In the early 1920s, Florida experienced a real estate boom. Prices were soaring. People were moving here in droves. Life was good. But it couldn’t last forever. With the Great Depression just around the corner, Floridians had no idea that economic desolation loomed just ahead. There were several events in Florida prior to the Great Depression that exacerbated its devastating effects.
In 1926, a great hurricane struck Florida, causing a million dollars worth of damage and the loss of many lives. Merely two years later, the Okeechobee Hurricane caused 200 deaths and further dissuaded people from moving to Florida. The last great disaster appeared in a much smaller form. That of the fruit fly. The fruit flies multiplied and destroyed the grapefruit and citrus industry in the state of Florida, similar to the effect of greening on the citrus industry in recent years. Citrus has always been a staple of Florida, so to have something decimate our signature industry dealt great damage to the economy.
And suddenly the Great Depression hit the country like a train. In the preceding weeks, it had become obvious to some investors that stock prices did not reflect reality. A few months before the crash, skittish investors had sold large quantities of stocks, causing a slight depression. Charles E. Mitchell announced that the National City Bank would provide $25 million in credit in order to inspire confidence in the market. This worked, for a short while. Since the market had recovered from the slight depression, many believed the market was still strong and that it had been a fluke.
Then on October 24th, 1929 a record 12.9 million shares were traded leading to what is now known as Black Thursday. Just 5 days later, Black Tuesday hit and over 16 million shares were sold. This was the final blow to the stock market. Stocks became almost worthless overnight. At that time, most people had money in the stock market. Everyone from multimillionaires to barbers were affected by the stock market crash.
Florida had been a state on the rise. Miami and South Florida had been attracting mass migrations of people throughout the 1920’s. Rapid expansion and construction took place. This growth and expansion began to dwindle amidst the fallout of the Hurricanes, but the Great Depression nearly sealed the fate of South Florida. Much like many other states, Florida could not afford to fix itself. One thing the state did was allow some gambling. The state allowed betting on horse racing, dog racing, and Jai Alai matches. From the winnings, the state took a tax. While this helped somewhat, the state was still in financial dire straits.
Banks across the nation began to shut down. This caused families who kept their wealth in banks to become impoverished overnight. Once the banks closed their doors, there was no money available for the common people to purchase a place to live or food to eat. People were forcibly evicted, and businesses were closed.
Tourism helped the state in those first few years of the Depression as Northerners sought refuge from the coldness of winter. But little help was offered by Florida’s government.
And then, Franklin D. Roosevelt fatefully became President of the United States, ushering in his presidency with the promise of "the New Deal." The New Deal was President Roosevelt’s plan to get Americans back on their feet. He raised income taxes on the highest incomes up to 75%. He used this tax revenue to establish social programs to raise the standard of living for the average American, including the Social Security program that many older Americans benefit from today. He created the CCC or Civilian Conservation Corps which provided jobs to millions of Americans.
About 44,000 Floridians were employed through the CCC. Those that worked for the CCC were employed full time and lived in work camps where food and shelter were provided and earnings were sent back to their families. Workers were required to sign up for a minimum of 6 months and were paid $30 a month, $25 of which was sent home.
One of the projects completed by the CCC was a massive dirt dike around Lake Okeechobee to prevent flooding and further loss of life from the 1928 hurricane. Several State parks were created by the CCC inducing Myyaka River State Park, Highland Hammock, and 8 other prominent parks. The CCC was also responsible for finishing the railroad that stretched all the way down to the keys. This railroad had been started nearly 10 years earlier but due to severe hurricane damage, was not completed until 1938.
The New Deal also had a program called the Works Progress Administration which gave jobs to researchers and writers. The most notable writer to come out of the Florida program was Zora Neale Hurston, who wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God.
As the banks started to regain strength, a wealthy Floridian named Alfred duPont bought many branches and re-established them. He also bought up a significant amount of timberland and opened several paper mills, creating a timber company on a large scale which would help propel Florida’s timber industry for years to come.
While the great depression caused mass panic, poverty, and eviction, Floridians persevered and came out stronger on the other side. Because of all the new roads, railways, and airports built by the CCC, Florida was able to transport its goods to other parts of the country and even exported to global markets.
Nothing can keep Floridians down.
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