A Historical Tour of the City of Hialeah

Paul S. George

For a municipality so young, Hialeah possesses a profound history with many historical structures and sites reflective of this fact.

  1. The ranch house of James Bright’s Ranch, the “founder of Hialeah,” since it was he who owned the recently drained Everglades land hosting the future city of Hialeah. Bright’s home stands at the corner of Hialeah Drive and East Second Avenue. Bright lived in this home until his death in 959.
  2. The first resident of Hialeah once its land began to be marketed was G.R. Millard. Millard, who hailed from New York, moved to Hialeah in 1920, and built a home at the intersection of Okeechobee Road and Hialeah Drive across from the Miami Canal. Millard’s home also hosted the first U.S. Post Office, real estate office and general store, car repair shop, and headquarters for a bus line that ran between Hialeah and Miami. Millard operated each of these enterprises. Across the street from the home on the north bank of the Miami Canal and Okeechobee Road stood a large cutout of Jack Tigertail, a Miccosukee Indian pointing in the direction of Millard’s home, but especially the real estate office that occupied a portion of it. That image of Tigertail, who was leader of his tribe and who was slain in the early 1920s, remains a part of the logo of the City of Hialeah.
  3. The Warren Pony Swing Bridge over the Miami Canal. Standing between Miami Spring’s Curtiss Parkway and 1street/Hialeah Drive, this quaint, historic structure has spanned the Canal since it was put in place over it in 1924.
  4. Standing nearby the Warren Pony Swing Bridge at Hook Square and Okeechobee Road, the equally quaint, historic Parker Vertical Lift Bridge has carried traffic above it since 1927. Like its nearby counterpart, River connecting Hialeah with Miami Springs. Built in the early to mid- 1900s, these bridges spanning the Miami Canal connected two of Curtiss’s cities, and have served as the inspiration for festivals and celebrations surrounding the histories of these municipalities.
  5. Willy Willy’s Indian Village. Located at 17th Street and Palm Avenue, which was one of early Hialeah’s most thriving intersections. One of the city’s earliest tourist attractions, Willy Willy’s Indian Village offered Alligator wrestling by Miccosukee and Seminole Indians before visiting audiences. It flourished in the early decades of the twentieth century.
  6. The Miami Municipal Airport/Amelia Earhart Field. Located at the intersection of Northwest 119 Street and Lejeune Road. This aviation facility began operating in the 1930s as the Miami Municipal Airport. It was a busy venue for smaller airplanes. What made it famous was the fact that the legendary Amelia Earhart took off from its runway June 1, 1937, on the first leg of her around the world flight, an event followed my millions in many parts of the planet. Unfortunately, for the great aviatrix, she disappeared over the Pacific Ocean en route to California after completing the lion’s share of the flight. No trace of her or her airplane was ever found. In 1946, the field was renamed Amelia Earhart Field. Fifteen years later, it was out of business as an aviation facility with different parts of the old airfield sold off to buyers for different purposes.
  7. Curtiss Aviation Field. In 1921, Glen Curtiss opened an aviation facility across from the Willy Willy’s Indian Village at the intersection of Palm Avenue and 17th Street. It was named simply the Curtiss Aviation Field, but it was the first long-stranding aviation facility in Hialeah. Curtiss built a hangar for his airfield, which hosted small land-based airplanes. Some years after its opening, aviatrix Mabel Cody, said to have been the niece of Buffalo Bill Cody, put on an aerial circus heralded throughout South Florida. The airfield closed in the 1930s. In more recent decades, a gasoline station stood on the site.
  8. The site of the first jai alai fronton in Greater Miami, at Palm Avenue and 21st street. Just four blocks away from the Curtiss Aviation Field stood Greater Miami’s first jai alai fronton. Opened in 1921, it operated for just five years, after which it was destroyed by the killer hurricane of September 1926. By then the Biscayne Jai Alai Fronton, later known as the Miami Jai Alai Fronton, opened near Hialeah close by the north bank of the Miami Canal. While it too suffered from the effects of the hurricane of 1926, it would continue operating, and it thrived into the late years of the twentieth century.
  9. The site of the Miami Kennel Club’s greyhound racing track. Palm Avenue and 32nd Street. Opened in 1922 by James Bright and Glen Curtiss, as part of their development of the young community of Hialeah, it was said to have been the first dog track in the U.S. The track operated for just three years before its conversion to a horse race track called the Miami Jockey Club, which was the predecessor of the Hialeah Park Race Track.
  10. The Hialeah Park Race Track, which, as noted above, opened as a dog track before its conversion into a horse race track in 1925. Located at 2200 E. 4th Avenue, the park sprawls over a large tract of land bracketed by East 32nd and 35th Streets on a north-south axis and from East 4th Avenue to Palm Avenue in an east-west direction.

