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Cutler

The first notice by Europeans came when a group of anonymous Conquistadores came back and published a map of their exploits in 1516. There, at the bottom of Biscayne Bay where the Florida Keys popped out of the water like turtles, was a spot on the mainland. A little symbol indicating a spring of fresh water was all that was notable in the area, but it was very important. Wandering minds dulled by days at sea might dream of gold and other riches, but the tongues always thirsted for fresh water first.

The land had been known to the Tequesta, a rough group of natives who like their island cousins the Taino led an easy life. They weren’t a people who built large permanent settlements but instead preferred to roam up and down the ridge of coral that was 10 feet higher than the sea and no more than a mile wide. It stretched more than 60 miles down the Florida coast, a thin strip between the Everglades and the bay, an island of its own. The Tequesta had little need for the swamps, and the sea was little more than a source of fresh meat. When the Conquistadores asked them questions about the riches of their land, it certainly must have been puzzling; to Tequesta, the land was riches enough. They grew and hunted whatever they thought they needed all year.

What the Tequesta didn’t know was that the lack of valuables like gold wasn’t enough to save them. In time, the paler people would learn the value of this land.

For the time being, however, the lack of anything valuable kept life pretty simple. The next time this spot on the map shows up in history books is around 1690, the waning days of piracy in the Caribbean. That is when Black Caesar, an escaped African slave started operations in this corner of the world where no one would bother looking.

Black Caesar himself was said to be impressive, a huge man who spoke little and acted easily and violently. He came to the area after escaping, drawn by the stories of fresh water and the promise of an easy life. His crew was assembled in time, drawn mostly from other slaves escaping from Jamaica and Haiti. From their base they preyed on whoever started out riding the Gulf Stream from its creation in the Straits of Florida and on home to Europe. All the ships of the Caribbean passed this way, so it was only a matter of picking the easy targets. The riches of Florida that had eluded the pale people were discovered by a black man who was primarily looking for freedom; those riches were what the whites brought to the area, not from it.

What Black Caesar got from Cutler, however, was more valuable than gold. It was freedom.

The stories become a bit murky, as any good legend must. Supposedly Black Caesar had a harem and an army to protect them on Elliot Key, housed in great stone buildings. They were unchallenged as long as they stayed there, with no navy willing to risk running aground on the 3-5 foot deep waters of Biscayne Bay. There are two problems with this story, however – there are no remnants of stone buildings on Elliot Key, and there is no fresh water there, either. It is more likely that Black Caesar bragged about the size of his band of free men and lied about their location in order to keep everything secure.

Black Caesar is the Founding Father of Cutler in the sense that not only did he create the first settlement but also the mythology of the place. The strip of land between swamp and bay is a place of great freedom for people who find that not caring about the finer details of life suits them well. The sea provides both food and easy marks full of treasure if you are as patient as a fisherman.

Eventually, Black Caesar and his men joined up with Blackbeard and sailed north to Virginia. There, they were eventually caught and hanged. Up there, freedom is a little tougher – and the color of your skin matters just a bit more.

The land went back to being ignored for a long time afterward, which suited the natives well enough. It was little more than a watering stop for wayward ships.

In the 1820s, the Creek Indians of the Carolinas were forced to relocate westward in what would be known as the “Trail of Tears”. Some of them refused to go, and broke off to form their own band known as “Seminole” – the Creek word for “Renegade” or “Runaway”. They chose to fight. Eventually, the forces of Andrew Jackson beat them back in the First Seminole War, and they escaped into the swamps of the Everglades. No one was willing to follow them, so they were allowed to live in peace. The Seminole were very welcoming, and a number of escaped slaves and even a few whites chose to join their band. Most of the Tequesta joined up as well. The Seminole didn’t just live in southern Florida, they became it.

In 1832, the US Government tried to force them out. Taking the arrival of Haley’s Comet as a sign, the Seminole attacked. On of their first acts was to take a fort and kill everyone there, including the commander Francis Langhorn Dade – for whom Dade County is named. When their chief, Osceola came under a flag of truce to negotiate, he was captured and ultimately hanged. The war become more fierce as the Seminole demanded revenge.

