History and Development
The history of Sweetwater actually began during the Florida land boom of the 1920's when the Miami-Pittsburgh Land Company purchased acreage and laid out the original plat of "Sweetwater Groves." However, the 1926 Hurricane and subsequent South Florida real estate "bust" put an abrupt end to the development venture.
In 1938, Clyde Andrews acquired most of the "Sweetwater Groves" tract and began to market lots. Among his buyers was a troupe of Russian midgets seeking a place to retire after a career with the circus. They built several mini-scaled homes suited to their needs. For years, Sweetwater was known as the "midget" community.
In 1941, Sweetwater held a successful election for incorporation. The new town's first mayor was Joe Sanderlin, the midgets' guardian and manager. By 1959 Sweetwater had attracted 500 residents and contained a town hall, church, grocery store, service station and 183 homes. It also had a two-man police force and a volunteer fire department. In 1970, Sweetwater was still a relatively small community of about 3,000 residents.
During the 1970's, however, several events were to happen which would dramatically change the hitherto "sleepy little country town" of Sweetwater forever. These events included the establishment of a major new state university to the south, the construction of the two major expressways to the north and west, and the discovery of Sweetwater by Dade County's Hispanic community. The growth and development which was precipitated by these occurrences caused Sweetwater to more than double in population and lead all other Dade cities in growth during the 1970's.
Presently, there are only a few vacant lots left to develop. The City's population has burgeoned to over 14,200 persons of which more than 93 % are of Hispanic origin. The City can now boast of having a full-service police department and city hall complex, four parks, an elementary school, a county fire station, 4,353 residential housing units, 14 shopping centers, over 600 businesses, several churches and a bank.
Brief History of the Russian
Midget Colony of Sweetwater,
By Rick Ferrer
(Miami-Dade County Office of Historic &
One of the more unusual stories in the annals of
South Florida history centered on a small troupe of Russian circus
performers known as the Royal Russian Midgets. In the early 1940s,
whether by chance or intention, the group settled in a then remote
area of Dade County called Sweetwater Estates. The troupe was
pivotal in the early municipal organization of Sweetwater, a city
which presently finds itself at the center of an expansive
metropolitan area. Their story (within living memory but largely
lost today) is as follows.
As the end of the czarist era was approaching in
Russia a group of small-sized people banded together in 1907 forming
the "Petrograd Star Company." They were largely the sons
and daughters of peasants with little opportunity for escaping the
poverty and famine of rural Russia. The company was formed as a
travelling troupe of entertainers. The troupe became accomplished in
well-staged theater productions. They were also known as wonderful
singers of Russian classics and folk tunes. Their training went far
beyond circus tricks and top hat showmanship.
Historic photograph probably taken in the
19teens.The kimono costume shown at lower left indicates that the
picture may have been taken during a tour of Japan.
In time, the company grew to a main troupe of 23 midgets. They
traveled across Russia to Siberia, Manchuria, India, Japan and the
Philippines. Their fame brought them to perform before notables of
the day. The impressive roster of spectators included the Romanov’s
(the royal family of Russia); the Japanese imperial family and
General Chiang Kai-shek when he controlled mainland China.
Under a midget by the name of Michael Sokolsky, an offshoot of
the main troupe was formed. They became the "Russian Royal
Midgets." The "Royal" midgets continued touring
overseas as they had when part of the larger group. History was to
play a direct hand in their destiny as the troupe was on tour during
the Russian revolution of 1917. Family members back home advised the
tiny troupe not to return and stay abroad. Like many other Russian
expatriates who could no longer return home, the midget troupe is
thought to have found temporary refuge in Nationalist China.
The Royal Russian Midgets sometime during the
Over to the U.S.
In 1931, the midget troupe arrived in the U.S. through the port
of San Francisco. By 1933, having lost all hope to return to Russia
and the lives they had left behind, the Royal Russian Midgets became
American citizens. For the remainder of the 1930s they performed
across the United States joining various circuses and carnivals. The
midgets’ talent, child-like innocence, melancholy for their lost
country and kind nature were noted by many and their popularity
soared. Room, board and clothes were provided for each troupe member
but payment was only a few dollars per month. Unscrupulous managers
kept most of the profits and keeping the tiny group deliberately
poor. The midgets were not fluent in English nor were they business
savvy enough to take matters into their own hands. So, by necessity,
the band stuck together.
The Florida Connection
By the late 1930s, the troupe was looking towards the eventuality
of retirement. They had been performing for more than three decades.
