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Seeing stars in the sun

Sometimes dreams don't come true. Sometimes dreamers pay with their lives. The curse of Sun City. Once upon a time, the dream was of a Hollywood in Hillsborough.

Published January 12, 2007


Destiny, the men called it. These 500 acres will bloom into Florida's premier city, and there is money to be made. Bags of it. Land speculators poured in by ferry from St. Petersburg and by Model T Ford from Tampa and Jacksonville. Fifteen hundred of them packed the brand new motion picture studio in the middle of bare fields the men swore would soon sparkle with promise. Sun City. "Live among the stars," the newspaper ads exclaimed. "The world is hearing of Sun City." That Thursday in October 1925, so many investors came they had to stand along the sides of the studio and in the back as they buzzed about owning a slice of this sunshine dream. The men wore suits and ties, and the ladies wore dresses and church hats and they had pensions, paid vacations and good spirits fueled by a healthy economy and prosperity-minded president Calvin Coolidge.

Fortune seekers

They came to Sun City, near present-day Ruskin, from Chicago, Milwaukee and Cleveland, breathless, inspired, and hungry to own Florida land. But more than that, they wanted to make fortunes.

The Great War was over. A marquee over Times Square reminded Yankees that "It's June in Miami." Reports from Jacksonville had the southbound traffic thick on U.S. 1. One traveler caught in a traffic jam counted plates from 18 states.

The state's population was growing four times faster than any other state. Enough lumber arrived in 1924 to build an 8-foot wide boardwalk around the equator.

State officials helped spur growth by abolishing income and inheritance taxes and building roads as fast as possible. The speed limit - 45 - was the fastest in the nation.

By the fall of 1925, the Tampa post office set daily records for incoming and outgoing mail. The Hillsborough County School District spent double what it had in any previous year on new schools and still wasn't able to keep up.

St. Petersburg's population was growing by leaps, and the new $3-million Gandy Bridge, then the longest toll bridge in the world, linked it to Tampa.

The promised land

Sun City sat on the edge of all that promise, 500 elevated acres divided into 1,700 lots bordered by the Little Manatee River, Bayshore Highway and the Atlantic Coast Railway.

And was it glorious.

Men scraped clear the scrub pines and palmetto and planted tropical flowers and rose bushes. They rolled out hard-surface streets and named them after silent-film stars including Lon Chaney and Charlie Chaplin. They buried water lines in the ground and built a $100,000 power plant to light homes and run new appliances like the pop-up toaster.

The motion picture studio alone cost $300,000. It was the jewel of the city, a Spanish-Moorish style place with business offices, a projection room, a carpentry shop and 20 dressing rooms. And, unlike any other studio, it offered a visitors' gallery where Sun City residents and tourists could watch silver-screen stars work.

All that was missing from Sun City was people.

That's why the opening ceremony was so important.

Tampa Mayor Perry G. Wall drove 26 miles down Bayshore Highway to offer his support. He stood up front near Billie Moon, a 320-pound comedian who was in town with actresses Bessie True and Kitty Kipps to shoot reel-to-reel comedies originally written for Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle.

The politicians and celebrities lent the project legitimacy, since hucksters made a living selling worthless Florida swampland to northerners sight unseen.

"The spot for safe investment," the Sun City newspaper ads assured buyers. "Sun City is backed by nationally known men."

That was no sham.

Herbert C. Van Sweringen sat at the front of the studio that day, before the wide-eyed crowd of curious potential investors. It was his turn to take the podium.

This was his project. It could not fail. No one had more riding on it.

Next week: A mad land rush

Researchers Cathy Wos and Angie Holan contributed to this report. Ben Montgomery can be reached at or (813)-661-2443.

This story includes information from materials in the Special Collections department at the Tampa Library at the University of South Florida; Rinaldi's Official Guide of South Florida, 1925; various newspaper articles and real estate advertisements from the Tampa Daily Times, St. Petersburg Times, Tampa Morning Tribune, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Time Magazine and the Bradenton Herald; Only Yesterday by Frederick Lewis Allen; public documents; and interviews with descendants of H.C. Van Sweringen.

[Last modified January 11, 2007, 08:04:37]

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