Born in 1850, Kirk Munroe was a lover of nature and adventure. He was also a wonderful writer who published fantastic stories colored with first-hand accounts of early life in and around South Florida and the Keys. Munroe’s “Pineapples of the Florida Keys,” published in the August 22, 1886 edition of Harper’s Weekly, lends particular illumination to early pineapple practices along the island chain.
In the work, Munroe included this description: “Thus the produce of the Florida Keys has heretofore not only been high-priced in Northern markets, but the consumer has found it to be devoid of a true pineapple flavor, sour, fibrous, and indigestible. Whereas the same fruit ripened in the field and sun-kissed until of a golden yellow is as juicy as an orange, as sweet as sugar, and so wholesome that one may eat it in quantity not only with impunity, but with beneficial effects.”
For a time, pineapple was the king of fruit in the Upper Keys. The islands’ porous limestone substrate both retained moisture and released phosphate which, when mixed with the natural humus, helped create a nutrient rich environment. Also, unlike the more easily bruised key lime, guava or tomato, the pineapple was better suited to the harsh conditions encountered during shipment to northern markets.
Before Henry Flagler’s East Coast Railway reached Miami in 1896, the sole conduit by which produce, or for that matter anything from the Keys, reached outside markets was by ship. While still green, pineapples were picked two weeks early, crated, and transported below deck in dark, humid holds for the trip to markets in New York, Boston and Philadelphia (among other destinations). A percentage of every shipment would ripen to the point of spoil while out at sea. Munroe states the average was 25 percent. However, shipments delayed by rough weather could spoil entirely.
According to Munroe’s published 1886 account, pineapple field workers were paid somewhere between $2 and $2.50 for what was largely a six-hour day. Work began after the sun had sufficiently risen and driven the mosquitoes back into the protective shade of the underbrush or, about 10 a.m. The work day ended around 4 or 5 p.m. when the waning heat began enticing thirsty mosquitoes out again. By comparison, 20 years later, railroad workers constructing Flagler’s Over-Sea Railway were paid $1.25 for a day’s work.
In the pineapple fields, some workers were tasked with harvesting fruit. Others, referred to by Munroe as toters, would carry the fruit from the fields in sacks he described as “soft, tough, and funnel-shaped, and larger at the bottom.” The average toter reportedly hauled four or five dozen pineapples at a time, a load weighing somewhere between 200 and 250 pounds. What is particularly fascinating about Munroe’s account is the mention of “a gigantic specimen of human ebony” named Black Caesar. Working on Elliott Key, Black Caesar would carry twice as much as every other toter — hauling as much as 500 pounds of pineapples at a time.
What is so fantastic about the observation is that it introduces a third Black Caesar to the island. In the annals of history, Black Caesar was a somebody on Elliott Key and his story is legendary. Twice he has been identified as a pirate who lorded over Elliott Key with nearly 100 years separating the two piratical incarnations. Munroe’s inclusion of yet a third entry into the Black Caesar franchise extends the name’s influence an additional 80ish years.
In any case, pineapples were picked, toted from the fields, packed and shipped. The first crop of the season to reach the markets fetched the highest price. Circa 1886, according to Munroe, the first pineapple prices of the season ranged between $1.20 and $1.50 per dozen. Subsequent shipments sold for about 50 cents a dozen.
One of the first men to cash in on the pineapple trade was Key West’s Ben Baker. Baker, a wrecker by trade, homesteaded 160 acres in the Upper Keys and cleared farmland on both Key Largo and Plantation Key. To do so, Baker and his sons slashed trees and brush, stacked the debris, and burned it. Common practice, the ashes left behind acted as a fertilizer to help vitalize the natural soil.
Next, he imported 6,000 pineapple slips and suckers from Cuba for planting. Pineapples can be propagated in several ways and slips and suckers are two of them. The “baby” plants that grow from the base of a fruit are called slips while those sprouting from the base of a plant are called suckers. The crown of the fruit, too, can be sliced free and planted.
While it is not clear exactly when Baker and his sons went to work clearing farmland in the Upper Keys, that land had been cleared and the crops were bearing fruit by 1861. Dr. J.B. Holder documented the fact when he accompanied an expedition through the Florida Keys in 1860 and 1861. The accounts of his travels would be serialized in Harper’s Weekly a decade later.
In the 1871 series “Along the Florida Reef” Holder revealed, “Mr. Baker, the owner who resides in Key West, is reported to have realized seven thousand dollars this summer from his crop of pineapples.”
That sum would be the rough equivalent of $170,000 today. Baker’s advertised success opened the door for others to farm pineapples in the Upper Keys and subsequently, significant farming communities began to develop on Upper Matecumbe, Key Largo, and Elliott Key.
Brad Bertelli is an Upper Keys historian and author of five books on Florida and Florida Keys history. His column will appear every other week in The Reporter. Reach Brad with comments and questions at WhyPanic@aol.com.