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Florida - The Conquest Of The Everglades

( Originally Published Mid 1930's )

We are getting down to the edge of the Everglades, and at the little town of Stuart, long popular with sportsmen as a fishing rendezvous, at the mouth of the St. Lucie River, we come upon the eastern terminus of the cross-state canal, which traverses the heart of that vast region. Thousands of pleasure craft and cargo boats pass through Stuart annually on the voyage between the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico, by way of Lake Okeechobee, many of them cargo boats carrying the rich products of the agricultural lands around the lake.

The St. Lucie drainage canal was first excavated as a part of the Everglades drainage project. Lake Okeechobee, the largest body of fresh water lying entirely within the boundaries of any single state, has many inlets but no natural outlet. In seasons of heavy rainfall the flood waters from the Kissimmee Valley caused Lake Okeechobee to overflow and inundate hundreds of square miles of land which, when freed from surplus water, is the richest and most prolific agricultural soil in the world. That is the Everglades country.

Roughly, the Everglades comprises the whole lower third of the Florida peninsula, flat, low-lying land with so little natural slope as to make the problem of drainage one of the most difficult engineering tasks ever attempted. Lake Olceechobee itself is so low that its waters, when the lake is bank-full, are only 18 feet above sea-level; but the richness and productivity of the Everglades muck-land, once drained, is so great that no cost seemed too high a price to pay for a system of drainage and flood control which would make possible the utilization of this fertile soil.

The key to the Everglades drainage problem is Lake Okeeehobee, the catch-basin for the run-off of 20,000 square miles of highlands to the north. By the late 1920's, after nearly a quarter of a century of digging canals and ditches extending in every direction to the sea, the problem seemed to have been solved. Hundreds of thousands of acres of Everglades muckland was reclaimed and thousands of farmers were coining the wealth of the black muck into gold, with their winter crops of vegetables for the northern market. Prosperous little towns grew up around Lake Okeechobee-Okeechobee City on the north, Port Mayaca, Canal Point, Pahokee, Chosen, Belle Glade on the east, South Bay, Ritta and Clewiston on the south, and Moore Haven on the west. Even in the seasons of heaviest rainfall the drainage system worked; the new farm lands were not flooded.

Then, in the autumn of 1928, the greatest tragedy in Florida's history occurred. Torrential rains had filled Lake Okeechobee to its brim. Every flood-gate was wide open and the drainage canals, east, south and west, were flowing like millraces. Then the hurricane struck.

Sweeping in from the Atlantic, the full force of the wind swept over the Everglades from east to west. It scooped up the waters of Lake Okeechobee and poured them over the land. Without warning the little city of Moore Haven, on the edge of the lake where the westernmost drainage canal leads to the flow-off of the Caloosahatchee River, was swept away as if by a tidal wave. Many of its inhabitants and those of the adjacent farm country had no time to escape, and most of them no place to escape to, for there were no hills, nothing but the low-lying swamp around them. The only high point was the dyke which had been built to divert the lake waters into the Caloosahatchee canal. A few managed to reach the top of the dyke and so saved their lives, but an uncounted number perished. Some estimates of the number of dead run as high as 2,000.

No such flood catastrophe had occurred in America since the Johnstown flood of 1889. To prevent its recurrence nothing would serve, it was obvious, but to surround the entire lake with a dyke as high and strong as that which had proved a safe refuge for those who had been fortunate enough to reach it. That work was begun by the United States Army Engineer Corps under a Congressional appropriation in 1930. It was finished in 1937. The original estimate of cost was $3,000,000; but the actual expenditure before the gigantic task was finished was $20,000,000; for there was a great deal more to be done than merely to build a dyke. The St. Lucie drainage canal, largest and most efficient of all of the outlets from the lake, had to be deepened and widened. So, too, did the Moore Haven canal leading into the Caloosahatchee River, and that crooked, shallow stream had to be straightened and deepened.

