In the 1730’s, a young farmer named Thomas Wedgeworth emigrated from Ireland to the New World British colony of Maryland. Two hundred years later, and six generations removed, a descendant of Thomas would move to Belle Glade and begin to change the face of farming in the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA).
It was in the spring of 1930 when 29-year-old Herman H. Wedgworth, (the spelling of the surname changed at some point during the previous two hundred years), a plant pathologist and college professor, moved to Belle Glade with his wife, Ruth, to begin his new job at the University of Florida’s Everglades Experiment Station. At that time, much of the Glades area was still covered with sawgrass, willows, and custard apple trees. Those areas that had been drained and turned into farm land were still handicapped by mineral deficiencies which prevented farmers from taking full advantage of the fertile black muck soil.
Working in conjunction with Dr. Robert Allison, Wedgworth determined that minor elements such as copper and manganese were missing in the soil profile. By adding these elements, commercial farming could prosper. After two years of research, Herman resigned his position at the Experiment Station and set out to farm for himself. With the backing of some local investors, Wedgworth was able to acquire a half section of raw land at the south end of present-day Wedgworth Road, which he cleared, ditched, diked, and developed, and built a pumping station that was the first of its kind. His first crop was celery. All was going well until a massive rain event overloaded the drainage district and the entire crop was lost. An ominous start, one might think. But, not for this determined entrepreneur!
Herman started again. Investors were understanding. The crop was diversified by growing both potatoes and celery. Because there was not a fertilizer mixing plant in the Glades, he began custom mixing fertilizer with minor elements in a wheelbarrow in his backyard for his use and for other farmers. This time, both the weather and markets cooperated, and the crops were harvested. Investors made a respectable profit. Herman Wedgworth was on his way. Wedgworth Farms was now successful.
In the early 1930’s, Herman saw the need for fertilizer blending plant to supply the growing number of farmers who were migrating to the Everglades Agricultural Area, so he designed and built the first fertilizer plant in the Glades. He also saw the need for a store to supply the needs of the farmers, and the Wedgworth Supply House was opened, providing everything from seed to equipment for local growers. And, shortly after those two businesses, a vegetable packing house was constructed to pack and ship the winter vegetables to cities in the north.
By 1938, Wedgworth Farms, Inc., Wedgworth Produce, Inc., and Wedgworth’s, Inc., the fertilizer company, were continuing to prosper and expand. The farm was growing a wide variety of winter vegetables on almost 2,000 acres and shipping nearly a half million packages to market each year.
Additionally, Herman was involved in his community. He was Chairman of the “Market Committee” of the Belle Glade Chamber of Commerce, a member of the Belle Glade Rotary Club, and Chairman of the Trustees of the Community United Methodist Church. And, he was now the proud father of three children.
In 1938, Herman decided to modernize the packing house with a state-of-the-art ice making and storage addition. On October 12, while supervising the installation of a 10-ton ice machine on top of the new ice storage building, Herman H. Wedgworth was fatally injured when a hoist collapsed and the ice machine pinned him to the packing house floor. His injuries were primarily a result of his saving another man’s life by rushing in to push him out of the way of the falling beams instead of seeking safety for himself first. For the over three hours before he expired, Herman remain lucid and alert, and discussed with his wife Ruth as to how she should proceed without him. Herman was only 37 years old when he died. Ruth was left with the businesses to operate, most heavily mortgaged, . . . and Helen, 14, George, 9, and Barbara, 4.
Over the years, Ruth Springer Wedgworth proved herself very capable of such responsibilities. She managed the farm and all its operations very effectively and eventually became one of Florida’s most successful women in business. Under her management, the farm expanded to 4,500 acres. During WWII, Wedgworth Farms received many awards from the U. S. government for providing food for the nation. In 1942, a large commercial cattle operation was started . . . as an offshoot from George’s high school 4-H project! Ruth was President of all three businesses through the 1940s, 50s, and 60s: Wedgworth Produce, Inc., Wedgworth Farms, Inc., and Wedgworth’s, Inc.
During the 1960’s and 1970’s, Mrs. Wedgworth oversaw the transition in the family’s farming operation from primarily vegetable farming to sugarcane. During her many years in the farming industry, Ruth S. Wedgworth was recognized for her ability and considerable contributions to agribusiness. In 1988 she was inducted into the Florida Agriculture Hall of Fame, only the second woman to be so honored. Ruth was awarded honorary doctorate degrees from the University of Florida and Florida Southern College. She was the recipient of the Distinguished Service Award from the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association in 1958 and from the Florida Farm Bureau in 1980. In her “spare” time, Ruth Wedgworth was a director of Florida National Bank of Belle Glade, Chairwoman of the Highland Glades Drainage District, the Governor’s Committee on Migrant Workers, on the boards of the Palm Beach County Hospital District and the Palm Beach County School Board, the first president of Belle Glade’s Business and Professional Women’s Club . . . and a Sunday School teacher at Community United Methodist Church. But, Ruth would tell her friends that her most important job was raising Helen, George, and Barbara. Ruth Springer Wedgworth passed away in December of 1995 at the age of 92.