After it became the Hialeah Park Racetrack in the early 1930s, course quickly joined the ranks of America’s premier horse race tracks, and was arguably the country’s most important wintertime facility. The track’s natural beauty, featuring majestic Royal Palm trees and Flamingos bathing in the picturesque infield, along with large, celebrity-studded crowds, provided its cachet. In recent decades, the track fell on hard times, and narrowly avoided being razed. It continues to struggle as a gaming facility and in a much different form from earlier.

  1. The site of the Miami Studios, a film production facility that stood at West 9th Street and 3rd Avenue. Opened in the early 1920s by famed film maker D.W. Griffith, the studio produced silent movies, including those of Griffith, and was “thriving” for a few years before closing. In the 1960s and thereafter, the Harrison Building stood on the site of the old studio.
  2. Dixie Lily grits mill, 1300 S.E. 10 Court. In business since the mid-1930s, this company is among the most venerable of Hialeah’s enterprises. It featured a 5 pound mill stone that made 110 revolutions per minute grinding corn starch into grits. In 1981, alone, the company manufactured 900,000 pounds of grits. By the late 20th century, the home grown businesses had became part of China Doll Rice, while maintaining its claim as the only U.S. company left that manufactured coarse ground grits the old fashion way.
  3. Henry Milander Market, 215 Palm Avenue. An eight term mayor of Hialeah, Henry Milander dominated the politics of the city for more than three decades in the middle years of the 20th century. The closest person to an old time political Boss in the history of Miami-Dade County, Milander handled much of his governance from this simple store cum butcher shop.
  4. Stephen’s Restaurant. Hugging the corner of 10th Avenue and 16th Street in the southeast corner of Hialeah, Stephen’s is a Jewish New York style Deli that opened in the 1954, when that area was the heart and soul of industrial Hialeah. While most of the factories have closed, Stephen’s remains open for business with its delicious pastrami sandwiches and tasty matzo ball soup.

The Politics of Hialeah

Paul S. George

Hialeah’s politics have been colorful since its inception as a city in the 1920s. James Bright played a larger than life role in the early politics of the city exerting his influence as a founder of the community since it was his land that Hialeah emerged from. But Henry Milander, a butcher and grocer of humble beginnings, was an even more formidable political force during the middle decades of the twentieth century. Milander, who appealed to the average resident, especially those who had recently arrived in the city, joined the City Council for the first time in 1935. By 1941, he was mayor of Hialeah, and served almost without interruption until his death in 1974. Milander wielded a giant influence over the city council that governed with him. An old styled urban boss, Milander was accessible to the electorate, assisting them in small and large ways, and was often controversial while suspected of handing out favors in return for other favors. In fact, Milander was twice reelected by landslides despite a conviction for conspiracy and grand larceny! Part of his popularity stemmed from the fact that under his watch, the city repealed its personal property tax in the 1950s, paving the way for the relocation of additional industries there. Further, the city in the same era repealed its inventory tax, again drawing to it more businesses and jobs.

