A few months ago I met Donald Neal. I was at the “Laurence E. Will Museum of the Glades” in Belle Glade. I saw him first from afar, and I knew, even though I did not know who he was, that he was someone special, someone I wanted to meet. His graying hair in dreads ….donning a carelessly worn paint be-speckled dress shirt and trousers looked so stylish a New York fashion designer would have certainly found a “new look.” His eyes seemed to contain generations of local history: drainage, planting, harvesting, deathly hurricanes, flooding, backbreaking work, destruction of the environment, the good and evil of money, prejudice, love, hate, sugarcane, water, and hope.
Today I will share some of his paintings that are on display at the Museum of the Glades and I encourage you to make the drive yourself. After years in the spotlight and then in the darkness, Donald is making a comeback. I think he’s going to make it big again as the time for Donald’s message seems just about right…
Since I began my Glades “Road Trip” Series, I have read three books by Lake Okeechobee historian, Laurence E. Will: Okeechobee Hurricane, Swamp to Sugar Bowl, and A Cracker History of Okeechobee.
These books hold amazing stories of the Glades; if Mr. Will hadn’t written, there would be very few first-hand accounts of farming that became a Florida mega-industry just over the first half century of the 1900s. Today, I will transcribe some of his most interesting descriptions of Lake Okeechobee, the magical landscape that was transformed into today’s contoversial Everglades Agricultural Area, for none other than its MUCK.
Close up of small pond apple on Torry Island, by Lawrence E Will.
Florida Memory Project, photo by John Kunkel Small 1869-1938.
Photo from Swamp to Suagrland, showing pond apple with moon vines around Lake O. (Lawrence E Will)
When I was on my recent tour with former mayor of Pahokee, J.P. Sasser, I learned the nick-name for Pahokee is “The Muck,” named so for the “black gold” soil that accumulated over thousands of years under the roots of a custard apple forest that rimmed the lake. (Kind of like fresh water mangroves today in the Indian River Lagoon.)
When one drives deeper into the Glades, one finds similar nick-names or “muck mottos,” that have to do with the muck. For instance, Belle Glade’s motto is “Her Soil is Her Fortune;” Clewiston’s is “America’s Sweetest Town,” and South Bay’s refers to its highways, “Crossroads of South Florida,” named so for its intersection of two major roads, East-West State Road 80, and North-South, U.S. Highway 27, roads that get one into the muck, or out of it….
Will first experienced the Lake in the early 1900s as a boy when his father was developing Okeelanta, located about four miles below today’s South Bay. Okeelanta, today a mill location for the Fanjul holdings, was located not in an apple custard forest, but rather in the miles of sawgrass lying south. Although the soil here is excellent, it is different, more peaty and not as “mucky.” Thus the most productive lands lie closer to the lake, deep in the MUCK.
Here is a moving account by Will about the land of muck in “Cracker History of Lake Okeechobee:
“Before the dredges crashed through the custard apple woods to start the first canals, the lake most always stayed high and clear, unbroken except for those islands Kreamer, Torry, and Observation. When I first saw the lake it was still wild. Excusing the trifling settlements at Utopia, Ritta, and Tantie, a score of fishing camps, and the openings to four unfinished canals, it’s swampy shores hadn’t changed since Zachary Taylor found the redskins or probably not since DeSoto anchored in Tampa Bay. It sill was just as the good Lord had fashioned it. The lake was lonely Mack, silent and mysterious as well. But I tell you boy, it was beautiful, and sort of inspiring too.”
Will was absolutely pro development, pro farming/agriculture, but he, like most of the old timers, recognized the tremendous awe-inspiring beauty of the place.
Most all the natural beauty the lakeside shoreline in Martin County, where the FPL Power Plant is today, and north to the town of Okeechobee has also been radically altered as well.
