In the 1920's Florida was the focus of one of the greatest economic and social phenomenon in American history as hundreds of thousands of Americans of all types of financial strata poured into the Sunshine State and forever changed the global image of Florida. There were similar movements in the south of France during the 1920's, but the Florida story was so vast and complete in changed the entire scope of the state.

Two important elements played roles in the Florida Land Boom. For the first time Americans had the time and money to travel to Florida to invest in real estate. For the educated and skilled working American, the 1920's meant paid vacations, pensions, and fringe benefits unheard of during the Victorian Era. The United States also had the automobile: that indispensable family transportation that allowed you to travel to Florida. This "welfare capitalism" of time and money contributed to the arrival in Florida of a new kind of tourist - middle class families.

It was also important that millions of Americans were captured by the materialism and prosperity of the times, which seemed to indicate that anyone could become rich by simply investing in the proper instrument of instant wealth. Florida land appeared to be in 1921 one of those instruments of future success. It didn't matter if you lacked the money, credit was easy to obtain, with economic prosperity and a good job.

These sudden winter migrations of vacationers and speculators had an enormous impact upon every aspect of public investment in Florida. Prior to 1920, the majority of Florida's Northern arrivals were the elderly, the rich, and the ill, not necessarily in that order. The Florida Land Boom brought middle aged, middle class Americans, many with their families. The railroad hotels like the Tampa Bay Hotel, with its triple digit fares, was hardly the ideal vacation sport for this new tourist.


Just as the Republican administration of Warren G. Harding promoted lower taxes and greater business prosperity at the national level, the conservative state governments of Florida in the 1920's acknowledged the need to improve the state's transportation and public services to accommodate this boom of visitors. The State of Florida and many cities borrowed considerable amounts of money at high interest rates to build facilities to attract the expected growth of new residents and tourists.

Northern newsmen glamorized the early Land Boom in Florida with stories how land investors had doubled their profits within months. Real estate firms soon realized that it was more profitable to sell land by auction than to set a listed price. As land prices rose, the desire for profit rose.

While not all land speculating met with success, most investors in the beginning stages of the Florida Land Boom made a profit selling the land to others. An elderly man in Pinellas County was committed to a sanitarium by his sons for spending his life savings of $1,700 on a piece of Pinellas property. When the value of the land reached $300,000 in 1925, the man's lawyer got him released to sue his children. In the 1920's in Florida the difference between genius and idiot was never so narrow.


The need for real estate salespersons was so great at the height of the boom that Florida relaxed its regulation of realtors. It didn't really matter since two-thirds of all Florida real estate was sold by mail to speculators who never visited Florida. Those who came were gripped by the frenzy of land buying. In 1922 the Miami Herald was the heaviest newspaper in the nation due to its massive land advertisement sections.

The strangest element of the Florida real estate industry was the use of binder boys to start land transactions and to relieve realtors of the task of standing around hot, vacant land waiting for investors. Most binder boys were young, ambitious men and women willing to take a binder, or down payment with a thirty day financing period. Many binder boys were college students with tennis or golf skills who demonstrated the desirability of some future real estate development by just playing a game of tennis for the tourists. Often there was little more than a fancy entrance way and a tennis court resting in some isolated field.

Binder boys did not get paid a commission until the binder check cleared the bank, a process than sometimes took several weeks. However, South Florida lived real estate during this time and binders discovered the mere presentation of their binder receipts gave them instant credit in hotels, restaurants, and nightspots. It was exciting being a young person with so much expected money going into your bank account.


Florida voters liked the business prosperity and elected business supporter John Martin, thrice mayor of Jacksonville, to serve as Governor on a platform of expansive construction and development. The Florida Legislature in 1924 passed laws prohibiting state income and inheritance taxes, moves designed to convince wealthy visitors to make Florida their permanent residence. The rural politicians were even willing to concede economic power to big cities like Miami and St. Petersburg to promote tourist development.

The Florida Chamber of Commerce contributed to the Land Boom with favorable newspaper articles of the virtues of Florida land investment. They invited every Governor in the nation to view the state and sixteen Governors came and gasped in amazement as outgoing Governor Cary A. Hardee, a small towner, cut the ribbon opening Gandy Bridge, the longest toll bridge in the world. Later Hardee would be amazed at the plans of developer George Merrick to construct the massive Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables. Things were getting done on a huge scale in Florida.

To placate the needs of investors, the rural, conservative Florida Legislature liberalized rules for the development of horse and dog racing, providing the rural counties get a disapportionate share. That was hardly a concern to booming Miami, whose vices included illegal casinos and drinking parlors.


If the railroad barons dominated the Gilded Era, the great land developers dominated the Florida of the Land Boom. These people didn't just design developments; some created entire cities. These architects and engineers did more than build houses; they created a way of life that became known throughout the world as "the Florida lifestyle."

The architectural style tended to be Mediterranean Revival since Florida was the replacement for Southern California and the European Riviera, but every conceivable variation of design was developed. Designers took advantage of Florida's warm climate and outdoor ways.

