My Miami story began before I was born.
My paternal grandfather, Thomas Tilden, arrived in the 1880s in Syracuse, Missouri, and built a magnificent barn. It was “the largest in Missouri, the third-largest in the United States, and the sixth-largest in the world,’’ crowed the newspapers at the time. Like a fine home, it had mahogany woodwork throughout, and cost well over $10,000 — a goodly sum in those days.
But tragedy struck.
In 1896, the barn and all its contents went up in flames. Grandfather, subsequently depressed, decided to sell his farm and move his family to a milder clime. To scout the territory, he boarded Mr. Flagler’s train and rode all the way to its just-completed terminus at Biscayne Bay. There, according to my grandmother, he found a settlement, recently incorporated, of fewer than 50 inhabitants.
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Evidently this did not suit his needs, so he re-boarded the train and went north; about halfway up the state, to what is now Florahome. There he bought land and built an architect-designed home. Back in Missouri, he loaded his furniture, some livestock, tools, and other belongings into a freight car, and on Oct. 16, 1901, he and his family took up residence in Florahome. When my grandfather died in 1906, my grandmother, with her four youngest children (my father included) moved back to Missouri.
But two of the children stayed on at the farm in Florahome and, even today, there are Tildens at Winter Park.
Fast forward to 1946: World War II had ended. I was a sophomore at Lindenwood College in St. Charles, Missouri, and my parents’ wartime employment in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, was no longer needed.
They planned to start a new life “out West,” but wanted to see some of the USA. They bought a trailer and, with my three brothers in tow, headed south to Miami.
Oops, their timing was off, September was upon them, and school started. They parked the trailer and enrolled Billy and Tommy and Bobby in nearby Edison School.
Trailer-park living did not appeal to them, however, but they found that no homeowner would rent to them with three boys. They ended up buying a house on nine acres at the edge of the Everglades — East Glade Drive and Coral Way (Rural Route 4, Box 222). No other manmade structure was within sight except the tip of the Biltmore Hotel nearly five miles to the east in Coral Gables.
I came home from college and we still didn’t have a telephone (wouldn’t for another year). We did have electricity, solar water heating, and a tennis court. We had an acre in lawn and only a push lawnmower. One of us was always out pushing the mower.
Meanwhile, my father, William Tilden, an architectural draftsman, found a job. He took our lone car to work every day, and deposited me for a summer course at Alex Gibson’s Modeling School. Billy was enrolled at Miami High, Tommy and Bobby at Olympia Heights. Mother, at home with the laundry, sprayed the screen door for mosquitoes each time before she darted out to hang the clothes on the line.
So much for the dream of moving “out West.”
Truly a model of tropical living, our Florida home had hurricane shutters; it had coconut palms in the front yard and Australian pines in back. We had mango, avocado, orange, grapefruit, sour orange, guava, and kumquat trees. And Daddy put in a patch of sugar cane. He taught us how to slice off a piece of the stalk and suck the sweet juice, sharing with us a pleasure of his Florida boyhood in Florahome.
Weekends we took long drives around the county, the city, to various parks, the Everglades, and the ocean with its glorious beaches. There was the thrilling trek on the long, narrow, rickety bridges of the Overseas Highway to Key West. Seeing a huge tractor-trailer truck barreling toward you on the Seven Mile Bridge, you couldn’t help but hold your breath and brace for the shudder as it thundered by.
I learned to drive on the Overseas Highway, turning back before the toll booth at Lower Matecumbe Key.
As we became involved with the community, my mother, Josephine Tilden, became president of two school PTAs and started the South Florida Weavers guild, becoming the state president. After my father died, she designed and built her own house among Redland pines. My father eventually retired from the planning department of the Dade County Schools, and proceeded to tend his “farm” surrounded by grandchildren and, at various times, cats, dogs, chickens, turkeys, rabbits, a horse (Tommy’s), a cow and a bull (Bobby’s), a pigeon named Henry, and Charlie, a vocal bantam rooster that followed him everywhere.
We children grew, married, settled or scattered, and multiplied.
I spent almost 26 years editing Sea Frontiers for the International Oceanographic Foundation on Virginia Key. Billy died in an auto accident during Orientation Week as he entered the University of Florida . Tommy, a retired Marine, is a veteran of the Korean and Vietnam wars. Bobby retired from the school system and moved with his family to the mountains of northern Georgia.
In 2012, Tommy and I are still here, confirmed Floridians, as Grandfather had planned—and not “out West” as our parents once dreamed.
P.S. Since writing this story, I regret to add that my brother, Thomas Tilden, passed away Oct. 1, 2012, just three weeks shy of his 78th birthday.