Exploring the Everglades

Today, Florida’s Everglades are a popular destination for visitors and sportsmen.  This vast “river of grass” is host to agricultural areas and numerous canals, as well as a national park.  However, this was not always so.  There was a time when the Everglades were a wild and remote region.  Until the 1880s, some people even compared the Everglades to the interior of Africa, which was then an almost completely unknown part of the world.

Despite their mystery, there were many in the United States who believed that the Everglades could eventually be completely drained.  With such an effort, the Everglades could potentially become thousands of square miles of new land on which Florida could grow.  The promise of the enormous profits such an undertaking could generate was hard to ignore, and people from all over the United States became involved.  So great was said promise that the Times-Democrat, a newspaper out of New Orleans, resolved to not only fund but also send a man to lead two expeditions through the Everglades.  The Times-Democrat party became the first recorded group to successfully traverse the Everglades from north to south.

The Florida Everglades

The Florida Everglades

The story begins with Hamilton Disston, the Disston Land Company, and Florida’s Internal Improvement Fund.  The IIF was established in 1851 for the purpose of encouraging the further development of Florida.  However, its resources were not exclusively for the development of the Everglades, and by the early 1880s, its obligations to various groups and projects all over the state had exceeded its means.  The IIF needed money.  Thus, the state resolved to sell more than four million acres of swampland, much of it in the Everglades, to the Disston Land company.  As a condition of the sale, Disston was required to begin draining the land himself.  Once reclaimed, Disston and many others like him believed that the Everglades could become extraordinarily fertile farmland.  Sales of this land, therefore, could have made him fantastically wealthy. (For more, see our blog post: “Land by the Gallon”)

Meanwhile, the Times-Democrat had long been predicting that the South was poised for a massive development boom following Reconstruction, especially concerning the conversion of wetlands into productive farms.  Though it primarily served New Orleans, the Times-Democrat boasted readership all over the South.  While it had no real ties to Disston himself, the newspaper saw that he owned – and was obligated to reclaim – lands which could help to make their prophecy come true.  Consequently, the newspaper organized two expeditions into the Everglades, the first in 1882 and the second the following year.  These expeditions would investigate the feasibility of draining the region and also determine what sort of plants might eventually grow best there.  The group included an experienced engineer and surveyor who could document their findings, as well as determine the best route for a telegraph line through the region at the request of the Western Union Company.

Hamilton Disston

Hamilton Disston

Though several military parties had crossed the Everglades during the Seminole Wars, these had all run between east and west.  The TimesDemocrat, therefore, proposed to attempt a route running from north to south, which promised many exciting new discoveries.   Furthermore, it would make a very exciting series of reports for their readership to enjoy.  The expedition would be led by Major Archie P. Williams,  who was the newspaper’s correspondent, and crewed by able and experienced men from the area.

The expedition proceeded in two stages.  In 1882, they traveled south along the Kissimmee River, into Lake Okeechobee, and then made their way west along the Caloosahatchee River, towards Fort Myers.  The following year, the group retraced its route eastward into Okeechobee, and then turned south into the Everglades proper, aiming to reach the mouth of the Shark River.  All told, the journey was more than 400 miles.  Much of it went deep through the uncharted Everglades.

A map of the major traversals of the Everglades. Note Major Williams’ 1883 route marked by a solid black line running North to South.

A map showing routes taken across the Everglades. Note Major Williams’ 1883 route marked by a solid black line running north to south.

The Shark River Valley: The Times Democrat Expedition’s destination.

The Shark River Valley: the Times-Democrat’s destination.

The expedition, composed of both white and African-American men, endured many hardships on their journey south.  The February 23, 1883 edition of the Times-Democrat, for example, contains a report of a nighttime invasion of the party’s camp by alligators.   A well-timed gust of wind stoked the dying fire, and the light revealed that the ground was “one moving mass of the reptiles.”  Perhaps a few stories were exaggerated for the readers, but that does not diminish the group’s efforts.  Often, they found the water so shallow and the mud so deep that they were obliged to push their boats along from behind while sinking themselves in the swamp.  Some days would only see a few miles of hard won progress; cutting a path through the seemingly endless sawgrass.  They faced inclement weather in small boats, and swarms of mosquitoes.  The group also feared potentially hostile encounters with the Native Americans who still inhabited the area, though their concerns proved baseless.

