At age 19, Ivy Cromartie Stranahan became our city’s first teacher. Her first class in 1900 had just nine students. The wisp of a woman who a friend remembered “as having so much zest for living, so much vim and so much fight” arrived from north Dade with her hair pulled back in a bun and her sleeves rolled up. She was the perfect match for the Fort Lauderdale founding father who fell in love with her, Frank Stranahan. Both spent their lives midwifing a new town from a frontier outpost.
For Ivy Stranahan, a simple sewing machine, still preserved in the Stranahan House Museum, tells it all. Ivy’s husband bought the machine for $3 from a mail-order catalogue, the Amazon of those days. It was shipped by railroad and boat to Lantana, and then by mule wagon to his trading post, which would later be converted into a living space for the new couple.
In the beginning it was powered by a treadle, and Seminoles used it right in the store. After they sold their skins, the Indians were flush and purchased piles of bright-colored calico. They’d camp along the New River for days using that machine to make dresses.
Ivy then moved the machine inside the house and added a motor purchased from Montgomery Ward, according to the Fort Lauderdale News. A 1962 article quotes the then-elderly Ivy: “The Seminoles continued to use it right along with me. It never took them long to learn how it worked. I’d show them once and that was it.”
If it took days, fine. “They’d sleep curled up on our front porch,” Ivy recalled.
That sewing machine lasted a lifetime, as did Ivy’s affection and concern for the Seminoles. In fact, she left the whites-only school after a year to spend the next 30 years teaching English to any Seminoles who would listen, even from the running board of her husband’s car. Eventually a school for the tribe was built.
In later years she also successfully fought the U.S. government, which was seeking to end benefits for the tribe. Upon her passing at the age of 90, Seminole tribal council president Joe Dan Osceola called her “a giant among our society.” Despite rampant discrimination, “she taught us love and patience.” And, he added, “not once did she try to convert us to her religion.”
Her husband Frank built the first post office, trading post, New River ferry, and became a successful civic leader and property developer. Ivy, for her part, was the first teacher, and, arguably, the city’s first humanitarian, ecologist and suffrage fighter.
In 1916, she was the first president of the Women’s Suffrage Association of Florida and spent six weeks alongside Mr. and Mrs. William Jennings Bryan arguing for women’s voting rights with an intransigent legislature. She founded the local Audubon Society and worked to save the endangered egret. After pleas from the family’s longtime housekeeper, Annie Reed, she got Frank to donate land for Fort Lauderdale’s first black elementary school.
In later years she also fought against the growing commercialization of her beloved city, even opposing the New River tunnel to save a historic wooden bridge.
Like the lives of other early settlers, the Stranahans’ existence was no picnic. Creating a settlement in a swampy, humid, mosquito-infested wilderness was one thing. Then there were the fires, the hurricanes, the bust years. And the ignorance of some people.
Frank, exasperated after one civic defeat, said, “I don’t believe that Jesus Christ and his 12 apostles could straighten out the people of Fort Lauderdale.”
In 1929, these burdens and more fell on Ivy. Frank was found dead in the New River with a heavy grate tied to his legs. He was said to have been despondent over the stock market crash and the losses of friends tied to a development he promoted.
Ivy persevered alone, putting the estate together and running a restaurant from the first floor of their home. Never remarrying, Ivy spent the rest of her days consumed in the civic arena she felt was her God-given calling. Does this woman deserve to be called Fort Lauderdale’s founding mother? How about founding saint?