The Florida Gladesmen Way

Jack Shealy lives, promotes and preserves Southwest Florida heritage.

BY April 1, 2023
Florida Everglades Gladesmen Jack Shealy
Jack Shealy is a third-generation Gladesman; he’s founder of the Gladesmen Heritage Foundation and owner of Everglades Adventure Tours and Trail Lakes Campground within Big Cypress National Preserve. His father, Dave, created the famed Skunk Ape Research Headquarters at the family campground in 1994. (Photo by Dan Cutrona)

Jack Shealy raps on a piece of wood. The concrete-like density deadens the sound. Lighter pine, he announces. It’s the center, or heartwood, of a tree that had been struck by lightning and dried in the sun over many years.

“That’s how I lit the (camp) fire so fast this morning,” he explains. In addition to the lack of moisture, the wood contains flammable turpentine, a natural byproduct of some pine species. A modest-sized piece of lighter pine will spark an impressive flame. Jack points out some of the forest’s other resources: Wax myrtle leaves make a cleansing tea; black bay ones enhance the flavor and color of smoked mullet; saw grassroots will sustain you in a pinch; and if you’re willing to labor, you can extract the tender, edible heart of a cabbage palm tree and boil it into a stew.

Meet Jack Shealy, Gladesman.

Jack is determined to preserve the old ways. The 39-year-old is among a dwindling number of people who rightly can call themselves “Gladesmen,” a group shaped by the Everglades and defined by their connection to land and water. The earliest of them settled in the Ten Thousand Islands in the 1800s and lived on houseboats that they tugged from camp to camp, chasing fish. They are the inventors of swamp buggies and airboats, purveyors of a ‘swamp-to-table’ and ‘sea-to-table’ cuisine, jack-of-all-tradesmen who can rig something out of nothing because that’s what you had to do—and sometimes still must do—in Florida’s Last Frontier. If civilization ended tomorrow, people like Jack would shrug, grab fishing rods, light cooking fires and go on with life.

There are forces threatening to erode the Gladesmen culture—and it is a culture, a point we’ll get into later. This is not a new issue. Government edicts dating back to the establishment of Everglades National Park in 1947, population shifts, the aging of community matriarchs and patriarchs, land management practices, ever-changing landscapes, and kids more familiar with posting to TikTok than pitching a tent have eroded their way of life. So, too, have self-inflicted wounds that carry grave consequences. We’ll get into that later, too. 

Two years ago, Jack founded the Gladesmen Heritage Foundation, dedicated to preserving the pioneering folk culture of the Everglades and passing on skills and stories to the next generation. Outside of his nonprofit, he’s among the generational landowners speaking up about matters of land management, Everglades restoration and balancing conservation concerns with cultural ones. Jack is also the third-generation owner of Trail Lakes Campground, nestled in Big Cypress National Preserve, and the founder of Everglades Adventures Tours, an ecotourism company that introduces people to the Everglades and Gladesmen history and, he hopes, inspires a love of the land. “When I’m out in the Glades, it’s always a reminder that that’s where I’m supposed to be,” he says. An indigenous elder once remarked to his grandfather, “Even after all the people that are coming here are gone, you’ll still be here.” 

Life in these remote stretches of Collier has never been easy—not for the pioneers, not for the commercial fishing families, and not for him, with six-figure operating costs, the remoteness of the place and restrictions on land use. He’s been offered millions to sell and rejected each proposal. “This place is priceless to me,” says Jack, who, with his wife, is raising two sons on this land. “It’s a whole way of life here.”

Wait here, and I’ll grab the boat.” We’re at a Turner River canoe access in Ochopee, a one-time agricultural community along the Tamiami Trail. Its most famous structure is the nation’s smallest Post Office, a 61-square-foot roadside shed, where Jack’s grandmother served as postmaster. Jack disappears around a bend and returns tugging his craft. It is a pole boat, a shallow skiff reminiscent of a dugout. We climb in, and Jack pushes off using a 12-foot cypress pole with a tapered end. 

An early morning shower has passed, though the sky remains overcast, and we have the river to ourselves. Jack points out the stump of a once-magnificent pond apple tree, a hawk nesting in the canopy, a heron that seems to trail us. Jack has been navigating these waters since boyhood. His dad had taught him to fish and frog, a nighttime practice that involves using a lantern to illuminate the frogs’ eyes and a harpoon to spear them. As a kid, he used to clean the legs to help his dad, who caught them commercially. Fried frog legs are common fare in these parts. So are mullet, a fish once so abundant that the old-timers say it would take more than a day to unload their catch. They’re scarce now, but every December, Jack hauls in 50 at a time (the daily catch limit), smokes them in traditional fashion and gifts them to residents and the occasional passersby, a way of introducing tourists to traditional fare. “You have to come back for the mullet,” he says. He laments my deadline will hit before I can experience other traditions, which take place throughout Southwest Florida: the Wild Hog BBQ, hosted by The Everglades Conservation and Sportsman Club in Ochopee, the Swamp Buggy races in South Naples, the Swamp Cabbage Festival in LaBelle, the Everglades City Seafood Festival, the highlight of the year, Jack says.   

