Avocados and Elephants

How Miami Beach Got Its Start

James R.

When you think about Miami Beach, I seriously doubt avocados and elephants come to mind. Nightlife and models probably do. Art deco architecture might. Don Johnson might if you're above a certain age. Luxury boats certainly should, because they are big business in South Florida.

Companies that promote boating lifestyles from family fishing to yacht cruising contribute $12.5 billion annually to the regional economy, according to the Marine Industries Association of South Florida. The re-tooled 2022 Miami International Boat Show is expected to be one of the largest events in the world.

Carl G. Fisher - history - marinalife
Carl G. Fisher | Wikimedia Commons

Yet, it was the humble avocado that lured a New Jersey Quaker by the name of John Collins to a desolate strip of mangroves, swamp, mosquitoes and crocodiles four miles off the shore of Miami. Earlier men tried growing coconuts there, but they had neither the horticultural experience nor the passion of John Collins, who ran a successful nursery and farmers' supply yard in the Garden State and had a reputation as an innovative farmer.

In the late 1890s, Collins joined a partnership with fellow New Jerseyans to turn the untamed barrier peninsula between the Atlantic Ocean and Biscayne Bay into a full-fledged, modern farm growing exotic crops such as avocados, commonly known back then as alligator pears. Native to Mexico and Central and South America, the first avocado groves were planted in Florida in 1833. The state today is the second largest producer of avocados in the United States.

Clearing the land proved to be a time-consuming and costly venture. Work was done by hand by black laborers with machetes until Collins built a tractor with special knife-bladed wheels. By 1909, he had cleared 1,670 acres of land, bought out his partners, and was successfully growing avocados, mangos, and tomatoes. He was 71 years old.At this point, younger members of the Collins family got involved, curious to know what the old boy was doing in South Florida and where the family money was going. They immediately saw the tourism potential of the seaside property and formed a development company. One of their major projects was to build a bridge to the mainland. They dreamed of riches derived from creating a new "Atlantic City" in south Florida - a nod to the wildly popular New Jersey beach resort they knew at home.

John S. Collins - history - marinalife
John S. Collins | Wikimedia Commons

The bridge project proved much more expensive than planned, mainly because instead of using basic wooden support pilings they had to sink the pilings in sheet iron casings filled with concrete to stave off the wood-eating teredos (aka shipworms) in Biscayne Bay. Work ground to a halt with only a half mile of bridge built.

Enter Carl Fisher, a wealthy entrepreneur from Indiana who made his fortune in the early years of the automobile industry. Fisher was also a sportsman with an affinity for fast cars and boats. He launched the Indianapolis 500 and was involved in developing the Dixie Highway that linked the Midwest to Florida.

The story goes that while on a fishing trip, the unfinished bridge sticking out into Biscayne Bay caught Fisher's eye. With Fisher's money, the Collins family completed the bridge in 1913. At the time it was the longest wooden bridge in the world.

Carl Fisher and his wife Jane settled on the peninsula. They too started a real estate development firm and built the first luxury hotel The Flamingo along with tennis courts, a swimming pool, golf course and polo field. Fisher also joined the Collins family and other early developers to incorporate Miami Beach in 1915.

By now you must be wondering where the elephants come in? Well, Carl Fisher had a talent for promotion. He realized his hotel and local businesses and the fledgling city would need publicity to thrive. He hired beautiful young women in skimpy bathing suits, organized speed boat races, and even went so far as to bring in a pair of pachyderms Rosie and Carl Junior.

Fisher sent the media photos of bathing beauties on the beach and at The Flamingo and of the elephants helping clear the land, rolling out the polo grounds, and performing for childrens' birthday parties anything he could think of to attract attention.

Villa Vizcaya - history - marinalife
Villa Vizcaya | pxhere.com

Rosie once made an appearance at a bank opening. Cameras flashed, people cheered and Rosie shat all over the bank floor. Rosie, however, could do no wrong. The media and the public went wild for her. Rosie became so popular across the country that she even had her own fan club.

