by Ray Allen
Part 1 - Mama and Papa
Chapter 2: Papa's Family - The Dillons
One young man who was definitely at that 4th of July parade and took particular notice of Adelaide Moody was Raymond Dillon, a teenager recently arrived from Key West. It was 1902, he was 18, and his family had moved to Miami from Key West four years before, in 1898. Raymond Dillon was to be my grandfather, and many years later, we always called him Papa. I was named for him, and I'm proud of it.
Raymond's father, Captain George Washington Dillon, had an important job. He was Mr. Flagler's "Commodore of Ships." That meant G. W. Dillon captained Mr. Flagler's private yacht, and also oversaw the other ships he was accumulating for his various development interests all over South Florida.
What was soon to become Flagler's P&O Steamship Company had recruited Captain Dillon from Key West since he was well-known there, and uniquely qualified to help with another big idea that was the talk of the town. Henry Flagler was thinking about extending the railroad even further south, all the way to Key West. Flagler knew that Captain Dillon knew the waters between Miami, Havana and Key West like nobody else.
"The Key West Extension", still an engineering marvel today, was quickly named "the railroad that went to sea", since the line had to island hop for almost 150 miles to reach Key West. Even today, the highway to Key West includes 46 bridges. So the very idea of track and trestles all the way down seemed impossible to most people. But not to Henry Flagler. And certainly not to George Washington Dillon.
Captain Dillon had been born in Key West, and had been at sea all his life. He was at home long enough to father seven children with his wife, Elizabeth Albury Dillon, a member of one of Key West's earliest Bahamian families who formed the basic family groups of old Key West. The Alburys had arrived by ship in the 1850's when Raymond's mother was a baby. Albury is a "big name" in Key West, even today.
But the Dillons were just as steeped in Key West history. Captain Dillon and his brother Charles were both Official Wrecking Captains at the famous Key West Wrecking Court, which meant they were allowed to salvage the constant shipwrecks on the reefs off Key West, and claim their share of the goods they saved. That's another story, of course. The United States Wrecking Court had been established since many of the early Wrecking Captains had been accused of being pirates, setting false "lights" to drive the lucrative wrecks to the reefs.
In those earlier days, Capt. Dillon's father had been a building supervisor at Fort Taylor, Key West's brooding brick fortress down on the waterfront, so the whole Dillon family were true "Conchs", the name given to honest-to-God Key West natives. It derives from the bright pink conch shell found in the waters around the island. And this is why Key West is sometimes called "The Conch Republic", and why the island is famous for a very bright color called "Key West pink."
In Capt. George Washington Dillon's day, the whole rich history of Key West was being written. As Florida's famous southernmost island, it was evolving into the unique city it is today. At one time Florida's richest and largest town, a major port of entry for early immigrants, and really an outpost 150 miles from the mainland, early Key West was always more a part of the Bahamas and Cuba than the United States.
Like Nantucket and other well-known islands in strategic geographical locations, it was completely oriented toward the ocean and the culture of fishing, shipping and ships. The seas around Key West are as magnificent as any in the tropics, with world-famous turquoise crystal waters and unforgettable sunsets. Most importantly, even though the island is small, it is blessed with a natural deepwater port. The buildings are almost all frame, and built during the town's glory days in the mid-nineteenth century in what most call the Bahamian style. In typical crowded island fashion, houses are close together and tall, with wide porches across the front, upstairs and down. They were all built by ships carpenters, many from New England, so the resulting town is one that is totally unique in Florida.
Key West vernacular architecture created what is now called the "Conch House", the large, rambling two-story homes the island is famous for. They are big contributors to what is the undeniable Key West mystique, which has struck visitors from the very beginning, and continues to feed the island's booming tourist economy today. The combination of the vivid sea all around, the now-antique buildings painted blazing white with the startling contrast of luxuriant greenery and swaying palms plus dazzling color from tropical flowers endlessly in bloom creates a seductive intensity few people can resist. From the earliest settlers, to the rich and famous writers like Ernest Hemingway and Tennessee Williams who attracted even more visitors, everybody has always loved Key West.
Growing up, Papa's father and uncle, the Dillon boys, left their mark on the town's early history. Jefferson Browne, the town historian in his "History of Key West" writes of "George and Charlie Dillon", as the toughest fighters among the young men on the island. He tells us they were always in scraps, and always won.
This is surely one reason that in later years, George Washington Dillon was elected Marshall of the City of Key West. That meant that between captaining ships, he also was involved in the town's law enforcement. There's a great old formal photo of him looking very stern and very proud in his uniform with a very official-looking hat with gold braid and a brass plate across the front clearly labeled "MARSHALL". Years later, we laughed when the famous TV show, "Gunsmoke" featured a western sheriff named Matt Dillon, and "Marshall Dillon" became a well-known name. But the TV star was not the first one.
Captain Dillon was a great believer in physical fitness and insisted on exercise and regular athletic competitions, especially between him and his sons. He started a family tradition when the children were young that required each son to race him from one end of Duval Street to the other on the son's birthday. Captain Dillon always won, but we don't know whether or not the sons made sure that happened as he got older.
However, this colorful sea captain and strict head of the family also had another side. Long after his death, the family talked about his needlework. I heard Mama and Papa and all the other Dillons laugh about it many times, and particularly about the magnificent needlework of big red roses in petit point that won a blue ribbon one year in the Monroe County Fair under a woman's name. They were actually entered by G. W. Dillon, and it was his work. While he was alive, the whole family knew about it, but it was never discussed. Captain Dillon had taken up needlework to pass the long hours at sea, and had become extremely talented at it. Mama always said it was some of the most beautiful needlework she had ever seen. The way Mama told us the story years later told me that she liked knowing Capt. Dillon had had a secret artistic talent. She didn't know him long, but always knew he was special.
