Muck City to Mar-a-Lago: A Tale of Palm Beach County

Author’s note: I wrote this in January of 2018 to submit for consideration for publication, possibly at The Bitter Southerner. I never finished editing it, and set it aside to continue work on other writing projects. I just rediscovered this piece and, with the subjects I wrote about now facing further hardship in the Covid-19 pandemic, it seems timely to share this. Here it is unedited as I’m now busy on mutual aid efforts with our nonprofit here in Alabama working in similar communities.

Hope y’all enjoy it.

There’s a special type of enlightenment that can be found on the roads outside of the United States interstate system. Author William Least-Heat Moon wrote a book about it called Blue Highways, using the description for the old state highways in the Rand McNally atlas. Minnie Pearl once said “Take the back roads instead of the highways” and who am I to question Minnie Pearl? I’m always up for a road trip as long as I can get off of the interstate system at times and travel along some back roads.

The drive from East Alabama to South Florida seems endless. You start out down a blue highway, US 82, in Georgia all the way down to Tifton where you hit Interstate 75. At that point you’re just getting started. Generally, the only time I am traveling to South Florida is to attend some function related to one of my wife’s high school friends and this time was no different, with the occasion being a wedding at the National Croquet Center in West Palm Beach. Anyone who truly knows me also knows that the thought of me at a croquet club is hilarious. I’m a guy who grew up in a trailer in the foothills of the Appalachians in Walker County, Alabama. We had a bored well for water until I was 12 and I didn’t eat at what we called a sit-down restaurant, a restaurant with a host/hostess and servers, until I was 18.

Regardless, my wife is great at making sure I’m ready for hoity toity soirees and I’ve grown quite accustomed to dealing with those types of events in South Florida over the past 15 years. It’s a good thing she decided to attend Auburn University or I’m quite certain we’d have never met.

As we set off on our journey southward my wife told me, “The wedding is just down the road from Donald Trump’s resort there in Palm Beach”.

I raised my eyebrows. “Mar-a-Lago? Oh well we have to go check that out!”

“No mischievous stuff you dummy. He has the secret service now”, she said with a laugh.

“I was only planning on asking directions to the nearest Piggly Wiggly, darlin’.” We both laughed knowing that was quite plausible.

‘The Real South’

On these drives through my wife’s home state I often enjoy reminding her that she grew up so far south it becomes north again. That was before I spent time in the western part of Palm Beach County.

I joke about South Florida but when I’m talking to people across the south I’m struck by the number of them who don’t consider much of Florida “the real south”. To most folks I’ve met it’s just a vacation destination. I once heard singer songwriter, Christopher Paul Stelling tell a crowd in Alabama “I’m from Daytona Beach, Florida and YES I’m a southern musician. Florida, contrary to popular belief, is a part of the south.” He recently laid out Florida’s southern credentials to me. “First, the bad: We were a member of the confederate states in the Civil War. Secondly, though, the good is that we gave the world the southern rock bands Molly Hatchet, .38 Special, and Lynyrd Skynyrd. Oh and there’s Tom Petty too. End of discussion.”

For some odd reason the wilds of the state of Florida don’t seem truly southern to some outside of the state- but that’s especially true for South Florida from Palm Beach to Miami. There’s a section of that region, however, that is overlooked in history. It is no different than many other areas of the southeastern US where generations of southerners have eked out a living from the land and many others have suffered due to the consequences of simply being born the wrong color.

The Everglades were drained there decades ago which allowed farming in the areas around the lake. Poor migrant workers came in by the thousands. The sugar industry has thrived for decades in the fertile soil in the western part of the county of Palm Beach far from the wealth of the coast there. It’s a hardscrabble area where people have dealt with struggle and strife for generations.

I tired of the hundreds of miles on the interstate and decided to take a back road detour west to Lake Okeechobee and visit the Port Mayaca cemetery and the memorial there for the dead from the 1928 Okeechobee Hurricane. I’d previously read the book Black Cloud by Eliot Kleinberg and learned of the horrific aftermath of one of our nation’s worst natural disasters, and of the equally horrible race relations of the 1920s. I’d made plans long ago to visit the memorials around the lake. With a free afternoon, and not much more left until we reached our destination, this seemed like the perfect time. We are coming up on the 90th anniversary of the storm I thought to myself.

