My son David and his family live in the beautiful city of Coral Gables, Florida, which I am enjoying exploring during frequent visits with my new granddaughters. At the Coral Gables Museum, just two blocks from David’s home, I bought a book by Arva Moore Parks entitled George Merrick’s Coral Gables. Here is what I learned about the city’s early years: In 1899, sight unseen, Solomon and Althea Merrick of Duxbury MA, purchased 180 acres in Miami’s backcountry, to escape the harsh winters they blamed for the death of their 4-year-old daughter. Solomon and his son George, 13, came by train to prepare a home for Althea and four younger children. By 1901 Althea, an artist and teacher, persuaded Dade County to open the first public school west of Coconut Grove in a cabin on the property.
Solomon planted grapefruit trees under the tutelage of Black Bahamian “way showers,” who showed him the way to live in the subtropics. George worked in the groves every day and drove a mule wagon to Miami to sell the fruit door to door. Eventually the groves began to bear, bringing in a steady income. Althea designed a new house for the family. The oolitic limestone, locally known as “coral rock,” was quarried from what would later become Venetian Pool. When completed in 1910 the family named their new home “Coral Gables” and called their vegetable and grapefruit enterprise “Coral Gables Plantation.”
George worked in the groves rather than attending high school, but “he spent every non-working moment with his nose in a book”– the classics, the Bible, his father’s theology books and his mother’s art magazines. He was a regular patron of the Cocoanut Grove Library. At 21 he entered Rollins College and watched as Winter Park, Florida’s first planned community, developed. Following two years at Rollins, George enrolled in New York Law School and lived in Haworth NJ with his uncle Denman Fink, a nationally known illustrator. When his father died in 1911, George, 25, assumed control of Coral Gables Plantation and became legal guardian of the minor Merrick children. He bought additional land, planted more grapefruit and began to dream of building a planned community on the family’s vast holdings. Within the next few years George established a real estate office, got appointed to the Dade County Commission, and built “Poinciana Place” for his new bride Eunice Peacock. This 5-minute video tells the rest of the story.