One of my first memories of Florida was formed decades ago on a road trip south from our home in Maryland. I remember our family driving to a desolate-looking patch of pine and scrub brush that was awfully watery throughout.
Yes, my dad bought swampland in Florida. That was one of the greatest scams our fair city and state ever perpetrated on the rest of America.
An authoritative account of the scheme’s beginnings comes in Michael Grunwald’s book, The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida and the Politics of Paradise.
“Thousands of Northerners descended on Fort Lauderdale in the spring of 1911,” Grunwald writes, “transforming the piney-woods hamlet…into a swarming tent city.”
The visitors had all arrived for Dicky Bolles’ land lottery, which offered Everglades real estate in parcels of 10 to 240 acres.
Just a few years earlier, the namesake of our county, Gov. Napoleon Bonaparte Broward, had started the process of draining the Everglades for new development. The former logger and tugboat operator, who ran guns to Cuban revolutionaries before the Spanish American War, famously stated: “Yes, the Everglades is a swamp; so was Chicago 60 years ago.”
According to The Swamp, sales pitches proclaimed the soil so rich you could “take a tent, a bag of beans and a hoe, clear a few rows in the sawgrass, plant the seed, and in six weeks you will have an income.”
Most of the dreamers had no idea of what the Everglades were. But in just months Bolles and others had sold 20,000 parcels. (In years to come, even a man named Charles Ponzi got in on the land speculation action, in the Jacksonville area.) If your parcel wasn’t drained now, Bolles told the poor saps, it would be by 1913.
As two years, five years, 10 years, 20 years went by, the vast majority of those parcels still hadn’t been drained.
Of course it didn’t help that the engineer first put in charge of the project was not an engineer at all. Governor Broward had agreed to work with the U.S. on the reclamation project, but was able to finesse his own man, James Wright, as the lead investigator on the study for the project.
The former math teacher had no formal engineering training but a whole lot of experience pontificating on the wonders to come. The resulting study plan was fraught with errors on every count – cost, measurements, manpower, completion time. But the U.S. gave its seal of approval, praised Wright and promptly doubled his salary.
As news of the project swept across America, there was no shortage of hyperbole about what it could do. According to Grunwald, “Magazines predicted that the Everglades would soon supply winter vegetables to every American east of the Rockies.”
It might be hard for us now to understand how crazy all this was – there were even posters of Seminoles in full-color Indian dress standing in the tall sawgrass, looking to the skies as the planes flew overhead, as if to say, here come more new neighbors.
In the coming years, lawsuits and charges of fraud started coming in from across the country, but Florida politicians continued to promise future wonders.
But the fact was, for that generation, the land was worthless.
It wasn’t until 1947, when the U.S. took over the Everglades reclamation, that the proper resources were brought to the effort. Over 1,400 miles of canals, levees and water control devices were built. Those early parcels, most of which were long abandoned, composed much of the land on which the Plantation, Lauderhill, Sunrise and Davie residential complexes sit today.
All this was completed just about the time conservationists and ecologists discovered the deterioration of water quality in Lake Okeechobee and the state of the Everglades as a whole. They began to howl that this was all a big mistake. And thus began the largest and most expensive environmental repair project in history, still not complete.
Criminal indictments and suits came against Bolles and others, but the sellers presented a strong defense: They believed what Florida officials had told them.
The sad part is that years after the initial scams, and efforts to drain the Everglades really did start progressing, the scams returned. Thus the famous phrase, “If you believe that, I’ve got some land in Florida to sell you.”
(By the way, the real land boom started in the 1920s, a decade or more after that 1911 lottery. But this one was for plots on the glorious – and solid – South Florida coastline.)
My family’s plot? Well, thankfully, my father was able to get his few thousand back somehow. That was in the late 1950s. If he (or my mother) were still here, I’d ask them, “Just where was that patch of swamp we went to?”