HOMESTEAD — Unlucky in love, Ed Leedskalnin went about his life quietly and sadly while building the most peculiar home on the edge of the Everglades. It was going to be a valentine to the woman who had jilted him. And who knows? Maybe she would hear about his grand monument to her and come back to him. She would say "I am sorry for hurting you" and they'd marry and have many children.
Ed died alone. But Florida's most amazing tourist attraction remains at 28655 S Dixie Highway. It's called the Coral Castle. It's our Great Pyramid, our Stonehenge.
Florida's eccentric genius stood a few inches taller than 5 feet. He weighed about 100 pounds. Starting in about 1920 he began cutting huge blocks of stone from Florida's hardest ground, the oolitic layer of limestone, fossil and coral just under the Everglades topsoil. From the massive rocks he sculpted furniture, a solar system, a telescope and even a table shaped like a heart. Then he moved them into place — a few sculptures weighed 20 tons or more — by himself.
Secretive, he did his heaviest lifting after dark when witnesses were unlikely to be present. His powerless tools included levers, block and tackle, winches, rock saws, sledgehammers and homemade cranes he built out of pine trees and chains.
To those who thought moving stones single-handedly, even with tools, was impossible, he could quote Archimedes: "Give me a fulcrum and a lever and I can move the earth." If those words failed to impress, Ed explained that he had also discovered the "secrets of the pyramids."
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Once there were hundreds of places like the Coral Castle, mom-and-pop attractions where a Yankee tourist could look at a pit full of rattlers or watch a Seminole wrestle an alligator. World War I was over. The Depression was a decade away. Anything seemed possible.
For a dime, and later a quarter, Ed would walk you around the grounds. In his high, sing-song voice he would tell you about the sculptures of the planets and those enormous rocking chairs. Eventually he'd get to the heart-shaped table — it weighed 5,000 pounds — and tell you about Agnes, the girl who broke his heart.
It had happened in Latvia, where Ed Leedskalnin was born in 1887. He dropped out of school in the fourth grade to become a miner, and later a mason. He was smitten by Agnes Scuffs and proposed marriage. He was 26. She was 16. At the altar she told him she had changed her mind.
Angry and humiliated, Ed took a ship to New York and disappeared into the wilds of western Canada to become a lumberjack. In Texas, he became a cowboy. He developed a cough that wouldn't quit. "Consumption," said the doctor. Tropical weather was supposed to be good for tuberculosis.
He showed up in Florida City — about as far south as a man could go without a boat — and began building the castle for Agnes, whom he always called "Sweet 16."
Neighbors, according to old newspaper articles, described him as shy but friendly. He was invited to dine with a neighbor only once. It was Thanksgiving. He was polite but never said a word.
On Saturdays he'd dress in his only suit and pedal to the Seminole theater to watch a silent double feature. When actors started talking in movies he quit going. "Too confusing," he told someone.
Eventually, he decided he'd attract more tourists on the main road north of Homestead than on a dirt road in the Everglades. He hired a guy with the sturdiest truck in South Florida to haul the sculptures 10 miles north. It took more than a year.
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Every once in a while a tourist worked up the nerve to ask: Why had Agnes changed her mind?
He never explained, exactly.
Perhaps Agnes decided Ed was too old for her. Or not wealthy enough. There's evidence that Ed believed Agnes was disloyal. Over the decades he expressed his philosophy about life in a series of pamphlets.
"A girl is to a fellow the best thing in this world, to have the best one second hand, it is humiliating," he wrote in A Book in Every Home. "All girls below sixteen should be brand new."
Gripping his pencil furiously, Ed wrote about things that could go wrong when mothers failed to protect their daughters' virtue. "The first degree love making is when the fresh boy begins to soil the girl by patting, rubbing and squeezing her. They start it in that way but soon it begins to get dull and there is no kick in it, so they have to start in on the second degree and keep on and then by and by, when the right man comes along and when he touches the girl, he touches her like dead flesh. There is no more response in it because all the response has been worked out with those fresh boys."
It is possible that Agnes had fallen in love with a fresh boy. It is also possible that she suddenly doubted that life with Ed was going to be all hearts and flowers.
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Florida is modern now. Disney World is 250 miles north of Coral Castle. There's a casino 14 miles away. Ed's Coral Castle offers subtler pleasures.
It's a place to sit quietly in 1-ton rocking chairs that are surprisingly comfortable. Climb 16 sweet steps and you can gaze into the 16- by 16-foot room where Ed planned to worship his "Sweet 16."
Sit with your love at the heart-shaped table. Renew your wedding vows. Every Valentine's Day dozens of couples do what Ed never did.
If you have gray in your hair, if you have some rust on you, you're probably capable of contemplating the mystery of Ed's life, how he transferred his sad energy into something that may last forever.
In 1951, he felt ill. He hung a sign on the small gate that said "Going to the Hospital" and took the bus 30 miles north to Miami. He suffered a stroke and lived for 28 days before his kidneys failed. He was 64.
Nobody attended the funeral at Miami Memorial Park except the men who dug the grave.
Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8727.