Chronicling Florida’s First Booms and Busts
There is no shortage of good books about what makes the Sunshine State so great. Hell, the SunPost’s very own Seth Bramson has himself written a small library full of them. There’s also a large barrage dedicated to what makes our state not-so-great, from the flimflam artists that first staked claim to this tropical paradise, to the politicos that have made their careers out of fleecing the very people who voted ‘em into office.
Paradise for Sale: Florida’s Booms and Busts (The History Press $21.99) is a bit of both. On the one hand, authors Nick Wynne and Richard Moorhead cite the more benevolent barons of our collective past, the Flaglers and Deerings and Merricks and Mizners. On the other, the two go to some length to get with the shadier elements that helped propel us into the current cauldron, the con artists and the hucksters and the carpetbagging fly-by-nights.
It’s a colorful story, all right, and no less so in the retelling. Then again, you knew that already. You live here. And you see firsthand what all the hot fuss has made of us.
The authors’ focus is on the boom years of 1925 and ‘26, “when millions of dollars were tossed around like so much confetti”; the two years it took the boom “to get started” (‘21-‘23) and the two that it took for it “to die” (‘27-‘28). To them no book besides David Nolan’s 1984 Fifty Feet in Paradise has told the whole story, and backed by some recent archival unearthings and a keen sense of the time, they’ve vowed to do just that.
And they succeed. The twin pillars of Florida’s robust boom were — and remain — myth and industry. Ponce de Leon got the mythic started with his so-called “Fountain of Youth,” and four centuries later dime-a-dozen hucksters duly followed suit. Then there was the industry of Flagler and Plant, who had to find a way to unload the large tracts of land they were awarded by the state for every mile their railroads laid waste.
Piggybacking on the legitimate — albeit cutthroat — efforts of Flagler and Plant was a more immoral band of “adventuresome rogues and visionaries” who “came with schemes” that would eventually make the notion of “buying Florida land” about as viable as “buying the Brooklyn Bridge.”
But not before the boom would blow up the entire Sunshine State. From Chicago widower Bertha Palmer’s buying up of Sarasota (at her death she held some 160,000 acres) to Indiana-born Carl Fisher’s dredging up of bay bottom to make Miami Beach, the ‘20s roared in Florida as much if not more than anywhere else in the country.
Like I — and the authors — have said: Much of the story has been told, but mostly in bits and pieces. For anyone with any interest in how we got here, however, this retelling is an eye-opening delight. What makes it even more delightful are the many period photographs, be they depicting bathing beauties on some dubious land-sale circular, or the shot of perpetual presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan hawking parcels of Coral Gables from the front of a streetcar. There’s Babe Ruth teeing off, the Venetian Causeway just rebuilt, Addison Mizner’s Boca Club in all its opulence, and a Mrs. A.O. Weeks of Dania sitting in the bathtub of the home the hurricane of ’26 robbed of its walls.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about Paradise for Sale, though, isn’t that the story has been told and retold, but that we continue to live it, boom to bust and boom again. And oh, how we live it well.