The Shakers, a short name taken by the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, trace their beliefs to the early traditions of the church and more particularly to a 17th century group of French Protestants known as Camisards or Prophets. They were driven from France to England and disappeared from view but did pass on their beliefs to a group of Quakers who were attracted by the similar faith.
In 1758, Ann Lee joined the group, sometimes referred to as the Shaking Quakers. After a period of persecution she decided to lead a group to America and develop a proper society. In 1774, she led a group of 8 persons who settled at present day Watervliet, New York. Mother Ann, as she was called, looked about and saw much trouble resulting from greed. The elimination of greed by communal ownership of all property of the group was her first principle. Sex seemed to her to be the mainspring of many evils; her second principle was to sublimate and overcome it by celibacy. The third was humility, the practice of which was to avoid the damaging consequences of personal pride. In spite of persecution, the group grew and in time had seventeen well organized communities in Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, New York, Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky, with eventually two communities being established in the deep South, one in White Oak, Georgia, the other near Ashton, Osceola Co., Florida.
In 1894, a small delegation came from the Watervliet Community and found temporary quarters near Narcoossee. In November of 1896 a tract of land was purchased from the Disston Land Company - 7,046 35/100 acres was bought for $94,500 by Elder Isaac Anstaat.
The property was twelve miles from Kissimmee and included a number of lakes. Two cottages were built, one for men, one for women on the south side of 192 just east of Ashton. Covered with heavy vegetation, extensive clearing was required. With only a small number of persons in the colony, only a small portion of the land was put into cultivation. The colony became known as the Olive Branch Colony and grew to over a dozen, one member being Elizabeth A. Sears.
Honest work was a traditional feature of the Shaker religion; emphasis was placed on fruit culture and some commercial fishing. They later turned to cattle and timber. The Olive Branch Colony was most famous for their pineapples, which were the first principal commercial crop. The pineapples were grown under sheds with slat roofs to cut down on the harsh sun and by 1901 they were sending plants to Cuba. In August 1906, they were selling from 300 – 400 pineapples in Kissimmee each week.
They also began cultivating bananas but a freeze in the winters of 1909/1910 hindered production. Between 1915 and 1924, the bananas had recovered and were spread over twenty acres. Additional crops grown and sold locally were oranges, peaches, watermelons, strawberries, blackberries, mulberries, onions, potatoes, corn and numerous vegetables. The early St. Cloud Tribune newspapers were filled with articles on how to grow many unique fruits, such as cassava and figs along with the many vegetables that could be grown in this climate. They grew sugar cane and produced syrup; they also made butter and cheese and kept bees, producing orange blossom honey.
Sources: “Kissimmee Valley Gazette”, “Florida Historical Quarterly”