[USA] Martin County is known for its beauty and recreational opportunities as a tropical paradise, but has also claimed through the years, national distinction or recognition for several major industries, including pineapples, fishing, flowers and a shark fishery in Salerno.
There was yet another invaluable, recognized industry in Jensen in the 1940s: an agar production plant, short lived and less known, being top secret for a period of time.
The products produced from the shark fishery, including Vitamin A and those of the agar-agar industry were especially vital to the U.S. during the war when supplies from Japan were terminated.
Vitamin A was eventually synthesized, production of agar would resume in Japan and as a result, both facilities in Martin County closed down by the late 1940s or early 1950s.
Probably few people realize, however, that agar is an important substance with many uses or that the area around Jensen was one of the foremost regions in the country for the particular seaweed from which it could be obtained.
The word ‘agar-agar’ comes from a Malayan name for red algae found in red seaweed. Agar-agar is a jelly or gelatin-like substance having uses in bacteriological laboratories for growing cultures. It is clear and translucent.
Other uses may include diagnosing scarlet fever, typhoid, treating gonorrhea, streptococcus infections and certain illnesses caused by contagious germs. The processed agar-agar was used in the preparation of vaccines for whooping cough, dysentery, cholera and the bubonic plague.
Processed as an ointment it could treat, relieve pain and help heal burns. It was also used to test the purity of drinking water or milk and effective for some people as a laxative, being 80 percent fiber.
Dental impressions were even made using this gelatin substance. Another common application was as a jelly-like coating for canned meats. Companies used it in the manufacturing of fabrics, paper and as a thickener for soups.
It was quite beneficial for the sick or wounded, especially military soldiers on the battlefield. In mid-1941, agar-agar production from Pacific coast seaweed was greatly increased to stockpile the gelatin for fear of the supply being cut off, if war should develop with Japan.
Prior to the war, Japan controlled practically the entire world market with more than 500 factories processing the agar-agar-bearing seaweeds along its coasts; the U.S. imported about 600,000 pounds a year!
When war was declared between the United States and Japan, December 8, 1941, there would be rationing of available agar-agar within America and no synthetic version existed. In early 1942 through 1943, the Institutum Divi Thomae of Palm Beach County, located on Royal Poinciana Way, with the research ship ‘Aquina,’ began looking for areas along the coasts of Florida to find red algae.
Amazingly, there are more than 1,000 different types of seaweeds, but only three could produce the best agar-agar. Even more amazing, it was discovered that some of this finest seaweed of the greatest quality could be located in the Indian River between Jensen and Stuart.
A few other areas with this particular seaweed included Clearwater, Tampa and the Florida Keys.
In 1944, the Institutum Divi Thomae was joined by a subsidiary corporation, Sperti, Inc. of Cincinnati, Ohio, owned by Dr. George Sperti. The exclusive rights to gather seaweed for a 10-year period between the Fort Pierce and St. Lucie Inlets was granted to Sperti, Inc. by the State of Florida.
Sperti’s local attorney, Evans Crary, assisted in convincing the State of Florida that these exclusive rights were needed in order for Sperti to invest in a processing plant. In exchange, $1 would be paid to the State for each dry ton of the seaweed.
Besides benefiting American companies who used agar-agar for medical, commercial and laboratory purposes, the removal of massive accumulations of seaweed in the Indian River, which had always been an offensively odiferous nuisance, could serve a great purpose.
Plans were drawn for a processing plant to be located in Jensen Beach, along the Indian River on Indian River Drive, close to the Martin-St. Lucie County line. Sperti, Inc. officially registered in Florida as a corporation in December 1944.
Construction began in February 1945, with two contractors from West Palm Beach pouring foundations and constructing three buildings. Dr. Maurice B. Cooke of Plainfield, NJ, an engineer and research expert, arrived in Jensen to manage the construction and serve as operations manager. Of the three buildings, one measured 32 by 75 feet and the other two, 26 by 60 each.
The production plant in Jensen was completed April 27, 1945 with a cost in excess of $20,000 for the construction, refrigerating system and complicated machinery for extracting the jelly-like substance from the seaweed and processing it into dried agar.
About 25 to 50 people were employed, which varied depending on seaweed availability. It was hoped Sperti, Inc. could manufacture 500,000 to one million pounds of this dehydrated product a year.
