With the newly reclaimed Everglades land and the construction of the canals, the land was being promoted throughout the United States. In 1912, soon land developers had sold 20,000 lots in just a few months. Farmers were being promised through advertisements that within eight weeks of arrival, they could be making a living. For many though, it took at least two months to just clear the land. Immediately they started burning off the sawgrass and other vegetation only to find out the peat would continue to burn. Plowing became a nightmare as the animals and tractors would get mired in the muck and were useless. Then when the muck dried, it turned to a fine black power and created dust storms. Crops initially were lush and sprouted quickly, but just as quick they wilted and died. The farmers were at a loss as to why this was happening.
Hunting in towns near the Everglades became popular. Most hunted for raccoons and otters for their skins. With hunger unchecked, one hunter at Lake Okeechobee killed 250 alligators and 172 others. In the late 19th and 20th centuries, women’s hats contained bird feathers, making the plumes on the water bird most desirable.
It is estimated that five million birds were killed for their feathers in 1886. The hunts took place in the spring when their feathers were colored for mating and nesting. Plumes, also known as aigrettes in the millinery business sold for $32 an ounce. In 1915 that was the same price as gold. A $17 million a year industry, millinery motivated plume harvesters to lay in watch of nests of egrets and many colored birds during nesting season. The hunters would shoot the parent with small-bore rifles, leaving the chicks to starve. The plumes of the Everglades wading birds could be found in Havana, New York City, London, and Paris. On a good day, hunters collected plumes from a hundred birds.
During Prohibition, rum-runners used the Everglades as a hiding spot. There were never enough law enforcement officers to patrol the vast land. With the arrival of the railroad, and a remedy of adding a trace amount of copper to the soil fixed the crops from sprouting and dying quickly. This soon created a population boom in towns like Moore Haven, Clewiston and Belle Glade. In South Florida, the primary crop became sugarcane. A second real estate boom in Miami earned a developer in Coral Gables $150 million. North of Miami, undeveloped land sold for $30,600 an acre. Newspapers published in 1925 in Miami weighed over 7 pounds. Most of it was real estate ads. Suddenly, palm trees replaced the Mangrove trees to improve the view. Unfortunately, acres of South Florida slash pine was cleared for development. As it is today, waterfront property was the most highly valued.
Photograph credit: Opera singer Emmy Destinn Wearing a plume-covered hat, c. 1909.Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.