A colony of Russian-born circus dwarfs heading out of Miami, after a show in 1939, drove a few miles along the Tamiami Trail then abruptly hit the brakes. The mile-long strip of land they admired would soon be their new home.
The “Royal Russian Midgets” bought the land advertised as “Sweetwater Groves” in 1940 from developer Clyde H. Anderson. The circus performers had big plans, including creating a tourist attraction on the 100-acre plot, but their plans fizzled as World War II approached.
From that inauspicious start, Sweetwater, which sits just north of Florida International University’s main campus off Southwest Eighth Street, has blossomed into a small city in western Miami Dade, with 19,000 residents, 14 shopping centers, including the Dolphin Mall, and more than 600 businesses. About 94 percent of the population is Hispanic, with the biggest concentration belonging to the Nicaraguan community.
The growth, however, has been tempered with problems at City Hall. In January, the city’s former mayor, Manuel Maroño, was sentenced to more than three years in prison by a federal judge who admonished him for accepting bribes as the mayor of Sweetwater. His right-hand man, Jorge Luis Forte, was sentenced to one year in prison. The two had pleaded guilty to fraud charges involving $60,000 in kickback payments, stemming from an FBI sting that revolved around a “sham” federal grant program that prosecutors say was designed to line the pockets of Maroño, Forte and others.
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“The arrest coincided with a number of investigations in the city that frankly kept Sweetwater in the news in an unflattering manner,” said Mayor Jose M. Diaz. “It was a shock to the residents and the city in general.”
When asked what he and the commissioners are doing to restore the city’s name, Diaz said, “I personally have been working to bring greater transparency and fiscal responsibility to our city government. Good government and good policies are key factors in restoring faith in government regardless of size and budget.”
EARLY HISTORY WAS ROUGH
Sweetwater incorporated as a city in 1941 with a population of 25 people. Miami is the Seminole Indian word for “sweet water.”
Despite its small population, it had a rough-and-ready side.
“Every night I had to fight my way out of one of two bars,” said Jack Knight, a former Sweetwater police chief, who recounted the city’s early days in a 1970 Miami Herald article.
Knight, the only police officer in the town’s early days, noted the two bars were the scene of frequent brawls for the two dozen residents. It didn’t help that early settlers to the city were pioneers who were quick to settle disputes with fists, knives and guns.
By 1960, Sweetwater’s population of nearly 500 people occupied some 200 houses. The town added a church, a grocery store and a gas station. Tax money helped the police department expand to a two-man force and add a city hall, which quickly replaced local bars as the main feuding spot.
“The political situation in the little town of Sweetwater sounded like something right out of World War II today,” according to a 1960 Miami Herald article. Then-mayor Charles Pastore charged that his meeting was sabotaged by opponents who used “Communist tactics” to try to control the city.
The rumbling was over who should get the salaried job of heading the volunteer fire department, which consisted of two hand pumps, a CO2 fire extinguisher and a broken down 1937 fire truck. Pastore, who a few years earlier beat a bribery charge, said he would simply call the county in case of a fire.
Up to this point, Sweetwater was still a relatively small community of about 3,000 residents.
During the ’70s, the city’s population doubled as Florida International University was built just south of its borders, and the Palmetto and the Dolphin expressways ran along its northern and western boundaries. The $85-a-month duplexes were a magnet for GIs returning from Vietnam and later for the newly arriving immigrants from Nicaragua.
More recently, Sweetwater nearly tripled its size, in 2010, when it annexed close to two square miles, just north of the original city. The annexation included the popular Dolphin Mall.
“The Dolphin Mall is the third-most-visited destination in Florida after Disney World and Sawgrass Mills,” according to the city's website.
The mall’s powerful draw led thousands to wait in line recently for the grand opening of IKEA’s 416,000-square-foot store in August. It is IKEA’s second-largest store in the United States and it includes a 600-seat restaurant.
Regardless of how much it expands, City Hall displays photos to honor its original founders, the Royal Russian Midgets. But a few miles to the west is where historians believe the troupe left its real legacy.
The Russian troupe co-founded St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Church, 101 NW 46th Ave., in 1947. The parish included other Orthodox Christians who fled Russia after the Russian Revolution and the Bolsheviks came to power in 1917.
The last members of the Royal Russian Midgets, Basil and Maria Fillin, owned a home next door to the church. He served in the altar and she sang in the choir. Basil died in 1974, Maria in 1978. They were laid to rest side-by-side under an oak tree at Flagler Memorial Park.
In 1979, church leaders mounted a plaque inside the church, memorializing the Royal Russian Midgets’ contribution to the community. At that time, remaining church members gathered in their honor and chanted vechnaya pamyat — Russian for “memory eternal.”
The Miami-Dade Public Library System’s Florida Room contributed to the research of this story.
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the film ‘Midnight Cowboy’ was partially filmed in Sweetwater.
Sweewater at a glance
2014 population: Approximately 19,000, according to city officials.
Boundaries: Northwest 25th Street to the north, Tamiami Trail to the south, Florida’s Turnpike to the west, and Northwest 107th Avenue to the east. Note: It wraps around a portion of State Route 836, zigzags south to West Flagler, then east to 102nd Avenue
Schools: Sweetwater Elementary School, Ruben Dario Middle School, Coral Park and G. Holmes Braddock high schools.