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.

Excerpt from a 2014 Florida Department of Transportation map showing Fellsmere and its surroundings.

Excerpt from a 2014 Florida Department of Transportation map showing Fellsmere and its surroundings.

Fellsmere was one of several Florida development projects devised by E. Nelson Fell, an engineer from New Zealand who arrived in the Sunshine State in the late 1880s. Fell and a number of other investors were drawn by the prospect of striking it rich with large citrus groves and winter vegetable farms located in the rich muck soils of South Florida. Private investors and state agencies worked hand in hand during this era to dredge canals and drain large tracts of land to prepare them for cultivation.

In 1910, E. Nelson Fell helped organize the Fellsmere Farm Company. The corporation bought up 118,000 acres of swamplands west of the Sebastian River at cheap prices and embarked on an ambitious drainage project. By the end of 1915, over 250 miles of canals had been dug, along with a protective levee system. Altogether, about 45,000 acres of farmland emerged from this phase of the project. The Company quickly began advertising the project nationwide to secure investors and residents for the new community.

Map of Fellsmere included in a 1912 booklet advertising the Fellsmere Farms Company operation, from the collections of the State Library of Florida.

Map of Fellsmere included in a 1912 booklet advertising the Fellsmere Farms Company operation, from the collections of the State Library of Florida.

Plan of the elaborate system of drainage canals planned by the Fellsmere Farms Company, taken from the 1912 promotional booklet - from the collections of the State Library of Florida.

Plan of the elaborate system of drainage canals planned by the Fellsmere Farms Company, taken from the 1912 promotional booklet – from the collections of the State Library of Florida.

The promotional literature for Fellsmere Farms Company described the project in glowing terms. A 1912 booklet spared no expense to include numerous photos of railroad and dredging equipment, proud landowners standing in plots full of healthy vegetables, and happy residents enjoying their new Florida homes. The booklet boldly boasted that a single acre of Fellsemere land could turn out as much as $500 worth of tangerines, $800 worth of strawberries, or $1,000 in celery per year!

"Beans and Cabbage - Making the Ground Produce to the Limit" - taken from the 1912 promotional booklet by Fellsmere Farms Company - from the collections of the State Library of Florida.

“Beans and Cabbage – Making the Ground Produce to the Limit” – taken from the 1912 promotional booklet by Fellsmere Farms Company – from the collections of the State Library of Florida.

As people began moving into the Fellsmere area, the Company established the services needed to support them. A school was founded in 1911 with help from the local county Board of Instruction. The Company laid out a townsite of one square mile on the eastern edge of the property, incorporating it as Fellsmere in May 1915. By 1920, the town had its own newspaper, the Fellsmere Farmer, a hotel, a post office, a bank, a railroad connecting the town with the Florida East Coast Railway, and three parks.

Street scene in downtown Fellsmere (circa 1920).

Street scene in downtown Fellsmere (circa 1920).

Several historic structures from Fellsmere’s earliest days still survive, including the original building of the Fellsmere State Bank at 56 Broadway. It was designed by Jacksonville architect C.F. Streeter and constructed in 1913. It later served as Fellsmere’s City Hall. The Fellsmere Inn, built by the original development company in 1910, still stands at 107 N. Broadway. It also went by the names “Broadway Inn” and “The White House” at various times over the years.

State Bank of Fellsmere (circa 1917).

State Bank of Fellsmere (circa 1917).

 

Hotel at Fellsmere (1912).

Hotel at Fellsmere (1912).

Fellsmere never sold enough land or crops to completely fulfill the rosy predictions put forward by its promoters. The Fellsmere Farms Company was sold and reorganized several times in the ensuing decades, and the population had only grown to a mere 400 persons by 1924. In the 1930s, much of the land was devoted to sugar cane production. Fellsmere Sugar Company, founded in 1931, was the first factory in Florida to refine sugar from locally grown cane plants. Its products were marketed under the name “Florida Crystals.”

Sugar mill at Fellsmere, home to

Sugar mill at Fellsmere, home to “Florida Crystals” (circa 1937).

Fellsmere is one of many small Florida communities whose earliest promotional materials may be found in the collections of the State Library & Archives. Visit info.florida.gov and search the Library and Archives catalogs to find more of these rare documents!

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:

Plate 29 from Discovering the New World, Based on the Works of Theodore de Bry, edited by Michael Alexander (New York: Harper & Row, 1976). This image was based on sketches by Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues, a member of the short-lived French colony at Fort Caroline (image originally published in 1591).

Plate 29 from Discovering the New World, Based on the Works of Theodore de Bry, edited by Michael Alexander (New York: Harper & Row, 1976). This image was based on sketches by Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues, a member of the short-lived French colony at Fort Caroline (image originally published in 1591).

