Ditches and Dreams: Nelson Fell and the Rise of Fellsmere
by Gordon Patterson,
Professor of Humanities, Florida Insititute of Technology
originally published in The Florida Historical Quarterly,
Volume LXXVI, Number 1, Summer 1997, Pages 1 to 19
Copyright 1997 by the Florida Historical Society, Melbourne, Florida
illustrations and captions not included in this version
On April 28, 1911, both the St. Lucie Tribune and the
Fort Pierce News published descriptions of an innovative land
development project. The Fellsmere Farms Company proposed to drain
118,000 acres of land at the headwaters of the St. Johns River. Since
1910, the newly formed corporation had "shunned publicity, preferring to devote all the time, energy and money to development
work."(1) Fellsmere Farms Company was the brainchild of Nelson
Fell, an itinerant Englishman and hydraulic engineer with more
than three decades of experience in directing land development in
Florida. The company's unusual name, a 1913 sales brochure explained, was a combination of the founder's name and the word
"mere," which meant "a great watery place."(2) Fell intended the
Fellsmere Farms Company to be the culmination of his life's work.
Unfortunately, Fell and his associates underestimated the challenge of turning a "great watery place" into rich farmland. Six years
later, in 1917, the Felismere Tribune announced "the close of
the greatest and most complete drainage proposition in Florida."(3)
Thirty-three miles of levies had been constructed, and 67 miles
of canals and 215 miles of drainage ditches had been dug.(4) The
project's magnitude, however, proved greater than Nelson Fell's
resources. In 1916, Fellsmere Farms Company was forced into receivership. A number of factors contributed to the company's demise. Skepticism about Florida land promotions, concern about
the intensifying international crisis, and the outbreak of World War
I robbed the company of needed capital. Poor management of the
sales program further complicated the company's perilous position. On July 31, 1915, nature delivered a final, devastating blow.
Torrential rains forced many to flee. Eight inches of rain fell on the
already waterlogged land. The company struggled to repair the
damage, but ultimately, the task proved too great. On January 1,
1917, the assets of Fellsmere Farms Company were sold to the highest bidder at the courthouse door in Fort Pierce.(5)
The rise and fall of the Fellsmere Farms Company reveals
much about the nature of Florida in the first decades of the twentieth century. Fellsmere was part of the larger campaign to transform
Florida's marshes, swamps, and "watery places" into productive
farms and communities. The story of Nelson Fell's attempt to create an agricultural community at the headwaters of the St. Johns of
fers an insight into the formative stages of the technological
optimism that has determined much of Florida's history in the
E. Nelson Fell was born in Nelson, New Zealand, in 1857, the
youngest son of Alfred Fell, a native Englishman and proprietor of
a "tremendously successful" wholesale business.(7) In 1859, Alfred
Fell returned to England with his wife and seven children. Fell's father sent him to the prestigious Rugby School and to the Royal
School of Mines. Later Nelson spent a year in Heidelberg studying
German engineering techniques before taking a job working for
his older brother Arthur. Over the next thirty years, the elder Fell
dispatched his brother around the world to supervise numerous
mining and engineering projects. In 1884, Arthur Fell sent Nelson
Central Florida underwent a British invasion in the 1880s. Governor William Bloxham's sale of four million acres of land to
Hamilton Disston, a Philadelphia industrialist, in 1881 launched a
second, albeit unofficial, English period in Florida history. Within
a year, Disston had sold half of his holdings to Sir Edward Reed.
Reed, a British capitalist, proposed to develop central Florida as an
investment opportunity for English and European entrepreneurs.
Reed and his friend Jacobus Wertheim organized the Florida Land
and Mortgage Company, which aggressively marketed Florida land
in England and on the European continent.(9)
Advertisements describing the rich possibilities present in central Florida regularly appeared in English newspapers throughout
the 1880s and 1890s. Publicists told prospective buyers that Florida
was a place where pleasurable surroundings, commercial opportunity and a healthy climate combined to create a veritable paradise.
By the mid-1880s, a contemporary observer noted, "every train and
steamer from the north bears hither its English party. Some come
to this sunland of palm and pine for pleasure, some for health;
some - and these are the majority - come bent on making here the
fortune they failed to make in the old world."(10)
Nelson Fell belonged to the third group. With six older brothers and sisters, his prospects for a sizable inheritance were meager.
He was working on a mining project in Colorado when Arthur Fell,
eager to join the land bonanza, proposed that he go to central Florida. At twenty-seven, Nelson Fell was a seasoned engineer with experience in England, Brazil, and the American West. Florida was
the new frontier. Arthur Fell and his partner purchased twelve
thousand acres east of Lake Tohepekaliga, two thousand of which
were reserved for a townsite called Narcoosee, a derivation of the
Maskoki word for "bear." Fell's company divided the remainder of
the land into small farms that ranged from two to ten acres in size.
