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An American Story: William John Howey

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When one thinks of the great American industrialists of the twentieth century, names such as Carnegie, Ford, Mellon, and Walton probably come to mind. Howey, however, is nowhere to be mentioned, and most have never heard of him.

During his Roaring Twenties heyday, William John Howey was the most prominent land baron and citrus planter in the world. A skilled real estate developer as well, his sphere of influence extended far beyond his home base in Florida. Howey was a member of America’s most powerful socioeconomic strata; he engaged presidents as easily as day laborers and was truly a man for all seasons; a Gatsby-like self-made multimillionaire minus the emotional hangups.

Born the son of an Illinois minister in 1876, Howey started out in business at sixteen as a life insurance salesman. He moved on with amazing speed to enter various landowning ventures in Oklahoma, then became an automobile manufacturer in Kansas City. He produced a few cars, but soon set his sights on the prosperous pineapple industry in Mexico. He did well for himself there, though political strife forced him back to the United States in 1907.

By the time he was thirty, having had many careers and gained business knowledge the likes of which most MBAs could only dream about, Howey was anxious to plot his next move. He took off for Florida, finding that it was a place ripe with opportunity for someone with his agricultural and real estate skills. Settling in its central region, he began cultivating citrus and not too long after sold entire groves. Immensely successful at this, he moved to the rolling hills of Lake county, about forty minutes north of Orlando, to meet his biggest challenge yet.

Deciding to build an idyllic vacation town surrounded by his sprawling citrus groves, he attracted wealthy Northeasterners and Midwesterners in droves. Today called Howey-in-the-Hills, it sits on a high slope above a long chain of lakes, resembling southern California far more than it does typical Florida. Eventually having blocks of Mediterranean Revival villas, an ideal port setting and two resorts, one of which would be turned into an exclusive prep school and later demolished, it was a stellar success.

Downstate, however, a serious problem was developing. The Miami land boom, Florida’s first real estate bubble, went bust long before Black Tuesday, and investors became paralyzed with fear about the value of Florida land. Howey had absolutely nothing to do with the patently dishonest business practices engaged in by South Florida speculators and developers. He was widely described as remarkably honest with buyers; nevertheless, Howey could not completely evade the terrible stigma which was attached to attributed to Florida entrepreneurs.

He then decided to enter politics and ran for governor in 1928 under the banner of his beloved Republican Party. Campaigning on a staunchly pro-commerce platform, he came closer to victory than any other post-Reconstruction Republican ever had, but lost all the same.

Howey continued devoting his time to building the Florida GOP into a viable statewide entity, especially with the incoming waves of affluent new residents from north of the Mason-Dixon line. Unfortunately, native Dixiecrats despised his stances on social issues, especially the elimination of poll taxes, a move which would have given the black community a chance to vote. Howey quickly became poison with right-wingers, despite being one of America’s foremost fiscal conservatives. He ran for governor again in 1932, but was defeated in a rout.

The Great Depression hit Howey very hard, but not nearly as hard as many of his counterparts. Combined with the earlier land bust, his fortunes declined in marketing citrus or homes way from home. He did manage to sell a great deal of his holdings beforehand, however, and built a castle-like estate which stands to this day. While he never did go completely broke, he witnessed firsthand the life and death cycle of speculation, a cycle which would be repeated with disastrous results over seventy years later. Howey died of a heart attack on June 7, 1938, at the age of 62. He was interred in his family mausoleum, located on the grounds of his estate.

It is terribly unfortunate that, after his passing, his legacy was soon forgotten. Howey set the bar for citrus farming and sales, as well as for practical business ethics merged with an unyielding sense of character. As a cutting edge industrialist, he lived the American Dream with a passion. His political hallmark was founding the Southern Eisenhower-Rockefeller wing of the Republican Party. By anyone’s standards, these are astounding feats. In the face of financial meltdown or crushing electoral defeat, while others would have become human chameleons, he refused to betray his conscience and in an always reasonable fashion stood strong for his principles.

Truly, America’s contemporary economic and political arenas need more individuals like him. Howey was a credit to the nation, and deserves to be remembered as nothing less.

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About Joseph F. Cotto

  • jamminsue,

    Thanks; I am hoping to do exactly that sometime.

  • jamminsue

    Joseph, thank you! Please keep these entries coming, save them and someday bind them in a book. They will be valued by history professors for a long time.