Big Pine Key native Travis Livengood recalls sneaking in to Old Man Grimal’s yard as a kid to shimmy up his mango trees and snag a few delectable fruits for himself and his friends.
“One day he caught me, and made me work in the yard to earn the mangoes,” Livengood recalled one afternoon recently as his daughters peered around the freshly cleared property while harp music lulled in the background. “He was a mean old man!”
Livengood was among the dozens of Lower Keys and Key West residents who dropped by one recent sunny Sunday afternoon to enjoy some music, food and tour the property that held handfuls of mischievous childhood memories.
Since 2011, Marathon resident Patrick Garvey and a handful of hopeful cohorts from up and down the East Coast have endeavored to save the former crown jewel of tropical fruit cultivation in the Keys.
“It is a lost piece of paradise and deserves to be brought back to life,” said Garvey, the Executive Director of the Growing Hope Initiative.
After a bit of research, Garvey and his Growing Hope Initiative sought means to save the precious piece of property from future real estate development and revitalize the dream that died with inventor Adolf Grimal at his passing in 1997.
But funding for the purchase of 1.76 acres wasn’t the only obstacle the group had to overcome. Monroe County Code Enforcement had levied more than $800,000 in fines against the property owner for code violations following years of abandonment and neglect.
Countless attempts to grow tropical fruits in the Florida Keys were thwarted by the highly alkaline and rocky soils. But where others failed, Grimal succeeded, spending thousands of dollars to import nutrient-rich soil and fill the carefully constructed labyrinth that included underground piping connecting six cisterns, ponds and pools.
Hailed as a true pioneer throughout the mid to late 20th century, Grimal enabled inquisitive visitors by the busload from the mainland to observe fruits of the deep tropics and a little slice of the Garden of Eden thriving just off US 1.
“The buses would come down and park here when things would be blossoming and he’d allow them to pick things,” recalled longtime Big Pine Key resident Dick Fornia of the visitors from Fairchild Tropical Botanical Garden. “All the way from Miami, Homestead…anything that grew in there bared fruit. He used to sell pineapples out here on the road when he couldn’t get rid of them!”
Nearly two dozen volunteers from AmeriCorps spent several weeks late last year clearing the unique oasis choked by invasive species in advance of the Grimal Grove Grand Opening Dec. 1.
The group’s goals include revitalization of the grove with plans to open the property to the public as an edible community park.
“We want to offer skill based workshops, cultural events, youth empowerment programs and more,” Garvey continued.
On deck in the coming weeks are two chocolate workshops facilitated by acclaimed global chocolatier Eric Gilbert, who will offer demonstrations on planting, growing and producing chocolate. Of course, participants will be able to sample the, ahem, fruits of their labor – there will be plenty of chocolate to eat!
Growing Hope is also partnering with Big Pine Charter School for a chocolate, yoga and gardening gathering in the grove later this month.