The economic downturn actually started significantly earlier in Florida, where people were already struggling to make a living wage, if they had a job at all. Many lost their investments and life savings; properties lost their value or were destroyed by hurricanes. The tourism industry took a severe hit, and the citrus industry, which at the time made up over 50 percent of the revenue for the state, fell by more than 35 percent in just a few months. All of this happened in Florida before the nationwide stock market crash in October 1929.
During the early 1920s, Florida represented wealth and a flourishing tourist industry. The demand for land skyrocketed and, along with it, land prices. People were drawn to the state by the idea of sandy beaches and sun. Vacationers, tourists and new settlers alike all wanted their own piece of the Sunshine State. Land was being bought rapidly without proper investigation into what was being purchased and, often, what investors were selling and reselling had little to no value. In 1926, people started to realize the bad investments that had been made, and the Florida land boom came to a traumatic halt. Banks and the credit system failed and left the majority of people without their life savings.
Along with the demise of the land boom, Florida experienced a major hurricane that same year. The “Great Miami Hurricane” made landfall in September 1926, creating havoc as it made its way across the state. In 1928, another hurricane made landfall in West Palm Beach. Both of these storms devastated the infrastructure of Florida, destroying homes, bridges and lives. An estimated 3,000 people throughout the state were killed during those storms.
With the catastrophic damage and loss of life, many chose not to remain in Florida after the hurricanes. People stopped vacationing and tourism became nonexistent. By January 1929, the dream of the Florida life had been blown away with loss.
Adding to the harsh economic conditions, the Mediterranean fruit fly had invaded Florida citrus and other crops in April 1929, and a quarantine was put on the state. This restricted farmers from selling their citrus to anyone outside of the Florida, which greatly hurt Florida’s economy given that citrus made up around 50 percent of the state’s revenue.
Around 60 percent of the citrus crops were infested and much of the fruit ended up being destroyed. Twenty counties were affected by the infestation and, even though Manatee County wasn’t considered a part of it, our close neighbors Pinellas and Hillsborough counties were. To put it into perspective how devastating this was to the Florida economy, the cost of this disaster was equivalent to $56.5 million in today’s money, and that doesn’t even include the other industries that were affected.
For people locally, some might say the economic hardship started even earlier with the 1921 hurricane that greatly affected the historic fishing village of Cortez and the surrounding areas of Manatee County. The hurricane destroyed many homes, along with the bridge to Anna Maria.
Stay tuned for future articles to learn how families survived the struggles of the depression throughout Florida and Manatee County, and the positive impacts that came from the social programs instituted during the “New Deal” as a result of the stock market crash.