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Where Dreams Become Reality

By Les Standiford

There is no way to quantify how many individuals have come to South Florida looking for a fresh start, but no doubt that such promise has always been part of the area’s appeal.  In 1898, shortly after Henry Flagler extended his railroad southward from Palm Beach and the City of Miami was born, Solomon Merrick, a Congregationalist minister at the Old Plymouth Church in Duxbury, Massachusetts, sat in his snowbound Cape Cod home mourning the loss of his young daughter Ruth to pneumonia.  The streets outside were veritable canyons of ice, and Ruth was among 40 residents who succumbed to the disease in the past week.  So many had died and the weather was so bad that many victims lay still unburied.

When an old friend came to pay his respects and mentioned to the elder Merrick that he had just returned from Florida, a place which he described in terms that would make Marco Polo’s tales seem tame, Merrick had heard enough.  He and his wife Althea both suffered from Quinsy, a chronic form of rheumatism exacerbated by the harsh New England climate, and they had five other young children — how many more might they lose in the frigid winters to come?

Solomon Merrick made inquiries and learned that a quarter section (160 acres) of farmland some five miles southwest of the 500-person hamlet of Miami was available from a homesteader named William Gregory.  Merrick agreed to the purchase price of $1,100 and set out at once to inspect his holdings, accompanied by his eldest son George.  Scarcely had he arrived in Florida than Merrick learned that Miami had been placed under quarantine due to a yellow fever outbreak among the troops at Fort Dallas.  Solomon and George hunkered down for months in Jupiter until the ban was lifted.

When they finally arrived at the former Gregory homestead, there was little in those piney barrens beyond a one-room cabin and a half-acre planted in guava trees.  But Solomon Merrick had found his home.  He used the little money he had left to buy a wagon, a mule, and necessary supplies, and sent for the rest of his family.  Perhaps in return for his freely-given faith, the tiny guava plantation flourished in the ensuing season, and Merrick realized more than $200 for his crop, enough to ensure their survival.  Accordingly, the family dubbed their new home “Guavonia,” and set about adding vegetables, avocados — which Merrick called “alligator pears”— and orange and grapefruit trees to their thriving plantation.

In time, Solomon’s wife Althea, who had been a college art teacher, drew up plans to expand their humble cottage, transforming it by 1903 into a lovely home constructed in large part of the native oolitic limestone.  Though it is not “coral” at all, the rock has a certain resemblance to the marine formation, and, owing to Althea’s many gabled-design (which still stands open to visitors at 907 Coral Way), the family was soon calling its new abode “Coral Gables,” a name that would stick, and then some.