In the thick of the Everglades near the southern shore of Lake Okeechobee, Belle Glade once had a frontier character formed by a handful of people who contended with the saw grass and mosquitoes and caught catfish and spoke their own patois. The settlement sprang to prominence in the 1920s, after engineers had dug canals to drain the vast wetlands and a railroad arrived. Farmers and corporations planted acres and acres of green beans, sugarcane, corn, bell peppers, tomatoes, celery and more. Field bosses hired Haitians and Jamaicans to cut cane, and Black southerners, Puerto Ricans and others came to pick vegetables.

Though big money flowed behind the scenes, poverty was the rule for workers and living conditions could be brutal. In the late 1930s, Marion Post Wolcott photographed those problems—“children living in a ‘lean to’ of rusty galvanized tin and burlap,” one caption says. The CBS News documentary “Harvest of Shame,” broadcast in 1960, publicized the exploitation of the seasonal field workers. Today Belle Glade is home to 20,000 people, about 60 percent of them Black and 32 percent Latino, and 41 percent of residents live in poverty.

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This article is a selection from the July/August issue of Smithsonian magazine

The Strange Beauty at the Edge of the Everglades
Left, smoke hangs in the air from the controlled burn of a sugarcane field prior to cutting. A man named Antonio holds a rabbit he has killed and intends to sell. Upper right, another tradition, trapping gators, uses a homemade stake-and-hook system. The meat is prized by residents. Lower right, at Dee’s Lounge, a bar in downtown Belle Glade, a fisherman offers fresh speckled perch, a type of sunfish, caught in the nearby canals, for $5 per plastic bag. Sofia Valiente
The Strange Beauty at the Edge of the Everglades
The Strange Beauty at the Edge of the Everglades
In Belle Glade, seasonal migrant workers are often housed in rooming houses like this one—an apartment building with single rooms and shared bathrooms. This particular structure has been condemned. Sofia Valiente
The Strange Beauty at the Edge of the Everglades
The Strange Beauty at the Edge of the Everglades
Mike Challancin ferries tourists around Lake Okeechobee by airboat. Now abandoned, Kreamer Island was a site where farming families grew green beans and corn. Sofie Valiente

Sofia Valiente, who grew up on Florida’s east coast, lived in Belle Glade for several years beginning in 2015. She wanted to show people at work and at home, old and young in all their humanity in this struggling community. Her book, Foreverglades, juxtaposes her photographs with rustic stories by Lawrence Will, a businessman and self-described “cracker historian” who moved to the area in 1913. Valiente also created a traveling photography exhibition, building a replica steamboat to use as a gallery.

One of her muses for the project was Zora Neale Hurston, an Alabama native, who lived in Belle Glade in the 1930s while writing her landmark novel of African American life, Their Eyes Were Watching God, which pays some tribute to the “bean pickers who work all day for money and fight all night for love.”

The Strange Beauty at the Edge of the Everglades
Left, traditions endure in Belle Glade: At the annual Martin Luther King Day parade, every school participates—here, the Lake Shore Middle School homecoming court. Upper right, Mary Evans, shown here, was 5 years old when she was a model for Belle Glade resident Sara Lee Creech’s creation of the first individually realistic African American baby doll, first sold in 1951. Lower right, Harvest Queen Caroline Stein is a fifth-generation descendant of Belle Glade settlers who started farming on Kreamer Island in 1914. Sofia Valiente
The Strange Beauty at the Edge of the Everglades
Belle Glade resident Alexia, at the time a top student at Pioneer Park Elementary, has moved on to advanced classes at Lake Shore Middle School. Sofia Valiente
The Strange Beauty at the Edge of the Everglades
The Strange Beauty at the Edge of the Everglades
Upper left, the crop-dusting operation near Belle Glade airport is owned by pilot Jesse D. Lee III, whose grandfather homesteaded on nearby Torry Island in 1905. Right, Sonny Stein, whose great-grandfather was a lock tender on Lake Okeechobee, collects antique farm equipment.* “A lot of it was custom-made for the Glades,” he says, “to drain the land.” Lower left, in downtown Belle Glade, fourth-generation residents, at their grandmother’s birthday party, sample homemade pickled eggs and sausage she brought to the celebration. Sofia Valiente
The Strange Beauty at the Edge of the Everglades
Left, a 1924 advertisement offered land in the Glades at $24 an acre. Today, a farmland acre costs $10,000 to $12,000, depending on location and depth of the soil. Upper right, the coal-fired dredge boats used to gouge canals to the coast (here, c. 1900) were essentially paddle-wheel steamships fitted with front-digging cranes. Lower right, in 1956, local resident Jayne Allen, a Harvest Queen contestant, brandished leafy pompoms of chicory, a major cash crop at that time. Lawrence E. Will Museum, Belle Glade, FL
The Strange Beauty at the Edge of the Everglades
In waters off Belle Glade lies the 1880s shipwreck of a dredge boat, used in a first attempt to excavate a canal from Lake Okeechobee to Miami. The effort failed when diggers hit a fossilized reef. Sofia Valiente

Editor's Note, June 23, 2021: A caption in this story incorrectly noted that Sonny Stein’s grandfather was a lock tender on Lake Okeechobee. In fact, it was his great-grandfather.