The Collier Family Chronicles
Colorful tales of the characters, how they built their empire and the way they got the county named for them.
Barron Collier's three sons (left to right): Samuel, Miles and Barron Jr. seated with Graham Copeland, second from right, the engineer tasked with completing the Tamiami Trail.
You’d think we’d know them pretty well by now. After all, their name is on a few hundred thousand license plates in Southwest Florida thanks to the family patriarch.
And yet the Collier family (and its various branches) remains a relative mystery to area residents. There’s no denying that when you combine wealth, history and an air of mystery, there’s room for wild speculation about a clan that draws a great deal of its power directly from one of America’s great visionaries.
“They’re very quiet,” says Mike Reagen, former president and CEO of the Greater Naples Chamber of Commerce. “They’re not out front that much and they don’t want to be. … This is a very private family.”
For more than 100 years, the family has had a hand in shaping, quite literally, Southwest Florida. Under the leadership of Barron Gift Collier (the advertising magnate who counted everyone from J.P. Morgan to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt as close personal friends), the family once owned more than one million acres of our region. Today, his descendants’ holdings and their respective companies have grown to include everything from oil production and agriculture to mineral management and real estate development. It’s safe to say that, in a fairly microcosmic sense, they are everywhere. And sometimes, not where you’d expect.
Of course, wealthy multi-generational families are not a new phenomenon, nor are they particularly noteworthy. They can be found in virtually every county of every state, often credited with making marks and leaving legacies. But rarely have they continued to thrive like the Colliers. They’ve taken a large, but rough, diamond and continued to polish it into a shining example of interest—one that Forbes magazine said was worth $1.6 billion in 1998. Granted, fortunes have been won and lost many times over since that point in time, but we don’t expect them to be bouncing checks any time soon. In fact, the Miles Collier family’s Private Capital Management firm sold in 2001 for nearly $1.4 billion. Today, the family can cite the likes of Grey Oaks, Ave Maria, La Playa Beach Club & Resort, The Isles of Collier Preserve and Hamilton Harbor Yacht Club as just a sliver of their many modern contributions to the Southwest Florida landscape. They’ve donated 74.6 square miles for everything from Collier Seminole State Park to the Everglades National Park.
And just as their business sense can be traced back to Barron Collier’s powerful skill set, so, too, do they share his love of this place and his understanding that what’s good for Southwest Florida is also good for the Colliers. But while the family’s history has included more triumph than tragedy, it has seen tragedy nonetheless. It’s also included everything from alleged spies and auto racing champions to deep-pocket political maneuvering. Ahh, family.
Most are probably aware of Barron Gift Collier’s road to fortune. He was born on March 23, 1873, in Memphis, Tenn., the son of Colonel Cowles Myles Collier of Hampton, Va., a member of the Confederacy during the Civil War. The family’s well-being went the way of the South and though hardly poor, young Barron left school at 16 to begin working.
His first job was to solicit freight for the Illinois Central Railroad. And he blossomed. But even at that young age, his business acumen told him that real wealth came with ownership. And so when he heard of the invention of gas streetlights, he convinced the City of Memphis to give him the contract. That venture’s success allowed him just enough capital to buy another local business: a printing plant. Its purchase would be a fateful decision: One of the plant’s less profitable contracts was with a company that sold advertising cards for the horse-drawn street cars.
Proving a well-read visionary, he knew that electric streetcars were on the horizon. And so they were. A talented salesman, he soon got the exclusive right for all streetcar advertising in Memphis. Before long, he had worked his magic in the Southern cities of Little Rock, Ark., and New Orleans and sold franchises in many others. But, according to a WGCU-produced program about the county’s namesake, he once told a reporter, “You cannot catch big fish in a bucket … you have to go where the big fish are.” And so he moved his business to New York City and Consolidated Street Railway Advertising Company was born.
It’s not a particularly catchy name to modern ears, but Collier’s tenacity led the company to the top of the mass transit advertising market, eventually having more than 70 satellite offices from New York to San Francisco, Canada to Cuba. By the age of 26, he had amassed more than $1 million.
His business interests continued to thrive and in 1907, at the age of 34, he married the lovely Juliet Gordon Carnes, a well-heeled Memphis woman 11 years his junior. Their first child, Barron Gift Collier Jr., was born five months later. Two more boys, Samuel and Cowles “Miles,” would quickly follow.
It was around this time that Collier would visit Southwest Florida for the first time, via invitation of Chicago businessman John Roach, who built a hotel on his island, Useppa. Collier bought the island in 1911 for $100,000 (his personal income was then an estimated $5 million a year), beginning a love affair with Florida’s climate, landscape and acreage that would continue for the rest of his life. Over the next decade he would accumulate a total of 1.3 million acres in what is now Lee, Collier and Hendry counties. (Surprisingly, those acres did not include Naples proper or Marco Island.)