First off, Europeans didn’t bring the concept of brewing tea to Florida. Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues, a member of the short-lived French colony at Fort Caroline, created a series of sketches depicting the activities and rituals of the Native Americans he encountered during the 16th century. At least one of these sketches depicts the “black drink” ceremony practiced by a number of Native Americans in the Southeast. This ritual involved brewing and consuming a drink made from the leaves of the yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria). The participants often vomited the tea afterward – hence the name Ilex vomitoria for the plant itself – but the natives believed this to be a way of purifying the mind and body.

The yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria), whose leaves were used by native Floridians to make a tea consumed as part of the

The yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria), whose leaves were used by native Floridians to make a tea consumed as part of the “black drink” ceremony (photo 1964).

Europeans weren’t too keen on the black drink ceremony, but there were other herbal concoctions they liked and copied. A Spanish physician named Nicolás Monardes, for instance, wrote extensively of the Sassafras plant, whose roots were frequently made into a tea. Sassafras tea was believed to cure a wide variety of ailments from fevers to constipation to lameness. As Europeans were gradually introduced to green and black teas from Asia, these products began showing up in shipments of goods traded at Pensacola and St. Augustine.

When Florida became a United States possession in 1821, coffee seems to have been much more popular than tea among the earliest American settlers. The State Archives of Florida holds several ledgers from Floridian general stores dating back to the 1820s, which are very useful for understanding what our forbears were buying and selling at various times. Coffee far outranked tea in popularity in the 1820s, probably because of expense, but there’s still plenty of evidence for tea consumption. Local Tallahasseans were buying teacups, saucers, teapots, and tea itself, as this page from the ledger of merchant Miles Blake shows (click/tap the image to enlarge it):

Page from the sales ledger of Miles Blake's general store in Tallahassee. This particular page details sales made in February 1828, including some tea sold to Sherod McCall. The entry is indicated by a red arrow (Page 18 of Volume 1 of Collection M96-28, State Archives of Florida).

Page from the sales ledger of Miles Blake’s general store in Tallahassee. This particular page details sales made in February 1828, including some tea sold to Sherod McCall. The entry is indicated by a red arrow (Page 18 of Volume 1 of Collection M96-28, State Archives of Florida).

The medicinal value of tea was appreciated right on through the 19th century. In the 1840s, Gadsden County physician John M.W. Davidson recorded a recipe for “beef tea” in his journal. This concoction, more of a broth than a tea, appears to have been intended for patients who had trouble eating solid foods for one reason or another. Click on the page image for a transcription of the recipe.

Page from the journal of Dr. John M.W. Davidson, with a recipe for beef tea (circa 1840s).

Page from the journal of Dr. John M.W. Davidson, with a recipe for beef tea (circa 1840s).

By the middle of the 19th century, tea consumption was becoming more popular throughout the United States. Some businessmen wondered if perhaps Asian tea plants would grow in Florida. In 1867, the Florida Tea Company published a prospectus proposing to grow tea plants on a plantation in Madison County in North Florida. The organizers claimed the enterprise would yield as much as a quarter million pounds of tea per year. It does not appear that this grand experiment was ever tried, no doubt in part because of the dire economic conditions experienced across Florida following the Civil War. Newspapers did, however, continue to report on small-scale experimental tea plots in various parts of the state.

Inside cover of the Florida Tea Company's prospectus - from the Florida Collection of the State Library (1867).

Inside cover of the Florida Tea Company’s prospectus – from the Florida Collection of the State Library (1867).

By the twentieth century, tea was much more affordable, and could be enjoyed both as a refreshing drink and as an excuse to be social. Many of Florida’s famous hotels featured elegant tea gardens, and tea parties were a favorite venue for meeting friends, neighbors, or colleagues. Even the younger set made a habit of sitting down to tea now and then.

Japanese tea garden at the Flamingo Hotel on Miami Beach (1923).

Japanese tea garden at the Flamingo Hotel on Miami Beach (1923).

Blanche and Mary Pat Weedon having a tea party in Bartow (1931).

Blanche and Mary Pat Weedon having a tea party in Bartow (1931).

As for when iced tea came into vogue, that’s a tricky question. Recipes for iced tea began showing up in print around the 1870s, but the drink didn’t really take off until it was introduced at the World’s Fair in St. Louis in 1904. Hotels offered it on their menus to refresh thirsty guests who had just come in from a day’s activities. Railroad stations often sold the drink as well. It’s not hard to imagine why it caught on especially well in the South. Iced tea offered the flavor and fulfillment of a traditional beverage with the added pleasure of refreshing coolness.

So – next time you pour yourself a glass of iced tea or make a cup of hot tea (perhaps when the weather cools down a bit), remember that you’re partaking in a long-standing tradition in Florida’s history, one that has taken many forms over the years. Bottoms up!

