An article about Capt. Ben Baker’s early pineapple plantation on Key Largo appeared in Harper’s magazine in 1871 accompanied by this pen and ink sketch.
By 1862, Captain Ben Baker was on his way to becoming King of the Florida Wreckers. He was also one of the first to farm pineapples on that largest of Florida’s keys, Key Largo; Baker’s land was around Mile Marker 97 and stretched to the Atlantic shore.
Dr. J.B. Holder wrote of Baker’s pineapple successes in his account, “Along the Florida Reef,” published in an 1871 edition of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine. After Holder revealed that Baker was making thousands of dollars farming the prickly fruit, other Bahamian families began to arrive and cultivate the Key Largo soil.
Captain Baker transported his own crops to the markets in New York when shipping, especially something as delicate as fruit, proved something of an art form. The pineapples had to be packed into crates while they were still green. Once lowered into a vessel’s hold, the ripening process was hastened. In those dark, dank quarters it would only be four or five days before the acids would begin to bubble inside the fruit and the fermentation process begin. On at least one occasion, while shipping his product to New York, the wind stalled, the boat drifted, and Captain Baker’s entire shipment rotted.
Probably due, at least in part, to Holder’s account of life in the Upper Keys, a trio of families would come to settle along the Atlantic coast of the southern tip of Key Largo: Samuel Johnson, brothers William and Robert Albury, and Amos and Ada Lowe. The ensuing development was eventually named Planter because it was a “planting” community of farms stretching from Tavernier Creek to Harry Harris Park.
There was a time when approximately 85 percent of the pineapples sold in America were grown in the Florida Keys. This is not a precise figure and there is no hard science behind the number.
Rather, 85 percent is the number two of the Florida Keys most historic minds, Tom Hambright and Jerry Wilkinson, came up with while trying to calculate this pineapple math. All of that would change, however, with the completion of Henry Flagler’s Oversea Railway in 1912.
In the meantime, Ben Baker continued to grow pineapples and retain his dominance as King of the Florida Wreckers. October 23, 1865, for example, Baker’s schooner, Rapid, was ripped from her mooring cables during a hurricane and washed ashore. Undeterred, the following morning Captain Baker and a crew of nine strong men refloated the Rapid. They set sail for the reef and were still the first to come upon the Caroline Nesmith faltering on Carysfort Reef.
The 832-ton ship was running 2,500 bales of cotton from Mobile, Alabama to Liverpool, England before the hurricane’s howling winds began to scream. The salvage operation took Captain Baker’s Rapid, along with a fleet of five schooners and 27 men, approximately 20 days to transfer the salvaged cotton bales from the wreck to the safe port of Key West. The money paid out for the work was $60,502; it was the largest salvage ever awarded to that day.
By 1870, Ben Baker was listed as a resident of the island, Key Largo. 1870 was also the year construction began on the Brooklyn Bridge. While delivering his pineapple crops to New York, he watched the bridge being built. Captain Baker used to entertain his grandchildren describing how the great suspension bridge, completed in 1883, crossed the East River to reach Manhattan Island.
Baker also successfully petitioned to open the island’s first post office, Post Office Cayo Largo, in 1870. Stated in his postal application were plans to distribute mail to 17 families. The post office was short lived, however, and discontinued service on October 11, 1871. Baker’s wrecking career continued on through the rest of the decade with Old Ben Baker’s last recorded salvage operation occurring in May, 1880; he was 62.
On a night in July, 1889, Captain Baker would eat dinner at his Key Largo home for the last time. At approximately 7 p.m. he began to feel ill. Four hours later, at the age of 71, Captain Ben Baker, King of the Florida Wreckers, was declared deceased of unknown causes.
Baker’s sons tore apart a yellow pine skiff to get the boards necessary to build a coffin. It was then lined with brown fabric from a bolt used to make underwear for the Baker clan. The coffin was taken aboard the Rapid and the ship set sail for Key West. Unfortunately, light winds caused the ship to return to Key Largo and Baker was buried on his Key Largo property.
Miss Lamar Louise Curry, born in 1906, grew up playing in her father’s fields. He owned property on Key Largo, around Mile Marker 97. As a young lady, she remembers seeing the tombstone of Ben Baker on her father’s land.
Brad Bertelli is a published author of four books on Florida and Florida Keys history. His column will appear bi-weekly in The Reporter. Reach Brad with comments and questions at WhyPanic@aol.com.