Ever since I moved to Miami, many years ago, I have been fascinated by this beautiful city and its history. Just when you think you have seen it all, you find a new place or a new interesting piece of history hidden in some unusual location. It is absolutely mind blowing how this region has evolved, grown, and developed over such a short span of time. Only image that many have is that less than one hundred years ago Miami Beach had just barely come into existence and Miami itself was nothing but a little city with dirt-roads. And look at it now – the city of the future on steroids, as Miami is growing faster than ever. Bigger and better sky-rises are constantly continuing to shape the skyline of this magical city. It is obvious where the city is heading, but where it comes from, only a few people can tell you. One of those very few people is Miami’s own historian, author, scholar, collector, and just an awesome person – Professor Seth H. Bramson. I had the pleasure of sitting down with Mr. Bramson and asking him some questions.
Seth Bramson was born in New York, but in 1946, when he was only 2 years old, his family moved to Florida. Or as Seth likes to tell it, “When I was 2 years old in New York City and it was horribly hot and I said to my father, you know dad it is too hot here, so lets go to Miami Beach…”
Mr. Bramson has written 23 books of historical significance on the places, people, and events shaping the landscape of South Florida. He is the only person in the country who holds the official title of Company Historian with an American railroad. His book, SPEEDWAY TO SUNSHINE: THE STORY OF THE FLORIDA EAST COAST RAILWAY is the official history of that famous line. On top of all that, he is the only person in the state who bears the official title of City Historian with a Florida municipality. And the list goes on and on…
What influenced you to become a historian and an author?
At the age of twelve I walked into the Florida East Coast Railway’s City Ticket Office here in in the Ingraham Building in downtown Miami for the first time and asked for time tables. And that’s where it all started. This coming May, May of 2016, starts my 58th year of, as we like to laughingly say, “collecting all this junk”.
I went to school here on Miami Beach, went to Miami Beach High and all those years was collecting. But in those days I never thought of going to college to become a history major. I made up my mind that I was going to go to Cornell University School of Hotel Administration. And I did. I became the first Miami-Dade Junior College graduate to be accepted at Cornell University and the first Miami-Dade graduate to graduate from Cornell.
My great love for the Florida East Coast Railway was always there. I have always loved the history of the railroads. And as I grew up in Miami I became more and more familiar with Miami history, became more and more fascinated with that, also. I guess you can say that I became a historian from the first time I walked into the FEC ticket office in downtown Miami.
What is your message?
I think no small part of “the message” is to try to convey, not just the love for history that I have, to the reader, but to share the information. And the most important thing, that I think that I can do, is to debunk some of the nonsensical myths regarding local history, which, unfortunately and unhappily, continued to be propagated by both so-called historians who should know better and by docents and volunteers at museums who are spouting off nonsense and total historical untruths. Sadly, the Miami Herald, which keeps telling us how wonderful the paper is, has no interest—none at all—in historical accuracy, and my numerous pleas to them to allow me to look over historical articles for factuality before they go to press have been met with complete indifference.
You have the largest private collection of Miami memorabilia and Floridiana in the country. What are some of your most interesting pieces?
Some years ago I was given the collection of the late, great Isidor Cohen – Miami’s first permanent Jewish settler. Fantastic!!! Thousands of pieces! I also, several years ago, made an incredible purchase: the largest single purchase of Floridians ever made by a private individual, as opposed to the museums, or universities buying larger collections. This purchase was of the William Gleason collection. William Gleason was a scalawag, and a carpetbagger. He became a lieutenant governor of Florida and a major Florida land owner. In the Gleason collection there weren’t thousands of documents, there were tens of thousands of documents. What was in this collection? Among other incredible treasures were the only two known to exist Julia Tuttle signed letters in Dade County, but thousands of other great pieces came from that collection.
We also have the largest collection in public or private hands in America of what is known as “restricted clientele” memorabilia, the booklets, brochures and postcards published by the various hotels letting Jewish people that they were not welcome as guests at those hotel.
In his collection Mr. Bramson has tens of thousands of historical photographs, posters, brochures, signs, documents, letters and many other pieces of Miami memorabilia and Floridiana. And because there are so many of them it is hard to label any as his favorite or more interesting over others.
As the interview went on I asked Mr. Bramson what was his take on the changes that the city of Miami and its surrounding cities have gone through in the past few decades. Although Seth believes that many positives have happened to Miami during those years, he notes that there have been at least an equal number of negative events. As the interest in the region increased and the funds began to pour in, the local economy and the region’s infrastructure have certainly taken an upward direction. On the other hand he notes that, while growth and development were underway, too many of the historical architectures and far too much of our local habitat have been destroyed.
What advice would you give to new generation of South Floridians?
What I think is important is that really they understand the importance of being good citizens, the importance of respect, and learning to speak like ladies and/or gentlemen. I believe strongly in good citizenship and that’s what I want my students to learn.
Mr. Bramson has been teaching at the college level for 31 years. While he is a tough guy in his classroom,he is, at the same time, loved dearly by many of his students and frequently receives thank you letters from them for the guidance he has given them through the years.
How do you see Miami in the next 10 years?
You know, people will often say to me, “Seth, If Carl Fisher could come back what do you think he would say about… If Henry Flagler could come back what…” And you know what the answer is “I don’t have the slightest damn idea because whatever we would give either of them, or George Merrick might say, it would probably not be correct!”
Mr. Bramson went on to say that he did have a few concerns for Miami and South Florida, but only time will tell what the future years will bring. And as for Mr. Bramson, one thing is for sure - he still will be writing history and collecting “all this junk”, as Seth laughingly refers to his life’s work, the same way he did all his life.
You can find Seth Bramson’s books at Books & Books, Barnes & Noble, Amazon.com, and of course on Mr. Bramson’s website