Goober Peas

Peanuts are a tasty Florida treat, whether you prefer them boiled, roasted, or as creamy peanut butter. These tiny legumes have been with us for a long time, and a look into their history reveals lots of surprises.

Boiled Florida peanuts (1988).

Boiled Florida peanuts (1988).

Surprise #1: Peanuts aren’t nuts, at least not technically. Although the familiar peanut species (Arachis hypogaea) has a shell just like other “nuts,” it actually belongs to the same family of plants as garden peas and beans. That’s why you’ll often see peanuts referred to as “goober peas.” The “goober” part originates from an African word for the plant, nguba.

Archaeological evidence suggests the peanut originated in South America before European explorers carried it to other parts of the globe, including the British North American colonies. Virginia farmers cultivated multiple varieties of the plant as early as the 1780s.

During the Civil War, soldiers became familiar with the peanut as a tasty treat while marching across Virginia, and many veterans brought it back to their home states and experimented with crops of their own. The humble peanut even became the subject of one of the war’s most iconic songs, titled “Goober Peas.” Here’s a recording of that song from the Florida Folk Festival, as well as the lyrics to the first verse:

Sittin’ by the roadside on a summer’s day, chatting with my best mates passing time away,
Lying in the shadows underneath the trees, Goodness how delicious, eating goober peas!
Peas! Peas! Peas! Peas! Eatin’ goober peas! Goodness how delicious, eatin’ goober peas!

At first, Florida farmers only grew large crops of peanuts for animal feed and hay, with a small portion of the produce going for roasting or sweet treats like peanut butter and peanut brittle. In the early 20th century, however, two factors emerged that convinced planters of the peanut’s value for other uses.

The first was the widespread devastation to Southern cotton crops caused by the boll weevil. Cotton was valuable for both the fluffy stuff that went into making textiles and the oil that could be pressed from the seeds. When boll weevil infestations began threatening the source of cotton seeds for making oil, the U.S. Department of Agriculture began recommending peanuts as an alternative crop. Like cotton seeds, peanuts express an oil when pressed, which can be used in both lubricants and food-grade salad oils and shortening. Planters hoped peanut oil might keep the oil presses of the South going if the supply of cotton seeds should fail completely.

World War I was a factor as well, causing a jump in the demand for edible oils. As the price of peanut oil began to creep upward, the Pensacola News Journal declared that peanut oil was just as certain a source of wealth as petroleum!

Peanut hay in the process of curing in Holmes County (ca. 1890s).

Peanut hay in the process of curing in Holmes County (ca. 1890s).

The boom in peanut oil prices leveled off after World War I, but a few companies stayed in the game into the 1920s. Brown & Company of Portland, Maine, for example, bought up 64,000 acres of land in the Everglades and tried to establish a processing plant on an island in the middle of Lake Worth in Palm Beach County. The plant didn’t work out so well, but the island is still known as Peanut Island today!

Excerpt of a topographical map showing Peanut Island in the middle of Lake Worth just north of Palm beach and West Palm Beach. Map courtesy of the US Geological Survey (1946).

Excerpt of a topographical map showing Peanut Island in the middle of Lake Worth just north of Palm Beach and West Palm Beach. Map courtesy of the US Geological Survey (1946). Click or tap the map to enlarge it.

While the market price for peanuts may shift from time to time, Floridians seem to have always appreciated their value for entertainment. Newspaper reports from the early 20th century often mention party games involving the tiny legumes. In 1905, for example, young Ethel Crosby of Ocala gave a “peanut party” for her little friends, with all of the festivities involving peanuts in some way. There was a peanut hunt, much like an Easter egg hunt, as well as a “peanut walk,” which required the children to carry as many peanuts as they dared on the blade of a knife and walk as far as possible without dropping them. The Boy Scouts of Troop 3 in Pensacola held a similar contest in 1911, except in their version the boys had to scoop up the peanuts in a spoon held between their teeth and carry them to a distant bucket.

This particular race has enjoyed some serious staying power. Even in recent years, festivals celebrating and promoting agriculture have featured peanut relays of one form or another, like this one from Agriculture Day in 1986:

Representative Irlo

Representative Irlo “Bud” Bronson, Democrat from Kissimmee, passes a peanut to Representative Chance Irvine, Republican from Orange Park, as the two work together for the House of Representatives team during an Agriculture Day competition honoring the peanut industry (1986).

