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A Sucker Born Every Minute: A Lively History of the Florida Land Boom

There may be lessons to be learned from the collapse of the Florida land boom of the 1920s, but, if so, we have been slow to assimilate them. History seems to have repeated itself in the 2008 recession when the housing bubble burst, and some economists worry we may be on the brink of another bursting bubble post-pandemic. 

In Bubble in the Sun, author Christopher Knowlton makes the compelling argument that the unbridled growth in Florida, which was beginning as World War I was ending, led a decade later to the Great Depression. “It would be wrong to claim there wouldn’t have been a Depression had it not been for the Florida boom and bust, but the Sunshine State did provide both the dynamite and the detonator,” he writes. 

Furthermore, the parallels between the 1920s and 2008 and even today are hard to ignore. “In the 2008 calamity, just as in the 1929 calamity, the overleveraging of real estate was the single factor most toxic to the economy and most responsible for the crash,” Knowlton notes. 

While he argues forcefully, whether or not he makes his case is really beside the point. What makes this book unputdownable are the real-life, larger-than-life characters who ignited the Florida boom. Chief among them are Carl Fisher, who saw the vast potential in Miami Beach; Addison Mizner, who created the lifestyles of the rich and famous in Palm Beach; George Merrick, whose vision of the perfect city led to the development of Coral Gables; and D.P. Davis, who poured his fortune into Tampa. The book also gives Henry Flagler his due for getting the ball rolling in the previous century with railroads to bring people into Florida and a hotel empire to give them places to stay. 

Rounding out the fascinating Florida story of the 1920s are a number of supporting characters, including Everglades advocate Marjorie Stoneman Douglas; and Barron Collier, whose vast land holdings in and around Naples made him the country’s first billionaire.  

Real estate during this time was sold like candy, people lining up for blocks for a chance to buy, sight unseen, an undeveloped lot in what was promised soon to be a paradise. Prices rose to unsustainable highs, and the paradise turned out to be many years in the future.  

Why did the boom collapse as quickly as it began? As one real estate agent of the time put it, “We just ran out of suckers.” 

Blinded by greed, none of the visionary developers survived the boom with their fortunes intact, and most of them ended up dead before their time. But with their pet monkeys, race cars, airplanes, mistresses, and tendency for hyperbole, all led flamboyant lives well worth reading about. And, not for nothing, they left behind the promise of what Florida would eventually become.