Dr. Henry Perrine had been granted a piece of land in the area, originally on Cape Sable at the end of the Everglades. He was a botanist who wanted to find out what productive plants could grow in the area, with a special interest in quinine that was used to fight malaria. Having spent time as the US Console in Merida, Mexico, he knew the value of tropical plants and the riches they could provide.

Perrine was hoping that the land could provide more than a quiet subsistence living that Florida promised, but his plans were in disarray. He waited out the war on Indian Key, hoping he could get in and explore his grant. But the war continued on into 1840, a stalemate between the guerilla tactics of the Seminole and the heavy forces of US soldiers unsuited to the swamps. Perrine transferred his claim to the shores of Biscayne Bay, including the area of Cutler, where the high ground appeared safer. Just after he did this, however, he was killed when Indian Key was stormed.

In 1840 he newly renamed Dade County then stretched from Lake Okechobee south to the keys, but had only 18 free white men – that is, people who could legally vote – left living in it. It was Seminole territory. The Seminole to this day remain the only native nation that has never signed a peace treaty with the US, and proudly call themselves “unconquered”.

The US gradually lost interest in the Seminole, especially when the Civil War broke out. The people of Key West learned that Florida had seceded from the Union when the Navy sailed in and told them they were under military occupation. This became the center of operations of the Blockade, an attempt to seal off Florida from all trade that would help the rebel cause. More than a few rebels fled northward, and found that the place with fresh water at the bottom of the Bay was an excellent place to conduct a blockade running operation. Like Black Caesar before them, they lived as they could off of the gentle land, smuggling in guns and food and whatever was valuable on their side of the wall of Navy ships.

Their settlement grew to include over 400 houses, each one tied to the operations that brought war material over to the rebel lines. It was a perfect place to operate as a smuggle, just as it had been perfect for piracy. The shallow bay prevented deep water ships from coming in too close, and the nearby islands of Soldier Key and Elliot Key made for perfect clandestine rendezvous. All it took was a shallow pram steered by the moon and the gentle breezes off the bay to get out to the deep landing and back.

After the war, Henry Perrine Jr. became interested in reclaiming the land he felt he had inherited. It wasn’t until 1876 that he asserted his rights to the area, and by then the squatters camp that had started as a smuggler’s haven had grown considerably. In the case to have them all evicted, the squatters came to be defended in court by a mysterious Floridian known as Dr. William Cutler, who is the stuff of legends himself. One story has him running away from his family in Ohio to seek his own way, and one story has him the son of rebel blockade runners. Whatever the cause, the squatters won the case and incorporated as a town – duly named Cutler for the man who defended them. Civilization had finally come to this part of the world, for better or worse.

From this time forward the history is well documented and preserved. But in these misty swamps, there is always room for a romantic mind to forget a few details and elaborate a few others. What we do know is that in 1896 Henry Flagler built his Florida East Coast railroad down to Miami, and the city was founded. In 1902 a road was built south to Cutler along the coral ridge that is still known as Old Cutler Road. The details of how people made a living in this part of the world are murky, but legends of smuggling and even a little piracy persisted well into the 1920s. At that time, the cheap rum of the Caribbean suddenly became valuable through Prohibition, giving Cutler another good source of income. When the restaurant Black Caesar’s Forge was built, it was said to be a favorite stop of Al Capone and other mobsters who were seeking to get away from their own speakeasy in Miami, Tobacco Road.

The most important change in the area came in 1926 when Charles Deering, the an inheritor of the International Harvester fortune, bought up much of the land and walled it off with coral rock. His estate was south of his brother’s more elaborate Viscaya, and much less prominent. But the landing that was the soul of Cutler was taken away in this process, leaving only a small dock at the north often called the “Tomato Dock” by locals. Supposedly, the produce that had come to dominate the area was shipped north to Miami in shallow draft boats from this location. Cutler was pacified. The spring that had made the Spanish maps was privatized on the Deering Estate.

Since having its heart taken, Cutler fell on hard times. In 1962 Canal C-100 drained this corner of the swamp to the bay, exiting just south of Cutler. The spring dried up with the pressure from the fresh water behind the coral ridge. The land to the west gradually became farms and then suburbs. Much of the history still left was washed away when a 30 foot tall wall of water came in with Hurricane Andrew in 1992, the worst of the storm known to hit Cutler. In 2002 it was re-incorporated along with the suburbs as Palmetto Bay, a generic name that speaks to realtors more than real pirates.

