History

Avocados and Elephants

Florida
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October 2021
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By
James R.
Barnett

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

vizcaya.org

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

floridastateparks.org/parks-and-trails/barnacle-historic-state-park

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

spanishmonastery.com

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
The Fishy Side of Ocean City, MD
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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.

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

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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There Once Was a Basket from Nantucket
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For many reasons, boat lovers and landlubbers love Nantucket. The well-known island 30 miles off the Massachusetts coast has great maritime history, picturesque scenery, unspoiled beaches, boutique shopping, a nice marina and seafood galore.It's also home to a unique basketmaking tradition developed in the second half of the 19th century by manly men who manned the lightships that warned of dangerous waters around the island.Today, the Nantucket baskets they wove are ubiquitous to the island as both a popular souvenir and a highly collectible object that reflects the island's fascinating history and heritage.

Baskets Born of Necessity and Boredom

In 1820, the United States began building and converting ships into lightships in coastal waters and the Great Lakes. These vessels served as floating beacons to identify perilous shoals, reefs and shifting channels in places where lighthouse construction wasn't possible. The ships housed bright and navigational light beacons atop their masts to guide maritime traffic.

basket - history - marinalife
Friendship basket purse made by José Formoso Reyes in 1950 | The Nantucket Historical Association[/caption]

xThe waters around Nantucket were well traversed and very treacherous. In Nantucket Sound, sandbars muddled traffic, so the U.S. government placed a lightship there in 1823 to help mark a safe path by the island along a popular commercial route between New York and Boston. It became known as the Cross Rip Lightship.The Nantucket South Shoals off the island's southeast coast proved hazardous for transatlantic shipping. In some locations, the water can be as shallow as three feet. The shoals were a notorious shipwreck site, so the government stationed a lightship at the South Shoals in 1854. A lightship operated at the South Shoals until 1983 when it was replaced by a large navigation buoy. It was at the time America's last working lightship. By 1985, new technologies rendered the old lightship program obsolete.Lightships were manned vessels, and many Nantucket men were hired to work on the ones around the island. Some of these men had been whalers from back when Nantucket was the epicenter of the whaling industry. Rough coastal weather made the lightboat service perilous. For example, they had no onboard electricity, and the crew's only warmth was furnished by manually tending coal-burning stoves always at risk of breaking loose from their mounts and spilling hot coals during fierce storms that churned up mountainous waves that crashed over the ship.It was lonely, too. I've read how life on a lightship was likened to a term of solitary confinement combined with the horrors of seasickness. It's no wonder these men began making baskets to while away the time.

Cross Rip Lightship - history - marinalife
Cross Rip Lightship on station, circa 1930s | The Nantucket Historical Association

According to several sources, it is likely a man named Thomas James introduced basketmaking to men on the lightships. James, the story goes, had worked in the whaling industry and during his voyages supposedly made baskets in his spare time. When he began working on the South Shoals Lightboat, he took up his old pastime while on duty and sold his work on leave in Nantucket town. It wasn't long before he taught his skill to his fellow lightship men.Though the classic Nantucket basket is attributed to men aboard lightships in the mid-19th century, it's important to remember that its distinctive design was probably inspired by baskets originally woven with ash wood by the Wampanoags, the island's indigenous people.Lighthouse baskets typically were round and built on a mold with flat wooden bottoms to which staves (ribs) were attached to form the basic shape. Cane, also known as rattan, was then woven in and around the staves from bottom to top. Each basket was finished with a wooden handle. Tops and decorative elements weren't added until later. These baskets became popular with locals and tourists and thus became known as Nantucket lightship baskets. They're very desirable today among collectors.

Basketmaking Enters the 20th Century

By 1905, the last man from Nantucket manned a local lightship. Shortly thereafter, the federal government banned basket-making aboard lightships to end moon-lighting commerce. The craft then moved on island where it was taken up by a new generation of basket weavers who began personalizing their work and looking for ways to make them stand out and appeal to the growing tourist trade.

Nantucket basket lamp - history - marinalife
The author and Nantucket basket lamp

One of the most significant of this new generation of basket makers was José Reyes, a Filipino with an Education degree from Harvard, who served in the U.S. Navy fighting the Japanese and then after the war immigrated to Nantucket where his wife's family had a home. Unable to find a job in education, he repaired cane furniture and learned to make Nantucket lighthouse style baskets.Reyes is credited in 1948 for adding a top to the lightship basket and turning it into a purse for women. These purses, later known as friendship purses, quickly became de rigour for well-to-do summer residents. Reyes later included ivory carvings to adorn the purse tops. Rumor has it the name originated when a woman carrying one of Reyes' purses while visiting Paris noticed another woman with the same purse. She yelled out Friendship! and the two strangers became lifelong friends linked by their shared love of Nantucket.Paul Whitten, another basket maker, helped elevate artistic appreciation for the Nantucket basket when he was invited in 1974 by the Smithsonian Institution's Renwick Gallery to submit one of his pieces in a national arts and crafts competition. His basket was selected to appear in the gallery and then tour the country with other competition winners as part of a traveling exhibit. Whitten's basket was purchased by the Smithsonian for its permanent collection. Whitten also wrote extensively about Nantucket baskets, which has been important to preserving the history of this unique craft.Today the lightship basket influence can be seen in jewelry, cribs, bike baskets and all sorts of decorative pieces sold on and off island. Yours truly even owns a pair of tall handsome lamps modeled on the classic Nantucket Basket. There's even an auction market for exceptional baskets woven on Nantucket. A recent piece went for more than $100,000. Who'd have thunk it?

