My grandfather, George W. Smith, and my grandmother, Ellen Cook Smith, came to Homestead in 1925 at the height of the boom.
My grandmother’s brother, “Uncle Bob” Cook, had urged them to come south. He later served as a Dade County commissioner. My mother Evelyn Smith was 10 years old. She had two brothers (Lester and Wade), and one on the way when they drove their Model T Ford down the two dirt ruts in a road called “Dixie Highway.”
My grandfather had converted the Model T into a sort of camper with a kerosene burner so that Grandmother could cook and they could all sleep inside. There were no road signs, no rest stops (except in the woods), and only painted markers on trees to show the way. According to my mother, the east coast highway was marked with red birds painted on pine trees and the road from Georgia to Florida’s west coast was painted with white stripes on the trees.
During a particularly bad rainstorm, the road became so muddy that they could not travel. They decided to stop and stay at a turpentine camp for several days where they lived on stale doughnuts.
My mother told her favorite story of finding a bracelet in the bushes on one of their “rest stops.” She gave it to her dad who took it into Miami when they arrived. A jeweler gave him $75 for it and he bought his first piece of property in Lemon City with the proceeds.
They finally settled in Homestead and endured the terrible hurricanes of 1926, 1928 and 1935, all the while farming (tomatoes and potatoes), first in the Redlands and then in the East Glades. Granddaddy told of the massive clouds of mosquitoes in the ’glades that required him to wrap his arms and legs in newspaper under his clothes and to put burlap bags over the muzzle of the mule to keep it from suffocating from inhaling the bugs.
He said that he always carried a shotgun under one arm to shoot rattlesnakes “just in case.” He didn’t want to lose his plowing mule. Eventually, the old mule became too old to work and died, whereupon Granddaddy gathered his sons around him and announced that they “might not have a crop this year” because he was going to buy a tractor and didn’t know how it would perform. But, he was never one to shy away from technology and later bought a new car every two or three years. Apparently, the tractor performed very well.
My mother and uncles attended Homestead schools and graduated from Homestead High School (later, Homestead Junior High). The uncles all served their country during the war. Hubert, the youngest, and Wade were in the Navy, while Lester (the oldest) went into the U.S. Army. After the war, they all came home to farm with their dad.
My mother met my dad in North Carolina when she was a teacher in his hometown, Rural Hall, near Winston Salem. My dad, George W. Ledford, drove for Greyhound bus lines during the war, taking Marine recruits to boot camp at Parris Island, SC.
After World War II, they moved to Homestead to farm with my grandfather. They farmed with him and Mother’s brothers, Wade and Lester, for 50 years. The youngest, Hubert Smith, went to school to become a chiropractor and he moved his family to Gulfport, MS in the mid-1960s.
As my brother, Larry Ledford, and I grew up, we experienced the growth of Homestead with the establishment of the Strategic Air Command (SAC) base. Many of my friends at South Dade High School were from Air Force families with the rest of us “farmers’ kids” coming from older families who had been in the area for a while.
I was there during the Cuban Missile Crisis and sat on my parents’ front porch watching the endless convoys coming down Krome Avenue. We could hear the B-52 bombers revving their engines at all hours, on alert should their service be needed. I also felt our house tremble when an underground missile was test fired in the Everglades, west of town. I was 15 years old and home alone at the time, certain that we were all going to die and that I’d never see my family again.
I was a senior at South Dade High School when John F. Kennedy was assassinated. I was sitting in the parking lot waiting for my riders to meet me after school when one of them raced out to the car crying that “the President’s been shot!” All these years later, I still recall that moment very clearly. That singular event changed us and it changed our country.
Many of my classmates went off to Vietnam; others of us went to college. For security and solidarity, seven of us girls from the class of 1964 went to the new University of South Florida, which was then a sand dune with several buildings. There was one little pizza place and a Holiday Inn nearby, as well as a Schlitz brewery.
Freshmen were not allowed to have cars so we were pretty much stuck on campus. There was no football, basketball or other intercollegiate sports, so some of my friends bolted for the high life at the University of Florida. Gainesville certainly had more to offer, but my wise parents knew I would HAVE to study at U.S.F. and so I stayed.
I never returned to live in Homestead but visited many times during my adult life and came back to help clean up after Hurricane Andrew, another event that changed our lives forever.
My grandparents’ story is not unique among the pioneers, but I often wonder if any of us today would have the fortitude to stick it out in South Florida if conditions were the same today. With the end of the war and the advent of air-conditioning, my grandparents saw South Florida go from a booming agricultural area to a huge city.
They survived many hurricanes, and yet they stayed, farmed the ‘glades and raised their family. They saw interstate highways being built and they saw men walk on the moon. (My grandmother never quite believed that.) To paraphrase Shakespeare: “What a piece of work!”