This is the sixth leg of this tour. To read the first leg, click here. If you’re new here, you may wish to start with this post.
I only knew about the stilt houses because I wanted to impress a man. This particular man flew small planes, and although the very idea of taking to the skies in even a 747, much less a tiny single engine plane, made my stomach seize up like a engine with no oil, I agreed to take to the skies. To my delight, the thrill of flying stayed with me long after the man fell away.
Among the best things I saw from the right, then the left, seat of a small plane, the day I discovered the stilt homes, prodding the pilot to swoop lower so I could get a better look, will stay with me until I die. I knew, of course, of Stiltsville in Biscayne Bay, but I didn’t realize that stilt homes stood so close to my own beach home just south of Green Key.
You can’t see the stilt homes off the coast of Green Key from the road. If you’re not a boater, a general aviation pilot, or a local with a kayak or paddleboard, odds are you’ll never know they exist.
Just past Green Key’s shimmering sands, a cluster of stilt houses rises from Pasco County’s clear waters. These fish camps, perched high above the Gulf of Mexico on wooden legs, stand in silent tribute to Florida’s yesteryear. The water surrounding these camps is calm and shallow. Stand-up paddleboards dot the placid waters surrounding Green Key. Skinny strips of white, blue and pink boards let paddlers dance across key lime water, away from buff-colored shores and out toward a slice of Florida history.
As you slip into the Gulf, the world beneath your feet comes alive. Cownose rays – tiny, timid stingrays, no bigger than a dinner plate – flutter over sea grass. Mullet twist and toss themselves into the air. As your paddle pushes you through saltwater, redfish zig, then zag, just beneath the surface of this oversized aquarium.
Celebrities from Johnny Cash to Billy Graham have sought respite in these weathered bits of old Florida. The shallow, sapphire-studded waters reflect the sun-bleached wood on these houses, private residences used as fish camps in the Gulf. The stilt houses remain as long as the weather permits: State law says those destroyed in a storm cannot be rebuilt. The fish camps stand in mere feet of water, so paddleboards are one of the few ways to get close.
Tucked amidst the watery stilt city, Durney Key attracts paddleboarders, kitesurfers, kayakers and boaters. Driftwood and bits of sea glass adorn its shore and fiddler crabs scurry over packed brown sand. A cluster of trees in the key’s center offers shelter. Day-trippers and campers alike search for shells and watch the sun set over the fish camps.
On the paddle back toward Green Key, fish scurry from your path as the nightly seabreeze pushes you home. From the sand, you can see the stilt houses in the distance, waiting for your return.
The most logical launch for the four-mile round trip paddle is on Green Key at Robert K. Rees Memorial Park. Parts of this entry appeared initially as work for Visit Florida.
This is the fifth leg of this tour. To read the first leg, click here. If you’re new here, you may wish to start with this post.
South on US 19 a giant dinosaur waits. I first found it as a kid, when my dad had a construction job at nearby Timber Pines. He worked for Scarborough Construction, the company that installed most of the water and sewer lines in central west Florida. The parent company, Weyerhauser, sent me through college on a scholarship, and I try not to focus too much on the fact that the company that had an active part in resurfacing much of Florida’s landscape paid for the bulk of the studies that led me to fall in love with the parts of the state they were actively destroying.
Nevertheless, I was going into sixth grade and Scarborough paid for the guys on the construction crew to stay the week in Weeki Wachee, so my mom and I spent a few days hanging out on the the-then deserted stretch of US 19. We visited the brand-new Kmart, went to the pool, and visited the mermaids. She also took me into a taxidermists’ – I guess you’d call it a shop, right? – and I stood, transfixed by all the animals rooted forever in death.
My favorite thing (after the mermaids, of course) was the great brown and green, plaster dinosaur. The hulking giant used to signal a Sinclair gas station but those, too, died out. Today an auto service station, Harold’s, changes water pumps and rotates tires beneath the belly of the beast. It’s not a traditional tourist attraction, but that doesn’t mean people don’t stop and take pictures. I have a painting of Dino in my study, and if the brute ever topples, to storm or sprawl, US 19’s metamorphosis from sleepy two-lane road to clotted arterial highway will be sadly complete.
This is the fourth leg of this tour. To read the first leg, click here. If you’re new here, you may wish to start with this post.
Down the road another underwater show takes place seven days a week, several times a day. Weeki Wachee Springs State Park has real mermaids.
The mermaids, of course, are quite real. No, not in that they really have tails instead of legs, and they don’t get their oxygen with gills. Nevertheless, they do perform underwater shows, breathing through air hoses and performing in tails.
Mermaid shows started with Newt Perry. Perry trained World War II Navy SEALS – then called Frogmen – in underwater maneuvers; in 1946, he trained women to drink grape soda underwater. They learned to eat bananas, have picnics, and swim in unison – all while battling a five-mile-an-hour current wrought by a spring that pushed 177 million gallons a day from the earth. Perry took a spring just off a two-lane dirt road and created a theme park that, long before Disney thought to do so, allowed people to pay money for the privilege of believing in a fantasy.
At Weeki Wachee, that fantasy is mermaids. The mermaids perform beneath the big top of Weeki Wachee spring, with audiences watching them from an underwater theatre. Today the shows continue, as do reunion mermaid shows that feature retired mermaids, some of whom swam with Elvis. The reunion shows – called Tails of Yesteryear shows – feature mermaids now well into their 70s. Underwater, these “grandma mermaids” as former mermaid Barbara Wynns calls herself and colleagues, have grace equal to – if not more – than their younger counterparts.
