In 1842, the Manatee River area was opened to settlers. Through the Armed Occupation Act, 160 acres were offered to those who could clear the land, farm it, and live on at least five acres for five years. These settlers also had to agree to protect their home and their neighbors from the Seminole Indians if they found themselves under attack.
This area had fertile soil, plenty of potable water, and abundant game and fish to feed a family. Several crops could be grown each year. Robert Gamble, the Craig brothers and the Braden brothers were successful cane farmers until the last sugar cane harvest in 1861. Others raised celery, lettuce, tomatoes, cabbage and citrus throughout the late part of the century.
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In the winter of 1895, there was a deadly freeze after which farmers diversified by growing vegetables and fruits on a short-term basis and rotated crops annually. The expanded variety included beans, beets, eggplant, peppers, melons, cauliflower and strawberries.
Citrus continued to be a very successful crop. Joel Hendrix was the first commercial citrus shipper. He was also known as the father of green vegetable shipping. He began wrapping unripe tomatoes in paper to ripen during the shipping process. In 1892, Charles Atwood’s Ellenton enterprise, Atwood Grapefruit Grove, was established and developed into the world’s largest grapefruit grove in production.
1892The year Manatee Fruit Company was established as a lemon grove and expanded into oranges and grapefruit
Ornamental horticultural crops began to be produced locally when Egbert and Pliny Reasoner established Reasoner Brothers Nursery in 1881. Hundreds of trees, shrubs, vines and fruit were introduced to Florida through their nursery. In 1892, Manatee Fruit Company (originally called Manatee Lemon Company) was established as a lemon grove and expanded into oranges and grapefruit. They later diversified into the flower and foliage business.
Pioneer cattlemen moved into the territory between 1847 and 1852. Livestock grazed on an open range and were rounded up by cowmen known as “Crackers,” nicknamed for the cracking of their whips used to control movement of the cattle. Florida Cracker cattle were hardy animals able to withstand the heat, insects and scrub land — descendants of the cattle that Ponce de Leon brought to the Gulf Coast of Florida in the 1500s. By the late 1800s, cattle had become a major industry with large shipments of cattle going to Cuba. Cattle trade with Cuba ended in 1906, as well as transporting them by ship. Transportation of cattle began taking place by rail.
Other successful agricultural businesses of the late 19th and early 20th centuries included lumber mills, crate and box mills, and naval stores (products derived from pine sap, which was used to manufacture soap, paint, varnish, shoe polish, lubricants, tar and especially turpentine). The fishing industry also became well-established.
In the early 1900s, several developments made agriculture a truly prominent and profitable industry. The railroad’s arrival allowed speedy transport of products; the opening of ice plants in Bradenton and Palmetto allowed for refrigerated transport of products; the invention of the Webb plow by African American inventor/farmer/saw mill owner Henry Webb allowed for efficient, low-cost land clearing, which paved the way for roads, farms, homes and future industry. These developments fast-forwarded agriculture in our area to a successful industry that has supported and continues to support countless Manatee County families.
The people and companies mentioned here are snapshots of our local agricultural heritage. Farm City Week allows us to recognize and celebrate that heritage on a regular basis each year. Readers, you are encouraged to recognize and celebrate this industry every day, for we would not have food in our bellies if it weren’t for those who work tirelessly in this calling.
Diane Ingram is supervisor of Manatee County Agricultural Museum Inc. Email: email@example.com