The Total
Glades Experience

The Museum of the Glades explores and inteprets the “total Glades experience.” The Glades centers around the southern rim of Lake Okeechobee.


The Total Glades Experience includes the history and cultural heritage of the people who have lived here from 5,000 years ago to the present. It also includes the unique watershed, its plants, mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, and insects.

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On Exhibition

The Way of Life of the First Glades Residents

(pictured and explained)
During 5,000 years they mastered living here both by adapting to the place and also by changing it to suit them.
See some of their tools, ornaments, and pots.

About the Museum

The Glades

The vast wetlands watershed of the Kissimmee River-Lake Okeechobee-Everglades Basin—some 10,000 square miles—was America’s last frontier. The area south of the lake was still a largely unmapped, uninhabited, unfarmable, impenetrable marshy wilderness as late as the 1880s—a decade after railroads joined together the East and West Coasts of the American continent.

The Glades is the storied portion of the watershed along the southern rim of Lake Okeechobee. It was once home to a prehistoric culture—now named by scholars “the Belle Glade Culture”, and called “The People of the Water” by the museum—who mastered wetlands living and engineering over thousands of years. The museum is generating new investigations of these little-known people. Located in the only place in America where subtropic and temperate zones meet, it is home to an astonishing variety of plants, mammals, fish, reptiles, insects, and birds.

Arena of the greatest drainage and water management saga in American history, the Glades is now one of nation’s most productive agricultural regions. It leads the nation in sugar cane and sweet corn production. Over a century of drainage and water control actions resulted in intended and unintended results. Resolving the most undesirable of the unintended results has now become the most expensive public works project in history. It impacts directly on the well-being of 8 million people, as well as the survival of the Everglades, the only threatened World Heritage Site in the United States. The museum explains for the general public the issues and progress of this largely unknown, but most important issue.

The museum explores and interprets all aspects of this complex region:
  • its unique geology and hydrology;
  • its prehistoric past;
  • the daunting challenges faced by pioneers only a century ago;
  • the success of drainage and its unintended consequences;
  • the devastating hurricane of 1928 and the resulting monumental dike now being strengthened against possible failure;
  • what it takes to farm in 9 feet of muck;
  • labor triumphs and strife;
  • Zora in the Glades (Zora Neale Hurston, anthropologist and author, had impact in the Glades during a four-decade-long period);
  • flora and fauna aplenty and some not known elsewhere;
  • unexpected wellspring of NFL greatness; and
  • merging with South Florida’s megalopolis.

The Museum and The Total Glades Experience

The museum explores and interprets all aspects of this complex region, and deems its role and collector-exhibitor-educator-interpreter of this remarkable place to be of great value to those who will come to the Glades to work and live in the decades ahead.

Our Strategies

  • The museum brings exhibitions and educational programs to local children and adults.
  • It welcomes archaeological, agricultural, sports, and ecology tourists to follow the Glades version of their bliss.
  • It aims to facilitate access to collection resources and service to researchers.

Our Vision

The museum can help a 10-year-old imagine what it was like to be a Glades child in 928 or 1928. It can help a teen-ager wonder what it was like for her great-grand-mother to be in the first class of the new two-room Rosenwald schoolhouse built in 1929 after the hurricane had destroyed all Glades schools.

It can help a Bahamian-American appreciate that thousands of Bahamian laborers worked in Glades fields and packing houses to feed the nation and its armies during World War II. It can help keep alive the music and atmosphere of juke joints that sustained the life and spirit of a generation of migrant workers.

A museum chooses its niche, whether history, art, or highly specialized activity or group. The Lawrence E. Will Museum: A Museum of the Glades has chosen the “total Glades experience.” It did so because the Glades is a unique place. It is formed by water over millennia, wrenched from water in a century, threatened by water daily, lives because of water, and has its water contested by conflicting claimants continually.

The Glades must always deal with the reality that far more rain falls annually on the watershed than can be now naturally drain away. If the first people are justly called “the People of the Water,” people who adapted to the natural sheetflow patterns from the lake that fashioned 50,000 square miles of Everglades, the people who turned that swamp into an agribusiness empire and who now refashion its relentless hydrology can be justly called “the People of the Water II.”

The museum will record history-in-the-making. This land is also unique. The water and sedges created feet of rich muck, which when eventually drained, turned into an agricultural wonder. Now some of that land close to the lake is beginning to be used for manufacturing in South Florida’s industrial expansion. This is sure to bring cultural and economic change in the next decade to the Glades.

