All posts by Cathy Salustri

Cathy Salustri loves Florida. She writes about her travels across the state, using her MLA in Florida Studies to explore every corner of the Sunshine State. When not traveling Florida, she's writing, reading, and cooking Florida things.

Circling the Pond: 1928

(This is the fourth part of the Lake Okeechobee tour. Read the first part here. New here? Start with What’s this, now?)
Black Cloud, by Eliot Kleinberg
Unless otherwise noted, most, if not all, of the italicized text in this entry comes from this book. Click the photo to buy your own copy.
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.

Circling the Pond: Clewiston

(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.

Clewiston’s slogan? “America’s Sweetest City.”

Circling the Pond: West of Okeechobee

(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.