Today, there is little to mark Cutler. The Old Cutler Inn is a dive bar on the site of Black Caesar’s Forge. The Deering Estate is open to the public as a park, making it a lot less fun to sneak into. The legends of pirates and smugglers remain, but are known only to the older people who like to tell the stories while relaxed on a lawn chair.

The spring that put it on the maps as long as 500 years ago has finally been conquered. The land proved valuable to the pale people not as a way station for passing ships or as a home that brought an easy life. The riches that the Conquistadores were seeking were finally found in real estate. In a sense, the Tequesta were right all along – it was the land itself that mattered.

15 thoughts on “Cutler

  1. Pingback: The Rules « Barataria - the work of Erik Hare

  2. I lived on Royal Palm drive , a block away from Black Caesar’s Forge (Ludlam & Coral Reef Dr.) in the 70’s (went to Palmetto Jr High & Palmetto High)… definitely had fun sneaking into the Deering Estate back then! Old Cutler Inn is at least a mile from the site of the restaurant….

  3. I worked at Black Caesor’s Forge as a busboy in my last year of high school and first year of junior college in 1972-73. The restuarant was large and was not easily visible from the main road. You had to know it was there and it was an exclusive place. It was a large building of several levels. Built of Coral. There was a wine celler where they kept expensive wines. All the interior walls were also made of coral. In 1975, the Taurus Steakhouse in Coconut Grove purchased the restaurant and because of its inconspicuous location became some sort of an underground location for gays until someone burned it down. The owner of the original restaurant went by the name of Mrs. Jones. They had the best food in Miami. The restaurant was known for their resin baked potatoes that were wrapped in brown paper and then dropped into what looked like a witches cauldron of very hot resin until they floated to the top. The resin sealed in the flavor. They served Key lime pie and Irish coffees for desert which they lit on fire in front of the cusomer and they extinquished the flame with whipped creme while it was burning. The waiters were Bahamian and had entertaining personalities. One waiter had a drinking problem and the busboys had to watch him and keep him on his toes. More information on request …

    • This message is for James Baldwin and Hal Feldman, who posted earlier, as well as anyone else who might have information on Black Cesar’s Forge. I am also doing a little research on the restaurant, and I am curious about a few things. Particularly, when did the restaurant open, what is the basis for believing that Al Capone went there, and are there any artifacts remaining from the restaurant? I found the cover for the menu referenced somewhere, but I have not seen the remainder of the menus. Thanks!

  4. Black Caesar’s Forge was at Coarl Reef Dr and Ludlam Rd. The Old Cutler Inn was at Old Cutler Rd and Richmond Dr. I remember how up until about the late 1980’s a couple of the circa-1920 2 story stucco homes with their screen porches still lined the west side of Old Cutler Rd just north or Richmond Dr. They were torn down for a new subdivision.

  5. It was the Cherokee Indians that were removed, NOT the Creek Indians. Black Caesars was located at the corner of s.w. 67th avenue (Ludlam Road) and s.w. 152 street (Coral Reef Drive). Old Cutler Inn was Located on s.w. 168th street and Old Culter behind the Farm Store. Old Cutler Inn has since been bulldozed and there is only a vacant lot. There also used to be another establishment there that was famous. “Snowden’s Package Liquors”. The bridge just south was called “Snowden’s bridge”. Local teens used to dive of the bridge and dam.

  6. Very interesting. I live in Palmetto Bay and my wife worked near the location of Black Caesar’s Forge next to Westminster Christian School on 152 St.. Do you know who bought the property at the intersection of 152 and Ludlum.