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.

Excerpt from a 1915 map of Florida published by the Southern Railway Company, showing the location of Yamato (indicated by a red arrow). Map courtesy of the State Library's Florida Map Collection.

Excerpt from a 1915 map of Florida published by the Southern Railway Company, showing the location of Yamato (indicated by a red arrow). Map courtesy of the State Library’s Florida Map Collection.

Jo Sakai had come to the United States after graduating from Doshisha University in Kyoto, Japan. After studying finance at NYU, he was attracted to Florida by advertisements from Florida’s Bureau of Immigration and the Model Land Company promising plentiful land and profitable farming opportunities. The Model Land Company was a corporation set up by developer and railroad tycoon Henry Flagler to manage the massive grants of land given by the State of Florida as an incentive for building the Florida East Coast Railway.

Sakai inspected the land available for sale and purchased one thousand acres from the Model Land Company near modern-day Boca Raton. The idea was that he would establish a colony of workers, develop a successful farming operation, and pay for the land over time. As an incentive, the Model Land Company agreed to front the money for the colony’s equipment and housing.

Jo and Sada Sakai (circa 1910).

Jo and Sada Sakai (circa 1910).

Jo Sakai left for Japan in March 1904 to seek willing individuals for the new proposed farming colony. By autumn he had several takers, but they had to carefully disguise their intentions to avoid disruption by the Japanese Foreign Ministry. To reduce suspicion, Sakai’s colonists told the government they needed their exit permits and passports so they could study in the United States. Once in the U.S., the colonists traveled to Florida on Henry Flagler’s dime, another sign of how eager developers were to get South Florida’s economy going. By the end of 1904, a dozen colonists were ready to work.

The Japanese newcomers called their new home “Yamato,” an ancient name for Japan itself. Getting the farming underway was slow at first. The soil was fertile, but it had never been cleared before. Months of manual labor went into preparing only a few acres for cultivation. The inhospitable climate and mosquitoes didn’t help matters.

One of Yamato's earliest pineapple fields (1906).

One of Yamato’s earliest pineapple fields (1906).

Over time, however, the Yamato colony began to grow. In 1907, the Florida East Coast Railway established a train station at Yamato, near where Yamato Rd. (State Road 794) now crosses the railroad tracks in Boca Raton. The local post office, which had previously been called “Wyman,” was renamed “Yamato.” Settlers began sending word to Japan for their wives and families to join them in Florida. Jo Sakai’s wife Sada arrived in 1906, making her the colony’s first woman, and in 1909 their daughter became the first child born in the new settlement.

Settlers gathered at the Yamato train depot on the Florida East Coast Railway, established in 1907 (photo circa 1911).

Settlers gathered at the Yamato train depot on the Florida East Coast Railway, established in 1907 (photo circa 1911).

Pineapples were the first major crop grown in Yamato, but a blight in 1908 all but ended that strategy. The colonists began growing winter vegetables like beans, onions, and especially tomatoes. Although the colony remained active for several decades, it was never very large. A number of residents branched off into other fields of work over time, and by the 1930s there were only about 20-25 Japanese farmers living in Yamato.

The last group of children to attend school at the Yamato schoolhouse. After the school closed in 1922, children from Yamato attended classes in Boca Raton (photo circa 1922).

The last group of children to attend school at the Yamato schoolhouse. After the school closed in 1922, children from Yamato attended classes in Boca Raton (photo circa 1922).

Anti-immigrant sentiments did not directly disturb the colonists’ work, although a number of the settlers were unable to legally become U.S. citizens until the 1950s. World War II presented the colony’s toughest challenge, one it would not survive. Shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, a federal judge ordered that Japanese-owned lands at Yamato be turned over to the United States government. Some of the land went toward building an airfield for Boca Raton, and a large portion ultimately became the site of Florida Atlantic University.

Boca Raton has all but absorbed what remained of Yamato after the war, but some former residents took steps to keep the colony’s memory alive. George Morikami, who by the 1960s had bought up a considerable amount of land, granted a parcel to Palm Beach County in 1973 for a park. On June 25, 1977, the Morikami Museum of Japanese Culture opened along with the park. The museum seeks to inculcate an appreciation for Japanese culture through exhibits, authentic Japanese ceremonies and demonstrations, and other educational experiences.

A Japanese tea ceremony at the Morikami Museum in Delray Beach (circa 1980).

A Japanese tea ceremony at the Morikami Museum in Delray Beach (circa 1980).

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.

Aerial view of Penney Farms in Clay County (1940).

Aerial view of Penney Farms in Clay County (1940).

