South Florida history prevails in Everglades City
The Rod & Gun Club in Everglades City.
IF YOU GO
Everglades Area Chamber of Commerce, Box 130, Everglades City, FL 33929, 239-695-3941
Florida Humanities Council, 599 Second St. S., St. Petersburg, FL 33701
Places to stay: The Ivey House Bed & Breakfast, 239-695-3299, www.iveyhouse.com; Captain's Table Hotel, 800-741-6430; Everglades City Motel, 239-695-4224
- The Ivey House
- The Fakahatchee Strand
- Natural Resources
See more topics »
The saga of how the glades got drained and its connection to Indian wars, railroaders, road builders, outlaws, land hucksters, sugar oligarchs, battles over conservation and panther survival is a story as lusty as anything ever imagined about America. And it focused the weekend that immersed us.
Did I say immersed?
For two hours one afternoon, 20 of us trekked hip-deep in swamp, the muck tugging at our laced sneakers. In this bizarre classroom of snakes and gators, where bromeliads and orchids festoon tall cypress, we learned a thousand things, maybe most of all that, despite initial apprehension, we felt alien re-emerging onto dry land.
Later (and drier) at a chic gallery at the edge of swamp near Ochopee, we heard cowboy-photographer Oscar Thompson, a fifth-generation Floridian, tell us about how, as a boy, he rode the steam train from Everglades City through the Big Cypress to visit his grandparents in Immokalee.
A Miccosukee elder took us by airboat into the Everglades where, on a wooded islet -- a place where lightning still supplies all the electricity and the world divides rapturously between sky and water -- his parents in the '20s and '30s raised a large family that paddled dugout canoes everywhere they went.
Buffalo Tiger's tale was about his people only wanting to be left alone.
That evening, at the Rod & Gun Club, singer-songwriter Grant Livingston sang alongside a small flag. The original of that flag flew from the capitol for one day in 1845 during the inauguration of Gov. William D. Moseley. It said "Leave Us Alone." Next day it was replaced by a design more dignified and appropriate to Florida's new statehood that, without words, has ever since seemed to signal, "Come On Down!"
Everglades City is too small for any "them" and "us" between locals and visitors. The Seafood Depot, Suzie's Station and the Oyster House feed tourists and locals alike. About as many lots stand empty as have buildings.
Less than a block off the main drag are yards with kids' bikes tossed around and cars parked on weedy lawns. Guys build boats in their car ports, maybe leaving a drill atop an overturned canoe balanced on sawhorses. The loudest steady noise is an AC running and the green neon buzz around the Oar House, another eating place. Everybody says hello.
It's not that Everglades City hasn't tried for big time. A northern millionaire, Barron Collier, made the first attempt when he turned this potato patch into his construction base for building the Tamiami Trail, the first road across the Everglades. In 1929, it linked Miami with Naples.
But Depression delayed the dream, and then in 1947, Washington established Everglades National Park, banning commercial fishing from its waters. Traditional livelihoods ended. The laundry had already closed (it's now a museum). Soon the train was gone (the old depot is a restaurant). The bank shut down (it's lately been an on-again-off-again inn). Finally, the county seat relocated to Naples and, in 1960, Hurricane Donna whacked the town.
When Dade County frenzied itself in the mid-'60s over a new jetport in the Everglades, hopes rose anew because Everglades City was nearer the proposed site than Miami. Everybody began pulling building permits. But Washington nixed the plan.
Madder than hell, Everglades City's renegade streak broke out. No small number of locals turned to ferrying "square grouper" ashore from drop points in the Gulf. Who better to thread small boats through the hidden bays and rivers than these swamp codgers?
They might have gotten away with it if they hadn't started building fine houses, driving fancy cars, all these hand-to-mouth fishermen down on their luck. When the Feds finally broke the conspiracy of silence, they found that most everybody had been involved or was covering up for friends. Most maintained an honorable refusal when promised reduced sentences for guilty pleas and testimony against their neighbors. The men were all "off in college," their womenfolk said. Sentences ran to five years and more.
Everybody is back now. Many guide tourists on everything from swamp buggies and airboats to kayaks. Tour boats for the national park carry visitors through Chokoloskee Bay to the fringe of the Ten Thousand Islands. Close by is Indian Key, which in the early 1700s was the last known refuge of southwest Florida's once reigning Calusas.
Farther south on the Chatham River stood the grand two-story house of E.J. Watson. Only a park service marker stands there today. Watson dominated this frontier at a time when the sheriff in Key West paid little attention to this remote part of then-Monroe County. Many of those hired to tend Watson's fields and run produce up the coast mysteriously disappeared, their bodies sometimes found drowned and mutilated. One morning at Smallwood's Store on Chokoloskee Island, where Watson sought to answer a crowd about the latest disappearances, the showdown turned hostile. Watson was beaten to the draw in a virtual execution. Peter Matthiessen details the story in his three-volume work on the life and times of Watson.
Nowadays paddlers pass the Watson place along the 99-mile Wilderness Trail to Flamingo, at the end of the road from the main park entrance near Homestead. Less-ambitious paddlers and boaters enjoy beaches on nearby islets and low-tide sandbars.
Visitors otherwise seem happy enough just to hang out. They ride bikes the five miles from town to Smallwood's Store, lately reopened by descendants of Ted Smallwood and selling regional books and stuff. Others walk along the Barron River past piles of gear used by commercial fishermen who still work inshore state waters or out beyond park limits. Some fish houses operate waterside cafes for lunch.
One of those met up with again during the weekend was famed impersonator of Florida literary figures Betty Jean Steinshouer, who summed up a mood of Florida contrasts by reading from the work of the late Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Elizabeth Bishop. Bishop first visited the region in the 1930s. She wrote in her poem Florida:
The state with the prettiest name,
the state that floats in brackish water,
held together by mangrave roots
The state full of long S-shaped birds, blue and white,
and unseen hysterical birds who rush up the scale
every time in a tantrum. . .
[T]he careless, corrupt state. . . the poorest
post-card of itself.
When not standing hip-deep in swamp, Herb Hiller lives beside (not in) the St. Johns River.