Think about this: An 18-year-old named Ivy Cromartie came on her own to a tiny mosquito-ridden settlement of six families in 1899, wearing gingham dresses that went from neck to ankles, to teach at a one-room school. That same woman, whose family traveled to South Florida in a horse-drawn wagon, lived to see a man land on the moon.
From Seminole children ruling the roost at her husband’s trading post on the New River, canoes parked at the dock, to the days of the Beatles. Almost mind-boggling. And she’s the woman many call the Mother of Fort Lauderdale. It was to be a title well-earned.
It took a year, but after Sundays on the beach and a proposal at an “ice cream social,” she married Frank Stranahan and joined with him for a life of service. But first they went on a honeymoon by train, visiting Asheville, N.C., Niagara Falls and other places. Then it was back to the fledgling settlement. Frank, who started some of the first businesses here, soon took his place on city councils and held other positions of leadership.
Ivy was destined to do the same, but on another track. She not only was the first teacher for the white settlers, she began informally teaching Seminole children at the same time. Like her husband, she was at one with the Seminole community. The tandem teaching, one formal, another informal, went on for more than a dozen years.
Other civic commitments followed. Ivy always marveled at the tropical birds on her early walks to the schoolhouse. Later she became a founding member of the Florida Audubon Society, and she helped create a sanctuary, Everglades National Park. Next up was the battle for women’s voting rights, and she became president of the Women’s Suffrage Association of Florida.
But fair treatment of the Seminoles would be the cause of her life. Much later, she would put it in brutally honest terms to those who would listen in Congress: “The Seminoles are a people who are asking the least and have the least. What they are asking [is reasonable] for part of a race who have given up much of the beautiful country to ruling white man.”
Early on, Ivy took it upon herself to be an intermediary between the growing settlement and the area’s Seminoles, who often encamped at the trading post. Frank, in adding a second floor to the trading post for their home, left broad eaves and porches specifically for Seminoles camping there for the night. “Life might have been a little lonely had it not been for the Indians,” Ivy later said of the early days.
As the years went on, she emerged on bigger stages in the fight for Seminole rights by founding Florida Friends for the Seminole and serving as its spokesperson for 50 years. She fought for adequate land for a reservation, aid for housing and education, and finally a transition to the time the Seminoles were allowed their own leadership and civic hierarchy. One of her proudest moments must have been when a woman she taught to read as a child took a leading position in that hierarchy.
Mrs. Stranahan could be forgiven if she had quit it all along the way. Two of her siblings died young. The city she and her husband helped build was laid low by fire, a housing bust and hurricanes.
Then, most tragically, her husband Frank, devastated by losses in the market crash of 1929 (his own, and those of friends whom he had encouraged to invest) took his own life.
When a husband died during those times, it was customary to dress in black for a year. Ivy did it for 10.
But her Christian faith (she was Seventh-day Adventist) and her compassion for and belief in others pulled her through it all. As an active member of the Fort Lauderdale Seventh-day Adventist Church, she was the first principal of the church school, now Sawgrass Adventist School in Plantation.
Upon her death in 1971 at age 90, Ivy willed her New River home to the Fort Lauderdale Seventh-day Adventist Church. In 1974, the congregation sold the property to the Fort Lauderdale Historical Society. Today, it is a museum owned by Stranahan House, Inc., and one of our most valuable historical sites.
In every account of this extraordinary pioneering pair, there are words like “generous, visionary, unassuming and pragmatic.” Yes pragmatic. Great to have dreams, but even better to make them happen.