The museum is a research center. It has a large collection of artifacts from the “type” mound of the prehistoric people of the Belle Glade Culture, It houses photographs and documents from the century of drainage and agriculture. It has ready access to collections of the regional wetlands soils, flora, and fauna.

It serves as the initial processing lab for prehistoric artifacts collected during the Glades Archaeological Field School investigations. The field school is a collaborative enterprise of Florida Gulf Coast University, Palm Beach State College, and the museum.

Our Exhibits

Lawrence E. Will collected stories about life in the Glades from the 1890s to the 1930s. These he integrated into his books, along with his personal experiences around Lake Okeechobee and the upper Everglades. His notes, writings, records, maps and charts, along with much of his formidable collection of early documents, photographs, and artifacts have been incorporated into the Lawrence E. Will Collection.

Early Experiences. The son of a pioneer settler and developer of the region, Mr. Will was one of five brave souls who started the first Glades settlement of Okeelanta in 1913. Among his many pursuits were farming, working on a dredgeboat, and operating freight and passenger boats on the lake and to the coasts in a time before any roads had been built in the Glades.

Okeechobee Hurricane. Lawrence E. Will lived and worked in the Glades during the 1928 hurricane and lived to tell the world about it. To some he is remembered as the Cracker Historian of the Glades. Okeechobee Hurricane, one of his six books about the area in the early 1900s, is an often-cited, first-hand account of the catastrophic damage and loss of more than 3,000 lives.

Belle Glade Culture Exhibits

The people of the Belle Glade Culture were masters of the watery world of the Greater Kissimmee River/Lake Okeechobee/Everglades watershed. Recent investigations under museum auspices indicate they were present at the time the Everglades themselves were coming into being 5,000 years ago. By the time the Spanish departed the peninsula in 1763, a mere 250 years after their arrival, these people were no more. The museum mounted the first-ever comprehensive exhibition on the people of the Belle Glade Culture through a Florida Bureau of Historic Preservation Florida Viva 500 grant.

Entitled We Were Here, the exhibition, created by Dr. Robert Carr and the staff at the Archeological and Historical Conservancy, traveled throughout the state during 2013 and early 2014 bringing the story of these little known people to communities where these people once thrived.

Lawrence E. Will, a pioneer whose father founded the Glades’ first planned city and our namesake, told the story of the early times. His museum-held manuscripts are mined by today’s writers about the Glades. These days the museum expands the story to embrace “all things Glades”—awesome beauty, neverending water, extraordinary human resourcefulness.

Upcoming Events & Exhibits

Thursday, January 28th 6:30 – 9:00 pm
Opening Reception: ARTCALUSA Reflections on Representation

Calusa Medallion, by Charles Dauray, 2013, Acrylic, rosary pea on canvase, 40 x 30 inches. Photo: Ilene Safron

This exhibition features nine artists whose painting, works on paper and etched glass visually interpret the life and experiences of Florida’s indigenous peoples, particularly the Calusa Indians, through the period of contact with early European explorers. ArtCalusa will be at the Lawrence E. Will Museum January 28, 2016 – May 22, 2016

The Opening Reception is sponsored by the Lee Trust for Historic Preservation In cooperation with the Glades Historical Society and the Lawrence E. Will Museum of the Glades. Artists Ted Morris and David Meo will be in attendance along with exhibit curator Theresa Schober. Light Refreshments will be served.

This Exhibit is generously sponsored by:
Lawrence E. Will Museum of the Glades
Florida House on Capital Hill
College of Life Foundation
Florida Anthropological Society
Florida Humanities Council
TrueTours Historical Walking Tours
Southwest Florida Community Foundation
The beaches of Fort Myers and Sanibel Tourist Development Council

Wednesday, January 27
Rains Dampen Scheduled Opening in Belle Glade;
The Sun will Shine on ArtCalusa Soon Nearby

Often dry January introduces the wildfire season to the Everglades. This year January yielded an unprecedented 12 inches of soggy, continuous rain day after day. A leak developed in the museum’s roof. Roofers worked over the weekend before ArtCalusa was scheduled to arrive. Satisfied it was patched, museum staff welcomed ArtCalusa and began to unpack and mount the 28 pieces of art.

