Sunday, June 9, 2013

New Jersey link to SOFLA palm trees and a failed Miami Beach biz

Coconut tree sprout

For more Florida history visit my other blog, 

By Jane Feehan

Coconut palm trees are not indigenous to Florida; there were high hopes in the 1880s that Miami Beach would be ideal for growing these trees.

Henry B. Lum, and his son Charles first visited the Miami area in the early 1870s. A successful nurseryman from Middletown, NJ, Lum was impressed by Florida’s agricultural possibilities. In 1870, he saw a few palm trees near an old wharf in Miami. They were thought to have washed ashore and taken root. Coconut palms are difficult to grow in the wild. Lum saw an opportunity for coconut tree farming.

Red line shows range of coconut habitat
They are thought to have come from the Indian Ocean area
Courtesy of Wikipedia 
Lum bought property from the government at 35 cents an acre in what became Miami Beach.  Two other Middletown residents, Elnathan T. Field and Ezra Osborn, purchased land from Lum’s property line north to Jupiter for 75 cents to $1.35 an acre. The three, who probably met in NJ, teamed up to launch a coconut palm business.

In 1882, a crew of about 25 workmen, hired from NJ lifesaving stations for the Florida venture, loaded supplies onto a Mallory line ship that sailed to Key West. From there the team, headed by 20 year-old Robert Carney (first sheriff of Miami Beach - see below*) moved supplies onto the Ada Dorn and headed for the barrier island off Miami. In those days there was no dockage so they off loaded supplies, including mules, into the water and guided them to shore by swimming or with smaller boats. The first tree-planting camp was established at what became Lummus Park.

The Ada Dorn then set sail for Trinidad for coconuts and returned with the first load of 100,000. By 1883, the crew had planted thousands.  Another shipment arrived from Nicaragua that was planted near the Hillsboro House of Refuge, north of Boca Raton.

By the end of the third year, the nurserymen ran into problems. Rabbits preferred the palm tree shoots to their normal diet of sea oats. Lum, Field, Osborn and their 60 stockholders had exhausted all their funds. Many coconut palms remained and have since become an iconic symbol of Florida, but in the 1880s the crop did not materialize into a money-making venture.  A more successful attempt to commercialize and develop Miami Beach was left to John Collins, also from Middletown NJ, and his son-in-law, Thomas Pancoast.

*Carney later became the first sheriff of Miami Beach. He built a house in Middletown that he loaded onto the supply ships, threw overboard and floated to shore. According to his obituary (New York Times, June 22, 1941), it was the first house on Miami Beach. He died in 1941 at age 79.

For more on palm trees in Palm Beach, see my other blog at:

Tebeau, Charles W. , Ed. Tequesta: Journal of the Historical Association of South Florida. Number XV, 1955.
New York Times, June 22, 1941

Tags: Florida coconut palms, palm trees in Florida, Miami Beach plam trees, where are palm trees from, Florida historical researcher, Jane Feehan, film researcher

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