Commissioner Adam H. Putnam

Florida Agriculture: 500 Years in the Making

Florida Waterfront Communities' Commercial Fishing Heritage


Waterfront Community: Apalachicola

Located in Franklin County on the northern Gulf Of Mexico, Apalachicola is an area known as "The Forgotten Coast." Apalachicola is an Indian word meaning "Land of the Friendly People" and for all its history, this picturesque fishing village has been living up to its name. Since the early 1830s people have settled here searching for a new life because of the awe-inspiring natural beauty, pristine environment and the unbelievable productive waters. All of these experiences are still very much a part of Apalachicola.

Boom Years

Few towns are fortunate to have known an economic boom time. Apalachicola has been blessed with three. Boom number one, and the reason Apalachicola was first recognized as a major port facility, was the tremendous market which developed for king cotton, the primary cash crop of the South during the antebellum period of the early to mid 1800s. The Apalachicola River was the major marketing route for the farms and plantations of south Georgia, Alabama and north Florida. The sleepy little fishing and farming village rapidly became the third largest port facility in the Gulf of Mexico, surpassed only by New Orleans and Mobile. Bales or loose cotton floated down the river on barges and baled or processed in one of the 43 warehouses. From there, it was loaded onto ocean going vessels bound for the cotton mills and lace manufacturers in New England and Northern Europe.

The cotton shipped through Apalachicola rapidly built a town and an industry. During this time, one of Apalachicola's most prominent citizens, Dr. John Gorrie, was granted the first U.S. patent for mechanical refrigeration in 1851. This proved to be important to the development of the sunshine state in many ways. After the Civil War, railroads began to replace rivers as the fastest and most economical means of shipping products to market. This should have, and would have, devastated the economy of the area if it were not for the timely appearance of boom number two.

Since time, Florida had nurtured a treasure trove of yellow pine and cypress trees for which a major market was developing around the globe. When cut into lumber or shingles it would be shipped north to fuel the growth of the cities of New England and the Midwest. These products could be easily sold at a fair profit. As with cotton in years gone by, the logs were floated down the river to mills and processing plants and then shipped to many destinations and customers. This second of Apalachicola's booms lasted from the 1880s well into the 1920s until the great stands of slow growing cypress and heart pines were depleting and the huge timber mills moved on. The economic fabric of Apalachicola was about to unravel, but boom number three was just around the corner.

From the time the earliest natives moved into the area, the Apalachicola Bay has provided inhabitants with an abundant and varied bounty of fish and shellfish. The warm shallow water of the bay is constantly fed by the nutrient rich fresh water of the Apalachicola River making the 210 square miles of the bay one of the most productive marine ecosystems on the continent. The Apalachicola drainage basin is one of the cleanest estuary systems to be found in North America. It is home to 180 types of fish, 360 types of marine mollusks and 1300 specimens of plant life. With all of these natural resources at hand, it is no surprise that the third economic boom came about as Apalachicola became the commercial fishing capital of the state. As America emerged out of the Great Depression of the 1930s and headed into World War II, a fledgling commercial seafood industry began to grow at an astounding rate. Fishing and oystering had supported a few and supplemented the incomes of several since the early 1800s. However, the industry did not blossom until the 20th century. The oysters, which would make Apalachicola famous around the world, had been commercially marketed as early as 1837. In 1907 the Apalachicola Northern Railroad began operations and ran an "oyster special " to Atlanta with oysters packed in ice.

Time Line

1800 -- Apalachicola recognized as a major port.

1851 -- Dr. John Gorrie is granted a U.S. Patent for mechanical refrigeration.

1907 -- The Apalachicola Northern Railroad began taking oysters all over the country.

1995 -- A gear restriction amendment was passed adversely affecting the seafood industry.

Famous People

Dr. John Gorrie developed a method of mechanical refrigeration that led to the production of ice.

Current Status

Today, oysters are still a huge part of the Apalachicola economy. In 1997, 1.4 million pounds of oysters were shucked in Franklin County seafood houses. The Bay produces 90 percent of Florida's oysters and 10% of the nationwide supply. The Bay is carefully monitored to ensure the continued health and productivity of the oyster beds for generations to come. Apalachicola is the headquarters of a United Nations Biosphere Reserve and Estuarine Sanctuary of 246,000 acres. It is the largest of 22 existing reserves in the United States. The reserve is intended as a protective blanket for the fragile wetlands, bays and coastal uplands which fall within its boundaries.

During the 1990s many factors, economic, regulatory, social and political, converged to devastate the economic stability of this vital industry. The most controversial of these forces was an amendment to the state's constitution limiting the use of fishing nets. This action, passed by voter referendum in 1995, cut the output of commercial fishing by more than half. While the oyster business remains brisk with over $14 million dollars annually, the fishermen who lived to provide the country with snapper, grouper, amberjack and all of the other seafood delicacies have had to rethink their way of life. A great many of the fishermen of the area have gone into other businesses, even those whose families have been working the Bay for generations. In the wake of this economic hurricane, which reduced the annual income of the area by $50 to $60 million dollars, Apalachicola is in need of a fourth economic boom. Perhaps it is on the horizon. Apalachicola is experiencing a dramatic upswing in tourism based on the ecological and cultural uniqueness of the area. Perhaps this is the beginning of boom number four.

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