Amid the tumult of COVID-19 and toxic tribal politics, one story is pure Floridiana, serving as a cautionary tale of good intentions, missed opportunities, and unintended consequences. That is, if one considers rattlesnakes slithering aside promotional billboards an “unintended consequence.”
Ralph Kaul, a Washington, D.C., developer, public servant, and philanthropist, lost a race for congress in 1960. The accomplished WWII veteran had built radar stations and the City of Page, Arizona. Purchasing an empty tract of land on Old Tampa Bay in the early 1960s for $1 million, he built Georgetown Apartments, a modest collection of red-brick townhomes located near the intersection of Westshore Blvd. and Gandy Blvd. Dredging and filling the shoreline further expanded his holdings. The Georgetown Apartments offered middle classes a waterfront Florida dream. “They had a waiting list a mile long,” recalled resident Diana Watson, adding, “The apartments were beautiful.” Ralph and Virginia Kaul moved to one of the apartments in 1976, choosing to live with their tenants as neighbors. A trailer park abutted the property — yes, there was a time when mobile home dwellers lived along the waterfront.
After Ralph’s death in 2002, Virginia put the much-coveted property on the market. One bid came in at $100 million. The confident bidder received a phone call from the broker who broke the news: “You’re not even close!”
A group of limited partnerships won the high-stakes bidding with a $125 million chip. Their plan called for leveling the site and creating a “true waterfront retreat.” Over a thousand condos and town homes would follow. Tenants were evicted in late 2007 so construction could commence. But the Great Recession jammed the brakes on new developments, and in 2008, foreclosure proceedings began.
Never let a crisis go to waste! Some public officials saw an opportunity to restore and preserve a rare slice of waterfront property. Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio made inquiries to the Trust for Public Land and ELAPP (Environmental Lands Acquisition and Protection Program). “One thought at the city” recalled Iorio, “was that it could be a partnership with the county whereby we would purchase part of it as a city park, and they would purchase part of it as protected lands. . . . And here’s something that’s right in the urban core that could be a beautiful site for our residents.”
The deal fell through largely because Hillsborough County commissioners thought the City of Tampa was interfering in county matters, and, more importantly, powerful interests pushed hard to develop the property.
High rollers then took their own shot. Sold to the DeBartolo Development and Avanti Properties for $30.5 million, the site was to be transformed into The Isles at Old Tampa Bay, consisting of 1,235 units on 162 acres, including 130 luxury townhomes. Construction meant destruction of the old property.
“The rattlesnakes were the tip-off.” Thus, began a Susan Taylor Martin story in the Tampa Bay Times about motorists and pedestrians along bustling Westshore Blvd. noticing something eerie: slithering rattlesnakes. Demolition of the old apartments also included clearcutting the ancient oaks and pines, and the dense undergrowth. Such actions are illegal without permits. And subject to steep fines.
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Had the new owners researched the area, they would have discovered that the site was, indeed, “old.” And that rattlesnakes had a better claim as natives than newcomers.
The area’s old postmark, “Rattlesnake, FLA,” was the result of nature’s splendor and an unnaturally brave and talented promoter. For most of its history, Tampa’s Interbay peninsula was a tangled mass of oak hammocks, pine forest, and palmetto scrub, creating an ideal environment for Eastern diamondback rattlesnakes. In 1937, the George K. End family, formerly of Arcadia, opened a rattlesnake cannery, a thousand snakeskins south of the proposed Isles at Old Tampa Bay.
Possessing the talents of a Coney Island carnival barker and snake charmer, End served as postmaster of Rattlesnake when he was not entertaining tourists and gourmands at his Gandy Blvd. “Rattlesnake Cannery and Reptilorium.”
George Kenneth End was pure Floridian, except he was born in New York. End’s destiny as a purveyor of serpents belied his urbane, middle-class life, having earned degrees at Swarthmore College and the Columbia School of Journalism. Like Ernest Hemingway, End served in World War I, driving an ambulance.
After the war, End became a snake oil salesman. He settled in DeSoto County, harvesting rattlesnakes, selling their oil as patent medicine. A few years later, Mr. End moved his operations to Tampa, establishing Rattlesnake at the intersection of Gandy Blvd. and Westshore.
Lucy Fulgham and George End became unlikely friends and Tampa legends. When Fulghum graduated from Florida State College for Women in 1935, the prospect of a bright young woman with a degree in journalism was confined to the society pages. But through talent and perseverance, Fulghum became a legendary Tampa Tribune correspondent. Her first assignment was as fateful as it was exciting. “My first on-the-job story,” she related over a memorable lunch in 1979 near her antique shop in Ybor Square, “concerned George K. End.” She wrote that End was “first cousin to the man who met the wolf at the door and got a fur coat in the process, except this Arcadia fellow caught snakes in the grass and served them for supper.”