With those things done and the bottom of Lake Okeechobee lowered around three-fourths of its rim, where the sand was dredged out to be piled up into a dyke, here was a deep channel running clear across Florida. All it needed to make it navigable from Ocean to Gulf was locks to lift and lower vessels through the 18-foot difference in water level between the lake and the sea. Those were installed, and the Florida crossstate canal, eight feet deep and from 80 to 200 feet wide, was opened to traffic in March, 1937.

The new water route has proved immensely popular and the people living around Lake Okeechobee and earning their livelihood from the Everglades muck-land feel, for the first time, as secure in their persons and property as human foresight can insure security.

The Okeechobee dyke, as this is written, is in process of developing into what may prove to be one of Florida's most popular scenic highways. The dyke is about 200 feet wide at the base and more than 20 feet, levelled off, on top. In the summer of 1937 it was possible for a motor car to mount to the top of the dyke at any one of numerous points around the lake, and to travel with reasonable comfort along the still unpaved surface at the top. The plan is to develop the upper part of the dyke as a motor road, with bridges crossing the necessary openings where drainage canals connect with the lake. From the top of the dyke one gets a sweeping view of hundreds of square miles of the flat, fertile Everglades, with the blue waters of Lake Okeechobee, stretching forty miles from north to south and more than thirty from east to west, reflecting the Florida sunshine, on the other side.

From Okeechobee City, on the north shore of the lake, it is now possible to motor over wide, paved highways all around the east and southerly sides of the lake as far as Moore Haven on the west, and thence to the Gulf coast at Fort Myers; while one of the best and straightest motor roads in South Florida leads westward from Okeechobee City through Arcadia and on to the main highways of the West Coast. Eastward the principal road from Lake Okeechobee parallels the wide and navigable Palm Beach drainage canal, emptying into Lake Worth at West Palm Beach, which is the commercial metropolis of this whole upper Everglades region.

Instead of approaching Palm Beach through the front door, as most visitors do, let us look first at its back yard. That is the Everglades farming country. No community in history has ever acquired and held a position of enduring importance without a sound economic foundation in the form of a wealth-producing hinterland. The city of West Palm Beach has that economic background, which makes it much more than merely an entrance to a fashionable resort, gives it more stability than that which derives from its own growing volume of winter tourists. Those things are important, but they are no more important to the future of West Palm Beach than are the millions of dollars of winter vegetables and fruits that are shipped North through its portals from its Everglades back country.

Farming in the Everglades is a highly specialized occupation. Few growers produce more than one product, though most of them get three crops a year. Occasionally an Everglades farmer succeeds with no capital to speak of but his piece of land and his bare hands. Such successes are the exception. The rule in Everglades agriculture, as in farming elsewhere in Florida, is that one must have capital, intelligence, industry and patience. Possessed of those, there are few, if any spots in the world where such large profits can be earned so quickly. Some of the Everglades farming operations run to a thousand or more acres under one management in a single crop; hundreds of Everglades farmers make comfortable incomes on 20-acre tracts.

The principal crop of this district is beans. Florida supplies nearly seven-eighths of all the string beans consumed in the United States, and nearly half of the Florida beans are grown in the Everglades. The profit comes from the fact that three crops, and sometimes four, are harvested every year on the same land. Much of the bean and other vegetable production in the Everglades is on rented land. The individual small farmer can seldom afford the necessary investment in ditches and drains to connect his few acres with one of the main drainage canals. This is done for him, usually, by a development corporation, from which he then either buys or rents his farm. Everglades farm rentals run from twenty dollars to fifty dollars a year per acre, the average being around $40. When this is spread over three or four crops in the course of ten months the rental is not high compared with a net profit which averages, on beans, from $25 to $30 per crop per acre. One instance cited to the authors in 1937 was of a farmer who rented 40 acres on shares, the agreement being that he was to pay a quarter of his net receipts from beans for the use of the land. At the end of the season he turned over a check for $1600, which made his rental $40 an acre and indicated that after paying the rent he had earned $4800 in ten months from his forty acres.

