In Pahokee, Fla., Fame and Fortune Are Still a Wild Hare’s Chase

Associated Press

The rabbits are racing for their lives. The sinewy, boisterous teen-agers zigzagging after them across the sugar cane fields are running to take home dinner for their families or to earn a few dollars.

Or maybe to find a better life.

“If you run a rabbit down, you know you’re in good condition . . . and fast,” said Rickey Jackson, an all-pro linebacker for the New Orleans Saints who grew up in this depressed town just 50 miles inland from the high society and millionaires of Palm Beach.

Athletes like Jackson--many of whom credit the ritual rabbit run at cane harvest time for their stamina and aggressiveness on the football field--have found one of the few ways out for the poor in Pahokee, long bypassed by the opportunity burgeoning in other parts of Florida.


Football Scholarships

Pahokee High School--with 150 male students now enrolled--has 26 graduates attending college on football scholarships. Many hope to follow the lead of Jackson, who returns here in the off-season, and Pahokee alumnus Andre Waters, now a safety for the National Football League’s Philadelphia Eagles.

Football coach Don Thompson said 34 players from the high school have earned scholarships in the last 4 1/2 years.

“That’s a million dollars worth of education,” said the coach.

Few could afford the schooling otherwise in a town where no college means joining the armed forces or a life of seasonal agricultural work.

Economic statistics are imprecise, but average family income in Pahokee ranges between $12,500 and $15,000, contrasted with $38,000 statewide. Florida’s unemployment rate is only 4.9%. There are no reliable unemployment figures for Pahokee because most work is seasonal.

Some Are Dirt Poor

“In Pahokee, a few families are filthy rich, and some people are dirt poor,” said Warren Nevad, city finance director.

While Florida’s population has grown to 12 million from 5 million in 1960, Pahokee’s has fallen below 7,000 for the first time since before the Depression.

Nearly 45% of the residents are black, many of them young. The median age is 26.2 years.

Rural towns in many parts of the nation, but especially in the South, have seen their fortunes and numbers decline in recent years, as farming and small manufacturing employment have dropped and people have migrated to cities for opportunity.

Pahokee’s history tells a peculiar tale of decline--but recently, too, of hope for a new start.

‘Tom Sawyer’ Existence

Country singer Mel Tillis, who left his hometown in 1951, recalls a “Huckleberry Finn-Tom Sawyer” existence in his boyhood. Pahokee’s living history book, 92-year-old Carmen Salvatore, remembers that when he arrived in 1919 he found the land “like God made it.”

That was before this part of the Everglades was drained. The only way to get to Pahokee was by boat.

“The wildlife was in abundance,” Salvatore said. “The lake was filled with fish; there were birds of every kind. We had plenty of beans and fresh vegetables.”

But powerful financial, political and natural forces threatened that bucolic life style.

Sugar corporations moved in after Fidel Castro’s communist revolution in Cuba three decades ago and the subsequent end of U.S. purchases of Cuban sugar.

$1 Billion in Sugar

The dark, rich Everglades muck around giant Lake Okeechobee was bought up from small farmers and converted from winter vegetable fields by U.S. Sugar Corp. and smaller companies to grow cane. About 450,000 acres around the lake produce $1 billion in sugar each year.

It’s at harvest time, when the fields are torched to burn off leaves and drive out snakes and other animals, that the rabbit runs bring a burst of activity in the quiet town, which has no night spots or community center for teen-agers.

“We don’t have jobs. That’s the way we have to get some money,” said Willie Littlejohn, an all-state sophomore defensive tackle at the high school. The rabbits bring $1.25 to $2 apiece. The likes of Littlejohn can bring home 10 to 20 a day.

Salvatore recalls a thriving Pahokee. During Prohibition, bootleggers flocked to the isolated town on boats full of homemade South Florida booze destined for Chicago speak-easys.

In the late 1920s, hurricanes and floods washed away precious topsoil--and then the Great Depression hit.

Low Cost of Living

Even then, Pahokee’s low cost of living--Salvatore, a father of five, recalls getting by on $9 a month--and plentiful work in the vegetable fields increased the population to 15,000.

Pahokee became one of South Florida’s up-and-coming towns. A native was elected Speaker of the Statehouse. The town’s political clout led to roads, schools, and everything else Pahokee seemed to need.

“We had high hopes,” Salvatore said, sitting on his porch as a morning breeze delivered a sugary scent from nearby fields.

“Like so many pioneers, we had all the trials and tribulations, then someone else came in and reaped the benefits,” he said, referring to recent shifts in the labor force.

The sugar industry requires less labor than previous agriculture, and most harvesting is done now by West Indians imported under a special immigration agreement.

Sent Children Away

Desegregation in the 1960s meant more change. Many white families sent their children away to private schools or moved out.

Salvatore, whose grandson Carmen III is police chief, details the dozens of stores, restaurants, motels and even barbershops that have closed.

He predicts that Pahokee will shrivel, but he seems to be in the minority.

“People are saying, ‘I like this town and I’m going to take a stand,’ ” said James Bennett, a funeral home operator who just completed four years as president of the Chamber of Commerce.

It’s not the style of people here to talk publicly about one major reason for change: the death 1 1/2 years ago at age 80 of Mayor Duncan (Uncle Dunc) Padgett, who ran the city for 25 years.

“Uncle Dunc” dominated Pahokee and was determined to protect it from the onslaught of Florida growth.

Those who run the city now say Pahokee had become a text-book case for how not to run a city. Water meters weren’t read for years, and the city was paying $69,000 a year to insure a fleet of vehicles, many no longer in service.

The City Council of “Uncle Dunc” rebelled in the 1970s against federal regulations that found water, sewer systems and housing were not up to minimum standards.

At one point, the Pahokee City Council voted to secede from the Union.

Today’s council is more pragmatic.

Changed Government

Mayor Clark Wilkinson was elected last year on a reform platform and she helped gain passage of a Feb. 9 referendum changing the city government from the strong mayor system to a city manager running a professional city government.

“This has turned the city around 100%,” said Councilman Ramon Horta, the first Latino ever on the five-member council. Roy Singletary last year became the first black on the council.

The mayor followed the city charter referendum with a series of meetings among more than 50 residents and researchers from state universities to look at Pahokee’s needs.

They are working out plans to develop fishing-based tourism, improve housing and lure new businesses.

Said City Council President John Norman: “We love Pahokee and we’re going to keep it alive.”