March 10, 2001
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Anyone who has read Peter Matthiessen's dark, brooding trilogy of Watson novels (not for the squeamish or genteel reader, by-the-way) has been struck by the beauty and remoteness of the land that was southern Florida in the first quarter of the twentieth century. Much of it had been only accessible on foot, by horseback or aboard the rare coastal vessel. But changes were underway by the early 1920s. Sparked by flamboyant real estate developer-promoter Henry Flagler, an early business associate of John D. Rockefeller, a boom was on and land was selling like Starbucks franchises. The wealthy winter-weary had discovered a thinly-populated semi-tropical paradise.

One such snowbird, drawn to the swamp-laced inland region of the 27th state, was Buffalo, New York, up-by-the-bootstraps Irish paving contractor W. J. Conner, nicknamed Fingy due to an old hand injury. Already a millionaire when he arrived in West Palm Beach, he attended the 1917 celebration of the opening of a canal between that city and Lake Okeechobee. One jaunt on the canal was all it took for the New Yorker to fall in love with the area on the lake's north shore, and he began buying up land, with the goal of establishing model farms on the property. But soon his lack of a green thumb became apparent and the plan was dropped. Then inspiration struck. A black thumb might be more suitable here. He would open up the area to more than canal traffic; he'd connect the lake shore with the coast by building a toll road.

One thing Conner did not believe in was squandering time. He bought up much of the necessary land, then headed off to the state capital. It took him almost exactly two hours to sell his plan to the Tallahassee legislators and 20 minutes to get governor Gary Hardee's John Hancock on the franchise bill. Conner quickly added engineer R. Y Patterson to the team. Construction began on October 16th, 1923. Dredging marl from the canal and compressing it with rocks from the same source provided the roadbed through the swampy, half-underwater terrain. To haul the rock to the highway they built three-foot gauge rails down the center of the roadbed, with spurs to the canal every two miles. Telephones at each spur connected with eight locomotives, which dispatchers and engineers kept running 24 hours a day. The frenetic pace never let up and less than eight months later, on June 23rd, 1924, the road was completed. Then Fingy's promotional skills came into play. On July 4th, airplanes barnstorming over West Palm Beach dropped 30,000 leaflets to publicize the grand opening, while cowboys, Indians and celebrities lead a 2,000-auto caravan into the state's interior. The road was an immediate success, and was soon averaging $2,000 a day in tolls. Needless to say, Conner also sold a lot of land, enough to enable him to survive the economic bust a year later.

And yet Conner gained more than the obligatory fifteen minutes of fame, without raising finger, when northern artist Frank Mcmanus asked for his daughter's hand in marriage. There was a Mrs. Fingy and she had put her humble beginnings far behind her. No mere artist type was going to marry the child of Mrs and Mr. W. J. Conner. There would be no engagement while she was alive. Rather than change that unfortunate detail, McManus took a subtler revenge. He created a Sunday supplement comic strip and named it "Bringing Up Father". The two nouveau riche main characters, the dominating wife Maggie and the henpecked but indomitable husband Jiggs would become icons from the 1930s through the '50s, running in 750 papers and speaking 27 different languages. Conner lost one nickname and gained another - Jiggs. At least that's the tale they tell far (a few inches anyway) above Okeechobee's waters.

For Classical 91.5 and 90-point-3, this is David Minor

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SOURCES
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Gene M. Burnett - Florida's Past: People and Events That Shaped the State: Volume 3, Chapter 10. Mr. "Jiggs" Opens the Swamp Country (Sarasota, Pineapple Press, 1991)

 

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URL OF THE WEEK
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All right, Ladies and Gentlemen! Ya say you're not satisfied! Ya say you want more for your money! Tell ya what I'm gonna to do. Special offer! One time only. A three-fer! That's Right! Not one URL! Not two URLs!! But THREE URLs!!! It's time to wallow in some good, old-fashioned nostalgia. We older web surfers can remember, between senior moments, the little things that amused us way back when. The ancient times. Like the 1920s, 30s, 40s, and 50s. Youngsters can gaze on in awe and wonder what we were smoking (you might be wondering about ME right about now).

For a good look at the Deco style of comic strip art check out the Bringing Up Father site of George McManus's Maggie and Jiggs comics - http://www.retroactive.com/jan98/bringfather2.html . Or check out Jim Lowe's site, Vot der Dumboozle, as he "labors away somewhere in the backwoods of north Florida" at http://www.geocities.com/Hollywood/Lot/5759/index,html and explore the past in what he refers to as the Popular Culture Excavation Site, the worlds of the Katzenjammer Kids, Willie the KOOL Penguin, Mistinguett ("Queen of the Paris Music Hall", Disney comic book artist Carl Barks, jazz violinist Svend Asmussen, Tim Moore (TV's the "Kingfish" on the "Amos 'n' Andy" show), western swing bands, Hazel Court "Devil Girl From Mars", and Bo Diddley, not to mention exotic fan dancer Sally Rand, and the infamous 1895 "Pie Girl" Dinner. Don't tell me you remember _that_ one personally. Round out the trivia triumvirate with the RETRO archive, at http://www.retroactive.com/archive.html and explore back issues of the now-defunct RETRO magazine published in the late 1990s. The range of articles is too large to explore here in detail, but three examples will give you an idea - Lucy, the Margate Elepant, Wigwam Village, the "small motel chain, which has delighted tourists for six decades" and an excerpt from HUNAHUNA MEA HOU O HAWAI'I . Lots of vintage postcards on this site too.

Oops! Here comes the cops! Gotta run. See ya aroooooound!!!!!

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The Game's Afoot !!
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© 2001 David Mior / Eagles Byte

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