My grandfather, Harold Griffin, moved to the magic city in 1925 and he left on the heels of the 1926 hurricane. His recollections of his time planted the seeds that would inspire my parents to begin a new branch of our family tree on the island paradise of Key Biscayne.
After serving in the Navy during WWII and graduating from the University of Virginia, my father, Richard Welsh, was accepted to the University of Miami law school. My mother, Helene Griffin Welsh, was up for the move to a tropical paradise.
In 1951, my parents left Roanoke, Virginia, and moved into their first Mackle home on Ridgewood Lane on Key Biscayne. The Mackle brothers were early developers in Key Biscayne, selling small beach homes to retirees and WWII vets. My aunts recall fond memories of walking to the beach on sandy streets lined with palm trees bursting with coconuts. They provided magnificent shade all over the island and especially the beach.
In the early days of Key Biscayne, many residents made calls from a phone booth at Vernon’s Drug Store, the information hub of the island. There were no hospitals on the Key, but we had medical care from a husband and wife team who made house calls.
As the population grew, our tropical secret spread and so did construction of hotels. Presidents Kennedy and Nixon were among the high-profile guests, giving our island exposure in the press. President Nixon would purchase a home that would be known as the winter White House, complete with a helicopter pad. As kids, curious tourists would ask us daily for directions to see this presidential attraction.
The Sheraton Royal Biscayne Hotel, painted in bright pink and lime green motif, stood out, and reggae music poolside would draw you in. The Eagle’s Nest bar at the Silver Sands Beach Resort was a popular hangout where you could enjoy a cold drink and listen to musicians play tunes that went perfectly with sunshine or moonlight and rolling waves.
My sisters Megan, Erin and I grew up on Harbor Court. The surrounding blocks were lined with friendly and diverse families that would introduce me to what true community means. It was common to see children roaming carefree and barefoot from house to house where parents looked out for each other and we sampled Cuban, Southern, Italian and kosher meals at each other’s homes.
Key Biscayne must get acknowledgment for some of the all-time best dishes in Miami. Breakfast at the Donut Gallery was the way to end a long night out or start your day. A “Ted Special” is still a meal many will travel to get because it is so perfectly the comfort food of Key Biscayne. Meeting friends at Vernon’s Drug Store with the fountain shop and lunch counter that made mouthwatering grilled cheese and scrumptious shakes was always a treat. One of the original Sir Pizza restaurants, a weekend must, is still going strong. On special occasions, we would go to the English Pub at the Jamaica Inn. It had fresh baked bread, prime rib and pewter engraved mugs for regular beer drinking patrons.
The Key kept us insulated, and growing up we had to travel to the mainland to have McDonald’s, see a movie or go to a mall. Children were encouraged to learn to swim at an early age. Swimming was essential to take part in all of the water activities such as boating to secret spots for “bugs” (lobsters) and then heading for the flats and sandbars to tie up and share the spoils of the day. Before docking the boat, we would head to the glassy water behind the Key Biscayne Yacht Club to get in a ski run. I have great memories of too many of us standing anxiously on the rickety dock covered by mangrove shade to wait our turn to ski a loop before the sun set.
We were known as the Key Rats at Coral Gables High School and we were proud of our unique nickname, even though it is more a lifestyle than a name.
My father, Dick Welsh, passed away in June 1997 after a successful law practice and too short of a retirement. My mother, Helene Welsh, is still a resident of Key Biscayne, now living there for 64 years. My sister, Megan Welsh Andrews, a learning disabilities specialist, opened The Achievement Center in 1985 and is a beloved and active member of the island with her husband, Frank. My niece, Alexandra Andrews, is a third-grade teacher at St. Agnes Academy on the Key, and my nephew Justin, a recent graduate of FSU, lives in Nashville where he plays in the successful band Just like Brothers and works in the music industry. My sister Erin Welsh Abplanalp lives in Issaquah, Washington, with her husband, Craig, and three amazing children, Sage, Willow and Colt, who visit and enjoy the Key Rat reunions.
I am very fortunate that my parents had amazing foresight to choose such a spectacular island to raise their children. I have grown up in such a special community that I still feel such a strong connection to. As I drive over the bridge to the Key, I’m always in awe of the natural beauty surrounding me.