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Dinner Island - History

Field loader harvesting sugar cane
Florida Photographic Collection A field loader loading cut cane into tractor train: Clewiston, Florida.

The Calusa Indians were probably some of the first visitors to the Dinner Island/Hendry County area, southwest of Lake Okeechobee. From A.D. 800 into the 17th century, these skilled hunters and fishermen inhabited the coastal regions of southwest Florida and traveled up the Caloosahatchee River in dugout canoes to reach interior wetlands associated with Lake Okeechobee and the Kissimmee River. The Caloosahatchee, which means “River of the Calusa,” flows southwest to the Gulf of Mexico (near present-day Fort Myers) from Lake Okeechobee. The river lies north of Dinner Island close to the Hendry/Glades County border.

Later visitors to the area included soldiers of the Seminole Wars, cattlemen, hunters, trappers and traders. By the 1880s, settlements such as LaBelle, northwest of Dinner Island, sprang up where forts had been built. Hendry County was named for Captain Francis Asbury Hendry, a cattle baron and Civil War hero.

The Caloosahatchee River was once a meandering river with its headwaters near Lake Hicpochee, northwest of Lake Okeechobee. To provide flood control for surrounding counties and a navigable channel for steam boats from the lake to the Gulf of Mexico, dredging began on the Caloosahatchee in 1881. A canal was built to connect the river with Lake Okeechobee. This new connection opened the area to increased development and growth, but created significant flooding problems downstream.

cowboy on horseback herding a cow
Florida Photographic Collection Cattle herding on the United States Sugar Corporation range: Clewiston

During the 1920s, the town of Clewiston blossomed and sugar cane and citrus became important local industries. Southern Sugar, which became the U.S. Sugar Corporation in 1931, established a sugar mill in Clewiston. After 2,400 residents around Lake Okeechobee died in floods from hurricanes in 1926 and 1928, flood control began in earnest. A dike was built around Lake Okeechobee and the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers were dredged and channelized to create the Okeechobee Waterway, which connected the lake to the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico. Lock-and-dam structures controlled water flow. The construction of this man-made waterway and a sprawling network of canals diverted much-needed water to agriculture and urban uses and away from the surrounding areas and sensitive ecosystems of the Florida Everglades and Florida Bay. Hydrological restoration at Dinner Island will take into account these manmade alterations and the WMA’s location immediately adjacent to the publicly owned, 35,000-acre Okaloacoochee Slough, a wetland that runs north to south between the Caloosahatchee River, the Fakahatchee Strand and Big Cypress National Preserve.

Agriculture and cattle ranching operations have flourished in the area since the 19th century. Today, agriculture is the base of Hendry County’s economy. Sugar cane and citrus, followed by cattle and tomato farming are the county’s most important commodities. Dinner Island was operated by the Hilliard family primarily as a cattle ranch; citrus and sugarcane production were much smaller enterprises on the property. The property came into public ownership in July 2003.