In the early 1920’s, it was difficult to keep up with all the new and alluring announcements made by Coral Gables founder George Merrick. It was an era of rapid development, fast culture, and posh happenings. Everything was being done to transform this rocky pineland into a tropical oasis suitable for all the northern snowbirds with deep pockets and a sense of wanderlust. Olympic sized pools, lush green golf courses, Mediterranean mansions, and extravagant entrances were erected to attract the middle-class masses of the Roaring Twenties. Well-off northerners were not the only trending import at the time, for foxes were also brought down from the sprawling wilderness of North America to satiate the local aristocratic hunger for the age-old blood sport of fox hunting.
The first mention of fox hunting in Coral Gables was found by this researcher in a Miami News article dated December 2, 1925. According to the article, the fox hunt, which hosted by John McEntee Bowman, was the first tropical hunt of it’s kind in the western hemisphere. Bowman, who with George Merrick was in the process of building the Miami Biltmore Hotel, was an enthusiastic follower of the ancient sport. He was a horse lover, a thoroughbred racing enthusiast, and was president of the United Hunts Racing Association and the National Horse Show.
Bowman’s preliminary hunt in 1925 proved that the Florida pine woods and prairie lowlands were ideally suited for the fullest pursuit of the ancient English sport. In fact, it was John Bowman’s intention to organize a fox hunting club once the hotel was open to the public in January of the following year. By December of 1925, a charter for the organization had been applied for. Stables and kennels were also under construction. Bowman conducted a search for the best hunting hounds in the country and made extensive canvassing of eastern Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Delaware, which resulted in the successful acquisition of over thirty hounds which were described as “…an unusually fine type.”
By March of 1926, Bowman’s hunt club was in full swing. A Miami News article, which was titled Fox Hunt at Miami Biltmore Ends With Thrilling Kill, documented the first hunt hosted at the Biltmore Hotel. The foxes, which were imported from northern Virginia, were released at the golf course, and hunters chased them through the pine and palmetto. Men and women on horseback, outfitted in black and red garb like that of eighteenth-century horsemen, were accompanied by packs of hounds as they galloped through the pinelands in pursuit of the sly and cunning copper-tinted fox.
While newspapers chronicled their capture and heralded the chase that preceded it, it has been noted that these foxes, more often than not, escaped into the Coral Gables pinelands, vanishing without a trace. A 1955 Miami News article, which was described by it’s author as “…a bit of journalistic escapism,” whimsically commented that “…the foxes had some hyena blood in them, because during the chase, they used to sit up on their hind legs, observe the heavy sweating hunters, and laugh and laugh and laugh.”
It has been speculated that these uncaptured red foxes, a non-native species, have crossbred with the local grey foxes to produce the animals which have been spotted by Coral Gables residents for the past ninety years. They had clearly settled down to a warm life in this charming little city. The foxes survived, prospered, and reproduced all through the boom, the bust, the national depression, the New Deal, World War II, and many years beyond.
The fox hunt proved to be a short-lived venture, due in part to the collapse of the local economy which was followed by the nation-wide depression. By the early 1930’s the sport was dropped from the Biltmore’s itinerary. In 1942, the hotel was converted into a Veteran’s Hospital by the War Department and remained so until 1968, when the hospital closed and the building was left vacant. While the structure was abandoned, from 1968 until 1983, local wildlife found its way into the building. In the 1980’s, there were reports of a solitary fox taking refuge in the abandoned hotel. The lone fox returned to the home base of those who had made sport of hunting its forefathers on horseback only a few generations earlier. Much more grand and glamorous than it’s normal places of refuge, the fox had returned to, what many called, its “ancestral mansion.”