Black Gold and Silver Sands: A Pictorial History of Agriculture in Palm Beach County reminds readers of the crucial role that “ag” has played – and still does – in Palm Beach County and in the rest of Florida.
The “black gold” in the title refers to muck farmers of the Glades, while “silver sands” refers to the sand farmers along the coast. The difference between the soils is striking, according to the book: “The soils on the coast are high in minerals and low in organic matter … The soils of the Glades are high in organics and low in some critical minerals.” In addition, the sandy soils suffer from poor drainage and don’t hold water nearly as well as their muck counterparts.
This well-researched book, by James D. Snyder, transports readers to the days when the first American settlers arrived. In fact, its first page discusses three families, with a total of 13 members, who moved from Illinois to Jacksonville in 1875.
The men headed south, looking for farmland, and returned to Jacksonville in the summer of 1876. Marion Geer, whose father was one of the men, later wrote in her memoirs about what they had found: “the Garden of Eden, where the sky was bluer, the water clearer, the flowers sweeter … than could be found elsewhere on the continent.” The men were describing Lake Worth.
Snyder is a lifelong journalist who spent 30 years in Washington, D.C. His jobs there included governmental-affairs reporter and magazine editor. He lives along the Loxahatchee River in Martin County.
The first crops
The crops people grew depended on each family’s location and circumstances. Around Lake Worth, for example, settlers in the 1870s planted pineapples and sugar cane. Others planted citrus, coconuts, pumpkins, sweet potatoes – whatever would grow. But not all “crops” grew.
In the section “When Copper and Brass Were ‘Crops,’ Snyder details how people salvaged ships’ nails, sails, copper sheathing, and lumber on the beach. When they had enough items to make the difficult 160-mile trip north to Titusville, they sold them to scrap dealers, as they would vegetables.
The book also provides little-known facts: The first known settler on Lake Worth, then a freshwater body, was a Mr. Lang, a German and a Confederate sympathizer. After helping to hide the Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse lens, he fled south.
On hearing in 1866 that “the var Between the States” had ended a year earlier, he abandoned his farmstead on the eastern shore of Lake Worth and moved north, to an unknown destination. Fortunately, Lang, a horticulturist, left behind cultivated rows of plants and trees that provided farmers who soon followed with “an important jump-start.”
Snyder also details how the growth of agriculture in Palm Beach County paralleled the growth of tourism and development. In fact, the process was circular. Sections such as “Where Flagler Went, New Fields Followed” describe how the railroad magnate’s development drove the growth of agriculture.
Even tragic events – such as storms, the Great Depression and World War II – didn’t stop the acceleration of farming. Farmers who, after the deadly 1928 hurricane, had planned to abandon South Florida stayed and “were out in their fields in a frenzy of planting.”
Why? Northern cities were facing a shortage of winter vegetables. As a result, “wholesale prices for green beans, for example, quickly jumped to five times the old rate – then ten times.”
In “The Dawn of Corporate Farming,” the author details how high-volume, highly efficient crop production resulted from the Great Depression.
World War II fueled even more agricultural growth in the Everglades. One reason: When the federal government eliminated crop quotas in 1942, “Vegetables, which accounted for 17,000 acres in 1929, shot up to 75,000 acres.”
The rise of sugar
Although growing sugar cane dates to the earliest settlers, it wasn’t until after the end of World War I that farmers began focusing on large-scale production. (During the war, Florida residents were limited to, the book says, “three-quarters of a pound per person per week” of sugar.)
In 1920, F.E. Bryant, a land developer, founded the Florida Sugar and Food Products Co. in Canal Point. The new company’s slogan: “Sugar in 1923.” By 1923, Palm Beach County farmers had 900 acres of cane in production – 800 of them in Canal Point – and Bryant’s new mill produced its first sugar.
But Bryant’s enterprise would be short-lived. A flood in 1922, and another in 1924, wiped out cane fields throughout the Glades and devastated the mill’s income. So Bryant was forced to merge his financially shaky venture with the new, Clewiston-based Southern Sugar Co. Today, it’s known as the U.S. Sugar Corp.
A pictorial history
Black Gold and Silver Sands contains hundreds of historic photos of the agriculture in Palm Beach County. They include a Seminole camp near Lake Okeechobee; the homes of early American settlers, many of which had salvaged ships’ lumber for a frame, palmetto leaves for a roof, and exterior “walls” made of ships’ sails.
In addition, the book features many shots of the Glades region, including some shot during the aftermath of disasters, such as the 1928 and 1947 hurricanes. Arguably the most thought-provoking photo, however, appears on page 4. In it, Christine Taylor Waddill, then-director of the University of Florida’s Research and Education Center southeast of Belle Glade, stands next to the “Subsidence Post.”
In 1924, a 9-foot-long concrete post was hammered into the muck soil, down to bedrock. The top of the post was even with the top of the soil. Today, as shown in the photo, 6 feet of the post stands exposed; only 3 feet of muck remain before the bedrock. (In some areas of the Glades, soil subsidence, or erosion, has resulted in exposed bedrock; nothing is left on which to grow crops.)
What does the future hold?
In the closing chapter, “Questions for Farming’s Future,” Snyder addresses modern-day concerns such as maintaining water quality, controlling pollution and pests, and dealing with soil subsidence (erosion).
Once again, though, the growers are shown employing innovation. On some farms, natural predators, such as barn owls, are replacing pesticides and poisons. On others, hydroponic crops are growing – to help substitute for land whose soil is so shallow, it can no longer support farming.
The challenges facing farmers are as daunting as ever. The most important lesson in Black Gold and Silver Sands is this: Even when times are tough, farmers know how to turn adversity into opportunity.
Black Gold and Silver Sands: A Pictorial History of Agriculture in Palm Beach County by James D. Snyder, 2004. Order online; also available at various historical societies.
J.D. Vivian serves as a writer, editor, and photographer for Florida Food & Farm. He has written, and shot photos for, The South Florida Sun-Sentinel, The Palm Beach Post, and other publications during his more than four decades in South Florida.