Settlers began growing pineapples and citrus trees along the Indian River soon after the Second Seminole War (1835-1842). Bean Backus’ family settled in Florida in 1900, hoping to earn a living from pineapple groves, a dream that was dashed due to drought, disease, and competition from Cuba. Although pineapples soon proved to be an iffy proposition, citrus grew well, especially around Fort Pierce. In fact, St. Lucie County’s crop was so sweet it commanded higher prices than fruit from other areas in Florida. The orange, in particular, made its mark on Florida, so much so that in some ways it is now synonymous with the Sunshine State. For the early settlers, orange fields were but one way that the American Dream could take shape in Florida’s swampy wilderness.
Between the 1920s and 1950s, many middle class adventurers from around the country had visions of a new beginning. The Dream, according to Florida historian Gary Mormino, was “the state’s greatest export.” But, he cautioned, “In a state where the sun was enshrined in optimism, the line between speculation and investment is very thin. To be a Floridian was to gamble on the future.” Still people came and invested in property.
Many used the land, especially the glorious power of sunshine, to make something grow. In the mid-1940s, Florida’s citrus crops became so plentiful it beat California’s production. By 1950, Florida’s economy was largely dependent on agriculture and tourism. The leading citrus counties were Orange, Lake and Polk. When freezes caused a movement south, St. Lucie County became one of the biggest orange producing regions in Florida. Citrus groves increasingly became big business as the smaller five-acre farms became obsolete. Other crops, such as tomatoes, also grew well in St. Lucie County. Along with tourism and fishing, the area’s main economic engines continue to be citrus and cattle ranching.
For African Americans living in and around Fort Pierce during Jim Crow times, work was limited and farmers counted on them for cheap labor. If they couldn’t afford to own a small community business or work for someone who had one, fieldwork was the most viable way to bring in money. The youth who would become the Highwaymen grew up knowing farm work, as their families had sharecropped or worked the fields somewhere in the South. Less than one in five sharecroppers made a profit at the end of the year, so making anything in the fields as day workers seemed like a step up. Most African Americans in Fort Pierce in the mid-twentieth century started picking oranges, grapefruits, and tomatoes when they were teens.
It was (and still is) backbreaking work at a very low wage. Although it is hard to believe, farm owners were known to complain about what they perceived as unwarranted fieldworkers’ wages. According to Mormino, in 1947, Dixon Pearce, the chairman of Florida’s Fruit and Vegetable Association, complained that labor costs were unreasonable and that they threatened Florida’s future. He said, “Before the war, field workers were paid from $1.75 to $2.00 per day and we had better workers than today, working longer hours.”
Working the fields was a way to survive, but it wasn’t a life anyone wanted. While it was a way to feed a family, it wasn’t always something that could be counted on. Fieldwork was seasonal and sometimes nature destroyed what little opportunity there was. The idea that life in Florida could be a paradise often seemed like nothing more than a dream. And, in spite of technological advancements in farming, picking oranges today is accomplished the same exhausting way it has always been done, by hand. For the Highwaymen, picking fruit and vegetables was good motivation to find a different way to make money. As Mormino writes, “In a land of perpetual hope, reality can disillusion, but it can also strengthen dreams.”
Optimism was rampant during the 1950s and 60s, and this hope for the future rubbed off on the youth who would become known as the Highwaymen. Their goal was to find a way to avoid a life in the fields. Once they started making money from their art, they were able to leave fieldwork behind. In the 1970s, when their paintings were no longer selling like they once had, many of the artists found other work, but they didn’t return to the fields. Those who pick the citrus and vegetables today are usually farm workers from other ethnic backgrounds.
Today, Florida’s oranges, grapefruits, and tangerines are in peril as an incurable disease known as “citrus greening” has taken over the industry. The disease, spread by a small flying insect, showed up in Florida in 2005. The infection makes the orange bitter and the tree eventually dies. Over 70 percent of Florida’s groves have been threatened. By 2013, over $5 billion has been spent fighting the disease. It has also cost Florida the loss of 8,000 jobs, many of them farm workers.