Heard that one yet? It happened not during Covid or World War II but during the Great Depression.
The problem was that the Great Stock Market Crash of 1929 followed a string of state disasters, including those that afflicted our area. The hurricane of 1926 wreaked havoc here as well as all over Miami. A second storm hit Palm Beach County, which caused Lake Okeechobee to flood and drown over 2,000 people.
And to the north, there was an outbreak of the Mediterranean fruit fly in a grapefruit grove near Orlando. It spread across the state and killed off most of the citrus crop.
Although there was a Florida real estate boom during the early 1920s, the state economy went downhill as the decade ended. Not a small factor was the collapse of the real estate market due to widespread fraud. Land sales simply died out.
Following the crash of 1929 came the Depression years, when an estimated 25 percent of Fort Lauderdale homes were foreclosed. About 80 percent of lots and non-farm lands were likewise lost. The state offered little aid. The U.S. government stepped in, but aid was limited and far from enough. The New Deal jobs were years off.
While the potential for safe haven from cold northern environs seemed wonderful for newcomers, our economic infrastructure had nearly collapsed. If you came and needed assistance at a time when a fourth of Floridians were already receiving relief, there’d be none. So state officials decided, Why add to the burden? And wham-o, they shut the border.
The Florida State Legislature sought to raise aid money by legalizing betting at racing tracks and jai alai frontons. The state would take 10 percent of the winnings. Yet that depended on folks having lots of money to gamble – which they did not. Maybe they should have tried a lottery.
The only bright spot – if you could call it that – was illegal gambling and bootlegging flourished.
But in downtown Fort Lauderdale, a high-rise hotel was paused mid-construction and remained a skeleton in the air for years as funding collapsed. A bridge to Lauderdale Isles also stood incomplete.
Statistics tell a grim story: In 1927, the city’s population was 13,000. It was down to 8,650 in the 1930 census.
According to one researcher, there was this dreary note on the culinary side: “Grits and Grunts topped menus at homes and restaurants. An inexpensive meal, it included small fish or grunts caught off nearby reefs fried in oil and served with grits.”
Finally, the difficult years and the crash took one of their saddest tolls with the death of the “Father of Fort Lauderdale,” Frank Stranahan. Our city’s first postmaster, whose trading post and home are now a museum just off Las Olas Boulevard, was a lifelong believer in this community and its development. He married and thus recruited our first teacher, his wife Ivy, and gave land for our first school. They both were active in civic affairs, nurturing good relations with Seminoles and later the growing Black community, and taking part in the city’s governance.
Stranahan also began delving into real estate and brought his friends in as investors in the 1920s. Unfortunately, the crash wiped out many of those friends. He was so distraught that he tied a weight around his neck and plunged off a dock into the New River in 1929. At first his death was attributed to illness; later Ivy revealed it was suicide.
As the state recovered, the borders were once again opened (although my resource materials do not pin down a date). We do know that by 1940, Fort Lauderdale’s population had doubled. And thankfully, the city never had to face anguish on that level again.