The senior Fell placed his brother and Lieutenant Colonel William
Edmund Cadman in charge of the project. Cadman managed the
company's day-to-day affairs; Fell oversaw the effort to reclaim
2,500 acres of marshland. Arthur Fell further instructed his
younger brother to establish a community "commensurate with his
More than two hundred English immigrants had come to Narcoosee by 1888. By then, the burgeoning town possessed a post of-
fice, a blacksmith's shop, a carpenter's shop, a real estate office
and, most importantly, a railway depot. Fell recognized that the viability of this primarily agricultural colony was dependent upon access to reliable transportation. Initially, a steamboat called the
Colonist linked the Narcoosee English settlement to St. Cloud and
Kissimmee. Fell eventually secured an extension of the Sugar Belt
Railroad to Narcoosee in the late 1880s. Access to the railroad allowed local citrus farmers to expand their groves and in general
provided a firm basis for the town's commercial success.(12)
Nelson Fell prospered during this period. He married Anne
Palmer, the daughter of a New York judge. Two daughters and a son
followed in short order. His engineering expertise won him both
commercial success and civic responsibilities. He built a house on a
promontory jutting into Lake Tohepekaliga that became known as
Fell's Point. In 1890, Fell won a seat on the Osceola County Commission. Captain Rufus F. Rose, chairman of the county commission and one of Disston's advisors, shared Fell's optimism for
Florida's economic future and backed Fell's entry into politics.(13)
The boom, however, did not last. The first signs of economic
distress surfaced in 1891, and by late 1892, Florida was in the midst
of an unprecedented series of railroad, bank, and commercial failures. The worsening economic conditions culminated in the general panic of 1893. British immigration slowed, and those already
in Florida looked to their citrus groves for salvation. The crash destroyed Hamilton Disston. He mortgaged his central Florida holdings; three years later he defaulted on his loans. In April 1896,
Disston put a pistol to his head and committed suicide while sitting
in a bathtub in his Philadelphia home.(14)
Nature and international political conditions conspired during the next two years to undermine Nelson Fell's English colony.
The winter of 1894 was unseasonably cold. On December 27 the
temperature dropped to twenty-seven degrees in north Florida.
Tampa, according to weather reports, was covered with a thick
layer of ice. The cold weather persisted for forty-eight hours, killing
many young trees. The next six weeks were unseasonably warm.
Veteran citrus growers watched in dismay as green shoots and
blooms appeared on their trees. On February 7, 1895, a killer
freeze covered the state. Temperatures plummeted. The devastation was overwhelming. Overnight, citrus farmers lost their entire
holdings. No part of Florida was untouched.(15)
A chill in the relations between Britain and the United States
further threatened the status of Florida's English immigrants. In
1895, a border incident in British Guiana touched off an international dispute between Britain and Venezuela. By 1897, the two
countries were on the verge of war. President Grover Cleveland
criticized the English position, maintaining that Britain had violated the Monroe Doctrine. Lord Salisbury, who headed the English foreign office, replied icily to President Cleveland's criticism.
He declared that the United States had "no practical concern" in
the South American boundary dispute. Cleveland answered with
an ultimatum: Britain must submit to American arbitration or face
the consequences. The two great Atlantic powers edged toward a
declaration of war.(16)
The British-Venezuelan crisis was a turning point for many of
central Florida's English immigrants. Some were still British subjects; others held military commissions that bound them to defend
the Crown. As the crisis worsened many Anglo-Floridians packed
their bags. Bishop William Gray, leader of the Episcopal Diocese of
South Florida, publicly lamented the English exodus.(17)
In 1897, Britain agreed to American arbitration. The rumors
of war, however, had unnerved Florida's English immigrants, and
many chose to leave Florida. Consequently, Narcoosee's growth
stalled. The panic of 1893, the freeze of 1894-95, Disston's suicide
in 1896, and what Bishop Gray called "the threatening clouds of
war," combined to deliver a mortal blow to Fell's dream of paradise
Nelson Fell faced a difficult choice. He could remain in Narcoosee, or he could look for new opportunities. Fell hesitated; Narcoosee was not destined for greatness. Once again, his brother
provided him with a chance to recoup his losses. Arthur Fell sum
moned his brother to London to discuss the possibility of purchasing a copper mine and refinery in central Asia. Fell left his family at
Fell's Point and went to London in 1901.
Although he knew little about mining conditions in Russia, the
older Fell, now a member of the British Parliament, had learned
that there were tremendous investment opportunities in central
Asia and proposed that Nelson go to Siberia, which he did in January 1902. He chose Charles Piffard, one of his Narcoosee associates,
to travel with him across Russia. Fell and Piffard made their way
eastward nearly two thousand miles on the Trans-Siberia Railroad.
