Cube it, slice it, shred it, juice it, grill it, cook it. Pineapples are a delicious treat or compliment to any dish. Today, many people think of Hawaii as the pineapple capital of the United States, but did you know pineapples were cultivated in Florida before Hawaii was even a U.S. territory?
The earliest pineapple cultivation in Florida started in Key West in the 1860s. Benjamin Baker, known as “King of Wreckers” for his engagement in the business of salvaging ships, grew pineapples on Plantation Key, typically shipping them by schooner to New York, Baltimore and Philadelphia. Around the same time, a Mr. Brantley was producing pineapples on Merritt Island.
By 1899, the industry had expanded rapidly, thanks in part to the southward extension of the Florida East Coast Railway. Pineapple plantations could be found across Florida, including in Lee, Volusia and Orange counties. Despite freeze issues, there were an estimated 1,325 acres of pineapple plantations in Florida, producing 95,442 crates of fruit.
Though the industry seemed to be on the rise, troubles began around 1908. Although Florida growers produced over 1.1 million crates of pineapples that year, Cuba produced 1.2 million crates and flooded the market. Cuba could also ship pineapples at a cheaper rate than Florida. And there was more…
In 1910, portions of crops along Indian River plantations began to show signs of failing. A “red wilt” was rotting the roots of the pineapple plants, causing them to die. The disease quickly spread to entire fields. Add to that a lack of proper fertilizer due to World War I in Europe and freezes in 1917 and 1918, and the industry seemed to have disappeared.
R.A. Carlton, an agricultural agent for the Seaboard Air Line railway attempted to revive pineapple production in Florida in the 1930s, but the industry was never able to fully recover.