When Milander died in the mid-1970s, Hialeah’s demographics and politics were in transition because of the enormous growth of the Cuban immigrant population, drawn to the city by its manufacturing jobs and its affordable housing. Soon Cuban officeholders held the city’s politics in their thrall, while this onetime Deep South community cum working class migrants from the northeast U.S. was disappearing.

Within a short period of Milander’s death, Raul Martinez, a Cuban immigrant, would emerge as the mayor and, some would insist, the new political boss of Hialeah. Like Milander, Martinez exhibited a hands-on approach to the electorate, returning telephone calls promptly, keeping his office door open much of the time, and assisting hard-pressed residents in various ways. Like Milander, Martinez was a larger than life figure who served as mayor from 1981 till 2005. His political career was also stormy, and included a conviction on federal extortion chares and even a sentencing. But Martinez did not serve time since one of the counts against him was overturned on appeal and the others were dropped. Since his tumultuous tenure, Hialeah and its politics have quieted somewhat, but the passion remains strong among a government that continues to work at improving the city’s already formidable economic climate.


The Economic Legacy of Hialeah

Paul S. George

Since its inception, Hialeah has been an economic powerhouse in Miami-Dade County. One of the county’s most popular tourist venues and economic engines was beautiful Hialeah Park Racetrack, which grew out of a dog track that opened in the boom era of the mid-1920s.  When the track was converted to a horserace track it was known initially as the Miami Jockey Club.  But this facility was hampered by a statewide prohibition on pari-mutuel wagering.  After Joseph Widener, a wealthy Philadelphian, purchased the track at the outset of the 1930s and was successful in his quest to see pari-mutuel betting legalized in the Depression year of 1931, the newly renamed Hialeah Park Racetrack was poised to succeed, and succeed it did, becoming quickly one of America’s most important and famous racetracks. Visitors to Greater Miami and the facility filled its beautiful interior and wagered enthusiastically on the horses running there, including many of the best in horse racing history.

Even before horse racing became a serious engine of the economy of Hialeah, Dade County, and the State of Florida, the infant aviation industry had already found its way to the nascent community of Hialeah. In fact, aviation was present there even before the city incorporated in 1925. Glen Curtiss, America’s greatest early aviator and the creator of the City of Hialeah, trained fledgling fliers, as they were then known, after America entered World War I in 1917, in the muck of the former swamp, now known as Hialeah, before moving his program to Palmer Lake near the Miami Canal. In the early 1920s, Curtiss opened a commercial facility in Hialeah, one hosting many aviators. Further, as Miami, by the 1930s and beyond, developed into one of the nation’s most significant aviation cities in the 1930s and beyond, Hialeah was impacted as aviation-related businesses, offering parts and equipment, opened in that municipality located close to Pan American Field on Northwest Thirty-Six Street, and its successor Miami International Airport, which moved to Lejeune and Northwest Twenty-ninth Street, formerly known as Wilcox Field, in 1959.

But the economic powerhouse that Hialeah became known for was primarily a phenomenon of the period following World War II.  Calling itself “the industrial heart of Greater Miami,” the city boasted nine miles of frontage along the right of way of the two railroad lines that ambled through it, helping to catalyze its impressive industrial surge. In 1945, the city hosted twenty-six industries. By 1954, 136 industries were based in Hialeah, employing more than 3,000 workers, with a payroll of $5 million. By 1957, those numbers had leaped, according to long serving Mayor Henry Milander, to 800 industries and commercial firms. One of the high growth postwar industries was the manufacturing of garments, with Hialeah assuming an ascendant position in that endeavor.

The U.S. Census for 1960 found a Hialeah-based labor force of more than 25,000, with 4,500 employed in transportation jobs, primarily of the aviation variety; 2,000 worked in construction, while another 4,000 were in manufacturing. These figures continued to grow, as the city by 1966 counted more than 2,200 factories and warehouses with 22,000 workers.  In the half century since then, the numbers of workers and businesses has soared with the population, reinforcing the image and reality of Hialeah as one of the most important economic engines of Miami Dade County. Adding to the strong economic mix and partly offsetting the closing of some factories has been the rise of the electronics and technology businesses.