Nantucket Lighthouse Basket Museum

If you're visiting Nantucket and want to delve deeper into the history of these unique baskets and learn more about their makers, you won't want to miss the Nantucket Lighthouse Basket Museum. It features a permanent collection of baskets, special exhibits and basket weaving classes. The museum website also has a variety of fascinating videos, including an interview with noted basket weaver José Reyes.Location: 96 Main St.,Nantucket, MA 02554Hours: May 28 – October 17, open daily 10:00 a.m.-4:00 p.m.nantucketlightshipbasketmuseum.org

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The Origins of Fish Capture Flags
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I've never had much luck saltwater fishing. My first outing as a young boy was holding a handline over the side of my grandfather Pop Hunter's motorboat in the shallow bay behind Alligator Point east of Apalachicola, Florida. Pop and my father were after redfish, and I wasn't expected to catch anything. Sit and be quiet, they said. So I did, until something grabbed my line, and I let out a scream.[caption id="attachment_324734" align="alignright" width="200"]

Fish flags - history - marinalife

Fish flags | Jodi Jacobson[/caption]My grandfather snatched the line and began battling a strong fish with just his tough freckled hands. That fish turned out to be a small hammerhead shark! When he finally pulled it onboard, he tossed it at my feet where it thrashed about, and I began screaming again certain it was going to bite me until Pop threw it back in the bay. He thought it was hilarious and told the story repeatedly that summer. Somewhat traumatized, I didn't go saltwater fishing again for years. When I finally did, all I managed to hook was a four-inch starfish. Like Pop, the fishing boat operator laughed. It was a first, he said, and he lamented that he didn't have an appropriate starfish flag to hoist for our return trip to the dock.Spend time around harbor docks and marinas, especially in the afternoon when the fishing boats come in, and you'll undoubtedly notice rectangular flags featuring different kinds of fish fluttering on outrigger halyards. Though they might look decorative, they're not. These fish flags, more formally referred to as capture flags, are colorful signals to let others know which fish were biting that day. It's a tradition born in the days before daily fishing reports began to appear in newspapers and on radio.The earliest capture flags on record are attributed to The Tuna Club of Santa Catalina Island, California, a private fishing club started in 1898 by Los Angeles Times editor Dr. Charles Holder for the southern California and Hollywood elite. The Tuna Club refers to itself as the oldest fishing club in the United States, and it's still going strong.Charlie Chaplin, Bing Crosby, Cecil B. DeMille, William Wrigley and George S. Patton were among its early members. Teddy Roosevelt was an honorary member. Members flew large colored flags on their boats to alert their fellow anglers when they caught tuna, swordfish and marlin. The practice quickly spread, and sport fisherman and charter boat captains on both coasts began hoisting flags to announce their catch as they pulled into the docks.In Florida, the West Palm Beach Fishing Club (WPBFC) added a different twist to the fish flag. Founded in 1934 during the Great Depression, the WPBFC's mission was to promote fishing to lure visitors to the Palm Beaches and stimulate the local economy. Given the proximity of the Gulf Stream and its big game fish, the club initiated the Silver Sailfish Derby fishing competition, a celebration of one of the world's most elegant and iconic sport fishes. The Derby was the first serious billfish competition in the country. It quickly became the in thing to do for wealthy tourists. And it still occurs every January.[caption id="attachment_324735" align="alignleft" width="239"]

red sailfish capture flag - history - marinalife

Derby Queen with red sailfish capture flag | WPBFC[/caption]Here's the twist. Club members soon became concerned that too many sailfish were being caught and not consumed or mounted as trophies. As a result, WPBFC established new rules to restrict the number and size of sailfish captured and brought aboard boats during the derby. To help incentivize the policy, they encouraged contestants to raise a triangular red pennant to signify smaller sailfish that were caught and released so they could still be given their proper due. The national media seized on it with vigor. And in turn, the red pennant inspired other contests geared toward catch-and-release fishing and helped change the nature of big game fishing. It also furthered the practice and the prevalence of flying fish flags.As sport fishing became more popular and accessible to Americans in the 1960s and 1970s, so too did fish flags. This was driven in part by a growing number of game fishing tournaments with affordable entry fees and guaranteed prize money. Competitors wanted to show off their fishing prowess, so flag companies were more than happy to begin making and supplying 12"x18" canvas and nylon flags featuring the most popular varieties of sport fish marlin, swordfish, sailfish, tuna, mahi-mahi, wahoo, etc. that we still see on boats today.Sharks, by the way, merit a capture flag. You can't miss it. It's usually a vibrant red color and features a white shark. To the best of my knowledge, there's still not a starfish flag.

HOW TO FLY YOUR FISH FLAG

[caption id="attachment_324736" align="alignright" width="300"]

white marlin - history - marinalife

White Marlin | Lunamarina[/caption]You need not worry about official regulations for displaying fish capture flags. Protocols vary from location to location. That said, more experienced fishermen tend to follow some informal rules of thumb.

  • Fish flags are generally flown on the port or starboard outrigger halyard and in order of merit, meaning game fish with bills (marlins, swordfish and sailfish) go at the top and others follow in order of size from largest to smallest. Shark flags are often flown on the bottom.
  • It's appropriate to fly a flag for each fish caught, though some say you should only fly one yellow mahi-mahi flag no matter how many you land. In Hawaii, some boats will run a black pirate flag beneath the mahi-mahi when more than 20 are caught.
  • Never run flags all the way to the top of the rigger; keep them about three quarters up the rigger and spaced at least six inches apart as this is optimal for visibility.
  • Flying a fish flag upside down is the most common way to signal a successful catch and release. Some fishermen, however, prefer to fly a fish flag right side up with a smaller square red flag beneath it or a red T-flag to indicate a fish was tagged and released. Red pennants are still sometimes used.
  • A fish flag should never hang on the halyard for more than a few hours, though charter boats might fly them for 24 hours to help attract clients.
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