The two men covered the final six hundred miles on horseback.(19)
Years later Fell described his work in central Siberia in a book
entitled Russian and Nomad: Tales of Kirghiz Steppes, published in
1916. Conditions were primitive. The opportunities for profit, however, were unlimited. Fell returned to London and wrote a glowing
report. In 1903 he returned to Russia, charged with the responsibility of negotiating the purchase of the Spassky Copper Mines. He
sent for his wife and children who were still living at Fell's Point
near Narcoosee. Finally, he convinced Patrick A. Vans Agnew, a
young Scotchman, to leave his law practice in Kissimmee and join
him as one of his assistants.(20)
Fell flourished during his five years in central Asia. Piffard and
Vans Agnew were able assistants. The three men directed the company's smelter and ranged across the Kirghiz steppes, purchasing
coal and mining copper. "With new capital the mines and works
were developed into an important and successful enterprise, employing a small army of men: Kirghiz carriers, miners and labourers; Russian mechanics, engineers, superintendents, accountants,"
Fell wrote. "The number of foreigners employed was very small
and, both by policy and inclination, we endeavored to work in close
and sympathetic harmony with the Russians themselves, and the
Russian organized system.(21) Periodically, Fell dispatched caravans
six hundred miles to the north where copper and silver ingots were
shipped by rail to Moscow. Fell served as the mine's general manager for five years. His daughter Marian became engaged to Patrick
Vans Agnew. In 1909, Fell returned to the United States a rich
At fifty-two, Fell could afford to retire. His family and closest as-
sociates were setting out on their own. Vans Agnew opened a law office in Kissimmee, plunged into local politics and became the city's
attorney. Daughter Marian worked to complete a translation of selections from Anton Chekov's stories and plays. His other daughter, Olivia, announced her engagement to Patrick Vans Agnew's
brother Frank. Fell's son, Nelson, Jr., was preparing to enter Harvard. Charles Piffard used his profits from the Russian enterprise to
launch a banking career in New York. Fell was uncertain what
course to follow.(23)
His friend and engineering colleague Oscar T. Crosby convinced him to buy a house in Warrenton, Virginia, where Crosby already owned a 350-acre estate. The two men shared numerous
interests. Born in 1861, Crosby graduated from West Point in 1882.
He served in the Army Corps of Engineers for five years before
launching a highly successful career in private industry. By 1900,
Crosby had "accumulated a large fortune" sufficient to free him
from the "drudgery business. "(24)
Vans Agnew urged Fell to reconsider his retirement. Vans Agnew believed that there were tremendous opportunities for land
development in Florida. Conditions there had changed considerably during Fell's absence; the troublesome nineties were a thing of
the past. The state had experienced a population growth between
1900 and 1910, and in 1905, Floridians had elected a new governor,
liberal reformer Napoleon Bonaparte Broward. Central to Governor Broward's program was his plan to mobilize the state's resources to reclaim the Everglades. The Everglades drainage plan
called for the construction of a system of drainage canals that
would "allow surplus water to drain off into the Atlantic Ocean and
Gulf of Mexico."(25) Broward and his successor, Albert W. Gilchrist,
committed sizable state funds to this ambitious, if environmentally
disastrous, plan. By 1913, 142 miles of canals and two locks were in
place. The state spent nearly $2 million on the Everglades project.(26)
Fell dispatched his long-time friend, Captain Rose, to scout out
the prospects. One of Florida's great boosters, Rose had a unique
perspective on land possibilities. He believed that the upper St.
Johns region held great promise. Back in Virginia, Crosby listened
attentively as Fell discussed the idea of launching a colossal land
reclamation project. Crosby had followed the development of Gov-
ernor Broward's Everglades drainage plan and shared Fell's conviction that private enterprise could do a betterjob than the state. He
believed it possible to drain the region and sell the land for a handsome profit.(27)
Fell spent the following year researching the project. The land
that was best suited for the project, he soon learned, was embroiled
in litigation. Interest in developing the headwaters of the St. Johns
dated to 1895 when W. W. Russell from Cincinnati purchased
115,000 acres west of Sebastian from the United States Printing
Company. In May 1895, Russell dispatched a land surveyor who reported that the elevation of the land would "enable the entire tract
to be drained at comparatively little cost."(28) Russell created a company, Cincinnatus Farms, to direct the land reclamation project. In
November 1895, the Indian River Advocate published a report that
the Cincinnatus Farm Land Improvement Project would soon start
construction on a railroad from Sebastian into the muck land.
Eventually, Russell planned to extend the line on to Kissimmee.
