Words by Ted Hunt
Such a delicious and healthy fruit, the pineapple. It can be diced, sliced, baked, grilled, even served on pizza, and its sweet juice is the nectar for the refreshing piña colada.
Florida has always been known for its oranges and grapefruit, but pineapples were cultivated long before citrus ruled the state. During the 1860s crates of the fruit were shipped by boats from the Florida Keys and Merritt Island on the east coast of Florida to cities in the Northeast. They were nicknamed “pines” because they resembled a pine cone.
As demand for the fruit increased during the 1880s and 1890s, pineapple fever had taken hold. Farmers were eager to turn the state’s sandy soil into profitable fruit. Plantations from one to 100+ acres sprouted up and down the sandy ridge of the Indian River and across the state. The counties of Volusia, Brevard, Indian River and Martin were tilling thousands of acres of pineapples. Soon, plantations spread from the east coast through Orange County to Lee County on the west coast of Florida. The average farmer was producing approximately 300 crates a day, each holding up to 80 pounds of fruit.
In 1894 railroad pioneer Henry Flagler expanded his railroad down the east coast of Florida to West Palm Beach and to Miami in 1896. Lines were also extended to the central part of the state and then westward to the gulf. The railroads had an enormous impact on the growth of the market. Pineapple farmers now had the means to reach markets like Chicago in three days and New York in two days. Everyone was making money. The early 1900s produced close to 1 million crates a year. Florida had become the Pineapple Capital of the World.
However, the ”‘pines” market flourished for only a brief time in Florida’s history until several factors caused it to wane and eventually collapse.
A severe freeze in 1895 would begin the downturn of the industry. Frosts and freezes would continue over the years, the worst occurring from 1909-1910. The budding plants didn’t stand a chance against Mother Nature. (The brutal winters of 1917 and 1918 were probably the last straw.)
Cuba was also growing and shipping pineapples to the United States with labor and shipping costing less than Florida’s growers. With so many pineapples being grown and shipped, there was a glut in the marketplace and prices began to fall. By 1908 Cuba had surpassed Florida in the total number of crates produced.
Then in 1909, plantation owners noticed their plants yellowing and dying. A disease caused by mealybugs and roundworms was attacking their plants and traveling quickly from one farm to another. At that time there was very little they could do to stop the spread. Soon entire farms were wiped out.
Finally in 1912, many pineapple farmers, weary from the difficulties of farming, began to sell off their farms to real estate speculators. People had started flocking to Florida seeking the warm weather and opportunities offered in the growing state. They needed housing, and the Florida land grab began.
If there is a bright side to the collapse, it’s that many pineapple farmers in the early 1900s saw a bleak future and were not willing to give up hope for their farms and livelihood. This was the time in Florida’s history that most remaining pineapple farmers switched to a more weather-resistant crop that also grew well in Florida’s abundant sandy soil. These farmers abandoned the pineapple and started planting citrus groves, the groves that now produce the famous Florida orange. And what’s the cliché … the rest is history.
Now where is that piña colada?