Fisher's pièce de résistance was luring President Warren G. Harding to Miami Beach and to his Flamingo Hotel in the winter of 1921 where the President was photographed swimming, enjoying cocktails and sport fishing aboard Fisher's yacht. The President even agreed to be photographed with Rosie as his caddy during a round of golf. Fisher's publicity put Miami Beach on the map as a fashionable resort. Visitors came. Property prices boomed. Fisher even recruited architects to design hotels in the Art Deco style du jour.

And during it all, while his children prospered in real estate, John Collins never forgot about his avocado trees. By 1922, Miami Beach had the largest avocado and mango groves in the world. But you already know how this story turned out. Avocados and farmland gave way and were simply no match for the tourist trade. Hotels kept getting built, and visitors kept on coming.

John Collins died in 1928 at the age of 90. The city named its main thoroughfare Collins Avenue in his honor. Carl Fisher died in 1939, and the city erected a monument to the man known as The Father of Miami Beach in 1941. Rosie the elephant outlived them both! And the city they helped build enjoys a reputation today as a world class tourist destination with no sign of slowing down.

Must-See Historic Properties in the Miami Area

Villa Vizcaya Museum & Gardens


James Deering, the co-founder of International Harvester built this over-the-top Italian Renaissance-style villa in 1914. Deering used the 34-room home as his winter retreat until his death in 1925. Of note is the elaborate stone Venetian barge built offshore in Biscayne Bay to protect the house from storms and used as a venue for parties and a mooring point for Deering's yacht, Nepenthe, which sank in the ferocious hurricane of 1926.

The Barnacle


The oldest house in Miami-Dade County still stands in its original location on Biscayne Bay. It was built in 1891 by Ralph M. Munroe, a noted south Florida photographer, yacht designer and first Commodore of the Biscayne Bay Yacht Club. An active naturalist, Munroe preserved the property's original tropical hardwood forest (aka hammock) and fought against establishing of artificial islands and pumping raw sewage into the bay. He died in 1933 and his family lived here until it became a state park in 1973.

Ancient Spanish Monastery - history - marinalife
Ancient Spanish Monastery | Pallowick on Wikimedia Commons

The Ancient Spanish Monastery


This 12th century monastery of St. Bernard de Clairvaux was purchased in Spain by newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst in 1925. He had the stone structure dismantled and shipped across the Atlantic in 11,000 boxes to New York. Mr. Hearst intended it to grace the grounds of his San Simeon estate in California. But the Great Depression intervened, he lost interest and the crates sat in a warehouse in Brooklyn until 1952. Eventually, the monastery was purchased and painstakingly re-assembled in Florida. In 1964, it was given to the local Episcopal Diocese in North Miami Beach and is one of the best Medieval reconstructions in America.

Related Articles
Hurricane Hunters

Hurricanes are nature’s grandest, most ferocious storms. They fascinate us, and they repel us. As a radio news and weather reporter in Miami for 30 years, my grandfather was obsessed with hurricanes. (Confession: I am, too.) Using colored pencils and a wooden ruler, he meticulously plotted their paths onto an enormous paper map tacked up on the wall of his study. It was a beautiful and mesmerizing record of these ferocious and complicated storms that somehow feel alive as they zigzag and wobble across the ocean like drunken sailors.

Science has improved dramatically since my grandfather’s era. A fleet of Earth- observing satellites providing real-time data now help thousands of scientists around the world answer three age-old questions: Where and when will the hurricane hit and how strong will it be? Modern forecasts are pretty accurate. Long gone is the day when a storm could sneak up and hit without any warning. Here are the stories of three men who helped pave the way.

Three Who Paved the Way for How We Track & Predict Hurricanes Today

Father Hurricane

When the regime of Queen Isabella II of Spain collapsed in 1868, many who supported her thought it wise to flee the country. Father Benito Viñes, a Jesuit priest and educator, was one of them. He emigrated to Cuba and found a position as director of the meteorological observatory in Havana. Shocked by the damage hurricanes regularly inflicted upon the island, he made it his mission to learn everything he could about them.