Russell's advisors, however, had underestimated the magnitude
and cost of the project. Work on the project stopped when Russell
died in 1900.(29)
No further improvements were made on the tract. The survey
reports were put aside. Nothing came of the railroad extension. By
1909 there were eight different claims against the Russell estate.
On March 11, 1910, Nelson and Anne Palmer Fell paid a $63,125
down payment - with $91,875 outstanding - for title to approximately 118,000 acres of land. Fell's investment came to a little more
than $1.35 per acre.(30)
The venture's success depended on drainage. Fell and Crosby
organized the Fellsmere Farms Company to direct the land reclamation project. At the first meeting of the company's board of directors, held in New York City in June 1910, Cosby was elected
president and Fell was named the company's vice president. The
board further charged Fell with organizing the company's development. He hired Ernest Every, a fellow Englishman with more than
twenty years of engineering experience in New Mexico and Colorado, as the project's general manager.(31)
On September 16, 1910, engineers from the J. G. White Company presented their drainage plans to Fell, who explained the proposal to the board and presented his own analysis. Essentially, the
company had two options. One plan called for the construction of
a levee surrounding the 450-square-mile area. This would assure
that no water would flow onto company lands. The board chose the
second plan, which proposed to drain the land using a series of canals. The proposed main canal would run eight miles and would
feed into a four-and-one-half-mile outlet canal. The main and outlet canals would be 122 feet wide and 18 feet deep and would run
in an easterly direction to the tidewater at the Sebastian River. Five
lateral canals, which would be fed by a series of sub-lateral canals,
would be dug at two-mile intervals. The objective was that "no point
on the property [was to be] more than 675 feet from one of these
ditches." Excess water from the entire tract would eventually flow
into the middle fork of the Sebastian River.(32)
At a meeting the following week, to further convince the board
of the venture's potential, Fell presented a detailed report on land
sales in Florida. Near Miami, the Tatum brothers were marketing
marl and muck land at fifty dollars per acre. A short distance away
from Fellsmere, in Kissimmee Park, land was selling for sixty dollars an acre. Fell was convinced that the company's 118,000 acres
would turn a sizable profit for all investors. No insurmountable
technological barriers to draining the property existed.(33)
Work started in Fellsmere on February 22, 1911. General Manager Every put four colossal excavators to the task of opening the
twelve-mile-long main canal. Telephone lines were laid so that the
main office could be in "touch with every part of the work."(34) By February 1912, the project employed 175 men on a monthly payroll of $20,000. Every reported to the directors that the dredges
were making tremendous progress. In April, Every ordered the
opening of the sluiceway which had been cut around the dam on
the main canal east of lateral "U," which was located nearest the
townsite. Eight thousand acres were reclaimed; settlers arrived almost immediately. The town's population growth kept pace with
the dredges' progress. By June 1912, Fellsmere's population of 600
made it the second largest town in St. Lucie County. The company
newspaper, Fellsmere Farmer, offered a weekly digest of the city's accomplishments.(35)
The Chattanooga-based Securities Underwriters Corporation
organized the national sales campaign of the Fellsmere Sales Company. The advertisements in national weeklies such as the Saturday
Evening Post called attention to the "Fame of Fellsmere" and stimulated tremendous interest. Daily train service assured that the town's
two hotels were filled with visitors who had come to Fellsmere to see
the wonders of the company's two demonstration farms.(36)
To assist with his project, Fell reassembled his Siberian team in
1913. Vans Agnew, involved in the project from the beginning,
served as the company's attorney. In 1913, Charles Piffard left New
York to organize the desperately needed Fellsmere State Bank. Investors purchased capital stock in the bank worth $25,000. The
Fellsmere Farms Company deeded a lot on the northwest corner of
Broadway and Colorado Streets to Piffard for the bank's building,
and Fell served on the bank's board of directors.(47)
On March 1,1913, Fell and Crosby visited Fellsmere. Every
showed them the progress the dredges were making on the main
canal and laterals. In town, Fell and Crosby addressed the newly
formed Farmer's Fraternity. Crosby told the audience that he was
"gratified in the progress that [was] being made in the reclamation
of the vast tract of land and was particularly gratified with the class
of buildings now being constructed in the town of Fellsmere."(48)
Three different problems combined to undermine the company's success in 1912 and 1913. Disturbing reports from the Everglades began to reach Fellsmere. Land investors arrived in South
Florida and discovered that their land was still under water. In February 1912, the scandal broke. Unscrupulous land sharks had defrauded thousands of investors. Congress ordered an investigation
of the Department of Agriculture's role in the Everglades drainage
project. The hearings focused the nation's attention on Florida.(39)
The scandal posed a potential threat to Fellsmere Farms. To calm
jittery investors, the Fellsmere Farmer published a letter from Representative Frank Clark who served on the congressional committee
investigating the Everglades project. "Gentlemen," Congressman
Clark wrote to the company's directors, "it is with regret that I learn
that the present investigations of conditions in connection with the
draining of the Everglades, in which I am so deeply interested, is
tending by inference to injure Fellsmere Farms." (40) Later that
month, Fell and Oscar Crosby led a party of thirty-six New York investment bankers to Fellsmere to assure them that Fellsmere was a
The harm was done. Public confidence in Florida land companies was undermined, and the Fellsmere Farms Sales Company experienced its first setback. On July 8, 1913, the company's auditors
reported that "the accounts of the Sales Company ... were in a very
unsatisfactory shape and required the entire re-writing of all
records."(42) The company sustained a loss of $8,105.95 for the year.(43)
The European crisis further threatened British and European
investments. Thirty years earlier, Fell had organized a newspaper
campaign that brought hundreds of English immigrants to Kissimmee, St. Cloud, and Narcoosee. He planned to use a similar strategy for Fellsmere. In April 1912, Baron Oscar Von Loo, a
prominent Belgian banker who had played an important role in a
number of "large development projects in many parts of the
world," visited Fellsmere.(44) Fell hoped that Baron Von Loo and his
financial associates would create a colony of Belgian, Dutch, and
French farmers in Fellsmere. Unfortunately, the outbreak of World
War I ended the possibility of European investment.