    • I believe the current owner, or most recent owner at least was the fellow who developed the company Atari, who made video games, this is what I’ve heard. The entrance to Black Caesar’s Forge (commonly confused today with The Forge restaurant on Miami Beach) was on the north side of 152 street. The driveway approach is still there but has been walled off with a c.b.s. wall; however, the pavement still exists coming off 152 street. As I recall this was the only entrance. The parking lot was on the westerly side of the restaurant structure and had somewhat limited parking. The las time I was there was in 1974. I am interested in how much of the original structure still exists and if anyone has photos of the restaurant. It was truly a unique location because the location was rather remote for a restaurant. I own part of the original bar, which fell into my hands by incredible luck of fate. I do not know exactly when the restaurant closed but I want to say 1982.

  7. Fascinating read, thanks for posting. I grew up surrounded by all of the places you’ve mentioned.

    I’m quite curious about the spring. Does anyone know exactly where it was and how large it was? I know in the now-fenced-in woods between 168th and the canal on the east side of Old Cutler there are several large, round caves with mounds built up around them that once had huge live oaks surrounding them, which would lead me to believe they may have been springs. We used hang out in them, and they seem very similar structure-wise to the springs I’ve dived in in Northern Florida—I never put two and two together until now!

    The cluster of beige wood frame houses between 168 St and 164 St were literally around the corner from me, and I grew up with them. They were the homes of the Deering Estate’s staff, who lived in them until the family donated the house to the county in 1976, I want to say. I believe there were eight in total, with a barn in the center.

    They may have also had their own fruit grove. Deep in the woods between Old Cutler and the Deering Estate (sadly ravaged by Andrew; they’ll never recover), there was a small patch fenced off with ancient barbed wire. In it were very mature fruit trees; the grapefruits were the size of bowling balls. As a kid we’d pull a few off, climb up into the canopy of the huge ficus, and sit in the treetops, eating the fruit and gazing out to the bay. Really a magic time.

    I wish the @assholes with Miami-Dade County would spend less time endlessly patrolling and fencing and instead open up this land to the public and build a trail network so people could explore some of the amazing, beautiful scenery.

    • I do not know just where the spring was, but like you I can imagine where it was. There is one sinkhole / cave that is bigger than the others that may be what the Spanish found so intriguing, but I’m sure that they noted all of them.
      I remember those frame houses and all of that area before Andrew. It was paradise. I had similar experiences sneaking into the estate as a kid in the late 70s / early 80s that I treasure beyond words. Somehow, they only show up in my life in contrast now that I’ve moved so far up north.
      http://erikhare.wordpress.com/songs-poems/short-stories/black-iguanas/
      Best to you, brother! As long as we have the memories no one can keep us out of those walls. :-)

  8. Thank you for your research and posting. This is a very detailed writing of this most interesting and unknown area of South Florida. I grew up at 13601 Old Cutler Road on the USDA plant introduction Station. My father was the superintendent from the late 1950’s to 1980. That 360 acres were not only a working governmental station but a tropical wilderness and historical haven. The property was once used as a blimp base during WWI along with a communications station. The house that I grew up in was built by Captain Eddie Rickenbacker, the WWI fighter ace and later head of Eastern Airlines. Our house was built of 13 inch poured concrete walls and quarried coral rock. There was a fireplace, red brick floors without the home and an eastern most sleeping porch. The Banyan tree that covered the majority of the house kept the house cool in the summer. I was told that it was the second largest banyan tree in the state next to the tree on the Thomas Edison Estate in Fort Myers. I do know that it was the hiding spot and forts of many kids who explored it’s expanded limbs and canopy. My family were also tomato and strawberry farmers in the Perrine area between Franjo road and Old Cutler just north of Eureka road. I can remember as a child that this area was vast farmland with a few scattered houses in between. We were at times over run by land crabs and lived amongst the elements of heat, insects and rapidly changing and growing urban development. I miss the old Miami, yet I look upon the city now and realize that my family played an important part of what it is today.

  9. Thank you all for posting. I have asked around for years and no one ever knows what I am talking about when I mention the restaurant. I used to go there with my boyfriend in high school. Would love to see photos. Also…does anyone know any ghost stories about the place or property? Thanks again,
    M

  10. I had my first really grown up date at Black Caesar’s back in the late 1960″s. I don’t think I was really old enough to drink but my date was so I never got carded. I remember the steaks were heavenly and the baked potatoes and Caesar salad were the main event. I was dessert. The restaurant’s hidden location was part of its mystique. What a wonderful memory!

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