After his first visit to the Everglades in 1910, Thomas Elmer Will quit his position as editor for the American Forestry Association and organized the Florida Everglades Homebuilders Association, part of his plan to establish a cooperative settlement in the Glades. The Harvard graduate and former college professor would devote the rest of his life to this dream.
When Bryant and Greenwood held a drawing for lots in 1912, Will led a group attending from Washington, D. C. that represented almost 5,000 buyers of 64,000 acres. Will purchased ten 12-acre tracts for himself and briefly joined forces with the large landowner Everglades Land Sales Company. A report commissioned by the firm concluded that sale of ten-acre tracts was impractical, and that the region closest to the lake was preferred; this information was neither made public nor acted on. But initial efforts to start Okeelanta—the name derived from a combination of Okeechobee and Atlantic—were abandoned, because the parcels were not contiguous. The State of Florida had sold their lands in alternating sections, waiting for drainage to appreciate the value of the remainder.
After he purchased almost 900 acres near his original 120 acres, Will was able to (COM071) plot out his land for resale in small parcels. A mile south of the first site and due south from what would become South Bay, Will started his planned community of Okeelanta in October 1913. His son, Lawrence E. Will, was among the first settlers; they shared a small shack from December 1914 until 1922.
Thomas Will ran experiments and invented equipment, looking for ways to improve the lives of his residents. Early scientific reports on Everglades soils had been based on the Torry muck at the edge of Lake Okeechobee, yet the first two sizable settlements, Okeelanta and Glade Crest, had very different soil to work with. Okeelanta muck, the result of draining sawgrass marsh, lacked the minerals needed for healthy crops and livestock.
Okeelanta did become the largest community in the area, if briefly. By 1917 there were 110 families in the town, plus a hotel, town hall, lumberyard, blacksmith, and barber. Despite bad soil, floods, freezes, wild animals, and mosquitoes, in 1920 the town had grown to 200 residents and added a school. Irish potatoes, corn, beans, tomatoes, and eggplant were grown and shipped out. But the 1920s brought more challenges: The water table fluctuated between very low, causing muck fires, and very high, causing floods. Will was forced to leave after a 1922 flood and expected to return, but he never did. A visitor in 1925 described Okeelanta as soggy and deserted. The community was finally defeated by the Hurricane of 1928. U.S. Route 27 is designated Thomas E. Will Memorial Highway from South Bay to Miami.