Young mermaids, of course, perform the bulk of the shows. Grandma mermaids help out with mermaid camps for those who want to swim in a mermaid’s tail for a day. The park also has kid camps for aspiring mermaids and mermen, but the reunion shows offer Floridaphiles a peek at the past.
It started in 1997, when park management called former mermaids out of retirement to celebrate the Springs’ 50th anniversary. Lines wound along park paths and out into the parking lot to see 26 former mermaids – some in their 70s – twirl and pirouette under the sea.
One show turned into three that day, and the former mermaids’ Tails of Yesteryear show found its place alongside the current mermaid shows. Once monthly, former mermaids don their tails and slip into the 72-degree water.
They look little like their younger counterparts. These mermaids bear the scars of 40 years of life on land. They birthed babies, had careers, and adjusted to life with legs. None have model-thin figures; a few are outright fat. It doesn’t matter; once they slip into the spring, they are agile, graceful creatures again, eliciting applause and tears from the crowd. The spring washes away weight and wrinkles, and they play out a script from 40 years ago – dancing on the water, suspended in time.
“It’s like water in your veins. We’re still a part of the river, a part of the spring,” Mermaid Vicki Smith, 71, says. A tiny, compact woman who lives on the river, she still giggles with glee when she talks about meeting Elvis as a mermaid.
The audience claps at the regular mermaid shows. At Tails of Yesteryear, people weep. Something – perhaps the joy on the Grandma Mermaids’ faces – speaks to the crowd.
Not everyone loves Weeki Wachee.
My friend Thom Hallock relishes Florida springs but calls this park “the dullest park I’ve ever visited,” and he’s a guy who finds early accounts of French explorers coming to Florida riveting. I love the mermaids, but I see his point: you have to truly love Florida roadside attractions to get this place. Picture yourself in the 60s, driving a Chevy big enough to hold a softball team, down US 19. Suddenly, bathing-clad ladies – mermaids! – beckon you into the park. You’re from Michigan. You have no clue what to expect, but as you take your seat in the underwater theatre and the blue curtain rises, lithe and nubile women twirl and pirouette before you. Weeki Wachee was unparalleled; these women had no competition. The wild bird show, the parrot show (because no Florida roadside attraction was complete without a cockatoo on roller skates), and the chance to meet a real live mermaid enchanted generations of visitors.
Roller coasters, castles, and water parks have all faded the glory of roadside attractions like Weeki Wachee, and folks used to Pixar animation and Disney special effects may look down their nose at those of us who marvel at ladies drinking soda pop underwater. Weeki Wachee, taken over by the state in 2008, pays homage not only to generations of mermaids, but the dying breed of Florida’s roadside attraction. The park may be paler than the bright world of modern tourist attractions, but its patina is all its own.
The springs feed the Weeki Wachee River, and that has no modern day competitor. The river runs clear with a swift current – at five miles an hour, it takes just a little over two hours to reach the Gulf of Mexico. The park service operates a kayak and canoe livery, and they will pick you up at Roger’s Park six miles down the road.
More often than not, I head upriver and then lazily drift back. The sojourn past the houses by Rogers Park takes little effort and gives me plenty to look at: on one side of the river redolent with palms and marsh life, on the other, cartoonish sea life murals adorn sea walls, residents pay homage to Jimmy Buffett with Middle American Tiki-bar decor, and every variation of rope and tire swings dangle from spidery oak trees standing guard over the Weeki Wachee.
Further upriver the homes thin out and the water gets clearer. The odd rope tied to a branch lets people climb trees, dangle over the river, and plunge, feet first, into the crystal clear water. I’ve paddled the river on weekends when the lines for these ropes are long; today is a Tuesday and the lines don’t exist.
As the river gets closer to Weeki Wachee, the homes disappear into copse after copse of trees. The river twines a thin cordon of blue around a march forest. At a stand of trees with a wood platform, I tie my kayak painter to a slender tree trunk and stretch my legs while I eat a sandwich. The water is clear and I see no gators, so I let Calypso stretch her legs, too. When we set off again, we’re headed for home, carried by the current. Calypso curls up on a towel drying on the kayak’s bow. We float by a school of mullet, struggling their way upstream. Like a shot Calypso heaves herself in the water, but we’re moving too fast for her to catch the mullet. She paddles instead to where I sit and puts a paw on the side of the boat. I pull her in the cockpit, use the towel to squeeze river water from her black fur, and have a moment of thanks for clear water and no gators.
This is the third leg of this tour. To read the first leg, click here. If you’re new here, you may wish to start with this post.
In Crystal River, scallops and manatee beckon. Tours offer scallop trips for the uninitiated, but during scallop season (July through September, although the actual dates vary) anyone who wishes may snorkel for scallops. Scallops live in the green grass, have 32 glittering blue eyes, and slam their shells shut (escalop means “shell” in French) to swoosh out of harm’s way.
Bay scallops, once bountiful in the Gulf coastal waters, have declined in numbers. Speculation puts the blame on water quality, as scallops (like clams and oysters) filter their food from the water. Shellfish populations cannot thrive in contaminated water.
So instead of scallops, I’m hunting manatee. Well, not hunting, exactly, but looking for them awful hard. In Citrus County, boat captains can take passengers out to swim with the marine mammals under the guise of education. Our boat captain does give us manatee facts and talks about preserving the species, but we’re not fooling anyone: we all boarded this boat with plans to pet a giant grey water beast.
