When the Dam Breaks…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

A Prickly Tale: The History of Pineapples in Florida

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

Florida pines

Florida pineapples

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

Pineapples being transported on a sailboat.

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

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

Pineapple field in Winter Haven (Between 1880 and 1900)

Pineapple field in Winter Haven (Between 1880 and 1900)

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

George S. Morikami and Al Avery holding prize pineapples

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

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

Florida’s Not-So-Native Tung

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

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

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

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

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

The

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dr. Andrew Turnbull and the Origins of New Smyrna Beach

The British only owned Florida for a brief moment (1763-1783), but during that time they did take a stab at turning the territory into a productive colony.  In 1764, the British Parliament set aside £500 (British pounds sterling) as a bounty for cultivating silk, cotton, and indigo in East Florida, and authorized generous land grants for citizens who stepped forward to develop these industries.

A General Map of the Southern British Colonies (1776). Note the separation of East and West Florida.

A General Map of the Southern British Colonies (1776). Note the separation of East and West Florida.

Dr. Andrew Turnbull, a Scotsman and a physician, convinced a number of his wealthy friends in Britain to take advantage of these offers and start a new colony in East Florida.  Turnbull planned to employ a number of Greeks from Asia Minor as laborers for his new venture.  He chose a Greek labor force because he felt they would be more accustomed to the warm climate they would encounter in Florida, and because he believed he would be able to convince a good number of them to leave the Ottoman Empire, where labor conditions were tough. Turnbull’s knowledge of the eastern Mediterranean was considerable. He had spent a number of years as a British consul in the Ottoman Empire, and had married the daughter of a Greek merchant at Smyrna in Greece.

Portrait of Dr. Andrew Turnbull, founder of the New Smyrna colony (circa 1850s-60s)

Portrait of Dr. Andrew Turnbull, founder of the New Smyrna colony (circa 1850s-60s)

In 1766 and 1767, Turnbull and two of his business associates, Sir William Duncan and Sir Richard Temple, acquired  land grants of 20,000 acres each, which Turnbull was to select from unclaimed lands in East Florida. After a brief stay in St. Augustine, Turnbull sailed southward along the Atlantic coast past what we now call Ormond and Daytona beaches, and entered Mosquito Inlet, where he encountered an attractive region dotted with large magnolia, live oak, and bay trees. The Scotsman was delighted with what he saw, and decided to make this the site of his new colony. He named it New Smyrna in honor of his wife’s birthplace and the homeland of his future Greek labor force.

East Florida Governor James Grant, who received Turnbull upon his arrival at St. Augustine. This protrait was painted circa 1850 by Allen Ramsey.

East Florida Governor James Grant, who received Turnbull upon his arrival at St. Augustine. This portrait was painted circa 1850 by Allen Ramsey.

Turnbull crossed the Atlantic once again to secure more land and the assistance of the government in setting up the new colony. The British government took a considerable interest in New Smyrna, providing money for transporting laborers and developing infrastructure. In the spring of 1767, Turnbull sailed into the Mediterranean to hire workers for his new enterprise. He encountered unexpected resistance from the Ottomans over his plan to hire away Greek workers, so he made stops in southern Italy and Minorca to pick up more. By the time Turnbull finally sailed for East Florida, he had about 1,500 workers under contract, mostly Minorcans. These settlers would be indentured servants. In return for their passage to New Smyrna, the laborers would be required to work for a period of years, and then they would be entitled either to a plot of land in East Florida or passage back to their home country.

Remains of a building from Andrew Turnbull's New Smyrna colony. The structure was built of coquina cement around 1768 and was used as a warehouse. The building was built on top of a large Native American shell mound (photo 1953).

Remains of a building from Andrew Turnbull’s New Smyrna colony. The structure was built of coquina cement around 1768 and was used as a warehouse. The building was built on top of a large Native American shell mound (photo 1953).

By the end of the summer in 1768, Turnbull and his workers were settled in at New Smyrna, and the process of clearing the land and preparing it for cultivation was underway. The work was difficult, and a number of workers died from disease and as a result of raids by Native Americans in the area. The New Smyrna venture did eventually produce good crops, however, and for a few years all appeared to be working in good order. Turnbull’s relationship with his laborers deteriorated as the years went by, on account of poor working conditions and the harsh practices of his overseers. In 1777, the laborers marched northward to St. Augustine to complain to Governor Patrick Tonyn, who provided them with shelter.

East Florida Governor Patrick Tonyn, who gave refuge to discontented workers from New Smyrna after they marched to St. Augustine in 1777 (circa 1774-1784).

East Florida Governor Patrick Tonyn, who gave refuge to discontented workers from New Smyrna after they marched to St. Augustine in 1777 (circa 1774-1784).

The colonists decided to stay in St. Augustine, which brought an end to the plantation at New Smyrna. Shortly afterward in 1783, the Spanish retook Florida as part of the Treaty of Paris, and Andrew Turnbull moved to Charleston, South Carolina. The New Smyrna venture had ended, but the colonists continued to live in East Florida, mostly along the Atlantic coast of northeastern Florida. The Florida Photographic Collection contains several photos depicting Minorcan foodways and other traditions that have lived on into our own era, living legacies of the New Smyrna Minorcans’ journey across the Atlantic over two centuries ago.

Minorcan cheese pastries called fromajardis - baked at St. Augustine (January 1959).

Minorcan cheese pastries called fromajardis – baked at St. Augustine (January 1959).

Margaret Triay prepares vinegar sausage with datil peppers, a traditional Minorcan specialty (1983).

Margaret Triay prepares vinegar sausage with datil peppers, a traditional Minorcan specialty (1983).

A Minorcan dance group from St. Augustine (October 1983).

A Minorcan dance group from St. Augustine (October 1983). They are standing in front of a statue dedicated to the memory of Father Pedro Camps [Campos?], who accompanied the Minorcans to Florida.

Theresa Griffin displaying an example of Minorcan crochet and needlework at Elkton, Florida (January 1985).

Theresa Griffin displaying an example of Minorcan crochet and needlework at Elkton, Florida (January 1985).

Search Florida Memory for more images depicting Minorcan traditions still alive and well in Florida!