We glide further into the wilderness. The advent of motors rendered the pole boats obsolete and all but forgotten. Jack reintroduced them when he launched Everglades Adventure Tours in 2012. That’s also around the time he took over the campground from his dad, Dave. I had never met Dave but knew him by reputation. Before the internet took hold, Dave would call local newsrooms to report sightings of the Skunk Ape: Florida’s Big Foot. He erected a skunk ape statue at the entrance to the campground and opened a gift shop, the Skunk Ape Headquarters. Jack doesn’t share his dad’s obsession with the lumbering humanoid, but he doesn’t reject it, either. “Any recognizable, definable culture has its own folklore,” he says, a perfect opening to discuss what I’d come to learn: What exactly is Gladesmen culture?   

Anthropologist Laura Ogden and Glen Simmons, a lifelong Glades resident, introduced the term “Gladesmen” in their 1998 book of the same title. “The landscape was central to their daily existence,” they wrote. The land nourished them, taught them, and offered endless adventures. “At the end of the day, Gladesmen often gathered around campfires smoking smudge pots, some sipping moonshine, to rehash their observations, to speculate and to tell tall tales.” About a decade later, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers commissioned a study at the insistence of community activists who feared that culturally important lands, fish camps and homesites might be destroyed as the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan changes how water moves through the Glades. Moreover, they worried about losing access to the land and, thus, their way of life. That study, released in 2011, authenticated “Gladesmen” as a standalone culture, a subset of Florida Crackers.

Early Gladesmen survived by hunting and fishing. Today, some of these multigenerational families remain in the commercial fishing and crabbing business, passing boats, nets and trade secrets from fathers to sons. Others, like Jack, tap into their wilderness upbringings to run ecotourism companies or make a side business rescuing stranded visitors, contractors and others who think they know how to navigate the wild but end up with spent motors, flat tires and vehicles mired in muck.

Gladesmen have had to let go of some ancestral traditions. You can’t hunt gators freely anymore (and if you’ve ever had gator tail at a restaurant, it is farmed and regulated). Catching softshell turtles to fry them up—if that’s your family’s tradition—is far more regulated these days, too. Nor can you legally eat “Chokoloskee chicken,” the white ibis that was once a staple is now protected. But other customs hold firm. At Jack’s house, located on his campground, a mountain of oyster shells accumulates by the firepit. “One day, this is going to be the highest point in Ochopee,” Jack quips. “It’s not about the oyster shells. It’s about all the good times … getting together with a cold beer, a little oyster bar and telling stories.”

Jack was aware he was a part of the Gladesmen culture but didn’t realize how unique it was to other people when he started Everglades Adventure Tours. “I’ve been called a ‘redneck,’ a ‘swamp rat,’ a ‘hillbilly,’ and 500 other things,” he says with a grin. Frank Denninger, one of the residents who’d pushed for the study, told a 20-something Jack: “This is ‘heritage tourism,’ and when people ask you, ‘What are you?’ You tell them you’re a ‘Gladesman.’”

But I wonder how many self-described Gladesmen are left, with technology’s hold on the young, spiraling real estate prices and the hardships of wilderness living. I pose that question to Jack as we ride past the marshland between Ochopee and Everglades City. Jack, who is typically loquacious, falls silent. He hates this question. A film producer once suggested calling him, “The Last Gladesman,” an idea Jack flatly rejected. 

“It ain’t gone while I’m here,” he says of his community. He’s quite serious. That’s why he started the Gladesmen Heritage Foundation. With the help of other legacy families, he amasses memorabilia, artifacts and audio-recorded stories. Some items are on display in a mobile museum and housed on his family’s land, where he intends to develop a permanent museum. Among his holdings: Artifacts once belonging to Glen Simmons, the aforementioned writer, and Totch Brown, another Gladesman legend and author. Their autobiographies, which detail everything from establishing homesteads to coexisting with wildlife to navigating a Wild West-style rule of law, make them among the most famous pioneers in this Last Frontier. Glen was renowned for his wooden skiffs; Jack is acquiring one for his museum.