James Cash Penney came to prominence as a pioneer in the chain store movement in the early years of the 20th century. He opened the first J.C. Penney Store in Kemmerer, Wyoming, and by 1912 had over 30 stores, mainly operating in the West. By 1924, Penney was making over a million dollars annually, which enabled him to pursue a number of philanthropic causes.

In 1922, J.C. Penney purchased 120,000 acres of farmland in Clay County near Green Cove Springs, just east of the St. Johns River. He intended to develop a model farming community, structured similarly to the J.C. Penney department store chain. Just as the chain’s directors held stock in the company, farmers would earn interest in Penney Farms by raising crops and purchasing additional interest in the land with the proceeds of their labor.

Cattle scales used at Penney Farms (1931).

Cattle scales used at Penney Farms (1931).

So who did the farming at Penney Farms? Not just anyone. Persons interested in claiming a tract of land at the new community had to fill out an application. Many of the questions pertained to the applicant’s moral character and religious affiliations. A promotional brochure provided a list of characteristics wanted by the company. Penney Farms wanted young to middle-aged men, preferably married, “willing to take advice from others,” and affiliated with some church. The use of “intoxicants or cigarettes” was strictly prohibited. The application asked the prospective farmer to send in a photo of himself or his family if possible, as well as the names and addresses of three persons who could testify to his character.

Application to occupy a farm at Penney Farms - from a promotion brochure  dated 1927.

Application to occupy a farm at Penney Farms – from a promotion brochure dated 1927. Click to enlarge.

By 1927, Penney Farms boasted 20,000 cleared acres, 300 buildings, a general store, a post office, a garage and machine shop, a canning factory, a boarding house, a dairy farm, and 3,000 range cattle. Demonstration plots provided pecans, Satsuma oranges, persimmons, pears, grapes, peppermint, and vegetables. The J.C. Penney-Gwinn Institute of Applied Agriculture had its headquarters on the property, where it provided practical and theoretical training in agriculture and homemaking for the families living at Penney Farms.

View of a main street in Penney Farms' residential section (circa 1920s).

View of a main street in Penney Farms’ residential section (circa 1920s).

But there was more to Penney Farms than just farming. J.C. Penney chose to also make this the site for another of his philanthropic endeavors, the J.C. Penney Foundation Memorial Community. This retirement community was built especially for retired ministers and other Christian workers and their wives. The community included 22 furnished apartment buildings, along with the Penney Memorial Chapel. The community was dedicated to the memory of J.C. Penney’s parents.

View of the JC Penney Foundation's memorial community for retired ministers, Christian workers, and their wives (1958).

View of the J.C. Penney Foundation’s memorial community for retired ministers, Christian workers, and their wives (1958).

 

Penney Memorial Chapel at Penney Farms (1936).

Penney Memorial Chapel at Penney Farms (1936).

The arrival of the Great Depression slowed the development of Penney Farms considerably. Penney himself lost almost all of his personal wealth, and was forced to borrow against his life insurance policies to help his company make payroll. He sold off most of the property comprising Penney Farms, leaving only about 200 acres. He deeded this land to his foundation’s Memorial Community, which he gave to the Christian Herald Foundation to run. In 1971, it became the self-sustaining Penney Retirement Community, Inc., and in 1999 it was added to the National Register of Historic Places. Many of the farmers who had relocated to the area to participate in Penney’s planned community either bought land or continued working in some capacity in the area. The town of Penney Farms is still incorporated, and as of the 2010 Census it had a population of 749.

Aerial view of the Penney Memorial Chapel and surrounding buildings (circa 1947).

Aerial view of the Penney Memorial Chapel and surrounding buildings (circa 1947).

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.

Sugar cane workers collecting sugar cane in a field located near Clewiston (circa 1980s).

Sugar cane workers collecting sugar cane in a field located near Clewiston (circa 1980s).

Florida’s first major sugar cane operations arrived while the British had possession of the territory in the 1700s. Florida’s new owners were optimistic about the possibilities for building great profitable plantations along the St. Johns River, and colonial authorities handed out large grants of land to British subjects willing to try their hand at planting.

Denys Rolle and Dr. Andrew Turnbull were among the British planters who attempted to grow sugar cane on their Florida estates. Remains of Turnbull’s operation at New Smyrna are still visible today.

Remains of a warehouse at Andrew Turnbull's plantation at New Smyrna Beach (1953).

Remains of a warehouse at Andrew Turnbull’s plantation at New Smyrna Beach (1953).

The United States took possession of Florida in 1821. As planters from Virginia and the Carolinas began moving into North Florida, they were anxious to cultivate new and profitable crops that would solidify their fortunes and those of the new territory. Settlers such as future Florida Governor Thomas Brown, William Wirt, William Nuttall, John and Robert Gamble, and William Bailey invested large sums of money in the equipment necessary to grow cane plants and extract the sugar.

