The Marco Island Historical Society presented the “Florida Land Barons of the Gilded Age” on Sunday, January 23, an original play adapted and narrated by Marco’s own first lady of history, Ms. Betsy Perdichizzi. As I gathered up a plate of brownies and some sparkling green froth to drink, I watched volunteers hurry back and forth from the storage room, opening up folding chair after folding chair to accommodate the larger than expected number of theater goers who came out for the performance.
Ms. Perdichizzi, who apologized for the late start, served as narrator and looked elegant in an early 1900 period cocktail dress. The first land baron was Bion Barnett played by Gary Grant (yes, that’s Gary instead of Cary, but just as dashing and debonair.) Mr. Grant played the role of a confident Bion with a witty, likeable sense of humor. The Barnett family moved to Jacksonville, Florida from their hometown of Kansas City to open a bank with three employees, Bion’s father as president, a cashier and Bion who served as clerk and held the exclusive title of bank sweeper with the broom seldom leaving his hands until he took over the bank after his father’s death. Ironically the bank made its fortune on the business of the town tax collector who deposited $6.25 to open an account so he could transfer $25,000 to New York. Little did Bion know that this little tax collector later became the Florida State Treasurer, depositing over one million in surplus into the bank! The story continues as other banks fail and Bion’s bank grows due to the surplus it managed to maintain. Bion worked in his bank for 73 years.
Henry Flagler was the next featured Land Baron with emphasis on his three wives. Flagler partnered with John D. Rockfeller to create Standard Oil and expand railways through Daytona and, toward the end of his life, all the way to Key West. The ladies stole the show. It’s as if the audience was sitting in Oprah Winfrey’s studio hearing the real scoop on the life of Henry Flagler. Judy Daye opened as Mary Harkness Flagler, Henry’s first wife. Judy portrayed Mary with all the sweetness and innocence that confirmed this little lady was the love of his life. Mary was there in the early days when Henry gambled his savings on different business ventures. Fortunately for Henry, the Harkness family had plenty of money (Henry did marry the boss’s daughter when he was a bourbon salesman) and they continually bailed out or financed Henry, most significantly lending him the $100,000 to start up Standard Oil with John D. Rockefeller. Mary’s illness led the Flaglers to become seasonal residents, with the warm weather providing a healthier environment for Mary’s health. As busy as Henry was, he seldom left his wife’s bedside. He read to her nightly, save for twoevenings, and remained totally devoted to her for 17 years.
After Mary’s death, Henry married Ida Alice Shrouds, Mary’s nurse. Bonnie Bozzo gave a spirited performance of an unpopular woman with the public as well as Flagler’s children. To tame his high tempered wife, Henry allowed Ida to spend his hard earned cash and spend she did, extravagantly on herself. “Ida” appeared dripping in jewels and an extravagant gold and silk gown. The second Mrs. Flagler threw lavish parties attempting to elevate herself in the social circle which resisted the advances of a “commoner” who had married into wealth. It was a long overdue honeymoon that took the Flaglers to St Augustine where Henry embarked on building a lavish hotel called Ponce de Leon and eventually Ida’s private residential villa made of coral shells and sand. Henry’s ambition and long absences between projects drove Ida into paranoid madness. Bonnie entertains the crowd by “literally going insane” in front of our eyes pulling out her beautifully coiffed hair and crying her way off stage.
The last wife, Mary Lily Kern, is played by Eleanor Burnhan with all the grandness of a well bred, gentle society woman. Interestingly enough Mary Kern tells us how Florida conveniently came up with a new law that allowed one to divorce if one’s spouse was declared afflicted with “incurable insanity”. They married eleven days after the law was passed. Mary was thirty four to Henry’s seventy one years. Mary, just as the first Mary, supported her husband’s ambition and had the sheer delight of taking that first train ride into Key West with Henry on the railroad he toiled over for years. Henry died a year later, not from a fall down the steps of his home, but what Mary called “utter and complete exhaustion”.
The play wraps up with Lee Lindburg returning to Marco Island to give his special performance of Barron Gift Collier. Lee portrays Barron with slight cockiness and pride as he described himself as the “Good Robin Hood” who took money from the rich and brought it down to Florida where he invested millions buying up what he called “swamp land”. Although Barron’s life is well known to Marco Islanders, the fact I found most interesting was his unpopularity when he was able to convince FL legislators to split Lee County into two districts; Collier and Lee. This writer did not know that Lee County was named after the south’s great general Robert E. Lee. How the Florida legislature could split the district and name one part after a southern hero and the other after a “Yankee” was beyond southern comprehension.
As expected Ms. Perdichizzi put together a cast of good actors for a most entertaining reenactment of the lives of the Florida Land Barons. Kudos to the Marco Island Historical Society for providing an amusing, informative glimpse into that incredible era called the “Gilded Age.”