By Jeff Blakley
At the turn of the 20th century, Florida City (originally known as Detroit) was marketed by its developer, the Miami Land & Development Company, as a planned agricultural community. While Homestead, to the north, had its roots in 160 acre quarter-sections of land homesteaded by individual settlers, Detroit had its roots in a marketing scheme promoted by the Tatum brothers, a prominent group of developers that had been active in Miami since 1902. The land that became Detroit was classified as “overflow” land by the Federal government and was given to the State of Florida. The State gave the land to the F.E.C. Railway Co. and the Miami Land & Development Co. purchased it from the Model Land Company, the real estate holding entity of the F.E.C. Railway. This land was not eligible to be homesteaded.
Adam G. Adams 1 wrote that the Tatum brothers (Judson H., Bethel B., Johnson R. and Smiley M.), who owned the Miami Land & Development Company, subdivided 35 sections (22,400 acres) of land “in South Dade from Biscayne to Florida City … $200,000,000 worth of this property was sold by contract. Few of the contracts were fulfilled.” The land actually amounted to 37.5 sections – the plat is available from the Miami-Dade County Clerk of Courts website. The property extended from Krome Avenue east to Biscayne Bay and from what is now Campbell Drive (S.W. 312 St.) east of Homestead south to S.W. 376 St., which is labeled Missouri St. on the plat but is not drivable. A portion of the property, amounting to five sections, lay south of Missouri and straddles what is now U.S. 1 but was then the route of the Florida East Coast Railway when the plat was recorded, on March 24, 1916.
The company had sales offices in a number of cities in Oklahoma, Kansas, Indiana, Illinois and Michigan, saying that settlers could purchase 10-acre plots of land in the East Glade but live in well-landscaped houses in the town of Detroit, which had been laid out on the more-elevated pine rockland west of the marl land of the East Glade, which the Miami Land & Development Co. called the Detroit Prairie, perhaps to convey to the new settlers that the land was similar to the land they were leaving. The town had broad avenues and streets that had been laid out by Edward Stiling, who was from Michigan and was one of the Tatum brothers’ top salesmen. Mr. Stiling was a prominent real estate man who was later a mayor of Florida City. Those who purchased property were to grow their crops in the East Glade and use the Florida City canal, the first digging of which was completed in 1912, to bring their crops to the packing houses in the Industrial Center next to the FEC railroad. The Miami Land & Development Co. had grandiose plans that included two additional towns – one on the Bay and one midway between the bay and Detroit. Like most of the rest of their ambitious scheme, the towns were never established.
Even though the company invested large sums of money in the project and used innovative marketing tactics, the company was not able to sell enough land, as Adam G. Adams wrote in his article, and the Miami Land & Development Company failed in the late 1920s, a victim of the collapse of the South Florida real estate boom of that time.
An enterprising Sicilian named James Sottile was born on June 1, 1887 in Gangi, Palermo Province, Italy. At the age of 12, he emigrated to the United States, along with his mother, arriving at the port of New York on November 13, 1899. He and his mother settled in Charleston, South Carolina, joining the rest of his family, who had already emigrated to this country. James became a naturalized citizen of the United States on December 2, 1909. In Charleston, he got into the real estate business and partnered with John P. Grace and John I. Cosgrove in development schemes. In 1924, he and his family moved to Miami, where they lived at 1349 W. Flagler St. first and then later at 1533 N.W. 9th St. In 1925, he and his partners formed the Cadillac Development Corporation in Miami.2 His fortune rose, paralleling the real estate boom in Dade County and it also crashed along with it, starting in 1926. Apparently, he didn’t lose everything, though, as he had enough money to buy mortgages and tax bills on property the owners could no longer afford.3According to the 1930 U.S. census, his occupation was given as “capitalist” and his business as “investments.” By 1933, he had acquired an interest in 16,000 acres of land east of Homestead, much of which had once been owned by the Miami Land & Development Co. He started advertising it for lease as early as March of 1936.4 Sottile’s plan was to drain the land and lease it farmers. He invested heavily in digging drainage ditches and in building roads so that farmers could farm their leases and market their crops. Large pumps were used to move the water into the Florida City canal, which then drained into Biscayne Bay. He called his new company South Dade Farms. For many years, the equipment storage shed for the company, a very large metal building with a corrugated steel roof, stood at the southeast corner of North Canal Drive and Farmlife Road. It was demolished in about 2011 to make way for a Walgreen’s store.
The demographics of Florida City gradually changed from the mostly mid-Western early settlers to a population that had numerous Italian-Americans in it. By the early 1940s, the Italian-Americans had come to dominate the political and social life of Florida City. Many of the initial purchasers of Miami Land & Development Company land sold their property to the new arrivals for a good profit, repeating a story that has happened many times in American history. Sottile, ever the enterprising businessman, donated the land for the Florida City Farmers’ Market, farm worker housing for African-Americans southwest of Homestead Air Force Base and established the South Dade Farmer’s Bank at 399 S. Krome Avenue in Homestead. That building is now occupied by the American Legion. Sottile also donated the land for Homestead Bayfront Park to Dade County. Homestead Bayfront Park was dedicated on January 28, 1939 but development wasn’t completed until the late 1940s due to the property being leased to the U.S. government for training purposes until 1947. The park opened on February 2, 1951.
African-Americans have been a part of Florida City from the very beginning but due to this area’s racist history, their stories have not been documented. Like their white neighbors, they farmed, bought and sold land and built homes in Florida City. For many years the African-American population of Florida City was numerous enough to influence local elections but couldn’t because they didn’t have enough clout in the voting booth. It wasn’t until Otis T. Wallace, who worked a full-time job while attending the University of Miami Law School at night, organized a voter registration drive in 1976 to increase African-American participation in civic affairs that African-Americans attained any significant success. No doubt in response to this registration drive, the mayor and the city commission of Florida City appointed an African-American commissioner. Otis was elected as a city commissioner in 1976 and later was elected Mayor, a position he still holds. In 1984 Florida City elected its first majority African-American commission.
In recent years Florida City has prospered from the taxes paid by the numerous businesses which have been established along U.S. 1. This surge in economic development is largely due to the welcoming economic policies of the Florida City city government and to the fact that Florida’s Turnpike ends at Palm Drive in Florida City.
There is much more work that needs to be done to write even a skeletal outline of the history of Florida City. The history of Florida City has been the step-child of Homestead history and the history of Homestead has been the step-child of Miami history. I hope to publish articles in the future that will help to correct this situation.