Newsmakers


How Barron Collier Got His County

Witness the shrewd way he cut through a thicket of rules, regulations and various personalities to create the county we know today.

 

The news itself was dramatic, but the man at the center of it seemed unfazed. In its Aug. 15, 1925, edition, The New York Times, citing an Associated Press story, said the tiny town of Marco, way down on the southern end of Florida’s Gulf Coast, had been divided into two “hostile camps, ready to do battle” over ownership of a previously unsurveyed strip of land on the island. On the one side was a group of citizens who owned land in the town of Marco itself, led by a man named W.G. Williams. On the other side was Barron Gift Collier, who owned more than 70 percent of Collier County, and whose deeds to the land around Marco included “more or less” everything not already homesteaded or spoken for. That would include the 3,000 acres that had been left out of an official survey. Williams disagreed, plopping down on 160 acres as a “homestead” and encouraging other anti-Collier factions to do the same. Williams and his cohorts then complained to the court that Collier had sent the sheriff and his armed deputies to threaten violence against them.

The incident showed the rest of the country a rare crack in Collier’s one-man county rule. Since 1922, when Collier had first whispered the idea of “his” county, he had marched efficiently and smoothly toward making a million acres of sparsely populated swampy land into his own empire. This “American capitalist,” as he was generally referred to in the press, had convinced the Florida legislature to break off almost 1 million acres of Lee County to create a county named for him, based mostly on just the thought of what he was going to do.

“Pure bunk,” said Barron Gift Collier of Williams’ case, which was ultimately decided in Collier’s favor. Far from being in the center of the sweltering Southwest Florida action, Collier was cooling off in the posh Hotel Vanderbilt in New York City, having just returned from a long yacht trip. Of course the men protecting his land against squatters had guns—they were sheriff’s deputies.

“It’s just the same as if a man came into your house and you had him removed,” Collier said. Aside from one troublemaker—disappointed that he hadn’t struck into vast land holdings when the holdings were good—everyone had nothing but “goodwill” toward the man who had given his name to the county.

In fact, he added, “Ever since the county became Collier County, our people have won every election.”

You’re about to find out how this smooth operator cut his way through a thicket of rules, regulations and assorted personalities to create the county that just celebrated its 95th anniversary.

 

1922: A VAST LANDSCAPE

From 1887 to 1923, Lee County stretched all the way south to Cape Romano and all the way east to Clewiston. It was a lot for one county government and school board to wrangle, and the prosperous landowners to the east had lobbied for splitting off a separate county. An area would break off to include LaBelle all the way east to Clewiston and down to Immokalee, which had potential as a farming town.

Collier (second from left) at Deep Lake citrus grove circa 1929

The county would be named Hendry County, the late and much revered Captain F.A. Hendry, who had settled LaBelle. It would be a fitting tribute because F.A. Hendry had gone to the legislature in 1887 to ask the ruling body to establish Lee County as it broke off from Monroe. When it was time to grow, it was time to grow.

R.A. Henderson Sr., campaigning for the state legislature in 1922, narrowly won against his anti-division opponent by encouraging this break. He pledged his loyalty to these future citizens of Hendry County, who felt unheard by the “Fort Myers courthouse crowd,” as author Karl Grismer refers to them in the book The Story of Fort Myers.

In his first foray into Southwest Florida, Barron Collier had bought Useppa Island in Lee County from businessman John Roach in 1911. Originally from Memphis, Collier had made most of his money in New York, in streetcar advertising and other ventures. A Southerner by birth, he didn’t have that “good old boy,” Southern jocularity that was still the way of Florida at the time. He was private but fiercely loyal to his friends and family, and known to be fair and generous with employees he trusted.

