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Book Review 305: The Florida Keys: A History of the Pioneers

January 18, 2014 - Harry Eagar
THE FLORIDA KEYS: A History of the Pioneers, by John Viele. 154 pages, illustrated. Pineapple, $16.95

Florida is the third most populous state but there are still areas where you can drive for mile after mile without seeing any evidence of human presence except the pavement under your wheels. It is hard to imagine how empty it was a hundred years ago, when Key West, then the biggest city, had 18,000 inhabitants -- fewer than come to one section of one parking lot at Disney World on one morning.

John Viele does a good job of recreating the hardship and emptiness of the Keys in these magazine-style articles. The focus is on the rural islands, where repeated booms (sponges, pineapples) were wiped out by repeated disasters (wars, hurricanes).

Even at the peak of the booms, the entire population seldom topped a thousand until the railroad came, and in the busts it dropped to a few score. Some islands were empty.

Heat, mosquitoes, loneliness, isolation and lack of fresh water made the keys unattractive but there were always a few hopeful adventurers. Some were murdered, some swept away in storms, some became briefly rich and ultimately broke, and Viele quotes liberally from letters and newspapers (ever hopeful that the latest fancy was going to begin the land rush) to tell their stories.

This little volume carries the story to 1940, although one old character was still building ricks and making charcoal in the ancient way until 1960.

“The Florida Keys: A History of the Pioneers” is a superior example of local history crafted in bite-size pieces, just the right size for the rushed vacationer to enjoy and profit from.

(There is one curious error about the "poisonous spines on the pineapple leaves." They are unpleasant but not poisonous.)


Article Comments



Jan-20-14 8:30 PM

11 million illegal with jobs and 11 million without. Now it is 2% and 98%. 47% of 11 million not paying taxes.


Jan-20-14 8:27 PM

There are no doors for the Florida keys. Thought the Bermuda Triangle would deter immigrants from getting feet dry but, they come and mix with the natives. No lock, no way of defending this.

Someone gave jobs 11 million illegal immigrants to harvest but with storms and crops failed, they stayed behind and now are undocumented, and free lancing. 11 million illegal and 11 million legals without jobs.


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