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Crops and Food of Merritt Island’s Pioneers

by Korinn Braden

Moving to an island on the Indian River Lagoon in the 1880's was no easy feat, but the end of the Civil War saw the repopulation of Florida as many were searching for a better life. Many of the families arriving at its shores came from the south and somewhat understood humid, scorching, and rainy Florida. Although the growing seasons were a little different, crops were quickly planted.

From historical documents, we know the pioneer families of Merritt Island grew peppers, beans, squash, okra, pumpkin, cabbage, cucumber, tomatoes, and potatoes in their kitchen gardens. This garden fed the family. Families also grew sugarcane, sand pears, peaches, bananas, pineapples, mangoes, scuppernogs, and of course citrus. These crops were sold, bringing much needed money to a homestead. According to the Florida Star article in November 1888, JR Field of Indianola, planted his sugarcane in 1873, and that ‘three canes could garner 10 quarts of juice.’ Ten gallons of raw juice made one gallon of cane syrup. Early on, cane syrup was worth about 35 cents a gallon.

Sugarcane at Field Manor

One thing many newcomers may not have been accustomed to is hurricanes. During the hurricane of August 1880, residents of Merritt Island were forced inside for four straight days, while the winds and rain whipped overhead. The hurricane made landfall south of what became Cocoa Beach, and folks from Jupiter Inlet to the St. Johns River over to Cedar Key felt its effects. The Sams/LaRoche family of Courtney survived the storm by eating only conch peas. This type of pea is also called a Carolina conch pea and is perhaps something they brought down from their homes outside Charleston.

A LaRoche by birth, Marian married Sam Grant of Indianola in 1930. Her memoir tell the tale of ‘our favorite guava jelly.’ Guava, along with citrus, was king in the early 20th century, with the Lapham Guava Company of Merritt Island producing jelly for export to across the United States. The freeze of 1894/1985 destroyed most of the island’s citrus, however it also allowed growers to shift their focus to a different crop, guava. This business flourished until the 1940s and one of its largest buyers was the R.H. Macy Department store!

Lapham Jelly Co. Guava Jelly Jar

However, one of the favorite foods of Merritt Islanders was called ‘clabber’ or ‘bonny clabber.’ Clabber is made by leaving unpasteurized milk out until it thickens and produces clumps. According to the late Chuck Reed of Florida Today’s Old Timer fame, his pioneering family (the Fields of Indianola) taught him to ‘eat cold clabber, corn bread and canned coot.’ Marian LaRoche Grant often ate clabber every night covered in fresh cream, a little sugar, and nutmeg. The origins of this dish harken to the Scots-Irish who came to the southern US via Northern Ireland. In Gaelic, “bainne cláber” roughly translates to dirty milk.

While some food ways of Merritt Island’s pioneer population were money makers, some were eaten out of necessity or preference, while others were national favorites. For a 32-mile island in Florida, its food ways reached far and wide.


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