by Ray Allen
Part 1 - Mama and Papa
Chapter 3: Raymond and Adelaide
Like most small town teenagers at the time, their courtship centered on the families. Raymond began inviting Adelaide to the family gatherings at the Dillon house, and she loved them. All her life, she talked about the wonderful music and good times she shared with Raymond's parents, brothers and sisters. She told me that Raymond's brother, Eddie, could “make a piano talk.“ This was Edmund, the oldest child, then in his late twenties. When he would visit from New York, his music was the center of everything, and all the Dillons remembered great times sitting on the big front porch with family and friends listening to Eddie play. As Mama told me, “all the neighbors would become quiet, or come over to the Dillon's porch, and applaud after each song.“ Eddie was a celebrity.
Mama also formed great friendships with Raymond's other brothers and sisters. She loved Charlie, who was also a piano player, and loved to sing. Joe, the youngest, was studious, and Mama respected that about him, and wasn't surprised when in later years, he became an attorney and was elected to the Florida Legislature. She always told us that the sisters, Juliet, Rafaela (always called “Fela“) and Alice were all wonderful to her. These warm friendships with Raymond's family were to last a lifetime.
Since she had practically become a member of the family, no one was surprised when Raymond and Adelaide announced that they were to be married. On the 26th of September, 1906, they had a big wedding that was surely a big party, since that's the way the Dillons did everything. Raymond was 22, Adelaide was 20.
During the first few years of their marriage, they lived with the Dillons. Today, people find it hard to believe, but the Dillon house was right on Flagler Street, between NE 1st and 2nd Avenues, where there are nothing but skyscrapers today. The Dillons not only lived there with the big family; they also kept chickens! Miami was growing, but it was still small.
By the time Mama and Papa were married, the elegant Royal Palm Hotel was up and running, a huge sprawling wooden palace at the mouth of the Miami River, where it flowed into Biscayne Bay, only about 4 blocks from the Dillon home. The hotel and its service buildings made up more than half the town, and Henry Flagler's other projects were in evidence everywhere. He had built streets of bungalows to house his railroad workers, and had actually begun the final dream-his overseas railroad to Key West.
That meant that Captain Dillon, Raymond's father, was working harder than ever. There's an old newspaper clipping explaining that Mr. Flagler had been cruising recently out in the ocean off Miami Beach in his yacht with Captain Dillon. The newspaper noted that they had been looking at the coastline and discussing where to make the “Government Cut.“ Government Cut is still the name of Miami's harbor entrance, and leads to what is now the busiest cruise ship port in the world. The “cut“ needed to be dredged through the thin barrier island of Miami Beach so large ships could enter the harbor and dock up close to Miami's downtown. Henry Flagler saw the need, and ordered it done.
But the big news, and the big job was the Key West Extension. Flagler had the work begun in 1904, and for the next eight years, 3000 to 4000 men labored on what everyone was already calling the “Eighth Wonder of the World.“ South of Miami and down into the keys, the crews worked day and night, and of course, it really was an incredible plan. When it was all done, it would be a string of 38 bridges, crossing some 37 miles of open ocean and 41 islands. The famous seven-mile bridge was the longest bridge in the world. For the entire time, the workers endured hurricanes, alligators, mosquitoes and all kinds of setbacks. The track crossed one huge body of water they named “Lake Surprise“ since it wasn't on the plans. Most of the bridges utilized a new kind of German cement that would harden underwater. And of course, most of the work required a fleet of ships and all kinds of work in the water. That meant Captain Dillon was called on to manage it all, working under Flagler's Chief Construction Engineer, Joseph Carroll Meredith.
Captain Dillon's assignments involved managing a large fleet of barges and supply ships with the men quartered on many of them, since there were no other places for the workers to stay. The barges filled with sleeping quarters and piles of supplies were lashed to one bridge structure after another, as the line crept south.
The unrelenting work took its toll on Captain Dillon, now in his late fifties. During the summer and fall of 1907, his fleet and workers were slammed by two hurricanes, lives were lost, and it was a sad, difficult time.
As if the storms weren't enough, immediately after them, Captain Dillon received the alarming news that his oldest son, Eddie, was very ill in New York and was coming home. The captain quickly returned to Miami, and found his son confined to his bed, very weakened by an accident he had suffered a few weeks earlier. Eddie, just 33, was suffering from gangrene, and his infected leg was not getting better.
The doctors did all they could, but Captain and Mrs. Dillon knew there was really no cure. In a few days, the anxiety took its toll. Captain Dillon had complained of chest pains for years. Mrs. Dillon told how he'd pace the floor at night beating his chest, trying to quell the pain. The hurricanes, the work, and now this family tragedy were just too much. A few days after he had come home to see Eddie, it happened. George Washington Dillon suffered a fatal heart attack at his home in Miami on September 22nd , 1907. His son, Eddie, in another bedroom downstairs, died of gangrene 7 days later on September 29th. The Dillon home did not ring with music and laughter that fall.