Excerpts by Lawrence E. Will:
“Dense forest ringed the lake around. Along its northern half water oak, maple, cypress, potash, rubber and palmetto trees crowded each other on the lakeshore ridge…the south shore and half way up the eastern side was something else… Here were custard apples, a solid belt of tropical trees, blanketed with a moonvine cover, which stood, two miles or more in width, without break or opening, from near Clewiston’s Sand Point, slap around to Port Mayaca. 32,000 acres of custard apple woods there were, the most of these trees, I wouldn’t doubt, on the whole blamed continent of America.”
“…Although the shores were for the most part black muck, low and flat, there were some fine sandy beaches too. Along the east side for eighteen miles lay beautiful East Beach…”
“Now if Zachary Taylor or Hamilton Disston could return to Okeechobee they would find that farmers have exterminated the custard apple woods. Highways, service stations, super markets and housing projects have replaced the cypress, rubber and maple trees along the ridge. A levee occupies the onetime shore and drainage has lowered by half a dozen feet the water’s elevation. Tractors cultivate the former seining grounds, and unless you as old–and no amount, as some of us, your never heard of town of Tantie, Utopia or Ritta. Civilization has re-made the lake and I’d be the last to say it isn’t better so, but the lakeshore’s one time natural beauty is long gone, and man, wasn’t that old lake a fascinating place.”
Well, to the land of Lake Okeechobee! For all she was, and for all she is. It’s enough to make one exclaim:”What The Muck?!!!”
Today we continue our road trip in the Glades atop the Herbert Hoover Dike.
In the short video below you can see my Glades tour-guide, former mayor JP Sasser, driving, –in his hometown of which he knows so much about–Pahokee. On the right lies the city, and on the left is Lake Okeechobee. A precarious position indeed!
Pahokee is actually unusual in that this little town is “high-ground.” According to JP, about 13 feet above ground. This is not the case for most of the Glades.
Interestingly, in the video, JP discusses how the Army Corp recently decided where to strengthen the dike in Pahokee, because if they had extended it out 500 feet as was done along the rest of the eastern shore, the town of Pahokee would have been covered up as it is located right beside the dike.
Lake Okeechobee’s dike and its history are fascinating just as is all our area of the Northern Everglades including the St Lucie River/Indian River Lagoon that in 1923 became the primary exit point for waters that could no longer flow south after the Herbert Hoover Dike was built.
According to historian and Gladesman Lawrence E. Will:
“…following the floods of 1923 and 1924 water stood over farm lands nearly the entire winter. To protect the farms, the state of Florida had then constructed an earthen dike along the whole south shore. It was some five to eight feet above ground level but this dike was never intended to withstand a hurricane.”
Regarding the expansion of the dike, as the “Herbert Hoover,”after the horrific hurricanes of 1926, ’28 and again in again in ’49, Mr. Nathaniel Reed notes in his writing “Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades: “The Corps of Engineers studied the average size of Lake Okeechobee and designed a dike around it…”
Now this is where things get very interesting.
“The average size of the lake….” what’s that?
Now if we look at this slide taken from a 2016, presented by Jeff Sumner, who was at the time Office Chief State and Agricultural Policy, SFWMD, it shows the size of the lake pre-development. One can see it was about once about 1000 square miles in size and today it is 750.
Of course the size expanded and contracted based on rainfall, but one still gets the point…this lower area was nature’s shoreline, a boggy marsh with rivers leading into a sawgrass “river of grass” bordered by a forest of over 30,000 acres of Custard Apple trees that functioned like mangroves extending up to five miles or more south into what is today’s Belle Glade. As Mr Lawrence Will would have said: “Who wudda thought!” (http://museumoftheglades.org)
Over the Thanksgiving holiday, I completed a book entitled “Okeechobee Hurricane,” by Lawrence E. Will. The book contains old photographs and provides eyewitness accounts of the great storms of both 1926 and 1928. As we have leaned somewhere between 1500 and 3000 people were killed in the 1928 storm alone. A majority are buried in a mass grave that created a graveyard here in Martin County, at Port Mayaca. There were many farming families, but most of the dead were black migrant workers who had no warning of the storm. Mr. Will relays the horrific stories of these pioneer farming families surviving from Kreamer Island, Torry Islands, Chosen, Belle Glade, Pahokee, South Bay, Bean City, Sebring Farm, Ritta, and Okeechobee.
