To archeologists Pelican Lake is regarded to have been the headwaters of what was once Pelican Bay and the Pelican River east of Lake Okeechobee. One of the first to write about this lake was Lawrence E. Will whose family was the first to grow sugarcane in the sawgrass areas rather than the custard apple region south of the lake. Will was an amazing documenter and the Museum of Glades in Belle Glade is named for him today. Although the Will’s have been remembered through the museum the remains of Pelican Lake, Pelican Bay, and the Pelican River are all but forgotten.
For purposes of time, we will first focus on Pelican Lake.
According to the Boyer Survey, other than Will, very few facts were written about Pelican Lake ~named so, obviously, for being the home once to many pelicans. Today, by working backwards, archeologist are finding out more facts, through the study of historic photographs, aerial vegetation and soil patterns, and the use of Google Earth. With these tools, similar to what my brother uses in his Time Capsule Flights (https://jacquithurlowlippisch.com/todd-thurlows-time-capsule-flights/) the ancient river beds are being revealed. Archeologists study such to find the villages of ancient people who lived along these lakes and these so-called “dead rivers,” that were anything but dead. The data revealed about the dead lakes and rivers, “refutes the South Florida Water Management District’s findings suggesting these rivers were “very short.” (Solar et. al 2001:2-19). They were not short; some were miles long! In the case of the Pelican River, it has revealed itself to be 16.3 miles long, its waters beginning in Pelican Lake. (Boyer Survey p. 246)
So poor Pelican Lake. If you view the images from the Boyer Survey below you can see how in the early 1900s the lake was drained for development as reclaimed land.
In 1918 famed Botanist John Kunkle Small wrote that Pelican Lake was “the most beautiful lake during the day or night” and was disheartened upon returning to the area seeing that the beautiful lake had been drained and reduced to either “weeds or agricultural fields.” SEE HIS INCREDIBLE PHOTOS HERE:
The Boyer Survey notes that Pelican Lake is just one example of how much and how fast the area around Lake Okeechobee changed as drainage effort progressed. The last major changes occurred when the Herbert Hoover Dike was completed in the 1930s and vast expanses of lakebed were “permanently” made into sugarcane fields.
This is why the lake is smaller by about 30% today and cannot hold as much water. A lot of that water is discharged today destroying the St Lucie and Calloosahatchee Rivers. It is important for us to know our history so we can fix the mess we are in today. There were no dead rivers or lakes. The only dead ones are the ones we killed. The southern edge of Lake Okeechobee was flowing with rivers and life. Life, that we have conveniently forgotten.
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)
This week, due to the inspiration of small book my mother handed me, I have been exploring the history, and political change encompassing the sugar industry. Monday, I wrote about Cuba; Tuesday, I wrote about the Calusa Indians, pioneers, and workers; and yesterday, I wrote about the pond apple forest that used to border the southern rim of Lake Okeechobee.
Today, based on chapter 29 of Lawrence E. Will’s 1968 book, “Swamp to Sugar Bowl, Pioneer Days in Belle Glade,” I will briefly write about the evolution of labor practices in Florida’s sugar industry and how public pressure led to the mechanization of the industry. For me, the mechanization of the sugar Industry is a metaphor for change for our St Lucie River/Indian River Lagoon.
The point of this journey is to learn our history and to remind ourselves that even the “worst of circumstances” can be improved. I believe, that one day, we too, will see improvement of the government sponsored destruction of the St Lucie River/Indian River Lagoon from Lake Okeechobee. Our relation to the sugar industry? For those who may not know.. .Their location blocks the flow of Lake Okeechobee’s waters flowing south to the Everglades.
Before I start, I must say that “everyone has a history,” and the history of the world is mostly “not a pretty one.” This goes for me as well. Parts of my family have been here before the American Revolution, and a few of my ancestors owned slaves. I have read the wills these relatives handing down their slaves from one generation to the next like these souls were pieces of furniture. It is retched. It is uncomfortable. It is immoral. But to forget, is not the answer. It is important to know our own history and the history of businesses in our state no matter how difficult. As is said, we must “Never Forget…” Slavery and the extermination of Florida’s native peoples “is the ground we sit on,” and our job today is to continue to make this world, and our living waters a “better place.”
So, let’s begin.
