Cheap buy, wealth of drama
The antics of a bombastic developer were rooted in his lengthy legal battles with the state over Sun City, bought for $100.
By BEN MONTGOMERY
Published February 2, 2007
Fourth in a series of stories looking at the promise - and failure - of the Sun City development in the 1920s.
The short round man who sported a Southern gentleman's broadcloth suit and derby stormed through the corridor of the county building toward the room from which he was barred.
It was Feb. 20, 1953. The man was J.T. Fleming, a 63-year-old developer and inventor from Georgia who went broke during Florida's land boom and lost everything except 500 doomed acres in southern Hillsborough County.
And he was carrying a cane.
A deputy sheriff saw Fleming, hot-faced and wild-eyed, and stepped in front of the door to the Hillsborough County Commission chambers.
The old man cocked his cane and swung. The deputy stepped aside. Fleming spun and slipped and tried to catch his balance. He crashed down on the cold tile, a mess of anger and embarrassment.
How had it come to this? Why was the onetime millionaire that a newspaper columnist called "brilliant" so irate that he tried to smack a deputy sheriff with his cane?
The answer went back 15 years to the time Fleming first laid eyes on the boom-time development that they called Sun City.
Bought for a song
In 1938, Sun City was a maze of barren streets, a few buildings and half a dozen families. Once the dream of a Cleveland builder who wanted to create Hollywood in Florida, the land near present-day Ruskin was foreclosed on in 1929 after the state's land boom ended. It was sold to the lone bidder for $100.
Then it sat vacant as nature reclaimed the land. Streets named for silent-film stars washed away. A state-of-the-art movie studio where East Coast actors shot two short films was sold for scrap.
But all Fleming saw in 1938 was opportunity.
Fleming was one of the 10 wealthiest men in Georgia before material shortages during World War I caused him to go broke. During the 1920s, Fleming migrated to Manatee County and amassed a paper-and-land fortune of $1-million. Then came the bust; his fortune dwindled to a quarter-million in worthless notes and mortgages.
Looking for a steal, he bought special masters deeds to Sun City for $100 in the depths of the Depression. Fleming settled all the delinquent taxes for $163 under a special legislative act. Some folks wondered why anyone would be interested in the land, but Fleming swore it would be worth millions as a moviemaking destination where filmmakers and actors would live among regular people.
From the start, there were challenges. The root of his problem, he contended, was the state Road Department, which illegally cut a road through Sun City and turned Gloria Swanson Avenue into a drainage ditch.
Fleming hired a Tampa law firm to sue the Road Department and won $26,000.
That seemed to fuel some deep lust for litigation, because Fleming put nearly all of the proceeds into other lawsuits against the state and county.
The suits grew so numerous that he had trouble finding a lawyer to carry the cases. So he bought law books and began representing himself in court, annoying judges and issuing red-faced protests when the mood struck him.
He could recite state law without looking into his books, like a professional lawyer, and he was good.
To some folks, the man who had as many as 50 lawsuits in the Hillsborough and Pinellas courts was a distorted genius out for justice.
To others, he was a crotchety old gadfly.
In 1945, he was jailed for contempt of court when he refused to be quiet. He later sued the judge for $50,000, claiming the sentence damaged his reputation. That prevented the judge from hearing any more of Fleming's suits.
It became a pattern for Fleming. Judges he disliked were sued, forcing them to step aside from Fleming's cases.
The ploy was so effective that the local bar association appointed a group to try to stop Fleming from suing.
But Fleming kept at it, sometimes orating for hours - head back and eyes closed - until fed-up judges cut him off. In 1948, a judge tried to bar him from acting as his own lawyer.
Fleming wouldn't have it. He claimed his rights were violated and won a meeting with the governor.
The summer of 1951, Attorney General Richard W. Ervin introduced Fleming to Gov. Fuller Warren as "the most litigious man in the state of Florida."
Fleming asked the governor to give him relief from what he claimed was an abridgement by the courts of his constitutional rights.
"I don't know much law myself," Warren said, "but I have picked up a lot since being here and I don't think a governor has any authority over a judge."
Still, Fleming presented a serious challenge to the justice system. As Judge Richard Kelley of Dade City noted, the system must either meet the challenge of Fleming or explain why it can't.
At that moment, it could do neither.
The Hillsborough County Commission was just as frustrated as the courts. Fleming spoke so long during meetings that he was often asked to leave.
His outbursts prompted a commissioner to ask the county attorney whether Fleming could be banned from the meeting room. The answer was no, but Fleming could be arrested for disorderly conduct.
A question of sanity
Until Feb. 20, 1953, the night when he swung his cane at the deputy, Fleming's antics had never been violent.
He was taken to the county hospital and diagnosed with a broken back.
Across town, a county judge began to ponder a difficult question with no easy answer and serious consequences: Was J.T. Fleming insane?
If the answer was no, it meant an overburdened justice system and county government had to deal with an increasingly frustrated Fleming day in and day out.
If the answer was yes, it meant shipping a well-meaning old man to the State Hospital at Chattahoochee. And then what would come of his Sun City?
Either way, a decision had to be made.
Next week: Fleming's fate decided.
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; Some Kind Of Paradise, by Mark Derr; public documents; and interviews with descendants of H.C. Van Sweringen.
Researchers Angie Holan and Cathy Wos contributed to this report. Ben Montgomery can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 813-661-2443.
On the Web
To read previous installments in the Old Sun City series, go to links.tampabay.com.