Touring The Kampong Gardens (Pictures)
Tucked away at the south end of Coconut Grove is one of Miami’s oldest landmarks, the Kampong. One of its most famous residents, plant explorer Dr. David Fairchild, named the waterfront property after the Malaysian word for village.
If you drive by fast enough, you might miss the sign that marks this historic site, in addition to a beautiful, enormous Banyan tree behind the limestone wall off Douglas Road. Behind the green, wrought-iron gate is a lush, tropical orchard and garden that currently serves as the only Congress-chartered National Tropical Botanical Garden in the continental US. (Its four sister gardens are in Hawaii.) True to its mission, the privately funded NTBG advances scientific research, public education and plant conservation.
But it’s the history here, as well as the collection of plants, that captivates the imagination. To understand the full range of this property’s history, we need to go back to the 19th century, when Jolly Jack Peacock sold the land to J.W. Ewan (aka “Duke of Dade”) for $50 in 1876. Ewan settled here, planting fruit trees and pineapple. In 1892, Albion R. Simmons and his wife Dr. Eleanor Galt Simmons brought the property from Ewan. Dr. Galt Simmons was the first female physician to work in the area. She built a barn from local limestone and Dade County pine, which still stands on the property. The story goes that she made house calls on a mule and that Miccosukee Indians would camp out on the property to seek treatment.
In 1916, David Fairchild and his wife Marian purchased the property, which became their winter home. As Chief of the Seed and Plant Introduction Section of the US Department of Agriculture, David Fairchild explored the world and introduced about 20,000 types of plants to this country, some of which he planted at The Kampong. Barbour Lathrop, a wealthy American philanthropist, sponsored many of Fairchild’s expeditions. “Fairchild helped establish avocado in California,” said David Lee, director of The Kampong. “His work broadened the American palette by introducing many kinds of fruit.”
David Fairchild built a second story above Dr. Galt Simmon’s cottage where he wrote many books about his travels as botanist, horticulturalist and plant collector, including the popular work, The World Was My Garden. The study remains just as Fairchild left it, with artifacts from his desk, copious books and framed pictures on the walls. You can see a large Bignay tree from the window that Fairchild must’ve looked out of so many times. He used to make juice from the fruit. On the day I visited, a few cherry-headed parrots were quietly nibbling away at the abundant berries.
In 1928, Edward Clarence Dean designed the main house, relying on an oriental style inspired by Fairchild’s many travels to Southeast Asia. A lawn stretches out to a tennis court and beyond that, a carved-out boat channel extends to Biscayne Bay. But the real stunners on this 11-acre property are the hundreds of trees planted throughout, which include an exotic Buddha’s Hand – a tree that’s sacred in Southeast Asia – as well as an African Baobab.
Fairchild’s wife was the daughter of Alexander Graham Bell. Her sister, Elsie, was married to Gilbert Grovesnor, the first editor of National Geographic Magazine, credited with building the publication’s greatness. In 1931, the Grosvenors purchased the property adjacent to the Kampong and called it Hissar, after the small town in Turkey where Grovesnor was born. Today, the property is private and boasts one of the oldest standing homes in Miami, which I had the opportunity to see. It is beautifully maintained, surrounded by a lawn and mango trees. There are a total of seven historic structures between The Kampong and Hissar properties, five on The Kampong alone.
The Kampong was not only the home of two renowned families in the world of invention and exploration, but also the place where Fairchild, Marjory Stoneman Douglas and Ernest Coe conceived the idea of an Everglades National Park. The historic meeting took place in the living room and it’s no small irony—the original, natural landscape here before human intervention was pineland and salt grass marsh fed by fresh water from the Everglades.
Many famous people came to the Kampong in Fairchild’s time, include Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison and Henry Ford.
In 1963, Mr. and Mrs. Edward Sweeney purchased the property after Marian Fairchild’s passing; she survived her husband David by 8 years. It was Mrs. Sweeney who guarded the Kampong from prospective developers and by 1984, it found a spot on the National Register of Historic Places. That same year, Mrs. Sweeney donated the property along with an endowment.
Today, the Kampong plays a significant role in education. The organization offers graduate and professional level courses. Its collection of plants provides an ideal resource for many students who would otherwise have to travel abroad for fieldwork. The property has an eco-friendly dormitory on site, which houses up to 12 students. Harvard University offers an annual summer course called “Plants of the Tropics.”
Fairchild’s legacy remains alive in the many edible, ornamental and ethnobotanical specimens that thrive at the Kampong. (Fairchild provided the name for Fairchild Tropical Botanic Gardens, located further south off Biscayne Bay, which was established in 1938 by Robert H. Montgomery; however, both are separate institutions.)
You can take a self-guided tour of The Kampong by calling ahead and making a reservation. Guided and group tours are also available. Visiting hours are 9 am to 2 pm, Monday through Friday. Admission is $10 (adults), $5 (students 7 or older) and free for children under 6 years of age. Call (305) 442-7169 for more information.
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