J. D. Redd’s store.
He also built a grocery store before 1910 on the east side of Flagler, opposite the Depot, which would be in the area where Pan American Satellite formerly had its operations. He later sold this store to Walter Tweedell. After he sold the grocery store, he opened a department store at 11-13-15 S. Flagler, which was between the present Redland Hotel and the Landmark Hotel. A two-story wooden building which he built as a rental property still stands behind the present one story storefronts where Free’s store once stood.
Free had his fingerprint on just about everything in the early days of Homestead. I haven’t proven it, but he may have had connections to the Redd family too (besides business), because there was a DeWitt Talmadge Burton who lived not far away from the Redds in Aiken County, South Carolina. This may have been the same DeWitt Burton who was the younger brother of Joseph L. Burton.
John Ulric Free died on November 11, 1928 at the age of 47 and is buried in Palms Woodlawn Cemetery in Naranja.