Cane-grinding machine powered by a mule. The mule walked around in a circle, activating a pair of rollers. The cane stalks would be fed into the rollers, where it would be crushed and purged out the other side. The juice contained in the stalks was collected and diverted into a vat or barrel (photo circa 1890s).

Cane-grinding machine powered by a mule. The mule walked around in a circle, activating a pair of rollers. The cane stalks would be fed into the rollers, where it would be crushed and purged out the other side. The juice contained in the stalks was collected and diverted into a vat or barrel (photo circa 1890s).

Their enthusiasm notwithstanding, these early cane growers faced a major problem. The longer sugar cane stays in the ground, the better the sugar it produces. The plant is, however, highly susceptible to freezing. When sugar cane freezes, its ability to produce crystallized sugar is diminished. North Florida cane growers consequently faced something of a guessing game when deciding the right time to harvest their sugar crops. Over time, the risks associated with growing cane became too great for most planters to invest much money in the venture. Many plantations continued to produce smaller amounts of sugar cane for home and local use, but large-scale cultivation of sugar cane was for the most part abandoned by 1840.

Watercolor by James Calvert Smith of cane grinding process (date unknown).

Watercolor by James Calvert Smith of cane grinding process (date unknown).

Although sugar cane failed as a major cash crop in the 19th century, its presence in Florida pioneer culture at that time was constant and critical. Even if a freeze were to stunt the growth of a cane crop, the plants could still be processed to extract the cane juice, which could then be made into molasses, rum, or cane syrup. These products became staples in the average Florida household.

The act of cutting the cane and extracting the juice was in itself a vital part of local culture, especially in sparsely populated areas. These tasks required a great deal of labor, best accomplished by a community effort. Consequently, many families would hold “cane grindings,” which combined the work of cane processing with the excitement of a communal celebration. The cane would be stripped and fed into a simple machine that crushed it, squeezing out the juice, which was channeled into a waiting vat or barrel. The juice would then be boiled into the various sugar products. There was usually a large meal involved, and sometimes singing and dancing. In a time when homesteads were typically miles apart, this was one of the best ways to get families (expecially the young people) together for a good time. There’s no way to know how many Florida marriages began with a simple “How do you do” at an old-fashioned cane grinding.

Group gathered for a cane grinding at the home of William J. Owens of Columbia County (circa 1890s).

Group gathered for a cane grinding at the home of William J. Owens of Columbia County (circa 1890s).

Sugar cane began to come back into the picture as a commercial enterprise around the turn of the twentieth century. As settlers ventured farther south along the Florida peninsula, they finally encountered areas that either rarely or never suffered from frost. These conditions would best serve large-scale sugar cane production. Developers prepared the terrain for cultivation by diverting rivers and draining large tracts of land, including parts of the Everglades. By the 1920s, the sugar industry was up and running in earnest. The industry received a boost in the 1960s when the federal government banned the importation of Cuban sugar, which had previously been a significant source of the product for the U.S. Today, sugar cane is a multi-billion dollar industry in Florida, producing about 2 million tons of raw sugar annually.

Sugar cane processing plant near Clewiston (circa 1980s).

Sugar cane processing plant near Clewiston (circa 1980s).

Have you ever been to a cane grinding? Do you remember sugar cane growing somewhere near where you grew up? Tell us about it on Facebook or in the comments section below. Also, search the Florida Photographic Collection to find more photos of sugar cane production.

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.

Cattle drive at Bartow (circa 1890s).

Cattle drive at Bartow (circa 1890s).

Until the early 20th century, most cattle owners did not fence their cows at all. They allowed the animals to wander the open range, going wherever they could find the best grass. Vast tracts of land were still held at this time either by the state or by absentee owners who made no effort to prevent cattle ranchers from using their property for range purposes. Stamping the cows with unique brands allowed the owners to distinguish their cattle from everyone else’s. When it was time to move the cattle to market or pen the new calves up for branding, the cattle workers would round up the animals, often with the aid of cattle dogs, and drive them to wherever they needed to go. This was a particularly beneficial system for smaller cattle operations, who often didn’t have much land of their own. With a smaller population and less development, the open range system allowed all cattle owners to take advantage of Florida’s expansive territory.

In the days before cattle had to be fenced, there was no telling where you might find cows in Florida. In this photo, several cows enjoy a drink near Wakulla Springs (circa 1920s).

In the days before cattle had to be fenced, there was no telling where you might find cows in Florida. In this photo, several cows enjoy a drink near Wakulla Springs (circa 1920s).

