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.

When the U.S. acquired Florida from Spain in 1819 and began occupying it in 1821, it was a relatively uninhabited place, likely due to its low lying lands and an abundance of swampy locations. It wasn’t until 1845 when the territory joined the Union as a slave state that its economy began to expand.

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.

By the 1860s, railways were up and running and able to ship goods throughout Florida and northward across state lines. Just as goods were able to easily leave the state, an influx of people made their way south, looking to cash in on farmland.

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.

Fisher set out on an ambitious journey to build a paradise on the beach, a move that would later revolutionize tourism in America. In 1913, Miami would finally be linked to the island across the bay after Fisher struck a deal with the island’s owner, John Collins, to acquire a chunk of land in exchange for capital to finish the Collins Bridge.

Fisher’s deal with Collins would open the floodgates for traffic into one of the country’s most southern cities. Just two years after the bridge went up, Collins started building the Dixie Highway, which linked hundreds of roads and created interstate traffic routes from Michigan to Miami.

Not only was it perfect timing since more people were beginning to drive cars and understand road rules, but it would also widen the range of people that could easily access his properties on the island. That same year, in 1915, Fisher’s land officially became part of Miami Beach and construction on his luxury hotel commenced.

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

In 1926, a Category 4 hurricane not only damaged the homes and businesses of Floridians, the state’s reputation as a fruitful paradise took a massive blow. With hundreds dead and a massive price tag for cleaning up following the devastation, people began to pull away.

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.

The end of the '50s and throughout the '60s marked the start of the mass Cuban migration to South Florida, which would add a completely new flavor to the area. In the early 2000s, prior to the financial crisis of 2008, the expansion of mortgage credit and subprime rates in the U.S. triggered yet another migration wave to the Sunshine State. 

Over 21 million Americans now call Florida home, and though tourism in the state took a blow last year due to the coronavirus pandemic, with Governor Ron DeSantis’ position on keeping the economy up and running, analysts expect an uptick in business. 

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.

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