A 1913 Everglades survey party. Though smaller in number, their equipment is similar to what the Times Democrat expedition would have been outfitted with. You can see a somewhat larger boat in the background, fitted with a mast for a small sail.

A 1913 Everglades survey party. Though smaller in number, their equipment is similar to what the Times-Democrat expedition would have been outfitted with. You can see a somewhat larger boat in the background, fitted with a mast for a small sail.

While their trip through the Everglades was difficult, the Times-Democrat party did reach the Shark River.  When they reached the end of the “river of grass,” they determined that, based on their experiences, any drainage project in the Everglades was destined to end in failure.  They also judged that a telegraph line was not feasible, for even if the line could be laid, accessing it for maintenance would mean regular repeats of their own arduous journey.  Major Williams and his men thought that the Everglades “must remain a swamp forever.”

On this count, the Times-Democrat men were only partially right.  Mr. Disston’s plan to “redeem” the Everglades never came to complete fruition.  Though some parts were drained in the twentieth century, much of the area is still swampland save for the natural islands, or hammocks, which occasionally rise up from the sawgrass.  Though the dry and fertile farmlands never materialized, accessibility has greatly improved.  A network of flood control canals and nature trails cross parts of the Everglades, as well as the famous “Alligator Alley” highway.  Travelers through the Everglades certainly have a much easier time of it than dragging their boats through the muck.   If you ever find yourself in the Everglades, take a moment to remember Major Archie Williams, his crew of intrepid Floridians, and their journey into the unknown.

Exploring the Everglades in style on airboats.

Exploring the Everglades in style on airboats.

Not on MY Biscuit!

Do you use butter in your home, or do you prefer margarine? The stakes involved in this question may seem rather low, but that’s not how dairy farmers saw things when margarine came on the scene in the 1870s. They were accustomed, after all, to selling most of the nation’s butter that wasn’t being produced at home. In Florida and elsewhere, the question of whether and how to regulate margarine ultimately fell to lawmakers to decide, resulting in a real 19th century “bitter butter battle.”

Edvis Newton stands with a Kraft margarine display at a Jitney Jungle store in Tallahassee (1947). Who knew such a popular product had such a contentious history?

Edvis Newton stands with a Parkay margarine display at a Jitney Jungle store in Tallahassee (1947). Who knew such a popular product had such a contentious history?

A French chemist named Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès invented margarine in the 1860s in response to a contest sponsored by Emperor Napoleon III to develop a suitable substitute for butter. The emperor hoped the winning substance could be used by the lower classes and the French military. Mège-Mouriès called his solution “oleomargarine.” The “oleo” part came from the Latin oleum (oil), since one of the major components of the product was beef tallow. The “margarine” part of the name came from the margaric acid used in creating the compound. The term “margaric” is adapted from the Greek word márgaron, meaning “pearl” or “pearl-oyster,” since the fatty acid naturally forms small white pearl-shaped droplets.

Mège-Mouriès patented his new product and marketed it under the trade name “margarine.” The idea caught on well enough to cross the Atlantic Ocean, and by 1871 inventors were already seeking patents for margarine production processes in the United States. Meatpackers were some of margarine’s most enthusiastic proponents, since the new product gave them something profitable to do with the animal fats leftover from processing meat. Dairy farmers, on the other hand, saw margarine as a threat to their hold on the butter market. They were joined in their opposition by others who were concerned that improperly concocted margarine could be dangerous to human health.

The question of what to do about butter and its imitators began landing in state legislatures across the nation, and in 1881 it was Florida’s turn to debate the matter. The following law passed the Senate and Assembly and was approved by signature of Governor William D. Bloxham on February 17, 1881:

AN ACT to prevent the selling as Butter of Oleomargarine or any Spurious Preparations purporting to be Butter.