Aside from his burgeoning collection, Jack partners with the Museum of the Everglades, the place where we’re headed, to tell his people’s story. Conversations with museum manager Thomas Lockyear II help Jack see the uniqueness in his way of life, as familiar to him as it is foreign to outsiders.  The recent Gearheads in the Glades, their second collaborative exhibition, showcased the mechanical ingenuity residents employed to traverse the unforgiving terrain. Dave Shealy’s “Swamp Thing,” a three-wheeled all-terrain vehicle, dominated the display. “History is best told through people,” Thomas says.

 Jack wants people to experience the Gladesmen ways, too. He’s led tours out to Totch Brown’s island, and through his Junior Gladesmen program, he treats kids to summer programs and fishing tournaments designed to impart traditional skills and a love of the outdoors. “By teaching these kids some of the old ways of doing things, it fosters an appreciation for our way of life,” he says. 

Florida Everglades
Gladesmen continue to fight for access to and use of ancestral lands. “If we had the same opportunity down here to be land managers that the cattlemen have had for generations, Rome would not be burning right now,” Jack says. (Photo by Dan Cutrona)

Jack meets me one morning in a mud-splattered off-road vehicle. “Climb in,” he invites, and we set off northward along Turner River Road through Big Cypress National Preserve. A few minutes later, he veers onto a grassy pathway. We’re going to camp. 

Hunting and fishing camps are central to Gladesmen culture. When Big Cypress was established in 1974 as the nation’s first preserve, the government allowed for some of these traditions to continue, though, in truth, Gladesmen like Jack continually negotiate to maintain access to the land. The camp we’re heading to is just far enough in to feel adventurous but close enough that Jack sometimes takes his boys there after school. It’ll take you a half day or more to access the remote outposts, which is why previous generations invented the swamp buggies and airboats celebrated in the Gearheads exhibition and in Jack’s collection. 

Camps range in complexity from mosquito-netted tents to fully wired homes. This one, belonging to a family friend, is somewhere in between. It’s a two-story structure elevated on poles to account for seasonal rain. We settle into folding chairs in the shade beneath. “Have you ever sat in a tree stand before?” Jack asks. He’s referring to a portable platform-and-ladder system that hunters affix to trees for an elevated view. I had not. He explains the “rush” he feels when birds and wildlife approach his camouflaged form. “Sometimes, a bird lands right on your tree stand,” he says.

Hunting isn’t really about the take, he continues. It’s the escape from daily life, the communing with nature, the fireside stories, the memories. “All of Florida is changing,” he says. “It’s really important for us to preserve it, to preserve the natural resources and the landscapes because those are the very threads of our way of life here.” Years ago, Jack asked an indigenous elder who mentored him about his life’s purpose. The older man was unequivocal: “You have to speak up for things that don’t have a voice.”

Jack took those words to heart. He worries about the future of this land, and he believes Gladesmen, with their intimate knowledge of it, deserve a say in how it is managed and protected. “I say with no hesitation that the families that are the biggest landholders in this state have been some of the best stewards of our natural resources,” he says. “If we had the same opportunity down here to be land managers that the cattlemen have had for generations, Rome would not be burning right now.” 

As we sit in the stillness of the forest, Jack offers a few examples of the many things he thinks regulators need to address: What will happen to wildlife habitat when engineers send water gushing to places where it had disappeared decades ago? Nature adapts gradually, he says. What are the ramifications of the Florida panthers’ comeback? Are they to blame—at least in part—for the disappearance of the deer? Would mullets reproduce at higher rates if fishing restrictions were loosened and their populations pressured? 

For a long time, Jack says people from his community didn’t ask those questions. Relations between longtime residents and government entities soured generations ago. The federal government removed settlers and outlawed camps in Everglades National Park following its establishment. Commercial fishing rights in the park, upheld under one administration, ended under another. Dejected—and probably retaliatory—fishermen smuggled marijuana instead of catching fish. Residents have sought to distance themselves from that history, but the communal black eye delegitimized them. 

But things are changing. The cultural study, Jack says, gave Gladesmen a seat at the table. “I’m starting to see that (the parks) are trying to work with us.” Recently, through the Gladesmen Heritage Foundation, he advised Big Cypress National Preserve staff on their interpretive plan, which guides how park rangers tell the region’s history. Members of the Gladesmen community also show up at public hearings pertaining to Everglades restoration, even if it means a two-hour drive to South Florida Water Management District headquarters. Jack encourages civil, reasoned arguments. 

He turns to me, and his voice grows serious: “There’s no longer room for underserved cultural communities anywhere in this great country. I don’t care if it is the corn farmer out west. Or the guy whose dad was a sponge diver in Tampa. Or the guy like me that lived out here as just a ‘swamp rat.’ Our cultural communities paint the history and the historical map of this part of the region. It’s very, very important, and we can’t afford to lose any of that anymore.” 

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