Florida City began its life as Detroit, Florida – a town conceived and designed by the Miami Land and Development Company and its chief salesman Edward Stiling. The Tatum brothers purchased about 25,000 acres of land south of Homestead for their Miami Land and Development Company, which was to set out and develop a town called Detroit.
Whereas sister city to the north, Homestead, was a railroad town settled by merchants and former Florida East Coast (FEC) Railway employees, Detroit was settled by mostly highly educated retirees from the north.
In November of 1910, a group of hardy souls arrived from Detroit, Michigan to test their mettle in a sometimes inhospitable South Florida. Dressed in heavy dark clothing they looked not much like pioneers in the traditional sense. They had to live in tents and lean-tos while waiting to build their homes if they could not find lodging in Homestead.
The Miami Land and Development Co. spent a lot of money in trying to make Detroit attractive to new buyers. The marketing concept was to attract retirees to the town with inexpensive small parcels of land on which to “gentleman farm.” With this purchase came a lot in town on which to build a home. Edward Stiling was instrumental in laying out the town’s wide streets as well as selling the land.
Much effort was made by the company to create commercial and recreational opportunities. A canal was dug from Biscayne Bay to about the corner of Krome Avenue and Palm Drive. There an industrial basin was dug to accommodate boats which could load vegetable crops from the basin packing house. The FEC Railway tracks also ran alongside the industrial basin.
An ice plant was established on the basin to help with the preservation of crops. Early Detroit had a hotel, lunch room, bicycle shop, furniture store, pharmacy, food store, post office, print shop, newspaper and general merchandise store as well as a Methodist Episcopal Church. The residents banded together and constructed a building for meetings, a school and church services. It later became the town hall and was later incorporated into a larger city hall and fire station which was in use until Hurricane Andrew in 1992.
Recreation was enhanced by a small clubhouse where the canal met Biscayne Bay and many a party and fishing trip took place there. Also near Krome and Palm Drive a pavilion was built over the canal. Swimmers enjoyed the water under the pavilion where dances and parties were held.
Residents decided to incorporate as a town and did so on December 28, 1914. Attorney Shutts of the law firm of Shutts, Smith and Bowen was present to advise the electors so that “the election from start to finish should be legal and absolutely right.” Before the incorporation there existed already a body of self-government. It was called “the town hall trustees.” And it was from this body that the electors picked their first town officials.
Edward Stiling, who had named the town Detroit, fought the new name Florida City all the way to the Florida Supreme Court and lost.
Despite the high level of education of the first residents and the large amount of money spent by the developer things did not go well for Florida City in its early days. By 1927 the Miami Land and Development Company had lost its land which was acquired by a Sicilian-American real estate investor named James Sotille. Sotille spent a fortune in draining the East Glade and then rented it out to farmers – mostly Italian-American farmers from the north. He was also engaged in heavy construction work during the buildup to WWII. Because of him the town changed from its early pioneers to many Italian-American farmers. Many came after WWII.
Sotille donated a very valuable piece of land on the FEC Railway tracks in Florida City which made the construction of the Florida State Farmers’ Market possible. This made a significant boost to the South Dade economy. He also donated land for the farm worker housing center near the Homestead Air Base and for the Homestead Bayfront Park.
In January of 1939, the Roosevelt Administration’s Farm Security Administration sent a young woman photographer, Marion Post Wolcott, to Homestead to document photographically the working and living conditions of farm workers and their families. The intent was to use the photos to inform the American public about the lives of the rural poor and probably to generate support for Farm Security Agency programs and the New Deal.
Marion Post Wolcott was hired away from the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin. Many of her photos depict life in Homestead’s 4th Street commercial corridor which was essentially the Main Street for both the Florida City and Homestead’s Black communities. There is no reference in local newspapers to show that the community was even aware of Marion Post Wolcott’s visit to Homestead. Although there is no known direct connection with Marion Wolcott’s visit to Homestead, in 1941 the federal government built 500 units of farm worker family housing: 250 units at the Redland Labor Camp for white families and 250 units at the South Dade Labor Camp for black families. The housing project construction cost about $500,000.
Beginning in about 1948-50 the Italian-American community took over political leadership of Florida City and continued until the 1970s and 1980s.
The Kiwanis Club of Florida City established a volunteer fire department in 1949.
South Dade’s first honest to goodness auto racetrack was the Florida City Speedway. It was a high-banked 1/8 mile asphalt oval track located on Davis Highway in Florida City, where later the old flea market stood. It was built in the early 1960s and closed in 1976, in part due to a serious accident and concerns for safety. TQ Midgets raced at the weekly shows with occasional appearances by race karts. Mini-stocks were later added, both the modified “A” class, and the stock “B” class. The late Calvin Chalker is remembered as the contractor who did the grading and paved the speedway. Much of his work was probably pro bono.
In keeping with its early history Florida City converted a park at Krome and Davis Parkway into an RV park as a convenience to visitors and as a revenue generator. Very early in its history Florida City accommodated “auto campers” at a vacant lot on Palm Drive.
The emerging African American leadership established itself in Florida City in the 1970s and 1980s and began a period of successful economic development while holding the line on taxes. US-1 formerly ran through Homestead on Old Dixie and then through Florida City on Third Avenue. In the 1950s it was moved to the east. One of the first businesses to establish itself on the new US-1 in Florida City was the Sea Glades Motel built by Sam and John Nicotra and their wives.
The elected leadership of Florida City moved forward very quickly after Hurricane Andrew in 1992 when a new City Hall was constructed, its housing inventory was dramatically improved and increased and new businesses were attracted to the City.
Florida City’s history has run in cycles but none as successful as the current one.
Bob Jensen is Vice President for Community Liaison at 1st National Bank of South Florida, president of the Florida Pioneer Museum and a retired Navy Commander.