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Courtesy SWFL Historical Society and Randy Koger

Fort Myers, Florida, was once known as the gladiolus capital of the world. Gladiolus farms, especially in the Iona district southwest of Fort Myers, produced thousands of acres of gladioli.

Gladiolus bulbs, or corms, were first planted in Iona in 1935. Two successive winter freezes in central Florida had driven gladiolus growers into the Fort Myers area. Cradled in the warm arms of the Caloosahatchee and the Gulf of Mexico, Iona, named by an early Scottish settler for the Ionian Islands of Scotland, was considered to be the most consistently frost-free area in the United States.

The first flower growers to locate in this vast agricultural area were Rex Beach Farms, Pinellas Gladiolus and the A. & W. Bulb Company. (Modern-day Gladiolus Drive was originally an access road to the gladiolus fields.)

Within 10 years, 30 local gladiolus growers were cultivating over 2500 acres, employing more than 1000 workers, and shipping almost 45 million-dozen gladioli annually.

Norman Cox, courtesy Tom and Janine Vann

One of the most successful of these growers was Norman Cox, founder and first president of the Florida Gladiolus Brokers Association and president of Gulf Coast Farms, Inc. A native of Evansville, Indiana, Cox began in the flower business in 1931 as a florist supplies salesman. Ten years later, he came to Fort Myers with his wife and two small children, put all their savings as a down payment on a piece of land just south of Pine Island Road along Matlacha Pass in North Fort Myers, and set to work manually clearing the land for a gladiolus farm.

Image courtesy Tom and Janine Vann

A few months later, when the Army took over the Lee County Airport, renamed it Page Field, and turned it into a bomber training base, young Norman opened the Hubba Hubba, a one-man hamburger stand out at the airfield. By day he worked on his land, hacking out underbrush and palmettos and pine stumps, and in the evenings, after a bath, dinner and a nap, he would drive to Page Field to flip burgers at the Hubba Hubba.

Norman harvested his first crop of flowers in 1945. By this time, he realized he needed help. He persuaded his brother, Bob, to join him as vice president of Norman Cox & Co. Together, over the next nearly three decades, the brothers built a gladiolus empire. Bob managed sales, while Norman, as president of Gulf Coast Farms, grew the flowers and sold them to Norman Cox & Co. Price negotiations between the two of them were said by Norman’s son-in-law, Tom Vann, to be “serious but always cordial.”

Bob Cox, courtesy Jane Thomas

Bob’s son, Glenn, who was 4 years old when his father and uncle partnered in 1946, likes to tell a story that underscores the peculiar relationship of these two business entities. One summer he spent 10 weeks traveling over 7 states calling on retail and wholesale florists. One day, a florist said to him, “Thank goodness you are here. The Gulf Coast salesman just left and your glads are so much better than theirs.” Glenn says that some florists would buy only from the Gulf Coast salesman, claiming their glads were the best. Of course, they all came from the same fields.

Although he took it for granted then, today Glenn is amazed at the detailed and critical calculations that went into the running of his family’s business. As a traveling salesman, he says, “I would try to procure orders from each florist for a fixed number of glads, for a specified starting and continuing delivery date (usually once a week), with specific colors and varieties. I would send the detail of each week’s orders back to Florida at the end of the week. I assume that, based on those orders (and those of a number of other salesmen in different sales territories),  Uncle Norman and my dad would undertake the machinations to determine the volume and types of bulbs to be planted to meet the opening and ongoing weekly delivery schedules. The bulbs were pulled for planting from a cold storage warehouse facility at Page Field where they had ‘rested’ for two (I think) seasons.”

Norman’s first planting in 1945 had been approximately two million bulbs; in time, Gulf Coast Farms would increase its plantings to approximately 18 million bulbs over 1441 arable of 2165 acres. The first harvest, or cutting, each year was in November, the last in mid-June.

Tom Vann: “The glads were cut before they bloomed, so a visit to the gladiolus farm was a view of acres and acres of green stalks with workers walking through the fields and cutting stalks with buds soon to bloom. The stalks were cut before they bloomed because they had to be sorted, packaged and shipped by land and air across the U.S. and Europe. The goal was for the stalks to bloom in the hands of the florist.”