‘Death by the Lake’

On Sunday September 16th, 1928 a category 4 hurricane ripped through South Florida and tracked into Palm Beach county over the massive Lake Okeechobee. 1200 had already died in the Caribbean on the islands of Guadeloupe and Puerto Rico but the hurricane was far from finished. As the winds pushed the waters of Lake Okeechobee over its banks in a mighty storm surge the migrant farm workers in the small towns there had no idea of the horrors that would unfold that night. Just a day earlier there had been articles published in newspapers doubting the storm would even affect Florida.

15 feet of water rushed over the 5 foot mud dike and inundated the towns. The number of people who lost their lives that night is not truly known but estimates put the death toll at somewhere around 3,000, the vast majority being African Americans and black farm workers from the Caribbean. Those responding — a good deal being black survivors who were forced into recovering the dead — were overwhelmed, and days after the storm the call was made to burn the black victim’s bodies and place them in mass graves. In Port Mayaca 1600 were buried and nearly 700 more were buried in a mass grave in what was a pauper’s cemetery in West Palm Beach. It stood unmarked for decades and a memorial marker was only placed there in 2002. Most white victims of the storm were buried in caskets in Woodlawn Cemetery in West Palm Beach.

I thought of all of these things as we drove westward. It’s amazing how quickly you leave the overwhelming traffic and out of control development behind on the coast when you head inland in South Florida. I followed an 18 wheeler with a cage like trailer filled with what appeared to be sugarcane stalks. The fields were dotted with trees and scrub grasses stretched to the horizon. Water filled the ditches along the potholed roadways and big grooves were worn into the pavement from all the large trucks coming and going to the processing plants there.

It didn’t take long to find the memorial and mass grave at the cemetery east of the big lake. It’s isolated from the small towns such as Pahokee and Belle Glade but it was one of the only places a large hole could be dug to dispose of the victims of the storm.

I stood in silence at the monument and thought of the horrors of the weeks after the storm. It was a peaceful and cool day with the only sound being the light breeze blowing through the ficus trees lining the front of the cemetery. It was such a calm scene for such an unthinkable series of events that occurred there nearly a century earlier. I’ve seen pictures from the aftermath of the Okeechobee Hurricane with bodies piled up like cordwood, swollen and disfigured. Many were transferred to the mass graves on pieces of wood dragging the ground behind an old car. Thousands of people died on September 16th and 17th, 1928 but you’d be hard pressed to find anyone outside of South Florida who knows much about the 1928 storm. In my research of the area I was pleased to learn that, to this day, a memorial for those who died is still held in the little cemetery every September 16th.

I’ve read the 1928 Okeechobee Hurricane is often referred to as the forgotten hurricane and that it is because the victims were overwhelmingly African American and Caribbean Islander. Seeing the areas affected still predominantly populated by minorities and, knowing what they’ve experienced since, I have no doubt it was the main factor as to why few people know much of the thousands killed back then.

‘Belle Glade: Her Soil is Her Fortune’

Belle Glade is located south of Lake Okeechobee on the western edge of Palm Beach County and the greatest loss of life in the 1928 storm occurred there. The town was only incorporated a couple of years before the disaster and thousands of migrant field workers were in the area to work the harvest at the time. The city’s motto became “Her Soil is Her Fortune” early on and with good reason. The temperate climate allowed a great number of crops to be grown in the soil and a dynasty of sugar production sprung up from the drained areas there by the mammoth lake.

In the years after the storm the Herbert Hoover dike was constructed around the lake to hopefully prevent the flooding from another hurricane. It averaged 30 feet in height compared to the one that had been overtopped in 1928. Work continued in the fields unabated and thousands of new migrants came to the area in search of work in the decades after.

In an area just outside of Belle Glade I crossed an access road over the dike to see the lake for the first time. It appeared to be like an ocean. I picked up a small stone as I often do when visiting somewhere for the first time — most often a bucket list destination — and placed it in my pocket. My time was running short so I took my souvenir and drove around the southern side of the lake and into Belle Glade.

The fields of sugarcane stretched to the horizon with the exposed soil, dark and muddy, prepped in rows for new planting.

