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The Bryan family, circa 1920, with patriarch Philemon Bryan sitting at center with his wife, Lucy.
The Bryan family, circa 1920, with patriarch Philemon Bryan sitting at center with his wife, Lucy.
Photo courtesy of History Fort Lauderdale

History Fort Lauderdale Spotlights City's Founding Family in New Show

In a city seemingly driven to pave over itself with the next big development, appreciation for the past is hard to come by. Fortunately, for over five decades History Fort Lauderdale has been the city’s heritage cheerleader.

Tuesday, October 1, heralds one of the museum's most significant exhibits chronicling the Bryan family, unsung figures who long ago helped carve an agricultural center out of Florida swampland and, by the 1920s, grow it into a city. Patricia Zeiler, executive director of History Fort Lauderdale, says of the Bryans, “As you trace their story, you trace the story of this area.”

The tale begins with Philemon Nathaniel Bryan, who arrived in Florida after serving in the Confederate Army. He eventually amassed extensive citrus holdings in Volusia County and even served as mayor of New Smyrna. After his holdings were devastated in the Great Freeze of 1894-95, Bryan decided to head further south. The family relocated in 1895 to the New River, where Bryan went back to planting what he knew, orange groves, and was hired by Henry Flagler to supervise 400 African-American workers laying the railroad bed for the East Coast Railway.

The historic Bryan House, built in 1905, sits along Riverwalk in Fort Lauderdale.
The historic Bryan House, built in 1905, sits along Riverwalk in Fort Lauderdale.
Photo by William Flood

South Florida was a dangerous frontier at the time. “Consider how difficult the obstacles were to overcome... like malaria,” Zeiler says, adding, “It’s important to remember, 65 to 75 percent of this area was underwater. You could walk to the Everglades from where the museum sits.”

For the geography-challenged, History Fort Lauderdale sits under two miles east of I-95 — far, far away from where Broward Boulevard today nears swampland.

Despite the adversity, the first train pulled into a boxcar-turned-station on Brickell Avenue on February 22, 1896, and quickly spurred economic growth. The area was originally planned as the winter growing capital of the country, with everything grown here from tomatoes and lettuce to oranges and pineapples. “As far as you could see there would have been orange groves,” Zeiler said. Because of the intersection of the New River and the railway, produce could be loaded onto barges, then reloaded on trains heading north.

From that start, the Bryans laid claim to all manner of Fort Lauderdale “firsts.”

The New River Inn, situated on the riverfront in Fort Lauderdale, served as a hotel from 1905-1955.
The New River Inn, situated on the riverfront in Fort Lauderdale, served as a hotel from 1905-1955.
Photo by William Flood

Philemon was an officer of the city’s first bank. With builder Ed King, the Bryans established the New River Inn made of newfangled hollow concrete block. They were responsible for the area’s first power plant, telephone service, ice company, and even radio station. Two of Bryan's sons, Reed and Tom, were civic leaders. Reed proposed the city’s name and Tom fought to establish Broward County in 1915.

Zeiler points out the Bryans did have some fun along the way. “Tom had a big yacht and flew the area’s first seaplane. Reed had the area’s first automobile."

It was Keith Mitzner, late museum volunteer and author of Tom Bryan and Other Movers and Shapers of Early Fort Lauderdale, who really championed the Bryan legacy. “He felt the Bryan story needed to be told,” Sheila Brew, museum preparator, says. She went to work interviewing third- and fourth-generation Bryan family members, who eventually donated important artifacts for the exhibit.

Because the Bryans were so influential in establishing the city, the exhibit will become a permanent fixture.

“We’re thrilled to present this comprehensive look at Fort Lauderdale’s founders," Zeiler says, "and proud to showcase these never-before-seen archival displays, personal effects, and stories.”

"The Bryans of Fort Lauderdale." Opens Tuesday, October 1, at History Fort Lauderdale, 219 SW Second Ave.; 954-463-4431; historyfortlauderdale.org.

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