Today in Levy Lounty History: The Spanish moss industry in Florida

-A A +A
By Toni C. Collins

Some people do not care for Spanish moss. However, as early as 1773, the value of the plant was recognized as cattle feed and a cheap packing for crates of fruits and vegetables.
The processed product also was well adapted for the purpose of stuffing mattresses, chairs, saddles and collars.
The plant is not a parasite, nor is it a moss. Instead it is a member of the pineapple family and one of the many epiphytes or “air plants” to be found in Florida.
The Indians met by early European explorers used the moss for clothing. White settlers in the same areas learned to use it for braid and cord which could be turned into a number of useful articles such as rope, nets and bridles. In the 1850s a soldier stationed at Tampa described it as very valuable when properly cured, and the curled hair was used to stuff mattresses, sofas and chairs.
Mattresses made with moss had several advantages. They were supposed to be cooler in the summer, they were extremely resilient, and they were unattractive to moths and other insects. Moss was also stuffed into saddles and horse collars and padded the seats of railroad cars.
The method of changing the raw material into a usable product remained the same for two centuries. First, you gathered your moss. It could be obtained from the ground, especially after storms, or from the trees. The tools used to pull the moss from trees were described as long poles with hooks and, later, as wire-tipped bamboo poles. The proper technique required was to insert the pole into a dangling clump and give it a good twist.
A single tree may hold several tons of moss and can be harvested in all seasons; however, it was best able to withstand curing when it was collected in late fall and winter after the growing season had ended and the stems had toughened.
The purpose of “curing” was to strip the plants of their grey-green outer covering, or cortex, which holds water, dust, and various animate inhabitants. A cross-section of an individual plant stem reveals a central black core which gives the plant its strength and elasticity.
When the moss was cured and cleaned, the result was a curly black or dark brown fiber. To remove the cortex, the moss was buried in pits or piled on the ground in heaps about five feet high and left to rot. The pitting process took five to twelve weeks and when the fiber’s skin had rotted, the piles were removed from the ground and hung to dry on wires like laundry drying in the sun.
The next step was to comb and clean the material so the end product would contain only the central black fiber. The moss was first passed between two grooved iron rollers to break it. Leaving the rolls, it was caught by two sets of iron teeth or combs which were set in rollers revolving in opposite directions tearing the moss into pieces. Finally it is allowed to fall upon a frame of slats, along which it is raked, and through which all sticks and other trash is removed and falls to the ground. Once cleaned, the moss was sorted into piles by grade and placed into a press which formed it into bales for shipment.
The price paid for the moss depended on how well it had been cured. The gathers received one-half to three cents per pound for two or three hundred pounds of moss. The final product, which was sold in the North after cleaning, ginning, and baling, brought fourteen to seventeen cents per pound.
How many moss factories were there? Again there is a lack of reliable statistics. The Florida state census of 1905 did count manufacturers. By county, the following were reported: Alachua— 4 moss fibre and mattress works; Duval— 2 fiber and mattress works [moss?]; Lake— 1 moss manufacture; Marion— 2 moss factories and 1 moss and cotton mill combined. Hillsborough had one firm engaged in “mattress making,” but it may or may not have used moss. Missing is any mention of a factory in Leon County,
An agriculture survey taken in 1928 listed five moss factories, one each in Duval, Gulf, and Putnam counties and two in Alachua County. In 1937 there were an estimated seventy factories in four states (Louisiana, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina) with approximately a dozen of those located in Florida.
By 1957 this number had dwindled to two, the Vego Hair Company in Gainesville and the Florida Moss Company in Ocala. Several years later, a long-lived natural resource Florida industry succumbed to the competition offered by foam rubber and plastics when these two businesses closed.