Isn’t it funny how the smallest and most common objects can have such complex histories? Share this post on social media and tell us about your favorite historical tidbit!

 

The Vine That Ate the South

If you’ve spent much time driving around North and Central Florida, chances are good that you’ve seen vines take over a few trees and power poles. It happens. Plenty of vines like Virginia creeper and wild grapevine love Florida’s climate and are all too happy to climb up a tree or pole to get a little closer to the sun. One vine in particular, however, has developed a reputation for being almost evil in its quest to grow and thrive, choking out anything that stands in its way. Kudzu (Pueraria thunbergiana) has in recent decades been drubbed as “the green menace” and “the vine that ate the South,” with tendrils that allegedly grow so fast they can outwalk a human. While we doubt kudzu really has nefarious intentions, it certainly is an invasive plant, and it has a history almost as complex as its bewildering carpet of vines and leaves.

Kudzu has overtaken this field near Lamont in Jefferson County (2018).

Kudzu has overtaken this field near Lamont in Jefferson County (2018).

Kudzu is native to Asia, where both Japanese and Chinese farmers have used it for centuries as food for livestock and ground cover to prevent erosion. It most likely first came to the United States in 1876, when representatives of the Japanese empire brought along a few cuttings to show off in their exhibit at the Centennial International Exposition in Philadelphia. The vines were hardy and the leaves were attractive, so visitors were delighted to take home a few plants for ornamental use. Southerners appreciated kudzu’s potential as an erosion control agent, and soon it was sprouting in valleys and gullies all over the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi.

A kudzu leaf, photographed off South Barber Road near Lamont in Jefferson County (2018).

A kudzu leaf, photographed off South Barber Road near Lamont in Jefferson County (2018).

While kudzu may have possibly entered Florida before 1900, it really burst onto the scene just after the turn of the 20th century, thanks to the diligent boosterism of a Chipley photographer and planter named Charles Earl Pleas. An Indiana native, Pleas and his wife, Lillie, had grown kudzu near their home to serve as a shade vine. When the plant began to creep out onto the lawn–as kudzu tends to do–Pleas dug it up and threw it onto a trash heap near the barn. Determined to survive, the vines took root and began to cover the trash pile and the nearby building.

Then, something unexpected happened. Pleas noticed that all kinds of farm animals, from hogs to horses, seem to enjoy eating the vine. He wrote the U.S. Department of Agriculture to find out if kudzu was known to be poisonous, and the agency responded that it was not, although they also doubted livestock would eat the plant. Seeing that kudzu’s potential as forage had not yet been realized, Pleas and his wife launched a veritable kudzu crusade, promoting the vine as a miracle solution to the South’s long-standing need for a cheap, hardy yearlong food crop for livestock.

Pleas wrote glowingly about kudzu for newspapers and pamphlets, praising its high nutritional value and the ease with which it could be cultivated. It could grow up to a foot a day in early summer, for a total of up to 60 feet of new growth in a single growing season. Soon others in Florida, including State Chemist Rufus E. Rose, were promoting kudzu as both a superior feed crop and an instant solution to erosion. And if the vine overgrew its welcome? “It is an easy matter to get rid of Kudzu if desired,” wrote Edward B. Eppes of Tallahassee in 1913. New plants only sprouted from the crowns, he pointed out, so mowing down the crowns with a plow during the heat of summer would be enough to kill the plant dead. “For this reason,” he wrote, “there is no danger of Kudzu ever becoming a pest.”

Cover of a pamphlet titled "Soil Improving Crops," distributed by the Florida Department of Agriculture in 1948. The image features a field and tree overtaken by kudzu which, in the context of soil conservation, actually had some positive aspects. The State Library's State Document Collection contains many books and pamphlets on soil conservation efforts throughout the 20th century.

Cover of a pamphlet titled “Soil Improving Crops,” distributed by the Florida Department of Agriculture in 1948. The image features a field and tree overtaken by kudzu which, in the context of soil conservation, actually had some positive aspects. The State Library’s State Documents Collection contains many books and pamphlets on soil conservation efforts throughout the 20th century.