At first, Collier appeared to want nothing but to enjoy his perfect lodge and fishing retreat. But a few years later, in 1915, the state started talking seriously about building a road from Tampa to Miami. The idea was a meeting of the minds between the head of the Fort Myers Chamber of Commerce, Francis Perry, and the Dade County Tax Collector, Captain J.F. Jaudon. Jaudon, who ramped up enthusiasm for the phrase “Tamiami Trail,” invested thousands of dollars of his own money into building sections of the road westward from Dade County.

Soon enough, Collier would want in. Early in 1921, he bought Deep Lake Grove and Railroad near Everglade, from Roach and a business partner. In southern Lee County, near the tiny settlement of Everglade, George W. Storter Jr. had a boardinghouse and trading post favored by avid fishermen. (Late Everglades native Totch Brown, in his memoir, describes it as a place where a man had to hide from the fish long enough to bait his hook.) In November, Collier bought the Storter property, where he created his Rod & Gun Club. In 1922, he bought the property of Mrs. Tommie Barfield in Caxambas, on Marco Island. He thought highly of Storter and Barfield and kept them in his employ, which kept them loyal to him when talk of the county began.

By early 1923, Collier owned almost 70 percent of southern Lee County, about 900,000-plus acres. And so it seemed logical for him to invite the Lee County Board of Commissioners out for the afternoon to Useppa Island to talk about the Tamiami Trail. Lee County was responsible for about 76 miles of the trail, across the Everglades. Collier had already pledged his financial and logistical support to the road, so it seemed a nice formality and a good excuse to have an afternoon out at Collier’s beautiful Tarpon Inn. But then Collier pulled aside the commission chairman, John E. Morris, to talk to him about whether, while he was going to be finishing the roads, he couldn’t just go ahead and get his own county. Morris, startled, said quickly that public sentiment might be against that, and he had no assurance that even if his lands were in a separate county, any kind of governance would go the way he wanted it to.

“Mr. Collier replied to me that if he could not get the county officers he wanted, he would not want the county created,” Morris later said in a sworn statement.

The commissioners and other prominent Fort Myers businessmen were blindsided. The creation of Hendry County had been discussed at length, and at length again, but the idea of a “Collier County” was relatively new. To them, anyway. It soon became clear that Henderson, the state representative, was actively advocating in the legislature for the creation of the county. Yes, it would snatch 1 million acres out of Lee, but it also would relieve the county from the financial burden of providing schools and roads to an unwieldy and remote area.

Henderson’s friends in the commission were fuming. “Had it been squarely or remotely before the people in the primary, the voters of Lee County would have unquestionably defeated county division,” they said in a telegraph to Tallahassee. They claimed their constituents were equally angry. “They realize the incalculable danger of placing the welfare of their communities and the priceless rights and opportunities of their children in a position where they would be subject to the autocratic whims and fancies of one man, benevolent though he may be…”

 

ROAD TO GLORY: THE TAMIAMI TRAIL

Their ire was egged on by an unexpected ally, Dade County Tax Collector Captain J.F. Jaudon. He had bet—and built—on a route through Lee to Dade that included Monroe County, through lands that he owned, and he knew that if Collier got his county, the road would inevitably go that way. This was made clearer by a publicity stunt that went on at about that time, when a group of “Tamiami Trailblazers” made it from Fort Myers to Miami by going through the Everglades. Trailblazer and newspaperman Allen Andrews, in his book A Yank Pioneer in Florida, says their trip actually convinced them that Jaudon’s route was better, because it wouldn’t involve dynamiting out large chunks of limestone rock and big cypress stumps. But the national attention that they garnered made the powers that be in the state even more enthusiastic about Collier, whom they had started to regard as a magnanimous savior.

Jaudon, who had spent part of a fortune on his road by that time, circulated a broadside to lawmakers and other parties, titled The Truth About Collier County. (A photocopy of the original, with many other samples of Jaudon’s blustery correspondence and other Trail-related ephemera, is available through the Everglades Digital Library, accessible through Florida International University’s library site.)

In it, Jaudon wrote that in Collier’s time in south Lee County, “He has not built a single mile of hard-surface road or made a single improvement except additions to a few houses and buildings. … He has not demonstrated ability or intentions to do a single thing that he now claims before the House and Senate committee.”