It’s a gorgeous summer day, and I’m delighted to be out on the water, but I didn’t think this through. You see, all the photos advertising the tour showed manatee frolicking with humans in the opaline spring head. These gentle, awkward creatures do lumber towards the spring when the water temperature outside the spring dips below 70º, but that is not the case on a hot summer day.
Now is a good time to mention that three types of rivers flow through Florida: alluvial, blackwater, and spring-fed. Alluvial rivers, often carved out by years of floods, carry loads of sediment along with them. Their levels and flow are usually tied to rainfall. Blackwater rivers rise out of swamps and generally have a dark tea color from the decaying plant matter in the water. Clear springs gush out into spring-fed rivers. One such river, the Crystal River, starts at a spring head, but do not assume that means the length of the river shares that transparency: the river grows deeper in color the further we motor from the springs. We do this, the boat captain explains, because the tiny-headed sea cows only hang out in springs in the winter.
I refrain from smacking my palm against my forehead. Of course these creatures won’t linger in the spring today. Of course they will hang out in the I-can’t-see-my-hand-or-that-alligator-in-front-of-my-face portion of the river. I enjoy paddling Florida’s rivers, but few exist in which I wish to get out and try to touch living creatures. Petting a manatee makes for a fine experience – in clear water. What if the one I pet hangs out by a gator grotto? Anyone who has seen even a picture of these unusually built water waddling animals knows those disturbingly tiny flippers will not help protect me.
The boat captain assures me I need not worry about gators and snakes. This strategy would have worked better had I considered the possibility of snakes before he brought them up. I do not know if I believe him, but I accept my swim noodle (we may not use our arms to swim lest we hit a manatee or, I imagine, anger a gator), slip my mask and snorkel over face, and slide into the water. The manatee wait a few yards away, the guide tells us, but the murk makes it hard to see anything. Something wraps around my leg. I scream.
River grass. Not a snake. I feel like an idiot, but take solace in knowing that when I put my head back under the water, it’s too stained with tannic acid for the others to see me blush.
I see a great hulking shape before me. A manatee. My heart accelerates. This is actually kind of exciting. I reach my hand out to pet it tentatively, and the beast doesn’t seem to care. They’re bumpier than I would have thought, and about as motivated as one would expect. She just floats in front of us – manatees are excellent floaters, what with all their fat – and even lets us pet her calf. I can only tell she’s there by feel; I cannot see her other than to make out a massive darker blob against the ochre water. I have no visual clues what I’m touching. My only reassurance is that gators have very little body fat, ergo, this must be a manatee.
After we’ve more than worn out our welcome, our boat captain takes us for a swim in Three Sisters, a nearby cluster of springs, vents, and boils. Our captain ties his small launch to a river tree. Here, clear water reveals tiny springs, their exit from the earth announced with a rushing gurgle I can almost hear with my eyes. I step off the boat into water far colder than 72º, the inexact standard for Florida rivers and springs. We walk towards the larger spring, through a group of wood posts set in water, designed to keep watercraft out of the spring head. The dizzying force of the water pushes against us as we move toward the springs, but as the narrow channel opens into a spring head, it gets easier. I can see the edge of the abyss; I peer over it, the clear blue sky reflected in chalky white limestone. Deeper down the color turns from an easy blue-green to a persistent and ancient blue. Cypress and oak ring the spring but do not cover it, letting the sun and sky dance rainbows across and through the spring water. We find no manatee here, but that’s just fine by me. The springs, uncluttered with kayaks and canoes and too many people, offer a rarer and more full experience.
If you don’t feel brave enough to take your chances in a Florida river, you can watch these giant freaky water cows through glass that lets you view them at their beady eye level – Homosassa Springs State Park, just down the road, also boasts an elevated boardwalk that lets you stroll past cougar, Florida panther, deer, and the ever-present alligator, but the underwater observatory offers a less intrusive way to see manatee. It’s worth it see their fat schmoo-like bodies in all their blubbery glory, if only just to marvel that Florida folk wisdom holds that sailors used to mistake these creatures for mermaids.
This is the second leg of this tour. To read the first leg, click here.
Our tour crosses the Suwannee River at Fanning Springs, close to the river’s communion with the Gulf of Mexico at Cedar Key (See Tour 3). One does not come to this area of the state for beaches, though; one comes for the springs. Every hole and dip in Florida’s limestone floor glitters with teal and sapphire sparks of water, and Fanning Springs burns its radiance as brightly as any.
Florida springs burble and prattle along their way, their blues and greens coalescing to the moonless midnight as they traipse through pine flatwoods, swamps, and hardwood hammocks. At the spring heads, though, the halcyon water shimmers in shades of teal sunshine, an aqueous rainbow revealing infinite depths. Fanning Springs State Park fronts the route, offering primitive camping for hikers, bikers and paddlers. Car and camper travelers can opt for a cabin (no pets permitted) or, as we did, head to nearby Manatee Springs State Park for RV camping or tent camping. Either spring offers a glimpse into Florida’s depths, and both feed the Suwannee. I do not trust my ability to outswim a gator quite enough to relax in Florida’s blackwater rivers, but I snorkel, swim and dive the springs with abandon. Manatee and Fanning Springs alike allow and encourage these things, their crystalline waters the perfect invitation.
I learned to SCUBA dive after my first trip to the Florida Keys. I wanted to get closer to the rainbow of life on the reefs. My first SCUBA dive, though, took place in a murky, frigid sinkhole south of these springs: Hudson Hole. I had no intention then to dive freshwater, and that morning at the sinkhole cemented that decision.