In June 1913, the board of directors reached a final impasse.
The $1 million that the company had set aside for the drainage
project was insufficient. A year earlier the board had authorized
the issuance of $500,000 first mortgage gold notes with a five-year
term at six percent. This was not, however, enough money to finance the drainage project. The board debated its options. On
June 3, 1913, Oscar Crosby resigned from the board and Fell assumed the presidency. Three weeks later J. G. White and S. L.
Selden followed Crosby's lead; Patrick Vans Agnew and Ernest Every filled the vacancies. On June 24, 1913, the board authorized the
sale of $200,000 first mortgage notes at ninety percent of par value.
Fell promised that henceforward "individual members of the
Board of Directors" would receive "regular and detailed monthly
reports of the condition of the business of Fellsmere Farms Company and Fellsmere Sales Company."(45)
Nelson Fell, Patrick Vans Agnew, Ernest Every, and Charles
Baldwin managed the company's day-to-day business. In Fellsmere,
Piffard acted as their unofficial advisor. Every warned Fell and the
other members of the executive committee that there were potentially serious problems with the drainage plan. The executive committee ordered Every to "suspend dredges during the summer and
open wide the control gates for the purpose of protecting [the]
drained area.(46) By November 1913, Fell realized that the drainage
plan had to be revised. Money was needed. The executive committee recommended that the board negotiate a loan of "not less than
$]. 50,000 and preferably it should be $200,000."(47) One month later
the board took up the executive committee's recommendations.(48)
The need for more working capital compelled the company's
directors to reorganize both their finances and the drainage
project. The board formed a special adjustment committee consisting of five bondholders that would devise a plan for refinancing
the company's debt. The committee delivered its findings to the
board in March 1914. It recommended that the present bondholders be offered a settlement in which they would receive ten percent
of their bond's face value in preferred stock and forty percent in
common stock. In return for this premium the company's
$500,000 debenture notes would be reissued as ten-year prior lien
bonds. The adjustment committee's recommendations ended on
an ominous note. The committee recommended that "the mortgages shall contain some provision to be drafted by the company's
attorneys, which will protect buyers of the company's lands in case
of foreclosure of the company obligations.(49)
The board approved the adjustment plan in May 1914. One
month later the adjustment committee recommended that negotiations be undertaken between the board and the Columbia Trust
Company. Finally, the committee proposed that the Columbia
Trust Company serve as Fellsmere Farm's trustee.(50)
Fell found himself struggling to resolve three different problems. As president of both the Fellsmere Farms Company and the
Fellsmere Sales Company, he was responsible for reorganizing the
drainage plan and implementing a new sales strategy. To survive,
the company needed both to increase sales and to cut expenditures. Although the voters of Fellsmere had adopted a commission
form of government in 1913, a year later the company was still burdened with the town's upkeep.(51)
Fell bore considerable responsibility for company paternalism.
Maintainance of the town's tennis courts illustrates this. Fell was an
enthusiastic tennis player. He organized a lawn tennis club which
he used during his visits to Fellsmere. In July 1914, the Fellsmere
Tennis Club thought it a "reasonable request to ask the Farms
Company if it will not pay the cost of the [tennis court's] upkeep."
The company's executive committee approved the request.(52)
Subsidizing the tennis club was of little consequence. There
were, however, serious problems that had to be addressed. Patrick
Vans Agnew confided to Fell that the company faced a potentially
devastating legal problem. The problem was disclosed in a personal letter which was included in the board's December 1914 minutes. Four years earlier Fell had employed Captain Rose to
represent the company in negotiating "various purchases." Rose's
lawyer was a prominent Tallahassee lawyer named R. W. Williams.
