by Jeff Blakley
In my post on Walter Arthur Frazeur, I mentioned John U. Free in connection with telephony in early Homestead. In this article, I want to present a brief biography of him. Jean Taylor’s interview of Vivian Free in her book, The Villages of South Dade, contained some very useful nuggets of information.
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 on December 26, 1888. By her second marriage, she gave birth to Joseph Lee Burton in October of 1889 and Dewitt Burton on May 20, 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 daughter-in-law. 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.
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. Jean Taylor wrote that 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 interesting because 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. Vivian Free told Jean Taylor that the family was in Bahia Honda when a major hurricane swept over the area on October 12, 1909. 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. That error probably stemmed from the enumerator in Homestead including John in his tabulations, even though John was in the Keys.
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 paid $14 to file his claim on November 7, 1907 and only spent 31 months on his land before receiving the patent (136484) on June 13, 1910.1 He had claimed the E 1/2 of the SE 1/4, the SW 1/4 of the SE 1/4 and the SE 1/4 of of the SW 1/4 of section 7 in T57S, R39E. That property straddles SW 172 Ave. (theoretical McMinn Rd.), north of SW 312 St. (Campbell Drive). 40 acres of the homestead extended from SW 308th St. (now NE 11th St.) on the north to SW 312 St. on the south on the west side of theoretical McMinn (it stops at NE 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 NE 8th St.
In November of 1909, before Free had obtained his patent, he had his homestead surveyed by Frederick & Butler3 and divided into 18 parcels. He established his homestead on lot 18 and planted fruit trees around it as shown on the survey. It is not currently known when he sold the first lots of his homestead, but in May of 1912,4 he sold lots 11, 12 and 17, a total of 37 1/2 acres, to Stephen M. Alsobrook of Dania for $1,000. Considering that Free had paid .87 per acre for his homestead just 5 years before, he did very well indeed, selling the three lots to Alsobrook for $37 per acre.
John and Lulu’s daughter, Annie Vivian, was born on August 23, 1905 in Georgia and she and her mother arrived in Homestead in December of 1907 from Palm Beach, where her husband was a “bridge foreman.” John was probably 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, was born on November 8, 1910 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 – ?).
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 lived on his homestead with his wife and three children: Ann Vivian, John U. and Wilbur A. His occupation is given as “truck farmer.”
Like many other homesteaders all over Florida, Free was also a real estate speculator. Many were also developers – Free was one of them. In 1911, he recorded a plat for 1.5 city blocks at the southwest corner of Krome and Mowry. In 1913, he recorded J.U. Free’s 2nd Addition, which was a portion of his original homestead that he subdivided in 1909. Other names that appear on the plats in Homestead 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 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. This store is where the Dade County Telephone Company was located, on the second floor.
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.5
Free had his fingerprint on just about everything in the early days of Homestead. John Ulric Free died on November 11, 1928 at the age of 47 and is buried in Palms Woodlawn Cemetery in Naranja.
Revised August 20, 2019
- Bureau of Land Management Tract Book 32, p. 208
- Plat Book 1, page 9, Miami-Dade County Clerk’s Office
- Frederick & Butler was a surveying firm whose principals were John S. Frederick, who platted the Town of Homestead in 1904 and George O. Butler. It became “one of the most active engineering firms on the east coast,” according to the obituary published for John S. Frederick on February 26, 1910 in The Daily Metropolis, page 1.
- The Weekly Miami Metropolis, May 31, 1912, p. 5
- Recollection of George Grunwell