It was my first for-real dive. It was January. It was not fun. Our dive instructors, clad in snuggly warm dry suits, laughed at us as they dumped hot water down the backs of our wet suits. Their breath made little steam clouds as they smirked and suggested we pee as soon as we hit the water. We entered the sinkhole and snorkeled a circle around the lake, then dropped to a platform 20 feet beneath the dismal, dusky surface. We ran through drills – clearing our mask, recovering our regulators, and clearing them – but the entire time I wasn’t thinking about drowning. No, I was too busy worrying about hypothermia and alligators. At least, I thought to myself at one point, if a gator bites me, I’ll be too numb from the cold to feel it.
Hudson Hole did nothing to entice me out of the saltwater and into the fresh. However, Florida’s first magnitude springs – springs that push over 100 million gallons per day out from the state’s spongy limestone center – have little in common with that dank, creepy place best used to train rescue divers. Manatee Springs is a glorious, serene, and – this is crucial – warm, first magnitude spring. Fanning Springs “only” pumps out 65 million gallons of inner earth water daily, which ranks it a second magnitude spring. Those are just words, though, and don’t truly convey the force of the water out of the earth. It gushes over limestone and out into the sun, tumbling over itself in its rush for the surface. You can’t, in all practicality, dive to the source – the pulse of the water will push you back to the outer edge of the planet. You can, however, often find tiny fissures where infinitesimal jets of water stream upwards, a small but unique delight in a wild aquarium.
Back on dry land, we head south.
At Otter Creek, the route passes State Road 24, the one way in and out of Cedar Key. As the road approaches Yankeetown (south of the more populous Chiefland), it turns towards the coast and traces its contours closely for the remaining 137 miles.
In 1962, Elvis came to Yankeetown to make Follow That Dream, a movie about a family that moves to Florida when their car runs out of gas on a deserted stretch of road. The family starts what becomes a thriving fishing business, outsmarts the mob, and befuddles bureaucrats, emerging triumphant at the film’s end. The short story on which it was based, Pioneer Go Home!, sets the stage in New Jersey rather than Florida.
In tribute to the film – and Elvis – the town renamed State Road 40 “Follow That Dream Parkway.” The sign still hangs between the traffic lights as the tour crosses the “Parkway.”
If you’re new here, you may wish to start with this post.
“From red clay hills covered with oaks and magnolias, this route descends into a region of flatwoods and runs straight as an arrow for many miles, passing numerous turpentine and sawmill settlements, and then ascends to limestone hills, with lakes between. Green citrus groves, cypress hammocks, and scattered clumps of cabbage palms relieve the somber vista of cut-over pine land and scrub palmetto. Little of this sparsely settled territory is under fence, and free range cattle are a constant menace to motorists. Upon reaching the west coast the highway is within sight of the Gulf of Mexico, with its palm-fringed bayous and ribbon of low-lying keys, on which are miles of glittering white sand beaches.” – GTSS, 1939
US 19, in the more populous areas of the state, is a nightmare for commuters. In its northern parts, it is a delight, a series of rolling hills and red clay and leafy green trees.
Monticello, at the intersection of US 90 (See Tour 7), emits a distinctly southern vibe, with antebellum homes, an 1890s opera house, and a crumbly cemetery. The pre-civil war construction, so rarely seen in Florida, exists solely by virtue of poverty – when residents couldn’t afford to build new homes during the Great Depression, they instead renovated the older homes. Today they can be seen on a leisurely drive through the town, or by taking a Chamber of Commerce historical walking tour beneath the stately live oaks lining the streets. Homes have roomy porches, maid’s quarters, and gingerbread trim.
This, I note, does not feel a bit like the Florida I know. The Florida I know overflows with sandy ranch houses, Florida rooms lined with cool tarazzo floors, and salt-crusted boats bobbing in emerald bays. But Monticello presents itself not as aquamarine waters and streaky pink sunsets but with muted colors of the forest–green pine trees and carmine-kissed clay soil.
I linger in Roseland cemetery, trying to make out the inscriptions on the moldering tombs. The cemetery dates to 1827 and I find out later that I could have taken a ghost tour through the cemetery. I do not regret not taking the tour; the old stones, aging brick, and moss-draped trees gave the burial ground a desolate, haunted feel without help from paid storytellers.
Every summer, Monticello crowns a Watermelon Queen. In the late 1800s, Monticello and surrounding Jefferson County provided the country with the bulk of its watermelon seeds. The annual festival honoring this juicy slice of the town’s history includes bed races, plenty of food, and watermelon carving. I will leave the pageantry of the crowing of the Queen to your imagination.
Further down the road at Capps, the road joins with US 27 and US 19 and runs south through Perry and the Steinhatchee Conservation Area. If you love jellies and jams, this stretch of road has Florida’s finest on offer. I re-stock my supply of mayhaw jelly, Tupelo honey, and whatever vegetables the unfailingly cheerful roadside salesmen have on offer. Mayhaw berries, which grow in wet, low lying areas with sediment-rich, acidic soil, look like cranberries but don’t taste like them. They taste like… well, they taste like mayhaws, sweet and tart and gentle and sharp, which tells you nothing, I realize.
The trees grow in swampy north Florida, in the panhandle and along the east side of the state as far south as Marion and Volusia (think Ocala and Dayotona Beach) counties, but I find the tastiest jelly along this stretch of US 19.
And what a lovely stretch of road it is, yawning greatly before us as we trundle towards the Tampa Bay area: trees in a thousand shades of green, the odd store or gas station, and not much else. I wouldn’t want to break down here, but I love the drive along the wooded highway. If one gauged the wealth of the residents by the number of shopping malls, they would deduce this is poor man’s country. If instead one looked at the number of birds, pines, and foliage, one might think the people here quite wealthy.
