The word legend is overused. But it truly fits some people, such as Ruth Springer Wedgworth.
Mrs. Wedgworth was a leader in the Glades for 65 years. She built an agricultural empire in a time when women were expected to only cook the food. She established a day-care center for the children of migrant workers when many whites thought this was no concern of theirs. Until a year before she died, she still went to the family office every day, even though she had officially retired in 1986.
The Glades was still reeling from the hurricane of 1928 when Herman and Ruth Wedgworth arrived in Belle Glade in 1930. Eight years later, they had a 320-acre vegetable farm, a packing plant and a fertilizer plant. They were building an ice plant when Herman was crushed under an ice machine in 1938.
Under Ruth’s leadership, Wedgworth Farms grew into 7,300 acres of sugar cane and 10,500 acres of pasture.
“I decided to carry on,” she once said of her resolve when left a widow with three children. “I had a family to raise. There was nothing to do but go ahead.”
A half-century ago, when Jim Crow still was the law, Mrs. Wedgworth led efforts to set up a 24-hour day-care for children of migrant workers. She served on the city’s first biracial committee. And as a Palm Beach County school board member (1947-52), she pushed for migrant education.
“We stopped the labor buses and took the children off so they could go to school,” she said.
She was well into her 80s before her son George could convince her to stop driving to West Palm Beach on the then two-lane State Road 80. “I’ve seen people rust out,” she said in 1987, “I want to wear out.”
In 1975, she was the first woman to be the Belle Glade Chamber of Commerce’s “man of the year.” In 1987, the Florida Department of Agriculture designated her as Woman of the Year in Agriculture. She was the first woman elected president of the Florida Horticultural Society, and she was inducted into the Florida Ag Hall of Fame in 1988.
Her greatest legacy, however, is a Belle Glade that is a better place for her efforts.
- BILL McGOUN