Dave Davis, the son of a steamboat captain, dredged two mud islands at the entrance of Tampa's Hillsborough River and developed Davis Islands, a distinctive urban suburb complete with hotels, yacht and tennis clubs, and stores.

Besides Davis, the Tampa Bay area included a diversity of new 1920's developments: Temple Terrace, one of the first golfing vacation communities; Snell Island, St. Petersburg's answer to Davis Islands; and Beach Park, a residential community made possible by good urban commuting.

Further down the Florida West Coast, an railroad union designed one of the first retirement communities in Venice, and Barron Collier started Naples and Marco Island as winter resorts.

The most spectacular developments were in Southeast Florida where Henry Flagler's railroad caused direct access to New York City. Carl Fisher, the man who started the Indianapolis Speedway, teamed with developer John Collins to build a causeway to a mangrove island off Miami. They turned Miami Beach into the world's most famous resort address by 1950. George Merrick, the man who designed the suburb of Coral Gables.

Buying 1,100 acres of citrus, Marrick created an entire working city that typified his vision for Florida. Strict rules limited the architectural design and height of every building. He hide wires beneath of streets.

Lacking a waterfront, Merrick designed Venetian Pool, the largest swimming pool in the nation. He hired William Jennings Bryan to give Biblical lessons to the Midwestern farmers and recruited major sports celebrities to work out in his outdoor facilities. Merrick even started the one thing booming Miami couldn't get from Tallahassee -- a college, when Merrick started the largest private university in the South, the University of Miami.


A Californian named Joseph W. Young selected an ugly ocean flat north of Miami and turned it into wide avenued Hollywood, Florida, larger today than Young's original home town. Less successful but more praised for his activities was architect Addison Mizner. He designed the Boca Raton Hotel (Cloister Hotel) and the town that soon surrounded it.

These were just some of the developers who made the name Florida synonymous with palm trees and beaches, wide avenues and golf courses. Southernmost Florida became surnamed the American Riviera. Writers from around the world made a pilgrimage to this fascinating new Mecca. Florida was a place to vacation, a place to have fun, a place to make money.


There was plenty of evidence that the Florida Land Boom was on swampy ground. Forbes magazine warned that Florida land prices were based solely upon the expectation of finding a customer, not upon any reality of land value. New York bankers, losing money over Florida investment, attacked the entire operation as one great sham. By 1925, there were other signs. Companies were laying off construction and other blue collar workers while the number of realtors and auto mechanics was still increasing.

Jacksonville, the state's main entrance way, outgrew its facilities, but became leery of financing services for people heading further southward. On the surface, the Land Boom seemed on track. In 1924 enough lumber arrived in Florida to encircle the equator with an eight foot boardwalk. But careful city managers were wondering if their town's had overextended their credit to construct roads and sewers for people who would never settle in their towns.


Florida tourist had forever changed, and few groups had a greater influence on this fact than "the tin can tourists." They were tourist who arrived by automobile and truck, loaded with tents and food supplies. Sometimes as many as three families shared an automobile. While they too hoped to buy some Florida real estate, their trip to Florida was a vacation. They could not afford the fancy hotels and restaurants built for the Victorian tourist. They didn't golf and tennis. They wanted to play in the sunshine on the beaches.


As early as 1919 Tampa had a "tin-canners" club, named for the heavy metal cans which these tourists carried for extra gasoline and water. As the automobile grew in popularity, these "T.C.T.s" became more important to local tourist economies. Towns began to build tourist camps with recreational facilities. Owners along the major highways built small cabins for these tourists. Soon, the development of the mobile home industry would replace most of the tents.

The influx of motorized tourism convinced Florida's leaders that new roads were needed. The most amazing highway project was the development of a highway across the once impregnable Everglades. In 1915, realtor Captain J. F. Jaudon gained financing for a Miami to Naples roadway. Surveyors discovered that the "River of Grass" was no deeper than six feet, but the project, known as the Tamiami Trail for the two major cities the project would connect.

Construction crews began to erect gangways of cypress logs to roll the heavy dredges over the swamps. Engineers waded through alligator infested waters to locate the best roadbed. Sleeping in elevated cabins kept out the snakes and gators, but did not protect the workers from the terrible heat and bugs. The Seminoles were both amused and angered by this intrusion into their home despite promises that canoe trails would be bridged.


In 1923 the project was delayed due to lack of funding and Fort Myers crusader Ora E. Chapin led a caravan of Model-T Fords, tractors, and wagons across the incomplete roadway. It took ten, laborious days, but these "Tamiami Trail Blazers" convinced the public that the project was both feasible and desirable. In April of 1928, thirteen years after its inception, the 283 mile road was completed. It cost seven million dollars, a meager sum by today's costs. It meant that South Florida's two tropical coasts were connected.


While rural Floridians accepted the outlawing of alcoholic beverages, urban Floridians actively disliked Prohibition. Unlike other Southern states, Florida had serious Prohibition problems due to both its close proximity to the Bahamas and Cuba, and its general environment as a vacation group for Northerners and foreigners.

