The Biscayne Times

Aug 23rd
A Year by Any Other Name PDF Print E-mail
Written by John Ise, BT Contributor   
December 2018

History is a tricky thing

TPix_JohnIse_12-18o provide some perspective on the history of, well, everything, let’s revisit Carl Sagan’s “Cosmic Calendar,” which he introduced in his 1980 Cosmos television series.

The Cosmic Calendar uses a 12-month calendar to visualize the birth and evolution of the cosmos, the Milky Way, and our sun and Earth. On January 1, the first second after midnight, the universe begins with the Big Bang. Every second going forward is equal to some 500 years, or 40 million years per day and 1.25 billion years per month. 

Sagan notes that all of human history fits into the final hour of the final day of that “cosmic year.” The Ice Age comes to an end December 31, 11:00 p.m., the Roman Empire rises and falls at 11:59:55; and all of modern history has occurred within the last half-second of the year -- or at 11:59:59.5 p.m.

Sagan’s calendar is an awe-inspiring reminder of just how little we know, even if we can “zoom” into our own local histories in much more recent times. For example, any stab at the origins of El Portal, Miami Shores, and Biscayne Park begins in the third century BC, with Native American populations, most notably the Tequestas.

Our own Tequesta landmark is El Portal’s burial mound in the village’s Sherwood Forest neighborhood. The mound, said to be the highest elevation in Miami-Dade, was the county’s first archaeological preservation site, designated in 1920 -- an important designation, considering that the site preserves evidence of more than 1800 years of habitation.

It is doubly remarkable that the Spanish explorer Pedro Menéndez de Avilés tried, without success, to establish a settlement in the El Portal area around the time he founded St. Augustine as the first European settlement on the mainland U.S.

He failed in his goal to convert the Tequesta here, but simply put, tiny El Portal may have been ground-zero for one of the earliest attempts by Europeans to settle the New World.

Yet modern El Portal really owes its birth to a Dayton, Ohio, druggist named L.T. Cooper, who shilled an elixir for stomach pain relief called Tanlac. In a 1921 collection of essays Nostrums and Quackery , the American Medical Association quoted state authorities who called Tanlac a “sky-rocket in the pyrotechnics of fakery” one of the tonics that “fill a much felt want -- not a need -- in those parts of the country where Demon Rum has been driven into the tall timbers.”

Around 1920, Cooper purchased 135 acres of what was then part of the City of Miami and consisted of little more than pineapple, avocado, and tomato fields. (In 1931, five years after the Great Hurricane, Miami was nearing bankruptcy and opted to shrink its northern border from 121st Street to today’s 89th Street).

The village was incorporated shortly afterward, in 1937, and was known, as its Spanish name denotes, for a wooden gateway that spanned NE 2nd Avenue. (Current fundraising efforts by the Women’s Club of El Portal to build a replica of the original gateway deserve full support.)

Biscayne Park’s founder was Arthur Griffing, a gardener by trade, who arrived from New York in the early 1900s and implemented his vision of a tropical garden paradise with the establishment of Griffing’s Biscayne Park Estates in 1920. Prior to his arrival, the area was “700 acres of treeless prairie, much of it muck and sawgrass land,” wrote Thelma Peters, author of Biscayne Country, 1870-1926. “It took faith and vision to imagine this prairie could be dried out and made habitable.” An amazing contrast with the village’s modern lush greenery.

By the early 1920s, the development was called Biscayne Park, and new residents were greeted with a strawberry shortcake or a box of citrus fruit. Biscayne Park incorporated in 1933 as a village.

But some residents were less welcome. Anti-Semitism was rife throughout the 1930s, as evidenced by official village letterhead announcing the availability of “Ideal Bungalow Sites in a Restricted Village.” Deed “restrictions” were employed to bar Jewish buyers or renters from relocating there.

Meanwhile, Miami Shores is the dizzying story of a child of many mothers: a 1920 song; the City of Miami; the Shoreland and successor Bessmer Companies; North Miami; and finally the State of Florida. The Shoreland Company executives saw the pineapple and avocado plantation of the TY & TV Moore Farm Company and envisioned a residential development that would become America’s Riviera. A popular 1920 waltz song by Victor Jacobi, “On Miami Shore,” played continuously on phonographs at Shoreland sales offices and is thought to be the source for the name.

With the City of Miami ceding its northern boundaries, Shoreland went to quick work implementing that Riviera vision. Shoreland had two non-contiguous development sites, a southern parcel that encompassed much of today’s Miami Shores and a northern area around 123rd Street named Arch Creek.

Shoreland envisioned the creation of a grand promenade, dubbed the Miami Shores Concourse, which would pass by a proposed luxurious Biltmore-like Miami Shores Hotel, to be located at the mouth of Arch Creek and connect to “Miami Shores Island,” a 600-acre manmade island. Alas, neither the hotel nor Miami Shores Island ever came to fruition. It evolved into today’s Indian Creek Village.

The Shoreland’s Arch Creek parcel became known in 1926 as the Town of Miami Shores. With the after-effects of the hurricane and then the Great Depression, a battered Shoreland sank into oblivion, allowing a new company, Bessemer Properties, to take control of Shoreland’s properties in 1928. In 1932, Bessemer lobbied the state legislature to green-light the creation of the Village of Miami Shores in what had been the Shoreland’s southern section, with an explicit prohibition against any other community from using the Miami Shores name. Thus, the Town of Miami Shores, which had been the Arch Creek area, was forced to immediately rename itself as the City of North Miami.

Got it?

So, class, as a recap, “Miami Shores” was a waltz, a developer’s utopian vision, a never-realized island, causeway, and luxury hotel; a town in what is now the Arch Creek area of North Miami; and then finally an independent, incorporated village.

The aforementioned details are thanks to the input of history and architecture buff John Bachay; Thelma Peters’s Biscayne County; the Miami Shores 50th anniversary program written by Bill Kofoed and Ray Smith; and local historian Seth H. Bramson and his book, Boulevard of Dreams: A Pictorial History of El Portal, Biscayne Park, Miami Shores, and North Miami. The origins of our villages, while seeming distant, are just a blink of the eye, an infinitesimal bit of a second on Sagan’s Cosmic Calendar.


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