Some Silver Key History

by Barbara Joy Cooley

Image from the Ford V. Turner case

Once upon a time, some land on Clam Bayou in the Silver Key area was Gulf-front property, owned by the Harry H. Ford family. This Ford family (no relation to the Henry Ford of automotive fame) bought two large chunks of land on Sanibel in 1925 during what was known as a real estate boom in Florida.

Soon after the Fords bought it, the Silver Key land was to become the subject of a landmark land survey law case in the Florida courts.  You see, the hurricane of 1926 caused an accretion of land owned by the Turners, to the north, on Captiva.  Basically, via a movement of sand, a peninsula of Captiva grew down in front of the Fords’ Gulf-front property, and it was no longer Gulf-front.  The Fords sued the Turners, claiming that the accreted land really belonged to the Fords, since it was in front of their land.  The Turners argued that the accreted land was the Turners’ land, since it was contiguous with it.  The Turners won the case.

But the Fords didn’t give up.  Decades later, when Hurricane Donna cut the accreted land off from the rest of the Turner land on Captiva (1960), the Fords went to court again, in an attempt to get title to the Gulf frontage.  Once again, the Fords lost.

I was intrigued by the story of the Fords’ real estate ventures on Sanibel Island, and so I did some research about them.  As far as I can tell, the Fords never lived on Sanibel.  When they moved to Florida from North Branch, Michigan, they settled first in the middle of the state in the Lakeland area, and later ended up in the Sarasota-Bradenton area, where a few of Harry Ford’s descendants still live.

In the Florida land boom of the early- to mid-1920s, the Fords bought land all over south Florida, not just on Sanibel.  Land was not cheap in the peak of that land boom; the Fords spent plenty. How did they make their money, I wondered?

Usually what happens is that people make money up north, and then bring it to Florida to spend on land.  Nothing has changed about that!

So, where did the Fords come from and what did they do?  Well, Harry Ford (1879-1965) was born to Henry Ford and Elizabeth Grace Uglow Ford, who had immigrated from England and married in Canada in 1872.  By the time Harry was born in 1879, the family was living in North Branch, Michigan.  But it is safe to say they had Canadian connections.

Henry was a grocer who operated the general store in North Branch, which was, and still is, a small and simple little town well north of Detroit.  The town is situated on a cross-road that connects the two highways, routes 24 and 53, both of which run straight up from Detroit, through the thumb of the Michigan mitten, to the grand Saginaw Bay of Lake Huron.

As a young man, Harry worked as a “salesman” in the family grocery/general store in tiny North Branch.  When Henry, his dad, died in 1914, Harry continued running the business, with his mother Elizabeth.

Sadly, Elizabeth’s sister Mary Ann Uglow Stacey, and brother-in-law Thomas Stacey, also died in 1914 in North Branch.

Meanwhile, things were changing in Michigan – things that were bound to affect a grocer’s business.  By 1911, dozens of counties in the state had prohibited sales of alcohol.  Then in 1916, the people of Michigan voted to prohibit alcohol sales throughout the entire state.  Booze began to flow into Michigan from Ohio.  Then nation-wide prohibition started in 1920.  By then, Michiganders were accustomed to bootlegging.  You might say they had head start in this black market business.

Starting in 1920, the direction of alcohol flow into Michigan was from Canada.  When large shipments arrived, they’d sometimes go directly to people for personal consumption.  But sometimes the imports would go to “blind pigs,” a term used for any place selling illicit alcohol.  Detroit reportedly had up to 25,000 “blind pigs.”

By 1925, the Fords were well into their real estate investment ventures in Florida.  Harry’s mom, Elizabeth Grace Uglow Ford, died in 1925 in Starke, Florida (the city that is near the Florida State Prison Farm).  She was 77 years old at that time.  I still do not know how these Fords made their fortune; I only know they invested heavily in south Florida real estate. Slowly, over decades of time, the Ford family real estate empire was sold off – piece by piece.

Members of the Ford family still owned land in Sanibel until 2013, when my husband Tom and I bought a few acres of it, and a doctor from Fort Myers bought a smaller lot across San Cap Road – one of the pieces of Ford land which was once Gulf Front, but is now on Clam Bayou because the beach moved.  And so ended a Ford real estate venture era that began in the land boom of the 1920s.

Sources:  http://www.mackinac.org/10016 , leepa.org, www.leeclerk.org, U.S. Census data, and Ancestry.com.

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