Image courtesy FL State Archives-conveyor belt in Fort Myers processing plant

Glenn Cox: “Once the plants were harvested, they were taken to the packing house. There, my dad would call out how many dozens of what variety and colors were to be pulled by packing house workers for packaging to meet that day’s delivery schedule. A completed order would be placed in a tall cardboard hamper for labeling and shipping. A hamper might contain up to 20 dozen glads. The hampers were then loaded into trucks and taken to the airport. At their destination airport, they would be picked up by trucks for delivery to the various florists in that geographic area. Since there was no UPS or FedEx, deliveries were handled by small independent folks, maybe just in pick-up trucks. I recall that on some deliveries that might require longer transit times, a company named Purolater Courier was used because it had climate-controlled trucks. That courier’s main business was delivery of movie tapes to area theaters and Dad set up a ‘piggy back’ arrangement with them.”

In the 1960s, the Coxes began shipping glads to Holland for distribution to neighboring countries where, during the bleak winter months, people were starved for the colors of spring and summer. Though the winter growing season in south Florida was mild, frosts were not uncommon, and at the first sign of dangerously dropping temperatures, flower growers, like citrus growers, rushed into their fields to protect their crops. All through the night they tended the smudge pots, keeping the oily smoke of burning kerosene curling upward across more than a thousand acres.

Tom Vann: “I personally witnessed Norman Cox spending the night at Gulf Coast Farm protecting his glads from freezing weather. In the old days, he burned tires for heat but later used heaters fueled by heating oil; he also hired crop dusters to circulate air over the fields. It was a seven-day-a-week business with a few all-nighters during the winter growing season.”

Seminoles working in Fort Myers gladiolus fields, Courtesy FL State Archives

Working with the Cox brothers to set out and keep the smudge pots lit were the migrant workers employed by Norman’s Gulf Coast Farms. Unlike so many others who employed migrant workers in those days, Norman provided housing for his workers—generally trailers with electricity and running water. He also paid for needed medical care and, unlike those who penalized workers for sending their children to school instead of keeping them in the fields, Norman arranged for a school bus to pick their children up and take them to school. “The migrants knew this,” Norman’s daughter, Nancy, says, “and tried to get hired on with GCF before going to the other farms.”

Other than alligators in irrigation ditches, which the field workers dragged out, butchered and barbequed, one of the problems that presented itself to glads growers was the rapid loss of nutrients in the sandy Florida soil. Crops had to be rotated with Bermuda grass. In the ‘60s, Norman imported cattle from Texas to “fertilize” the fields and, incidentally, to breed more cattle. His ranch became a business in itself.

By the 1970s, commercial agriculture was waning as a profitable business in the Fort Myers area. More and more farmers were selling out to developers. When Norman died in 1975, the family sold Gulf Coast Farms, retaining Norman Cox & Co., with Bob as president. When Bob retired in 1980, the commercial gladiolus industry in south Florida was effectively finished.

The Glad Flowers

Gladioli are the flowers of August and the flowers of choice for one’s fortieth wedding anniversary. Because of their upright stature, gladioli are traditionally associated with the virtues of sincerity and integrity.

The gladiolus flower originated in south Africa, the center for the bountiful diversity of the species. It is possible to find some poetic irony in the fact that the flower should thrive in south Florida, whose substructure is a fragment of the continental African plate.

Roman author and naturalist, Pliny, gave the flower its name. Because its leaves are long, narrow and sharply pointed and enclosed in a sheath, he named it “gladiolus,” or “little sword.”

The German poet, Gottfried Benn, described the gladiolus flower as follows:

A bunch of glads,

certainly highly emblematic of creation,

remote from frills of working blossom with hope of fruit:

slow, durable, placid, generous, sure of kingly dreams.

If the gladiolus, or Sword Lily, is a kingly flower, it is certainly also emblematic of Easter, a celebration of the victory of life over death. How fitting that so many Christian churches are happily adorned on Easter morning with “Glads,” whose blossoms are surrounded with “little swords” that, in cross section, are cruciform.

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