Although not native to the southernmost state, Marjory Stoneman Douglas took to the Florida Everglades like a “duck to water,” becoming the great champion of this rare habitat. She was born in lake country in Minnesota in 1890, during one of her father’s many failed business ventures, which kept the family moving around the country. On a family vacation to Florida at the age of four, Marjory fell in love with the Floridian light and vowed to return.
Marjory escaped her unstable home life in the world of books. An extremely bright girl, she was admitted to Wellesley College when higher education for women was still quite uncommon. Her mother died shortly after her graduation in 1911. Feeling unmoored, she took an unrewarding job at a department store and shortly thereafter married a much older man, Kenneth Douglas, who had a habit of writing bad checks.
Leaving for Florida with her father for his latest business pursuit seemed like the perfect way to get away from her petty criminal husband and sad memories. Frank Stoneman’s latest ideas, however, seemed to have more merit: founding a newspaper in the scruffy boom town of Miami (the paper went on to become the Miami Herald). Marjory eagerly took a job as a cub reporter. Opinionated, forward-thinking, and unafraid to share unpopular views, both Stonemans found their niche in the newspaper trade. One of the causes they were in unswerving agreement on was Governor Napoleon Bonaparte Broward’s plan to drain the Everglades to put up more houses. Father and daughter used the paper as their soapbox to cry out against this ghastly idea with all their might.
Roused to action, Marjory educated herself about the facts surrounding the Everglades issue and discovered that many of the denizens of Florida’s swampy grassland were in danger of extinction. The more she learned, the more fascinated she became. When decades later she decided to leave the newspaper to write fiction, she often wove the Everglades into her plots. Marjory learned that the Everglades were actually not a swamp, but rather wetlands. In order to be a swamp, the waters must be still, whereas in the Everglades water flows in constant movement. Marjory coined the term “river of grass” and in 1947 wrote a book about this precious ecosystem entitled The Everglades: River of Grass.
More than anything else, Marjory’s book helped people see the Everglades not as a fetid swamp, but as a national treasure without which Florida might become a desert. After the publication of her book, Harry Truman designated a portion of the Florida wetlands as Everglades National Park. The triumph was short-lived, however. The Army Corp of Engineers began tunneling canals all over the Everglades, installing dams and floodgates. As if that weren’t enough, they straightened the course of the Kissimmee River, throwing the delicate ecosystem into complete shock.
At the age of seventy-eight, Marjory Stoneman Douglas joined in the fight, stopping bulldozers ready to raze a piece of the Everglades for an immense jetport. Almost blind and armed with little more than a big floppy sun hat and a will of iron, Marjory founded Friends of the Everglades, going on the stump to talk to every Floridian about the devastation to this rare resource and building the organization member by member to thousands of people in thirty-eight states. “One can do so much by reading, learning, and talking to people,” she noted. “Students need to learn all they can about animals and the environment. Most of all, they need to share what they have learned.”
Marjory Stoneman Douglas and “Marjory’s Army,” as her group came to be known, stopped the jetport in its tracks, garnered restrictions on farmers’ use of land and chemicals, saw to the removal of the Army’s “improvements,” and witnessed the addition of thousands of acres to the Everglades National Park, where they could be protected from land-grabbing developers. In 1975 and 1976, Marjory was rewarded for her hard work by being named Conservationist of the Year two years in a row. In 1989, she became the Sierra Club’s honorary vice president. Protecting the Everglades became Marjory’s life work, a job she loved. She never considered retiring and continued living in the same house she’d been in since 1926 and worked every day for Friends of the Everglades until her passing in 1998 at 109 years old. She saved millions of acres.
“Find out what needs to be done and do it!”
— Marjory Stoneman Douglas
Join Marjory’s Army! You can contact Friends of the Everglades and continue her work: www.everglades.org