Fort Lauderdale was named for a fort that no longer existed. Pompano was named because an early surveyor jotted down the fish he had for dinner on the map he was drafting. Zona, now Davie, was named after a group of settlers fresh off digging in the Zona – that is, the Panama Canal Zone.
Modello was named after … Wait, you say. Where and what is Modello?
Would you know this city if I told you it once billed itself as “The Tomato Capital of the World?” Tons of that fruit headed north from it.
Here’s a hint: The first settlers came from Denmark, by way of Chicago.
Modello was established in 1898 as a Flagler railroad waystation, and was settled originally by Danes. The first wave, including furniture makers, came in from Chicago in 1898-89. The colony architects named their settlement Modello, a contraction of Flagler’s Model Land Corporation.
A second wave of 30 Danes came three years later from Wisconsin. And in 1904, they did what you might expect Danes to do: They renamed their town Dania.
It became the first incorporated city in Broward County. A man named A.C. Frost built the first home, the first general store in 1902, and became Modello’s first postmaster. He also built and donated the first two schools of a place that was once a much bigger deal than Fort Lauderdale.
According to historian Stuart McIver, in 1908 that same A.C. Frost “cast a covetous eye on the settlement at the New River,” writing in a letter published in the Miami New Record:
“Dania has five stores, one hotel, a stone church, the Lebree boot works, a blacksmith shop, Mrs. Palmer’s bakery, Coulter’s Jewelry, two lumber yards, one lawyer, a new cement block school, and a jail of the same… The citizens of Dania now contemplate taking in more territory next summer as far as the New River. If the Fort Lauderdale citizens on the north side of the river wish to be incorporated in Dania, Dania will have no objection.”
Wow, a bakery, a jewelry store, lumber yards, a cement block school – how could Frank Stranahan, Ed King and the Bryans refuse such an offer?
Needless to say, it never happened.
The town began to grow anyway, as the whole area did. But then came a series of setbacks. The Bank of Dania failed, due to embezzlers at the home office in Atlanta. The Dania Hotel, the city’s largest, caught fire and was destroyed. Then the deadly hurricane of 1926 blew in, hitting speeds of 200 mph, dealing the final blow.
The city that would annex us was now nearly broke and desperate. It sought to be annexed by an all-too-eager Hollywood, and was.
But then, showing great resilience, it was back on its feet a year and a half later. Now it voted for “de-annexation.”
With all that the city has in it today – there were 20,000 residents as of the 2010 census – it still feels to some just a go-through from here to Hollywood. Most folks are not even sure where it begins and where it ends, especially on its western border. You might be surprised to know it extends well west of I-95, incorporating great venues like the Rustic Inn (famous for its crabs) and The Field, a busy Irish pub and eatery.
Attractions include one of the country’s first jai alai venues, now a casino complex.
There is the pier, of course, and the nearby Sea Tech complex, a major oceanographic institute. And while the contiguous oceanside park is technically not a part of Dania – Hollywood held some land back after the annexation – it may as well be. Von T. Mizell and Eula Johnson State Park – the former John U. Lloyd State Park was renamed in 2016 after these famed African-American leaders – is a fantastic place to escape the crowds and picnic.
By the way, Dr. Von Mizell, a towering figure in the history of Fort Lauderdale, was raised in Dania.
In modern times, Dania has moderated its international ambitions. Instead of touting itself as the Tomato Capital of the World, it now promotes itself as “The Antique Capital of The South,” for its row of shops along Federal Highway.
Yes, Dania Beach is a long way from Copenhagen, but so were those first pioneers. If nothing more, they saved us from a town with a terrible, characterless name – Modello – which is all but unknown except to history buffs.
And also to the few who live today in a tiny section of Homestead, which later picked it up.