Pointing out that many people had invested in the township of Naples, where Collier did not own land, he spoke about their desire to govern themselves, and their dreams of living a peaceful beach-side American Dream. He ended with dire dramatics: “Is the Legislature of Florida going to sell 500 or 600 people to Barron Collier?”

Jaudon and the commissioners seized on a “petition” that was under review by the legislature asking that Collier County be created, with Everglade as its county seat. Morris and his commissioners collected affidavits from signers who were not residents of Lee County, men who had been working for Collier at his Deep Lake Company and who said they had been pressured into signing. Allegations grew ugly, with veiled accusations of bootlegging and vote-buying.

As Jaudon said later, “I know we had to fight the devil with fire, and I used the best grade of fire I had on hand.”

In the end, as the commissioners were reminded by both Henderson and the legislature, the “who” of who asked for the county wasn’t a consideration. They were bound to act for the good of the state, and the governor, Cary A. Hardee, had confidence that Collier would finish the road. There was also a matter of legislative courtesy: When a legislator made a request concerning his district, the assumption was that he knew what he was doing, no matter how much Morris and his band of commissioners protested otherwise.

With Barron Collier looking on, the governor signed the bill creating Collier County out of Lee County in May 1923. Almost as an afterthought, by then, Hendry County was created, too, although it no longer included Immokalee. Lee County was a shadow of its former self, and just in time for the slowing of the economy, which began in Florida earlier than in other states. Although Fort Myers got some financial boosts from federal projects in the 1930s, it wasn’t until the building of Cape Coral and Lehigh Acres three and four decades later that Lee County would get much of its heft back.

 

JAUDON’S LAST PLAY

Barron Collier dutifully began on the trail, but it was hard going, and it lagged, as it had lagged before—this time not because of lack of funds but because the engineering was so daunting. By 1926, when the road still had not been completed, Jaudon tried one more time to get the state to divert a section of the road to the Monroe path (now part of “the loop” road through the Everglades). He wrote John Jones, who owned Naples Improvement Company; Burke, who owned a lumber company in Naples; and W.D. Collier (no relation), who had been a commissioner in Lee County from Marco. He begged them to join him in proving that the finances of the trail completion had been misstated and that the state was in on the fix.

A parade in Everglades City celebrates the opening of Tamiami Trail on April 26, 1928.

For his flurry of telegrams, he received a series of tepid responses. Yes, it seemed the road would never get done; hope we live to see it. Yes, there was probably some money wasted somewhere. And yes, the whole picture was a little murky, but wasn’t it a little too far to turn back now? Having bet on Collier, shouldn’t they just keep boostering?

“You have let Collier and his henchmen outgeneral you,” Jaudon boomed back to Jones in a telegram, but by then he knew that he had played his last hand. Collier went on to create a happy town in the City of Everglades (then the county seat, it had been renamed from Everglade), with almost everyone except a few old settler families in his direct employ.

In 1928, a motorcade including the original Trailblazers rolled into Everglade to hail the opening of the Tamiami Trail. As recounted in Andrews’ memoir, Barron Collier greeted them with performers from the Ringling Circus, including acrobats and bareback riders; a contingent of Seminole Indians; and a musical band from Czechoslovakia. When the motorcade ended in Miami the next day, official remarks were made by both Barron Collier and Captain Jaudon, who played nice.  

In later years, the progression of development went naturally from Everglades to Naples, and Collier County is today a jewel of Florida, with its own distinct identity. The Collier interests did much to further the state of the county after the patriarch’s death in 1939, including becoming the largest private donors to Everglades National Park. Millions of happy citizens have been residents of Collier’s county, including, near the end of his life, Captain Jaudon.

One prominent exception? Barron Gift Collier. As The New York Times noted in his obituary, his official residence was Useppa Island, Lee County, Florida.