While the state of Florida is lauded for its sunshine, great weather, and tax-free income, its journey to becoming the state we know today is somewhat checkered.
The Sunshine State has a significant place in American history as home to the country’s first European settled city, St. Augustine. The city was founded by Spanish conquistador Pedro Menéndez de Avilés in 1565 but with the help of real estate promoter and pioneer Carl Fisher some 345 years later, Florida would begin to morph into one of the most geographically desirable locations in the United States.
In addition to slave trading, the state’s geographic makeup made it ideal for farmers to produce a wide range of products including cotton, tobacco, sugarcane, and oranges; but in order to turn a profit, there had to be a way to easily move goods in and out of the not yet fully developed state.
Fisher’s Founding of Miami Beach
In 1910, Fisher sold his car headlight company, Prest-O-Lite, for $6 million and retired at the age of 37 to Miami, where about 10,000 people had settled. But the restless retiree set out to explore his new hometown and its surroundings when he stumbled across an island in the Biscayne Bay. That island would later become known as Miami Beach.
His first commercial project on the site, the Lincoln Hotel, was done by 1919. It lived up to his vision of opulence as its Italian Renaissance structure boasted a golf course and tennis court. Shortly after that in 1920, Fisher opened another stunning resort, the Flamingo Hotel.
Promoting the Sunshine State
Even while roads were built and lavish hotels stood steps away from the ocean, Fisher still struggled to pull people in, so he stepped into his promoter shoes. He linked with advertising guru Steve Hannagan, who worked on a campaign to target ads to American households. Hannagan’s initial approach to bringing in crowds was based on selling beauty. Ads featured beautiful young women in scenes of luxury.
But while wealthy Americans did begin to flock to the area, Fisher found events surrounding sports brought in even more business.
Fisher spent the mid ’20s hosting golf tournaments, polo matches, and even diving competitions to bring in spectators and fill up hotels that had been popping up across the island. Sporting events were followed by massive parties hosted by celebrities and the nation’s elite, just adding to the allure.
The ads highlighted a lifestyle many Americans sought, but, of course, not everyone had the means to do so. Just as Florida was becoming known as a vacation hotspot, it was still recognized for its profitable crops, and advertisers also used that to their advantage in describing the state as a business opportunity.
Between 1921 and 1925, Florida’s population exploded. Over four years, populations in Miami, Orlando, and West Palm beach surged by well over 100 percent. But as soon as Florida was taking off in the eyes of Americans, the glory was muted after a round of bad press that questioned the value of properties in the state.
Hurricanes Become an Issue
As a result, owners began defaulting on loans and banks started crumbling. The rapid rise and quick fall of Florida in the 1920s would eventually give way to becoming the ultimate retirement destination for seniors and soldiers in the 1950s after the Second World War, with the continued offering of sunshine and a cheap cost of living.
“Many people who trained here came back here because they wanted to build a life for their families,” Dr. Andrea Heuson, academic director of real estate programs at Miami Herbert Business School told Cheddar.
Still, Florida is a place that has long been at the mercy of Mother Nature, and that remains a long-term concern that needs to be addressed. Today, structures are better equipped to withstand the elements that drove people out a century ago, and the housing market is in the midst of another boom. However, many of the natural protections have been cleared to make way for commercial developments, meaning the work Carl Fisher dedicated to making places like Miami Beach habitable may have also left it vulnerable, particularly as weather conditions morphed by climate change threaten to raise sea levels along the coast.
This is part of ‘The Lightbulb Moment’, A Cheddar and CuriosityStream Original Series, the show that uncovers the surprising impact of less-celebrated inventions and the moments of inspiration that made them possible.
Video produced by Andrew Davis. Article written by Lawrence Banton.