Much has been made of Miami pioneer John Collins' religion. Leisurely Miami's image seemed at odds with the Quaker virtue of hard work. While Collins was seen as a gentle Quaker, his children saw him as a he-man, full of energy and will and impatience.
Born on December 29, 1837, in Moorestown, New Jersey, John Collins was the sixth generation of Collinses to farm the family's western New Jersey homestead since 1678. Part of the liberal Moorestown Meeting, the Collins family, except for John's wife, Rachel, did not wear traditional Quaker garb, but upheld the traditional Quaker virtues of "honesty, sincerity, patience, sobriety, and a talent for hard work."
Collins' passion for farming extended beyond his own land to the marketplace. In 1855 he opened the Pleasant Valley Nurseries and farmers' supply yards in Moorestown and Merchantville. Widely known for cultivating the Kiefer pear and Wilson blackberry, Collins solidified his reputation as an innovator when he founded the New Jersey Horticultural Society.
Adventurous in his investments, Collins first bought land in Florida in 1891. Although he didn't visit the state until 1896, he was immediately captivated by the land, purchasing additional acreage with two fellow New Jerseyites with the intention of growing coconuts.
The partnership didn't last. Partner Ezra Osborn died, and partner Elnathan Field was too conservative for Collins. Field was interested only in growing grapefruits, already a proven commodity. With an eye toward the marketplace as much as the soil, Collins wanted to grow exotic crops which hadn't yet been introduced to the market: in particular, mangoes and avocados, or "alligator pears," as they were called then. Collins eventually bought out his partners, making him the sole owner of five miles of land between the Atlantic Ocean and Biscayne Bay -- roughly 50 blocks of modern-day Miami Beach.
Hiring predominantly black workers, Collins tamed the swamp, full of rats and tangled roots. By 1907 his groves were successful, with mangoes, avocados, tomatoes and potatoes flourishing. Tourism was also beginning to flourish. Collins, though, was not interested in tourism, and now his focus switched to improving transportation, not for the sake of travelers but for his crops. Overground transportation was too slow, he felt, and he wanted a canal.
Enter the Collins children. Collins had set up his sizable family -- three sons, two daughters and their spouses -- in the family business. Under their shrewd management, the New Jersey nurseries had prospered while their father was planting Miami. Collins' canal would cost more than he could afford, and he asked his children for the money. Having lived through any number of their father's hit-or-miss investments, they were reluctant to pour their money into Miami sight unseen.
What the Collins children saw in Miami led them away from horticulture and toward tourism, and they agreed to finance the canal only if their father would agree to build a bridge across it, thereby opening the beach to traffic and enhancing its real estate value. To build their "new Atlantic City," the family founded the Miami Beach Improvement Company. Construction on the bridge in 1912 triggered a flurry of real estate activity, and the land was soon advertised as "a veritable Treasure Island…and winter play ground for the masses."
At the end of 1912, money was short, and so was the bridge. With a half mile still to be built, Carl Fisher, the Indiana auto parts mogul, took one of innumerable gambles in his life. Ultimately credited with bringing Miami to life, Fisher, who described Collins as "a bantam rooster, cocky and unafraid," gave the 74-year-old $50,000 in exchange for 200 acres of his land on the beach.
With Fisher's money, Collins finished his bridge on June 12, 1913, nearly a year after the projected six-month endeavor had begun. To remain competitive in the developing region, Collins and his son-in-law built a hotel. But John Collins never lost sight of his trees. By 1922 Miami Beach boasted the largest avocado and mango groves in the world, but Miami's agricultural roots wouldn't last much longer, sacrificed for the tourist trade.
When Collins died on February 11, 1928, Miami bore little resemblance to the wild swamp he had tamed years before.