During the war, most of the agar-agar produced in Jensen was used by the U.S. Federal Government, operations being kept a secret from the public, with no admittance allowed. Plant manager, Cooke, stated that by May 2, 1945, 1,000 to 2,000 pounds of seaweed were being processed daily.
That month, Sperti Inc. purchased 215 feet on the Indian River, near the north Martin County line, from Elsie M. Widnall for $4,000 which would provide space for docks and handling of the unprocessed seaweed.
Frank Pelosi was one of the local employees who harvested that seaweed in the shallow, 2-5 feet deep Indian River waters.
Using long handled rakes, it was gathered from the weed beds and loaded onto a flat-bottom barge to be towed to the docks near the agar-agar plant. The arduous and involved processing procedure of the seaweed began by washing it in a machine similar to a concrete mixer with internal paddles, the inside of the drum containing small mesh hardware cloth.
Flowing water in the drum cleared the sand, mud and shell from the seaweed, which was then spread on a wire covered rack, dried, baled and temporarily stored.
The processing would then continue by soaking the seaweed in a chemical bleach which removed its reddish-purplest color prior to cooking, where in vats filled with water and chemicals, the mixture was heated or boiled to yield the agar.
This solution was pumped through several filtering machines, eventually producing a colorless liquid with 1.5 to 2 percent agar-agar, then slowly frozen in cans or trays, requiring about 24 hours. The resulting ice-agar was crushed and thawed in water with bleaching chemicals, the agar-agar rising to the top as a spongy mass to be pumped off into centrifuges for rough drying.
Drying and crushing continued until a fine white powder was ready for packaging, which sold for $13 a pound. Three tons of dried seaweed could produce approximately one ton of processed agar-agar.
When the supply of available seaweed in the river around Jensen started to diminish, it would be necessary to consider other options.
On March 21, 1946, the State granted additional waterways, from St. Augustine around the Keys to the west coast of Florida, for the harvesting of seaweed by Sperti Inc. As per agreement, the company would then pay extra fees for the lease based on production.
Soon after, some of the harvesters would be sent to the Sebastian area, but the collected product was processed in Jensen.
The plant was remodeled and expanded in January 1947 including more machinery necessary for the January to June seaweed season. In peacetime the project and operations were no longer a secret, but the facility was not open to the public, simply identified as “Sperti, Inc.” by a sign in front; the general manager was H. C. Gardner.
With the demand for agar by American manufacturers, the Jensen plant was in full commercial operation, providing employment for many local workers. Another plant for agar-agar production, which included 40 acres and a fleet of barges, operated by Beaufort Chemical, Inc. in Beaufort, NC, was sold to Sperti, Inc. for $300,000 in March 1948.
Sperti. then correlated its production activity in North Carolina with the Jensen Beach facility. Meanwhile, after the war had ended in August, 1945, Japan, occupied and aided by the U.S., was slowly recovering from the devastation, once again producing products for the world market, including agar-agar.
On September 22, 1948, a Category 1 hurricane caused some damage to the Sperti property in Jensen, but a more devastating storm, August 26, 1949, with powerful winds 130 to 160 mph practically destroyed the plant operations with loss of its boats, barge and all the docks.
Considering this loss and Japan’s agar production having resumed, with further competition by Florida Agar & Products Inc. opening in November 1949, which was given the leasing rights to gather seaweed from the Big Bend and panhandle region of Florida, Sperti’s Jensen plant and North Carolina operations would be completely closed down.
Sperti, in business in Ohio since the 1930s, returned to its original manufacturing of sunlamps, ultraviolet bulbs and cosmetics for better health.
By 1950, Sperti had purchased the Faraday and Cooper-Hewitt companies to be Sperti-Faraday, Inc. which was eventually bought in 1991 by KBD as KBD-Sperti, located in Kentucky and still in operation in 2017.
In the years after the Jensen plant closure, other Asian nations such as the Philippines and India became major producers of agar-agar as did Argentina in the mid-1960s, being second only to Japan.
There is still a demand for agar, available on the market in powder and flake form, sold not only in specialty shops, but also in Walmart and on the Internet through Amazon and eBay.
Photo: One of the barges used to gather the seaweed from the Indian River. (Photo: Farming, Ranching and Industry of Martin County Booklet)
View original article at: Turning local seaweed into invaluable agar-agar