July 30, 2014

Pioneers of the Past

For most of us-with our lattes, SUVs and take-out menus-it's hard to imagine how Floridians lived just 75 years ago. We can't remember travel before the Interstate, the menacing swarms of swamp angels before mosquito control, or the grit it took to find adequate food, clothing and shelter in the midst of hardship. But we can begin to imagine the lives of our early pioneers by learning about their history. The story of the pioneering Roberts family of Immokalee, now available firsthand at a new museum at the family homestead, teaches us how perseverance, strength and faith brought them survival and success.

In 1914, Robert Roberts Jr., a cattleman from the village of New Zion, about 20 miles north of Arcadia, joined a cattle drive passing through the newly named town of Immokalee. In other parts of Florida, laws forced ranchers to fence their lands-an expensive requirement. Many cattle ranches failed. To Robert Roberts, wide-open, undeveloped Immokalee seemed like the promised land.

Roberts returned to New Zion with a sense of purpose. He discussed the move with his wife, Sarah Jane, known as Henrie. It would be a risky venture. Immokalee was untamed country. The couple had seven children ranging in age from three months to 12 years, and the family would face a variety of threats, human and natural. After much consideration, they decided to invest their future in the wilds of Immokalee.

The journey to the small town, about 90 miles away, was grueling. What is now a two-hour trip was a three-day journey by oxcart in 1914. There were no proper roads in the region, just sandy, winding paths meandering through clumps of scraggly trees and cypress heads. The family's three wagons, hogs and cattle often became separated. Once the cattle stampeded and some could not be found. Dius Roberts, the oldest son, lost his favorite cat amongst the scrub oak and plains.

On the last day of the journey, as the family prepared to cross the Caloosahatchee River over the Olga Bridge, a group of men approached the wagon and blocked the way. "Papa just walked back and got his double-barreled shotgun out of the spring wagon and laid it across his saddle and headed across," one of the children recalled in author Maria Stone's At the End of the Oxcart Trail. "They knew Papa meant business. After a while those men stood by and let Papa and the family cross."

Upon arrival, the family got its first taste of the primitive conditions and isolation of their new life. The town had no electricity, running water or telephones. There were no paved roads. No shops or markets. Less than a dozen families lived in the area and there was no church. Accustomed to a rich spiritual life, the Robertses organized the First Baptist Church of Immokalee within months of their arrival.

The family settled on the old Allen place, a homestead said to have been established by a Sanibel farmer who had moved inland after a hurricane devastated the island. Intending to pay off the land when he sold his New Zion property, Roberts had given the owner a $50 deposit for the 40-acre spread, which included a modest log home and an orange grove. But then the two decided just to trade ranches. It was an even swap. Unburdened by a mortgage, Roberts immediately began to improve his Immokalee land.

The old log house was cold when the family arrived that December, and Roberts and Dius built a fireplace, possibly the first one in the area. Then they set about attaching bedrooms to the main structure. The oldest girls-Ola, 10, Nina, eight, Blye, seven, and Lois, four-shared rooms. Baby Josephine slept with her parents. As the only boy, Dius had a room to himself-for a while. Shortly after the family settled in town, they made their homestead the central post office, setting up a corner of Dius' room with small boxes for letters and packages. Customers picked up mail and stamps at his bedroom window. The post office was a godsend for residents. Before, mail had been sent to LaBelle. Locals passing through LaBelle would pick up mail for Immokalee, but sometimes it would take months to arrive.

In a place with so few people, there were important tasks to be done, but few to do them. Besides helping to found the new church, the Roberts family was called upon to serve their new town in birth and in death. Henrie helped deliver babies, and the entire family assisted with funerals. Roberts built coffins and his wife and daughters sewed the linings. The couple washed and dressed bodies for burial.

This work came on top of the daily responsibilities and chores associated with carving out a homestead. The children pitched in when necessary, chopping wood or doing dishes. The men worked with the cattle and hogs, kept the buildings and ranch in good order, and did the hauling and heavy lifting.

The girls were responsible for keeping the house and yard. Mildred Roberts Sherrod, the family's youngest daughter-called "Runmil" because she was always being told, "Run, Mil, and fetch this"-was born in the log house. She and her sisters fed the horses and cows. They helped take care of the orange groves and kitchen garden. They tended the chickens and gathered the eggs, and performed the arduous chores of washing and ironing entirely by hand. "We kids worked hard," Mildred Sherrod recalls today from her home in Immokalee close to the homestead where she grew up. "It was expected of us and we just did it. There wasn't any questioning. We wouldn't have made it if everyone didn't help out." The older children taught the younger ones how to do their chores and helped their parents keep them safe.