Further adding to the strong economy of Hialeah has been the tremendous post World War II construction boom resulting in the rise of innumerable residential subdivisions and retail centers. Hospitals, marquee stores in new malls and shopping centers, which have included Flamingo Plaza, Westland Mall and the Palm Springs Mile, along with large tracts and even subdivision containing both affordable and upscale homes are perhaps the most glaring examples of this building boom.

Hialeah’s economic accomplishments have been greatly assisted by the huge influx of Cubans and other Hispanic immigrants from other parts of the hemisphere.  Hard working and entrepreneurial, Cubans have opened businesses of virtually every kind, from food emporia to medical facilities as they have pushed the economy of Hialeah to greater heights. Even with the decline of the Hialeah Park Race Track, the economy of Hialeah has remained strong. It continues to be very much a city on the move.

Hialeah and the Arts

Paul S. George

While Hialeah does not possess the reputation of being an artists’ haven or even a city where the arts have played a large role in its evolution, that image is changing, and changing quickly. Since 2006, when the city staged is first art exhibition, it has slowly been building an art and artist element. Many activities and expositions have followed, including one with artists who formed part of 134 years of Cuban art.

Additionally, many public gardens and private homes bear artistic decorations. Artisans continued to craft souvenirs of this unique city with the hope of selling them. Ariana Hernandez-Reguant dreams of a city whose streets are filled with murals while open air movie projections are screened against buildings.

Fast forward to 2015. After years of planning and encouraging the growth of the arts, the city of Hialeah on a sunny Sunday in May staged a daylong street fest in an area now known as the Leah Arts District. The new district was created in 2014 to provide affordable and safe spaces for artists to create; it stands near the newly proposed Hialeah Market Station development project. The Leah Arts District comprises a block long corridor along the 1500 block of East 10th Avenue, and this first ever arts-street fest drew many hundreds of curious persons, including a plethora of artists. Before the fest, several warehouses bracketing the district were covered with giant graffiti murals drawn by more than a dozen urban artists, including many who have already made names for themselves in the fabled Wynwood Art District and elsewhere. Their ranks included Atomik, Abstrk, Derick G., Diana Contreras, among others. Many festival goers noted that they attended because they were looking for an alternative art experience to the usual venues like Wynwood and the Art Deco District. Reflecting on the success of this first street festival, Mayor Carlos Hernandez observed that the idea behind the new district is to “attract artists to our city.”

In the wake of the first art fest, Hialeah’s Leah Arts District, along with other vibrant areas for the arts in Greater Miami, has received Beck’s (the German beer maker) Urban Canvas support to create an original work. In the years ahead, Hialeah, thru its Lea Arts District, hopes to achieve the recognition that these Greater Miami’s more famed art communities already possess. The future for the arts in Hialeah appears boundless as the area is rapidly becoming a Mecca for artists and their followers. Especially popular are the myriad examples of “wall art,” and her Hialeah is already making strong inroads.


Transportation and the Development of the City of Hialeah

Paul S. George

Transportation has assisted immensely in the development of Hialeah. Florida State Road 112, which stretches from the area of Miami International Airport to Miami Beach, was completed in 1962, making access to Hialeah from points east easier and faster since one of its exit ramps located near Lejeune Road, just north of N.W. 36th Street, brings motorists directly into the southeast sector of the city. Even earlier, the Palmetto Expressway (SR 826), moving in a north-south direction, was completed. It courses through the western sector of the City of Hialeah. Four exits off of the Palmetto Expressway deliver drivers into or nearby Hialeah. Further, in the 55 years since it opened to traffic, many businesses, institutions, warehouses, and even the Westview Mall in Hialeah and in close proximity to SR 826.  Nearby these important arteries are both extensions of the Florida Turnpike and I 75, which enable motorists to reach destinations that may be far away.

