'Be a nuisance where it counts.' Without Marjory Stoneman Douglas, where would Florida Everglades be?

Stoneman Douglas shooting distorts the name of the woman behind Everglades defense.

Tim Walters
Florida Today
  • Her 1947 book helped the Everglades get its National Park designation later that year

Close your eyes and picture this: Imagine the 125-mile stretch between Naples and Miami being nothing but houses, condos, businesses, an airport and more.

No Everglades. No wetlands. No Florida Panthers. No unique-to-this planet ecosystem.

That very well could have been the reality without the foresight of one woman who, in the 1920s, looked at the Everglades and realized this overlooked swamp was something that needed to be preserved for the good of not just south Florida or the state, but for the good of the world.

That person was Marjory Stoneman Douglas.

“She just knew what she believed in and what she had to do,” said Connie Washburn, a member of the board of directors for Friends of the Everglades, a group started by Marjory in 1969. “Originally the development in the Everglades started because it was considered a worthless swamp. And she is the one who turned that around as far as public opinion, political opinion and so forth. And it’s based on science and she certainly went to scientists to find out these things, but she was a very strong woman.”

Marjory was born in 1890 in Minnesota and came to Florida in 1915 to live with her father. Her parents separated when she was young, and her mother died in Massachusetts in 1912. She got an English degree from Wellesley College that same year, and not long after, her father, an editor at the Miami Herald, gave her a job as a social page writer.

“She would write about garden club meetings and things she really wasn’t that interested in,” Washburn said.

In the 1920s, Marjory met a group of women involved in a club that sponsored the Everglades.

Known as Everglades Tropical National Park Committee, it was a group led by Ernest F. Coe and was dedicated to the idea of making a national park in the Everglades.

Marjory Stoneman Douglas wrote "The Everglades: River of Grass" in 1947.

“I can remember her telling me that sometime in the '20s she wrote an article about the loss of wading birds from those years of plume hunting and a terrible problem was shooting the ibis,” said Maggy Hurchalla, a well-known South Florida environmental activist who also is the sister of former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno.

After World War II ended Marjory was asked to write a book in a national series that was being published on the rivers of America.

“She said, ‘I don’t really know anything about any rivers, but I do know of a very important river in South Florida, and that is the river of grass,’” Washburn said.

That became the title of her book: “The Everglades: River of Grass.”

The book was published in 1947 and it helped the Everglades get its National Park designation later that year. It was a call to attention about the degrading quality of life in the Everglades.

It was also around this time that Florida experienced major flooding in south Florida.

“The agricultural area north of Lake Okeechobee was entirely under water and the cows were getting foot rot. Miami was flooded,” said Hurchalla, who was born in Coral Gables in 1940. “I can remember we all had to get typhoid shots in schools because the western suburbs were flooded and they were all on septic tanks.”

The 1947 flood brought about a central and south Florida flood control project that was meant to “cage and make the Everglades behave,” according to Hurchalla.

It consisted of putting up a dike in western Dade and Broward counties to keep the water out when there was too much water in the Everglades, and building a dike around Lake Okeechobee and generally restructuring the whole system.

Dredging and draining were also done to make canals to drain the Everglades so people from up north could come down and buy land there and develop the area because of how it was perceived to be a worthless swamp.

“And she said, no, it’s not a worthless swamp,” Washburn said. “She said the Everglades is very subtle in its beauty and you have to look closely to see the beauty.”

Marjory’s biggest fight began in the 1960s when a Miami jetport was proposed at Big Cypress right in the middle of the Everglades.

The scope was so big — it was proposed to be five times larger than JFK International Airport — it was to be the largest airport in the world.

Marjory was well into her 70s, but she knew she had to fight to save the Everglades, not just because it was a unique ecosystem, but because it also was the main source of drinking water for south Florida.

Land clearing began on the jetport in 1968, but Marjory and a coalition of environmentalists was able to get construction halted in 1970.

Evidence of the clearing still can be seen.

“If the jetport had happened it would have destroyed so much it might not have been able to retrieve it,” Hurchalla said.

