Traditional Crops of the Old South – Florida Oranges, Tobacco, and Pecans

We return from Pensacola by the Old Spanish Trail, which leads the motorist through the rolling agricultural and forest country of West Florida. This is a totally different terrain from any other part of the state. Physically and scenically it suggests lower New England, except for the palm trees and the Spanish moss. It is in this part of Florida that the oldest settlements of English-speaking people are found. There is an atmosphere of the Old South about many of the big plantation houses and the architecture observable in the old towns along the highway. One gets the impression of a fixed and self-contained civilization which could get along very well by itself if no tourists ever came to Florida. It is predominantly an agricultural country. But here, as everywhere else in Florida, agriculture takes many forms unfamiliar to Northern eyes, and the urge to experiment which the Florida climate seems to implant in everyone who comes under its influence has produced some agricultural curiosities.

At Crestview, for example, in Okaloosa County, a few miles east from Milton on Escambia Bay, blueberries grow on trees. In the early 1920’s an imaginative farmer wondered what would happen if he transplanted, cultivated and fertilized the wild swamp blueberry bush. He tried it on a few acres of land and a few years later he and his helpers were picking blueberries with tall step-ladders, from 13-foot trees! From that beginning Crestview has developed into one of the important blueberry-raising centers of the nation.

We pass through Defuniak Springs, center of a farming community built around one of the dozens of clear, springfed lakes such as one encounters all over the state. Before the days of the movies and the motor car Defuniak Springs was the seat of an annual Chautauqua encampment and lecture course, the second of its kind to be established. Now it is one of the important poultry centers of Florida. Initiated in 1923 by a young poultryman from Iowa, the poultry industry of this section has grown to important proportions.

We are getting into the country of the Satsuma orange, largest of the “kid glove” or tangerine oranges, which derive their name from Tangiers, in North Africa, but whose genealogy in this instance traces back to Japan. The Satsuma is the hardiest of all oranges, and can be grown successfully in regions where frost is a constant menace to other varieties. The Satsuma groves of this region, however, suffered severely in the freeze of 1931-32. Some successful vineyards on a fairly large scale have been developed in this strip of country which stretches along the Alabama-Georgia line. This is the only part of Florida which grows any apples at all, but they are backyard pets and not a commercial product. Sand pears, however, not especially good to eat raw but delicious for canning, do very well throughout this country, and many flourishing pear orchards are profitable. Scattered throughout this region are pecan groves. The pecan nut is indigenous to this region. It has never been cultivated or developed commercially to the extent that it has been in Texas, yet Florida pecans figure with some importance in the commercial crop statistics of the state. Individual pecan trees, fifty years old or older, still yielding nuts by the scores of bushels, stand in many a farm house yard all through Northwest Florida. Many commercial pecan groves yield large annual incomes.

We pass through Bonifay, Cottondale, Marianna, each important as the trading center and shipping point for a prosperous farming region, cross the river with two names at a point hardly a rifle shot from the southwest corner of Georgia and so on to Quincy, county seat of Madison County. Where the river which forms the boundary line between Georgia and Alabama touches Georgia soil it is called by its Georgia name, the Chattahoochee, and it keeps that name throughout the twenty-five miles in which it forms a part of the Georgia-Florida boundary. But from the moment its banks on both sides are Florida soil, down to where it enters the Gulf, it goes by its Florida name, the Apalachicola River. It is the only southward flowing river in Florida that is navigable by steamboat for more than a few miles. The Chattahoochee-Apalachicola has a navigable channel over 200 miles long, from Columbus, Georgia, southward.

Quincy is the center of two interesting Florida industries. The largest deposits of fuller’s earth are in Gadsden County, near Quincy, where this fine white clay is mined and processed for shipment all over the world. It is in constant and increasing demand for filtering oils, both mineral and vegetable. Nothing has yet been found so satisfactory as fuller’s earth for this purpose.

Quincy is also the central market for shade-grown Sumatra tobacco, considered the highest grade cigar-wrapper tobacco produced in the United States. Hundreds of acres of the farm lands around Quincy are protected by artificial shade under which the tobacco is grown. This shade consists of narrow slats laid on frames eight or nine feet from the ground. The shade serves a double purpose. It minimizes the intensity of the summer sun, and it breaks the force of the heavy rains which occur during the season when the tobacco leaf is approaching maturity. Unobstructed rain falling on a tobacco field with the force with which Florida’s summer showers descend, splashes the sandy soil up against the tobacco leaves, causing spots and holes in the cured leaf which unfit it for cigar-wrapper use.

A curious and romantic story hangs around this Florida Sumatra tobacco. Long before the war between the states the particularly fine grade of cigar tobacco which had been de veloped here in West Florida was highly prized in all the markets of the world. A thriving trade was developed with the Netherlands. Dutch ships put in at the port of St. Marks, bringing cargoes of Schiedam schnapps, sometimes “contraband” in the form of slaves, and loading up with leaf tobacco. The war of 1861-65 put an end to this trade. Not only did the Federal blockade of southern ports make exports hazardous or impossible, but the war put an end to slave labor, upon which the old planters depended.

After the end of the war, a young man who had served as a captain in the Confederate Army returned to his father’s plantation, intending to carry on tobacco growing on his an cestral acres. Not only did he find there were no tobacco plantations left, but he could not find an ounce of the old, prized strain of tobacco seed at any price.

The last Dutch ship to run the blockade, he was told, had bought the entire available supply of tobacco seed.

After months of inquiry and correspondence, he learned that the Dutch government had established a tobacco monopoly on the Island of Sumatra, in the Dutch East Indies, using the seed obtained from Florida.

He sent to Sumatra for a supply of the seed. After more months of delay he received a shipment and the following Spring prepared the seed-bed and sowed the seed from Sumatra. To his surprise and bewilderment, not a single seed germinated.

Puzzled and unable to imagine what had happened to the seed, he asked a friend who was starting on a tour around the world, taking in the Dutch East Indies, to buy him some Sumatra tobacco seed and bring it home with him. The friend obligingly executed the commission. He purchased a quantity of tobacco seed from one of the largest planters on the island, and put it in his trunk. The following day an official of the Dutch Colonial Government called on him at his hotel.

“I understand you bought some tobacco seed and intend to take it to America,” said the official.

“That is so,” replied the visitor. “What of it?”

“Only that it is the law that no tobacco seed may be taken or shipped out of Sumatra until it has been boiled! You will have to turn over to me the seed you bought and I will give it back to you after we have boiled it.”

The mystery was solved. No wonder the shipment of tobacco seed from Sumatra had failed to sprout.