Florida’s climate and land availability beckoned many seeking
warmth, fresh air and open land. The well travelled and weary
circuses of those days were no exception. Central and west coast
sections of the state were the winter headquarters of many circuses
and travelling troupes.
A ticket seller by the name of Joseph Sanderlin who had become a
confidante of the midget troupe took over as their business
promoter. Sanderlin treated his trustees as guardian and protector.
In 1939, the six foot high Sanderlin married Anna Parfenova, a
midget member of the troupe just under four feet in height. The
Royal Russian Midgets also included one other "full-sized"
associate, Joseph (a.k.a. ‘Q. Teacher’) Korobkin. Korobkin
served as interpreter since the midgets stuck to the Russian
language. While traveling through the Miami area, the troupe came
across Sweetwater Estates just off the Tamiami Trail. The
subdivision had been platted 16 years earlier but had gone bust as
was the case with many South Florida subdivisions and tracts after
1926. Most of Sweetwater Estates came under the control of Clyde
Andrews in 1938. Andrews reinitiated efforts to sell and develop
lots in the area. Among his first customers were the Royal Russian
The midgets in formal attire (circa 1930s).
Perhaps it was the cheapness of the land or maybe Sweetwater
provided both isolation and proximity (by way of the Trail
connecting Miami with Naples) that enticed the troupe to finally
settle here. They had traveled the world many times over but it
came down to this spot where they made a permanent home. The troupe
of twelve under Joe Sanderlin built nine scaled down houses that
included accessible furniture, cabinets, doors and rooms. Sanderlin
and his wife Anna envisioned the small community at Sweetwater as
the start for what they hoped would be a more populous village and
refuge for midget performers. Their plans included a future store
and theater. It was expected that tourists visiting South Florida
would come and see them as well.
In 1941, the midgets along with thirteen other residents voted to
incorporate Sweetwater. A charter was signed and Sanderlin was
elected as the first mayor (Anna becoming the town’s de facto ‘First
Lady’). Again, circumstances of history came in to play. By the
end of 1941, America was at war. Gasoline and valuable raw materials
were rationed to aide in the war effort. Traveling and construction
were curtailed. The initial interest in creating a Mecca for midgets
waned. A few of the troupe went back on the road or moved away. The
midgets who were left tended small vegetable gardens, fished in the
nearby canal and tried to maintain a sense of community by staying
loyal to themselves and speaking their native tongue. The dwindling
community also remained faithful to the Orthodox Church. They were
among the early founders of Saint Knayz Vladimir Russian Orthodox
Church in West Dade and where among the congregants who met under a
tent until a church building was finished in 1948.
End of a Community
Michael Sokolsky, the midget’s founder, master of ceremonies
and charmer passed away in 1946. Sokolsky’s death was a
devastating blow to the midgets who remained. After serving as
mayor, Joe Sanderlin and Anna moved away to Sarasota. What was left
of the community moved to interpreter Korobkin’s house at 211 N.W.
56th Court. Basil Fillin and his sister Mary Fillina)
purchased two houses at 95 & 97 N.W. 46th Avenue,
adjacent to the Orthodox Church. Slowly the midgets began to pass
away. Sokolsky’s death was followed by Paula Velikonoff, Anna
Sanderlin, and John Velikonoff. Their little houses in Sweetwater
were torn down or burned accidentally as the years passed. The last
midget house which remained was located on S.W. 7th
Terrace between S.W. 109th and 110th Avenues.
It faced the Tamiami Canal. The little house was made of brick but
fire damage had left only a shell. It was torn down in the 1970s. A
townhouse complex now occupies the spot.
The last of the midgets, Basil and Maria (Mary) lived out their
lives a few miles to the east of Sweetwater. They were pious members
of Saint Vladimir’s; Basil serving the altar and Maria as choir
reader. Their memory is still recalled today as "… gentle
people, like children …. angelic" by both the pastor and his
wife. Basil passed away in May of 1974 after a long illness leaving
Mary as the last of the Royal Russian Midgets of Sweetwater. Mary
would get emotional as she was asked to recount the tale of her
people in her last years. She remained piously devoted to her church
and bequeathed her house to the congregation upon her passing in
1978. The last of the community lie buried side-by-side at Flagler
Memorial Park under a large live oak. A memorial plaque in Cyrillic
letters was erected in 1979 at Saint Vladimir’s in memory of four
of the Royal Russian Midgets. The plaque is the only recognition
which exists today of a largely forgotten and obscure piece of
Memorial plaque at St. Vladimir’s.
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