As the day wore on and rains came again, the water found new ways of access. Museum and ArtCalusa staff made the prudent decision to repack the collection, to protect it in a dry zone, and to cancel the next day’s scheduled opening. After determining that it might take several days to pinpoint the exact location of these new leaks and repair the roof there, the question was, "is this the inglorious end of ArtCalusa’s life?"

The exhibition had been slated to be disassembled at the conclusion of this showing, after touring Florida since 2013 and being seen by over 12,000 visitors. Museum staff were proud of their plans to bring the exhibition to Palm Beach County for its final showing and were reluctant to be defeated by a “mere monsoon.”

  Once it was clear that the Lawrence E. Will Museum of the Glades in Belle Glade could not mount ArtCalusa in the immediate future, museum staff there quickly liaised with museum partners elsewhere in Palm Beach county.

The museum community responded with its historic concern and speed. For the next couple of days, many devoted themselves full time to make the best of these unanticipated circumstances.

And an excellent solution appears to have been fashioned. As soon as needed exhibition transfer documents are completed and insurance coverage transferred, we will announce where, with every present hope, where you might see the ArtCalusa story soon.

No matter where it is housed, ArtCalusa will increase appreciation for the variety and sophistication of people who, long before, lived full lives on this peninsula we call home. (Note: it is also an appropriate occasion to help the Lawrence E. Will Museum of the Glades get its roofing repairs paid for and exhibition spaces upgraded.)

Why ArtCalusa in Belle Glade?

ARTCALUSA is a group exhibition featuring Florida's leading historical artists, each of whom produces works of art based on scholarly research findings and experimental approaches in archaeology and history. The exhibit has traveled to Florida’s communities since late 2013.

ArtCalusa’s final showing was planned for the heart of the Belle Glade people’s region to introduce the present people of the Glades to their prehistoric neighbors. The depictions of the Calusa people in ArtCalusa are similar to what would be seen in a possible ArtBelleGlade exhibition in body form, clothing, shaman and cacique accoutrements, and lifestyles.

Although the two people's human activities and appearance would be similar, the Calusa's estuary settlements were unique to that geography. The Belle Glade settlements would be along inland rivers (Fort Centers at Fisheating Creek), Lake Okeechobee (Belle Glade mound at Democrat River near the lake), or waterways (Wedgworth tree island in Palm Beach County or Blueberry site in Highlands County).

The Belle Glade people were an integral part of the prehistoric Florida landscape. Over the centuries, they occupied the interior of the southern two-thirds of the peninsula, fortunate in that their food supply was plentiful and dependable.

They achieved a level of organization that produced a skilled labor force to build and maintain large earthwork complexes for their communities. These complexes included structures for residential, infrastructure, ceremonial, and burial use.

Their canals and engineered waterways criss-crossed the 10,000-square-mile watershed, controlling the vital checkpoints. The Belle Glade people served as middlemen between the east and west coastal people, intermarrying to create political and social alliances. They managed extensive cross-peninsular trade and controlled the trade of prized bird feathers from the Everglades to the peoples of the north and midwest.

To the west, their neighbors, the Calusa, lived along the Gulf Coast and its rivers, estuaries, and islands. Since there was no natural waterflow from Lake Okeechobee to the Gulf Coast, the Belle Glade people engineered the Ortona Canal to foster commerce. The Ortona Canal, longest prehistoric canal in what is now the United States, connected the southwest corner of the lake at Ortona with the upper reaches of the Calusahatchee River.

The precise power relations between the Calusa and the Belle Glade people is a matter of scholarly debate and undoubtedly often changed over centuries. We do know that they dealt with each other in a variety of ways.

Calusa and Belle Glade families intermarried; Calusa and Belle Glade shamans practiced similar ceremonies and exercised similar powers. Each people may have hunted the same mammoth herds. They partnered in trading networks that reached as far as Canada and the Great Plains, providing desirable sharks-teeth (for saws) and feathers (for status ornamentation) and receiving flint and suitable wood not found in Florida (for tools) in return.

After Calusa contact with Europeans, European goods (and diseases!) found their way quickly to the Belle Glade people through these established trade networks. Majolica pots and Spanish olive oil jars were found in the Belle Glade mound, even though the Spanish did not occupy the interior.

The depictions of the Calusa people in ArtCalusa are similar to what would be seen in a possible ArtBelleGlade exhibition in body form, clothing, shaman and cacique accoutrements, and lifestyles.