The People of the State of Florida, represented in Senate and Assembly, do enact as follows: SECTION 1. That any person or persons who shall knowingly and willingly sell or cause to be sold as butter any spurious preparation purporting to be butter, whether known as oleomargarine or by any other name, shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor, and upon conviction shall be fined in a sum not to exceed one hundred dollars, or be imprisoned in the county jail for a period of time not to exceed thirty days, or by both fine and imprisonment, at the discretion of the Court.

SEC 2. Any keeper of any hotel or boarding house who shall knowingly and wilfully, without giving notice to guests at the table, supply oleomargarine or other spurious preparation purporting to be butter, for the use of guests, shall be subject to the same penalty.

That’s a stiff punishment for passing fake butter!

No margarine here! Young Margie Davis is seen here churning butter the old-fashioned way (date unknown).

No margarine here! Young Margie Davis is seen here churning butter the old-fashioned way (date unknown).

Taken in context, Florida’s treatment of margarine was not so unusual. Congress adopted a law in 1886 regulating the definition of butter and imposing a tax on oleomargarine at two cents per pound. State governments developed a whole range of solutions to the butter battle, including restricting producers from coloring margarine to resemble butter. Without coloring, margarine typically has a whitish tint, resembling lard more than butter. Delaware, Illinois, and Michigan all passed laws establishing this sort of color restriction. New Hampshire opted for the opposite tactic. Its legislature required margarine producers to color their products pink, so consumers would realize they weren’t eating real butter.

Despite all the fuss, consumers gradually warmed up to the idea of using margarine, especially in situations when meat, milk, and butter were in short supply. City dwellers who lacked easy, inexpensive access to farm-fresh butter tended to favor the margarine substitute, and it served as a vital commodity during both world wars. By the 1950s, most of the earlier restrictions on margarine had been dropped.

Margarine has also served at times as creative inspiration. Census and Social Security Death Index records indicate that Florida has been home to many people with some variant of the term “oleomargarine” in their names over the years. The words “Oleo” and “Margarine” were quite common by themselves as names in the early decades of the 20th century, while our research has turned up one case in Duval County of someone with “Oleo Margarine” as their full given name.

These days, butter and margarine get along living side by side in refrigerators all across Florida. Even this recipe card for Florida Orange Meringue Pie offers the cook a choice of which to use (circa 1950s).

These days, butter and margarine get along living side by side in refrigerators all across Florida. Even this recipe card for Florida Orange Meringue Pie offers the cook a choice of which to use (circa 1950s).

If this hasn’t convinced you of food’s vital role in history, check out our new primary source set for teachers titled The History of Foodways in Florida. Its purpose is to empower teachers to use food traditions as a lens for studying history with their students, but anyone is welcome to enjoy the historic documents and media it provides.

Strawberry Schools

Remember those late spring days back in grade school when all you could think about was the approach of summer vacation? Depending on your age and your preferences, you might have spent the time off swimming, taking family trips, or earning a little spending money at a summer job – anything but sitting still in a classroom.

There was a time, however, when some Florida students took their vacation much earlier in the year, from January through March. A number of counties in Central and South Florida mandated this to accommodate the harvest schedules for winter fruits and vegetables, which provided a living for small family farms. Strawberries were the main Florida crop requiring this arrangement. As a result, schools that operated on the modified April to December calendar were called “strawberry schools.”

Students attending a

Students attending a “strawberry school” in Plant City, Florida (1946).

Strawberries have been cultivated in Florida since the late 1800s. They have been grown in nearly every county in the state at one time or another, but large-scale sustained strawberry farming has mainly been centered in Hillsborough, Polk, Hardee, Bradford, Union, and Orange counties. These days, commercial strawberry farming is largely confined to large-scale operations with hundreds of acres under cultivation. Up until about the 1950s, however, family farms dominated the industry. In some places, strawberry farming came to define whole communities. Plant City, for example, has long been known as the “Winter Strawberry Capital of the World,” and strawberries have been a key theme in the town’s self-promotion.