For a while, Eppes’ evaluation was spot-on. Floridians and their neighbors throughout the South used kudzu as feed and as ground cover to hold the soil in place on hillsides and in gullies. The U.S. Soil Conservation Service began officially recommending it to farmers in 1935, and the Civilian Conservation Corps planted innumerable cuttings along public roadways and railroad embankments. As late as 1944, the federal government paid farmers to cultivate kudzu, hoping it would both preserve the soil and make money for struggling American farmers still reeling from the effects of the Great Depression.

Kudzu vines growing on an embankment along a railroad near Tallahassee (1961).

Kudzu vines growing on an embankment along a railroad near Tallahassee (1961).

By the 1960s, however, the vine’s reputation had taken a dive. The Pensacola News Journal noted that it had a new nickname– the “cuss you” vine–because it had turned out to have some unfortunate qualities. Yes, kudzu was a good cover crop, but turn your back for just a moment and it might overtake another planted field, and even the barn beyond it! If conditions were right, it could even choke out young pine trees, destroying valuable sources of lumber and pulpwood. The vine snaked its way into everything, taking over unoccupied dwellings, gardens and even utility poles, occasionally shorting out electrical lines. In 1970, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which had earlier been one of kudzu’s biggest cheerleaders, declared it a common weed and began experimenting with means for eradicating it.

Local and state officials in Florida did what they could to stem kudzu’s green tidal wave as well. Santa Rosa County passed an ordinance in 1996 imposing fines on property owners who allowed kudzu vines to creep onto their neighbors’ land. Hillsborough County opted to use herbicides to beat back the vines. Tallahassee’s Parks and Recreation Department contracted with a sheep farmer to bring hundreds of lambs down to Florida to chow down on the woody growth.

Kudzu still covers millions of acres of territory in the southeastern United States, but is now under somewhat better control. Some people have even used the vine for basket weaving, confections and kudzu cigarettes! Most Floridians, however, prefer to keep the so-called “green menace” as far away as possible.

Woman weaving a basket from kudzu vines at Tallahassee Market Days (1986).

Woman weaving a basket from kudzu vines at Tallahassee Market Days (1986).

What are some of the most unusual plants in your Florida community? Let us know by leaving us a comment, and don’t forget to share this post with your friends and relatives!

Post-War Aviation in Florida

The years following World War II saw a transformation in aviation from military use to civil, commercial and, notably, agricultural applications. Agriculture has long been the foundation of Florida’s economy, and in the post-war era, a key technological advancement began to emerge within the industry: aerial agriculture. Aerial application of pesticides and seeding became prevalent in Florida as military airfields, such as Brooks Army Airfield in Brooksville and Pompano Air Park in Ft. Lauderdale, were adopted for civil use and as war surplus biplanes, such as the Stearman, were re-purposed for agricultural use. Within this rise in civil and agricultural use, State Aviation Director William C. Lazarus saw a need for tighter controls on aviation at the state level, in the form of licensing and regulation of airports, and lobbied for legislation to achieve this aim.
 
The State Airport Licensing Act (Chapter 24046, Florida Laws 1947), a bill to provide state licensing and regulation of airports, was passed to encourage and develop aeronautics in Florida and effected uniformity of the laws and regulations relating to the establishment and development of airports in accordance with federal aeronautics laws and regulations. The proposed rules and regulations set forth by the State Improvement Commission in 1947 were circulated to owners of existing private airports for their input.

Crop dusting in Florida.

Airport Licensing Rules and Regulations set forth in accordance with State Airport Licensing Act of 1947 (Series S 284, box 1, folder 18, item 21).

Correspondence received in reaction to the rules and regulations gives insight into the pursuit of civil and agricultural aviation in Florida, given firsthand from stakeholders and enthusiasts in the industry. A.H. Lane, manager of Davis Seaplane Base, wrote the following to William Lazarus:

Letter from A. H. Lane expressing concern over aviation regulations, 1947 (Series 284, box 1, folder 18, item 7).

Florida is an air minded state. The airmen seem much interested in the facilities and uses of aircraft, especially the new members of this group. This has convinced me that it is a good state in which to operate. Seaplanes are popular here due to so many lakes and costal [sic] waters available for landings.

Just when civil aviation needs a boost and operators, working at prewar prices and post-war costs are going “under,” it seems that in order to promote aviation it is necessary for all of us to get on one side and push.