Soon after Captain Dillon's death, a heartfelt, hand-written letter arrived for Mrs. Dillon from Mr. Flagler himself. He expressed his deep sympathy and also the great respect he had had for Captain Dillon. Flagler's letter has been a family treasure ever since.
Amid all the sadness, there was one happy event that followed the family deaths by just a few weeks. Adelaide and Raymond's first baby was born on October 22. Adelaide had decided that if he were a boy, his middle name was going to be Edmund, after his Uncle Eddie. The baby was a healthy boy, and the name was Melville Edmund Dillon, who was to be my oldest uncle.
Life went on as usual in early Miami, which meant the little city continued to rocket into the future, growing into more and more of a nationally recognized resort every year. Mr. Flagler's Royal Palm Hotel was now very famous, and each season, there were more and more trains bringing wealthy northerners to enjoy Miami's balmy winter months.
From the beginning, Miami loved liquor for two reasons. After all, it was a frontier town, and strong drink has always been a major commodity in a boom town where men, often without their families, are there to work hard. Add the fact that Miami was also a tourist community, catering to people on vacation, and it's obvious. From elegant cocktails on the veranda at the Royal Palm to the shady saloons that had cropped up in North Miami, booze was everywhere. Papa was particularly fond of good Cuban rum.
It just happened that this was also the time of major national campaigns for “temperance“, the word that led to the growing movement against alcohol that climaxed with the passage of the 18th Amendment in 1919, making prohibition the law of the land.
By 1909, Miami had obviously become well-known enough to be included in traveling celebrities' appearances. Because Carrie Nation came to town.
She was the famous lady traveling the country preaching on the evils of alcohol. She was a formidable old woman known for fiery speeches and actual raids on saloons. She always wore a long black dress, stormed around town, and would be quick to berate anyone she met on various issues of morality. With a passionate entourage, she often burst into saloons herself, with her signature weapon. She'd stalk straight to the bar, and proceed to attack the bottles behind it with a hatchet, sending broken glass and wasted liquor everywhere, all the while shouting and accusing everyone around about the evils of “Demon rum.“
Even though national prohibition was years away, Miami was already “dry.“ When that was the case, Carrie Nation always had some contact buy her a bottle of bootleg liquor locally and then use the bottle during her fiery speech. Miami was no exception. When she appeared, she attracted the largest crowd seen to date in Miami-over 2,000 people flocked to her program, held in a large tent. She proceeded with her bombast of loud, shouting, oratory. And then, suddenly, she held a bottle aloft, and screamed, “This very bottle was bought this afternoon in your fair city!“ The crowd oohed and ahhed, but certain people in the audience weren't surprised. Papa was there, of course, and he knew who had bought the bottle. It was none other than Fred Moody, his brother in law. Mama's older brother, Fred, had always been a straight-laced prohibitionist, and standing there in the crowd, the two men must have glanced at each other, knowing their complete disagreement over the “liquor question.“ Carrie Nation didn't mention the name of the booze buyer, but the Dillon and Moody families all knew, and laughed about it for years.
About this time, even though he was only 23, Papa already had years of experience at sea. Thanks to his upbringing on his father's ships, he was much sought after for various seagoing assignments. He captained yachts. He signed aboard Caribbean freighters. He took boats back and forth to Key West and Havana all the time. Another Captain Dillon was being born.
But he was not always gone. Papa loved Miami, and was everybody's friend. He and Adelaide's family grew over the next few years, too. Elizabeth arrived in 1907, Eugenia, my mother, in 1912, and soon after the family built a brand new house, Ruth Rosemary, their youngest, was born in 1919. Three girls and one boy.
The house was planned in something new called a “subdivision.“ Miami's very first one was named Highland Park, Papa knew the builders, and he plunged into the project with great enthusiasm.
But to Papa, not just any house would do. His experiences at sea with hurricanes, and his ideas about inventing new things all came together when he began planning the house. It would be hurricane proof. It would have a large yard since he insisted on having avocado and mango trees. And it would be big enough to house his growing family.
In 1917, the building began, and the comfortable, two-story home which Mama always called “The Old Nest“ took shape, at 843 NW 12 Street. By this time, Papa was often at sea, but he took plenty of time to work on the house construction with the builders. Beautiful patterned Cuban tile was brought home for the wide front porch. And most of all, the walls were put up to Papa's personal specifications. They were solid poured concrete, about 10 inches thick. He was sure no hurricane could damage such strong walls, and he was right. From the time they were built, they weathered hundreds of hurricanes, some historically severe. He ordered the surface of the walls scored deeply to give the impression of concrete block, in an oversized brickwork pattern. Unlike many of Papa's projects, this one was quite attractive, and I remember running my hand through the deep scorings between the Old Nest's white “blocks“ as a kid. Between each block design, there was a deep, 2“ v-shaped crevice. But behind all this, there was nothing but solid cement. The Old Nest was to be the family home for the next 50 years.