One purchase of "eight hundred acres" in each of the five townships belonged to a Mr. McCalla from Knoxville. "Mr. McCalla,"
Vans Agnew wrote, "(formerly, I believe, American Minister to
China . . .), had been adjudged insane and his estate was, therefore, being administered by a guardian."(53) In order to execute the
sale, Rose's lawyer needed to secure an order of sale from the
proper probate court. Unfortunately, Rose's lawyer sought the order in Tennessee. Florida law, however, mandated that a probate
court in either Fort Pierce or Titusville rule on the matter. Vans Agnew stumbled upon this irregularity in the midst of the adjustment
committee's struggle to reorganize the company's finances.(54)
Attorney Williams' error exposed the company to considerable
risk. If the company's title to its initial landholding was in doubt,
then every property deed that the company had issued would be
thrown into question. At the very least this would be worrisome to
the company's deed holders. Worse, the disclosure of this matter
might undermine the adjustment committee's efforts to refinance
the company's debt. This was an "alarming" possibility. Believing that
the irregularities should be disposed of quietly, Vans Agnew set
about "curing" the problem at his own expense.(55) Fell and Vans Agnew kept the matter secret for three months. In December 1914, Fell
informed the board that Vans Agnew had corrected the problem.(56)
Fell had four objectives at the end of 1914: finalize the company's adjustment plan; incorporate the town of Fellsmere; expand
the drainage plan; and, finally, increase sales. By June 1915, he had
succeeded in realizing two of his objectives. The Columbia Trustee
Company agreed to accept $500,000 of first mortgage bonds at six
percent per year. This gave the company needed capital. Vans Agnew wrote a charter for the town, which the state assembly approved on April 29, 19l5.(57)
Unfortunately, Fell failed to achieve his two most important objectives: the expansion of the drainage program and increased
sales. On June 28, 1915, Fell's auditors delivered a devastating supplementary report itemizing the company's problems. The auditors had had difficulty making sense of the company's books.
"Owing to poor attention which has been given to filing in the
past," they reported, "the files were found to be in a chaotic condition. Correspondence filed in the wrong envelope was the rule
rather than the exception."(58) The auditors determined that "during
the first four months of this year contract balances aggregating
nearly half a million dollars were lapsed on the books, this sum representing approximately one-third of the balances."(59)
The auditors recommended that drastic and aggressive steps
be taken to put the delinquent accounts in order. Foreclosure notices, the auditors declared, had to be issued. Fell disagreed. The
auditor's recommendations would devastate the community. Fell's
copy of the auditor's report has survived with his handwritten notes
in the margins. "Yes," Fell scribbled in response to the suggestion
to cut back on the company's support of the community, the proposal would save money. However, Fell opposed this measure because it was "harsh [and] dangerous." A few lines farther Fell noted
that "no opinion can be formed without knowledge of the local
The auditor's report, however, could not be ignored. The company had lost a half million dollars in four months. The executive
committee formed a special subcommittee to study the auditor's
report and identify ways in which economies could be made. In its
August 13 report, the subcommittee announced that land sales had
"practically ceased," collections were falling and, most importantly,
"recent heavy rains" presented unanticipated "new problems." The
initial drainage program was inadequate to the task of draining all
of the company's lands. In what proved to be the first step towards
the company's dissolution, the subcommittee recommended that
"the sales program ... be discontinued for the present" and that all
of the company's efforts be placed in "study of possible supplemental construction" necessary to save the drainage project.(61)
During the next three days Fell met with Arthur Crane, a
hydraulic engineer with the J. G. White Company, who devised a
radically new plan. It was impossible to drain the entire 454-square-
mile area of the Fellsmere tract with the existing system. Crane
recommended reducing the area to be drained to eighty square
miles. Fell agreed. This would secure both the town of Fellsmere
and the land that was already sold. The new drainage plan
contained an element missing in the 1910 plan: Crane
recommended that the dredges be used to build levees that would
protect the drainage area.(62)
Fell presented the revised plan to the board on August 17,
1915. In a separate letter to the executive committee he proposed
to take control of the entire project for a year. "I have decided," Fell
wrote, "that it is my duty and to the interest of the company that I
should go to Fellsmere without delay and devote my whole time
and energy to overcoming the now-existing difficulties. I wish to do
this without salary or on the conditions of nominal remuneration
suggested by the committee. To this consideration I am indifferent."(63) A week later the executive committee met and gave Fell and
Vans Agnew "a free hand ... in effecting economies.(64)
There was little that Fell and Vans Agnew could do, however.