Within five years of arriving, Father Viñes knew more about hurricanes than any living person. He was the first to discover that the cloud pattern and the behavior of the wind well in advance of a storm could be used to track it accurately. Using this information, he designed the “Antilles cyclonoscope,” a kind of slide-rule that could estimate from a considerable distance the current position of a hurricane and calculate its likely path. Up until then, weather observers could tell when a hurricane was coming but not where it was going.

His first forecast was published in a Havana newspaper on September 11, 1875 — two days before an intense hurricane ravaged the southern coast of Cuba. Many lives were saved because of the timely warning. Throughout the 1880s he exchanged hurricane information with other weather observers across the Caribbean via telegraph. It was the first hurricane warning system and a model the United States. Weather Service later emulated it. Father Viñes was so well-respected that for a short time hurricanes were even called Viñesas and identified numerically. The pronunciation, however, was difficult for Americans, so the practice ceased. Father Viñes died in 1893.

The Aerial Acrobat

Len Povey

Len Povey was a self-taught pilot who flew with the new U.S. Army Air Service until 1922 when he left to pursue a more “colorful” career testing race planes, flying bootleg liquor and barnstorming over the Great Lakes as a headliner with a flying circus. His aerial acrobatics at the All-American Air Maneuvers show in Miami in 1934 caught the eye of a Cuban Air Force official who hired him to train Cuban pilots and serve as the personal pilot for Fulgencio Batista, the chief of the armed forces and later president and dictator of the island nation.

When Cuba’s Weather Service detected a storm intensifying several hundred miles east of the island in early September 1935, Len Povey volunteered to help pinpoint the location and movement of the storm. He jumped in his Curtiss Hawk II, an open cockpit biplane, and flew over the Straits of Florida where he located the hurricane farther north than predicted and moving northwestward toward the Florida Keys. The Cubans dispatched a warning, but it was too late. Later that same day, the storm roared ashore at Islamorada, FL, with winds of 200 m.p.h. and a 20-foot storm surge that drowned more than 400 people, mostly Army veterans who were building the Overseas Railroad.

Povey later joined the faculty at Embry-Riddle, a private Florida college focused on aviation and aerospace programs, where he was a tireless advocate for aerial hurricane patrols. However, the type of reconnaissance mission he envisioned didn’t happen until July 1943, when Air Force Colonel Joe Duckworth flew a plane directly into the eye of a hurricane churning toward Galveston, TX. Len Povey died in 1984. His obituary claimed he survived a mid-air collision and an encounter with a turkey buzzard that sheared off a portion of his plane’s wing.

The Data Cruncher

One of the most recognized voices on hurricanes in the late 20th century emanated ironically from a mile-high lab at Colorado State University. That voice was Dr. William Gray, a professor of tropical meteorology from 1961 until 2005.

Bill Gray grew up in Washington, DC, wanting to be a baseball player. He was a standout pitcher for George Washington University until he hurt his knee. During service in the Air Force, he turned to a career in climatology. He once told the Los Angeles Times he was inspired to study hurricanes after he flew a plane through one off the east coast of Florida in 1958.

Dr. Gray was an outlier when it came to hurricanes. He eschewed computer modeling, focusing instead on observational science: historical storm data, old maps featuring storm patterns, and statistics on wind speed, water temperatures and other meteorological factors. He was the first to determine that the intensity and frequency of storms in the Atlantic was cyclical and that likelihood of a hurricane reaching the East Coast of the United States depended on a variety of factors including the amount of rainfall in Africa and the impact of El Niño (the periodic warming of the Pacific Ocean that produces powerful winds that shear off the tops of storms developing in the Atlantic). In short, he figured out Mother Nature’s recipe for powerful storms.

In 1984 Dr. Gray unveiled the first Atlantic seasonal hurricane forecast and quickly became a hurricane superstar and media darling. He, however, considered his greatest legacy the students whom he taught and mentored, many of whom went on to become leaders in weather research and forecasting. He died in 2016.

Check out Marinalife's recent article about How Hurricanes Get Their Names.

Hurricane Tracking Apps for Your Phone

You don’t need all six of these apps, but we’re certain you’ll find one here that you like. All are available on Google Play and the Apple App Store.