During these early years, everybody knew everybody else in Miami, and everybody pronounced the town's name “Miama.“ For years since, northerners arriving in town have always thought the pronunciation with the soft a at the end was due to Southern accents, but Papa always insisted that wasn't true. Mi-am-a is the way the Seminoles pronounced the name, and of course, it's a Seminole word. In their language, it means “Sweet Water“, after the fresh waters of the Miami River, flowing from the Everglades west of the city into Biscayne Bay.
From the time the Moodys and Dillons arrived in Miami, it was truly a frontier town, and stayed that way into the 1920's. If the streets were more than dirt, they were “paved“ with crushed shells, something that every early account mentions since with Miami's hot, bright sun, the crushed shell streets were blinding.
The writings of Marjory Stoneman Douglas describe it best. She arrived in Miami in 1915, a daughter of the founder of the Miami Herald, and never left. She was the famous lady who was to live over 100 years, and for almost the whole time hold the position of Miami's most celebrated resident writer. Her book, River of Grass, about the Everglades, made her a national figure during the 1940's, but I prefer her book called The Long Frontier, which is all about Florida history and her impressions of Miami when she arrived. Like everyone else, she tells about the mosquitoes, the heat, and the beautiful blue bay.
".the great bay shimmering and streaked with pale jade and azure, holding the creamy reflections of clouds in its fine polish.“
As is clear, she had a particular talent for description, and she wrote that soon after she arrived she was struck by the magnificent skies over Miami, something she had never enjoyed back in her native Massachusetts. In most places, a perfect day is usually described as having "not a cloud in the sky.“ Not so in Miami. Here, in summer, every single day the fluffy white clouds pile up as high as 40,000 feet creating a tapestry of rich, brightly lit white against clear blue that you simply don't see in other places. These same clouds make Miami's sunsets unique, because when 40,000 feet of cloud formations are painted red and gold, it's unforgettable. Mrs. Douglas explains the big fluffy cloud banks are created by evaporation of moisture from the great sheet of shallow water just west of the city in the Everglades.
My favorite description of all the ones in her books is the way she described the balmy nighttime in Miami when there is a breeze and a bright moon. The moon always lights up the big clouds:
"I was learning also every day what life was like here in these tropics under the unrelenting sun, in the sweet enormous nights.“
That's it precisely, in three perfect words-“sweet, enormous nights“. Once the sun is down, the bright night sky looms huge over the city, and there are always palms rustling in the breeze, and plants and flowers scenting the air. Today, the skyscrapers and neon make it a little more difficult to appreciate, but if you get out of the city on one of those nights, and let your senses take it all in, it's still thrilling.
I had the pleasure of meeting Marjory Stoneman Douglas during the 1970s and interviewing her for a magazine article. She was a truly fascinating person, then in her eighties, and even at that age, a successful activist. At that time, she was starting a brand new organization called Friends of the Everglades. During the next couple of decades, her organization had great impact in the restoration plans for today's Everglades, which are being restored to their original state, to preserve Miami's prime water source.
People always have to be reminded that before the 1920's, Miami wasn't only small, it was very isolated. Ships arrived regularly, but there were really no land connections with the outside world other than the railroad. This isolation created some frontier characteristics that many people find hard to believe today, and one of them was public hangings. Just like in old western movies, the judges, courts and police of Miami in its earliest days had to carry out their sentences locally. And when the penalty was death, it was done right on the courthouse steps.
The last public hanging in Miami was in 1916, and we used to get Papa to tell us about it. He once told me that he had learned in those days the proper way to put a noose around a condemned man's neck. As a wide-eyed kid, I listened carefully as he explained that the rope must go straight up from the knot. If that isn't done, when the floor under the man's feet drops away, the noose can slide across under the man's chin and cut his throat. He told me he had seen that happen, and no hangman ever did it the wrong way more than once.
All during the early days, the Seminole Indians were an exotic presence in the little city. They'd always arrive by canoe along the river, in their colorful native dress. The women wore multiple strands of beads, and had a unique way of creating high piled-up hair-dos of their long black hair, which created a sort of glistening black halo around their faces. The women's long skirts and the men's and boy's shirts were made from a distinctive patchwork craft unique to the tribe. It was a complex, multicolored design using strips of the brightest colored fabric patches available. In school, every Miami school kid learned that our local Indians, the Seminoles, were runaways from the Creek Nation north of the Florida border and had chosen the Everglades for their home soon after Creek Wars in the early 1800's.
Also, everyone learned that they were the only tribe in the country that had never signed a peace treaty with the United States. Technically, they're still at war.
The Indians would canoe into town to shop, of course, and their main destination was always the trading post on the south side of the river run by the Brickell family. The old riverside trading post had been one of Miami's very first businesses. The Brickells owned almost all the land south of the river, and became very wealthy in later years as Brickell Avenue and the surrounding real estate became one of Miami's most fashionable neighborhoods.
As for the Seminoles, they had no interest in the growing city. They never stayed in town long. Families could be seen walking silently down Flagler Street during the afternoons, but they never lived in town. They always disappeared as quietly as they had arrived, preferring to keep their culture miles away in the heart of the Great Swamp. Even I remember Seminole families paddling up the river from the Everglades with their colorful clothing and exotic jewelry, as late as the 1950s.