Nassau and Grand Bahama flourished as rum smuggling centers and Florida's one thousand mile coastline was hardly conducive to stop the smuggling of hootch. Despite the fact that locals were just a boat trip away from a wet vacation, Florida's tourist industry didn't want tourists taking their money to another country. In 1921, there were nine enormous liquor warehouses on Grand Bahama Island, just sixty miles from Palm Beach. This was the start of Rum Run to Florida.


There were more registered crop dusters and more new airplane runways in Florida in the 1920's than any other Southern state. Indignant Florida leaders assailed the laxity of controls in the Bahamas, but the only concession England made was to allow the United States to search British vessels in Florida waters.

The smugglers developed"Bimini boats", large cargo speedboats with equipment designed to detect Coast Guard vessels. Besides their speed and shallow draft many of these boats contained devices to ditch a cargo into the Florida Strait. In 1927, the Coast Guard introduced a thirteen million armada of new, faster ships, and much of the smuggling was curtailed.

Still, some areas of Florida were havens for violations. Tampa, with its large Latin population, Miami, and Palm Beach were filled with speakeasies and gambling. It did not help Florida's image that Al Capone, the kingpin of organized crime, selected Miami as his winter home. Al decided Miami would be an "open crime city" so he wasn't blamed for every criminal offense in Dade County.


The influx of people promoted an increase in farming, particularly of large scale agriculture along Lake Okeechobee, often called "the Muck Bowl" for its marshy terrain. In the 1920's canals and dikes were built across the region, diverting much needed water from the Everglades. This development did not benefit Florida's Panhandle farmers, suffering from rising inflation and low farm prices. Most of these new farms grew winter fruits and vegetables and utilized a large migratory population.

Despite the general prosperity of the 1920's for middle class Americans, the rapid social and economic changes of the decade helped foster rising racism and nativism. The anti-immigration movement and fear of the loss of earlier institutions were factors in the rise of the Klu Klux Klan in Florida in the 1920's. Individual racial incidents led to serious acts of violence in Perry (1922), Rosewood (1923) and Oconee (Florida), when white mobs attacked African-Americans and burnt residences.

The Florida migrant included workers from both the Deep South and Caribbean. Working for nine to fifteen dollars per week in the tropical sun, they lived in crude company towns, often just miles from the glamour of the coastal resorts.

Many migrant areas lacked schools and health facilities. They usually did not lack a "jook joint." Jooks were usually the only recreational recluse for the migrant worker: a small tavern and frontier dance hall, where music poured out of a coin-operated magazine phonograph. It was ironic to drive through the silent blackness of South Florida to discover a noisy, neon snack, blaring away music that at least temporarily lessened the agony of daily life.

The small farmers of Florida did not benefit from the Florida Land Boom. Neither did most towns in North Florida unless they were on a major highway. The departure of many young Floridians into the urban work force also crippled Florida's small towns. The life style and diet of rural Florida in 1928 was not greatly changed from 1898.


In 1925, the inevitable began to occur in the real estate industry. Land prices had reached such a zenith that new customers failed to arrive and old customers began to sell their land. Suddenly, the only market for Florida land was for selling land.

The larger cities of Florida felt the impact first. They had borrowed heavily to finance new road and public service construction and utilized sales taxes and land fees to pay their debts. Now the Yankee dollars were vanishing. St. Petersburg was the most indebted per citizen town in the United States. Key West ranked second.

Caught without customers, many realtors folded up business, sending their binder boys home. One clever Pinellas realtor found a way to send his binders back up North without personal cost. He contracted with a funeral company that by law had to escort the bodies of deceased retirees to Northern cemeteries. Instead of funeral employees, the realtor and funeral director cashed in the two-way tickets for one-way tickets and placed binder boys on the trains as escorts.


The news of the Florida Land Bust crippled the tourist market. Despite the continued boom in the United States Stock Market, people no longer trusted buying Florida land. And yet, the land was merely overpriced.

As if the land collapse was not bad enough, a terrible hurricane hit South Florida in September of 1926 with winds in excess of 125 miles per hour. Traveling parallel to the Atlantic Ocean, the storm suddenly turned west across Palm Beach County into the heartland of the muck lands.
The migrant workers and small farmers of Lake Okeechobee were asleep. Few had radios. They had no automobiles for a quick escape. As the winds of the hurricane moved counterclockwise across the lake, the south end of the lake was dried up. When the storm passed by, however, a huge tidal wave crashed down of the people of Belle Glade and Moore Haven.

The hurricane was an unwelcome coup de grace to the Florida Land Bust. Over 13,000 homes were destroyed. 115 were dead in Miami and the tidal wave had drowned 300 people. The news of people drowning in a wave, thirty miles from the Atlantic Ocean amazed people across the world. The nameless migrants were piled up and burnt to prevent plague. The major developments were in ruins, many of them unable to recover.

It would take years to rebuild the confidence and spirit of the Florida Land Boom. When the Great Depression hit Florida, it had a limited impact since so many Floridians were already in weak financial state. A year later the arrival of the Mediterranean fruit fly would hurt the citrus industry. Certainly, many Floridians wondered if Florida would ever see again such wonderful and confident times as the Florida Land Boom.