A well-told history of the 1920s Florida land rush, the developers who fueled it, and an environmentalist who saw its dangers.
Writers like Erik Larson and Gary Krist have found a sturdy formula for enlivening history: Take a neglected or misunderstood era or incident, ferret out its colorful heroes and scoundrels, and show not just their successes or failures, but the social forces that shaped their lives. Former Fortune magazine London bureau chief Knowlton (Cattle Kingdom: The Hidden History of the Cowboy West, 2017, etc.) uses the method to fine effect in his story of a land-buying frenzy that led one observer to note, “All of America’s gold rushes, all her oil booms, and all her free-land stampedes dwindled by comparison with the torrent of migration pouring into Florida.” The author begins with Henry Flagler (1830-1913), the patriarch of Florida resort development, but moves on quickly to the architects and developers who drove the 1920s rush, including Addison Mizner in Palm Beach, George Merrick in Coral Gables, and David Paul “D.P.” Davis in Tampa. Perhaps no man was more flamboyant or controversial than Carl Fisher, who dredged Biscayne Bay for the sand needed to build Miami Beach and whose razzle-dazzle publicity efforts fed the boom and its collapse, owing to factors that included rampant overleveraging and the hurricanes of 1926 and 1928. Fisher had a small elephant who caddied for visiting President Warren G. Harding and hired black laborers who couldn’t live in his subdivisions: “The so-called Caucasian clause in the deeds prohibited anyone but a white person from buying a parcel of land on the island.” The writer Marjory Stoneman Douglas saw the injustices to blacks and the environmental risks of overdevelopment and later wrote the nature classic The Everglades: The River of Grass (1947). In an especially strong chapter, Knowlton argues cogently that while the collapse of the bubble alone didn’t cause the Great Depression, “the Sunshine State did provide both the dynamite and the detonator.”
A lucid account of the human and economic factors that drove a notorious land rush.