JUNE 21, 2021
DURING HIGH SCHOOL, I had an English teacher who often said, “If you believe that, I have swampland in Florida for sale.” Most of his students ignored the phrase — we were in the snow-addled hills of Massachusetts. But after living in Florida for 20 years and reading Jason Vuic’s newest book, The Swamp Peddlers: How Lot Sellers, Land Scammers, and Retirees Built Modern Florida and Transformed the American Dream, the saying sinks in with different weight.
Vuic’s exhaustive examination reveals how the development of Southwest Florida became a marketing scam that robbed citizens of their savings and destroyed lives, the ecosystem, and the souls of the developers themselves. He weaves historical fact, shocking quotes, and cultural insights into the story with expert clarity. The linear narrative follows Florida’s development as if it were the historical biography of an American cultural icon and exposes the scandalous reward of greed in American culture. Simply put, the bad guys won.
His focus is the Gulf Coast, where I have resided for the past two decades. During my time here, I’ve seen gated communities replace lush forests almost overnight. I’ve swum in artificial canals, raising my piña colada over the water. I’ve waited for hours in traffic to get to school on time. I frequently pass lines of cars circling tiki-hut restaurant chains on my way to the supermarket. The nonexistent version of Florida became the reality. The city of Cape Coral doesn’t have coral. Port Charlotte doesn’t have a port. The communities are a copy of a copy, and the culture is carefully engineered to bring more people and more money.
Vuic follows the trail of greed from the 1920s to Elizabeth Whitney’s investigative 1970 series “Swamp Peddlers” in The St. Petersburg Times, where she exposed real-estate chicanery. He describes the deceptive techniques using original pamphlets, promotions, maps, and flyers contrasted with stories found in court records and business documents. High-pressure sales tactics became missiles. Anyone who could sign their name bore targets on their backs. One developer told his salesmen that people are “to be taken” and that, if they didn’t do it, someone else would. And “if you feel you don’t want to take them, leave now,” he added.
Developers’ cold-call centers, dubbed “the cattle chutes,” had thousands of employees. They spent millions on radio and television ads publicizing the tropical dream to Northerners. Contest “winners” (everyone won) were shuttled to Florida for a free vacation and mandated meetings with salesmen. After paying a “processing fee,” which actually paid for their flights and accommodations, the winners only real prize was a free dinner with a salesman.
Many got hooked and then rooked. The buyers never actually saw their investments. Some toured neighborhoods with waterfront views, but the land on the deed was swamp miles back from the shore. Back up north, buyers showed their friends and families the same promotional photo, proudly claiming that it was their land in the Sunshine State. The lucky ones who got an actual home discovered communities that lacked businesses, roads, sewage, or any sort of connection to the outside world. Developers assumed that retirees on a fixed budget didn’t need to work or purchase much, so there were no available jobs nearby. Many were stuck, without enough income to visit their families up north or to get out of their situation. One salesman was driving a couple west from Miami to view property when a man died in his car from a heart attack. He ferried the body to the nearest hospital and proceeded to sell the widow on gorgeous beachfront property. But “environmental issues, infrastructure issues, and high-pressure sales tactics were simply part of the business.”
Every tactic was employed to get interested buyers to sign: nationalistic pride, standard bandwagon appeal, religious allusions, celebrity endorsements, and classic sexuality. Potential buyers were socially conditioned and gaslit in every way possible, according to their character. Vuic writes that the “most ‘average’ salesmen had been weeded out — or gave up in disgust or despair — and only the hard-core professional remained. No wonder customers were caught like lambs in the bramble bush.” Hidden microphones in hotel rooms helped the realtors determine the best way to secure signatures. Salespeople with religious knowledge were matched with believers. Attractive women were sent to single men. Veterans were sent to military. The deceptions were well planned and perfectly executed. When developers weren’t scamming potential buyers, they were sabotaging each other. One company planted tall hedges in front of a competitor’s signs, blocked every parking spot in front of their business, and sprayed pesticide at salespeople handing out flyers. The cheating knew no limits.