As Florida’s population expanded and railroads and automobiles became more common, modernity came increasingly into conflict with the open range method. Trains and cars often encountered cows on their respective roadways, sometimes with fatal results. Additionally, sometimes cows wandered into towns or homesteads and made nuisances of themselves. Many Floridians began calling for a “fence law” to require cattle owners to confine their cows. Some cattle owners were unopposed to this, especially those who owned more valuable “blooded” cattle. A number of other ranchers depended on the free range system to have enough land to feed and water their cows. They saw the prospect of a fence law as a serious threat.

An automobile accident involving a cow in Volusia County (circa 1920s).

An automobile accident involving a cow in Volusia County (circa 1920s).

The debate could be nasty at times. As property owners began fencing their land to manage the movements of the cows, some disgruntled fence opponents would cut the wires or shoot the cows the fence was meant to contain. The state enacted laws to punish fence cutters, but the perpetrators were often difficult to catch. One cattleman went to extreme measures and tied live rattlesnakes up near all of his fence posts to prevent his wires from being cut!

On June 7, 1949, Governor Fuller Warren approved Senate Bill 34, which finally enacted a law requiring livestock owners to keep their animals off the public roadways. Cattle owners who did not comply faced stiff fines, and potential liability for damages caused by free roaming cows.

Brahman bull standing next to a fence (circa 1950s).

Brahman bull standing next to a fence (circa 1950s).

Be sure to check out our Florida Cattle Ranching photo exhibit for more images relating to this historic Sunshine State industry!

When the Dam Breaks…

The threat of hurricanes and tropical storms is an inescapable part of living in Florida. To experience their wrath is to confront head-on the brutal power of Nature. Ask around, and many Floridians will be able to name the larger ones they’ve witnessed or heard of. Betsy, Donna, Andrew, and Charley usually make the list.

Some of Florida’s most destructive hurricanes, however, hit the state long before the National Weather Service began assigning names to tropical cyclones. One of the deadliest of these remains known to history only as the Okeechobee Hurricane of 1928.

Map showing flood damage to the Lake Okeechobee region by hurricanes in 1926 and 1928 (photo 1948).

Map showing flood damage to the Lake Okeechobee region by hurricanes in 1926 and 1928 (photo 1948).

Even with their inland location, the settlements surrounding Lake Okeechobee were vulnerable to flooding and storm surge. The lake itself was highly unstable, rising and falling by as much as a foot in a matter of hours depending on regional rainfall. Despite the danger, farmers coveted the land surrounding Okeechobee for the moist black soil it provided. To make the area viable for agriculture, canals and dirt levees were used to hold back the waters and reclaim the flood plain for planting. By the 1920s, avocados, citrus,  sugar cane, and other crops filled thousands of acres in the region.

Occasional levee breaches and flooding reminded residents that their protection from the Okeechobee waters was tenuous at best. In September 1928, the lake was already high owing to heavy recent rains. When reports began coming in over the radio that a serious storm was lashing Puerto Rico, however, many locals decided they didn’t have much to worry about. If the levees and canals had performed their duties thus far, they would be just fine. And who knew? The storm wasn’t even guaranteed to come their way.

Hillsboro Canal settlement near Chosen, Florida during a period of high rainfall (1922).

Hillsboro Canal settlement near Chosen, Florida during a period of high rainfall (1922).

But it did. About 7:00pm on the evening of September 16th, what would become known as the Okeechobee Hurricane roared ashore near West Palm Beach packing winds of up to 145 miles per hour. Moving northwest across the state, the storm pushed the swollen waters of Lake Okeechobee against its banks. The earthen dams design to hold back the lake failed, sending a wall of water through the communities of Belle Glade, Pahokee, and Chosen. High winds ripped roofs from buildings, while flood waters either lifted entire houses up and carried them away or caused them to disintegrate completely.

Wreckage of homes and cars after hurricane (photo likely 1928).

Wreckage of homes and cars after hurricane (photo likely 1928).

When morning came, the scene was one of unimaginable loss. Entire portions of towns were flattened or mangled. Property damage amounted to about 25 million dollars, but the cascading costs of the catastrophe would be felt for years to come. Worse still was the human cost. At least two thousand people perished in the flood, but the exact number was difficult to determine. Bodies were found in ditches, in trees, anyplace the swirling waters might have carried them. Farmers reported finding the skeletons of the hurricane’s victims in their fields even years later.

Accounting for everyone and burying the dead was one of the most pressing matters in the first few days after the storm passed, but it was difficult work.  The storm victims’ remains deteriorated quickly under the punishing Florida sun, making identification increasingly impossible. At first, carpenters quickly assembled simple wooden coffins to receive the dead, but the number of bodies was too great. Eventually, workers were forced to load bodies onto trucks, and they were taken to mass graves in West Palm Beach. One grave was dug for whites, another for African Americans. Eventually, even this method was insufficient, and the workers turned to cremation as the only means available to dispatch the deceased with dignity. Meanwhile, survivors came together to bid their friends, neighbors, and loved ones goodbye in a mass funeral at West Palm Beach.

