Saturday, January 18, 2014

Book Review 308: The Florida Keys: A History of the Pioneers

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 "poisonous spines on the pineapple leaves." While unpleasant, they are not poisonous.)

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