A Place Called Chosen
On the western edge of Palm Beach County, searching for a place that no longer exists.
IN Palm Beach County, heading west on Southern Boulevard, it is a smooth and open air drive to Belle Glade from Wellington. Left behind are the shopping plazas, small businesses and suburbs only to be replaced by green sugarcane fields as far as the eye can see and remnants of the Everglades. In the distance, an expansive view of both sky and horizon, as storms creep along the land, showcasing dark bands of rain and clouds.
It is Saturday around noon and we are traveling to a more primitive part of Florida— to Chosen — a place no longer found on a map, just beyond Belle Glade, and somewhere along the outskirts of Lake Okeechobee. There are no street signs, GPS driving directions, or a city center. Chosen does not exist, and yet, at one point, it did.
But details are sketchy. According to reports, an architect and builder named John Robert (JR) Leatherman, moved to West Palm Beach with his family just before the turn of the 20th century. In 1902, Leatherman built the iconic Sundy House and Cathcart House in Delray Beach, and sometime around the Florida land boom of the 1920s, he moved his family further inland, along the shore of Lake Okeechobee, located about one mile west of Belle Glade and near Torry Island.
Old Photographs, courtesy of the Historical Society of Palm Beach County, taken from within this specific area, show tent cities, packing warehouses, migrant housing, and not many people. But people did indeed arrive in the area, though sparingly, and few and far between. Eventually, Leatherman, also a devout Christ follower, gave the town its name, and at one point, it had a church (Brethren Church), a U.S. Post Office, and even a small school. Chosen, officially established in 1921, was all set to become a small but resourceful agricultural hub and religious haven in close proximity to Pahokee and Belle Glade.
Today, when driving along these out-west roadways, passing through, and just beyond Belle Glade, there is a peculiar fascination to it all. Locals are outside, cooking barbecue, sitting on the back of their pickups or on lawn chairs, as thick hickory smoke rises in the air. Small colorful food trucks selling tacos sit roadside and a few Mexican restaurants line the streets. Though the area is relatively poor (Belle Glade ranks the second poorest city in the state) it is quaint in its own way. It’s also quiet.
As we venture further out, to where Chosen might have been, driving on West Canal Street and toward Torry Island, traffic is nearly nonexistent. Maybe that’s the way people like it around here. Or maybe that’s just the way it is in Old Florida— places throughout the state that seem stuck in a time warp—where the hustle of urban and suburban life seemingly do not apply. And why should it? It’s the natural resources— the land and the water—that have always mattered the most.
A stormy history in pursuit of dry land
Both inland and near the coasts, South Florida is a vast swampland—wet, overgrown, mucky, and brimming with life. Though many parts are suitable for humans and development today, Mother Nature has not always made it so, despite man’s shortsighted, albeit commendable, persistence.
It was during the late 19th Century, around 1881, when the wetlands of Florida—including in and around Chosen—were being reimagined into something quite different, and much dryer. At the time, Florida Governor, William Bloxham, wanted to drain the Everglades, to reclaim dry land, and transform the ecosystem into a space ripe for crops, new construction and even a railroad. He recruited a man named Hamilton Disston to build canals for moving excess water from Lake Okeechobee and sending it out to sea. But despite Disston’s drainage attempts, the Everglades remained a soggy puzzle, though dreams of dry wetlands persisted.
In 1898, James Ingraham and Rufus Rose established the Florida East Coast Drainage and Sugar Company, and some years later, Governor Napoleon Bonaparte Broward, further pledged to drain the swamp. During his four year stint as governor, Broward created the Everglades Drainage District, and with some success, the outermost parts of the Everglades began to grow crops—tomatoes, potatoes and cabbage.
Around the same time, prominent industrialist, Henry Flagler, was busy building his railroad and East Coast empire, undoubtedly contributing to Florida’s population spike in the early part of the 20th Century. As new settlers arrived in coastal cities like Miami, Delray Beach and West Palm Beach, more people drifted inward toward the eastern rim of the Everglades in places like Belle Glade, Torry Island, Pahokee, and Chosen.
According to The Swamp by Washington Post reporter, Michael Grunwald, Flagler was approached with the glimmering prospect of an Everglades drainage proposal to make way for more railroad. But political headwinds, uncertainty over land ownership, and perhaps, even a bad omen shifted Flagler’s perspective— and ultimately his plan— building instead concrete bridges across the open sea and down toward Key West.
While attempts to drain the Everglades continued, farmers, migrant workers and families settled into areas around Lake Okeechobee as the land proved fertile and dryer. The weather was reasonable, even desirable, though occasional flooding did occur, most notably in 1924 and 1926. But all that changed on September 17, 1928, as a massive 140-mile-an-hour hurricane (San Felipe Segundo hurricane) tore the farming communities into pieces and washed away the people who lived there. According to reports, an 18 foot wall of water formed on the big lake and flooded the small lakeside towns of Palm Beach County. All told, 2,500 —mostly migrant workers—were killed in the storm that day.
Pahokee and Belle Glade survived the storm but Chosen was wiped off the map, never to return. And yet, the land, marsh, soil, and water that embodied Chosen then, still remains today. In fact, long before Leatherman made his claim to the area, another group of people inhabited the same southeast shore of Lake Okeechobee. In 1933, archaeologists with The Smithsonian, discovered ceremonial mounds in addition to native crafts and Spanish trade beads at the Chosen site. As artifacts and evidence of ancient cultures continued to surface, researchers concluded, that for nearly 5,000 years, native Americans such as the Mayami and Calusa inhabited the area, leaving remnants of a long, but not forgotten, past behind.
Our search for Chosen took us in and around Belle Glade and over to Torry Island. We stopped at the one-way, hand-cranked Point Chosen Swing Bridge, and using an old map of the area, we estimated our location to be accurate. Though there were no signs of a town called Chosen nor ceremonial Indian mounds visible to us, we knew, without a doubt, that we had found our destination and what we were searching for.
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