Don’s Rambles: The Historic Pinewood Cemetery

An adventure in which a former mayor continues to seek the “soul” of his hometown

Having endured continuing complaints that my rambles are confined to the north side of U.S. 1 (some may say “west side”), I launched a one-man safari into new territory that took me south of Sunset Road, just a stone’s throw from our neighbors in the kingdom of “High Pines.” My intermittent search for the “soul” of Coral Gables has previously taken me to our founder’s church, parks honoring distinguished residents, and neighborhood gatherings. The destination of this adventure: the first officially designated cemetery in the Miami area dating back to 1897 — originally named “Cocoa Plumb” and now known as “Pinewood.” Surprisingly, this enthralling nature preserve holds 268 burial plots.

I had arranged to meet Richard Bennett, who has been involved in efforts to save this pristine plot of South Florida foliage and graves since he was asked to do so by Mayor George Corrigan in the 1980s. He now serves as chair of the city’s Pinewood Cemetery Advisory Board. It quickly became obvious that Richard is truly dedicated to the preservation of this last remaining evidence of our early 19th Century pioneers. The grave sites include the burial locations of Union and Confederate soldiers as well as veterans of the Spanish-American War which ushered in the 20th century.

Bennett showed me a 2006 article from the Miami Herald which mentions that ghost tales have also emerged, telling of “shadow people” and strange noises. One paranormal investigation discovered a large cleared circular patch where nothing was growing, possible evidence that late night rituals may have been held there. The most intriguing grave is that of Dora Suggs who was viciously murdered in 1905, and who is said to haunt the grounds nightly.

Pinewood Cemetery

Joining us for this intriguing “site visit” was Jane Maranos, vice-chair of the city’s Landmarks Advisory Board. As we made our way through the thick undergrowth, she observed: “It is a shame that this historic treasure is unknown to many of our residents, even though it has existed since long before our city was founded. In this simple, rural cemetery many graves are forgotten and neglected, hidden by dense foliage. Sadly, there are many children buried along the leafy paths — a reminder of the high infant mortality rates experienced by our society over a hundred years ago. And yet, this special place provides our residents an opportunity to explore one of the few remaining South Florida hammocks in this otherwise crowded urban mass of built environment.”

While wandering through the several acres of trees and plants, we stumbled across a couple enjoying the natural beauty and cooling shade. The young man was Nick Hernandez, a 2004 Coral Gables High graduate, who had returned home from his residence in Los Angeles to visit his mother, Beatrice. When asked “Why vacation in a cemetery?” he replied that, as a youth, this was his favorite place to get away and relax, far from the maddening crowd. Now he wanted his fiancé to share that experience.

As we made our way back to the entrance on Erwin Road, both Richard and Jane agreed that (1) Pinewood needs a better maintenance plan; (2) invasive plants and trees ought to be removed; (3) walkways must be improved to protect the safety of visitors; and (4) plans should be formulated to reactivate the annual celebration of “Pioneer Day” featuring costumed participants, music, and pageantry.

Join me next month for a winter adventure as I meander through the annual Coral Gables Christmas Village next to City Hall.

This column appears monthly by Don Slesnick, who served as mayor of Coral Gables from 2001 to 2011. If you wish to reach him with suggestions on where he should next meander in search of the city’s soul, email Read more of his travels within the City Beautiful here.