Englewood: Boom and Bust in the Roaring Twenties
“ENGLEWOOD WILL BE GREAT CITY” was the prominent headline in a frontpage story in the Dec 27, 1925 edition of the Sarasota Herald. By the mid-twenties the sleepy little town of Englewood was beginning to awaken. Ordinary citizens, city leaders, and outside developers all believed that great times were just around the corner. They envisioned Englewood as an exclusive seaside resort catering to the wealthy who wanted to relax by the Gulf of Mexico.
Englewood was incorporated as a city on Nov 25, 1925 and elected its first mayor and city council. Taxes were collected, police and fire services were organized, and even dog licenses were issued. Grandiose plans were put forth by city leaders and developers. To help move along these plans a new state bank was founded in 1925. The initial capitalization was $15,000 with a surplus of $3,000. This bank was a welcome sight for local business leaders, who were eager to initiate numerous development ideas.
The entire state of Florida was experiencing an intense land boom in the 1920’s, with prices going through the roof. Land developers, led by New Yorker Walter H. Green, now streamed into the Englewood area. Green utilized a 21 passenger Studebaker bus to make twice daily trips with land-seekers from Sarasota. As the passengers got off the bus in downtown Englewood, they were greeted by a band of musicians and a horde of real estate salesmen. Real estate offices sprung up all over the city. Some agents were known as “curbstone” operators since they made their shady unlicensed deals on the street. Lots changed hands so many times that it became confusing as to who really owned the properties. Skyrocketing Englewood land prices reached over $1,250,000 in sales in the first eight months of 1925, and were expected to double in just four months.
With the expected influx of new homes and property development, grandiose plans were now put forth to put Englewood “on the map.” New buildings were to include a 100 room Italian stucco hotel for tourists, to be built by developer Henry Langner near Deer Creek. A new railroad line was to be constructed for the Seaboard Air Line Railroad, which was to extend to Placida Road. These plans also included a new depot to handle the influx of passengers visiting Englewood. Rumors were also flying that the Tamiami Trail (Route 41), would take a southern dip right through the heart of Englewood.
A luxurious country club with upscale homes and an 18 hole golf course was to be built east of downtown. Directly north of the city, by Buchan’s Air field, was to be the site of Hygeia, a luxury home development for movie stars and other celebrities. Silent film greats Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford planned to erect a modest 35 room “cottage.” Other notables of this time who intended to settle in Englewood included actor Wallace Ford, brother of director John Ford, syndicated columnist John Lait, and Sime Silverman, publisher of Variety Magazine.
A huge casino, which included a large dance floor, pool, and restaurant, was to be erected on the beach at Peninsula Key (now Manasota Key). City fathers planned to build a new community center, a school, a chamber of commerce office, a retail complex, and a city hall all by the end of 1926. Main city thoroughfares were to be transformed into 100 foot wide boulevards with 80 foot wide streets.
Perhaps the most ambitious idea included the construction of a National Memorial University on 50 acres of land on the Tamiami Trail southwest of downtown Englewood. This institution would honor the memories of veterans who served in or lost their lives in World War I. Developer Walter H. Green donated the land and a 50 member committee started to raise $5 million to defray the construction expenses. One dollar was to be solicited from each of the five million veterans that served in the war. This idea was very popular since it was a living memorial to the veterans of WW I.
All of these plans for Englewood, however, would eventually tumble like a house of cards by 1929. The land boom of the mid-twenties came crashing down due to a combination of factors. Unscrupulous land developers and real estate salesmen often sold the same piece of land to three or four people. Lots were also sold that were underwater or not accessible. Two devastating hurricanes in 1926 and 1928 wiped out many people’s fortunes, along with their dreams of getting rich through land investments. Land developers and their agents saw the writing on the wall and quickly pulled all of their capital out of Englewood. Land which at one time fetched astronomical prices was worthless by 1929.
To further complicate matters, Abner Silkey, the cashier of the Englewood State Bank, embezzled over $15,000 of the bank’s funds in 1928. Even though he was captured in Georgia, those funds were never recovered. Local businesses and everyday citizens saw their deposits disappear. At this same time 31 banks in Florida closed their doors due to internal problems.
Tax collection in Englewood by 1929 was down to a trickle. Many people saw any savings that they had disappear in sour land deals or from the bank fiasco. The city was broke and the population wasn’t growing. City services such as police, fire, water, and roads could not be maintained. Finally on May 11, 1929, city leaders decided to abolish the incorporation of Englewood, since services could not be provided. To this day, Englewood has not incorporated as a city again.
The Great Depression, which started with the stock market crash of 1929, was another factor that further weakened Englewood’s economy. Since most residents had little cash, Stuart Anderson and other local leaders, would take their catch of fish up to Sarasota and barter for any supplies they could find. Everyone in Englewood looked out for each other during these tough times, sharing any food or other necessities that they had.
Because of all of the aforementioned problems, by 1929 all of the great plans for the city of Englewood now were in disarray. The Tamiami Trail was never put through Englewood, movie stars didn’t move to the area, plans for the National Memorial University were scrapped, the railroad line and new depot were forgotten, and the country club and beach casino became only a pipe dream. The new city hall and community center weren’t needed since the city was not incorporated anymore.
The dream of wide boulevards traveled by movie stars and wealthy tourists was now put to rest. The sleepy town of Englewood, which had briefly awoken during the Roaring Twenties, was now going back to sleep, not to be awoken for decades. A Sarasota Herald columnist in an article written in 1930 urged the citizens of Englewood to not have a “woe is me” attitude. He told them to instead count their blessings. He mentioned their beautiful location on the Gulf of Mexico, the 300 days of sunshine a year, the large catch of seafood every year, the tourists who were now returning, the strong churches, and an excellent school system.
Even though Englewood experienced its share of problems during the late twenties and the depression, it always had a core group of citizens that bound together the community. Families that included the Andersons Aingers, Buchans, Biorseths, Goths, Gottfrieds, Johansens, Tates and others managed to overcome the many hardships of the day. They ran the stores, built the churches, and above all cared for their fellow man. Even though the city was falling apart around them, they showed the value of the term “community”, and this is what to this day makes Englewood a truly great place to live.
I would like to thank the following sources for assistance in the writing of this article: The Elsie Quirk Library in Englewood, Josephine O. Cortes, The History of Early Englewood, H.C. Green, “Englewood not down and out, says booster”, the Sarasota Herald, Oct 5, 1930, “Englewood now 100, has had its’ ups and downs”, the Sarasota Herald Tribune, Aug 14, 1996, “Englewood was Booming City in the Roaring Twenties” the Englewood Herald April 19, 1972, “National Memorial University lived only on paper” by Michael Bergstrom, Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Oct 30,1996, “The boom days-every inch of land was gold on paper”, by Diana Harris, the Englewood Sun Herald, May 26, 1999, “The little city at the turn of the trail” by Diana Harris, the Englewood Sun Herald, Nov 12, 1994, and the front page of the Sarasota Herald, Dec 27, 1925.
Editor’s note: This article was first published in the May 18, 2007 edition of the Englewood Review.