By Jerry Wilkinson
One question most asked of me is "How, or did they, really farm the
Keys?" Farming was one of the methods, like fishing, the wrecker used
tide himself over between salvaging shipwrecks. As the wrecking
began to close in the latter 1800s, the farming industry expanded.
We can easily assume that early families raised sufficient plant foods to support their own needs and probably enough to trade with neighbors (if there were any) for other necessities of life. One looking for old housing sites can readily spot them by the telltale signs of date palms, sapodillas, guavas, mangoes and other fruit trees. Usually the remains of a water cistern are nearby. Every homesteader grew their own fruit from trees that the early Bahamian settlers knew would thrive in the limestone soil of the Keys. Raising animals for meat was not as critical in the Keys because of the quantity of marine life, but it was still done on a limited basis. The farming I refer to here is an industry and not just for family sustenance. One reason farming was more successful in the Upper Keys than the Lower Keys was that the Upper Keys generally received about 20 inches more annual rainfall.
As an industry, I propose that Dr. Perrine made the first real attempt at farming on Indian Key and surrounding Keys beginning in the late 1830s. His goal was to make south Florida a tropical agricultural center. He incorporated The Tropical Plant Company in 1838. Indians killed Dr. Perrine in August of 1840 and burned the island.
Francis Gerdes in his 1848 written account An Interesting Journal On Florida Reefs gives a hint that there was farming on Key Largo by using the word 'plantation.' On January 29 he writes, "After leaving Indian Key, no more settlements appear on the islands up to Cape Florida. A plantation on Kay Largo opposite Rodriguez was abandoned, the house is empty." Whether it was abandoned because of the previous Indian War, unsuccessful, or some other reason is not known.
There is some evidence that during the Civil War (1861-65) Key West was overcrowded with refugees and others. It is not clear whether it was the military or businessmen, but people were sent to the Cape Sable area to grow food for Key West. I submit that they could have gone to other places also.
It is generally accepted and partially substantiated that Captain Ben Baker of the wrecking ship Rapid from Key West was the first large producer of pineapples in the Upper Keys. The 1850 census shows him living in Key West as a 32-year-old mariner. By the mid-1860s, Captain Baker had pineapple plantations on Plantation Key and Key Largo. While overseeing his plantations, he watched for possible shipwrecks occurring on Molasses and Carysfort reefs. As part of his wrecking business, Captain Baker also had cargo ships primarily used to transport his salvage goods. This capability was immediately available to load and transport his, possible others also, when harvested.
In 1870, a Benjamin Baker opened a post office in the Rock Harbor area,
i.e., about Mile Marker 97. The island of Key Largo was not surveyed
1872 so the exact location is not on his post office application. Dr.
B. Holder writing for the Harper's Magazine in 1871 wrote "Mr.
the owner, who resides in Key West, is reported to have realized seven
thousand dollars this summer from his crop of pineapples...." The 1880
census shows Baker living somewhere north of Planter. In 1882, a
Baker homesteaded 160 acres now identified as the Rock Harbor area as
has been surveyed. Miss Lamar Louise Curry, whose father owned one mile
from ocean to bay, told me that as a child she saw the grave site of
Baker in that general area. I submit that there is sufficient
that Baker existed, farmed pineapples and lived in the Rock Harbor
We get a clue of how farming was done from Andrew P. Canova, who wrote in his Life and Adventures in South Florida in 1885: "On different portions of Upper Matecumbe, in May, 1880, were little patches of deep soil, called by the inhabitants 'Red Holes.' These curious spots are from 15 to 30 feet in diameter and take their name from the peculiar, reddish color of the soil contained in them. Scarcely any rocks are found in these spots, and the fruit growers select them on that account as a place to plant bananas and tropical fruit trees. . . . Messrs. Pinder and Saunders were raising pineapples and made immense shipments in 1881 and 1882. The manner of cultivation was peculiar. No hoe could be used because of the shallowness of the soil. The plants were set 18 inches apart, and left mostly to themselves. One weeding was considered sufficient. . . . On Plantation Key a Mr. Low [Lowe] had a pineapple and coconut grove. The pineapple grove was 30 acres in size and the crop that year  was doing so well that he expected to cut at least 96,000 pineapples. . . ."
Farming was a completely new industry for the Keys in the 1800s.
sponging, fishing, turtling, lumbering were expected, but not farming!
One thing that held farming back was lack of adequate transportation of
perishable goods to a distant market. The local market was Key West,
only for relatively small quantities. Large quantities had to be taken
to Key West and trans-shipped to northern seaports. Fortunately, the
was becoming available and lighthouses were operable, but it was still
a four, or six-day trip after loading and departing from Key West. It
possible to ship directly by using locally owned sailboats or by
a ship for this purpose. One successful trip was reportedly made when
Bradish "Hog" Johnson loaded his schooner Irene from Key Largo
Elliott Key and delivered pineapples to New Jersey five-and-a-half days
later. The Plantation Key built 58 foot Island Home was
the means shipping between Miami and Key West.