All the while he was friends with some of the most formidable names of the era: William Randolph Hearst, Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Coleman DuPont, William Wrigley and others. He owned the newspapers that would become the Fort Myers News-Press and the Naples Daily News. His Collier West Coast Motor Lines later became Trailways.
Back in New York, he was named special deputy commissioner for public safety, and his ingenuity and advertising sense led to the public safety campaign of Aunty J. Walker. (Get it?) Virtually overnight, jaywalking deaths were cut in half. Perhaps most impressive of all, Collier came up with the concept of the white and yellow painted road divider lines we use today. He owned one of the world’s first amusement parks, Luna Park in Coney Island. He is also credited with the concept of Interpol and played a major role in building the Boy Scouts of America. He even helped make Tallulah Bankhead a star. He owned a spectacular villa in Baden Baden, Germany, that was later expropriated by Adolf Hitler.
Now, as you might have guessed, the county wasn’t named “Collier” when he got here. As Florida’s largest landowner and one of America’s most respected businessmen, Collier found himself in a unique position. The state had run out of funds during the construction of the first highway connecting Tampa with Miami (the Tamiami Trail). Collier pledged to finish the roadway at his own expense if the legislature would rename the lower portion of Lee County, which was then the largest county east of the Mississippi River.
Though the renaming in 1923 didn’t sit particularly well with old-timers, there was no denying that completion of the Tamiami Trail was a huge economic boon for the area.
“In 1923, Barron Collier was perceived as the devil incarnate according to the people in Lee County because he scooped out land that they weren’t prepared to give up,” says local historian Lois Bolin. “But he was a businessman, he had a vision, and he saw things way beyond what other people could see.”
But paying for the Trail was a drain on Collier’s finances. And the Great Depression dried up revenue from his advertising business and, with no cash flow, he was forced to declare bankruptcy. Luckily (for him and his heirs), changes to the bankruptcy laws allowed him to keep a significant amount of his Florida holdings.
Unfortunately, by that point the stresses of the situation were taking their toll on him physically. He died in 1939 at the age of 66.
Not surprisingly, the three Collier sons were chips off the old block. Good-looking and charming, they were raised in New York, attended Yale and traveled in the best circles. And, like their father, they had an appreciation for transportation. When they were young, their individual chauffeurs (yes, that’s how they rolled) made them small race cars with lawnmower and motorcycle engines.
Racing became so much a part of their lives that years later the brothers created the Automobile Racing Club of America, which became the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA). In fact, Samuel helped found the world-famous Watkins Glen International speedway. But the good fortune of the Colliers, who had already taken a serious beating during the Great Depression, came crashing down when Samuel was killed when his Ferrari 166 left the road while leading the 1950 Watkins Glen Grand Prix. He was the first racing death at The Glen. His restored car now sits in The Collier Collection, a world-class auto collection belonging to Miles C. Collier, primary of Collier Enterprises.
“For his part, (Cowles) Miles led a fascinating life,” says Lamar Gable, the step-son of Barron Collier Jr. and former chairman of the board of the Barron Collier Companies. “He was a spy for the O.S.S. during World War II. The story goes that he was captured by the Nazis, but his French was so good that they had no idea he was American” and eventually let him go. It would seem his life was charmed. But in 1954, at the age of 40, just four years after Sam’s death, Miles contracted a rare form of polio.
“He mentioned to my step-dad (Barron Jr.) that he felt ill in the morning and was dead by evening,” Gable says.
When Barron Sr. passed away, the three sons agreed to a buyout agreement so that if something were to happen to one of the brothers, the other two would buy out his heirs to keep the company with the two surviving Collier brothers. But it turns out getting the cash to buy out a third of an empire was no small feat, and so when Miles died, the family decided to continue operating with his widow taking his position. It changed the dynamic for everyone.
“What happened was my father was the financial arm of the three Collier brothers,” says Judy (Collier) Sproul. “Sam and Miles were down here, but he worked out of New York, so we lived up in Connecticut. And then when Sam was killed in Watkins Glen, we moved to Florida—to Palm Beach—because my mother didn’t want to live in Everglades City.”
Barron Collier Jr. had two daughters (Judy and Barbara) with his first wife, Barbara, before divorcing her and marrying again.
“My father remarried and that’s where the Gables came in,” says Sproul. “He acquired four step-children (including Lamar). Then they had Barry (Barron Collier III), my half-brother.”
The branches become a bit more tangled at this point, but the joining of the families was smoother than many would have predicted.