This fight prompted Marjory to start a new group in 1969 called “Friends of the Everglades,” which was dedicated to fighting the jetport.

“Friends of the Everglades was founded with a pretty basic premise: you paid a dollar to become a friend and before she knew it she had amassed thousands of Friends of the Everglades to help fight this project,” said Eve Samples, Executive Director of Friends of the Everglades. “She liked to call herself pig-headed. One of her quotes that inspires me most when I get bogged down in the trenches of this big important work is to be a nuisance where it counts.”

The jetport wasn’t the only environmental battle for which Marjory became ensconced.

Another involved defeating a proposed area of high rises in a planned new city on what is now the Biscayne National Monument.

There was a group that owned an island that was incorporating it as the town of Islandia that was going to have its own zoning and would have been able to do anything it wanted on the outside edges of Biscayne Bay.

The battles mostly had to do with water. Marjory and company ultimately won and preserved the area.

Hurchalla met Marjory in the 1960s when the Corp of Engineers was holding public hearings over straightening the Kissimmee River.

The Kissimmee River was a hundred-mile winding river from Orlando to Lake Okeechobee with a huge flood plain around it.

It had the largest eagle population in the contiguous United States, and whenever it rained too much, it flooded out into the flood plain.

The Corp was in charge of taking care of flooding.

“I was at a hearing telling the Corp of Engineers why you shouldn’t straighten the Kissimmee River,” Hurchalla said. “It seemed fairly clear at the time and it had seemed fairly clear after they had done it. But it was the last great stupid thing we did in Florida in terms of doing something that made things worse instead of better.

“It was the first time I got to watch Marjory in action, which was always fun. Marjory always had fun. She tweaked those people in power but she was never vicious. But she explained that the trouble with the Corp of Engineers was their parents hadn’t let them play in mud puddles enough when they were little and they insisted that the only way from one point to another was a straight line. She was always able to get a laugh while telling them the very specific, very important things she had learned from her scientific contacts.”

After that, Marjory and Hurchalla stayed in touch and ended up more often than not at the same hearings on the same side doing a lot of the same things.

Washburn met Marjory in 1993, when Marjory was 103 years old. Washburn was a fourth-grade teacher and she had started a student group called “Young Friends of the Everglades.”

She wanted Marjory’s blessing for the group, which she got. She also became a board member of Friends of the Everglades at that time.

That same year, Marjory was awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Bill Clinton.

Two years later, Washburn brought some students to meet Marjory so they could deliver a large birthday card signed by 400 students from Howard Drive Elementary School for her 105th birthday.

Marjory Stoneman Douglas seen signing autographs at a Burdines department store in Miami, Florida, in 1947.

Washburn recalls: “Marjory was mostly deaf at the time and completely blind, and one little girl said, ‘thank you Marjory for saving the Everglades.’ And she said, ‘oh no, the Everglades are not saved by any means. We’re working on it but it’s up to you to carry on our work.’”

Marjory died in 1998 at age 108. She was cremated and her ashes were scattered about Everglades National Park.

Most people nationally were not introduced to the name Marjory Stoneman Douglas before the high school named after her in Parkland became the site of a gunman’s massacre on Feb. 14, 2018.

As Washburn watched the students fight for gun control measures, arguing with powerful politicians and gun lobby advocates alike, she couldn’t help but think of Marjory.

“Those kids, whether they knew it or not, are emulating her method of just not giving up,” Washburn said. “She wouldn’t give up.”

Marjory’s legacy lives on with the Friends of the Everglades, as well as with the Everglades themselves.

Her name may be known to most nationally because of the school shooting, but those who understood what she did for the Everglades knows she made a contribution to the state — and the world — that is hard to put into words.

“Since the founding of Florida, the Everglades was viewed as something to be conquered by many in the name of progress, to be drained and developed,” Samples said. “It’s incredible to me that a woman in 1947 really changed the narrative about this huge swatch of Florida.”

Walters can be reached at twalters@gannett.com