Pahokee does not have its own chapter but is included in Lawrence Will’s rebuttal of a Palm Beach Times article entitled “The Lost Settlement of Pelican Bay, “a settlement lying between Pahokee and Belle Glade where it had been reported 400 people “must be dead, and 250 of them are now unreachable…”among other things, Mr Will argues that many floated in from miles away and were not from the ‘Pelican Bay’ sugar company camp…
I have to say, although I learned a ton, I am glad I am finished with the book. It was difficult to read so many stories of death. That no one has made a full length feature film of this surprises me: the breaking of the state dike; 7-11 foot rising waters; people fearfully clinging to rooftops with children in hand in 150 mile an hour winds; falling over and gasping for breath while trees and houses floated by or pushed one under. Hair caught in the gates of the locks…More than once, Will refers to the breaking of the dike causing a “tidal wave” coming all at once and travelling from Chosen outward to Belle Glade, like a tsunami.
On page 35 he writes:
“The levee, extending along the southern and part way up the eastern shores of the lake, had been constructed between 1923 and 1925 and had been rebuilt where damaged in the blow of 1926. The dike was built to prevent farm lands from being flooded by high lake levels, it was never intended as a protection from hurricanes. Had there been no levee to pile up the water, there would have been no loss of life in either the hurricane on 1926 or 1928. On the other hand, without the protection against flooding of crops it is extremely doubtful that the Glades could have attained its high state of productivity.”
As you know, we are on a Road Trip. We are driving through not only to learn about the Glades, but also to learn about ourselves. Whether we realize it or not, we are all connected. We are related by history, by the drainage of the Everglades, and by a “better water future” we have no choice but to build together.
This map of the Glades is from the Florida Memory Project. It maps flood damage from two great hurricanes. Notice that the 1926 Hurricane damaged mostly the western part of the lake near Moore Haven, where as the 1928 Hurricane most intensely hit the eastern communities around Belle Glade. The towns/areas of Canal Point, Pahokee, Bacom Point, Belle Glade, South Bay, Lake Harbor, Bare Beach, Clewiston, Moore Haven and Newell all had to rebuild. “Chosen” near Belle Glade was chosen to be lost…
These past hurricanes define the history and the nature of some of the people of the Glades. The ones who “made-it” are survivors beyond anything we can possibly envision.
As Mr Lawrence E. Will an old family, a politician, and a prolific writer from the area wrote in HURRICANE:
“One word describes it. It was Hell. A raging inferno of rolling, swirling waters, of shrieking, demoniac winds, of lashing rain and of darkness, black and absolute. There were no atheists that night on the shores of Okeechobee! Then for the those still living came the second phase of hell; the phase of desolation and despair; of searching in the flooded woods and marshes, in elder clumps and sawgrass for the horrible remains of family and friends and neighbors; of loading them into trucks by unending scores; and finally of burning them in help of dozens when they could no longer be transported. It is hard to know which hell was worse…”
As we know in the 1930s the Herbert Hoover Dike was built to avoid such a disaster from happening again…but there is always the question of whether it will or not. It is dangerous to live on the low side of a dike.
As advocates of the St Luice River/Indian River Lagoon, we must be sensitive when discussing Senate President Joe Negron’s proposal for 60,000 acres to be purchased south of the lake to store, convey and move water south to the Everlgades. One can see how shouts of “Send the Water South” may send some people living south of the lake “over the edge…”
We must always make clear that when discussing Everglades resoration and improved health of the St Lucie River/Indin River Lagoon, safety, and economic prosperty for the Glades communties comes first. We know and respect their past…
Recently, in response to Senate President Joe Negron’s proposal to purchase 60,000 acres of land south of Lake Okeechobee, a movement began called #GladesLivesMatter. This group is concerned for the future of their communities due to the intensifying coastal cry: “Send the water south!”