“Look Jen”, I said to my wife, “that soil is why Belle Glade was given the nickname Muck City. It’s where the kids actually run down rabbits on foot.”

“For real?”

“I know it seems ridiculous to think of a human being having that ability, especially in soil like that, but it has been proven here.”

It seemed as if she thought I was making it up to mess with her.

‘The Rabbit Chasers’

Small children played in the soil outside of their homes as we slowly drove by and I thought of the legendary rabbit chaser stories I’d heard from my wife’s grandfather in the past. In recent years many news outlets had presented stories on the young men in the area who could run down rabbits in the muck. The belief, it is said, is that the time chasing those rabbits is the main reason the young men develop into top football players. There could be something to it. Between two small towns on the lake, Belle Glade and Pahokee, over 60 players from their high schools have gone on to the NFL. Their high school rivalry game is known as the “Muck Bowl” and it attracts college scouts and head coaches from all over the country.

When the tops are burned off of the sugarcane the smoke drives away venomous snakes as well as running rabbits into the open fields. When the local teenagers see that they pile into cars and drive quickly to the area. They run in only socks as the mud will take their shoes right off. When a rabbit is spotted it will be chased until it is snagged by hand or it jumps into one of the canals cut into the landscape around the fields. I’ve seen videos of young men jumping into the water and catching the rabbit as it attempts to swim away. Throughout the years many a meal has been made of the rabbits ran down in the sugarcane fields. For many young men the time in the quagmire of the sugarcane has meant a career far from the edge of the Everglades. NFL players like Anquan Boldin, Fred Taylor, and Santonio Holmes got their start chasing rabbits in the muddy soil.

As for developing football players the claim is the rabbit chasing works muscles most teenagers rarely use. As thick as the muck is in the fields and I could see it. As shifty as the rabbits can be the claim is that it also teaches agility and reaction time. I could see the plausibility of that as well.

For many around the lake football is the only way out of the poverty-stricken area. Over a third of the town of Belle Glade lives below the poverty line and the average family income is $25,000 a year. As a result of the poverty drug use is prevalent, and the violent crime rate is per capita one of the highest in the nation.

It’s never been easy in the lake towns in the muck. Sadly, for a time in the 1980s, Belle Glade was also known for the highest rate of AIDS cases per capita in the entire United States. It is a stigma the small town has struggled to shake off ever since.

‘Belle AIDS’

I remember my father in law, a 30-year veteran of Hollywood Police Department in Broward County, telling me about his law enforcement days of the 1980s when AIDS was barely understood and many in South Florida openly discriminated against the citizens from the towns around the lake. “The store clerks would spray lysol on the checks if they saw Belle Glade on them because they thought the AIDS virus was like the flu”, he once told me. “Police officers didn’t want to transport people who were known to have the virus.”

Before transmission methods of HIV were understood high school football teams didn’t want to play the Belle Glade team and rumors abounded about mosquitoes spreading the disease because of the proximity of the town to the everglades and the marshes around the lake. It hit an economically depressed area hard and the town’s businesses suffered. Many were closed down.

As the disease was studied people began to understand the reasons for the high rates of HIV and AIDS in Belle Glade. The crack cocaine epidemic of the time that disproportionately affected communities of color, and the promiscuous sex between unprotected heterosexual partners that resulted, drove the high number of cases in Belle Glade. Even though the town has advanced in education and treatment in the decades since, and the number of cases has dropped drastically, the stigma still hangs over the town like the dark storm clouds from 1928.

But the people around Lake Okeechobee are a proud, hard working people. Hate and fear may have driven narratives about the lake towns, but it hasn’t killed the spirit of the people there and an important southern culture, one often driven by resilience through unimaginable events and the systemic and institutionalized racism that has pervaded every corner of the United States since long before the towns even existed.

After a drive around the southern shore of the lake I stopped off for fuel on the outskirts of Belle Glade before my wife and I headed back to the coast. I’ve always been greeted with smiles and warmth from the people around the lake when I visit. “Y’all should get some stuff for a picnic by the lake”, one customer told me. We shared some laughs, talked about how beautiful a day it was, and the fact white folks rarely came to the business for gas and food. They told me to have a safe trip back to Alabama and I thanked them for their hospitality.

