NOTES ON KEYS HISTORY with Brad Bertelli

The story of Captain Ben Baker, Part 1 of 2

December 14, 2012 

A sketch of Captain Ben Baker. (Contributed image courtesy of the Upper Keys Historical Trust)

Jefferson Beale Browne was born in June, 1857 and while he is not generally associated with the Upper Keys, his name does pop up from time to time. For instance, just out of high school Browne accepted the job of assistant light keeper out at Fowey Rocks Lighthouse. The lighthouse marks the northern end of the reef line and stands between Elliot Key and Key Biscayne.

While working out at the light, Browne read every law book he could get his hands on. When his tour of service at the light was completed, that reading paid dividends in law school as he passed the bar in both Iowa, where he attended school, and Florida. Browne went on to become the attorney for Key West and Monroe County before serving as the Chief Justice of the Florida Supreme Court.

He was also a writer and wrote what is perhaps the quintessential turn-of-the-century book about life in these islands when Key West, The Old and The New was published in 1912. In his book, Browne described an important figure in the early history of Key Largo, referring to him as, “tall, gaunt, shrill-voiced, hook-nosed and hawk-eyed, he was master-wrecker at nearly every wreck upon the Reef.”

He was talking about Captain Ben Baker, one of the most famous wreckers to work the Florida Reef. Born in 1818, on Green Turtle Cay, Abacos, family records indicate Baker was unable to read or write but, thanks to his father, was a man of considerable skills. In addition to his prowess on the open sea, Baker could build a boat by hand.

He married Catherine S. Albury who was born on the island of Eleuthera in 1820; their union would prove a fruitful one. Catherine delivered 11 children, but it was after the third, somewhere between 1847 and 1848, that the burgeoning Baker clan sailed across the Florida Straits to relocate in Key West.

Stories of the riches being salvaged by Florida wreckers patrolling the reef line must have burned up the coconut telegraph until it smelled like sizzling bacon, and Captain Baker was surely lured by what he thought was the chance at a better way of life. Key West was one of the wealthiest cities in the country and would have been ripe with opportunities, especially for an accomplished carpenter and captain.

Ben Baker did well for himself. According to the 1850 Key West census, he was a 32 year old mariner living in a large two-story house on the corner of Whitehead and Caroline streets. The captain was running the Baker Wrecking Company from the helm of his 13-ton, three-masted schooner, Rapid. When asked by family members how he happened to find so many wrecks, Captain Baker used to simply tell them, “We wreckers can smell ‘em.” Baker and his hook-nose are considered one of the most successful wreckers to work the Florida Reef. Between 1862 and 1880, he was involved in 41 salvage operations and 15 times he was wreck master. The position of wreck master was determined by both determination and fate and went to the first licensed wrecking captain who responded to the scene. The wreck master decided exactly how the operation would go down and how many crews were needed; he also got the largest cut of the salvage award.

In fact, during the 1860s and 1870s, Baker was considered the “King of the Florida Wreckers.” Wrecking, however, was not full-time work and most wreckers had side jobs.

Captain Baker’s was farming and by 1862, Baker was operating his wrecking business, at least part-time, from a Key Largo anchorage.

He homesteaded 160 acres of Key Largo real estate in the area of Mile Marker 97, built a small house, and farmed the land. To clear the land, Baker and his sons slashed the trees and brush, stacked the debris and burned it; the ashes left behind would act as a fertilizer to help vitalize the natural soil. Next, he imported 6,000 pineapple slips, suckers cut from pineapple stalks, from Cuba to his land on Key Largo where he proceeded to set up one of the Upper Keys first major pineapple farms.

The story of Baker’s pineapple farming success was announced to the world when Dr. J.B. Holder, who explored the Keys during an 1860 and 1861 expedition, published the account of his travels in an 1871 edition of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine titled, Along the Florida Reef.

Dr. Holder wrote, “Mr. Baker, the owner who resides in Key West, is reported to have realized seven thousand dollars this summer from his crop of pineapples.” Seven-thousand dollars would translate into six-figures on today’s market.

Part two of Captain Baker’s story will continue in two weeks.

Brad Bertelli is a published author of four books on Florida and Florida Keys history. His column will appear bi-weekly in The Reporter. Reach Brad with comments and questions at WhyPanic@aol.com.

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