HISTORY OF BIG PINE KEY
By Jerry Wilkinson
| There is little doubt that some viewed Big Pine with potential. From 1914 to 1925 there were 10 subdivisions filed on Big Pine property, but few people. Silas Knowles filed the first subdivision in 1914. William H. Sands subdivided his 1911 homestead in 1922. There was not a single subdivision platted between 1925 and 1951. This pattern was also repeated in the Upper Keys. Sands also worked for the Ocean Leather Company and his brother’s family, Potts, worked as the company’s mechanic. Mrs. Potts was the postmaster 1925 to 26. The Florida Land Boom of the 1920s started the process and its burst after the 1929 stock market crash with the resulting depression halted most development. The disastrous hurricane of 1926 halted the land boom for southeast Florida.
Big Pine almost started a new Keys industry in 1923. Increased uses of shark oil sparked Hydenoil Products to build a shark oil plant on the Atlantic shore. The plant geared up and employed 25 men and operated 6 fishing boats. By 1930 they caught and processed an average of 100 sharks daily. Little of the shark was wasted, but the odor was quite strong. Shark leathers was sold by the Ocean Leather company. The plant closed in 1931 after eight years of operation owing employees back paid salaries. WW-II shut off the US supply of cod liver oil and shark oil. Plants were attempted on other Keys, but they too were short lived.
The opening of the first Overseas Highway in 1928 did little to populate Big Pine. The ferry landing was at No Name Key and a small community grew there. During the depression, a Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was operated on Big Pine. A small airfield was constructed. The Second Overseas Highway in 1938 followed the railroad right of way and by-passed No Name Key.
Sometime along this period the Blue Hole on Key Deer Boulevard came into existence. It is not certain that this oolite quarry was for the first highway, other roads, or just what. Its location is not particular close to any. The author is almost certain that it was not for the railroad. It appears to be the only Keys fresh water hole of any consequential size. It is host to a multitude of freshwater flora and fauna from alligators, fish, turtles to many birds.
Education on Big Pine seems to have always been problematic. Monroe County has always required at least 10 students for a school. Given the tendency for the early Big Pine population to be unstable and unpredictable is the probable cause. The first record requesting a school was by E. E. Morris dated June 16, 1927. The School Board requested the superintendent to investigate the advisability of establishing a school. A report dated November 19, 1927 indicated that “there are now six children in two families and probably another one would come down in the spring.” Action was deferred. Please remember that the highway from Key West to Big Pine was completed in about May of 1927 even though the ferry boats did not start operation until 1928.
At the November 25, 1927 School Board meeting another letter from Mr. Morris had been received “stating that a family with one child had moved to Big Pine recently and one was expected to move from Miami with three children. Mr. Morris also stated that a building owned by C. C. Johnson could be secured as a school and recommended Mrs. Hilda Sands as a teacher.” C. C. Johnson was probably Copeland Crizen Johnson who owned the Gospel Hall on Big Pine.
The February 9, 1928 School Board meeting indicated that school was in progress with Mrs. Sands as the teacher. From subsequent board minutes, it appears that school was on and off. Transportation became a problem as No Name, Ramrod and Sugarloaf Keys became involved and required buses. Roads were poor and busing expensive for two to four children. The School Board eventually ordered the school closed “…on Wednesday, March 1 .” School did continue, but only after a struggle which continues today [January 2000].
Small farming and fishing establishments continued. Owners and operators appeared to rotate back and forth to Key West and others places. Eventually, many found their way back to Big Pine.
To discuss the Big Pine Prison camp we must begin with the Civilian Conservation Corps on West Summerland Key. The CCC camp was established in the late 1930 to place rip-rap along the bridge approachments for the new Overseas Highway. The 1935 Hurricane destroyed about 40 miles of the Florida East Coast Railway and the decision was made to purchase the railroad right-of-way and build a highway. Previously, vehicle travel was by ferry boats from Lower Matecumbe Key to No Name Key. The complete highway was completed in 1938 and the need for the CCC work crews was terminated.
In 1947 the Florida State Division of Corrections procured the old CCC camp as prison road camp. In 1950 the state prison moved to the former railroad foreman’s section house area on Big Pine Key where it has remained. Roy Hazelwood was the warden. To provide additional space a CCC barracks was moved along side and fenced in as a confine for prison workers. These were the day of “chain gangs’ working “under the shotgun.” The old section house was later condemned and torn down. People did not believe in renovation and preservation of cultural resources.
It was thought that Big Pine, and still is by a few, that Big Pine would resist becoming an “asphalt jungle, but the 1950s signaled a change. After WW II the the American public was ready to travel, to make changes and to seek new horizons. The gap of 26 years of no new subdividing was bridged when Ed Barry subdivided Punta Brisa in 1951 and this was only the beginning. Electricity and piped drinking water followed shortly. This appears to be the time that all of the Keys were being discovered or rediscovered. A census taken by the Chamber of Commerce in 1966 revealed a year round population of 181 and a winter population of 1,496.
The new development further threatened the almost extinct Key deer. It was estimated in 1947 that about 50 of the diminutive deer remained. In 1949 the Everglades National Park was dedicated by President Harry Truman. In 1954 a U.S. refuge of 915 acres of leased property was established. This was followed by 22 new subdivisions followed by Congress passing bill HR1058 in 1957 creating a National Wildlife Refuge for the deer. Jack Watson was the ranger and he became known as Mr. Key Deer. Jack Watson had moved to the Keys in 1946 as an agent for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Tavernier. “No Spear fishing” signs went up in other parts of the Keys. It was being perceived that nothing would be left if we did not begin conservation measures.
Watson’s Hammock is a part of the National Key Deer Refuge. The name came from Robert B. Watson (Not to be confused with Jack Watson) who homesteaded government lots 3 and 4 of section 9 in 1905. The story is best told by daughter Mispah Watson (Saunders) as appeared in the Florida Keys magazine, first quarter, 1982. Mrs. Mizpah Saunders was one of the many school bus drivers.
Business was good and the Lower Keys Chamber of Commerce established its office on Big Pine in 1959. Big Pine was becoming self supporting with its own stores.
The 1960s brought Hurricane Donna and later many new businesses. Development throughout the Keys also increased the highway traffic. Highway U.S. 1 continued to be two lanes through Big Pine and this stressed everyone, including the effect on the Key Deer.
The 1970s saw more development and in 1972 a moratorium was placed on all dredging. Most development in the Keys involves dredge and fill operations. The moratorium has been on and off since. The speed limit was reduced to 45-MPH during the day and 35-MPH at night.
The state of Florida made the next major move. As of April 15, 1975, Florida ordered the Florida Keys to be an Area of Critical State Concern (ACSC). This basically placed all development under the final approval process of Tallahassee. Land Use plans and Rate of Growth Ordinances were developed and constantly in a state of change – but only with the approval of Florida State government.
In 1999 it was announced that the last remaining historic structures were purchased to be moved to Key West. These were the Maggie Atwell house and the F.E.C. railroad depot. It was obvious to the author that Big Pine Key, like most other Florida Keys other than Key West, have no sense of itself. Too many transplants whose home is someplace else.
Most of the Keys look the same so they had concrete mile markers on the side of the road so you knew where you were. The numbers started at zero in Key West and increased up the Keys and into Florida. Big Pine Key is at the 30 mile marker.
Big Pine today has a traffic light with turn lanes and a shopping plaza off the highway.
At the East end of Big Pine Key US1 is elevated and 2 under-highway culverts provided for the Key Key deer to cross safely.