Monday, February 25, 2019

Moonlit night, full of mosquitoes

screengrab showing fort lauderdale beach in the 1920s
Look familiar? Not to me. The image from a Sun-Sentinel
news feature shows Fort Lauderdale's beach in the 1920s.
These days, fourteen hour of travel will take you more than halfway around the world. A hundred years ago, the full fourteen hours were needed just to get a person from North Florida to South. 

In his autobiography, Gold Coast Pioneer (Exposition Press, 1953), M.A. Hortt describes the journey he took in 1910:
The train left Jacksonville at nine o'clock in the morning and crawled along through the heat and the mosquitoes almost at a snail's pace for fourteen long, weary hours, finally arriving in Fort Lauderdale at eleven o'clock that night" (100).
It was a beautiful moonlit night, he writes, during which he was almost devoured by mosquitoes. The next morning, he discovered Fort Lauderdale's business district consisted of two stores. "There were no electric lights, telephones or paved streets" (101).

That wasn't the only surprise. Hortt was the designated representative sent to inspect land he and fellow Utah streetcar conductors had purchased west of Fort Lauderdale. He was to plant a test crop of tomatoes. When he got to Florida, he discovered the purchased land was underwater.

head-and-shoulders image of M.A. Hortt
M.A. Hortt. The photo is
from his autobiography.
Conditions were blamed on the rainy season; Hortt's visit was in June. Nonetheless, he soon turned his attention to real estate and went on to sell land in and around Fort Lauderdale for thirty years. He also served as the city's mayor in 1934-34. In his 1953 autobiography, he writes that he saw the area's potential right away:
"I thought I recognized great possibilities in Fort Lauderdale, with its beautiful waterways, sandy beaches, wonderful climate, bright sunshine, cooling ocean breezes and tropical verdure backed up by the fertile Everglades, and decided to take full advantage of this opportunity." (103-104)
If that sentence sounds promotional to you - it does to me! - keep in mind Hortt wrote those words decades after his 1910 arrival. Decades after successfully extolling the virtues of the area to would-be buyers.

Hortt did plant tomatoes, just not on swampland. His wife joined him in Fort Lauderdale and they bought a riverfront house on five acres. The garden tomatoes were a foot high, he writes, and growing alongside cucumbers, beans, cabbages, and squash when an October hurricane smashed  into the area, "raising havoc in general" (104) and raining for three days. The Hortts evacuated to a hotel, where people fished from the front porch after the storm. The area had become one large lake, and Hortt needed a boat to check on the family home. He found water lapping at the main floor, which was three feet above ground.

It's hard to imagine a rural Fort Lauderdale with five acres of riverfront land devoted to one homesite. Wikipedia says the city's population in 2017 was almost 200,000. It's also hard to imagine South Florida as outlaw country, but that's what it was back then. Hortt writes that he "grew up in the 'wild and wooly' West and thought all of the gangsters and bad men lived out there" (106). Once in Florida, he discovered the Ashley Gang. They were, he says, "as notorious as the Butch Cassidy gang out West" (106).

Something to think about next time I'm down in that giant metropolitan area Palm Beach-Fort Lauderdale-Miami has become.