The "heavy rains" of July 31, 1915, had wiped out many of the
farms. Fell sought and received the executive committee's approval
to "effect such adjustments" that would alleviate the suffering of
those who had experienced losses because of the "unprecedented
rainfall."(65) Consequently, the company agreed to replace 4,647 citrus trees that were destroyed in the flood.(66)
The town recovered from the flood's devastation. Eight
months after the rains, the Fellsmere Tribune praised Fell and the
For an ordinary company this [flooding] would have been
a setback which would have been more than to have put
them out of business, but to the powerful organization back
of Fellsmere development it was only a test for weak points
and as soon as the local engineers had secured the necessary data in the case the officials of the company met and
voted an additional appropriation of $325,000 to be expended in erecting powerful levees to surround Fellsmere
and bid defiance to further encroachment of like nature.(67)
The city's 896 residents looked toward the future with confidence.
A $40,000 school building was under construction. Six miles of
sidewalks bordered the town's streets. The Marian Fell Library had
grown in less than a year to more than thirteen hundred books.
"The population," the newspaper maintained," is of a high type of
intelligence, with lofty ideals and wise execution. Progressive in all
things, perhaps no better indication of that fact may be given than
the unanimous vote of the electorate of the town granting unrestricted suffrage to women."(68) All signs were promising success. Citrus groves planted in 1913 were bearing their first fruit.(69)
Despite the city's optimism, Fell and Vans Agnew faced an insurmountable problem. Fellsmere Farms Company had based its viability on draining the entire tract. The new program called for
draining less than fifty percent of the lands. Land sales were halted.
Delinquencies increased. The additional $325,000 allocation exhausted the company's reserves. Nevertheless, Fell refused to foreclose on the company's debtors. "The Farms Company," Fell told
the members of the Farmer Producer's Union in 1916, "has not and
never will try to profit by the misfortunes of any landowner, nor
cause embarrassment to those engaged in building Fellsmere
Farms." The Producer's Union passed a resolution thanking Nelson
Fell for his "considerate and kindly response."(70) Fell's popularity in
Fellsmere, unfortunately, could not save the company from financial ruin. The company had spent more than $1 million on the
drainage project. Securing the restricted area outlined in the new
proposal required additional capital. The Columbia Trust Company
held first mortgage notes that compelled the company to make regular interest payments on the $500,000 of outstanding notes.
On July 1,1916, the Fellsmere Company failed to meet its interest payment. The Columbia Trust Company filed suit. The Circuit
Court in Fort Pierce placed the Fellsmere Farms Company in receivership, and W. H. Tallis, a New York accountant, was placed in charge
of the company's assets.(71) Two years of legal struggles followed.
Nelson Fell and the directors of the Fellsmere Company lost
their investment. Their dream of draining the headwaters of the St.
Johns failed for a variety of reasons. First, their plan was too extensive. Moreover, they lacked the necessary capital to protect the reclaimed lands. In 1912, the Everglades land scandal undermined
public confidence in land sales. The outbreak of World War I
scared off potential European investors.
Nelson Fell left Fellsmere in 1917 for his Virginia estate, where
he died in 1928. Oscar Crosby, who was directing war relief in Europe when the company collapsed, went on to become an assistant
secretary of the treasury under Woodrow Wilson. Patrick Vans Agnew became Jacksonville's city attorney. Ernest Every moved to
Melbourne. Charles Piffard remained in Fellsmere as director of
the Fellsmere bank and played an active role in the creation of the
Fellsmere Drainage District.(72)
Like the Narcoosee colony before it, Fellsmere Farms Company did not flourish. The technological challenge of draining the
headwaters of the St. Johns proved too great. Still, Fell and his confederates accomplished much. In the face of tremendous obstacles,
and despite their own financial losses, they laid the foundation for
a progressive community that aspired to be a "bright spot in the
1. Fort Pierce News,April 28, 1911.
2. "Fellsmere Farms Florida," sales brochure, Fellsmere Sales
Company, June 1913, 6, Walter Siewert Collection, Special
Collections, Evans Library, Florida Institute of Technology,
3. Fellsmere Tribune,January 13, 1917.
5. Walter Siewert, "A History of the Fellsmere Drainage District
(Now) Fellsmere Water Control District," n.d., 8, in Siewert
Collection; Fellsmese Tribune, January 6,1917.
6. For information on land drainage and development in Florida,
see Nelson M. Blake, Land Into Water - Water Into Land: A
History of Water Management in Florida (Tallahassee, 1980);
Mark Derr, Some Kind of Paradise: A Chronicle of Man and
Land in Florida (New York, 1989); John Rothchild, Up for
Grabs: A Tromp Through Time and Space in the Sunshine State
(New York, 1985); Charlton W Tebeau, A History of Florida
(Coral Gables, 1971).
