There is only one way to know Florida. That is to live there. Most winter tourists see little or nothing of the real Florida. Only the traveler who embarks upon a real voyage of exploration ever gets more than a superficial view of the land of perpetual youth, though even the most casual visitor comes under the spell of Florida’s never-ending charm. The longer one stays in Florida the longer one wants to stay. Most of the folk who call Florida home today came first as casual tourists and never went back home.
The charm of Florida cannot be put on paper. Once felt, however, it lingers with its victim so long as he draws breath. It is a composite of an infinite variety of physical elements blended with an undefinable something for which there is no word in our language, something almost spiritual in its power to instill that sense of general well-being, the feeling that all’s right with the world and with one’s soul which the old Greeks called “euphoria.”
If we cannot analyze this spiritual charm of Florida it is possible, at least, to assemble and examine the physical elements which combine to make Florida what it is.
Look at the map. Here lies Florida, farthest south of all of the forty-eight states. Its northern boundary is 100 miles farther south than the southernmost boundary of California; the tip of the Florida peninsula at Key West lies lower on the map than the southeast corner of Texas. The westerly sweeping curve of the Atlantic coast swings Florida directly south of Ohio and Indiana. Its easternmost shore is miles farther west than is Buffalo, N. Y.; its western boundary lies just a few miles farther east than Chicago.
Florida does not lie in the tropics; at its farthest south it is still a hundred miles and more north of the Tropic of Cancer. That brings its latitude, however, several hundred miles farther south than the peninsula of Italy, more nearly to that of Cairo, in Egypt, or of Shanghai, which its climate more nearly resembles.
Florida is more than 450 miles wide from east to west along its northern boundary; nearly 150 miles across the bulge of the Peninsula. From north to south, Fernandina to Key West, it is more than 500 miles. That makes Florida one of the largest states of the Union. There are only twenty larger; only one of them, Georgia, lying East of the Mississippi. Florida is larger than Pennsylvania, larger than Iowa or Wisconsin, than Virginia and Maryland together, than all of New England, if you leave off Aroostook County, Maine. It covers nearly 58,000 square miles, more than 37Y2 million acres. Thirty-five million of those acres are land, two and a half million of them fresh water lakes and rivers. Only Minnesota, a third larger than Florida, has more lakes than Florida’s thirty thousand.
Occupying one fiftieth of the area of the United States, Florida is the permanent home of only one eightieth of the nation’s population. Of its 1,606,842 inhabitants counted by the state census of 1935, 1,139,063 are white. The colored halfmillion includes a scant 500 Seminole Indians, all that remain of the renegade natives who rebelled against the Whites under the leadership of Osceala, the half-breed Chief who was the son of William Powell, an English planter, and whose followers fled to the fastnesses of the Everglades rather than accept deportation with the rest of their tribe to the reservations in the West.
The Seminoles are the only race in Florida of which it can be said that they are all natives of the state. Nearly half of the Negroes, more than four-tenths of them, and more than half of the white population of Florida were born in other states. Forty-two percent of these white “outlanders” who have made Florida their home came from the regions lying north of Virginia and east of the Rocky Mountains; most of the rest from the nearby states of Georgia, Alabama, the Carolinas and Tennessee.
Between 1925 and 1935 the population of Florida increased by almost one-half. In no other state has anything approaching this gain in population occurred in a similar period in recent times. The rush to Florida has not been paralleled in our history since the grand rush of settlers into Oklahoma in 1888 when the lands of the old Indian Territory were thrown open to settlement. They came to Florida from everywhere and for the same reason that they flocked to Oklahoma, that they crowded into each of the states of the West in turn as one after the other became accessible. The pioneer instinct which is every American’s heritage drove and is still driving them to the last of the pioneer states.
So far we have spoken only of the permanent settlers in Florida. In midwinter the white population of the State is nearly trebled, for a few weeks. In the four months between November and April more than two million visitors from the North come into Florida and leave it again. That is, most of them leave it; enough stay behind every Winter, or come back later as residents, to continue Florida’s growth in population at a rate which is steadily accelerating. Florida is busier than any other part of the country in building homes for new, permanent residents.
What brings these folk to Florida, these holiday-seeking millions, these hundreds of thousands of permanent settlers? The answer is simple. They come to Florida for the same reason that people migrate to any other place. That is because there is something there which they want and which they can get more readily, more satisfactorily or less expensively than they can get it anywhere else. To understand Florida, then, and its people, we must see what these things are which Florida offers that these folk cannot get at home.
What, in short, are the commodities which Florida has to sell and which the rest of America travels so far to buy?
At the top of the list one item stands out. It is the sole attraction of most of the temporary visitors, a major part of the lure which has drawn most of the permanent residents and still holds them in Florida.
That is the Florida climate.
Florida is warm in winter when the rest of the nation is shivering or freezing. It is green when the North is blanketed by snow. Its lakes and rivers are ice-free, and the seas which wash its coasts are mild in action and in temperature when the northern coasts are storm-bound by icy gales. When the lands of the Pacific are wrapped in fog, Florida glitters and basks in the warmth of her winter sunshine.
And not only in Winter does the lure of Florida’s climate attract and hold her people. So far from being intolerable, midsummer Florida’s climate draws increasing numbers, by tens of thousands every year, from the sweltering midlands of the Cotton Belt and the prairies of the wheat lands, to luxuriate in the cooling breezes of her Gulf and Atlantic coasts and to enjoy to the full (and at half the winter cost) the wide, free spaces of her glistening beaches and the tonic of Florida’s clean, bright sunshine which her winter visitors of a few months earlier have sought and found.
