Debra Flynn sits in the cool night air on the covered wooden porch that encircles her historic home. She is taking stock of her surroundings. Three cats perched on wicker furniture watch her. On the side of the house, a horse named Rocky happily munches hay. In a corner of the one-acre property is a rusty Fort Lauderdale fire engine, its innards a tangle of vines. Next to it are an overturned porcelain veterinarian's examination table and an abandoned golf cart. Clapboard made from sturdy Dade County pine covers the house's exterior.
Flynn's place on SW 208th Street and 127th Avenue is located only about four blocks inside the Urban Development Boundary, the invisible border that separates farmland from the ever-encroaching strip-mall culture. As far as Flynn is concerned, she is on the wrong side of that line.
In speech peppered with country sayings and tinged with a Southern drawl, Flynn describes the 79-year history of her house. Back when the century was young, it was the most elegant farmhouse for miles around. As recently as fifteen years ago, the view from the porch included strawberry and tomato fields. Tonight, just a few hundred yards from Flynn's wicker chair at the end of her property, the houses begin one after another, square structures of concrete about five to an acre, the likes of which can be seen throughout South Florida.
"It really hurts to see what has happened," she says of the creeping suburbanization that surrounds her house on three sides.
Like her father-in-law, who owned the place before her, she has for years fought the zoning changes that have transformed parts of this farming community into a honeycomb of paved driveways and homogenous houses. Yet as she looks at the nearby rooftops, Flynn announces she has given up. "It's not getting any better," frets the 41-year-old, who braids the manes and tails of show horses throughout the Southeast for a living.
Flynn has come to a painful decision: It's time to move. Only she refuses to just pack up and leave. Her course of action will be every bit as quirky as her chosen profession. She wants to lift her historic house onto wheels and take it with her. And that's not all. She wants to find someone else to pay the hefty fee. (She has already met with Miami-Dade Commissioner Katy Sorenson, who pledged to write letters of support for grant applications.) Raising money is not the only hurdle she must clear. Because the county historic-preservation board designated the house an important landmark in 1993, board members will have to approve the move.
It is doubtful that William Bush and his wife Nellie imagined this future when they built the two-story home in 1920. They had arrived to the area in 1911 to farm tomatoes for the Campo Rico Trucking Company, a firm that helped transform South Dade into agricultural land. Within a decade Bush had left Campo Rico to farm on his own. Along with another South Florida pioneer, Raymond Burr, he opened a packing house on Old Dixie Highway to ship fruit and vegetables by barge and boat to cold Northern cities. Burr's son Charles, now age 77, continues to operate Burr's Berry Farm, renowned to this day for its strawberry milkshakes. (Burr's also is surrounded by housing developments, and Charles Burr makes frequent appearances at zoning hearings to complain about the changing neighborhood.)
The Bushes were usually the first in the neighborhood to have the latest gadgets, Burr recalls. In the early 1930s Burr remembers seeing his first radio at the Bush house, which in his memory is filled with warmth and pleasant aromas from the kitchen. "[The Bushes] were close enough for us to call them aunt and uncle," he says. "It was old-time relations. You knew who your friends were back then, not like today."
On the old Bush property, there was a carriage house, still there today, where Nellie Bush kept an automobile. According to the historic-preservation board's records, Mrs. Bush headed the county welfare department in the 1930s. She would drive her car great distances to help those in need during the Depression, Burr recalls. Today's SW 208th Street originally served as the Bushes' driveway. Along the roadside they planted Australian pines, some of which still stand.
William Bush died in the early 1940s. The couple had no children; in 1945 Nellie Bush sold the house, then died shortly thereafter. The Bush house passed through a succession of owners until 1974, when Osceola Cabot Kyle, known to most as Lucky, purchased it. Part Seminole, Kyle worked as a veterinarian. "He was the only guy who would take care of wild animals," remembers Charlie McGarey, a friend of Kyle and a retired firefighter. "Animals trusted him instinctively."
Kyle even let his four-legged charges sleep in the house. Although he had been a sickly child, Lucky Kyle took up weightlifting and won two Mr. Florida titles in the 1970s. His wild lifestyle ended in bankruptcy in the 1980s, when he lost most of the land that had belonged to the Bushes. The judge left him only the house and the one-acre parcel on which it stood. Eventually Kyle set up his animal hospital in the old carriage house and covered the grounds around the home with kennels for dogs and other critters.
Then in 1992 Hurricane Andrew struck. Although the sturdy farmhouse withstood the lashing wind, rain severely damaged its interior. Kyle moved into a small trailer while he worked on repairs. In an attempt to win some grant money, he sought historic designation for the farmhouse. Before he could complete the effort, in 1993 a fire started in the trailer, killing the veterinarian while he slept. McGarey, who had retired from the fire department five years before, thought the blaze suspicious and investigated. But neither he nor the police determined the cause of the fire. In May 1993 the county approved historic designation.
Debra Flynn took ownership of the house in a convoluted way. In 1977 she married Neal Rene Foster, Kyle's nephew, who the bodybuilding vet had raised as a son. Flynn and Foster's relationship was tumultuous. They married and divorced three times, finally splitting in 1989. Foster died in 1990 at age 33. The couple had one son, Charles Francis Foster. According to Flynn, workers involved in repairing the house often heard Kyle say he wanted to leave the house to Charles Foster after his death.
Kyle's relatives disagreed and, because there was no will, the fate of the Bush House hung for three years in legal limbo. Finally in 1996 Charles Foster won the property on the condition it be held in trust by his mother until he turned 25 years old.
The Bush House and farming life were a comfortable fit for Debra Flynn. Her grandfather, Johnny Leyland, was a jockey who rode horses that belonged to Al Capone in Chicago. In the 1960s Leyland bought a horse farm in Lake Worth. It was there that Flynn learned horse braiding. (Her mother, Rita Flynn, started the Kendall equestrian store Horse 'N Around, which is still in the family.) For years Debra Flynn braided horse hair, which supplemented the salary from her regular employment as an accounts manager at a commercial real estate firm.
After Hurricane Andrew in 1992, Flynn's employer required his staff to participate in a time-management course, which the instructor titled "How to Be Happy with Your Life." At the end of the seminar, Flynn decided she was unhappy with her job and resigned. Today she travels to horse shows, climbing on ladders to do her work. She claims horse braiding is lucrative, though she declines to reveal how much she earns. A braider normally makes $30 for a mane and $20 for a tail.
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During the past three years Flynn has painted and plastered parts of the house, while fighting a running battle with neighboring developers. Meanwhile growing crime in the neighborhood has made her uneasy. Several months ago she realized that if she didn't move the house soon, it would be completely boxed in by the homes growing like melaleuca around her. After consulting with her son Charles, she decided to move the house to a parcel near her father's home, which is about six miles away.
Rolling the entire house a few miles won't come cheap. Flynn received one estimate from Russell Building Movers for $150,000. "I can move it easy," says Keith Kleppinger, company president. The difficult part, Kleppinger explains, is clearing utility lines and other obstacles, as well as navigating narrow country roads. Kleppinger says there is not much call for moving houses these days. Last year he only transported about twelve of them.
"I feel like I'm bailing out, but I'm not," Flynn says. "I'm saving us."