  • In 1985, the county’s ambitious Metrorail opened in the north with a stop across from the famed Hialeah Park Race track. The train also delivers riders to the nearby Hialeah Hospital.  One stop west is the Okeechobee Station, which is near the Hialeah Warehouse/Factory District.
  • Earlier, the Florida East Coast Railway and the Seaboard Airline Railroad built east-west extensions to their original north-south right-of-way tracks, bringing trains into Hialeah and further igniting industrial and warehouse growth. The Florida East Coast Railway extension into Hialeah also brought many elements of horse racing, from fans to Fillies, into Hialeah from points east. According to a publication from the Hialeah Park Race Track, an FEC Railway train delivered between 17,000 and 18,000 horse racing enthusiasts to the Miami Jockey Club for opening day, January 15, 1925! VIPs abounded on that journey to Hialeah.
  • Portions of the tracks/right of way of the CSX Railroad’s, formerly the Seaboard Airline Railroad, are employed by Tri Rail as it carries passengers from the Amtrak Station at Northwest Thirty-seventh Avenue through the densely populated three county region of Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach. Plans are now progressing quickly to build an extension of Tri Rail from its Hialeah station into booming downtown Miami where it would deliver passengers to the Florida East Coast Railway’s Miami Central Station, presently under construction. The monies to finance this expensive extension are rapidly falling into place.
  • The Florida East Coast Railway’s presence is especially important for the fact that ten percent of the freight delivered to the booming PortMiami comes from the rail yard in Hialeah by way of this railroad line.

For public transportation patrons moving through or in and out of the City of Hialeah, Metro-Dade County’s bus system offers several routes.

Overarching all of the modes of transportation common to Hialeah throughout its history is, of course, aviation. Beginning with the presence and activities of America’s preeminent early aviator, Glen Curtiss, who was also the developer of Hialeah, the city has blazed a trail in this new mode of travel and transport.  The great Curtiss, who possessed pilot license Number One, hailed from New York State but came to Miami in the mid-1910s to operate an aerial training school, as it was then called, in the century’s second decade, and around that time entered into a business partnership with James Bright, who was as close to anyone deserving of the title, “The Founder of Hialeah.”

It was Curtiss, more than anyone else, who developed from reclaimed Everglades swampland not only Hialeah, but the future municipalities of Miami Springs, and Opa Locka, lying contiguous to and nearby Hialeah. In 1921, as Hialeah was arising upon former Everglades swampland, which was by then muck, Curtiss opened the Curtiss Aviation Field at Palm Avenue and 17th Street. There Curtiss built a hangar and an airfield. There also aviatrix Mabel Cody, presumably the niece Buffalo Bill Cody, put on an aerial “circus” heralded throughout South Florida.  A more substantial aviation presence came with the presence of the Miami Municipal Airport later in the 1920s. Standing at the conjunction of Lejeune Road and Northwest 119 street, this air facility remained busy for decades, and was known internationally for hosting the All American Air Maneuvers, an annual event drawing aviators of both genders as participants.  Many flew as stunt pilots before large crowds of locals and visitors from the late 1920s till the onset of World War II, and briefly after the conflict ended.

The Miami Municipal Airport is even more notable for the fact that it was the departure point for famed aviator Amelia Earhart on her fateful around the world flight June 1, 1937.   On the final leg of her flight, while flying over the Pacific Ocean from the Philippines to California and home her airplane disappeared, and no trace was ever found. In 1946, the Miami Municipal Airport was renamed Amelia Earhart Field. By 1960, the facility had ceased to exist as an airport.

Immigration and the Making of A Hispanic City

Paul S. George

Few cities in the United States have experienced the vast demographic changes in so short a time as Hialeah. The original community was comprised primarily of residents from the Deep South with smaller numbers from other parts of the country. Early on, though, an additional element appeared with the opening of the beautiful Hialeah Park Race Track in 1931. Persons associated with the race track,  including jockeys, trainers, timers, and others, brought a more cosmopolitan element to Hialeah, even though they  were just “seasonal” residents. Hialeah also contained Seminola, a segregated black neighborhood near the race track.

