Around Florida – Sugar, Citrus, and Tree Crops Grown in the Everglades

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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