Miami Beach History
John Collins Biography
Much has been made of Miami Beach pioneer John Collins' religion.
Leisurely Miami's image seemed at odds with the Quaker virtue of
hard work. While Collins was seen as a gentle Quaker, his children
saw him as a he-man, full of energy and will and impatience.
Born on December 29, 1837, in Moorestown, New Jersey, John Stiles
Collins was the sixth generation of Collinses to farm the family's
western New Jersey homestead since 1678. Part of the liberal Moorestown
Meeting, the Collins family, except for John's wife, Rachel, did
not wear traditional Quaker garb, but upheld the traditional Quaker
virtues of "honesty, sincerity, patience, sobriety, and a talent
for hard work."
Collins' passion for farming extended beyond his own land to the
marketplace. In 1855 he opened the Pleasant Valley Nurseries and
farmers' supply yards in Moorestown and Merchantville. Widely known
for cultivating the Kiefer pear and Wilson blackberry, Collins solidified
his reputation as an innovator when he founded the New Jersey Horticultural
Adventurous in his investments, Collins first bought land in Florida
in 1891. Although he didn't visit the state until 1896, he was immediately
captivated by the land, purchasing additional acreage with two fellow
New Jerseyites with the intention of growing coconuts.
The partnership didn't last. Partner Ezra Osborn died, and partner
Elnathan Field was too conservative for Collins. Field was interested
only in growing grapefruits, already a proven commodity. With an
eye toward the marketplace as much as the soil, Collins wanted to
grow exotic crops which hadn't yet been introduced to the market:
in particular, mangoes and avocados, or "alligator pears,"
as they were called then. Collins eventually bought out his partners,
making him the sole owner of five miles of land between the Atlantic
Ocean and Biscayne Bay -- roughly 50 blocks of modern-day Miami
Hiring predominantly black workers, Collins
tamed the swamp, full of rats and tangled roots. By 1907
his groves were successful, with mangoes, avocados, tomatoes and
potatoes flourishing. Tourism was also beginning to flourish. Collins,
though, was not interested in tourism, and now his focus switched
to improving transportation, not for the sake of travelers but for
his crops. Overground transportation was too slow, he felt, and
he wanted a canal.
Enter the Collins children. Collins had set up his sizable family
-- three sons, two daughters and their spouses -- in the family
business. Under their shrewd management, the New Jersey nurseries
had prospered while their father was planting Miami. Collins' canal
would cost more than he could afford, and he asked his children
for the money. Having lived through any number of their father's
hit-or-miss investments, they were reluctant to pour their money
into Miami sight unseen.
What the Collins children saw in Miami led them away from horticulture
and toward tourism, and they agreed to finance the canal only if
their father would agree to build a bridge across it, thereby opening
the beach to traffic and enhancing its real estate value. To build
their "new Atlantic City," the family founded the Miami
Beach Improvement Company. Construction on the bridge in 1912 triggered
a flurry of real estate activity, and the land was soon advertised
as "a veritable Treasure Island…and winter play ground
for the masses."
At the end of 1912, money was short, and so was the bridge. With
a half mile still to be built, Carl Fisher, the Indiana auto parts
mogul, took one of innumerable gambles in his life. Ultimately credited
with bringing Miami to life, Fisher, who described Collins as "a
bantam rooster, cocky and unafraid," gave the 74-year-old $50,000
in exchange for 200 acres of his land on the beach.
With Fisher's money, Collins finished his
bridge on June 12, 1913, nearly a year after the projected
six-month endeavor had begun. To remain competitive in the developing
region, Collins and his son-in-law built a hotel. But John Collins
never lost sight of his trees. By 1922 Miami Beach boasted the largest
avocado and mango groves in the world, but Miami's agricultural
roots wouldn't last much longer, sacrificed for the tourist trade.
When Collins died on February 11, 1928, Miami bore little resemblance
to the wild swamp he had tamed years before.