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Florida History

Although the state of Florida is praised for its sunshine, great weather and tax-free income, its journey to becoming the state we know today is somewhat confusing.

The Sunshine State has a significant place in American history as it houses the country's first European city, Saint Augustine. The city was founded by Spanish conqueror Pedro Menéndez de Avilés in 1565, but with the help of property developer and pioneer Carl Fisher, about 345 years later, Florida would begin to become one of the most geographically desirable locations in the United States.

When the United States acquired Florida from Spain in 1819 and began to occupy it in 1821, it was a relatively uninhabited place, probably due to its lowlands and the abundance of swampy sites. Only in 1845, when the territory joined the Union as a slave state, did its economy begin to expand.

In addition to the slave trade, the state's geographic composition made it ideal for farmers to produce a wide range of products, including cotton, tobacco, sugar cane and orange; but in order to make a profit, there should be a way to move goods easily into and out of the state, which is not yet fully developed.

By the 1860s, the railroads were already up and running, being able to transport goods across Florida and to the north, crossing state boundaries. Just as goods were able to leave the state easily, an influx of people went south, seeking to profit from agricultural land.

Miami Beach Fisher Foundation

In 1910, Fisher sold his automotive headlight company, Prest-O-Lite, for $ 6 million and retired at the age of 37 in Miami, where about 10,000 people had settled. But the restless retired man decided to explore his new hometown and its surroundings when he found an island in Biscayne Bay. This island would later be known as Miami Beach.

General view over the desolate and underdeveloped South Beach, Miami Beach, Florida, 1900s or 1910s. In the 1910s, the development of entrepreneurs such as Brothers Lummus and Carl Fisher began in the area that was once a farm and, in 1920, Miami Beach was an established resort community. (Pictorial Parade photo / Getty Images)

Fisher set out on an ambitious journey to build a paradise on the beach, a change 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 piece of land in exchange for capital to finish the Collins Bridge.

Fisher's agreement with Collins would open the floodgates for traffic in one of the country's southernmost cities. Just two years after the bridge was built, Collins began building the Dixie Highway, which connected hundreds of roads and created interstate traffic routes from Michigan to Miami.

Not only was it the perfect time, as more people were starting to drive and understand traffic rules, but it would also expand the range of people who could easily access their properties on the island. That same year, in 1915, Fisher's land officially became part of Miami Beach and the construction of his luxury hotel began.

His first commercial project at the site, the Lincoln Hotel, was completed in 1919. It corresponded to his vision of opulence, as its Italian Renaissance structure boasted a golf course and a tennis court. Shortly thereafter, in 1920, Fisher opened another impressive resort, the Flamingo Hotel.

aerial view of the Flamingo Hotel and several yachts in Biscayne Bay, Miami Beach, Florida, 1920s. The Flamingo was built by Carl Fisher and was one of the first large hotels built in the area. It was later demolished. (Photo by Hulton Archive / Getty Images)

Promoting the Sunshine State

Even while roads were being built and luxury hotels were just steps from the ocean, Fisher was still struggling to attract people, so he put on his shoes as a promoter. He had a relationship with advertising guru Steve Hannagan, who worked on a campaign to target ads to American families. Hannagan's initial approach to attracting crowds was based on selling beauty. The ads featured beautiful young women in luxury scenes.

But as wealthy Americans began to migrate to the area, Fisher found that sports-related events brought even more business.

Fisher spent the mid-1920s hosting golf tournaments, polo matches and even diving competitions to attract spectators and fill hotels that were popping up all over the island. The sporting events were followed by large parties organized by celebrities and the country's elite, which only increased the fascination.

The ads highlighted a lifestyle that many Americans pursued, but, of course, not everyone had the means to do so. Just as Florida was becoming known as a vacation center, it was still recognized for its lucrative crops, and advertisers also used it to their advantage to describe the state as a business opportunity.

Between 1921 and 1925, Florida's population exploded. In four years, the populations of Miami, Orlando and West Palm Beach have increased by well over 100%. But as soon as Florida was taking off in the eyes of Americans, glory was silenced after a round of bad press that questioned the value of properties in the state.

Hurricanes become a problem

In 1926, a Category 4 hurricane not only damaged the homes and businesses of Florida residents, but the state's reputation as a fruitful haven suffered a major blow. With hundreds dead and a high price for cleaning up after the devastation, people started to walk away.

October 21, 1926: The coast of Miami, Florida, after the great hurricane, which ended the land boom in Florida. (Photo by RB Holt / MPI / Getty Images)

As a result, homeowners started to default on loans and banks started to collapse. Florida's rapid rise and fall in the 1920s would eventually become the ultimate retirement destination for the elderly and soldiers in the 1950s after World War II, with the continued supply of sunshine and a cheap cost of living.

"A lot of people who trained here came back here because they wanted to build a life for their families," said Dr. Andrea Heuson, academic director of real estate programs at Miami Herbert Business School, to Cheddar.

The late 1950s and throughout the 1960s marked the beginning of the massive migration of Cubans to South Florida, which would add a completely new flavor to the area. In the early 2000s, before the 2008 financial crisis, the expansion of mortgage credit and subprime rates in the United States triggered yet another wave of migration to the State of the Sun.

More than 21 million Americans now live in Florida, and while tourism in the state suffered last year due to the coronavirus pandemic, with Governor Ron DeSantis' stance on keeping the economy running, analysts expect business growth.

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, the structures are better equipped to withstand the elements that drove people out a century ago, and the housing market is experiencing another boom. However, many of the natural protections have been released to pave the way for commercial ventures, which means that Carl Fisher's work dedicated to making places like Miami Beach habitable may also have left him vulnerable, especially since the weather conditions altered by climate change threatens to raise sea levels along the coast.

This is part of the series 'The Lightbulb Moment', A Cheddar and CuriosityStream Original, the program that reveals the surprising impact of less celebrated inventions and the inspiring moments that made them possible.

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