Thursday, April 26, 2012

Florida History: Great Commoner William Jennings Bryan, high-priced land salesman

Bryan in 1913
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By Jane Feehan

The Great Commoner, William Jennings Bryan (1860-1925), three-time Democrat candidate for U.S. President,  played a part in Florida’s land boom of the 1920s.

The political celebrity from Nebraska (born in Illinois) and his family moved to Coconut Grove, Florida in 1913 where he eventually became a full-time citizen of the state. Watching attempts to drain the Florida Everglades for agriculture, Bryan, who once served as secretary of state under President Woodrow Wilson,  announced the project as “one of the greatest enterprises on record.”  Bryan was so certain about Everglades’ real estate prospects that he purchased marshland south of Lake Okeechobee.

Of more certainty after the drainage project waned was the $100,000 fee the silver orator was paid in the mid-1920s by developer George Merrick* to promote Coral Gables, the first planned community in the U.S. (That fee was nearly double the salary paid Babe Ruth at the time.)

By 1925, the South Florida land rush slowed to a crawl but Bryan’s fame kept him busy and in the national spotlight.  An anti-evolutionist, he represented the World Christian Fundamentals Society for the prosecution in the Scopes Monkey Trial in July 1925.  Bryan won the case against teaching evolution but died five days later.

On a personal note, I had the pleasure of working for an acquaintance of William Jennings Bryan, Ira D. Beynon of Lincoln, Nebraska during the 1980s. He too, was a Florida commercial property owner. A young lawyer in Lincoln, Beynon knew Bryan in the 1920s. Mr. Beynon was well into his 90s when I knew him. Six degrees of separation … over six decades.

Miami Metropolis, June 15, 1915
Miami News, June 4, 1921, p.13.
Miami News, Apr 18, 1925, p. 10. 
Grunwald, Michael. The Swamp.New York: Simon and Schuster (2006), pp. 141, 145, 167

Tags: Florida in the 1920s, Miami in 1920s, Coral Gables history, William Jennings Bryan

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