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The Magic of Miami’s Stiltsville

It’s easy to take things for granted.  Many of us never take the time to see what’s in our own backyard.

Miami’s Stiltsville was a unique, raucous, lively, storied, and often infamous, cluster of shack houses about a mile offshore in the middle of Biscayne Bay. Known for both wild parties and old-fashioned family weekends in the sun, Stiltsville was a destination that promised fun and a hint of the unknown.

When I moved to Miami in the 70s, I took Stiltsville for granted, passing up opportunities to visit.  The community had rebounded from Hurricane Donna in 1960, and Hurricane Betsy in ‘65.  But then, on August 24, 1992 – it was gone.  Or at least most of it was gone. What was left after the fierce winds of Hurricane Andrew was mired in controversy and political wrangling. Not considered old enough (50 years) for designation by the National Trust for Historic Places, powerful people wanted the remaining seven damaged structures demolished.

The Bay Chateau House.

My husband and I were among the fortunate few when we recently visited Stiltsville on a glorious, sunny afternoon, and spent some very special time (with very special friends) relaxing at the colorful Bay Chateau House.

For four decades, our good friends’ family owned home #14, “Haven from Slavin.” I’ve always enjoyed their family stories of weekends spent fishing, swimming and exploring the tidal flats surrounding the homes. Water levels on the flats are 2-3’ and during low tide drop to just a few inches; a perfect aquatic playground.   Their three sons, now with children of their own, enjoy an exceptional shared history of their days on the Bay. It’s one of those sons who is now part of a group of caretakers for the Bay Chateau House.

Today, there are no private owners left at Stiltsville.  Instead, there is the unusual relationship forged by the Park Service and former owners; the non-profit, public-private Stiltsville Trust formed in 2003. Owners were transitioned to caretakers of this incredible resource. The U.S. Government now owns the entire area, a part of America’s only national park 95% under water, Biscayne National Park. Visitors can see the area by boat, but very few have the opportunity to actually enter one of the homes.

At its height in the 60s, there were 27 buildings, most on pilings raising them about 10’ above the sandy flats. Earliest records indicate man-made structures as early as 1922, and in the 30s Eddie “Crawfish” Walker sold bait and beer from a shack nailed to a barge.  Later in the 30s, things got really hopping with off-shore private clubs.  Then the Quarterdeck Club had a long run from the 40s until it burned in 1961, but much of Stiltsville’s boisterous reputation is due to the Bikini Club. The Bikini Club, run out of a yacht towed out and grounded in 1962, made quite a name for itself in its short three-year history. Its reputation was for hard-drinking, gambling, nude sunbathing and who knows what else. The club was closed down for operating without a liquor license and possession of 40 under-size, out-of-season crawfish.

Anyone for a swing-jump off the deck into the bay?

Private clubs notwithstanding, most of the stilt homes were owned by private families, who just loved the beauty, freedom and camp-like vibe of the natural setting. Of the seven surviving structures, one is the Miami Springs Power Boat Club started by firefighters, policemen and workers who lived near the airport.  The others are known as the Leshaw House, Hicks House, Baldwin-Sessions House, Ellenburg House and A-frame House.

I’m told by locals that Flipper’s famous TV scene going from deck to Bay was filmed at the A-frame House. Stiltsville also had many famous human visitors, including several Florida governors, local judges, Steven Stills, rib-master Tony Roma and Ted Kennedy. It’s been featured on film and in print, including TV shows Miami Vice and Sea Hunt, as well as several books by local best-selling author Carl Hiaasen.

Who knows what treasure will be the next to disappear.  Look around . . . while you can.

For More Info:

For a well-done 30-minute documentary produced by WLRN and featuring local expert, professor Dr. Paul George, visit Stiltsville through this link: http://video.wlrn.org/video/2365452261/

Biscayne National Park: https://www.nps.gov/bisc/index.htm

 

 

The A-frame House. Can you visualize Flipper sliding off the dock?

The Ellenburg House.

With the Miami skyline as a backdrop, the Baldwin-Sessions House. The most elaborate structure still in existence, it was once featured in a national ad for Pittsburgh Paints.

