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Coconut Grove: Greater Miami’s Historic Village on Biscayne Bay
As difficult as it is to imagine, the Greater Miami area a little more than one century ago was a vast wilderness with small clusters of hardy settlers living along the shores of Biscayne Bay. One of those communities was Coconut Grove, which, since the late nineteenth century, has enjoyed a reputation as south Florida’s most attractive, dynamic and independent-minded community. Clearly, its natural setting is unrivaled, for Coconut Grove looks o
ut from behind lush subtropical foliage toward the turquoise waters of Biscayne Bay. The province of Tequesta Indians until recent centuries, Coconut Grove was, by the early nineteenth century, a favorite stop for mariners attracted to its bubbling fresh water springs on its waterfront. After the Cape Florida Lighthouse opened in 1825, light keepers and their assistants became frequent visitors to Coconut Grove. Wreckers or salvagers of disabled ships also visited the area.
By the middle decades of the nineteenth century, Coconut Grove’s first known, permanent residents, Edmund (“Ned”) and Ann Beasley, lived along its bay front in the area around today’s Barnacle State Park. When Beasley died, Ann rented a portion of their property to Dr. Horace Porter, a onetime Union surgeon. Porter applied for a U.S. Post Office for the area in 1873, calling it Cocoanut Grove (sic) after viewing a couple of nearby Coconut Palm trees! After Porter was unsuccessful in his attempt to swindle the widow Beasley out of her property, he left the area. The post office was quickly forgotten and was soon swallowed up by the aggressive subtropical jungle that covered the shoreline and points west of it.
During the 1870s, others settlers, lured by the prospect of free land through federal homestead laws, entered the region. Most important of the settlers in Coconut Grove were the Pent and Frow families, who hailed from the Bahamas. “Jolly” Jack Peacock, keeper of the House of Refuge for shipwrecked mariners on today’s Miami Beach, was another prominent resident of the Grove. Indeed, the settlement was sometimes called “Jack’s Bight” for Jack Peacock and its curved shoreline.
In the late 1870s, Jack Peacock convinced his brother Charles and his family to leave England for the wilds of southeast Florida. At the same time, Ralph Munroe, an accomplished sailboat designer from Long Island and Staten Island, came to Miami on a sailing vacation. Munroe met many of the people living on the bay, including the Peacocks with whom he became friends. In 1882, Munroe returned to the area with his young, tubercular wife, Eva, hoping that the subtropical climate would help her convalesce. But Eva succumbed to the scourge despite the loving care of Isabella Peacock, the wife of Charles Peacock.
As the friendship between Munroe and the Peacocks deepened, the former suggested to his British friends that they open a guest house in the area for its ever-growing number of visitors. The Peacocks opened the Bay View Inn, a simple wood frame structure, in 1882 in today’s Peacock Park. It was the first “hotel” in the area. Some of the inn’s early staffers were black Bahamians who created their own settlement along Charles Avenue.
In the late 1880s, Ralph Munroe discovered from a postal map at the Fowey Rocks Lighthouse of Porter’s post office. When he informed his neighbors of this discovery, the post office was reopened and Coconut Grove acquired its enduring name although it continued to include an “a” in its spelling. In the meantime, the number of people visiting the Bay View House grew to include a motley collection of eccentrics and creative types, including titled counts, writers, naturalists, and even the son of famed writer, Harriett Beecher Stowe. Many less notable Coconut Grove residents labored as farmers in areas of the Grove west of the settled bay front region.
Soon the Peacocks had enlarged their facility to accommodate the increased number of visitors and renamed it the Peacock Inn. It served as the community center. Enthralled with the natural splendors of Coconut Grove, many of the guests of the Inn decided to build homes in the area thereby ensuring an enduring Bohemian flavor through their lengthy presence there.
By 1890, Coconut Grove claimed more than one hundred residents ranking it among the largest settlements on the southeast Florida mainland. By then, those institutions associated with maturing communities began to appear. Ralph Munroe along with Kirk Munroe (no relation) , a famous writer of stories for boys, founded the Biscayne Bay Yacht Club following a Washington Birthday sailing regatta in 1887. In the same year, Isabella Peacock began conducting Sunday school classes in a building constructed for that purpose. In 1889, this structure, still standing today on the grounds of the Plymouth Congregational Church as a designated National Register property, hosted the first public school in the county. The Sunday school helped spawn the first church, today’s Plymouth Congregational Church, where blacks and whites, for a while, worshipped together.