Further, Lane’s letter emphasizes the role of crop dusting pilots in Florida’s agricultural sector and expresses anxieties over the impact of regulation on their business:
Dusting pilots have done much to control pests and in so doing have helped the industrial areas. They have enough to contend with now, even with CAA rules waived. They are a hard working group and 2.30 – 2.31 – 2.32 are unnecessary added complications.
We must keep all landing spots open and free to the flying public if we are ever to see personal aircraft become popular.
Lane wasn’t alone in his concern over the act’s impact on agriculture. Many crop dusting companies wrote in objection to regulations on the width of airstrips (a newly imposed minimum of 300 feet.) Crop dusters argued that a strip of this width would not be feasible in rural areas and that dusting planes had to land and take off close to the fields. A letter from J. R. McDaniel of McDaniel Dusting Service described in detail the procedures of crop dusting and expressed concern over the plight of the farmer in Florida as related to regulations set forth on crop dusting:
 

Letter from J.R. McDaniel to William C. Lazarus, outlining concerns about the impact of the State Airport Licensing Act on crop dusting procedures, page 1 (Series S 284, box 1, folder 21, item 6).

 

Letter from Delta Air Lines Dusting Division to William C. Lazarus expressing concern over sections of the State Airport Licensing Act that would affect crop dusting operations (Series S 284, box 1, folder 21, item 7).

Many companies also expressed criticism of the gross weight limit of two tons put forth for use of Class I airports under the initially proposed rules and regulations. At the outcry of corporations such as United States Sugar and Showalter, as well as special interest organizations, the commission dropped the regulations that limited gross weight of airplanes on certain airports.

Letter from U.S. Sugar to William C. Lazarus expressing concern over regulations on the weight of aircrafts (Series S 284, box 1, folder 18, item 11).

Letter from H.W. Showalter, Jr. expressing concern over regulations on the gross weight of planes, 1947 (Series S 284, box 1, folder 18, item 12).

Despite public concerns over the regulations’ impact on agriculture, the State Airport Licensing Act was in many respects lenient so as to encourage aviation in the state. No approvals were required for the sites of existing airports, meaning airstrips used by farms and other private operations were grandfathered into the act.

Master list of privately owned airports and seaplane bases, 1947, page 1 (Series S 284, box 1, folder 7, item 3).

Licensing for new airstrips was decidedly inexpensive. The section of the act providing for the licensing of airports deemed that a fee not to exceed $50.00 (the equivalent of $561.00 in 2017) would be charged for the approval of airport licensing, while renewals of licenses were not to exceed $10.00.

Airport licenses issued from 1947 to 1948 (Series S 284, Box 1, Folder 8, item 14, page 2 of 5).

Correspondence relating to the submission of these fees to the Florida State Improvement Commission gives a rare glimpse into the operations of now-defunct private aeronautic small businesses, such as Stone and Wells Flying Service of Jacksonville.

Letter, Stone and Wells Flying Service to Florida State Improvement Commission, enclosing licensing fee for temporary airports at Jacksonville Beach and Fernandina Beach (Series S 284, box 1, folder 54, item 7, page 1).

Flight chart for temporary airport locations in Jacksonville Beach and Fernandina Beach (Series S 284, box 1, folder 54, item 7).

 
Though there are new laws and regulations governing aviation in Florida, the State Airport Licensing Act was one of the first laws to require the inspection, approval, registration and licensure of air strips and airports and to regulate air traffic. Cited as the first law in the history note of most sections of the current Florida Statutes on regulation of Aircraft and Airports, the Act has shaped many of today’s laws governing aviation.
 
Records from series S284 Aviation Division Administrative Records, 1947-1959, give rare insights into the post-war history of aviation in Florida, including licensing of private and commercial airstrips and airports, airport rules and regulations, and regulations regarding crop dusting. License and master airport lists included in this series contain valuable information for genealogists whose families may have been involved in aviation in Florida. Historians with an interest in aviation in Florida will find this series as well as collection M82-133 William C. Lazarus Papers, of use in their research.
 
Sources: 
 
S284 Aviation Division Administrative Records, 1947-1959, Box 1, State Archives of Florida, Tallahassee, Florida.
 
Brown, W. J. (1994). Florida’s Aviation History: The First One Hundred Years. Largo, FL: Aero-Medical Consultants.
 

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!

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