America's Swamp: the Historical Everglades Project
Interest in draining and “reclaiming” land in the Everglades began as early as the 1880s, but major drainage activities were not undertaken until the first two decades of the 20th century. Two Florida Governors, William Sherman Jennings and Napoleon Bonaparte Broward, would serve as the primary designers and spokespersons for the draining of the Everglades. In 1904 Governor Broward famously promised to create an "Empire of the Everglades." Of course, in fulfilling this promise the state would have to destroy the ecological systems by dredging, creating canals, and altering the flow of water in the world’s most famed wetlands. Alarmed at the potential loss of the Everglades several early conservationists, including Florida’s May Mann Jennings, began pushing for the preservation of portions of the Everglades.
The drainage work started by Governors Jennings and Broward was of great interest internationally, and soon real estate dealers and settlers from around the world rushed in to profit from the project. The land sales boom in South Florida at the start of the 1920s was almost unprecedented in the history of the world. So was the rapidity with which it had collapsed by the end of the decade. Two catastrophic hurricanes in 1926 and 1928 effectively ended the boom, but many people had already declared the drainage program a bust. By the time the Depression began in 1929, sales had ceased and the state was forced to halt drainage and dredging activities.
Each of the six collections provides unique and valuable historical evidence regarding the Everglades in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and it is difficult to research early drainage and conservation efforts without consulting these collections. The papers of Governor Broward and Governor Jennings form the nucleus of the project as they were the primary architects for the drainage and reclamation project. Jennings started the project rolling during his term, drumming up widespread support and resolving a myriad of legal issues, primarily pertaining to land claims made by the Flagler and Plant railroads. However, it was Broward who became the driving force for the project. His popularity, his larger-than-life persona, his attention to the smallest details, and his passion for the project, all combined to make him the perfect man to spearhead the effort. The two Progressive Era southern democrats were friends and political allies, and their common goals and accomplishments are documented extensively in their papers.
The May Mann Jennings Papers complement those of the two Governors because of her advocacy of the drainage project, and also because of her marriage to Gov. Jennings. However, the real strength of the collection is that it documents the conservation movement that developed at the start of the 20th century and the role of disenfranchised women in developing and lobbying for legislation to protect the environment. Jennings was a leading member of the women's club movement and an influential social reformer in Florida and nationwide. As president of the Florida Federation of Women's Clubs in 1915, she spearheaded the effort to establish the Royal Palm State Park, the precursor to the Everglades National Park. Her tireless campaigns to preserve portions of the Everglades may seem at odds with her support of the drainage project, but she was representative of many conservationists of this era who were able to reconcile seemingly conflicting positions. Thus, Jennings was able to support the drainage program promoted by Broward and her husband at the same time that she was arguing for the creation of the Royal Palm State Park.