Like so many pioneers of the Florida Keys, William Dunham and Mary Jane Albury left the Bahamas and settled in Key West. In 1886, they left the southernmost city with their three-week-old son, William Beauregard, and settled in the Rock Harbor area of Key Largo.
The family farmed in the general vicinity of mile marker 98 where they harvested pineapples until both a blight and competition from Cuban farmers took its toll on the Keys’ pineapple industry. The Albury pineapple farm was subsequently replaced with groves of key lime trees.
In 1913 Beauregard and his father constructed a conch-style wooden house. In those days the Albury home would have been located just south of the Over-Sea Railway’s Rock Harbor Depot. Today it sits in the exact same place and represents the oldest house on Key Largo still standing in its original locale. Painted lemony yellow and standing in the meridian that today separates the northbound and southbound lanes of the Overseas Highway, the building is currently home to the Reef Environmental Education Foundation.
Portions of an interview with Beauregard Albury were published in “Key Largo/Island Home” published by The Key Largo Foundation in 1967. During the interview he remembers, “You should have seen the crawfish in the mangrove roots along the shores. They were stacked up two feet — one on top of the other. I’ve had them weigh seven pounds. The whole shore would be red, two or three hundred feet. One time I caught 2,900 crawfish with a small net. My father had a contract with the railroad to supply crawfish to Key West. The last season we worked for them, we shipped 54,000 pounds even though the supply was depleted by that time. That was the only year we kept a record. We found most of them on the lee side of Key Largo, Rodriguez, and Tavernier — wherever there was a mangrove shore. Nothing much on Dove Key.”
Albury added, “We used to fish a lot, too. I caught from 1,200 to 1,500 pounds per day on a hand line. Sold them for five-cents a pound to the railroad. They would furnish the ice and pay the freight. We packed the fish in burlap bags with ice for each railroad camp and marked the sack with the camp number. This was during the building of the railroad. We spent eight years fishing every day except Sunday. They would buy any kind of fish except sting rays and sharks. I caught jewfish weighing up to 300 pounds.”
In addition to supplying Flagler’s railroad with the fresh local catch, in 1923 the Alburys made a donation in the form of property on which to build a school for a growing Rock Harbor community. While several smaller wooden schools had been built as communities developed in the Upper Keys, the Rock Harbor School represented something more permanent. When completed, it was a two-room coral rock structure.
The school was one of two similarly modeled educational facilities built circa 1924. The other was the Matecumbe School built where Upper Matecumbe’s storied Cheeca Lodge stands today. According to Monroe County School Board records, both schools were forced to close in 1924 because there were too many mosquitoes. Harold Russell would become the Rock Harbor teacher and Ferran Pinder Matecumbe’s. Both schools taught grades 1-8.
The bones of the Rock Harbor Grammar School can still be seen in the median of the Overseas Highway at mile marker 98.8. Since its time as a school, the building has been home to, among other incarnations, a church and cabinet shop. Today it is recognized as the Key Largo Moose Lodge. The Matecumbe School, however, was destroyed by the Category 5 Labor Day Hurricane. In response, two new sister schools were built circa 1938. These schools, one located on Upper Matecumbe and the other in Tavernier, doubled as community storm shelters. Neither school offered educations beyond the eighth grade.
The only Monroe County high school was located in Key West until the Upper Keys PTA president “K” Wilkinson (no relation to history guru Jerry Wilkinson) spearheaded an effort to petition the Monroe County School Board to bring a high school to the Upper Keys. In order to help make the effort a reality, the Monroe County School Board obtained 16 acres of land from Mrs. P.L. Wilson for $5,800 on which the new Coral Shores School was built.
The school, located on Plantation Key, opened in 1951 with six classrooms and six educators teaching grades 1-11. Charles Albury, referred to as “Prof” Albury, was the school’s principal and Ferran Pinder, his assistant. Grade 12 was added to the school in 1952, the year the school was formally dedicated.
Students from the Marathon area were transported to the school after first being brought to what was then known as Greyhound Key (because it was the site of the Greyhound Bus Station) and shuttled by bus to the Coral Shores School. Greyhound Key is known today as Fiesta Key. The first Coral Shores graduating class accepted their diplomas June 10, 1953.
Brad Bertelli is a published author of four books on Florida and Florida Keys history. As well as operating Historic Upper Keys Walking Tours, he is s the curator of the Keys History & Discovery Center, located at the Islander Resort. His column will appear every other week in The Reporter. Reach Brad with comments and questions at WhyPanic@aol.com.