Around 10,000 acres of these Everglades farms are usually planted to peas. Tomatoes, peppers, cabbage, lima beans, celery and, indeed, almost every kind of vegetable which the markets of the North will buy at fancy prices off-season is grown on these rich muck farms.

One of the largest farm developments in the state is at Port Mayaca, at the point where the cross-state canal enters Lake Okeechobee. Here 7,000 acres belonging to the immensely wealthy Phipps Estate, operating in Florida as the Bessemer Corporation, has been subjected to the most intensive and scientifically-based development. The entire tract is laid out in twenty-acre squares, each of them bordered on all four sides by a system of canals which, operated by sluice-gates and pumps, can be used either for drainage in case of high water and heavy rains, or for irrigation in dry seasons. Each twenty-acre block is surrounded by a windbreak of tall Australian pine (also known as Brazilian oak) 75 miles of trees in all, and by roads substantial enough for heavy trucking in any weather. There are fifty miles of roads in this checker-board arrangement, and fifty miles of canals which can discharge 40,000 gallons of water a minute into the St. Lucie canal, or pour 15,000 gallons a minute onto the land in time of drought, with all Lake Okeechobee as the reservoir to draw from.

Regarding this development partly as a permanent investment for income and partly for the establishment of a prosperous colony of settlers who could buy or lease and operate their own farms, the Bessemer Company decided upon Valencia oranges as the most certainly profitable crop over a period of years. No important citrus development had previously been undertaken in this part of the Everglades. The results justified the belief that citrus would do well on the Everglades muckland. By the end of 1937 there were 33,000 orange trees at Port Mayaca, counting the new plantings as well as the oldest groves, then in their eighth year. Thirty thousand boxes of oranges were marketed from the groves in the 1936-37 season, four thousand boxes coming from one 20-acre grove on the muck-lands, an average of 200 boxes to the acre. A single tree in this grove yielded eight boxes of Valencias, and the outlook is for an annual production of 100,000 boxes when the groves are in full bearing.

Another tree crop which this development has demonstrated to thrive on the muck-land is avocados, of which 5,000 bushels were produced in the 1937 season. Forty-five acres were rented to a man who thought gladiolus might do well here. He shipped 1,200,000 "spikes" to market, 240,000 of them grown on three acres. Ten thousand bushels of Irish potatoes, with a top yield of 300 bushels to the acre, were also produced on the Port Mayaca muck-land, in addition to full crops of tomatoes, beans, and other vegetables grown on parts of the tract leased to local farmers.

Few Everglades farmers live on their farms. They have their homes in the little towns and villages strung along the highways around Lake Okeechobee, where they can enjoy the satisfactions and conveniences of community life. Their Negro farm laborers also have their own communities, usually close to those of the white folks, but not always. There are a number of small settlements in this Everglades farm region exclusively inhabited by Negroes. According to "Hi" Lawrence, Sheriff of Palm Beach County, they are, on the whole, as peaceable and well-behaved communities as most of the white folks' towns.

One of the most attractive of the Everglades towns is the city of Clewiston, which is the headquarters of the largest industry in South Florida, as well as the largest single agricultural development in the Everglades, if not in the state. This is the United States Sugar Corporation, which owns 117,000 acres of land, fronting 52 miles on the shore of Lake Okeechobee. Fourteen thousand acres of this are planted to sugar, producing approximately 450,000 tons of cane, yielding around 40,000 tons of raw sugar annually. The company's mill at Clewiston has a capacity for handling more than double the present output, and only a small proportion of the corporation's acreage is as yet utilized for sugar production. Restrictions imposed on sugar production under quota agreements prescribed by the Federal government prevented the expansion of operations up to the end of 1937, but even running at less than half of maximum capacity the net earnings run well above $500,000 a year. The United States Sugar Corporation does not operate a refinery but ships the raw sugar from its mill to a refinery in Savannah.