(This is the fifth and final leg of the Lake Okeechobee tour. Read the first part here. New here? Start with What’s this, now?)
Further north, Pahokee looks poorer still, perhaps because of more of those colonial–styled estates interspersed with even more decrepit housing projects and shuttered businesses. Sugar cane is everywhere. As we drive I try and picture where the bodies of the 1928 storm were buried – not all graves were marked – and in my mind I see a jumble of arms and legs and fire and piles and piles of sugar. There’s a fire in the distance; burning cane crops is part of the farming practice. Burning the fields leaves only the stalk, making it easier for the few remaining workers – machines do most of the work today – to harvest the cane.
Port Myaca is the lone spot along the road where we can see the lake instead of a neatly mowed levee. It is also where we begin to leave the cane fields behind. Between here and the top of the lake, lunkers, not sugar cane, are the order of the day. Lunkers, or largemouth bass, make for big business here. Fishing camps dot the northeast quadrant of the lake between Port Mayaca and Okeechobee. If agriculture has attempted to triumph over the lake and Glades on its south side, fishing has learned to harmonize with both on the north end. It is a wholly more pleasant sight for me; I’ve never caught a hawg, or even tried, but after the desperation of Pahokee and Belle Glade, the unassuming fish camps soothe me with their contrast. There are still farms here (largely palms) but the presence of something at work with the environment instead of against it eases the ache I felt in Belle Glade.Taylor Creek marks the top of the lake and also the least-impoverished city along the pond, although it, like the others, contains a fair share of derelict buildings. It also caters more to tourists, although judging by the wealth of fishing camps and bait shops, visitors here have a different idea of paradise than those flocking to see Mickey Mouse just two hours away.
At the western edge of Taylor Creek we stop and walk out to the levee. I still yearn to see a water moccasin, but after Clewiston I hold little hope. We park, this time taking an antsy Calypso, and walk up the levee.
Here the lake seems less wild; there are more buildings and boaters and a man collecting trash from the ramp leading up to the levee. A tractor rests on the inside of the levee on a patch of grass, and a blue heron stares at us. East of our vantage point, a chain link fence separates the heron from a neatly mowed backyard. West of us a barge sits unattended, a colorful sign advertising “ICE SNACKS” in hand-painted lavender letters. White marshmallow clouds over the lake begin to lower themselves and darken.
It’s time to go.
On its west side, Okeechobee grows wilder as it seems to spread out. Here we find fewer signs of development, save the odd gas station, house, or government building. Fields of cattle interspersed with cabbage palm line most of the roadway. In Moore Haven, we see a landfill on the lake side of the road, easily the highest point along the route and marked by crows and vultures soaring overhead. Prison inmates help with road construction, holding “STOP” and “SLOW” signs as we chug along the lake’s perimeter. When one of them switches “SLOW” to “STOP” and stop at the front of the line, he pantomimes asking for a cigarette. We shake our heads no and I find myself wondering what one does in this area of Florida to get thrown in jail. The Moore Haven jail offers no more than medium security. It houses fewer than 1,000 inmates, all male.
Once we come full circle around the pond, I am still at a loss to describe the lake. Despite severe alteration to the landscape, it feels like a forgotten and untouched part of the state. It also leaves me with an alternating sense of wonder and melancholy. Part of me looks for a way to empathize with the needs filled by businesses and farms whose owners shaped these tragic decisions, but I cannot find it. Part of me is in awe of the lake and the surrounding communities; earning a living here cannot be easy, even for the wealthier: they battle mosquitoes, snakes, gators, and hurricanes with alarming regularity. This part of Florida, despite our attempt to control it, is still frontier. Despite neat rows of sugar cane and peppers and palms, the lake and the sky still rule this corner of the Sunshine State.
Neatly ordered rows of farmland escort the route east until the Loxahatchee area, where subdivisions, strip malls, and golf courses rise up to meet the road until it ends in West Palm Beach at A1A. From Loxahatchee east, the density of the Palm Beach suburbs are a blur after the wide open rolling green of the southernmost interior, and it is almost a culture shock to see farms pushed up against the rows of development. The homes line up along the road in much the same way, just moments ago, sugar cane and tomatoes and peas did.
(This is the fourth part of the Lake Okeechobee tour. Read the first part here. New here? Start with What’s this, now?)
While the sweet-toothed towns like Clewiston pave the road to Lake Okeechobee, the ring around the Lake itself (SR 80/ US 27/ SR 700/ US 98/ SR 700) has a mystique all its own. The wall keeping the water just out of sight, the possibility of crossing paths with a venomous pit viper, the unapologetic migrant farm worker communities juxtaposed with the odd colonial home lined with massive palms and green, sweeping lawns. The southern edge is littered with liquor stores, markets, and other hastily–lettered Spanish signs. No middle class exists. Those colonial homes are few and far enough between that you start to believe the ruling class barely exists, either, but sugar’s silent white hand remains constantly at work. It’s not just sugar that rules the day here – anything that grows enslaves the poorest class in these towns.
Consider Belle Glade. The name itself crowns this town “belle of the swamp,” but, in reality, Belle Glade has perhaps Florida’s most tragic history.
Welcome to Belle Glade. Her soil is her fortune.
