All Roads Lead to Florida

Though Florida’s 1920s boom was followed quickly by a bust, it foreshadowed our modern-day growth

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The Sleepy-Eye Lodge in Vero Beach was built by Indian River Farms to accommodate prospective land buyers.
The Sleepy-Eye Lodge in Vero Beach was built by Indian River Farms to accommodate prospective land buyers.

The final, melancholy echoes of the end of World War I soon ignited into the Roaring Twenties, a flamboyant period also called the Jazz Age and reflected in literary works such The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. People were singing “Making Whoopee,” “My Blue Heaven,” “Ain’t Misbehavin,’” and “Swanee,” a song made famous by Al Jolson about the region of the wild, blackwater Suwannee River of northern Florida.

It was a time characterized by golfers in knickered “plus fours” and flappers with bobbed hair. Both women’s suffrage and prohibition had been enacted into federal law a few years earlier, the latter turning Florida’s extensive coastline into a major point of entry for bootlegged liquor. According to legendary Florida columnist Ernest Lyons, Stuart was the rum-running headquarters because of its proximity to the western tip of Grand Bahama Island. 

The Jazz Age introduced another phenomenon: It was also the time of Florida’s boom and bust. The decade opened with the state’s one-party system, dominated by Democrats, as it had been since Reconstruction, while mosquitoes, Mediterranean fruit flies, and ticks dominated the outdoors. 

An increase in railroad construction and railway service, including the 18-passenger trains run by the Florida East Coast Railroad between Jacksonville and Miami, in tandem with the draining of the Everglades by the dredging of canals, a project undertaken after a major push from earlier Governor Napoleon Broward, led to a dramatic increase in Florida real estate and land development. Newly claimed land sold for $15 an acre. 

In 1923, 24 businessmen crossed the Everglades in 10 cars to encourage the state to pave the Tamiami Trail. Photo courtesy [Original Source citation], World Digital Library
In 1923, 24 businessmen crossed the Everglades in 10 cars to encourage the state to pave the Tamiami Trail. Photo courtesy [Original Source citation], World Digital Library

Suddenly, Florida and the quick prosperity it offered was in the nation’s eye. Private business groups promoted the idea that you didn’t have to be rich to own a second home in Florida, and, in case you were, the state legislature amended the state constitution to prohibit income taxes and estate taxes.

What really spurred Florida’s boom was the assembly line production of the automobile and the introduction of installment buying, both of which made the Ford Model T accessible to the middle-class family. Now Florida was only a few days’ drive from the North. 

Left to themselves, Florida’s hammocks are irrepressible. Photo by Kelly Rogers
Left to themselves, Florida’s hammocks are irrepressible. Photo by Kelly Rogers

Inexpensive transportation meant that tourists to Florida were no longer just the wealthy, although highways were a challenge. Most state roads were dirt. Some byways even contained remnants of corrugated logs from the time of the Seminole Wars. Others, particularly in coastal areas, were paved with shells taken from ancient Indian mounds. The Dixie Highway linking the Midwest to the South was not yet completed, and the Atlantic Highway, which originated in 1911 as the Quebec-Miami International Highway, was still a primitive auto trail.

Despite the lack of macadam, thousands of new developments were platted through the state and promoted through the voices of pitchmen. The buying frenzy made it commonplace for a property to change hands two or three times in a day. Entrepreneurs like John Collins turned mangrove swamps into Miami Beach; George Merrick, with the help of William Jennings Bryan, who huckstered lots from a float, turned pine barrens into Coral Gables; architect Addison Mizner stamped the style of Mediterranean Revival onto Palm Beach and Boca Raton; and Florida native H. Carl Dann, the developer of 61 parcels of land, established Orlando. 

The Tatum brothers—Judson, Bethel, Johnson, and Smiley—were prolific entrepreneurs who developed land in the greater Miami area during the boom of the 1920s. Photo courtesy [Original Source citation], World Digital Library
The Tatum brothers—Judson, Bethel, Johnson, and Smiley—were prolific entrepreneurs who developed land in the greater Miami area during the boom of the 1920s. Photo courtesy [Original Source citation], World Digital Library

Vero Beach, a rural municipality surrounded by citrus and cattle, still named “Vero” since its incorporation in 1919 with the slogan “Watch Vero Grow,” was exchanging fields for residential neighborhoods, empty lots for commercial buildings. The city built the first toll bridge to the barrier island in 1920—a wooden structure with sabal palm pilings and a metal swing-span. At the time, the nearest bridges were in Cocoa to the north and Hobe Sound to the south. The year before, Riomar, a subdivision of 52 lots that stretched from the Indian River Lagoon to the ocean, was founded on the barrier island by the East View Development Company. Two years later, both Riomar and Vero made the front page of The New York Times when President-elect Warren G. Harding played a round of golf on Riomar’s greens. 

