of Southern Florida
Glen Simmons - Glade Skiffs
Glen Simmons builds glade skiffs, the traditional flat-bottomed boats once used to negotiate the shallow waters of the Everglades’ sawgrass marshes and mangrove swamps. Before motor-driven air boats became popular (and prior to the establishment of Everglades National Park in 1947), locals used these skiffs to reach the fishing and hunting camps that were scattered throughout the region. Born in 1916, Simmons has spent much of his life in the glades, alone or with other gladesmen, hunting alligators, deer and turtles, as well as fishing. His family, like most poor farmers and settlers in the region, lived from hand to mouth during the depression years that followed South Florida’s land boom collapse in 1926. For these people, survival often depended on what could be reaped from the rich bounty of the Everglades?for the glades provided meat and fish, as well as pelts and hides that could be sold or traded. And the glade skiff represented a crucial component of this lifestyle.
Simmons’s glade skiff is designed to measure 16 to 18 feet long and just over 2 feet wide, with a flat bottom that enables it to be poled through very shallow water. The bow is pointed, allowing the skilled poler to ease the boat through dense sawgrass thickets with relatively little effort. The stern is square and affects a slight uplift, which allows it to be pushed backward when the poler finds himself mired in a tight spot. The poler usually stands toward the middle of the boat, or on a poling platform, and slowly pushes the boat through the glades, while scanning the horizon for game and alligator holes.
Early skiffs, made with cypress planks and sixpenny nails, were stiffer and heavier than the ones Simmons currently builds out of marine plywood. Using a single piece of plywood for the bow and bottom, he painstakingly manipulates the wood by splitting it and soaking it in water. He then uses clamps to bend the wood until it buckles up and meets, thereby forming the skiff’s unique pointed bow. The bow is held together with pieces of copper wire. Simmons fashions the boat’s gunwales and transom out of cypress or redwood planks. Finally, he finishes the boat with a fiberglass resin.
Since the age of 12, Simmons has built these wooden boats to hunt and fish in the Everglades. He explains how he began constructing the boats: When you’re growing up in a country and see all the men with glade skiffs, you knew you wanted to build one. They were a simple boat, just wedge shaped. But you took pride in the way they looked. Simmons has been recognized by the Florida Department of State’s Folklife Program as one of the last glade skiff builders in the region.
- Laura Ogden
Photo by Glenn Simmons