Over the years, he served on a long list of ships, but his pride and joy was always the three-masted schooner he owned called the Lily White.
That sailing ship had participated in the lucrative shipment of beef cattle from the west coast port of Punta Rassa, Florida (now Ft. Myers) down to Cuba, and in those days, Raymond was the Lily White's cabin boy.
Raymond had always been the most energetic, popular kid in the family, and loved going to sea with his father, even though Captain Dillon was famous for being a severe disciplinarian. The crew all loved having Raymond on board, since he was an entertaining happy boy, and always hard-working. Nothing slowed him down, and he was always smiling and fearless--willing to try almost anything. Sometimes, of course, he went too far, and his father would always be there with a harsh punishment. These events actually led to one of the stories my grandfather told me years later, which many people have trouble believing. When he was 7 or 8, Raymond was actually keel-hauled by his father.
Keel-hauling is one of the now-unimaginable old disciplines famous from the days of tall ships, and involves a man being actually dragged under the keel of the vessel by a rope tied around his waist. Many men didn't survive it.
The man to be punished was forced to stand facing the water at one side of the deck "amidships" which means in the middle of the ship, while a line was tied around his waist. Then the line was dropped over the bow, and teased back so it was directly under the deepest part of the ship's structure, the deep keel. Next, several crewmen were posted on the opposite side with the end of the rope. The unlucky one being keelhauled was then directed to dive into the water and swim under the ship as fast as he could. Once he hit the water, the crewmen holding the other end of the rope were required to pull as hard as they could, "hauling" the culprit under the keel, and up on the other side of the ship.
My grandfather liked to tell us about it years later, and he always said his father never knew that since all the crewmen pulling the rope liked him, they didn't pull very hard, and let him swim most of the way. I've never met anyone else who has been keel-hauled.
Another story from his cabin boy childhood involved meeting Thomas Edison one day in Punta Rassa. Mr. Edison had a winter home near the port, which is now one of Florida's most celebrated tourist attractions.
It seems Edison enjoyed sitting on the big front porch of the Punta Rassa Inn where the ships pulled in to load the cattle. The old inn was the center of activity in the busy port. Of course, my grandfather was a small boy at the time, but he was the captain's son, and used his charm to get close to the famous Mr. Edison. He always proudly told how the great man took him onto his knee and spoke to him quite awhile, and gave him some shiny pennies. In later years, it became clear that Papa never forgot meeting the Great Inventor, and was inspired to do some inventing of his own.
The Dillons had a large family, long before they arrived in Miami-4 boys and 3 girls.. By the time they moved, their oldest child, Edmund, who had managed to learn violin and piano as a young boy in Key West, had already traveled to New York City and become a composer of ragtime music. He also became the orchestra conductor at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, which added a little bit of glamour to the family, and gave Mrs. Dillon something pretty impressive to brag about.
The other children were named Juliet (who had a cousin born about the same time who was named Romeo, so in the Key West Dillon clan, Romeo and Juliet grew up together.), Rafaela, Raymond, Alice, Charles, and Joseph. Mrs. Dillon not only paid respect to Shakespeare when she named her children, she also complimented her Methodist ministers. The Dillons, like the Moodys were staunch Methodists, and each Dillon child's middle name was the last name of the minister at the time of the birth.
Unlike the Moodys who were quiet and thoughtful, the Dillons were loud and colorful. Everybody played an instrument. Their big house on Miami's Flagler Street rang with laughter, music and parties. The Dillons knew how to have a good time.
Back in Key West, they had lived for years in a big 2-story conch house at the corner of Olivia and Duval Streets. There's a great old picture of the whole clan out in front of the house, including the family horse. Sitting proudly on the horse's back is Raymond, at about age 5.
In the Key West tradition, all the Dillons also had nicknames. Raymond's was "Sig", short for storm signal, a typically nautical nickname that indicates the mischief Raymond was famous for, even when he was a little boy.
He was always in trouble, and with his stern father often away at sea, it was often left to his small, rather frail mother to apply discipline. One of her punishments was to restrict little Raymond to his room, but one day that didn't work. After he was found outside the house, she decided to make sure he didn't get out again, so she tied him to her cast iron sewing machine-one of those floor models powered by a heavy foot pedal. Once he was securely tied to the iron legs of the machine with some old fabric scraps, Mrs. Dillon thought she could relax. But awhile later, a neighbor came in and asked why Raymond was dragging her sewing machine down Duval street.
He was as difficult for his teachers as he was for his mother. Raymond attended the Key West School on Duval, which was an elementary in what is one of Key West's most beautiful restored buildings today. It's a lovely two-story place with long, low windows in every room. The headmaster was a man famous around Key West named Monkey John. The name was never explained, but everyone always said how strict he was, and how his paddling was an everyday occurrence for any children who stepped out of line.
Of course, Raymond Dillon was one of Monkey John's most paddled pupils, and one day, when Raymond was in the fifth grade in a second floor classroom, something happened that brought the paddle out for use once again. Monkey John moved toward Raymond, and Raymond moved toward the window. He jumped out of the building, and ran from the scene and also from a formal education. That was the end; he never went back.
By the time I knew Papa, he had educated himself. With only a 5th Grade formal education, he had become a voracious reader. He had purchased hundreds of books, including the complete Harvard Classics, and read them all. As his seafaring career unfolded, he realized he needed respectable credentials to captain important vessels, and as a young man, after studying hard, had traveled to Philadelphia and passed the stiff test to earn his "Master's Papers." These were the licensing documents that qualified a seaman to "captain any ship on any of the seven seas." As a kid, I remember being really impressed with that. To us, Papa knew everything. He had also learned Spanish at an early age. After all, Cuba is just 90 miles from Key West, and Captain Dillon's ships went there all the time.