7. Mrs. W. L. Wastney to William E. Ashburn, August 18, 1977,
William Ashhurn Collection, in the possession of Clarence
Korker, Fellsmere, Fla.
8. Olivia Fell Vans Agnew to Mrs. Mary McClure, November 14,
1965, Siewert Collection.
9. Tebeau, A History of Florida, 278-79.
10. Iza Duffus Hardy, Oranges and Alligators: Sketches from South
Florida Life (London, 1887), 12.
11. Olivia Fell Vans Agnew to Mrs. Mary McClure, November 14, 1965,
Siewert Collection; Alma Hetheringion, River of Long Water
(Chuluota, 1980, 37; Joseph D. Cushman, Jr., The Sound of
Bells: The Episcopal Church in South Florida, 1862-1969
(Gainesville, 1976), 43; Vero Beach Press Journal, June 14,
12. Cushman, Sound of Bells, 43, 45; Hetherington, River of
Long Water, 37.
13. Hetherington, River of Long Water, 41.
14. Derr, Some Kind of Paradise, 96.
15. Cushman, Sound of Bells, 53; Morton D. Winsberg, Florida
Weather (Orlando, 1990), 46.
16. Cushman, Sound of Bells, 57.
19. Olivia Fell Vans Agnew to Mrs. Mary McClure, November 14,
1965, Siewert Collection.
21. Nelson Fell, Russian and Nomad: Tales of the Kirghiz
Steppes (New York, 1916), xii.
22. Olivia Fell Vans Agnew to Mrs. Mary McClure, November 14,
1965, Siewert Collection.
24. Fort Pierce News, April 2,1915.
25. Samuel Proctor, "Prelude to the New Florida, 1877-1919,"
in The New History of Florida, edited by Michael Gannon
(Gainesville, 1996), 280, 282.
27. Vero Beach Press-Journal,June 14, 1981.
28. Indian River Advocate, June 14,1895.
29. Ibid., November 22, 1895; Fort Pierce News, April 1,1910.
30. State of Florida, Deed of Conveyance, Document 708, November
29, 1909, Ashburn Collection.
31. Minute Book, Fellsmere Farms Company, June 6, 1910, 25,
Ashburn Collection; Fellsmere Farmer, April 18, 1912.
32. Minute Book, September 16,1910,33; Fellsmere Farmer,
February 21, 1912; "Fellsmere Farms Florida," 8.
33. Minute Book, September 23, 1910, 35.
34. St. Lucie Tribune, April 28, 1911; Fellsmere Farmer,
February 21, 1912.
35. Fellsmere Farmer, February 21, 1912, April 1, 1912,
July 10, 1913.
36. Ibid., July 10, 1913.
37. Ibid., February 20, 1913.
38. Ibid., March 6, 1913.
39. Ibid., February 21, 1912.
40. Ibid., March 7, 1912.
41. Ibid., April 4, 1912.
42. "Report on Audit Fellsmere Sales Company," July 8,1913,
3, 4, Ashburn Collection.
43. "Report on Audit Fellsmere Sales Company," June 16, 1915,
1, Ashburn Collection.
44. Fellsmere Farmer, April 18, 1912.
45. Minute Book, June 24, 1913, 253.
46. Minutes of the Executive Committee, Minute Book, July 10,
47. Minute Book, November 7, 1913, 291.
48. Minute Book, December 12, 1913, 298.
49. Minute Book, March 27, 1914, 332-33.
50. Minute Book, May 7, 1914, 343; Ibid., June 22, 1914, 355B.
51. Fellsmere Farmer, March 6,1913.
52. Minute Book, July 11, 1914, 358-59.
53. P. A. Vans Agnew to Nelson Fell, in Minute Book, December
14, 1914, 383-84.
56. Minute Book, December 14, 1914, 384.
57. Fort Pierce News, May 7, 1915. The charter went into
effect on May 12, 1915. See Fellsmere Tribune,January 27,
58. "Report on Audit Fellsmere Sales Company," June 28, 1915,
1-2, Ashhurn Collection.
59. Ibid, 4.
60. Ibid, 5.
61. Report of Special Subcommittee, Minute Book, August 13,
62. Minutes of Executive Committee, Minute Book, August 17,
63. Nelson Fell to the Executive Committee of the Fellsmere
Company, August 16, 1915, in Minute Book, August 17, 1915,
64. Minutes of Executive Committee, Mintite Book, August 23,
65. Minutes of Executive Committee, Minute Book, September 3,1915,465.
66. Minutes of Executive Committee, Minute Book, September 27, 1915, 467.
67. Fellsmere Tribune, March 18, 1916.
70. Ibid., January 8,1916.
71. Ibid., January 6, 1917.
72. Ibid., February 22, 1919.
73. Ibid., May 6, 1916.