In the 1950s, Florida’s population was 2.8 million. Miami, still a small southern city, was just a winter tourist spot, and the interior was millions of acres of uninhabited prairies of pines and palmettos, home to herds of cattle, and seemingly endless orange groves.
Tampa and St. Petersburg were the only large towns along the Gulf coast. Naples was still just a small fishing village, and even Orlando was only a business hub for the surrounding citrus and cattle industry.
“The Swamp Peddlers: How Lot Sellers, Land Scammers, and Retirees Built Modern Florida and Transformed the American Dream” by historian Jason Vuic (University of North Carolina Press) shows the transformation of old Florida, from acres of eco-sensitive wetlands, pine forests and cattle ranches, to today’s subdivisions sprawling across the state, devouring natural ecosystems.
But that soon changed, and Vuic guides readers through elaborate schemes that became stereotypes nationwide, setting up today’s cul-de-sac society.
Vuic witnessed much of the development of the ‘80s from his childhood home in Punta Gorda.
“My mom grew up in Inverness and moved to Pittsburgh, where she met my dad, but she missed Florida,” Vuic told the Gabber. “She liked old Florida, but Dad loved modern Florida, so I grew up with a foot in both worlds.”
He remembered Punta Gorda was a mix of old and new, with kids from both backgrounds in his school years. Vuic became fascinated by the endless lots of Cape Coral – miles of roads with no bushiness or agriculture.
“Cape Coral used to be affordable,” he said. “There could be a retired cop from Staten Island next to anyone.”
It all began in the late 1940s, he writes, when thousands of returning veterans and retirees willingly bought platted Florida lots, sight unseen.With little oversight, everyone – both builders and state officials – lined their pockets. And it went on for decades.
For the affordable price of $10 down, and $10 a month, average folks could buy their piece of the Florida dream. Ads in dozens of northern papers proved so successful, planned communities mushroomed across America, selling thousands of acres carved into grids of quarter-acre.
Dubbed the “land giants” by Vuic, the two most notable profiteers were the Rosen Brothers and the Mackle Brothers. They hired hard-nosed sales people, employed relentless cold calls, even tapped hotel rooms of prospective customers on weekend sales junkets.
The term “swamp peddlers” was coined by Elizabeth Whitney, the lone woman news editor for the St. Petersburg Times, to warn readers. Her 1970 landmark series urged legislators to “ban the sale of unusable swampland once and for all.”
From Cape Coral and Port Charlotte to the recent subprime mortgage disaster Vuic, offers a front row seat for Florida’s growth in a dizzying array of scams.
Boca Ciega Bay was a tipping point, said Vuic, prompting the Army Corps of Engineers to go beyond its traditional role of subduing nature.
“St. Pete was staked out by the 1950s,” said Vuic. “The Mackles couldn’t afford it so they still found money in the hinterlands.”
But that didn’t stop Lee Ratner from creating Bayway Isles in Boca Ciega Bay. The philosophy was if there wasn’t enough land, create some.
Boca Ciega Bay was a shallow, 20,000 acre estuary, with small islands, wetlands, and natural beaches – a critical habitat to many endangered species, including manatees, wood storks, red-cockaded woodpeckers and Kemp’s Riddley sea turtles. By 1968 it lost 15,000 acres to dredging and nearly 9,000 acres were filled. Seawalls and bulkheads ringed what had basically become a large lake, with little natural coastline. The bottom was covered with thirteen feet of sticky muck, where nothing could live – it was a dead zone, but folks who bought the houses on the new fingers loved Vina del Mar.
Vuic’s engaging tale will make nature lovers scream, but by the 1970s, there’s some awareness, and a few champions emerge, working for more stringent regulations. Dredge-and-fill ended, but millions of acres of mangrove forest and seagrass still struggle. And with statistics of 1,000 new residents arriving daily, the future of Florida’s nature remains uncertain.
Jason Vuic will talk about “Swamp Peddlers” at Tombolo Books, 2153 1st Ave S, at 7 p.m., Wednesday, October 27. Call 727-765-9456 for more. Masks required.