Living

The rise and fall of Planter

In Planter, life revolved around the docks.
In Planter, life revolved around the docks.

Samuel Simon Johnson was born in Great Harbor, Bahamas, but left the island when he was 18 and settled in Key West where he met Caroline Tedder. They married June 26, 1861. 

At some point in-between the time the 1870 and 1880 U.S. Census was taken, Samuel Simon Johnson moved north to Key Largo with his wife and homesteaded 143 acres in the general vicinity of what is today Harry Harris Park. 

According to the 1870 Census, there were 13 households and 61 inhabitants on the island of Key Largo. Samuel and Caroline added to those numbers by having seven children — six were boys. The Johnsons were farmers and the community that arose around their seven pineapple farms became known as Planter, named for how the community made their living, by “planting” pineapples as well as other crops like tomatoes and cucumbers.

Planter thrived in the 1880s and 1890s and became a community in every sense of the word. The first permanent Upper Keys church was established in Planter on Nov. 25, 1887. The church was followed by a one-room post office that opened for business Dec. 31, 1891 and was post mastered by Samuel’s oldest son John Wesley Johnson. There was also a one-room wooden school house in the area.

Mail was delivered by a side-wheeled steam ship called <i>City of Key West<i> that was too big to navigate Planter’s shallow harbor. To remedy that, post master John Wesley took a boat out to deeper water in order to drive a wooden piling into the substrate. He attached two bag hangers on the post, one to accommodate incoming mail and one for outgoing mail. 

Every day John Wesley would take the boat out to the piling and pick up a mailbag being dropped off on either its way from Key West or on its way from Coconut Grove. Essentially, two-day mail service became available. The community also had a small grocery store located next door to the post office.

According to the 1900 census, the population of Key Largo had grown to 350. On Christmas morning of that year, the post office was robbed of $107. The account was reported in the <i>Florida Times Union<i> out of Jacksonville on Feb. 6, 1901. “Sometime [sic] ago the post office at Planter on Key Largo was broken open and two colored men were arrested and brought to this city by Deputy Marshall McCormick. Yesterday morning they were sentenced in the United States Court to two years each in the penitentiary at Nashville, Tenn. The names of the prisoners are William Farmer and Robert Durham…” 

It was reported that the grand jury agreed the pair, “…did forcibly break into and enter with intent, the monies, postage stamps, goods and chattel… at one J. Wesley Johnson in said building then being, then and there feloniously to steal, take and carry away.”

In those days, docks and long narrow piers were the lifelines of a community and ships were the only means of trafficking goods and people to and from island communities like Planter — weather permitting. The community with its church, school, post office and grocery store centered around the Planter docks until Henry Flagler’s men successfully installed railroad tracks all the way to and across Tavernier Creek. Train service between the Tavernier Depot and mainland Florida opened up in 1907 forever altering the way of life for the community by providing a more reliable source of transportation.

Key Largo was no longer an isolated collection of islands accessible solely by boat. For farmers, using the train to transport their produce to market meant they did not have to worry about bad weather or lack of wind delaying (and in cases spoiling) their shipment’s arrival. During this transitional period of communities switching from vessel service to train service, community members began relocating closer to the train tracks. As the railroad tracks began to define community boundaries, the original site of Planter began to disappear. 

The train, however, was not the only reason why. Planter’s crops began suffering from a blight, likely the result of a combination of factors that included repeated planting cycles depleting an already shallow soil bed and tidal surges associated with a series of hurricanes that struck the Keys from 1906-1910.

The Planter Methodist Church was destroyed in one of those storms. When the boards of the church were collected, the building was reconstructed closer to the Tavernier Depot. The post office at Planter closed October, 1910 and the following year, the Tavernier Post Office opened.

Edward Payson Johnson, son of Samuel Johnson, who married Charity Albury, daughter of Joe Eagle Albury, was said to have been the last of the Johnsons to move away from the original community site of Planter.

Brad Bertelli is a published author of four books on Florida and Florida Keys history. He is the curator of the Keys History and Discovery Center, located at the Islander Resort. His column will appear every other week in The Reporter. Reach Brad with comments and questions at WhyPanic@aol.com.

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