- Historic Sites
The Man Who Invented
With a wave of his plastic wand Carl Fisher transformed a tangle of mangrove swamps into a peculiarly American resort
December 1975 | Volume 27, Issue 1
As Fisher’s money dwindled and the dredging went on, his Prest-O-Lite partner, Jim Allison, urged him to give up the effort, but he was determined to stick it through. “When you get hold of a bull by the tail and he’s going downhill, you can’t let go,” he said. Waiting for the customers to come, Fisher watched grass and flowers being planted on the filled swamps and argued with John Levi about street plans. He ordered Levi to make Lincoln Road, his proposed east-west shopping thoroughfare, at least a hundred feet wide, with two sidewalks on each side, one for walking and one for window-shopping, because it was to be America’s rue de la Paix. Fisher built his first hotel on Lincoln Road; he named it, of course, the Lincoln Hotel. He would have named the whole island after Lincoln, but it was already too commonly known as Miami Beach, which became its official name when the small settlement incorporated as a town in 1915.
Fisher also built on Lincoln Road an office building for his real-estate business at a time when his sales staff consisted of one man, Pete Chase, who sat twiddling his thumbs under an umbrella at the Miami Beach end of the Collins Bridge, waiting for any likely-looking prospect who might wander in from the mainland. Desperate for customers, the Lummus brothers and Collins engaged a well-known barker, Edward E. “Doc” Dammers, who gathered crowds by offering raffles of crockery and silverware as a come-on. Dammers was supposed to be able to sell ice skates in Hawaii. Fisher, striving to make his would-be ocean-side city an elegant resort, refused to stoop to hiring Dammers. One day Fisher was approached by Sheriff Dan Hardie, who ran a bathing beach and dance hall for daytime visitors at the Lummus end of the beach. The sheriff asked if Fisher would contribute five hundred dollars toward bringing a carnival to the beach as a tourist attraction. Fisher said: “Dan, I’ll give you five hundred to keep it away.”
Miami Beach began to pay off shortly after the end of the war, when the combination of peace, prosperity, the rise of automobile travel, and the effect of Fisher’s illustrated publicity campaigns (featuring bathing beauties) brought the first big influx of northern tourists into southern Florida. The turning point may have been the day not long after the Armistice when the first procession of polo ponies was led across the bridge to the beach. In the 1920’s polo was a symbol of money. Around the same time Pete Chase came out from under his umbrella and made his first big sale to a lady who bought a lot for twenty thousand dollars. When Chase called up with the exciting news, Fisher said: “Bring her over and we’ll open up a bottle of champagne.”
When the first real money came in, Fisher plowed it back into luxurious improvements—more hotels, Roman-style swimming pools, more golf courses, handsome dredged-up islands on the bay—and bigger publicity campaigns. The little Lincoln Hotel was soon overshadowed by larger and plushier ones: the Flamingo, with a lighted dome of jewelled glass; the Nautilus, which went up when the land around it was still being filled; the King Cole, which featured English-style sideboard buffet breakfasts of kippers and kidneys for guests who wore riding clothes and boots whether they rode horses or not, for that was the dress of the leisure class seen in the silent movies of those days. Fisher spent fifty thousand dollars at the King Cole to put up a group of British polo stars he had brought from England, among them the Marquess of Waterford and Lord Cromwell. The two peers became entranced with Miami Beach and spent seventy-three thousand dollars on a piece of property. When they received the tax bill, they made the mistake of paying the assessment instead of the tax. “Polo did a lot toward making our tropical paradise cosmopolitan and smart,” Jane Fisher said.
Bringing over the British polo players was also a sound investment because it attracted to Miami Beach a score of polo-playing American millionaires such as Julius Fleischmann, the yeast king; James Hastings Snowden, the oil king; Harvey Firestone, the rubber king, whose four polo-playing sons made up a team of their own; and Stephen “Laddie” Sanford, who had water for his horses shipped down from New York.
Will Rogers, who hailed Fisher as the “midwife” of the new Florida, poked fun at his newly dredged lots of island estates. Calling the dredges all-day suckers, Rogers said: “Carl rowed the customers out in the ocean and let them pick out some nice smooth water where they would like to build, and then he would replace the water with an island, and today the dredge is the national emblem of Florida.” Rogers also claimed that Fisher “rehearsed the mosquitoes” so that they would not bite a customer until after he bought.