Tension or misunderstanding between the Glades and the Coastal Communities is not a new theme. As we’ll learn, with creativity and determination it has been overcome before. Maybe we can learn something from the past and try to achieve this too?
In 1917, the year the West Palm Beach Canal was constructed and roads were first available from the coast to the Glades, Palm Beach County Chamber of Commerce president, T.J. Campbell wrote a Post article urging his readers to “take a growing interest in the people who live in rural communities, and make their living from the products of the soil.”
According to Palm Beach County historian James D. Snyder, Campbell’s article was unintentionally patronizing in that, “it chastised the urbanite for too often viewing the ruralists with feelings not unmixed with contempt or at least a certain pride of superiority.”
After some ruffled feathers, deliberation, and discussion it was decided that Campbell was making a point and that both sides needed each other, and both sides misunderstood the other.
So with the new transportation routes a motorcade (road trip) was organized to Belle Glade. It was a success and the coastal residents were amazed. To show good will, in the months following, the American Legion of the Glades traveled to the coast and marched in the 1921 Palm Beach County parade. They performed a song-poem as the “Muck Rats” and were the hit of the parade!
I’m from old Lake Okeechobee,
Where they raise gators,
Beans and pertaters,
Catfish and termites and Prohibition haters,
Custard apple, moon vine,
Catfish and moonshine,
All the time!
Even if the main thing in common was that many of the Coastal and Glades residents were “Prohibition haters,” of which we’ll learn about tomorrow, this effort of goodwill bettered relationships. And in the end, both sides made the effort. Why not take a drive? A road trip? You just might be amazed… 🙂
Few people realize that a little piece of Stuart history sits on Torry Island near the City of Belle Glade. Belle Glade of course sits south the man-made southern shore of Lake Okeechobee….I didn’t know about the bridge connection either, until I visited my mother last week.
When I got to her house, she handed me what appeared to be a gold leaf yearbook, but when I looked closer it read: “Florida Trails to Turnpikes 1914-1964, Florida State Road Department.” Page 216 was marked:
“The old original bridge across the St Lucie River had been built by E.P. Maule in 1917 with a twelve-foot-wide roadway swing span across the navigation channel. We moved that swing span of barges down the St Lucie Canal and down Lake Okeechobee to Torry Island. Should you cross from the mainland over the canal onto Torry Island today, you would cross on the old swing span of th abridge that originally went across the St Lucie River.”
“Wow that’s cool mom. Like you always say, we’re all connected.”
“Your father and I visited not too long ago. The Corbin family has been manning the bridge for generations. It’s a fascinating story that you should know about.”
A short history is explained here:
“The story of the bridge’s origins flow smoothly from Corbin… The 1928 hurricane that ravaged the Glades set in motion the chain of events that would bring the bridge to Belle Glade. The storm destroyed the original dike that surrounded the lake. To build the replacement dike, the federal government spooned out a canal, separating Torry Island from Belle Glade, and used the dirt for the dike. The new canal, called the Okeechobee Waterway, needed a bridge. In 1938, state contractors built the Point Chosen Bridge, replacing a pontoon bridge with a swing bridge that was built in 1916 and relocated from the St. Lucie River near Stuart. The bridge consisted of the movable portion and wooden trestles on each end.” Associated Press article, 2009.
“Very interesting. Do you have any pictures of your and dad’s field trip ?”
My mother disappeared and was back within minutes:
“Thanks mom”…..as I read more about it, I learned that the bridge’s name, “Point Chosen Bridge,” was chosen because there used to be town named “Chosen” located there. Chosen was one of the original towns along the shores of Lake Okeechobee. It was destroyed in the 1928 hurricane. So the bridge swing span from Stuart was chosen to rest at Chosen. Wow. An intertwined history indeed….