“Bubble in the Sun: The Florida Boom of the 1920s and How it Brought on the Great Depression,” by Christopher Knowlton, Simon & Schuster, NY, 2020. This 411-page hardback tells the story of the Florida real estate boom in the 1920s. It is thoroughly researched and detailed. The story is presented in the style of a disaster movie. We are introduced to the key players, learn of their efforts, and then follow to see how they did after the crash.
The stars of Florida real estate were Carl Fisher of Miami Beach, Addison Mizner of Palm Beach and Boca Raton, George Merrick of Coral Gables, and David Paul DP Davis of Tampa and St. Augustine. And Henry Flagler, an oil tycoon, who built the first railroads and resort hotels.
The story begins with Flagler of Cleveland whose wife had TB. They came to Florida for her health, but found coughing consumptives many in wicker wheelchairs. Accommodations in St. Augustine were depressing. Flagler had done well as an early partner with John D. Rockefeller in the creation of Standard Oil. He hired architects and built the Hotel Ponce de Leon to attract the wealthy. It opened in 1888 with high prices but was known for its food and service. He built a second hotel, a bit more modest, and acquired Florida railroads creating Florida East Coast Railway. He got large tracts as land grants for his railroads.
His raw land was drained and sold to farmers mostly for orange and pineapple groves. He also built single family homes. He recruited construction workers from New York. He extended his railroad south and found Palm Beach, which became another site for hotels, one of which was the Breakers. He extended his railroad to Key West in 1912, thinking its deep water port would be ideal for commerce. Key West was a major engineering challenge that required building over water up to 30 ft deep with segments up to 28 miles long. He died in 1913.
Next came George Merrick. He was a native Floridian where his father, a Congregational minister, had settled for his health. George had studied law and returned to Florida in 1911 when his father was in ill health. He became interested in architecture and admired Olmsted’s work with Central Park in NYC. On his father’s land, he built Coral Gables, the largest and most ambitious planned community in the US.
Another was Marjory Stoneman Douglas, daughter of the editor of the Miami Herald. After a failed marriage she moved to Florida where she became an advocate for protection of the Everglades.
Adison Mizner was another. He met Paris Singer, heir to the Singer Sewing Machine fortune. They shared a love for European architecture. They arrived in Florida in 1918 with the idea of building a grander, more exclusive Palm Beach.
Also in the group was Carl Fisher, from Indiana. His Prest-O-Lite company made auto headlights fueled by acetylene. He sold the business to Union Carbide in 1913. He enjoyed anything fast and built the Indianapolis Speedway. He was promoter of the Lincoln Highway, one of the first highways –(now US 30) stretching from New York City to San Francisco. Claiming that better roads would increase auto sales he raised funds from carmakers, dealers, suppliers and jobbers. It was dedicated in 1913 and completed in 1915. His next project was the Dixie Highway from Chicago and Upper Michigan to Miami. In 1915, a caravan of 15 cars made the trip to publicize the route. He funded a bridge for an avacado farmer. In return he got 200 acres of ocean front on an island that became Miami Beach. Dredges sucked soil from the bay to create new land. He began selling lots in 1913. Sales improved during World War I when travel to Europe was restricted. He marketed to nouveau riche industrialists from the Midwest looking for fun ways to spend their wealth.
The automobile and better roads brought a land rush to Florida. In 1925, 2.5 million entered the state by auto or by train. It was the era of tent camps used by travelers. Land sales began in 1921 in St. Petersburg when travelers were urged to buy. The Tamiami Trail was conceived as an extension of the Dixie Highway across the Everglades from Tampa to Miami. Construction began in 1916. After a caravan of Model Ts crossed the Everglades in 1923 as a publicity stunt, Barron Collier, a major land owner in southwestern Florida, agreed to fund completion of the road. It was dedicated in 1928.
The book tells of the Florida developments and promotional efforts in detail. The real estate boom began to weaken in 1926, when a sailing ship capsized and blocked the Miami harbor. That was followed by a series of hurricanes that did severe damage. In September, 1926 in Miami and in September, 1928 in Palm Beach. Flager’s Key West Railroad was destroyed in a 1935 hurricane. Real estate sales had already slowed by 1926. The hurricane damage added financial stress and many failed. With their failure banks that financed them were stressed. That contributed to Babson’s decision to warn of a stock market crash, ie the Babson Break, that led to the crash of ‘29 and the Great Depression.
This is a detailed telling of the Florida story. References. Photos. Index.