Rain radar, storm tracker and severe weather warnings help you prepare for hurricane season, as well as storms and heavy rain. Monitor live radar updates, an hourly rain tracker, storm radar news, and local weather forecast on the go. Free. Available in English and 30 other languages.


Official data, custom graphics, updates and maps from National Hurricane Center (NHC) experts. Considered the grandparent of all hurricane trackers. Free. Available in English and French.


Reliable, real-time and hyperlocal forecasts combining data from 250,000+ personal weather stations and a proprietary forecast model provide an incredibly accurate local forecast. Interactive radar and customizable severe weather alerts. Free. Available in English and 30 other languages.


Previously called NOAA Radar, this is a good hurricane tracker app, because it lets you overlay rain, radar or satellite images on top of the tracker. This gives you a detailed look at what’s happening in the storm. Add multiple locations to the map to get alerted if you’re in the path of a hurricane. Free. Multiple languages. Paid upgrade packages available.


If you’re willing to spend some money on an app favored by weather nerds and professional storm chasers, then check out RadarScope. The learning curve is steeper than with others, but it features high-resolution radar data sourced from NOAA’s next generation radar and Doppler Weather Radar. Available in English, French, German and Spanish.


Monitor conditions in your area or throughout the storm track, prepare your family and home, find help and let others know you are safe. Free. Available in English and Spanish.

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How Hurricanes Get Their Names

Historically, hurricanes in the United States were referred to by their time period and/or geographic location, e.g., the Great Galveston Hurricane of 1900. In the West Indies, they were named after the particular saint’s day on which the hurricane occurred. A colorful Australian weatherman named Clement Wragge began assigning Greek and Roman mythological names to Pacific cyclones in the late 19th century. He later began naming them after politicians he particularly disliked.

During World War II, U.S. Air Force and Navy meteorologists plotting storms over the Pacific needed a better way to denote tropical cyclones while analyzing weather maps. Many began paying tribute to their wives and girlfriends back home by naming the cyclones after them. In 1954, the National Weather Bureau officially embraced the practice of giving hurricanes women’s names. Because America led the world in weather tracking technology, the practice was adopted elsewhere.

In response to pressure from women’s groups, the National Weather Service and the World Meteorological Association began using both men’s and women’s names starting in 1979. More recently, the lists of names, which are predetermined and rotate every six years, have been further diversified to reflect names used in the many regions where tropical cyclones strike. Names of devastating storms, such as Katrina in 2005, are permanently retired.

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The Fishy Side of Ocean City, MD

With its sandy beaches and boardwalk attractions, Ocean City is the quintessential family summer vacation destination. It’s also a popular spot for sport fishermen and boaters traveling up and down the East Coast. But it wasn’t always that way. 

Ocean City was established on a barrier island called Assateague that extended 60 miles from the Indian River Inlet in Delaware to Chincoteague, VA. The section of the island belonging to the State of Maryland had no outlet to the sea, and early visitors came to bathe in the surf and take in the fresh ocean breezes. These travelers arrived by ferry boat from the mainland until 1876 when a wooden trestle train bridge was built. 

In its younger days, Ocean City was half resort town and half fishing village. The fishing was “pound fishing,” a style I’d wager few people today have ever seen. It was practiced originally by Native Americans and became popular in the 19 century along the East Coast from Maritime Canada to the Carolinas.

Pound fisherman used wide nets attached to wooden poles to catch fish. They drove these tall poles into the ocean floor about a half mile from shore, creating permanent structures called pounds. When fish entered the open end of a pound, they were then corralled by the nets and couldn’t escape. 

With no passage into the Atlantic, crews of Ocean City fishermen needed to launch 40-foot boats from the beach directly into the ocean and row out to the pounds. To harvest the fish, the crew would remove the ends of the nets from the poles and pull them up by hand. The fish were then brought back to shore, carted across the island, packed in barrels of ice and shipped via railroad to fish markets in Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York.

It was laborious work, and for years local businessmen petitioned state and federal agencies to create a manmade inlet to connect the bay directly to more fertile fishing grounds farther off the coast.

