William John Howey: A man to remember on election day

Regardless of our party affiliation, the story of William John Howey can teach us all about what it means to be an American. Photo: William John Howey

FLORIDA, November 6, 2012 — At long last, election day has arrived.

Chances are that likely voters have more than a few things on their minds. Some might be thinking about the Great Recession and tax policy. Others could very well be consumed with the Benghazi attacks, as well as America’s standing among world powers.

Yet more probably have other things dominating their attention, such as reproductive rights, LGBT equality, and the role that religion plays in government.

Regardless of our respective political philosophies, there is one man we can all stand to learn from during a time like this. He is, at least in my opinion, America’s forgotten tycoon and an exemplary political leader. 

Far more important, though, is the stedfast sense of leadership and none-too-blind ambition which he held throughout life.

William John Howey was the most prominent land baron and citrus planter in the world during his Roaring Twenties heyday. A skilled real estate developer as well, his sphere of influence extended far beyond his home base in Florida. Despite being a member of America’s most powerful socioeconomic strata, he was truly a man for all seasons and engaged presidents as easily as day laborers.

One might consider him a Gatsby-like self-made multimillionaire minus the emotional hangups.

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

By the time Howey turned thirty, he had been through many careers and gained business knowledge the likes of which most MBAs can only dream about. 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 in this field, he relocated to the rolling hills of Lake County, about forty minutes north of Orlando.

It was there that he took on a challenge almost beyond comprehension.  

Deciding to build an idyllic vacation town surrounded by 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 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 an initial success.

Downstate, however, a serious problem was developing. The Miami land boom, Florida’s first real estate bubble, went bust long before Black Tuesday. Investors became paralyzed with fear about the value of Florida land. Howey, who was described as a remarkably honest man, had absolutely nothing to do with the fraud which South Florida speculators and developers engaged in.  

Nevertheless, he could not completely evade the terrible stigma which was attributed to Florida entrepreneurs. 

Howey 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 had. Despite falling short in the race, he devoted his time to building the Florida GOP into a viable statewide entity, especially with the incoming waves of new residents from north of the Mason-Dixon line. 

Unfortunately, native Dixiecrats despised his stances on social issues. One of his most unpopular opinions was to eliminate poll taxes — a move which would have given the black community a chance to vote. Howey quickly became toxic 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 both citrus and homes away 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 Howey never did go completely broke, he witnessed firsthand the life and death cycle of speculation. Needless to say, this is 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 generally forgotten. He 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, Howey lived the American Dream with a passion. As an integrity-driven politician, he effectively founded the moderate wing of Florida’s 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 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. Just imagine what our country would be like if we had more leaders like him around today.

Much of this article was first published as An American Story: William John Howey on Blogcritics.org


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Joseph Cotto

Joseph F. Cotto is a social journalist by trade and student of history by lifestyle choice. He hails from central Florida, writing about political, economic, and social issues of the day. In the past, he was a contributor to Blogcritics Magazine, among other publications. He is currently at work on a book about American society.

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