Saturday, May 14, 2011

Free land in Florida! Get it now!

It’s a Florida cliché. Unbelievable real estate deals at unheard of prices. If it sounded too good to be true it probably was. Surely the best land deal anybody in Florida ever made was Hamilton Disston, the Philadelphia saw heir, who paid the state of Florida about $1 million for four million acres in 1881.

The deal actually didn’t work out that well for Disston, who later had to sell large chunks of his land at a fraction of its value. Nevertheless, the Disston deal, plus his unsuccessful efforts to drain the Everglades, spurred a land boom in Florida.

The two Henrys, Flagler and Plant, got into a friendly rivalry building railroads and hotels, and tourism and agriculture became major economic engines in Florida. In the Panhandle, the Louisville & Nashville Railroad extended a subsidiary line from Pensacola to Chattahoochee, spurring interest in the Panhandle region. Naturally, land speculation followed.

In 1885, a Cincinnati-based outfit, St. Andrews Bay Railroad & Land Company, offered free land and free orange groves to people who wanted to move to Florida. The offer appears in a flier that evidently was mailed to Ohio residents. The single-sheet flier is in the collection of rare and unusual items at Lighthouse Books, ABAA.

How could a company offer such an unbelievable deal? Evidently, the flier's publishers thought people might wonder the same thing. The explanation given is that the company had acquired 300,000 acres in the vicinity of St. Andrews Bay and that it sought to give some of it away in order to make what was left more valuable.

“Florida homes and orange groves FREE without money and without price!” proclaims the flier, with details following on the company's plans to give away 20,000 acres in 2½- to 40-acre tracts.

The company also offers to provide house plans for houses costing $300 to $1,500 each to build. The listed cost for a sheet of nine different styles of houses? Twenty-five cents. “The plans are worth $5 to any one who will ever desire to build a house.”

What’s more, the flier insists, the company will build the house for you on your new free property and will give you five years to pay for the house at five per cent interest. But, regardless of whether you decided to build a house or not, you would still receive the land free. For each sheet of house plans “a numbered free land warrant in a sealed envelope” would be sent.

Plus, if you wanted to start a Colony Club in your neighborhood, you could send for five sets of house plans and five land warrants for just one dollar. You could also get 10 for $2, 15 for $3, 20 for $4 or 25 for $5. Twenty-five was the limit for one person acting as an agent for a club.

By the following year, the deal had changed. St. Andrews Bay Railroad & Land Company was still giving away land but in a decidedly different form. Now you could obtain, in one order, 100 lots of various sizes, including a 2½-acre orange grove tract. The caveat: you must pay $40 notary public fees to properly notarize the land warranty.

This was a huge mail-order land scheme and historians say that various offers were made that attracted people from all over the country. At one point 25-foot by 82-foot lots were being sold for $1.25. Then you could buy a lot for $3 with an additional lot for $2. Participants could pay a dollar down and then mail in payments of fifty cents a week. Some accounts suggest that as many as 350,000 people participated in the St. Andrews Bay Railroad & Land Company schemes.

It’s not clear how successful the whole affair was toward building a community, but evidence suggests that it must have been a bust. There were other small settlements, like Millville and Harrison, near St. Andrews and none of them amounted to much more than tiny villages for a very long time. It wasn’t until 1906 that the whole region was renamed Panama City, for the capital of the country where the Panama Canal was being built at the time.

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