Flora McFarlane, the first woman homesteader in the area as well as its earliest school teacher, founded the Housekeeper’s Club (today’s Woman’s Club of Coconut Grove ) in 1891 with the goal of “community uplift,” which it achieved through fundraisers that paid for amenities in the community. The fame of the Housekeeper’s Club spread quickly. Within one year of its inception, Harper’s Magazine, a major national publication, profiled the club. The Pine Needles Club, consisting of the young women of the community and an outgrowth of the Housekeeper’s Club, was organized in 1895. Its members established the first library, which grew quickly in stature while serving a far-flung clientele. Today’s Coconut Grove library, housed in a unique building on the ridge across McFarlane Road from Peacock Park, is a direct outgrowth of the early library.
The area’s fortunes changed dramatically in 1896 after Henry M. Flagler’s Florida East Coast Railway steamed into Miami. Soon hundreds of new settlers were pouring into Dade County. Coconut Grove residents viewed the area’s quickening development with concern for they knew that its pristine environment and casual lifestyle would suffer accordingly.
In the early 1900s, several wealthy and accomplished visitors built splendid homes on or near Coconut Grove’s bay front, thereby creating a “millionaire’s row.” Their ranks included William Deering, William Matheson, Arthur Curtis James, David Fairchild, John Bindley, and others. Additionally, an area on and around picturesque Main Highway hosted the politician and statesman William Jennings Bryan and three retired United States Admirals. After the railroad crossed the Miami River and moved south toward the Florida Keys at the outset of the 1900s, Coconut Grove gained new importance as a farming community, since produce markets became more readily accessible.
America’s entry into World War I in 1917 ushered in a new era for Coconut Grove as the U.S. Navy built one of the nation’s first naval air stations on Dinner Key, formerly an island favored by picnickers. More than 1,000 aspiring aviators trained there. Coconut Grove citizens concerned with the noise and pollution wrought by the naval air station brought pressure upon the federal government for its closing, which came in 1919. Soon after, Coconut Grove incorporated as a town and, in the process, dropped the “a” from “Coconut” at the suggestion of Dr. David Fairchild, a world famous horticulturalist. The Grove remained a town for just six years, after which the onrushing City of Miami, in the midst of a great real estate boom, annexed it despite strong opposition from Grove residents.
In the meantime, the old naval air station site became host to Pan American Airways in 1929. Destined to become the world’s preeminent airline, Pan American maintained a seaplane base there through World War II. The terminal and the picturesque seaplanes flying overhead became a huge draw for curious visitors. After the war, the Dinner Key Auditorium opened on part of the site of the old air base. The facility has served a wide variety of roles, hosting musical concerts and sets for a popular television show. Ironically, Coconut Grove also became the center of the city of Miami’s tumultuous politics after city hall relocated in 1954 from downtown to Dinner Key.
In the middle and latter decades of the twentieth century, Coconut Grove maintained many elements of its unique identity continuing to attract creative types like the writers, Marjory Stoneman Douglas, Hervey Allen, and Tennessee Williams, as well as many of the area’s most accomplished artists and musicians. It also flourished as the seat of South Florida’s Bohemian life with its coffee houses, head shops, boutique art galleries and a popular gathering place in today’s Peacock Park, which drew beatniks and hippies. With its parades, art festival, and Halloween parties, it has remained a celebratory neighborhood.
The wood frame buildings on the ridge overlooking South Bayshore Drive gave way by the 1970s to high rise condominiums. Malls like Mayfair and Cocowalk opened businesses dotting McFarlane, Grand, and Main Highway. Yet it was the Grove’s uniqueness, along with its tolerance of a wide array of viewpoints and lifestyles, that catalyzed these changes since investors and developers knew people were drawn to a neighborhood, which has continued to maintain an ambiance and a vibrant spirit unlike that of any other community in southeast Florida.