The decade following Fulghum’s first column brought a whirlwind of change to
Rattlesnake, Fla. The era, 1935-1945, witnessed some of Tampa’s highest highs and lowest lows, blending desperation, patriotism, and prosperity, as thousands of young men and women, construction crews, and buzzing aircraft wound up on Tampa’s Interbay peninsula, a vast swath of undeveloped and sparsely populated land south of Gandy Blvd.
On 13 July 1939, the Tampa Morning Tribune announced, “We Get the Big Base.” The coming of MacDill Army Air Field jolted Tampa’s slumbering economy. The U.S. Army had acquired 6,400 acres from Gandy to Catfish Point. Mr. End vowed that the show would go on. Annually, as many as 20,000 tourists frequented Rattlesnake. Soldiers’ wives and girlfriends and husky stevedores and merchant mariners from nearby Port Tampa, found Mr. End’s milking rattlesnakes entertainingly edgy. Decades before reality cooking shows, Mrs. End displayed her culinary skills by preparing rattlesnake hash. She also touted a new device, the pressure cooker, that tenderized the toughest reptile. Patrons purchasing a can of creamed rattlesnake for $1.25 received a membership card to the “Subtle Society of Snake Snackers.”
War brought prosperity. Mr. End found a valued new client: the War Department. The military needed snake venom for use as an antitoxin for snakebite victims in the South Pacific. Alas, Mr. End’s end came dramatically in July 1944, when a rattler struck his arm. “Sadly,” eulogized Miss Fulghum, “the patriarch forgot to keep enough antitoxin on hand, and once did not make it to the Davis Islands Hospital, once being enough for that particular shortfall.”
In the 1980 film, Atlantic City, Burt Lancaster portrays Lou Pascal, an aging gangster who had been a numbers runner in 1920s Chicago. In a memorable scene, Lou meets Dave, a young cocaine dealer, and they wander down to the Jersey Shore. The odd couple saunter near a bulldozer knocking down an aging mansion. A sign announces, “Coming Soon: Howard Johnson’s Casino.” Lancaster schools the young punk: “Now it’s all so god-damn legal. Howard Johnson running a casino. Kid: tutti-frutti ice cream and craps don’t mix.”
Nor do Eastern diamondback rattlers and waterfront mansions, buttonwood mangroves and Saint Augustine lawns mix well. Eight decades after the death of George End and the demise of the Rattlesnake P.O., the exclusive Isles at Old Tampa Bay rise from the scrub. Few realize the slice of land for so long neglected and now so coveted by developers reveals so much about the past and future of Florida.
Alas, the ancient live oaks have fallen. To be fair, the city dutifully fined the developers for illegal tree removal. “But the unpermitted work,” wrote Martin, “has left a desolate landscape where irreplaceable grand oaks stood.” Such practices became customary, the accepted price of business and expensive dreams.
Neither zoning boards nor developers will be the ultimate arbiter of Rattlesnake Point. Nature bats last. The Florida peninsula and Tampa Bay have witnessed profound fluctuations of sea level and climatic change in the last ten thousand years. For most of its history, land along and around Tampa Bay was underwater. Since the death of George End in 1944, water levels in Tampa Bay have already risen almost eight inches. Nature and humans are never static. During the last Ice Age, Rattlesnake Point rested forty miles from the Gulf of Mexico, as vast amounts of ocean were locked inside great sheets of ice. Geologists believe Tampa Bay was a vast inland lake. If future inhabitants of The Isles of Old Tampa Bay seek higher ground, it will not be the first-time humans have adjusted to rising seas.
In 2012, University of Florida archaeologists received an emergency call: Rising waters threatened to wash away an ancient burial ground near Cedar Key. Two thousand years earlier, Cedar Key bustled with energy as an inland Ice Age settlement for Native Americans. The Gulf of Mexico was a three-day walk from present-day Cedar Key, miles from its present shoreline.
In time, the earth began to warm, and the seas rose. Archaeologists recently discovered an extraordinary chapter in our history of adaptation: The Cedar Key burial ground turned out to be a re-burial ground. Ancestors had moved the graves to the uplands, a place once again threatened by newly rising seas. An archaeologist placed the site’s importance in plain English: “These guys, they never abandoned the coast. They were adaptive.”
One story perfectly encapsulates the environmental-economic dimensions of climate change. Question: Where was the hottest real estate market in 2020 Florida? The answer: Little Haiti. In Miami-Dade County. Nature For decades, it had been the poorest neighborhood in Miami. The wild real estate speculation points to one simple geo-economic factor: Little Haiti rests upon the highest point of land in Greater Miami. In Florida, geography is destiny. Ironically, the richest Floridians live closest to the shoreline, the most vulnerable place. To paraphrase Martin Brody in Jaws, “We’re gonna need a bigger seawall!”
Gary R. Mormino is scholar in residence at Florida Humanities. He recently completed “Dreams in the New Century: Instant Cities, Shattered Hopes, and Florida’s Turning Point.” The book will be published in 2022 by the University Press of Florida.