A Baltimore, Maryland company opened a pineapple cannery in Key West in the 1880s. It would operate about four months a year - April, May, June and July - canning the fruit. The cannery was located near the present day Pier House. For some reason it ceased operation in the the 1890s. In the 1930 depression Norberg Thompson opened another pineapple cannery using Cuban pineapples on Eaton Street. It ceased operation shortly after the 1935 Hurricane destroyed the railroad.
Small canneries have been reported on the mainland in the Coconut Grove area. When interviewed in 1964, Bertram Pinder told of a cannery being built by his grandfather (Adolphus Pinder) around 1891 to can tomatoes on Upper Matecumbe Key. It operated for about two year before closing to retrofit for canning pineapples. It never reopened and about 10,000 cans were left unused. The building was badly damaged by the 1906 Hurricane and totally washed away by the 1935 Hurricane.
Once the Flagler railroad was in operation, local shipments could be made to Jacksonville in a couple of days; however, expensive unloading, repacking and reloading were necessary. Flagler also gave more favorable tariffs to foreign imports than local cargo.
The pineapple is of the family Bromelia and has seeds, but takes up to ten years to produce from the seed. It can be reproduced faster from "suckers," "slips" and/or the "crown." Depending on which source is used, it takes from twelve to twenty-four months to mature and ripen. Each plant produces only one fruit. The suckers from the base will continue to produce fruit for several years, but of an inferior quality. The usual method is to plant six-to-ten-thousand slips per acre in the rainy season. About two-thirds will be productive.
The following data came from an original document submitted to
Engineer, William J. Krome, by an associate engineer, Frank H. Hakell,
on December 22, 1904: "... Upper Matecumbe Key - Agricultural
The Key is very fertile, and is farmed quite extensively. The following
is an average list of produce shipped each year.
After Flagler completed the railroad to Key West and began bringing in pineapples from Havana, a large repacking shed had to be built in Key West. The Cubans packed the railroad cars much too densely to survive the additional shipment time to the more distant, northern markets. When packed tightly they were bruised and overheated during the longer voyage. For example, the Key West Citizen reported on May 27, 1929, "The largest shipment of the season arrived here Saturday night. . . . There were 60 carloads coming in. After transfer to other cars was made here yesterday, the outgoing shipment totaled 109 cars." In 1934 one train alone transported 134 freight cars of Cuban repacked pineapples to Miami.
My copy of an April 1905 Florida East Coast Railway construction survey of Plantation Key shows 3 tomato fields, 4 pineapple fields, 2 alligator pear [avocado] groves, 3 coconut groves, 1 lime grove, 2 sugar apple groves, one orange grove and 3 abandoned fields. The following year there was a severe hurricane and pineapple blight, both of which were repeated in 1909. A few years later, Flagler brought in the cheaper Cuban pineapples and this ushered in the key lime to replace the Keys’ pineapple. Upper Keys pineapple farming was doomed. The previous large train shipments were Cuban pineapples.
Citrus originated in Asia where the Crusaders took them to Europe. Limes were popular for early sailors to prevent scurvy on their long voyages. Exactly how limes began on the Keys is not known. Some say the early Spanish sailors brought them, some credit Dr. Perrine, but we really do not know. The key lime is the Mexican lime, the specie Citrus aurantifolia and was the one grown in the Keys. The aforementioned set of 1905 surveys also shows a lime grove in Rock Harbor on the William Dunham Albury homestead.
The Florida Times-Union newspaper of November 28, 1917 stated
its column "Islamorada Notes" that "There are thirty families living on
the island: tomatoes, onions and limes are the principal crops. There
183 acres of lime groves and about 100 acres of tomatoes and onions
this season. [For an idea the original 1870s survey indicated Upper
Key to be 848.61 acres in size.] The farmers will commence shipping
about December and will continue shipping until April. The best
grown are grown in the Florida Keys."
The 1935 hurricane gave the coup de grace, and 1935 can be considered as the beginning of the end of the Keys’ farming industry. This of course was not the end of small holdings of one to five acres, but even these began to give way to development. The farms got smaller, but the work remained just as hard. In my opinion, farming died in the Upper Keys when Hector Emanuel Clark of Newport "just got too old to do it." Hector came from Grand Turk Island to Miami in 1924 and settled on Key Largo in 1933. He hacked out a few acres in Newport and grew just about everything, but specialized in Keys tomatoes.
Keys farming and the tomato are gone as soon might be the key lime -
citrus canker is taking its toll. They were
grown in natural Keys soils, such as the 'red Holes' which is rare
Most of us live on landfill dredged from canals. While this is probably
not the true meaning of historic preservation, I would like to suggest
that every Keys family plant at least one key lime tree. It likes sun
is fairly salt tolerant. The lignumvitae tree is another suggestion
one not want a fruit tree, but it is a slow grower.
All is not lost
however. Hydroponic farms are appearing; albeit, in small scale. With
that said, since the entire permanent population of the Keys is about
80,000, small will work. Case in point, Richard Meister utilizes a
one-quarter acre to provide a variety of 'greens' to the Upper Keys
businesses. At the present, December 2008, a variety of lettuces the
crop. The absence of winter freezes and many days of sunny weather is a
plus for the Plantation Key hydroponic farm.