Since the early 1920's the possibility of profitable sugar production in the Everglades has intrigued the imagination of promoters and interested many capitalists in investments in sugar-cane acreage. So important did the development of a sugar industry in Florida appear to be that in 1923 the United States Department of Agriculture established a sugar experiment station at Canal Point, where a considerable acreage had been planted to cane and a small sugar mill erected, by sugar planters from Louisiana. Thus accurate and scientific knowledge of the sugar potentialities of the Everglades muck-land and the varieties of cane which could be grown on it to best advantage were at the command of B. G. Dahlberg, founder of the Celotex Company, when he came to Florida in 1925 with a plan for planting tens of thousands of acres of cane, not entirely for the sake of the sugar which might be recovered, but to obtain a constant supply of raw materials for the manufacture of the insulating building board, Celotex, which he had developed. Celotex is made from the bagasse, or cane refuse, after it has been crushed in the sugar mill and its sugar-bearing juice extracted. Mr. Dahlberg was producing Celotex in Louisiana, but he believed that it would cost less to grow in Florida and that the bagasse would cost less if the same company which made the Celotex also obtained the revenue from the sugar. In 1925 the building industry in the United States was riding the top wave of the greatest boom in history. The demand for Celotex was pressing the facilities of the existing mills. The market seemed capable of indefinite expansion. Few foresaw that the building boom was to take a sudden slump, three years before the stock market crashed.

Mr. Dahlberg organized the Clewiston Company and combined a speculative real estate promotion, in the then current Florida fashion, with his project for a great sugar and Celo tex industry on the south shore of Lake Okeechobee. A beautifully planned city was laid out, complete with bathing beaches, yacht harbor, country club and resort hotels, and while the company's agents were buying farm land, draining and ditching 100,000 acres of it and planting it to sugar cane, and others were building the first unit of the sugar mill, another group of real estate agents were selling lots in the city-to-be of Clewiston.

The Florida land boom and the national building boom collapsed almost simultaneously. The city of Clewiston, built under Mr. Dahlberg's beautiful plan, is a really delightful com munity of 2,500 inhabitants, with a social life whose tone is set by the officers of the United States Army Corps of Engineers on supervisory duty in connection with the flood control works, and the officials of the United States Sugar Company who make their homes there. For the sugar mill and the sugar plantation survive from the somewhat grandiose dream of B. G. Dahlberg though, like the city of Clewiston, they are on a much smaller scale than the projected vision. The Celotex mill was never built. The old mills in Louisiana proved able to supply the demand when the building slump came. The Celotex Company and the Clewiston Company, before the sugar mill at Clewiston had been in operation very long, found themselves in financial difficulties. A group of experienced sugar men formed The United States Sugar Corporation and bought in the Florida properties at receivers' sale, in 1931. New capital to the extent of $3,500,000 was provided for the rehabilitation and continuation of the sugar industry in Florida. In all more than $16,000,000 has been invested in this sugar enterprise alone, besides several million dollars in drainage works and other necessary improvements.

The experience of the United States Sugar Corporation and its predecessor, the Southern Sugar Company, over seven years of operations, indicates that Florida can produce raw sugar, delivered to the refinery, at a lower cost than in any other part of the United States or its possessions. This cost in Florida for the year 1936 was 2.556 cents per pound, as compared with a cost of 4.813 cents in Louisiana, 2.856 in Puerto Rico, 3.005 in Hawaii. Only Cuba, with a reported cost per pound of 1.857 cents, can compete on an even basis with Florida in sugar production.

The preceding paragraphs provide a rough outline sketch of the economic background of the city of West Palm Beach. It is a background of natural resources, whose wealth is incalculable, already yielding a golden harvest from the black muck soil, and moving steadily to still greater realization of its unlimited possibilities.

Not all of the commerce originating in the Everglades passes through West Palm Beach, but in one way or another most of the money which pours into the district from outside finds its way into the coffers of the banks and the tills of the merchants of that thriving city on Lake Worth.

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