A long time ago in a fiercer time people who came to Florida to live had to live by their wits, they eked out a life from the elements at hand. In the case of the pineapples, they were brought here to be part of the process along with the Japanese. In the early 1900’s people were so encouraged that there were over 1,000 pineapple farms at one point. Along the way international trade and blight and shipping costs all took its toll along with WWI somehow using up all the known fertilizer. Pineapples hung on and growing them produced infrastructure and supply chains up and down the sandy Florida ridge beside the Indian River.
Palm Beach County had success in Hobe Sound with numerous family farms and packers in the 1940’s including one Joseph Brooker. Joseph took his pineapples to Georgia to trade for peaches, which he sold here in Vero Beach. His son William would go into the 1960’s working his pineapple magic in Jupiter where across the Indian River there was the C.T. McCarty’s Indian River Pines being sold since the mid-century. William had a son named Charles in 1923 who worked along side him while in school. Charles was fierce as well and put it to the test becoming a Golden Glove Boxing Champion before enlisted in the Army Air Corps as WWII came along. Charles attention to detail and quick response would be help, as he would learn Air Traffic Control during the war, this was leading edge technology at the time. But farming would remain in his soul.
Charles would return from the war and became an Air Traffic Controller for the Federal Air Administration. The FAA would take him around a bit but he settled in Vero Beach the late 1950’s. He was raising a family, working at the tower, and living life. What could he add to that? Pineapples, of course it was in his blood. He bought land beside the SEC Railroad tracks and across Old Dixie Highway he purchased another ten or so acres. Here he built a house and plotted his land in the Atlantic Ridge of Florida to grow his family crop. He had several artesian wells on his property and the land had proven to grow pineapples. His land is less than a mile from where Axel Holstrom built his Pineapple Plantation in 1910 that ran into the 1980’s with Pineapple and Citrus.
Charles’s growing processes were not strictly inherited; he earned them through trial, error, and study. Growing several varieties to find the most productive and the most in demand. He worked with several methods to also grow in a timely manner so that he could get to market sooner. His children have a version of the mixture but it also included plant knowledge in choosing the right “slip” fro producing the next crop. It was all sticky and prickly work in the fields. He deployed his wife, Vera and his children to the effort as their age allowed; he had two sons Lynn and David and two daughters Jan Brooker and Peggy Gonzalez. It was all in the family and it was all about community. He sold his wares on the “Honor System” from his stand on Old Dixie Highway.
Charles also tended the land in other ways. He was a conservationist as any good farmer would be. He incorporated other crops such as citrus as well as varieties of fruits. He planted and grew pecan, peach, avocado, and mango trees to harvest an annual crop as well. Keeping in mind the sandy soil and terrain of the land he built a garden of life for his family. He continued to develop his secret sauce of growing pineapples and landed on a particular variety called the “Pernambuco”, also known as the “Eleuthera.” This pineapple was smaller in size but made up for it in its sweetness. Unfortunately, this variety has been lost like the Bethel Creek Inlet but in its day it made Charles Brooker a very popular farmer.
Somehow word about Charles’ pineapples landed down-wind of someone in central Florida. Maybe they were coming north on Old Dixie Highway from Fort Pierce or sought him out specifically. We will probably never know. The word is, they returned and asked if they could take some samples of the Charles Brooker Pineapple over to an exhibit at the then young, Disney World Theme Park. The exhibit was to be called EPCOT and the samples would be featured in The Land ride, where examples of sustainable farming would be on display for all to see. The third Generation of Brooker Pineapple Farmers soon set the standard for the world. Offspring of his pineapples are growing in “The Land” at EPCOT to this day.
The lesson most of us learn when we move to Vero Beach and Indian River County, in particular, is that you never know who you might meet. Yes, we host a large number of very important retired and semi-retired CEO’s and highly successful people whose careers and lives have made true impacts on society. And then we have innumerable people who have lived quiet lives of service and work that have touched the lives of their neighbors in the County, City, or just right next door. Charles Brooker was the latter. A
son of a son of a farmer on the sandy hillsides along the Indian River and Old Dixie Highway he worked the land. Serving in wartime and for the public’s good as a civil servant, he went further to carry on a legacy of family and friend. His family loves and misses him and their mother, keeping their memory alive by sharing their stories.
An interesting historic footnote is that Charles Brooker was part of a trend rising with other local pineapple farmers. About ten miles north on US 1, Frank Bates Groves set up over 900 acres of pineapples and citrus in Indian and DeSoto Counties in the 1960’s. Today his grandson Mark Dellerman continues the tradition by growing sweet local “pines” on twenty-five acres on what remains of the farm in Wabasso. He is also a dedicated, third generation pineapple man. There is something wonderful and sustaining about the Indian River and its connection to the land and its people.
These are wild “pines” still growing on since the 1970’s on the Brooker’s Farm Pines:
Images by Neal Roe