On the mainland, the Fellsmere Farms Company in the northwest portion of the county was successfully engaged in ongoing development despite dealing with frequent flooding. Farther east, closer to the lagoon, Iowa businessman Herman Zeuch, who invited Midwestern prospective buyers on “sunshine and opportunity excursions,” was assigning the streets of his Indian River Farms Native American tribal names such as Cherokee, Mohawk, and Kickapoo. 

Herman Zeuch hosts prospective Indian River Farms land buyers. He used to say, “You can look without buying, but don’t buy without looking."
Herman Zeuch hosts prospective Indian River Farms land buyers. He used to say, “You can look without buying, but don’t buy without looking.”

In January 1925, the year Indian River County was carved out of St. Lucie County, Vero changed its name to Vero Beach, and Wabasso citrus growers shipped an astonishing 340 railroad cars of fruit, Forbes magazine warned that Florida land prices were not based on real estate value. About the same time, the IRS had begun to scrutinize the Florida land boom as a giant sham operation. Despite the efforts of Governor John W. Martin to reassure Northern editors—meeting, for example, with New York publishers at the Waldorf Astoria—the Northern press continued to blast the speculative excesses of buying and selling Florida real estate.

It might have blown over, as bad press sometimes does, becoming only newsprint fit to wrap fish in, except for a few unrelated incidents that came together like a perfect storm. The first was in October, when the three major railroad companies—the Atlantic Coast Line, Seaboard Air Line, and Florida East Coast—responded to the overwhelming influx of freight by restricting nonessential shipments, which included building materials. In addition, commodity brokers were speculating on goods, ordering a surplus of supplies shipped to general destinations, creating stranded railroad cars, further choking railroad traffic statewide. The Interstate Commerce Commission called for an embargo on shipping so freight houses could be cleared of the backlog. Florida builders were left in the middle of construction with no supplies.

Four gentlemen farmers show off their buckwheat crop at Indian River Farms
Four gentlemen farmers show off their buckwheat crop at Indian River Farms.

To add to this gridlock, in January 1926, the Prinz Valdemar, a 241-foot Danish schooner, sank in the turning basin of Miami Harbor, further blocking access to Florida’s east coast. Things dragged on for months. 

The final blow to Florida’s boom occurred in September 1926 when a Category 4 hurricane came out of nowhere to devastate the Greater Miami area, traverse the peninsula, and cause catastrophic damage to Florida’ gulf coast before emerging into the Gulf of Mexico near Fort Myers. Weather forecasting in those years relied on reports from ships at sea. The scattered positions of vessels meant that it was not until the hurricane was nearly upon the Virgin Islands, less than a few days away, that anyone knew it was coming. With more than 250 deaths statewide, stupefying structural damage that left many thousands homeless, and flooded communities, the 1926 hurricane was considered the country’s greatest natural disaster since the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. 

The transport of building materials into Florida was hampered for six weeks in 1926 . Photo courtesy State Archives of Florida
The transport of building materials into Florida was hampered for six weeks in 1926 . Photo courtesy State Archives of Florida

While devastated communities were still picking up the pieces, land buyers defaulted on their payments. Newcomers began leaving the state, withdrawing their money from local banks. Realtors and developers abandoned their projects, leaving scores of failed developments such as Aladdin City, Fulford-by-the Sea, and Okeelanta. The state chamber of commerce tried to revive Florida’s shattered image with a picture postcard campaign, urging residents to send untarnished views of their communities to friends out of state, but the campaign was fruitless. Finally, in the last months of the year, Florida banks began to fail, putting the state into an economic decline that preceded the Great Depression by three years.

Florida didn’t really take off again until after World War II, although now it seems that Florida’s growth is inevitable and irrepressible, like the hammocks, which, if untended, quickly reclaim themselves, or a croton cutting that will take root almost the minute you stick it into the ground. 

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