That’s the sign that greets us, and that may be so – but not for the people living here. Of the town’s 17,500 people, 33 percent live below the poverty level. The town is comprised of 56 percent black people and 34 percent Hispanic. Along the road side we see more Spanish signs than English, and the predominant roadside industry seems a mix of taquerias and drive-through liquor stores. There are over 6,000 homes in Belle Glade, over half of which are single-family homes. As we drive through town, I find myself glancing towards the lake – or, more accurately, the dike keeping the lake from washing over these buildings.
Not that it couldn’t if it wanted to. It’s not like it hasn’t happened before.
“Belle Glade, 42 m. (1,646 pop.), was hastily built in 1925 and virtually wiped out by the hurricane three years later in which hundreds of its citizens perished.” – GTSS, 1939
Here’s the problem with putting houses down in this part of Florida: the land is low and wet, and no matter what humans try to do to make it higher and drier, it doesn’t work on a long-term basis. The Hurricane of 1928 offers the best example of this.
“At the beginning of the twentieth century, water simply flowed unimpeded from the lake’s south shore in a sheet, into the Everglades [… ] For the early settlers and farmers, that simply would not do. So between 1923 and 1925, the state built a 47-mile-long dike of earth. It was about five feet high. Twice in the next three years, it would be shown as useless as a dam made of tissue paper.
“In the early 1920s, commissioners of the Everglades Drainage District, founded in 1913, decided to build a more permanent dike around Lake Okeechobee. The plan was for work to start on the dike in 1927. It would be 110 to 130 feet wide at the base and 20 feet wide at the crest and stand 27 feet above sea level. They concluded that such a levee would resist hurricane-driven surge from the lake. But the legislature didn’t get around to approving the money for it.”
When the 1926 hurricane hit Florida, a low dirt dike burst at Moore Haven, a town of 1,200. Estimates say the water rose 17 feet, destroying the under-construction Glades County Courthouse. Officials buried the unidentifiable bodies in a mass county grave.
By September 1928, no one seemed to have learned from their mistakes. The dike situation had not improved. Nonetheless, area farms still flourished in the rich black muck. Heavy late-summer rains and storms dumped more water in the lake. When a hurricane made landfall on September 16, water dammed in Okeechobee had nowhere to go.
“It woke up Old Okeechobee and the monster began to roll in his bed,” wrote Zora Neale Hurston in Their Eyes Were Watching God, a novel partially based on the 1928 storm.
The dikes did not hold. What followed was a precursor to Katrina: death of the poor black families on a massive scale. Forty miles inland, the hurricane reclaimed Florida, destroying the levee, obliterating entire towns, flooding farms, and killing thousands. The water had taken back the land, reshaping the topography of Florida’s lowest third.
Before human intervention, the natural system worked. Water flowed from the middle of the state at a shallow, slow pace down the meandering Kissimmee River. During the summer there was more of it; in the winter, less. Some water pooled in Lake Okeechobee; some went around, and still more flowed through. In late summer, heavier rains flooded the land south of the lake as well as the Kissimmee River’s flood plain. At the edge of the Everglades, the excess water drained into Florida Bay.
However efficiently it worked for the birds, trees, and fish, this system did not work for those who wanted to farm or sell the land under the water. Under that ever-moving pesky water was black gold: soil so rich from eons of wet, decaying plant and animal life that anything would grow in it. Under that water was land that could hold houses, shopping malls, and condominiums. The land failed to make anyone money while flooded with water, so why not change it – just a bit – to make it more efficient for humans?
The Everglades consists of not one but many unique, interdependent ecosystems. The Glades have more than a bunch of wet sawgrass: interspersed with the razor-sharp sedge you find hammocks of hardwood trees, mangrove islands, cypress swamp, freshwater prairies, and a patchwork of other communities. The one commonality these ecosystems all share is a persistent need for fresh water.
Tragedies rarely result from one single mis-step; more often than not, a series of poor choices lead to catastrophe. The 1928 tragedy south of Okeechobee came about because of not one but three bad decisions. Building a dike around Lake Okeechobee to contain the water proved less-than-prudent; altering the landscape so that the land surrounding and beneath the lake could be used for farm, cattle, and citrus compounded the problem; housing poor black farm workers to live on that newly-drained land completed the trifecta of bad decisions.
On September 16, 1928, these three decisions collided spectacularly.
“As the Category 4 monster raged westward, it saved its most crippling blow for the small farming communities that lined Lake Okeechobee‘s southern shore. Between Clewiston and Canal Point, 6,000 people lived and worked, and nearly half would perish before the light of day.”
Hurricane winds can bend a bicycle around a tree. They can lift a roof off a home. They can pick up cars. In 1928, the wind powered a mighty wave of water through a wall supposed to contain it.
“A five foot muck dike, built to hold back Lake Okeechobee’s waves during summer rains, crumbled in the frenzied waters, unleashing a storm surge with the fury of a tidal wave.
“‘Nobody seemed to be too much alarmed,’ said [Frank] Stallings, 20 then and boarded up with his family in their Belle Glade grocery store, ‘until the water started coming in’.
“One family strapped the children to a fallen tree. Some in Belle Glade rushed up the water tower, kicking at anyone who got in their way. In the farming communities surrounding South Bay and Pahokee, thousands of field workers hunkered down in flimsy homes, many doomed to drown.”
Today we know those were category four hurricane winds that pushed the water around in the shallow lake, beating it to a boil. The water in the lake rose 10 feet above the lake level, bursting through almost 22 miles of levee on the southeast side of the mighty lake. The wall of water rampaged through the town, turning houses upside down, washing them away, and drowning those in its path. There was no escape; the water fiercely and wholly reclaimed the land and swallowed towns upon it.