I don’t know if it was exhaustion from the road, or the emotional toll of visiting a mass grave and my recounting of the tragedy, but neither my wife or I said much at all the rest of the drive into Broward County.

’35 Miles East’

The next day we traveled up from my wife’s family’s home in Broward County to West Palm Beach and arrived just as the ceremony was starting. My wife had told me the event was to be held at the National Croquet Club. She didn’t tell me it was actually on a croquet court.

I sat there looking around at perfectly manicured, weed free grass — unlike my own back home — and a beautiful clubhouse filled with pictures of croquet champions and cases full of trophies. The walls of the clubhouse were all decorative stained wood surrounded by complex molding. A large porch jutted off the back, adjacent to the courts. The whole thing had the feel of a once very exclusive American way of life that had went by a century ago, an old money pastime. While we were attending an event at a center for wealthier people, it was in a city with a diverse population and a lower median annual income for families than the national average of $54,000. West Palm Beach also has a higher poverty rate than the national average. The unimaginable wealth was 5 minutes away on the coast of Palm Beach County in the city of Palm Beach, an area that is 96 percent white with a median annual family income of over $115,000.

The luxurious homes on the coast came about because of the efforts of Henry Flagler, a founding partner of Standard Oil, who set out to build a railroad down the east coast of Florida all the way to Key West. He built luxury hotels in towns along the coast from Saint Augustine to Miami. Flagler also built his winter home in Palm Beach. Known as Whitehall, it was completed in 1902. The New York Herald described it as “more wonderful than any palace in Europe, grander and more magnificent than any other private dwelling in the world”. It exists to this day as a museum of Henry Flagler’s life and a perfect example of a gilded age mansion as a palatial estate with 75 lavishly decorated rooms. In the century since the completion of Whitehall numerous mansions have been constructed on the barrier island of Palm Beach County, with some now on the market north of 50 million dollars. 250 square foot studio condominiums can cost $500,000 or more.

‘A Different World’

My wife and I left the wedding reception to drive over the inter-coastal waterway and check out the homes there. I didn’t even realize we had driven past Mar-a-Lago until my wife informed me the two arches over the driveways behind us were the entrance and exit. The street in front of the resort is small with two undersized lanes and I had fully expected to see a gaudy, gold sign with ‘Trump’ on it somewhere along the way. The road, South Ocean Boulevard, ran adjacent to the beach there and the homes along the way were stunning. Most were done in a Mediterranean architectural style. Lights illuminated the pristine landscaping around some homes while others were surrounded with walls of concrete. I turned around on a small side street to make my way back to Mar-a-Lago.

I learned earlier that day that Donald Trump was unable to attend the fundraising gala for the “Trump Victory Fund” at his resort due to the government shutdown that had just occurred. Donors had paid $100,000 a couple to attend or $250,000 a couple to participate in a round table discussion with the president. Donald Trump’s son, Eric, would have to stand in for him. As we returned to Mar-a-Lago I was surprised to see just how close I could get to the event with what appeared to be little to no security. I was forced to stop at the first arch as people were leaving the gala. The main building of the private resort was easily visible inside. A Bentley turned out in front of us and a person in a Rolls-Royce made their way out behind it with little care for my wife and I sitting there stopped in the street.

I’m a car guy. I have been ever since I put a poster of a 1988 Lamborghini Countach on the wall of my bedroom when I was 12.

“I believe that Rolls-Royce is a Wraith and, if that’s the case, that car is worth at least a quarter million”, I told my wife. I would later learn the MSRP is north of $300,000.

“What about the first one?”, she asked.

“All I could tell is that it’s a Bentley and I’m certain it’s worth more than a lot of folks will see in a lifetime”.

I felt out of place in my rental car even though it was a brand new Toyota Camry. The cars headed north on the boulevard and I drove back over the intercoastal waterway from Palm Beach to West Palm Beach, a place that seemed a bit more real. My mind flashed to the children I had seen playing in the shadows of the big lake a day earlier, running and laughing with beautiful smiles on their faces and mud on their bare feet. The people in those cars and at that gala are, quite possibly, decent people, I thought, but how can they sleep at night with so much obscenely excessive wealth knowing people are struggling to make ends meet just minutes down the road from them.