Ruth’s oldest daughter, Helen Jean, graduated from Pahokee High School in 1941 (Belle Glade High School had not been created yet) and in 1943 married Joe Tom Boynton of Pahokee. Together, they formed Boynton Farms, Inc., which would later become one of the founding members of the Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative of Florida. Helen also was one of the primary founders of Glades Day School and she was a lifelong patron of the arts, in particular the renowned artist Graham Ingels. Helen Wedgworth Boynton passed away in May of 2007 at the age of 83.
In 1991, Helen and her sister, Barbara, spearheaded the Wedgworth family’s gift of $1 million to the University of Florida IFAS Everglades Research and Education Center in Belle Glade. This gift, and a matching grant from the State, resulted in a new 21,000 square foot laboratory, with research facilities and offices for 75 faculty and staff members. The University named the facility the “Herman H. and Ruth S. Wedgworth Laboratory.”
Barbara Ann Wedgworth graduated from Belle Glade High School in 1953 and later Florida Southern College, and began her career in education. In 1963, she married engineer John P. Oetzman. She now lives in Singer Island, Florida. Barbara is currently an officer and member of the board of directors of both Wedgworth Farms, Inc., and Wedgworth’s, Inc.
The only son of Herman and Ruth Wedgworth, George Herman Wedgworth, was born in Starkville, Mississippi, in 1928 and arrived in Belle Glade with his parents when he was just 18 months old. He would live in Belle Glade the remaining 86 years of his life.
After graduating from Belle Glade High School in 1946, George followed his high school sweetheart and future wife, Peggy Rawls, to Michigan State University where he earned a degree in Agricultural Engineering. After college graduation in 1950, George returned home to Belle Glade to help his mother run the family businesses.
At the age of 32, George organized a group of 52 independent farmers in 1960 to form the Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative of Florida. He would serve as President and Chairman of the Board of the Co-op for the next 53 years, until his retirement at age 85 in 2013. During his tenure, the Co-op grew to where today it produces a half million tons of raw sugar and 25 million gallons of molasses annually. Also, the Co-op has partnered with the Florida Crystals Corporation to form the ASR Group International, the world’s largest sugar refining company.
In 1963, George used his organizing skills to put together a group of local business people to form a “home town” bank and in November of 1963 the Bank of Belle Glade opened its doors. Today, the Bank of Belle Glade is one of the highest rated banks for financial strength in the entire state of Florida.
George was instrumental in the formation of a leadership training program at the University of Florida that was named in his honor. The Wedgworth Leadership Institute impacts dozens of the state’s foremost leaders with intensive training and education in a wide range of topics.
In 1994, George Wedgworth joined his mother in the Florida Agriculture Hall of Fame. In 2005 he was named “Sugar Man of the Year” as the recipient of the Dyer Memorial Award in New York City and in 2011 he was honored as Palm Beach County Business Leader of the Year by the Chamber of Commerce of the Palm Beaches.
By the time George Wedgworth passed away in November 2016, he had seen the family businesses grow dramatically over his lifetime. Wedgworth Farms, which his father and mother began with 320 undeveloped acres, now consisted of 10,000 acres of prime muck land and 10,000 acres of beautiful “old Florida” ranch land near Yee Haw Junction. Wedgworth’s, Inc., the fertilizer mixing operation that George’s father started in a wheelbarrow was now the largest fertilizer company in Florida with annual sales of over $100 million.
Many years ago, George entrusted the reins of the Wedgworth family businesses . . . and their future . . . to his son, Dennis. Dennis was born and raised in Belle Glade, earned an engineering degree from Duke University and an MBA from the University of Florida. He continues to serve as President and Board Chairman of both Wedgworth Farms, Inc., and Wedgworth’s, Inc. Dennis is a member of the Board of Directors of Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative, and sits on its Executive Committee. He is also on the boards of the Bank of Belle Glade and the Florida Fertilizer and Agrichemical Association. Dennis Wedgworth has brought the highest standards of science and technology to both Wedgworth Farms, Inc., and Wedgworth’s, Inc., making both companies the leader in their respective industries.
In addition to Dennis, two great-grandchildren are working in the family business. Katie Wedgworth Bryson and Keith Wedgworth, a daughter and a nephew of Dennis, are both important parts of the fertilizer operation at Wedgworth’s, Inc.
Eighty-seven years after Herman and Ruth Wedgworth first arrived in Belle Glade, their legacy lives and continues to grow. Herman’s and Ruth’s foresight, work ethic, intellect, and willingness to take risks—characteristics which they taught and passed on to their progeny—continue to impact the Glades today through Wedgworth Farms, Wedgworth’s, Inc., Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative of Florida, ASR Refineries, Bank of Belle Glade, Glades Day School, IFAS Research Center, and the Wedgworth Leadership Institute. Their heritage continues.(Written by Thomas Altman, Wayne Boynton, and Lynn Oetzman Dixon)