Even today, no one knows how many people died. The first number, 225, quickly grew to 400.
“Ugly death was simply everywhere,” Charles Young, a Glades resident who helped collect the dead, would later recall. The work was one part rescue, most parts body recovery. Young found the bodies of a family, including a dead man clutching his stilled child. Another rescuer, Festus Stalling, found the bloated body of a little girl, a toddler wearing a bracelet.
“A month earlier, she had proudly shown him the bracelet, a gift for her second birthday. He grabbed her by that arm, lifted her up, and added her to the pile of death.”
Some bodies were given a burial in a coffin, but not many. The Florida Health Department officially claimed just over 1,800 dead, but historians put the toll higher. Most of the dead were black farm workers. In 1920s Florida, an unidentified black person didn’t get a coffin, especially not with the weight of dead bodies crushing relief efforts.
No records exist of the farm owners dying in the storm, perhaps because they lived elsewhere.
Relief workers stacked bodies in piles and burned them, burying the remains in mass graves. At some sites, they took the time to count the corpses. At others, workers were too overwhelmed to keep track. Most black survivors and many white ones never found out what happened to their friends and relatives.
The little girl with the bracelet? She was thrown onto a funeral pyre, her body burned and buried with the others. Festus Stalling never forgot her. Memories of that child – and the many other dead – stayed with him until he died, his son Frank said.
“He said the hardest thing he ever had to do,” Frank said years later, “was throw that little girl’s body on that fire.”
Today, the majority of homes and stores by the lake line the road ringing the lake, less than a half mile from those levees.
(This is the third part of the Lake Okeechobee tour. Read the first part here. New here? Start with What’s this, now?)
Forget the First Lady’s battle against childhood obesity. Never mind the alarmingly high rates of adult-onset diabetes. Put it clear out of your mind that the pharmaceutical dollars spent to combat sugar-related health diseases could buy a small island nation several times over. If you want to help Florida, stop eating sugar.
If you’ve ever heard the phrase “Big Sugar,” a term generally used derisively, the person likely meant US Sugar or Domino Sugar. Sugar is a huge industry in Florida and a big part of the Everglades’ downfall. Without Big Sugar, some say, there would be no need for the Everglades Restoration program.
While I disagree somewhat – greed and avarice are powerful, potent motivators, and businessmen don’t need sugar cane to buy, drain, raze, and sell to the highest bidder – US Sugar’s impact on Florida profoundly saddens me. The company irrevocably altered one of the sweetest, swampiest places on earth.
Clewiston sits at the southwest lake rim. In 1937, it was a company town, owned by US Sugar. The workers – the black workers – who cut the cane and processed the sugar lived south of Clewiston in Harlem.
In the 1930s the US Sugar Corporation essentially owned Clewiston’s water, power, and phone companies as well as the town hotel. Well, not essentially. They actually did own it. Today, US Sugar dominates still. Clewiston is a sugar town; there is no pretending US Sugar doesn’t have a hand in everything. To the south, the Fanjul Brothers run a similar saccharine empire with Domino Sugar and Florida Crystals. Although Florida Crystals, especially, markets itself as “Carbonfree”and prides itself on dredging “nutrient-rich” out of nearby (man-made) canals and re-using it on the fields, make no mistake: sugar is killing the Everglades.
The muck around Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades grows perfect sugar cane. Big Sugar came here, saw, planted, and – with an insane amount of help from government subsidies – grew. They took what water they wanted, and if, during dry spells, they didn’t get enough, they convinced the government to let them divert the massive amounts of water they needed. When they got too much, they flushed it out along the Caloosahatchee and the St. Lucie Rivers. They dammed it up behind a wall in case they needed it.
The result? Sweet, sweet sugar – fantastic news for US Sugar and the Fanjul Brothers, but not so much for lands south of the sugar cane, which includes the ‘Glades. Because of Big Sugar, the government – through the auspices of a state-run water management board called South Florida Water Management District – can, at the governor’s whim, turn Lake Okeechobee on and off like a big faucet. This, as you may well imagine, does not bode well for unique ecosystems accustomed to getting the same amount of water it has received for the past 5,000 years. Without the seasonal, irregular flow, life in the Glades faltered.
In addition, sugar cane is not impervious to bugs and disease, so farmers use pesticides to keep that sugar coming. As with most plants, fertilizer makes sugar cane grow faster, but once they send those green stalks on a growth spurt, those chemicals don’t disappear – the sneak out into the Everglades. Since the first stalk of sugar cane sprouted from the muck, US Sugar and the Fanjul Brothers have steadily and dramatically increased the levels of nitrogen, phosphorous, chemical cocktails that kill bugs, grow big sugar cane, and decimate the Everglades.
In time, and aided by activists like Marjorie Stoneman Douglas, a writer and activist whose father happened to own the Miami Herald and thus gave her a far-reaching platform, people began to understand the significance of the Everglades. Hey, we may not like its razor-sharp sedge, its venomous snakes, or its larger-than-life collection of saurian green predators, but we like even less knowing that we, as a species, drove anything to extinction. With Ms. Douglas’ help – and others – people saw all-too-clearly that was indeed where the ‘Glades were headed. Work began on a “restoration program” to try and keep the Everglades from drying out and dying.
Except, of course, that Big Sugar remains. Death of a one-of-a-kind ecosystem or not, they have to worry about that bottom line, and they will do anything to ensure state and federal laws stay in their favor. While US Sugar has the support of most of Clewiston – without Big Sugar, the best chance a kid has for a future involves the NFL – most everyone else in Florida clucks their tongue and shakes their head when you talk about sugar and the Everglades.