Makeshift coffins stacked alongside the road between Belle Glade and Pahokee after the Okeechobee Hurricane of 1928.

Makeshift coffins stacked alongside the road between Belle Glade and Pahokee after the Okeechobee Hurricane of 1928.

Funeral service for hurricane victims at Woodlawn Cemetery in West Palm Beach (1928).

Funeral service for hurricane victims at Woodlawn Cemetery in West Palm Beach (1928).

President-elect Herbert Hoover visited the Okeechobee region shortly after the hurricane to survey the damage, and upon taking office he tasked the Army Corps of Engineers with helping to prevent the disaster of 1928 from recurring. The State, for its part, created the Okeechobee Flood Control District to cooperate with federal agencies.  A new series of dikes, floodways, and gates emerged to handle future flooding, although for years this was a work in progress. In the 1960s, the Army Corps of Engineers spearheaded the construction of the Herbert Hoover Dike, which now almost completely encloses Lake Okeechobee. Former President Hoover spoke at the dedication.

One of several floodgates installed to prevent catastrophic failures of the levees holding back Lake Okeechobee (1967).

One of several floodgates installed to prevent catastrophic failures of the levees holding back Lake Okeechobee (1967).

Former President Herbert Hoover addresses the crowd at a ceremony dedicating a new dike for Lake Okeechobee in his honor (1961).

Former President Herbert Hoover addresses the crowd at a ceremony dedicating a new dike for Lake Okeechobee named in his honor (1961).

Hurricane season begins June 1st and lasts until November 30th. For more information on how to prepare yourself, your family, and your home for a tropical storm, check out the Florida Division of Emergency Management’s website at floridadisaster.org.

For more on historic Florida hurricanes, visit our Hurricanes photo exhibit on Florida Memory.

Statue commemorating the Okeechobee Hurricane of 1928 in Belle Glade (1987).

Statue commemorating the Okeechobee Hurricane of 1928 in Belle Glade (1987).

 

A Prickly Tale: The History of Pineapples in Florida

Cube it, slice it, shred it, juice it, grill it, cook it. Pineapples are a delicious treat or compliment to any dish. Today, many people think of Hawaii as the pineapple capital of the United States, but did you know pineapples were cultivated in Florida before Hawaii was even a U.S. territory?

Florida pines

Florida pineapples

The earliest pineapple cultivation in Florida started in Key West in the 1860s. Benjamin Baker, known as “King of Wreckers” for his engagement in the business of salvaging ships, grew pineapples on Plantation Key, typically shipping them by schooner to New York, Baltimore and Philadelphia. Around the same time, a Mr. Brantley was producing pineapples on Merritt Island.

Pineapples being transported on a sailboat.

Pineapples being transported on a sailboat (Between 1890 and 1910)

By 1899, the industry had expanded rapidly, thanks in part to the southward extension of the Florida East Coast Railway. Pineapple plantations could be found across Florida, including in Lee, Volusia and Orange counties. Despite freeze issues, there were an estimated 1,325 acres of pineapple plantations in Florida, producing 95,442 crates of fruit.

Pineapple field in Winter Haven (Between 1880 and 1900)

Pineapple field in Winter Haven (Between 1880 and 1900)

 

Pineapples in transport - Volusia County, Florida (191-)

Pineapples in transport – Volusia County, Florida (191-)

Though the industry seemed to be on the rise, troubles began around 1908. Although Florida growers produced over 1.1 million crates of pineapples that year, Cuba produced 1.2 million crates and flooded the market. Cuba could also ship pineapples at a cheaper rate than Florida.  And there was more…

In 1910, portions of crops along Indian River plantations began to show signs of failing. A “red wilt” was rotting the roots of the pineapple plants, causing them to die. The disease quickly spread to entire fields. Add to that a lack of proper fertilizer due to World War I in Europe and freezes in 1917 and 1918, and the industry seemed to have disappeared.

R.A. Carlton, an agricultural agent for the Seaboard Air Line railway attempted to revive pineapple production in Florida in the 1930s, but the industry was never able to fully recover.

 

George S. Morikami and Al Avery holding prize pineapples

George S. Morikami and Al Avery holding prize pineapples (1966)

What is your favorite way to enjoy a delicious pineapple? Tell us about it by leaving a comment!

Florida’s Not-So-Native Tung

No, there’s no typo in the title of today’s blog. For several decades, northern Florida was home to thousands of acres of tung trees. Tung nuts, the fruit of these trees, contain an oil that could be used in paints, varnishes, inks, and even some medicines. The tree was imported from China, where it had been grown commercially for centuries. After a period of trial and error, Florida growers were able to cultivate the trees and produce thousands of tons of tung nuts per year.

