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Four Presidents Slept There : Boaters Can See a Once-Exclusive Key

February 07, 1988|JOHN PLATERO | Associated Press

ADAMS KEY, Fla. — For those who are unlikely to be invited to Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland, one comparable alternative might be a visit to this tiny island off South Florida, where Presidents of the past relaxed and did some fishing.

The key, now part of Biscayne National Park and accessible only by small boat, was home to the Cocolobo Club--a famed private hideaway built during World War I and frequented by the rich and famous.

"Four presidents have been here," said Park Superintendent James Sanders, "Warren Harding, Herbert Hoover, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon--as well as a lot of department heads."

Edged by thick mangroves and shallow water, the 28-acre island today is home to two park rangers and their wives. It has an environmental study center for grade school students and a day-use park for the public.

Super Likes to Visit

Like the hundreds of visitors who come here each year, Sanders enjoys visiting Adams Key, 8 miles south-southeast of the park headquarters and 9 miles from Homestead.

"I love these waters--blue, turquoise and green," said Sanders as he and Ranger Chris Johnson motored across the pristine waves toward the island.

"There's no pollution here because we're blessed with currents flowing north toward the Miami area," he explained. "Our mission is to keep it that way."

There's little left of the Cocolobo Club, built by Carl Fisher, who purchased the land from Jeremiah Saunders in 1917. The main building was destroyed by fire Dec. 21, 1974.

The two-story clubhouse, made of Dade County pine, contained just 10 small bedrooms, a kitchen and dining room, Sanders said.

As the boat neared shore, Sanders pointed out the old "casino," a separate building with two large rooms.

Club's Social Hub

"It wasn't really a casino," he said. "It was where they played chess, bridge, checkers and cards."

The game room has been repaired and equipped as a laboratory and classrooms for the pupils who come here for three-day environmental excursions supervised by park rangers.

Accommodations at the club, added Sanders, were not luxurious. "It was more like a fishing camp."

The original, 70,000-gallon concrete cistern is still in use, and the old caretaker's house is home to Johnson and his wife, Barbara. A diesel-powered generator provides power and a sewage treatment plant has been added.

Among the original club members were Harvey Firestone, C. F. Kettering of General Motors, Frank Seiberling of Seiberling Tires, President Harding and T. Coleman Du Pont.

After the Depression of the 1930s, Fisher sold Adams Key to Gar Wood, the speedboat racer. He kept it as a private retreat until he sold it to a group that included U.S. Sen. George Smathers, Thomas Wakefield and C. G. "Bebe" Rebozo, a Nixon confidante.

Became National Monument

The National Park Service acquired the property in 1968, when the area was designated a national monument. In 1980, it became a national park of 181,500 acres, only 5% of which is land.

Most of Adams Key is covered with thick brush and gumbo limbs, palms and mahogany trees. Nature trails are part of the plan for the island.

Rangers are posted here because Adams Key is on the edge of the northernmost living coral reef in the United States. They help guard the reef from abuse and damage, and are ideally located to assist lost boaters and vessels in distress.

Johnson and his wife arrived here last year for 2 to 4 years of duty.

One disadvantage on Adams Key, Johnson said, is the number of mosquitoes.

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