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Florida - the longtime choice of dreamers

For 160 years, Florida has been praised by famous men. These pitchmen, who have included the Marquis de Lafayette and William Jennings Bryan, all bought into the Florida dream of a perfect paradise.

The Marquis de Lafayette got hundreds of acres of land near Tallahassee as a gift from the U.S. government for his aid during the American Revolution. The marquis kept trying to develop his American property into utopian plantations in which French and German immigrants could plant grapes and produce wine.

The French hero could talk of Florida only in superlatives. He foresaw plantations without slaves and bountiful crops. Alas, his dreams never materialized. He never settled here himself.

Not long afterward, a former attorney general of the United States named William Wirt joined the marquis in rhapsodies over the potential of Florida. Wirt bought land in Leon County in 1827 and was persuaded by his sons-in-law to continue Lafayette's vision.

"Florida bids fair to become a perfect Arcadia," Wirt cried as he launched plans to develop a plantation called "Wirtland," to be staffed by German immigrants and run without slaves. Wirt actually recruited 150 Germans, but they left within a year, and "Wirtland" failed.

Wirt had quite a career. As a lawyer, he prosecuted Aaron Burr for treason. As attorney general, he investigated the validity of Spanish land grants in Florida and participated in landmark Supreme Court cases such as McCulloch vs. Maryland. He was also the anti-Masonic Party candidate for president in 1832. His brothers-in-law, John and Robert Gamble, were Tallahassee planters and founders of the Union Bank.

But Wirt's greatest fame came as the biographer of patriot Patrick Henry. Historians contend that Wirt actually made up the "give me liberty or give me death" line that Patrick Henry was supposed to have uttered in the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1775. Patrick Henry died 18 years before Wirt eulogized him, and there were no written copies of his speeches.

After "Wirtland" failed, Wirt returned to Washington, D.C., where he died in 1834.

William Jennings Bryan became a Florida resident after three unsuccessful attempts at the presidency. He proclaimed Florida "a leader in education and morals."

Bryan drafted a resolution for the Florida Legislature condemning the teaching of evolution in any form. It passed, but unlike Tennessee, there was no Scopes trial in Florida.

Historian Daniel J. Boorstin said Bryan's famed oratory was featured in rallies held in South Florida to promote Coral Gables in the 1920s.

Novelist Rex Beach also wrote what Boorstin called "a bombastic illustrated booklet" on behalf of Coral Gables. But then the Florida boom of the '20s was a scene of unprecedented optimism _ even hysteria _ in which investors rushed to buy lots that they saw only on blueprints. Beach promised Coral Gables would be a new Venice (Italy, that is).

At the luxury community of Boca Raton, Addison Mizner _ who moved entire Spanish villas to Florida and reconstructed them _ was helped in promotion by his literary brother, Wilson Mizner.

The Mizners had visions of a community that "will surpass in exclusiveness any resort on Florida's east coast," a brochure promised. The first day of lot sales in May of 1925 produced more than $2-million in purchases.

Such optimism wasn't confined to the hectic boom of the '20s. In the years after the Civil War, writers like Harriet Beecher Stowe and Sidney Lanier touted the wonders of Florida to the world. Mrs. Stowe bought an orange grove on the St. John's River in 1867 and boasted of the climate in her book, Palmetto Leaves.

Mrs. Henry Ward Beecher, her sister-in-law, wrote a book called Letter from Florida, which claimed people could live in the state for next to nothing if they reclaimed the wastelands.

The poet Lanier, broke and tubercular, wrote a travel book on Florida for the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad Co..

Ladies Home Journal editor Edward Bok, who built a memorial tower at Lake Wales, typified the enthusiasm for Florida that many publications exhibited in endless articles.

The pitchmen for Florida also put their money where their mouths were. They included railroad-hotel builders Henry M. Flagler and Henry B. Plant. Saw-maker Hamilton Disston and streetcar advertiser Barron Collier bought millions of acres. Carl Fisher, the guru of Miami Beach, could see the future reflected in a sandbar. Captains of commerce and industry, from J.C. Penney to Arthur Vining Davis, joined the chorus along with T. Coleman DuPont.

Optimism remains Florida's most durable commodity today.

Jerry Blizin is retired and lives in Tarpon Springs. He was a St. Petersburg Times reporter from 1948 to 1965.