Hillsborough County folder, Ephemera Collection, State Library of Florida.

Hillsborough County folder, Ephemera Collection, State Library of Florida.

Florida strawberries generally become ready to harvest between late December and March, right in the middle of the traditional spring session of the public schools. Farm families depending on the strawberry harvest for their livelihood often enlisted their children’s help tending and picking the berries. Gathering the fruit was only one part of the process; one woman remembered children being responsible for watering the rows of tender plants by hand and covering them with Spanish moss when the weather turned cold.

Children and adults picking strawberries in Plant City (1946).

Children and adults picking strawberries in Plant City (1946).

Strawberry farmers valued the labor their children provided at harvest time, but they also recognized the importance of their education. Some communities decided to have the best of both worlds by rearranging the school year. This was no new invention; the very idea of summer vacation was originally devised to allow farm children to help their families during the busy summer months. Plus, plenty of other states had similar systems to allow schoolchildren to help out at harvest time. There have at various times been “potato schools” in Connecticut, “apple schools” in New York, “tomato schools” in Ohio, and so on. What Central Florida needed was a “strawberry school” that would allow the students’ off-time to coincide with the strawberry harvest January through March.

Excerpt from the minutes of the Florida Board of Education, July 30, 1942 - volume 6, page 286, Series 252, State Archives of Florida.

Excerpt from the minutes of the Florida Board of Education, July 30, 1942 – volume 6, page 286, Series 252, State Archives of Florida.

And that is exactly what happened in many cases. In earlier years, counties would adjust the school year as needed for their particular harvest season. Once state education authorities began regulating the length and structure of the school calendar, local districts had to request permission to operate on a special schedule. Frequently, only some of the schools in a district would operate on the “summer” or “strawberry” system, while the rest of the county would use the more familiar “winter” system. In at least one case in Polk County, a school remained opened year-round and parents had the opportunity to choose which months their children would attend classes. A similar system was attempted for a few years in the early 1940s in Wimauma in Hillsborough County.

Postcard showing children lining up to turn in the strawberries they have picked (circa 1930s).

Postcard showing children lining up to turn in the strawberries they have picked (circa 1930s).

If you’re “warm-natured,” taking your vacation in the winter-time might not sound like such a bad idea, especially if you had to spend some portion of it walking up and down the rows of a field picking fruit at ankle level. The system had its problems, as veteran strawberry scholars have explained when asked about their experiences. Former Hillsborough County teacher Myrtis Hawthorne once told Tampa Tribune writer Leland Hawes that she remembered the gnats being so bad in her classroom that she often put a small dab of kerosene on her students’ faces to keep them away. The heat left her little choice but to keep the windows open, and so the gnats simply became part of the experience.

The strawberry school system was a boon for farmers, but several factors combined to bring it to an end in the years following World War II. Migrant workers had become a crucial part of the agricultural labor force during the wartime emergency, and in the postwar years they preferred to be able to move northward in the summer months as crops became ready for harvest. Also, improved roads and increased automobile ownership helped popularize the concept of the family vacation, which many families preferred to take in the summer.

The educational quality of strawberry schools also came into question during this period. In 1946, Tampa Tribune reporter J.A. “Jock” Murray began writing a series of articles criticizing the system as exploitative and academically deficient. Murray’s efforts helped pave the way for Florida’s landmark Minimum Foundation education law of 1947, but the school term remained a local option issue. The tide was turning, however, and in 1956 the Hillsborough County School Board abolished the strawberry school calendar for all of its schools. The remaining strawberry schools in surrounding counties followed suit soon afterward.

Two children eating strawberries at the annual Plant City Strawberry Festival (1978).

Two children eating strawberries at the annual Plant City Strawberry Festival (1978).

