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How the American Dream Took Its Modern Form in Florida Nearly a Century Ago

 

National Geographic news correspondent and book author Willie Drye provides a synopsis of his latest book, For Sale–American Paradise: How Our Nation Was Sold an Impossible Dream in Florida. The book, published by Lyons Press, tells the story of the great Florida Land Boom of the 1920s, when millions of Americans flocked to Florida seeking fun, sun and wealth in a tropical Paradise. For a while, they found what they sought, but eventually their dreams were ruined by greed, unscrupulous entrepreneurs, and devastating hurricanes. Their quest for a better life is imbedded deeply in human nature, but the story of the Florida Land Boom has a uniquely American flavor. 

For Sale coverFlorida is one of the world’s truly unique places, a land of sunshine and warmth that has been stirring dreams and firing the imaginations of newcomers for centuries. Journalist Edwin Menninger, a native Kansan, was one of those newcomers enthralled by Florida nearly 90 years ago. “If Adam and Eve could have seen Florida, they might not have mourned the loss of Eden,” he wrote in January 1928.

For Sale—American Paradise: How Americans Were Sold an Impossible Dream in Florida tells the story of the great Florida Land Boom of the 1920s, when Edwin Menninger and millions of other Americans believed that all they had to do to live a life of stylish comfort and ease was buy a few acres of land in Florida.

But For Sale—American Paradise is more than a history lesson about how Florida became entwined with Americans’ hopes, fantasies and expectations. It’s a story about the American character and our desire for a better life. It’s also a tale of the euphoria and mass delusion that inevitably happens when times are good and people convince themselves that they’ve found a foolproof way to have it all, have it now, and keep it forever. It’s a tale of timeless human strengths and weaknesses set in a colorful and tragicomic era during which the allure and illusion of the American dream took its modern form.

And although it’s the story of events that happened early in the last century, it’s also a tale that could have been taken from the headlines of only a few years ago, when Americans watched helplessly as their savings—and their dreams—vanished in a catastrophic economic collapse.

Edwin Menninger joined the hordes of fortune-seekers because his doctor in New York told him the only way he’d recover from a debilitating flu was to go to Florida. The doctor’s prescription worked. Menninger arrived in Florida in 1921 and never left. He was only a few weeks away from his 99th birthday when he died in Stuart, Florida in 1995.

Menninger observed and chronicled Florida’s evolution from a swampy frontier to a tropical dreamland. During the rowdy Roaring ’20s he sometimes ignored journalistic skepticism and told the world that Florida was immune from the cares and worries of the everyday world. He expected the small, picturesque little town of Stuart—where he published the South Florida Developer—to eventually overtake Miami as Florida’s greatest city.

In early 1929, after Florida’s prosperity had crashed spectacularly amid over-extended dreams, greed and two savage hurricanes, he studied the ruins and warned that the same thing could happen to the New York stock market.

When the worst did happen in October 1929, Menninger spent the rest of his career helping rebuild the Florida dream on a more solid foundation.

The story that Menninger witnessed brims with compelling characters. There are colorful but unscrupulous entrepreneurs and imaginative hucksters who let nothing stand between them and a fast, fat profit. And there are millions of everyday American dreamers who scrape together a few dollars and come to Florida because they’ve been told that that’s all they have to do to make their hopes and fantasies come true.

There also are true visionaries such as George Merrick, whose idealism is beautifully preserved today in Coral Gables; and Carl Fisher, who turned a swampy island in Biscayne Bay into Miami Beach, the sun-and-fun town that has become a symbol of cultural sophistication and chic silliness.

For Sale—American Paradise is sprinkled with celebrities whose names are still familiar today. The cast includes the madcap Marx Brothers, who starred in “Cocoanuts”, a Broadway smash-hit satire based on the Florida land boom; political icon William Jennings Bryan, who earned a salary higher than President Calvin Coolidge or even baseball superstar Babe Ruth to sell Coral Gables real estate; actress and early Hollywood sex symbol Gilda Gray, who was paid a small fortune to lure investors to Hollywood-by-the-Sea with her sensuous, suggestive dancing; inventor Thomas Edison, who built a house and laboratory in Fort Myers, where he entertained his pal, Henry Ford; and notorious gangster Al Capone, who saw tremendous potential for his criminal enterprises in Florida.

All of these personalities were thrown together in a time and place where opportunity seemed limitless and anything seemed possible.

History has seen many booms and busts. But what sets the mid-1920s Florida land boom apart is that this was the first modern boom, the first time that emerging new technologies, such as radio and automobiles, mass communications and modern advertising techniques were used to sell the nation on the notion that prosperity and happiness are simply there for the taking.

Florida’s modern image as a place where the rules of everyday life don’t apply and winners go to play was formed during this dawn of the age of consumerism and the modern vision of the American Dream in the 1920s. Americans started chasing what author F. Scott Fitzgerald called “the orgiastic future” during the Jazz Age, when the world was emerging from the rubble and awful slaughter of World War I. Americans wanted to have fun and make lots of money, and millions thought Florida was the perfect place to do that.

Human greed and overwhelming natural forces blew away this fantasy, however. Land prices escalated far beyond reason, and then killer hurricanes in 1926 and 1928 wrecked what was left of the dream. By 1930, former Florida real estate speculators who’d been millionaires on paper a few years earlier were wondering where the good times and all their money had gone.

Edwin Menninger, sadder but wiser, commented on the collapse in an editorial in 1930: “We are only cheating ourselves when we dream about the rising of a magic metropolis here overnight.”

Despite the gaudy collapse, however, writer Theodore Dreiser correctly predicted 90 years ago that Florida eventually would gain a permanent hold on Americans’ dreams because it is a place where people can enjoy “a few days of sunshine and flowers between January and April.” It is the prospect of “those perfect days—truly perfect at times”—that will always draw people to the state, Dreiser wrote.

The magic of the Florida dream and its unique blend of wacky and crass commercialism, sublime climate and spectacular natural beauty will always be with us. For Sale—American Paradise is both a page-turning story and an entertaining business lesson. It’s a tale in which hopes and expectations rise to spectacular heights and plunge with brutal suddenness to unimagined depths. Today’s modern Florida was formed in this cauldron of fantastic dreams, crushing disappointments, and determined resurrections.