After years of strife between Big Sugar and pretty much anyone else who read a paper in Florida, Governor Charlie Crist came upon a seemingly perfect solution: why not just buy out the company? For under $2 billion, the state could buy 187,000 acres of Big Sugar land, close the refinery, and restore the flow of the Everglades, no easy task after years of soil erosion and degradation courtesy of, of course, Big Sugar.
It sounded like a great, workable solution, so of course it failed in quick stages. The Governor announced the plan in June 2008. By November the plan changed: for $1.34 billion the state could have 181,000 acres but not any of the processing facilities, including the refinery. To make a long story somewhat shorter, the numbers kept shrinking and as of February 2012, US Sugar is still alive and well in Clewiston, much to the relief of its 1,700 employees who depend on America’s sweet tooth to feed their families.
(This is the second part of the Lake Okeechobee tour. Read the first part here. New here? Start with What’s this, now?)
On the mainland, the route traces the crowded banks of the Caloosahatchee. East of Interstate 75 the buildings grow fewer. In parts, cypress swamps still meet the road, but farms and cattle are more prominent than low-lying swampland. As we pass Buckingham Road the road abandons all pretense of following the twisting river and shoots through the right angles of reclaimed swamp.
This part of Florida is a study in right angles: the road, the crops lining the road, and the drainage canals dug to helpfully dry out the swampland and make the rich muck more useful as soil. Even the Caloosahatchee has succumbed to this idea of order: while the river still curves and bows in places, in parts its lines, too, straighten alongside the neat rows of orange trees, tomatoes, and peppers.
Was this the greatest idea? It depends on whom you ask. The farmers and the homes here likely think so; Everglades-huggers likely disagree. The system of drainage canals and pounds of fertilizer and pesticides used on these farms haven’t exactly encouraged the wetland to thrive. It appears that some of the farmers have sold to developers (who, in turn, sell to the unsuspecting folks from out of state), and signs of subdivisions marching south emerge along this road: a supermarket here, a diner there.
LaBelle exists at a bend in the Caloosahatchee. It is by no accounts a large city, but it is the main population center between I-75 and Lake Okeechobee along the route. It has not quite 5,000 residents and is the Hendry County seat.
“Cowboys ride into town from the surrounding ranches, wearing broadbrimmed hats, high boots, and other conventional trappings. La Belle’s big event is the Fourth of July rodeo, at which range hands compete in riding Florida broncos and ‘bull-dogging’ steers. Roping and whipcracking contests follow spirited horse races, on which wagering is heavy. A barbecue supper concludes the day, and in the evening square dances are enjoyed in jooks and homes to the music of guitars and fiddles, accented by the thumps of heavy boots.” – GTSS, 1939
Today the rodeo continues in LaBelle, as does the annual Swamp Cabbage Festival. The Festival includes “Grasscar” (a lawnmower race); armadillo races, which are exactly what they sound like; and, of course, the crowning of the Swamp Cabbage Queen.
Swamp cabbage, for the uninitiated, comes from the white tender heart of younger cabbage palm trees. When prepared, they look like the logs of string cheese sold in grocery stores, although they taste nothing alike. I can’t get enough of the squishy, sour-ish hearts, but I freely admit they aren’t for everyone. Barry wrinkles his nose at them every time I try and get him to try one, but Florida literature professor Thomas Hallock describes in terms so eloquent I must repeat them:
“Ate some in Holopaw,” he says. “What does it taste like? For me, like urine-pickled cauliflower.”
Jono Miller, a cabbage palm expert (Seriously, the man wrote a master’s thesis on the cabbage palm. These sorts of things simply do not happen in other states), disagrees. He explains that swamp cabbage is the brand-new part of the tree. Like a brand-new baby, it doesn’t have its own personality yet, so it tastes like whatever you soak it in.
“My suggestion?” he says, “Avoid the urine-pickled swamp cabbage – the ease of preparation is offset by the result.”
Even cabbage palm experts, it seems, have a sense of humor.
In Clewiston I hope to see my first water moccasin as part of my odd love affair with Florida’s legless reptiles. Barry tells stories of crossing the lake on boat deliveries and stopping at the Roland Martin Marine Center for the night. At twilight and after water moccasins would gather on the floating docks, patches of color darker than the dock that looked suspiciously like rope but most definitely were not. A more prevalent but decidedly less deadly evil, the mosquitoes here are so thick that when you sit down to dinner at the marina bar, the server hands you a can of insect repellant.
We stop the van and walk out to the levee, my eyes more focused on the ground than the water. I leave Calypso in the van to keep her safe. Cottonmouth water moccasins are pit vipers with tiny, evil heads and tails but fat, snuggly bodies. Some sick part of me very badly wants to see a one up close. I don’t want to cuddle it, exactly, but I do want to know if they’re as fearsome as my childhood nightmares. I grew up a block away from a creek, and my parents warned me it was chock-full of the dastardly serpents. I never saw one, but odds are if I had seen one, it would have been a common nonvenomous water snake, not a venomous cuddly beast. Brown water snakes are far more populous in Florida, but not as good a deterrent for keeping a curious seven-year-old out of trouble.
At the top of the levee I see a canal with four empty rowboats rafted up to grassy lowland; the lake itself remains mostly out of sight. In the distance I see an empty nesting platform, ready for osprey. I look carefully at the ground and the levee wall. I step carefully.
I see no snakes. We walk back to the van and commence circling the pond.