The history of sugarcane has “roots” all over the world, but in our area it is connected to the Caribbean. I recommend a book entitled: “History of the Caribbean,” by Frank Moya Pons.
The basis of this book is the extermination of the Arawak Indians due to colonization and the bloody wars on both sides of the Atlantic over control of the region’s lucrative sugar market . The Arawaks were native to the Caribbean. When they were unwilling slaves for the Europeans, and died as a race due to european-brought diseases, African slaves were brought in to replace them.
After centuries involving world political struggles for “sugar dominance,” and with the rise of the United States and the horrible world wars, sugar came to be seen as “national security issue,” not just a food source as it can be used for the making of explosives/weapons. As we know, over the centuries, through political strategy, the United States rose as a power in sugar production, as Cuban dominance declined.
The apex of this shift in our area was around 1960. For reference, my husband, Ed, came to this county when he was four, with his family from Argentina, in 1960, the Perons had been in power; and I was born in California, at Travis Air Force Base in 1964. It was the Vietnam Era.
The Everglades Agricultural Area south of Lake Okeechobee where the sugar industry resides expanded the most it ever has around this time. To quote Mr Lawrence E. Wills:
“when Fidel Castro took over Cuba, (1958) the Everglades reaped the benefit. For a short time our government permitted the unrestricted planting of sugar cane …and before that time, under the U.S government’s regulations, the state of Florida was permitted to produce only nine-tenths of one percent of the nation’s needs.”
The US government helped the sugar industry grow and for “a reason:” Power. Influence. National Security. Food Source. Weapons. This is heavy currency in world politics and it is achieved at any expense….here in south Florida, it was achieved at the expense of the uneducated and poor worker.
Chapter 29 of Mr Will’s book is entitled, “Harvest of Shame.”
Mr Wills writes about a television documentary that was released on Thanksgiving Day in 1960. Mr Wills says the piece is “sensationalized.” It was produced by the Columbia Broadcasting System, presented by Edgar R. Murrow and sponsored by Philip Morris Cigarette Company. Certainly the piece was “sensationalized,” but undoubtedly there was also truth regarding the difficult conditions for migrant workers.
What is important here, is that the explosive public reaction to the documentary pressured the sugar industry to move towards mechanization, which they achieved just over thirty years later around 1992.
As the industry moved towards this goal, other problems ensued, such as H-2 program changes. With claims that the local labor force “could not,” or “would not” do the back-breaking work of cutting the sugar cane with machete, the H-2 program allowed the sugar industry to hire foreign workers, mostly from the Caribbean, especially Jamaica, who as we already know had a history with this difficult work.
The rub for labor activists was that these workers could be deported if they did not “produce.” They could be shipped out and replaced. Some called this a form of modern slavery. An award-winning documentary, on this subject, H-2 Worker, was produced by Stephanie Black in 1990. She points out that although the sugar industry had basically achieved mechanization by this time, others had not. (http://www.docurama.com/docurama/h-2-worker/)
The sugar industry moved to mechanization because of public outcry. Of course it is more complicated than that and is driven by economics, nonetheless, it was a huge factor. With more outcry regarding our St Lucie River/Indian River Lagoon, the same thing could happen. Change. More water flowing south. A flow way. A reservoir. Lands to clean, store and convey water south….fewer, or no more polluted/toxic releases into the St Lucie River/IRL…
To deviate just a bit before I close, we may ask ourselves, how could this happen? Slavery? Mistreatment of workers? Destruction of the environment?
Well, the answer is the same today as it was in 1500; it happens because government allows, supports, and encourages it. The U.S. Department of Labor, the United States Department of Agriculture and others. Some right under our nose.
Remember, today’s state and federal agencies are made up of people; people are hired by government entities; government entities are directed by politicians, and politicians are voted for by the people. It all starts with us.
Make sure your voice is heard, and vote accordingly.
History is in the making, and somewhere out there, there is a better water future for the St Lucie River/Indian River Lagoon!
Today, I continue my series based on the 1968 book “Swamp to Sugar Bowl,” by Lawrence E. Will.
