When Marcus A. Milam arrived in Miami in 1896, Florida had miles of fertile soil. And settlers, like the Milams, were attracted to the groves and crops, like mango, grapefruit and other citrus fruit. Cattle, not so much.
But Milam, along with friend Gaston Drake, formed an agricultural supply company and in 1909 Milam opened the first in a string of dairy farms in Northwest Miami-Dade.
The Milam name has come to mean dairy in South Florida. Northwest 72nd Avenue was renamed Milam Dairy Road as far back as 1943.
Milam’s daughter, Mary Wells Milam, who died at 91 on Dec. 15 at the same home her father built for the family in 1922 on Southwest 11th Avenue and Fourth Street in Miami, was a formidable businesswoman in her own right.
As president of the board of the Railey-Milam Corp. holding company, Ramico, she helped preside over iconic businesses that once thrived in the city. Among them, Milam Dairy, Railey-Miley Hardware, which catered to farmers in the early part of the last century, and Biscayne Hardware on Flagler in downtown Miami. The M.A. Milam Elementary School, now the M.A. Milam K-8 Center in Hialeah, is named for her father.
But above all, Milam, nicknamed Aunt Mary by three generations of nieces and nephews, was a lady — a family lady.
“We believed in families and our family has been good,” said her nephew Marcus A. Milam III, son of her brother Milam Jr. “She was like a fairy godmother to all of us nieces and nephews. She never married; she was a professional lady.”
Milam III remembers his aunt’s family trips best of all. She had served as the national president of the Traveler’s Aid Society, a nonprofit that provides social service programs for people in need of public transportation. In 1970, she was honored with the Colgate Award for her volunteer efforts in the social services.
But her travel expertise inspired her to plan family reunions and gatherings and trips for many nieces and nephews. Marcus III recalls trips to New York during which the family stayed at the famed Waldorf Astoria, or the Grand Canyon, San Francisco, White Springs in Hamilton County, Fla. “She showed us the old wooden diving boards around the Springs. People my age didn’t know what that was. She wanted us to see the sights of what they grew up in in Florida.”
Milam also ensured that her family knew how to conduct themselves in public on these trips and elsewhere. “She wined us and dined us and tried to teach us the social graces that your parents normally would,” he said.
But she was also colorful. Milam graduated from the University of Miami and while a student she tutored World War II prospective pilots in math to help them qualify for the field’s math test. She served the UM Alumni Association as a board president and a wall inside the new Alumni Building sports her name.
During her time with UM, Milam got it in her mind that she was going to get a convertible and tool around Miami in style — no matter what anyone thought.
“I remember a yellow Plymouth convertible and the antenna had this red thing on top and would light up when she’d turn on the headlights,” Marcus III said, laughing. “The family didn’t want her to get a convertible but she kept her mouth shut and got it.
“She turned 91 too quickly.”
Milam is survived by her nieces Marcia Hencinski, Beverly Singleton, Mary Pat Rogers, nephews Glen Skaggs, Marcus A. Milam III, 15 great and 16 great-great nieces and nephews. She was predeceased by her parents and siblings. Family and friends will gather for a celebration of life at 2:30 p.m. Sunday at Van Orsdel Coral Gables Chapel, 4600 SW Eighth St., Coral Gables.