A Painting by Christopher M. Still
Oil on Linen 48 x 126 in
A young woman is enjoying the Florida sun on a sandy beach. She holds out an orange, an offering reminiscent of Mrs. Julia Tuttle, who sent a fresh orange blossom to a railroad tycoon, encouraging him to extend his railway southward. Behind her is the Seven Mile Bridge, the longest section of the Overseas Railway, and the emerald waters of the Florida Keys. Around her in the sand are more symbolic representations of this period from the late 1800s through the 1930s.
In this painting the artist recalls the men with millions and the millions of men and women who built the state around the turn of the century. Great developers and the Great Depression are among its major themes, and are reflected in the title, borrowed from the book by Ernest Hemingway. The tremendous amount of change that Floridians experienced during this time period is indicated by their changing modes of transportation: from the train to the automobile, and finally, to the airplane.
New and growing industries, such as those shown here by the cigar box, sponges, and orange crate, prompted construction of more railroads. Using state incentives for free or cheap land, wealthy developers like Henry Flagler and Henry Plant not only built extended railway systems to transport these products, but also huge, lavish hotels catering to wealthy tourists. The availability of the automobile brought new kinds of tourists to the state from all financial strata, including younger, middle class families on winter vacations. Many decided to stay.
As Florida’s population and wealth grew rapidly, a land boom was on particularly on the lower east coast, where housing subdivisions sprang up everywhere, on property that was formerly swamp or pineland. Vastly inflated land prices and profits peaked in 1925, then collapsed in 1926. Natural disasters, including two major hurricanes, depressed the economy even further, and Florida got a head start on the country’s Great Depression of 1929.
Carved into the right side of the long oar resting on the painting’s frame are the initials of federal programs that helped bring jobs and money back into Florida during the Depression, while also creating more roads, parks and bridges. Though the state continued to attract tourists and residents, summer heat impeded a growth explosion. The ice tongs in the sand recall the invention of the ice machine which preceded the 1929 prototype of the air conditioner. More change was on the horizon.