This book could also be considered a collection of biographies, focusing on the cast of eccentric characters whose lives are immortalized in the names of streets, neighborhoods, and towns. Barron Collier, the namesake for Collier County, owned millions of Florida acres. He poured his fortune into developing the state, which included striking a path directly through the murky and dangerous Everglades wetlands to connect Tampa with Miami via the Tamiami Trail. Upon completion, Collier spoke at the Collier County Fair and Tamiami Exposition alongside Assumhatchee, a leader of the local Seminole tribe. Heartbreakingly, Assumhatchee said that his people welcomed the road but feared what their future held: the Everglades was his home, and he asked that his people not be forgotten. “They were, almost immediately,” Vuic writes.
After Collier died, his three sons continued to develop the land along their father’s road; early developers were mostly family businesses. The Mackle brothers, for example, were famously responsible for developing Marco Island, among many other communities. They succeeded by malleably matching customers’ needs. After selling land, they started a company that constructed homes and a utility company to serve them. The Rosen brothers built up Cape Coral, calling it “Waterfront Wonderland,” and bulldozed wetlands, dug canals, and created a moonscape. Unsurprisingly, the Rosens and Mackles suffered extensive legal drama.
Joe Klein, the CEO of Cavanagh Communities, hit courtroom trouble after his attempt to create Rotonda West between Sarasota and Fort Myers. The 25,000 acres were mostly wetlands, and he planned a circular development three miles in diameter, with sections divided into eight equal parts for housing, golf courses, and parks. Soon after construction, regulators discovered that the property values were fraudulently increased, the houses were poorly constructed (roofs weren’t attached to walls, for example), and there was no boat access, as advertised. To make matters worse, Klein lied about buying back property if the purchaser had second thoughts. And his company sold lots first and then billed the customer for the improvements shown in the brochures. The state warned them not to deceive potential buyers with the futuristic model they used in advertising, but they did anyway, leaving many buyers with deeds for unlivable homes or swampland. “Cavanagh’s customers had signed some of the worst installment contracts in the business.” The company soon went bankrupt.
All this clearing, dredging, and filling had a disastrous effect on the environment, of course, culminating in floods and wildfires, as if Mother Nature were seeking revenge. Developers ignorantly, or arrogantly, figured that if land was what sold, they’d just “make more land” with dirt fill pushed into the seawater. That decision tore apart the balance of the regional ecosystem. Of the buyers who successfully purchased land, many discovered large craters and deep chasms on their property. Developers had found more ways to line their pockets through gravel mining and tree resin harvesting, leaving some properties gutted.
Thousands of people were guilty, from the developers to the politicians, from the land appraisers to the attorneys. Each individual involved in Florida’s development wore one face for the public and another for closed-door dealings. I will no longer be able to travel Summerlin Road without remembering its slave-trading namesake. As I drive across the state, I will think of the displaced indigenous tribes of the Everglades. The original history and culture of the state were bulldozed, just as Assumhatchee had feared as he stood with huckster Collier.
As the scheming began to fade and more environmental laws were passed, most of the developed land was overrun by nature and time. Vuic writes that “[s]ewage, water quality, air pollution, and wetlands preservation measures all needed tightening, but no one in power had the will or the stomach to do it.” When unfortunate customers foreclosed on the properties they couldn’t afford, or simply failed to visit for sufficient periods, locals would claim the land for hunting or drug operations and erect barbed-wire perimeters which were routinely patrolled with armed citizens. A few came down from New York or Massachusetts to find gun-toting people on their land who advised them to return north for their own safety. One witness said the scene was straight out of the film Deliverance (1972). Dead bodies began to show up in the local swampland.
Jason Vuic provides a detailed saga of Florida development, county by county, year by year. While some parts read like a satire of capitalistic greed, it is an honest examination of history that evolves into a cautionary tale of the human capacity for self-interest and acquisitiveness. The author’s research is unassailable. The Swamp Peddlers is an exceptional account of legal loopholes, egotistical hubris, environmental annihilation, and the mindless development of land at any cost.