Lest it savor too much of the “booster” spirit to discuss Florida’s climate in glittering generalities, suppose we look briefly at some facts and figures which have been supplied by the United States Weather Bureau from its sixty-five years of official records. Much has been said and written about Florida’s rainfall, and scoffed at by the inhabitants of less favored regions. California’s twenty-two inches of rainfall a year, so inadequate as to drive its cities hundreds of miles for their water supply and to leave great areas arid deserts, is less than half of Florida’s thirty-five-year average of fifty-three inches, falling chiefly from April to October. Yet in spite of this great volume of fresh water, which keeps Florida’s thirty thousand lakes and two hundred rivers full to overflowing, and releases from its fertile soil the elements of its lush, green, year-’round vegetation, the records of thirty-five years show that the average number of entirely clear days each year is 162 and the average number of even partly rainy days is only 105 in the entire year.
In the matter of temperature Florida has its occasional extremes. The highest temperatures ever recorded in Florida in the warmest months of the year, which are June and July, are no higher than those often recorded in Boston, New York, Chicago and many inland cities. The average temperature for the entire state for 1936, the last year for which complete data are available as this is written, was 71 degrees; the highest was an July 7 when the thermometer at De Funiak Springs, an inland town in West Florida, touched 103 degrees. The January average temperature for South Florida was 63, for North Florida 54; the July average for the whole state was 81.8 degrees.
“But, speaking of climate, what about hurricanes?” the reader may inquire at this point. Here are the facts about hurricanes.
No tropical cyclone or wind of hurricane force has ever occurred in Florida, in the 50 years since official records have been kept, between the months of November and June. Of the fifty-six hurricanes and near-hurricanes occurring in that period, thirty-six occurred in September and October, all but three of the others in June, July and August. Three were in November. Here is a quotation from an official report on Florida hurricanes prepared by the United States Weather Bureau:
“The chances of a hurricane reaching the Florida coast in any given year are about one in four for the East Coast and one in two for the West Coast. It should be said, however, that these storms are much more likely to occur on the lower East Coast, extreme lower West Coast, and the Northwest Coast. The upper East Coast section, in which Jacksonville is located, and the middle West Coast section, in which Tampa and St. Petersburg are located, have been relatively free from hurricanes, and the chances of a hurricane occurring in those sections in any given year are very slight.”
It should be apparent that Florida hurricanes, so far as they are anything to be afraid of, are essentially bugaboos. Florida folk have no fear of them. They know, first, that the chance of a hurricane striking any given point is remote. The U. S. Weather Bureau calculates Jacksonville’s hurricane chances at one in fifty, those of Palm Beach and Miami and Fort Myers at one in twenty, of Tampa one in thirty and of Pensacola and Key West at one in ten. Moreover, the courses of these West Indian cyclones which occasionally brush the Florida coast conform so regularly to a fixed pattern that it is always possible for the Weather Bureau to give, and it does give, from three to four days warning that a hurricane is approaching a particular region. Only eight of the hurricanes that reached the Florida coast in the last fifty years are classed by the Weather Bureau as great storms. Storms of such unusual violence as the one which ripped up the railroad tracks across the Florida Keys on September 2, 1935, the experts of the Weather Bureau say, are likely to occur not oftener than once in a century, while proper construction of buildings provides ample security against loss of life and property for hurricanes of less intensity. Reporting on the Miami hurricane of September, 1926, and the West Palm Beach hurricane of September, 1928, which rank with the greatest on record in so far as wind velocity and loss of life and property are concerned, the Weather Bureau report says that the evidence clearly indicates that hurricanes of major intensity do not cause serious damage to properly constructed buildings.
This statement does not apply to buildings near an ocean beach, where foundations may be undermined or the beach badly eroded by storm tides. Several substantial houses near the ocean at Miami Beach were undermined and collapsed in the hurricane of September 18, 1926, but substantial buildings only one block from the ocean escaped serious structural damage. Practically all buildings were damaged by water, resulting from broken windows, doors or from damaged roofs. In Miami there were several frame residences, with shingle roofs, which were erected when the city was first laid out, in 1896. These houses escaped, not only structural damage, but serious water damage, while many hundreds of concrete-block houses of flimsy construction were demolished. The same conditions were observed at Palm Beach, West Palm Beach, and Lake Worth, which were directly in the path of the September 16, 1928, hurricane. Office buildings of the better type, ranging in height from 10 to 20 stories, were damaged principally by water. There were a number of substantial residences that were seriously damaged by debris from other buildings or by falling trees, but, with these exceptions, the writer observed no substantially constructed buildings in which the occupants were not safe during the entire duration of the Miami and West Palm Beach hurricanes. In Key West, there are considerable numbers of frame buildings that have withstood all the hurricanes of the last 55 years at that place without serious damage. One frame structure on the Government reservation has safely passed through all the Key West hurricanes since 1846.
Observations of the storm areas of the severe hurricanes on the East Coast of Florida in 1926, 1928 and 1929 warrant the following statement:
“If a building is properly constructed, including the proper type of roof and roofing material, and is securely anchored to the proper kind of foundation, it will not sustain serious struc tural damage in a hurricane of major intensity. If, in addition to the proper construction, all windows, doors, and vents are protected by storm shutters, the building should withstand strong hurricane winds with practically no damage. Such a building can be constructed at only a moderate increase of cost above that for the usual type of construction, and the saving on storm insurance will repay the extra cost in a few years’ time.”
Not long ago one of the authors, arriving one morning in Chicago’s Union Station, observed a family group sitting huddled together on a waiting-room seat and occasionally casting apprehensive glances at the hurrying crowd that streamed pass them. Late in the afternoon on the same day, returning to catch his train, he saw the same group still there, in conversation with a railroad official, whom he knew.