The early history of the property on Biscayne Bay that was to become The Kampong tells a tale of the development of Dade County and of South Florida. The first settler to live there was Jolly Jack Peacock. He sold his claim for $50.00 to J.W. Ewan, known as the “Duke of Dade,” who received a homestead grant in 1882.
Ewan sold the property to Captain Albion Simmons and his wife, Dr. Eleanor Galt Simmons, in 1892. Dr. Simmons, the first woman to practice medicine in the Miami area, built a barn of native limestone and Dade County pine, which served as her office as well as a stable for her burro and carriage. Her brass nameplate is still in its original location. This building is one of the oldest in Miami-Dade County (it still stands on its original foundation). Captain Simmons planted guavas on the grounds and made jelly and wine from them in another building known as the “Jelly Factory.” It was destroyed by a hurricane many years later.
The property was purchased from Captain Simmons in 1910 by Florence Baldwin Nugent, second wife of James Nugent, a French count by birth, who had come to Florida to seek his fortune. In 1916 Dr. David Fairchild and his wife Marian, daughter of Alexander Graham Bell, purchased the property from Mrs. Nugent, and named it The Kampong - a Malay word for a village, or a cluster of dwellings for an extended family.
Dr. David Fairchild, one of the most influential horticulturalists and plant collectors in the United States, devoted his life to plant exploration and searching for useful plants suitable for introduction into the U.S. As an early “Indiana Jones” type explorer, he conducted field trips in Asia, the South Pacific, Dutch East and West Indies, South America, Egypt, Ceylon, China, Japan, the Persian Gulf, and East and South Africa. These explorations resulted in the introduction of many tropical plants of economic importance to the United States. All told, as Head of the Office of Foreign Seed and Plant Introduction of the United States Department of Agriculture (1897-1928), Dr. Fairchild introduced some 30,000 varieties and species of plants into the United States.
Although the Fairchilds lived primarily in Washington, DC until 1928, they created both a home at The Kampong and an “introduction garden” for many of the plants he collected on his expeditions. Dr. Fairchild often experimented with his plants and some of these experiments remain as part of the heritage collections at The Kampong today.
In 1928 the Fairchilds built a house (designed by Edward Clarence Dean) that still exists at The Kampong, and made it their permanent home after David Fairchild retired. In 1931 Marian Fairchild’s sister Elsie and her husband Gilbert Grosvenor purchased the adjoining property, which they named Hissar after the small town in Turkey where he was born. After The Kampong became a part of the NTBG, two generous supporters enabled the Garden to acquire most of the Hissar property, thus preventing high-density development and providing additional space to expand the living collections in a tranquil, environmentally friendly setting.
The Fairchilds hosted many famous visitors at The Kampong, including Marian Fairchild’s father Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison, Henry Firestone, Henry Ford, Barbour Lathrop (who financed some of Fairchild’s collecting trips), Wilson Popenoe, and many others. The groundwork was laid for the establishment of Everglades National Park in meetings held at The Kampong with now-legendary conservationists Marjory Stoneman Douglas and Ernest Coe. In 1929 David Fairchild became the first president of the Tropical Everglades Park Association.
Fairchild remained at The Kampong until his death in 1954. After Marian Fairchild died in 1963, The Kampong was purchased by Edward Cleaveland and Dr. Catherine Hauberg Sweeney. The Sweeneys were world travelers and Mr. Sweeney served as president of the Explorers Club. Dr. Sweeney, a botanist, philanthropist, and preservationist, had the means and the expertise to preserve Dr. Fairchild’s unique plant collections. She was primarily responsible for preserving this irreplaceable botanical treasure for future generations and transforming it into a botanical garden. She has been referred to as the “Savior of The Kampong.” In 1984 The Kampong was entered into the National Register of Historic Places. Later that same year, Dr. Sweeney gifted The Kampong to the then Pacific Tropical Botanical Garden. She remained a principal sponsor and leader of The Kampong until her death in 1995.
The focus at The Kampong is education, using the property’s unparalleled living collections. Tours are available by appointment. Each year The Kampong holds several educational programs, for college professors, physicians, and others. In order to support the increasing number of educational and research programs at The Kampong, a dormitory, classroom laboratory, and Education Center were constructed during 2003-2007.