African-American workers gathering tung nuts on a farm near Tallahassee (circa 1960s).

Workers gathering tung nuts on a farm near Tallahassee (circa 1960s).

For all the largesse it would later bring to the Sunshine State, the origins of the industry were humble. In 1905, the United States Department of Agriculture imported 200 pounds of tung nuts from China and planted them in Chico, California as an experiment. Of the seedlings that resulted, the U.S.D.A. sent several hundred to agricultural experiment stations around the country, especially in the South, where the climate was most similar to that of the Yangtze valley in China.

Five of the tung seedlings ended up in the possession of the superintendent of the old City Cemetery in Tallahassee, who in turn gave them to William H. Raynes, who managed a small estate off Miccosukee Road. Raynes planted the five seedlings in November 1906 and tended them closely, yet by the spring of 1907 all but one had died, and the one was badly damaged in a storm. Raynes cut the tree back, and in the ensuing years it began producing a considerable number of tung nuts. Eventually, this tree would produce the first complete bushel of tung nuts grown in North America.

The

The “Raynes Tree,” the one tree of five given to William H. Raynes in 1906 that lived, and produced the first bushel of tung nuts ever grown in Florida. Raynes died in 1914, but the tree continued to grow at his home on Miccosukee Road until 1940. It died from injuries sustained when it was moved about thirty feet to make room for an access road to nearby Sunland Hospital (photo circa 1930s).

In 1913, Raynes sent a bushel of shelled tung seeds to the Educational Bureau of the Paint Manufacturers’ Association of the United States, which was then able to extract over two gallons of useable oil. The potential for a new lucrative industry was clear, and more investors began taking interest. Soon the trees were appearing in Levy, Clay, Jefferson, Okaloosa, and other counties. Tung processing factories emerged in Altha, Capps, Compass Lake, Gainesville, Lloyd, and Monticello. The American Tung Oil Association, formed in 1924 by a group of paint and varnish manufacturers with familiar names like Sherwin-Williams, Valspar, and DuPont, encouraged the growth of the new industry and funneled money into it.

Tung trees growing in an orchard near Capps, headquarters of the aptly named

Tung trees growing in an orchard near Capps, headquarters of the aptly named “Tungston” tung processing plant. Jefferson County was host to a number of other tung operations, including the Jumpy Run mill at Monticello, General Tung mill at Lamont, and Leon Tung in Tallahassee (photo circa 1950s).

A worker feeds tung nuts into a machine inside a tung oil plant in Tallahassee. A single plant could purchase as much as 400 tons of tung nuts in a single day (1949).

A worker feeds tung nuts into a machine inside a tung oil plant in Tallahassee. A single factory could purchase as much as 400 tons of tung nuts in a single day (1949).

National and international events spurred the tung growers onward. The arrival of the Great Depression left many Floridians out of work and hungry for the kind of jobs a healthy tung industry could provide. Across the Pacific, China’s ability to produce and ship tung oil was curtailed by the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931, and harassment of ports like Shanghai. U.S. producers had an excellent opportunity to fill the void with tung oil made at home. Enthusiasm for the industry in Florida was high. There was even a “Tung Blossom Festival” in Gainesville in the 1930s, featuring games and a parade of decorated floats. In 1931 alone, the parade featured over 70 entries and 13 lady contestants vying for the title of “Tung Oil Queen.”

A car pulling a float in the Tung Blossom Festival in Gainesville (circa 1930s).

A car pulling a float in the Tung Blossom Festival in Gainesville (circa 1930s).

During World War II, the U.S. military’s demand for tung oil products sky-rocketed, which proved to be both a boon and a curse to the industry in Florida. While it kept the factories busy, the continual shortage of oil led experts to favor research into synthetic substitutes. In the postwar years, tung oil consumption fell off as other substances took its place. Freezes, devastating hurricanes, and an overall decline in purchases of tung oil products all but killed off the industry over the next few decades.

A field of bulldozed tung trees off U.S. Highway 27 between Capps and Tallahassee (1976).

A field of bulldozed tung trees off U.S. Highway 27 between Capps and Tallahassee (1976).

Despite its sagging fortunes over the past few decades, the tung tree may yet have a role to play in Florida’s economy. A small number of growers are experimenting with tung oil production, including in Leon County. What will be the outcome of this experiment? Well, as the saying goes, that’s the question on every… tongue, at least here at Florida Memory.

Do you recall seeing tung trees blooming in years gone by? Do you know of tung trees still living in Florida? Share with us by leaving a comment, and don’t forget to share our post using Facebook or Twitter.