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Selling the Everglades

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Group photo in the Glades with Richard Bolles
and former governor William S. Jennings, 1907

The next two years brought thousands of buyers; 40% were farmers and the rest, optimistic investors. Negative publicity spread quickly when unhappy buyers often found their land still under water. One of the largest landowners, Richard Bolles’ Everglades Land Sales Company, hired three engineers to assess the Everglades drainage issue, and all agreed: The drainage underway by the State could not succeed, and Lake Okeechobee would flood new communities. The State added a low dike of muck along the south shore of Lake Okeechobee in 1913 to prevent such an occurrence. Southern States Timber and Land Company owned about 2,000,000 acres in western Palm Beach County. Their 1919 company report was more positive: Drainage has progressed to a point that the sale and development of large areas of these lands is advisable. And sell they did.

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Lawrence E. Will and Bernard Whitman, 1975

Although Glades historian Lawrence E. Will reported about a dozen inhabitants of the south shore in 1910 (including a dredge crew), by 1916 an estimated 2,000 people lived in 16 settlements on or near the lake. More followed in the next several years. Few of these early settlements became incorporated municipalities with their own governments, but many established post offices, as shown below. Some still exist today as census-designated places (CDPs), unincorporated but named areas where the U. S. Government collects census data for statistical purposes.


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The West Palm Beach Canal, ca. 1920.


When the Palm Beach Canal opened (now known as the West Palm Beach Canal, or C-51), it not only drained more land for agriculture, but also allowed Glades farmers to ship their crops by barge to West Palm Beach. From there, the crates were transferred to the railroad to reach northern markets. In 1920 there were 624 farms totaling more than 12,000 acres on the east side of Lake Okeechobee, and they became highly productive. That year Glades farmers shipped more than 55 railroad cars of tomatoes from West Palm Beach, while Fort Lauderdale farmers shipped only thirty.

The average sale of lands increased from 25 cents to 50 cents per acre before the drainage work began, to $15.45 in 1913, to $108.66 in 1925. But the Boom was about to burst. The new residents had barely established themselves when a hurricane hit south Florida in 1926. And the worst was yet to come.

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