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How were the Everglades viewed in Florida at the beginning of the twentieth century? What factors helped shape those views? Was the area seen as an asset or as a barrier to progress? Why? What solutions were proposed?

Swamp GrunwaldIn "The Swamp," Grunwald (2006) has established a descriptive view of the Everglades which points to them as a “wild and lonely” place (9), neither completely water nor completely land, and describes the area in evocative terms which sets the tone for the rest of the book, which seems to establish a perspective from the point of view of the land itself, rather than the various people who have come and gone from the region.

It looked like the world's largest and grassiest puddle, or the flattest and wettest meadow, or the widest and slowest-moving stream. It had the squish and the scruff of an untended yard after a downpour, except that this yard was larger than Connecticut. (9)

This intriguing and virtually unique land has had a colorful history, which the author meticulously details during the course of the book, outlining the way it was viewed in historical times and tracing the evolution of this paradise-swamp over the ages.

Grunwald observes that towards the end of the nineteenth century, the Everglades were viewed as being a strange, surreal place, with almost a supernatural air to it. As one explorer wrote: “it seemed to get on Henry’s nerves, and we saw that he was crying, he would not tell us why, he was just plain scared” (9). The place was also seen as unseemly because of the number of rodents, pests and insects that dwelt there. However, there were also dolphins, crab, and a myriad of marine life in the swamps, particularly in the estuaries that ran all around South Florida, and they were “so full of life that they changed the course of human history” (20).

Despite the fact that the Everglades supported so much animal life, it was deemed as inconceivable that human beings could ever live there. In the early twentieth century, it had not yet been discovered that people had dwelt in the area in earlier times. The land was terribly humid and the horror of the mosquitoes was almost unimaginable: an entomologist had caught “a record-breaking 365, 696 mosquitoes in one trap in one night” (20).

However, the turn of the century saw Florida immersed in “the spirit of the Progressive Era” (113), and plans were established to reclaim the Everglades for human use. One of the new measures was that of setting up a railroad system in the region, which was a result of progressive factors such as that of oil development in the region. However, at the turn of the century, there was a tussle between the state and private corporations for ownership of the land. Out of the 20 million acres of land which were covered by the Everglades, only three million acres were left in possession of the states. Because of this, the state government decided that they would not support the establishing of a railroad system by corporations since “state lands belonged to the people, not to railroads that rarely bothered to improve them” (113). The state decided that corporations would have to buy land if they wanted to build railroads, and Flagler’s railroad was able to gain around two million acres of land.

The dispute over the ownership of the land that constituted the Everglades further delayed the development in the area during the early years of the twentieth century, since the state government was reluctant to begin reclamation of the land through drainage. Although comprehensive plans were made to reclaim the land, the government did not grant full funding to such programs, despite the fact that irrigation projects had found great success in other states such as California. Even Flagler was not up to the challenge of draining the entire stretch of the everglades, stating that “I haven’t the money or the inclination to take up as big a matter as the drainage of the Everglades” (114).

Another factor that impacted the manner in which the Everglades were viewed was the rising environmentalism that became popular in the early twentieth century. The late nineteenth century had seen much industrialization, which had led to such environmental hazards as deforestation becoming rampant in the region. As Grunwald points out, the first two decades of the twentieth century saw attempts to right these wrongs by suggesting how the situation could be improved: “The industrialization and deforestation of the latter half of the nineteenth century prompted a few Americans to think about nature in new ways, laying the groundwork for the environmentalism of the twentieth century” (123). By the year 1900, many environmental organizations were making their presence felt in the region, particularly societies devoted to the protection of birds in the area. They were known as “Audubon societies” (125) and were dedicated to establishing laws for the protection of endangered birds whose natural habitats had been negatively impacted by the industrialist activities in the Everglades.

In 1903 Frank Chapman, the curator of the New York Museum of Natural History, succeeded in gaining permission from the state to dedicate a five-acre mangrove area as a bird sanctuary. Although the move was touted as being for “reasons unconnected to dollars” (125), it was clear that the move to create America’s first natural sanctuary would generate revenue in the form of tours to visitors such as ornithologists and other environmentalists, and at least put the region on the map in terms of visibility. Certainly, the population of the area increased dramatically. In the early nineteenth century, As Grunwald observes, there had been fewer than fifty white people in the area. By the turn of the twentieth century, however, the population in the Everglades was around seven million. In addition, the environmental measures in particular began to attract millions of tourists to the area on an annual basis.

Nevertheless, the settlers found living in the Everglades extremely difficult. Marsh rabbits swarmed over the crops, devouring whatever they could, and blight attacked the plants as well. Most cattle died because of malnutrition, and those crops which had managed to sprout also died because of a mysterious plant disease which came to be known as the “reclaiming disease” (166). Additionally, because of the cold and the frost, most crops ended up being destroyed and it was only potatoes which could be safely planted and harvested in the region. This led to the region being viewed as unsuitable for agrarian activity: “In 1915, the U.S. Department of Agriculture published a report suggesting that most Everglades soils were ill-suited to any agriculture, although settlers made sure to burn every available copy at a public bonfire in Fort Lauderdale” (166). This incident highlighted the fact that despite the fact that the Everglades often seemed to be indifferent or even hostile to those who attempted to dwell there, the pioneers of the early twentieth century were fiercely protective of their land and did not wish to encourage any negative publicity for the region that would tarnish its reputation in the rest of the country. However, many of the pioneers now gave up trying to live in the area and moved away, and the worry surfaced that the bad publicity had “killed” whatever hopes there had been for the Everglades to flourish (166).

Even in such a situation, however, Grunwald notes that there were still those who did not give up on the Everglades, and who viewed it as “America’s last frontier” which would have to be breached through sheer grit and determination against all odds, people who wanted the region to develop even if the land itself seemed to defy their efforts. The Everglades had never been a popular destination for migration for city dwellers, but now, people from rural agrarian cultures began to attempt to tame the wetlands. Poor black laborers came in to the region, offering the white landowners more scope for their operations as they managed to procure cheap labor.

Additionally, by the time the First World War began in 1914, new agricultural measures had been implemented in the region. Corporations such as Thomas Will’s began to manufacture special implements that would assist farmers in the Everglades region, such as the special Everglades plow, tractors with extra large wheels, and other similar accessories that were particularly designed to weather the conditions in the swamps. New brands of fertilizers which were copper-based were manufactured to make the soil more friendly towards crop planting and harvesting. Ironically, the war proved to be beneficial to the region as its goods began to be marketed as natural products, and there was a “soaring demand for food during World War I [which] pumped up prices for Everglades produce” (166). Thus the region managed to overcome the agricultural difficulties which had first been encountered, and established itself firmly as a dwelling place fit for human beings by the second decade of the twentieth century.

As Grunwald illustrates, the first two decades of the twentieth century were pivotal in terms of the changes that the Everglades went through during the period. In this brief time, the region was transformed from a virtually deserted marshland to an area that was safeguarded by environmental policies and hailed by pioneering settlers as a place that had finally been tamed by human beings and made suitable for development.

Work Cited

Grunwald, Michael. The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida, and the Politics of Paradise. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006.

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