Strawberry farming is still a major winter industry in Central Florida, but these days children spend much more time eating the berries than picking them. Plant City still holds an annual Strawberry Festival that brings in thousands of visitors. This year’s event is coming up soon, by the way – the festival runs March 3-13, 2016. Now that you have a bit of local strawberry history under your belt, you’re all set to give it a try.

If you were a student again, would you choose a three-month winter vacation or a three-month summer vacation? Leave us a comment below or on Facebook with your thoughts!

Farming at Fellsmere

The town of Fellsmere is located just west of Sebastian off Interstate 95 in Indian River County. It was one of many small communities wrestled from the swampy plains of South Florida in the early 20th century to serve the growing number of farmers making their living in the region.
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Florida History in a Cup

Folks, it’s HOT outside. Unless you’re lucky enough to be somewhere with lots of shade or a breeze, five minutes outdoors will put you sorely in need of a fan and a cool beverage. Iced tea is a favorite choice, of course – there’s no telling how many millions of gallons of it Floridans and visitors run through every year. Just the thought of all that refreshment brings to mind some important questions. How long has tea been consumed in Florida? And when did we make the (brilliant) decision to start drinking it ice-cold instead of warm? We turned to the resources of the State Library & Archives of Florida to get some answers, and here’s what we found:

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The Yamato Colony

The southern half of Florida’s Atlantic coast is one of the most densely populated portions of the state. It’s hard to imagine a time when this was not the case, but at the turn of the 20th century, the population in this area was comparatively tiny. In 1905, Fort Lauderdale had a population of only 219 persons. Miami had fewer than 5,000 residents, even counting the suburbs. West Palm Beach was home to about 1,300.

Investors were eager to get more settlers moving into the area to farm and generate economic activity. With help from Florida’s Bureau of Immigration, they cast a wide net, seeking new residents from around the country and abroad. Jo Sakai, a Japanese man who graduated from New York University in 1903, was one of those who answered the call. In 1904, Sakai and others would establish a colony near present-day Boca Raton called Yamato.

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Family History on the Farm

Sometimes the best genealogical information comes from truly unexpected sources. The State Archives of Florida holds records from a wide variety of state agencies, many of which have had direct contact with the state’s citizens over the years. As a result, many of the records document the specific locations of specific individuals at specific times, which can be a big help for folks tracing their family trees. Read more »

J.C. Penney Had a Farm

If you ever find yourself in Northeast Florida looking for a pleasant route for driving, we recommend State Road 16 between Green Cove Springs and Starke. There’s not much traffic, the scenery is nice, and you’ll pass through a remarkable relic of Florida history called Penney Farms. At first glance, the town bears the usual hallmarks of a North Florida village – large shade trees, wood-frame houses, and a historical marker here and there. Read one of those markers, however, and you’ll learn that Penney Farms was a planned community, developed from scratch in the 1920s by the department store tycoon J.C. Penney himself.
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Raising Cane

Sugar is almost as ubiquitous in Florida history as it is in the American diet. For centuries, settlers have taken advantage of Florida’s favorable climate to grow sugar cane for home use or commercial profit.

Sugar cane has been cultivated in Asia since ancient times, but its use in the West was limited until about the 18th century. Honey was the sweetener of choice in Europe before that time. When Europeans began colonizing the Americas during the Age of Discovery, sugar cane was one of the plants they brought to cultivate.
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To Fence or Not to Fence

If you get very far off the interstate in Florida, you’re likely to drive past a cow pasture or two. Say what you will about the American West, but Florida has been in the cattle industry for centuries. Many aspects of the business have changed over time, of course. Perhaps the most profound change has been the fence that separates you and your car from those cows as you drive past.

Fenced cattle in Central Florida (circa 1960s).

Fenced cattle in Central Florida (circa 1960s).

A hundred years ago, the idea of fencing the open range was widely considered dangerous to the cattle industry, and any farther back than that it was simply unthinkable. By the 1950s, however, legislators had passed a law requiring cattle owners to confine their animals. This transformation of public opinion on cattle fencing was rooted in the transformation of Florida itself.
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