Following the end of World War II in 1945, the population of Hialeah exploded as many Northerners moved to its warm climes drawn by manufacturing jobs and affordable housing rising from the opening of many new subdivisions in the heady decades following World War II. Hialeah also began hosting garment manufacturing businesses, several owned and operated by Jews.

Hialeah remained a Southern enclave into the 1960s, when a huge Cuban influx began changing many parts of Dade County. By the 1970s, a sizable percentage of Cubans and lesser numbers of other Hispanics had relocated to Hialeah drawn by the same offerings that had drawn earlier waves of “immigrants” to the “City of Progress,” as it sometimes called itself. The old guard political apparatus at first seem to resist the growing presence of Cubans in the city’s body politic, but they eventually yielded to the inevitable as several members of the city council by the 1980s were Cuban. As noted in our section on the politics of Hialeah, this shift culminated in the huge popularity of Mayor Raul Martinez and his lengthy tenure as mayor of Hialeah ( 1981-2005) despite the imposing legal questions and problems he experienced.

The Cuban presence has been especially pronounced along Palm Avenue and other major arteries with “Mom and Pop” businesses, along with chains, owned and operated by Cubans and, to a lesser degree, other Hispanics. Even national chains like Publix supermarkets have altered their traditional business strategy to cater to this Hispanic clientele.  Additionally, Hialeah is also home to Telemundo, the second largest Spanish-language television network in the U.S.

Today’s Hialeah contains 235,000 residents, making it the fifth largest city in the State of Florida, now the country’s third largest state with a population exceeding 19 million. An astounding 95 % of the city of Hialeah’s population is Hispanic, with the preponderance here of Cubans. The U.S. population census for 1910 indicated that Hialeah had the highest percentage of Cuban-American residents in the U.S. with 74% of the populace. In that census, Hialeah ranked second only to nearby Hialeah Gardens in the list of American cities where Spanish is most spoken. The previous census of 2000 found that more than 92% of Hialeah’s population spoke Spanish at home, while those who spoke only English comprised just 7% of the population. As increasing numbers of Hispanics come to the U.S. and to Miami-Dade County, the preponderance of them is settling in Hialeah.

Hialeah: Historical Sources for the study of the city

Paul S. George

While there is little in the way of book-length histories of Hialeah, the city’s John F. Kennedy Memorial Library offers a surprisingly outstanding Hialeah History Collection, which includes original photographs of prominent historical figures, buildings, businesses, and even parks. Further, the Kennedy Library’s Hialeah History Collection contains rare documents, such as a deed of land, dated to 1910, when the future city of Hialeah, then a portion of the eastern Everglades, was being drained as part of the State of Florida’s ambitious Everglades Reclamation program.

The documents’ collection also contains the original document of incorporation of the Hialeah Chamber of Commerce (1925), and many other documents that tell parts of the story of Hialeah Race Track, the city’s most historic element. Many serialized periodicals, primarily of the newspaper variety, are also in this library’s collections. The few books on the city include Seth Bramson, Curtiss-Bright Cities, which looks, in pictorial fashion, at the neighboring communities of Miami Springs and Opa Locka, as well as Hialeah. Further publications include Memoria/Memories, 1925-2000 (2000), and City of Hialeah’s 75th Anniversary (2000).

Other repositories that contain valuable materials on Hialeah include those of Miami-Dade County’s Main Library (downtown Miami) and the Research Center of HistoryMiami.  The former includes vertical file material on microfilm, as well as clip files and city directories on persons and places, as well as the history, and businesses of Hialeah.  The latter’s Research Center possesses clip files on the city, as well as the famed racetrack, in addition to maps and photographs.  Further, it offers, in sequential order, many decades of Miami City Directories that include information on Hialeah, its residents, businesses, institutions, etc.