Then & Now: 1958 Florida vs. Florida today
Politics, demographics, the economy and headlines.
1958: The Leadership
LeRoy Collins (born 1909, died 1991)
Remembered as Florida’s “model governor,” the Tallahassee native turned to politics after having trouble making a living as a lawyer in the Great Depression. A lifelong Democrat, he earned his place in Florida history with his commitment to good governance and his moderate leadership, compared to other Southern governors, on civil rights. His good government reforms and commitment to economic development elevated him in the eye of the populous South Florida counties, while he fought powerful rural legislators. He expanded state public universities and colleges and promoted tourism. He initially defended segregation but urged the state to abide by Brown v. Board of Education and, as he came under attack, came to see segregation and racism as immoral. He chaired the 1960 Democratic Convention that nominated John F. Kennedy. Lyndon Johnson appointed him to head a federal service that aimed to peacefully implement the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He lost a U.S. Senate bid in 1968 after being labeled “liberal LeRoy.” After his death, the Legislature passed a resolution calling him “Floridian of the Century.”
George Smathers (born 1913, died 2007)
A lawyer, the New Jersey native was a product of 1920s Miami, where he was an athletic star at Miami High and later student body president at the University of Florida. He left a government lawyer career to serve as a Marine officer in World War II. The war convinced him of the importance of the United States taking an internationalist, rather than isolationist, view. He successfully ran for Congress against an opponent who labeled Smathers “gorgeous George.” Smathers joined the class of 1946 in Congress that included John Kennedy — he was an usher at Kennedy’s wedding — and Richard Nixon. He defeated the unloved — though later loved — Claude Pepper for U.S. Senate, in part with a daily attack that tagged groups Pepper had supported as a “Communist front a day.” Smathers is often remembered for a speech he never gave. After the campaign, some reporters promulgated the ruse that Smathers had tried to sway ignorant rural Floridians by, among other things, calling Pepper’s sister a “thespian” and saying Pepper “practiced celibacy before marriage.” Smathers never said it, but the fiction became accepted as gospel. Smathers was unpopular with liberal critics but became a top senator under Lyndon Johnson. He focused American attention and aid to Latin America in the Cold War to the degree that he became tagged as the “senator from Latin America.” He helped pass the 1957 Civil Rights Act but didn’t support subsequent civil rights legislation.
1958: Business Heavyweights
Trustee of the DuPont estate, Ball built it from $33 million at Alfred duPont’s death to $2 billion when Ball died in 1981. Ball, based in Jacksonville, hated racial integration and liberalism and was the “most powerful man in Florida … may have wielded more power than any figure in Florida history,” according to historian Gary Mormino. He in essence was the state’s largest landowner and controlled railroads, paper mills, banks, timberland and legislators. The bank Ball controlled through the trust, First National, became the second-largest bank in Florida. In 1971, Congress forced the trust to divest its control of the bank; Florida National Group was acquired by First Union in 1990.
Arthur Vining Davis
The founder of longtime Florida developer Arvida was nearly 90 by the time FLORIDA TREND got going. The Massachusetts native rose to head the Aluminum Company of America (Alcoa), which he still chaired as late as 1957. He moved to Coral Gables at age 82 and, no longer active in Alcoa management, invested in real estate — about 30 Florida companies from shipping to vegetable farms and hotels — and spent time on philanthropy. He helped fund the University of Miami and start Baptist Hospital in Miami. He believed Florida real estate would have an “inevitable increase in value” and at one time owned oneeighth of Miami-Dade County.
Ben Hill Griffin Jr.
The Florida native, who turned 48 in 1958, was “one of the greatest citrus barons Florida has ever known,” according to his Florida Citrus Hall of Fame bio. He started in the family’s groves at age 5 and later attended the University of Florida. He became a university benefactor, and its stadium is named for him. His holdings reached 10,000 acres of groves and 85,000 acres of ranch and timber land. He followed his dad’s advice in buying groveland relatively protected from freezes, a move that paid off in 1962, when a freeze wiped out other groves, drove up the price of concentrate and made him rich. He also founded a bank, spent 12 years in the state Legislature, ran unsuccessfully for governor and served in industry groups. He died in 1990.
In 1958, Afro-American Life Insurance Co. in Jacksonville was the state’s fifth-largest insurance company, with nearly $9 million in assets. The company was founded in 1901 by A.L. Lewis and several associates to provide health and life insurance to black Americans, who found it difficult to buy any kind of insurance in the days of segregation. The company, which expanded into Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana and Texas, also offered mortgages and other financial services. Lewis was born in 1865 in Madison, the son of former slaves. He moved to Jacksonville to work in a lumber yard. Lewis became Florida’s first black millionaire. He also founded the Lincoln Golf and Country Club in Jacksonville and American Beach — where African- Americans could enjoy “recreation and relaxation without humiliation” — on Amelia Island. He was a philanthropist, giving to black churches and historically black colleges, and served on the board of Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach. Lewis, who also created several black cemeteries, died in 1947. The company closed in 1987.
The Mackle brothers of General Development Corp. and Deltona fame sold lots at $10 down and $10 a month. Their father began in construction, but the three sons went big, first with 227 acres on post-war Key Biscayne before realizing the money was in selling land, building Port Charlotte and then in 1958 platted and began developing Port St. Lucie. They went on to Deltona, built throughout Florida and, going upscale, developed Marco Island.