Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Holidays at the Rod and Gun Club!

When I was growing up in Miami, we always used to go at some point during the Christmas holidays to the Rod and Gun Club in Everglades City for a day or two to enjoy the cool weather on the west coast of Florida, eat stone crabs and do a little boating through the Thousand Islands. In later years my best friend in High School and I used to organize an improptu day-long rally down Alligator Alley, with lunch at the Club, usually punctuated by someone's old british roadster breaking down along the way! It's amazing but this bit of Florida history is still around and kicking after all these years. Still as lovely as ever and great fun to visit. Less than a 2 hour trip from Miami, I am surprised so many Miamians either don't know the place or have never been to it. Everglades City was a pretty ramshackle town of the kind you saw many of in the old days. While its been somewhat modernized, it still retains that old Florida Cracker style and look.

Prior to 1923, Everglades City was called Everglade, a name given the settlement along the crooked little Allen's River in 1893 by Bembery Storter after the U.S. Post Office refused the request for the name Chokoloskee, which is now the name of an old outpost just to the south at the western entrance to Everglades National Park. Flamingo, the third of the old original towns, still marking the end of the main park road, is now a park community with a campground, ranger station, marina and lodge. Farming was the primary occupation of people living in the area and included sugarcane, bananas, and vegetables. George T. Storter is considered the true founder of the town. He and his family were prominent in Everglade's growth and activities and owned much of the land around the town until the arrival of Baron Collier in 1923. It was under the Storter stewardship that the Everglade began to draw visitors and sportsmen. The Rod and Gun Club was built around the Storter home.

Barron Collier is primarily responsible for the foundation of Everglades City as you see it today. In 1923 he and his company purchased most of the land in and surrounding the town. Within five years the sleepy trading post and farming community was converted into a bustling industrial-based company town replete with roads, a railroad, a bank, a telephone, sawmills, a boatyard, churches, a school, workers' barracks and mess halls, and even its own streetcar at one time. It served as the county seat of Collier County until 1960, when prosperity waned and county offices were moved to Naples. Neighboring Chokoloskee did not have a road until a causeway was built from the mainland in 1956.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

The Grove........Now and Then

Funny, but what got me going on this riff was a Friday afternoon stopover to the Titanic Brewery by the University of Miami fopr a brew or two with my buddies the other day. It just hit me that this was the old Flick coffeehouse that I used to go to in the 60’s to see all the great musicians that lived in Coconut Grove back then. Back in the late 60’s I lived in a duplex apartment complex on Aviation Avenue in the Grove. It was owned by an old doll that had been a bit player in the movies back in the 20’s and 30’s and was a ringer for the Norma Desmond character in “Sunset Boulevard”. As with everyone else in the Grove she was a lovable eccentric. The complex was a big one acre property with four duplexes surrounded by beautiful vegetation that sat just above the bay looking down on Monty Traynor’s old place and the Dinner key marina. I shared the flat with a college buddy from UM that worked selling buttons for his uncle in New Jersey. I had just gotten a job for the county government as a photographer that barely paid me enough money to live but included a car so I was set.

Back then, the Grove was a pretty funky old fishing village and all the old Miamians would warn you not to drive through it lest you got shanghaied by some shady character. In the center of town was the Peacock family ship’s chandlery where Cocowalk now stands and the Florida Pharmacy catty corner to it where we all went to the luncheon counter to have breakfast. Peacock Park and the old Public Library stood just south of the main drag as it does today, running down to the bay. If you had a few extra bucks you went to have a few drinks at the Old Grove Pub, got dinner at the Taurus Steakhouse on Main Highway and went to see “Hair” or “Equus” at the Playhouse just down the street. Scornavacca had his art studio down the alleyway between the Pharmacy and St Stephen’s school which I attended for one year when it opened in 1959. Except for these landmarks, the Grove was a series of heavily vegetated little streets lined with old Florida slash pine bungalows built by the original Bahamian settlers back in the 1920’s. Most of these which ran along Oak Avenue were converted to “head shops” where the high school kids would go to buy psychedelic posters, pot paraphernalia and tied dyed anything. The town was patrolled by “Bob the Cop” on horseback and all official duties, including weddings, were performed by “Joe Bicycle” the local notary public and merchant.

The guy who really “discovered” the Grove in the 60’s and made it a favored haunt for the musical community was Vince Martin. Martin at the time was a folk legend and considered one of the great folk singers of his day by Bob Dylan Joni Mitchell, John Sebastian and many other contemporaries. As Vince tells it, he was here doing a gig in the early 1960’s when he found himself driving down South Bayshore Drive and happened upon this beautiful little village. There was a full moon and he could smell night blooming jasmine in the air. He was struck and eventually moved down here from Greenwich Village. He lived just down the street from me on Aviation Avenue. As his friends visited him and were struck by the natural beauty of the Grove, many moved here or spent a big part of their time here. One of these was the great Fred Neil who died here in 2001. Inspired by the Grove, in 1969 Vince wrote and recorded with Fred Neil “If the Jasmine Don't Get You ... the Bay Breeze Will”. John Sebastian was a close friend of Martin and Neil and spent a lot of time in the Grove at Vince’s house. If you’re old enough to Remember Spanky and the Gang, they got their start here in the Grove when Oz Bach and Nigel Pickering were showing Elaine “Spanky” MacFarlane around the Grove and a hurricane hit. They spent the next eight hours hiding out in a chicken coup jamming and that’s how the group eventually got together!

All these artists and so many more played the circuit here in Miami back in those days, including the Flick and the Gaslight Coffee House in the Grove. Joni Mitchell was discovered at the Gaslight by David Crosby who was passing through on his sailboat the Mayan which was docked at Dinner Key. In fact, Jimmy Buffet was then an unknown young kid who was the opening act for many guys like Martin and Neil at these coffeehouses. Besides Martin’s song, the Grove was immortalized by John Sebastian after he left the Lovin Spoonful and wrote the song “Coconut Grove”. As the song says “its really true how nothing matters, no mad, mad world, no mad hatters. Nobody’s pitching, cause there ain’t no batters in Coconut Grove” When I think back to those days, I can truly say it was a magical place. No resemblance to the crass commercial locale it has become. I know in many ways it is a “better” place today, but I can honestly say that what it was will never be rivaled by what it may become.