A Fierce Storm Carves Out a New Inlet

In August of 1933, a hurricane came ashore in Norfolk, VA, and then tracked up the center of the Chesapeake Bay, bringing up to 10 inches of rain per day and flooding the back bays to the west of Ocean City. Oceanside, wind and waves destroyed homes, hotels and businesses on the town’s boardwalk. 

When the storm subsided, the railroad bridge and fish camps had been washed away, replaced by an inlet 50 feet wide and eight feet deep that formed when built-up water driven by high tides rushed east over the barrier island from the swollen back bays to the ocean. Mother Nature did what governments wouldn’t do, and it changed Ocean City forever.

It didn’t take long for officials to take advantage of this event and enlarge the inlet to ensure its permanence. As a result, a commercial harbor, marinas and docks began sprouting up around the inlet and across the bay on the mainland. Most fishing was commercial in those immediate post-hurricane years, but a few captains realized the recreational fishing potential in the shoals and fertile canyons offshore that were teaming with billfish and other species. During World War II, a lack of fuel and the presence of German U-Boats in the Atlantic virtually shut down offshore fishing. Things picked up after the war, and by the late 1950s and 1960s more and more fishermen were coming to Ocean City. 

But it was the white marlin that really put Ocean City on the sport fishing map. A challenging fish known for its beauty, the white marlin wows anglers with its speed and jumping antics. These fish travel in packs and are prevalent in Maryland waters in late summer and early fall. 

Sport fishermen have been chasing white marlins off the coast of Maryland since 1934 when President Franklin Roosevelt visited and caught two of the feisty billfish. To celebrate this exceptional fish and attract more attention to Ocean City, local fishermen launched the White Marlin Open in 1974. Fifty-seven boats entered that first year. By contrast, the 2021 Open drew 444 boats, more than 3,500 contestants – including NBA superstar Michael Jordan – and awarded $9.2 million dollars in prize money making Ocean City the undisputed “White Marlin Capital of the World.”

Ocean City today counts eight marinas, 20 fishing tournaments and numerous charter boats. According to the city council, boating and sportfishing are significant economic drivers bringing tens of millions of dollars annually to the local economy. 

So, whether you’re a hardcore sport fisherman, casual angler or a boater who simply enjoys a cocktail dockside at sunset, there’s something for everyone “Goin’ downy O, Hon!” as native Marylanders like to say about a visit to their beloved Ocean City.

Check Out Three World-Class OC Fishing Tournaments

Ocean City Tuna Tournament
July 8-10, 2022

Entering its 35th year, this has become the world’s largest tuna tournament with more than 100 participating boats and a record payout that eclipsed $1 million in 2021. 

White Marlin Open
August 8-12, 2022

First held in 1974, the WMO is inarguably the highlight of the Ocean City fishing tournament calendar. Now the biggest and richest billfish tournament in the world, the WMO drew 444 boats and 3,500+ contestants last year.

Poor Girls Open
August 17-20, 2022
Launched in 1994, this is the largest ladies-only billfish release tournament benefitting breast cancer research. Despite its charitable overtones, the tournament is all about the fishing, and the hundreds of boats and hundreds of competitors take it very seriously.

The Orange Crush: A Cocktail Born on the OC Docks

Orange Crush | Susan Elnicki Wade

The Orange Crush is a staple cocktail in most Maryland bars. It’s basically a screwdriver with a shot of triple sec and a splash of lemon-lime soda. The secret to a good one, though, is fresh-squeezed orange juice. And there’s no place better to try one than the Harborside Bar & Grill in Ocean City where the cocktail is said to have originated on a slow night in 1995 when a couple of bartenders were bored and playing around with a bottle of orange-flavored vodka.

Harborside is a wooden establishment whose backside opens onto the commercial harbor in West Ocean City. Gritty is the word that comes to mind. As you would expect, the sign out front boldly announces the home of the Orange Crush, as do newspaper articles framed on the walls and t-shirts for sale. Inside, people pound crabs and watch the Orioles play baseball. Ceiling fans whirl, and it smells of Old Bay and French fries. White lights strung across the ceiling add a festive touch. It doesn’t get more Maryland than that. 

To try your first Orange Crush, visit Harborside Bar & Grill, in Ocean City, MD, 410-213-1846.

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