Paradise Crushed

A lush idyllic chunk of the Everglades was transformed by bulldozers and a huge tree-eating juggernaut

Guard guy responded with ponderous gravitas. "Well, son," he said. Pause. "This land belongs to Gulf American Land Development Corp."

On the exact wording, Bellman's sonographic memory may be a little off. Nine months before the incident, in February 1969, General Acceptance Corporation (GAC) of Allentown, Pennsylvania, bought Gulf American, which was having trouble because a blitz of bad publicity it had provoked coincided with the state's move to regulate land sales or, more accurately, Florida swamp sales. Gulf American had been a leader in that arena.


From top: A school bus abandoned in Golden Gate along with a dream; somebody busted through a metal gate meant to keep them out of Picayune State Forest; Denninger now tracks those who would shut down the public lands to people like himself
From top: A school bus abandoned in Golden Gate along with a dream; somebody busted through a metal gate meant to keep them out of Picayune State Forest; Denninger now tracks those who would shut down the public lands to people like himself
From top: Today, the ghost orchid has helped turn the Fakahatchee Strand into the celebrity ecosystem of the Everglades; Denninger at the decrepit remains of the hunting camp; biologist Mike Owen battles hordes of mosquitoes to get a peek at a mysterious ghost orchid
From top: Today, the ghost orchid has helped turn the Fakahatchee Strand into the celebrity ecosystem of the Everglades; Denninger at the decrepit remains of the hunting camp; biologist Mike Owen battles hordes of mosquitoes to get a peek at a mysterious ghost orchid

Some history: Between 1960 and 1963, Gulf American assembled 175 square miles of southwest Florida. The scheme was massive suburbia. Its name would be Golden Gate Estates. If the project were completed as envisioned, it would be the largest suburban development on the planet.

The Golden Gate pipe dream followed Gulf American's showpiece, a new Gulf Coast city called Cape Coral, built on a peninsula just west of Fort Myers at the mouth of the Caloosahatchee River. The history of Gulf American, its land purchases, and its demise is detailed in the 1993 book Selling the Dream by David E. Dodrill. "Cape Coral had sprung up as a developer's dream," Dodrill says in a telephone interview from his home in Bloomington, Indiana. At Cape Coral, Gulf American dredged mountains of sand to fill in a vast stretch of mangroves between the river and the Gulf of Mexico. The company built a city from the ground up -- streets, homes, a million-dollar yacht and racquet club, an Olympic-sized pool, tennis and shuffleboard courts, a bathing beach on the river. Cape Coral was an expensive proposition.

With Golden Gate, however, the company changed its approach. On its sweeping 112,000 acres (north of Alligator Alley to Tamiami Trail, east of Naples), Gulf American planned only limited improvements to the land so its salesmen could unload raw acreage to investors.

In 1966, Gulf American added to its holdings, buying 68,267 acres east of and adjacent to Golden Gate, land that included a swampy orchid- and fern-laden cypress slough that drained into the Ten Thousand Islands. The company was land-mad. By the end of 1967, Dodrill writes, Gulf American owned 589,738 acres in four states and in one Central American country. Most of it was in Florida.

The cypress slough, now known as the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park, shimmers strangely in Florida land-development history. In the 1940s, its huge old-growth cypress was logged to provide wood for PT boats and other vessels during World War II. It is home to a stupendous quantity of rare tropical flora and fauna. In recent years, it has become the celebrity slice of the River of Grass. New Yorker writer Susan Orlean wrote about the Fakahatchee and its legendary ghost orchids in her 1998 book The Orchid Thief, on which the 2002 movie Adaptation was based.

To Gulf American, though, the strand looked more like one huge potential home site. In 1967, the company vowed to drain the entire area. That ecological catastrophe was averted, Dodrill writes, only because Collier County officials had the temerity to stand up to Gulf American and say no.


Back at that security gate in 1969, Ralph Bellman could only imagine that the idea of a private company buying and blocking access to thousands of acres in the Fakahatchee had to be some huge misunderstanding on the part of the security man. "I wanted to get into a debate with the guy," he recalls.

The guard cut him short: "There's no debating. We're fencing it off."

Bellman looked westward beyond the gate. Barbed wire had been strung up as a second barrier to the strand, his hunting camp, his weekend plans. "OK," he said, stunned. "W-h-h-hat do I do?"

The guard directed Bellman to the local offices of Gulf American (now GAC), where he endured the company's high-powered sales pitch and walked out with an acre-and-a-quarter parcel deep in the swamp for $2,000. His monthly payments were only $20, but he could ill afford even that. Friend and coworker Rudy Lutz agreed to split it with him.

After sealing the deal, Bellman says, he took the slip of paper that showed he owned land and headed back to the Fakahatchee and his hunting camp. The salesman had told Bellman that, as a landowner, he could set up camp wherever he chose in the swamp. Naturally, he chose the site of his existing cabin, just off Scenic Drive and down an old logging trail.

"Me and Ralph were forced to buy some land there just to go hunting," a miffed Rudy Lutz says from the woods in Salisbury, Vermont, where he moved from Davie four years ago to escape encroaching development. He and Bellman hadn't spoken in about 30 years until Ralph called him recently. A falling-out over business. IRS troubles. Lawsuits. Neither is interested in rehashing the details.

For Bellman, GAC's widespread developments marked a permanent change in the way the wild land of southwest Florida was viewed and valued. Something profound was lost when he was forced to buy the rights to his own hunting camp. "When we grew up, people shared the land that was available, even if it was owned by someone else," he says. "Gulf American [GAC] showed me what 'a taking' was. That matured me." The experience was a revelation. "Land is power, and money is power, and without it, you have nothing," he intones.

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