To understand the St Lucie River/Indian River Lagoon region and its water issues, it is imperative we study not only our own area, but also the waters and the history that is connected to Lake Okeechobee. As you know, the area south of Lake Okeechobee is inexorably connected to our region, as the reason the waters of Lake Okeechobee do not flow south, and are directed through the northern estuaries is due to the agricultural development south of the lake.
The area south of the lake includes various “townships,” but today we will focus on Belle Glade, in Palm Beach County very close to Martin County. Today, Belle Glade is the home of the Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative, (http://www.scgc.org)
In ancient times, it was the home of the warrior tribes known as the Calusa Indians. According “Swamp to Sugar Bowl,” somewhere between 1000 and 1700 A.D. , the Calusas lived along the shores of Lake Okeechobee. A Paleo-Indian culture preceded them thousands of years earlier. The Calusa were “mound builders” using the shellfish they gathered and consumed to create mounds sometimes over 70 feet in height and over 100 feet long. They were a fishing society, living off the rich resources of the waterways. Agriculture was not necessary for their survival. (Ironic considering today!) In the Belle Glade area, the Calusa lived between the forks of a river that of course has been channelized, known by white settlers as “the Democrat.”
It is sadly ironic to me that we live on the burial grounds of Indians that lived so in tune with nature, and we manage to so completely destroy it. That goes for areas of Martin County as well. Much of Hutchinson Island and other locations across the state were bulging with shell middens, sometimes sacred graveyards, that later were used to pave roads. “Bad karma,” I’d say.
The small community of “Chosen” (http://www.pbchistoryonline.org/page/chosen) preceded, “Belle Glade,” and was destroyed in the horrific Hurricane of 1928 that drowned somewhere between 2000 and 3000 people: (According to Mr Lawrence it was 3/4 black farm workers and 1/4 white pioneers.) These bodies were piled up and burned or buried in mass graves.
The whole story is quite disturbing really. Don’t you agree? My family recently went to St Augustine and the kids got me thinking about ghosts. Lake Okeechobee and the St Lucie River/Indian River Lagoon soils must be full of them. I bet they are watching how we handle this next part of of our water history.
It is good to learn about the history and issues of the Everglades, South Florida, and our St Lucie River/Indian River Lagoon so that one day, in spite of the difficulties we face today, we will be able to fix our problem in the future…
Perhaps the greatest reason the our former Everglades are now overflowing with sugarcane fields is due to politics between Cuba and the United States. My father graduated from Stuart High School in 1954, and believe it or not, his senior trip was to Havana! Soon after, Castro’s revolutionaries took over Cuba in 1959. And as they say the “rest is history…” as the growing sugar fields blocked the flow of water south to the Everglades, the fate of our precious St Lucie River/Indian River Lagoon seemed forever doomed. But it is not, as nothing lasts forever.
This weekend my mother handed me a book entitled “Swamp to Sugar Bowl” by historian, author, businessman, and politician, Lawrence E. Will. I read the little book with great enjoyment. Although many things have changed since the book was written in 1968, it provides great insights.
This week I will be sharing some aspects of the books. Today I will quote a few excerpts from chapter 22, “Florida’s Sugar Bowl.”
“Brother if you’re addicted to using sugar you should come here to these Everglades. Sugar and molasses bring in 110 million to these glades each year, so let’s take a quick look at this sugar bowl. Back in 1922, at Moore Haven, the first feeble attempt was made at producing sugar, but the following year in Canal Point the first successful mill began to operate.
This company was taken over by Southern Sugar Company, now the U.S. Sugar Corporation which ground its first cain in Clewiston in 1929. Although this company owned some 100,000 acres of the best land around the lake, under the US government’s regulation, the state of Florida was permitted to produce only nine-tenths of one percent of this nation’s needs.
However when Fidel Castro took over Cuba, the Everglades reaped the benefit. For a short time our government permitted the unrestricted planing of sugar cane. Oh brother, you should have seen how cow pastures and vegetable fields were plowed up and planted! Now we have 189,500 acres of sugar cane in the Glades.” –Lawrence E Will, 1968
I am not certain how much land U.S. Sugar Corporation owns today, but the Everglades option map from 2008 and IFAS statistics from 1993 show over 450,000 acres combining US Sugar and Florida Crystals.
Sugar has been grown in the glades since the 1920s but it exploded in the glades in the 1960s and became heavily supported by the US government due mostly to political reasons.