“One thing my father did was try to meld the family,” Sproul says. “He took us all to Hong Kong (in 1974); everybody. Of course, I was the oldest, and by that time I had lost my husband and had three young children of my own; three girls. And I had just moved to Florida. It was a very interesting experience with me in my mid-30s down to Barry who was a very young kid. It really gave us a nice basis to look back on to reminisce about and what not. Because we had very different lives, particularly me being up North and married and having children.”
The last of the three Collier sons, Barron Collier Jr., died in 1976, leaving two widows, Isabel Collier Reid and Marguerite Collier, at the family helm.
According to the same 1998 story in Forbes that stated the family was worth $1.6 billion, when the family heirs disagreed about investment strategies in 1980, they decided to split the empire with a coin toss.
And while that’s not exactly how things went down, it’s certainly true the remaining two branches of the family decided to separate their holdings. One branch, led by Miles Collier, of the third generation, became Collier Enterprises; the other side, Barron Collier Companies, was led by three other heirs, including the Sproul and Gable families.
“(The business) was basically a series of trusts and partnerships that held the Florida land and businesses,” Lamar Gable says. “So that was like an umbrella organization of which the Barron Collier Jr. side of the family had 50 percent and the Miles Collier side had 50 percent. When Miles and I were basically young guys in the office, the organization was still run by the same people that had run it since prior to World War II. So there was feeling that maybe we wanted to go and do our own thing. So rather than getting into a row over it, we said, ‘Why don’t we partition the company? You take your half of assets and go do what you want to do and we take our half of the assets and go and do what we want to do.’”
After a great deal of math, the company’s holdings were divided into equal-value packets, basically 24 large envelopes divided into red and green, Gable says. Some would have office buildings and gas stations; others would have rights for different things and ranch lands. If one envelope came up short, cash was added to make it equal.
“It was a blind draw,” Gable says. “Mrs. Collier and Mrs. Reid (Miles’ widow) alternated drawing. You didn’t know what you were going to get. … At the end of the day, Miles and I were laughing—neither one of us could figure out if anybody got a better deal.”
The two camps, though cordial, don’t seem to mingle past related business affairs, of which there remain many. Collier Enterprises has basically gone radio dark since Parker Collier was found to have been the major donor for the political advocacy group Revere America back in 2010. The organization spent approximately $2.5 million on attack ads in the Northeast in an attempt to stop candidates thought to support the Affordable Care Act. It drew nationwide attention and seemed to align the family with equally mysterious families such as the Koch brothers.
But while Collier Enterprises tends to keep a lower profile, it still plays a major role in area development with projects such as The Isles of Collier Preserve (formerly Sabal Bay), the Town of Big Cypress and Collier’s Reserve. There are no family members participating in its day-to-day operations.
In fact, rather surprisingly, of the 19 members of the Collier family’s fourth generation, only two are a part of Barron Collier Companies’ day-to-day operations. Katie Sproul runs the agriculture division, which grows and distributes everything from cattle to sod (she also oversees the Halstatt Real Estate Fund, which is a Sproul family business separate from Barron Collier Companies, responsible for Grey Oaks, LaPlaya and Mercato), and Blake Gable handles the real estate division as well as its gas and oil operations in Southwest Florida. The rest of the clan is scattered across the United States and merely hold positions on the boards of directors of the various companies. Family reunions and board meetings tend to be one and the same.
And as Florida has rebounded from the economic recession of the last decade, the Colliers are mindful of the future. The Barron Collier Companies set up a family internship program where any interested family members can come and be exposed to the businesses.
“At the end of three months they are probably more confused than when they got here because it’s a lot to understand, but it’s a great opportunity for them,” Blake says. “I love it because it gives Katie and I and my cousin, Jennifer (Sproul), who lives here, the opportunity to see some of our cousins who we don’t get to see as regularly for an extended period of time.”
And as the family continues to grow (there are currently 19 members of the fifth generation—the oldest being 13), the Collier businesses keep spreading outward. One of the youngest members of the fourth generation, 22-year-old Lara Collier (daughter of Barron Collier III), started Collier Family Farms, an organic farm out in Ave Maria that features not only a farmers market but also a U-pick option.
“We have started a handful of businesses in the last few years,” Blake says. “Everything from an environmental services group to a fledging engineering group—both of which are profitable. We have an insurance company; a small, little title insurance group that we saw an opportunity to have a profitable business, and the family said, ‘Go for it.’
“I think that’s why we are in so many businesses: The family doesn’t say, ‘Stick to real estate and agriculture and oil.’ If you find an opportunity to grow the business, we are going to give you the latitude to do it.
“It’s true, that whatever is good for Southwest Florida, in some way shape or form is good for us. This is where a lot of the family grew up; they spent a tremendous amount of time here. And as they move through life, this was the one thing that was always constant.”