I accepted a long time ago the world is incredibly unfair and, quite often, arbitrarily and immensely cruel. My coping mechanism has always been to try and make life easier for those around me and challenge injustice whenever I encounter it. Anger does me and my family no good. In that moment it was hard not to be angry at what I witnessed over the previous 24 hours. From the western part of the county to the coast the wealth grows at an almost unfathomable rate. On one end of the county some people are forced to use rain barrels to collect water because their utilities have been shut off. On the opposite end people drive cars worth more than most people’s homes.

South of Palm Beach is the city of Boca Raton. It is the southernmost city in the county. The city is filled with gated communities. Forbes Magazine has ranked many of them among the most expensive neighborhoods in the United States.

I have been all over the United States over the past ten years, from New York to Washington DC to Miami to San Francisco. There are striking examples of wealth inequality to be found from sea to shining sea. However, while there may be a better example, I’ve never witnessed a starker one than what I witnessed in the small towns and big cities of Palm Beach County, Florida. It is clear cut along the lines of race and class and has been for generations. Sadly, it seems it will continue to be so for generations to come as the gap between the richest and poorest Americans continues to widen. Along with that the effects of policies, once implemented to maintain the status quo, are still felt and will be for some time.

Thankfully there are young people coming back home to the rural south and starting programs to improve their communities and bring in outside resources and support. Along with them there are long standing nonprofits who have been doing brilliant work for years to improve the lives of their fellow citizens. With their efforts maybe one day — maybe — I will look back at this essay and think that’s how it used to be.

‘The Glades Initiative’

One such program is known as The Glades Initiative. Their motto is one I feel is far better suited for Belle Glade, “Our People are Our Fortune”. According to their website, “The Glades Initiative was formed in 2002 in response to a need identified by the Board of County Commissioners for Palm Beach County through its Department of Community Services. The western areas of our county had no local source to identify and coordinate the health and human service needs of the community, nor was there any organization actively encouraging the health and human services organizations in the region to collectively address the community’s needs.”

The people of The Glades Initiative provide a large range of services tailored to a multi-cultural community like Belle Glade and the surrounding areas. Among these are medical interpreter training to help communications between patients and healthcare providers. There are also financial literacy classes in multiple languages. Programs are available to assist citizens in applications for federal, state, and county benefits. One of the most important efforts of The Glades Initiative is the communication of community events and available services to the citizens of the towns around the lake.

It’s nice to know there are people there working to make a difference and knowing there are ways you can support the local communities there. I am encouraged to find programs like these in nearly every small southern town I visit.

‘Blue Highways’

You can read all the reports and statistics you want but, until you get off the beaten path, it’s easy for our nation’s ills to be out of sight and out of mind. I find it has enriched my experience in life to get into the small towns and communities of the rural south, many like the one I grew up in. The negatives can be obvious, but the positives can be found too. Some of the best conversations and food I’ve experienced were found far off the interstate in the American South. Food and conversing? That’s just who we are in the south and that’s a universal thing here. The important thing is there is perspective to be gained. An education from firsthand experience is far more valuable than one cultivated outside of an area you’ve never been. Without the proper perspective we cannot start addressing the issues of systemic racism and wealth inequality in the south.

So if you ever find yourself in South Florida head west. Take the blue highway, US 98, around the eastern shore of the lake. But first stop off in Belle Glade and grab a Coca-Cola, a loaf of bread, and some sandwich meat. Have a picnic on the dike and watch the sun set over one of the most picturesque natural settings you’ll ever see. If you’re lucky you’ll see a thunderstorm blowing in far across the lake. Spend some money in the locally owned shops you may encounter. Visit the Lawrence E. Will Museum of The Glades. Stop by and see the folks at The Glades Initiative and see how you can support them. Take a moment to pay your respects to those lost in the 1928 Hurricane at the Port Mayaca Cemetery. See a part of the Southeastern United States you may have never even considered visiting.

After spending countless miles on back roads I’ve learned the beauty of going with no purpose in mind is the serendipitous experiences you’ll have. It’s the unknown wealth of being with your fellow human beings in settings far from your day to day life. There are friends to be made, stories to be told, and histories to be recounted and learned from. You’ll be better for it and maybe, in return, you’ll also learn how you can help better the lives of those you meet. It’s a small part of a blueprint for changing things in our region and what a privilege it is to be able to do so.

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