Ever since Columbus brought the delicious bromeliad back to Europe from the New World, pineapples became a symbol of luxury and hospitality. In pioneer Florida, they meant cash and a way to make a new life in one of America’s last frontiers.
In the 19th Century, the town of Eden (an imagined contemporary Eden is the setting of PARIAH and my Zeke Adams Mystery series) was synonymous with pineapples. Previously, Eden and neighboring settlements along the Indian River in Southeast Florida had been difficult places to make a living outside of fishing. In the early 1880s, Captain Thomas E. Richards, the founder of Eden, happened upon a crusty old hermit living on the barrier island that separated the ocean from the Indian River lagoon. “Old Cuba,” as the man was called, had a collection of pineapple plants. What a splendid idea for a cash crop, Richards decided.
Richards and his sons purchased 43,000 pineapple slips (the leafy top of the fruit) from Key Largo and planted them all over Eden. They didn’t grow well on the barrier island, but thrived in the sandy soil of the mainland along the lagoon. Acre after acre of saw palmetto were cleared for pineapple fields. Since the plants took 18 months to produce fruit, farmers would simply plant around existing pine and oak trees to avoid the time and labor of removing them. Farming pineapples was brutal work and additional labor came from the Bahamas to toil in the fields. Despite the heat of the Florida sun, farmhands needed to wear heavy clothing to shield their skin from the prickly pineapple leaves. When ripe, the fruit was packed into crates, each holding about 80 pounds, to be sent north by ship where it was transferred to freight trains.
Standard Oil tycoon Henry Flagler had been gradually extending his Florida East Coast Railroad southward. When the tracks reached Eden and points south in the 1890s, pineapple farming boomed. Now it was possible to ship the fruits quickly to northern markets. The region became the world’s largest exporter of pineapples, with up to a million crates shipped per year.
Ironically, the man who helped the region’s pineapple farmers so much, also played a big part in its doom. Flagler’s railroad was extended even further south to Miami and, later, over the Keys to Key West, making trade with Cuba that much easier. Pineapple farming in Eden managed to recover from the crippling freeze of 1895, but it couldn’t survive cheaper competition. Not only were labor costs cheaper on the pineapple farms of Cuba, but Flagler charged much lower shipping costs for the Cuban fruit. An overabundance of pineapples in the market drove drown prices and Florida farmers began losing money on each crate.
Another devastating freeze in the winter of 1909-10 spelled the end of pineapple dominance. While some fruit is still grown by local gardeners today, the original farms were sold to land speculators. Real estate was beginning its ascendance into a major part of Florida’s economy.
Historic Jensen and Eden on Florida’s Indian River, Sandra Henderson Thurlow
“Historical Vignettes: Cost, freezes destroy pineapple industry,” Alice L. And Greg E. Luckhardt, TCPalm