South Florida: Redland Riot Rallye

 

The "Greeter" at The Aviary, in Cauley Square Historic Village where the Rallye fun began.

The “Greeter” at The Aviary, in Cauley Square Historic Village where the Rallye fun began.

 

Beautiful orchids, incredible variety, great prices (and more) at RF Orchids.

Beautiful orchids, incredible variety, great prices (and more) at RF Orchids.

We love road rallies and this week we experienced one of the best.  Robert Burr (of Burr’s Berry Farm fame), puts on a fun-filled day through the countryside of south Miami-Dade County.  It’s a trip back in history as well as a peek into the wonderful locally grown and produced treasures of the area.

Even though our group was pretty familiar with the area we came away with some new experiences and some new favorites places to return.

The route started at charming, quaint Cauley Square (where the Tea Room is a long-time personal favorite) to register and pick-up our clue sheets.  We hunted throughout the interesting shops in the area, briefly chatting with a raccoon trapper and rubbing elbows with the hundreds of others getting their start on the route.

Our quest led us to Burr’s Berry Farm, which I’ve described in an earlier post, as well as Phil’s Berry Farm, Knaus Berry Farm (famous for their fabulous cinnamon buns and baked goods) and the Fruit & Spice Park.  We made time for lunch at the delightful White Lion Café in Homestead, a new spot for us and a real treat.  The great food was only matched by the super –friendly staff.  We will be back.

After our fortification we visited RF Orchids, Redland Hotel, The Florida Pioneer Museum, and uber-fruit stand, Robert is Here, before ending at Schnebly Redland’s Winery.  We are also going to go back and try the Hotel Redland’s Whistle Stop Café and their Tea Room.

We learned, we had yummy treats along the way, and were very pleasantly surprised by Schnebly’s.  This was our first visit and it was a stunning, beautiful setting.  They have wine, beer and soft drinks as well as a few snacks; but you can bring your own picnic (just no drinks) for lunch or dinner.  Friday and Saturdays they feature live music and dancing.

For a great day in the country, for any age, plan to visit the venues individually or take a #Redland Riot Tour.  For information, visit www.redlandriot.com.  

Just the Facts:

For more info on each of the places we visited you can check hours and details at the following websites or by calling:

  • Once a bustling railroad village at the turn of the century, #Cauley Square now plays home to an eclectic collection of shops and restaurants; learn more at  www.cauleysquare.com.
  • #Burr’s Berry Farm is open from “sometime in December”  through the end of April, for up-to-date info, visit http://www.burrsberryfarm.com.
  • #Phil’s Berry Farm has lots of treats and the unusual Miracle Fruit, find out details at 305-905-2284.
  • #Knaus Berry Farm is open mid-November until the end of April,  and the lines get long on Saturdays (they are closed Sundays), so go early or during the week www.knausberryfarm.com.
  • #Fruit & Spice Park is on 30 acres with more than 500 varieties of herbs, nuts, spices and unusual fruits; call 305-247-5727.
  • #RF Orchids has thousands of orchids for sale and tours are available, call 305-245-4570.
  • The historic #Redland Hotel first opened in 1904.  Now featuring a popular restaurant, the renovated hotel is a perfect spot from which to visit all the sites described in this post, as well as Miami-Dade County’s two national parks, Everglades and Biscayne National.  Check out the free trolley service, www.hotelredland.com.
  • #The Florida Pioneer Museum is open November through May, Wednesday & Saturday 1- 5:00PM; 305-246-9531.
  • #Robert is Here is celebrating turning 60, stop in for amazing fruits and vegetables, a petting zoo, and shakes extraordinaire (Key Lime is their most famous); www.robertishere.com.
  • For tours and/or tastings, or just to relax in a beautiful setting, visit #Schnebly Redland’s Winery, http://www.schneblywinery.com.
Beer tasting at Schnebly Redland's Winery: Big Rod Coconut Ale was my favorite.

Beer tasting at Schnebly Redland’s Winery: Big Rod Coconut Ale was my favorite.

 

I should've asked just how many orchids they have; this is just one area. #RF Orchids

I should’ve asked just how many orchids they have; this is just one area. #RF Orchids

 

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