Loving family life offered a sanctuary from danger just outside the front door. Rattlesnakes, scorpions, wild hogs and bears were deadly threats. Rumrunners, gangsters and other outlaws passed through a town that had little law enforcement. Henrie and her children were often alone when her husband was off driving cattle. She never wavered. Shotgun in hand, she could calmly shoot the head off a rattlesnake or run questionable characters off the property.

At home the children's play was simple and wholesome. Lois entertained her younger siblings Louise, Josephine, Mildred and baby Robert with shadow puppets while the older siblings washed dishes. They played hide-and-seek and drop-the-handkerchief, and made dolls out of rags. Many evenings the family would sit around the fireplace eating tangerines and nuts and talking about the day.

By 1926, the cattle business had prospered enough for the family to construct a two-story bungalow-style house on the property. The new house included a spacious dining room, comfortable parlor and additional bedrooms for the family's nine children.

Henrie and the younger children were in the house in September 1926 when a windstorm arrived. Without radios, they had no way of knowing that it was a hurricane until the winds picked up even more. Braving the elements, Dius cut down a large pine swaying dangerously close to the house, then moved the vehicles out of the garage minutes before it collapsed.

Robert Roberts had been caught in the woods while hog hunting with a friend. Hours ticked by after the storm passed. The children became more nervous, but their mother seemed to remain calm. "Mama was a woman of faith," remembers daughter Mildred, "but even she looked relieved when father came home. Boy, were we glad to see him!"

Like most neighboring spreads, the Roberts' ranch sustained damage, although the house and most of the outbuildings survived. The damage to Florida's real estate boom was far worse. The once bubbly state economy lapsed into recession, which continued into the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Compared to many, the Roberts family was fortunate. "We survived with no outside help," Mildred says, "but times were tough. We grew everything we could, but the cattle business dropped off. No one was buying anything. As father used to say, 'A cat would starve on what was thrown out of Mama's kitchen.'"

Two additional forces piled on top of the Depression to decimate the cattle industry. Parasitic larvae called screwworms killed hundreds of cattle. Ticks had always been a problem, but in the 1930s they became even worse. A year after a serious outbreak in 1933, the state required all ranchers to dip cattle every two weeks in vats of arsenic-a labor-intensive and expensive process. Between the cost of supplies and the manpower required to dip each animal, many ranchers gave up ranching. As the Depression wore on and expenses increased, the family's survival was in jeopardy.

Robert and Henrie faced a difficult choice. The ranch wouldn't survive without cattle, and they couldn't run the animals unless they were dipped. In the early 1930s, Robert did the previously unthinkable: He mortgaged his ranch. It was risky. He knew that if he missed just one payment, he would lose everything. Daughter Mildred overheard her parents discussing the mortgage late one night. "I was old enough to know that people who mortgaged their homes lost them," she says.

But the Depression ended and the cattle business improved. Slowly the Roberts family worked its way out of debt. In 1950, the family incorporated into the Red Cattle Company. Through an improved breeding program and careful management, they became one of the most successful ranching families in South Florida.

One by one, each child went off and started a life of his or her own, but stayed in close contact with the rest of the family. In the early 1960s, Robert was diagnosed with prostate cancer and the children rallied around him. A decade before, they had offered to host a 50th anniversary for their parents, but their father had said he was too busy. This time, he agreed. For many relatives, the couple's 60th anniversary party was the last time they saw the family patriarch alive. He died just a few months later.

Henrie died two years after her husband's death. Although she was in her 80s, it was difficult for her family to accept. She spent weeks in the hospital in a coma, always with a child or grandchild at her side. Although she's been gone for 40 years now, her memory remains strong with the family. One of her granddaughters, Mary Giddens of Glades County, will always remember her as "a woman of strength and courage-and faith."

With only Mildred and Bobby left alive of the nine children, the family's history seemed destined to fade away. But thanks to the Collier County Commission, community support and a generous gift of land from the Roberts clan, the family's legacy will live on. The ranch is being listed on the National Register of Historic Places as county workers transform the homestead into a museum. Visitors from all over can begin not only to imagine but to understand the lives of Florida's enterprising settlers at the Immokalee Pioneer Museum at Roberts Ranch.

The Immokalee Pioneer Museum at Roberts Ranch is located in Immokalee on Roberts Avenue. For hours or more information, call (239) 658-2466. 

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