Collier, Barron Gift
- Susan Hamburger
Collier, Barron Gift (23 March 1873–13 March 1939), advertising entrepreneur and capitalist, was born in Memphis, Tennessee, the son of Cowles Miles Collier, a naval officer and artist, and Hannah Celeste Shackelford. Collier attended the Memphis public schools until age sixteen, when he dropped out to solicit business for the Illinois Central Railroad, to contract with the city of Memphis to improve the street lighting, and to learn advertising and selling for his uncle, owner of the Memphis Appeal-Avalanche.
Collier acquired half interest in the G. S. Standish print shop, which printed advertising placards for horsedrawn streetcars, soon replaced by enclosed electric streetcars. He recognized the potential for cheap advertising to get increased exposure on the new mass transit and obtained city advertising contracts in Memphis, Little Rock, Chattanooga, Birmingham, and New Orleans. Unaffected by the panic of 1893, Collier moved to New York City and began the Consolidated Street Railways Advertising Company, reputed to be one of the biggest financial successes in the advertising industry, under which he purchased franchises for streetcar and subway advertising in more than a thousand U.S. cities. One of these cities, St. Petersburg, took Collier to Florida.
Florida real estate agent Walter P. Fuller recalled that Collier always did his homework before a business deal, worked out the details favorable to both parties, and then made his offer. Another man who had early business dealings with Collier in Florida observed that “Barron was always generous, polite and considerate. But if you stood in his way, he’d run you over. He’d still be polite and considerate, you understand, but he did what he thought was right.”
At the invitation of John M. Roach, president of the Chicago Street Railway Company, Collier visited him on Useppa Island off Fort Myers in 1911. As part of a deal to obtain the advertising franchise on Roach’s company, Collier agreed to purchase Roach’s Florida property. Collier’s son, Barron, Jr., recalled that “the implication was he would obtain the ad contract if he bought the land. He bought the land—but he didn’t get the ad franchise.” Nevertheless, Collier saw the potential in Florida real estate development and began purchasing vast acreages in the southwest area of the state.
Between 1911 and 1926 Collier spent winters on Useppa Island, finally making it his permanent residence in 1926. Collier then focused the drive and determination he exhibited in building his successful advertising business on developing Florida. When Fuller offered to sell him land ready for development, Collier replied, “What I want is wild country that no one else wants and that I can make into a place where people can live.” He then amassed 1.25 million acres, becoming the largest landowner in the state.
Collier acquired all the holdings of the land companies in southern Lee and Hendry counties in six transactions between 1921 and 1928. In a deal with the state legislature to create Collier County from Lee County in 1923, Collier agreed to finance the building of the Tamiami Trail from Naples to Miami, an achievement at the time compared to the opening of the Panama Canal. Collier’s workers blasted through granite-like limerock for three years to create the 100-mile road, opening the way for settlers from the East Coast to populate Collier’s county.
Collier established dozens of companies in southwest Florida to transform the area into thriving farms, groves, and resorts: Bank of Everglades, Collier County News, Florida Railroad and Navigation Corporation, Florida Inter-Island Steamship Company, Ltd., Inter-County Telephone and Telegraph Company, Tamiami Trail Tours bus passenger service, Florida Gulf Coast Hotels, Inc., and the Manhattan Mercantile Corporation (operating nine retail businesses). Collier also owned the Fort Myers Press, Immokalee and Deep Lake Railroad, all the mills and shops at DuPont, and most of the county seat, Everglades. As he saw a need for a particular service such as lighting, ice, and power, Collier established a company.
As with the panic of 1893 and stock market crash of 1929, Collier believed the depression of the 1930s would not affect his business. He continued to invest millions in developing Florida while his advertising business declined; the transit systems and advertisers could not pay their contracted bills. By 1933 Collier’s liabilities nearly eclipsed his assets and the federal courts and creditors granted him a moratorium on paying his debts. Before settling his affairs, Collier died in New York City. Married in 1907 to Juliet Gordon Carnes, Collier had three sons; the eldest, Barron, Jr., continued his father’s Florida land development after the accountants and lawyers took ten years to determine that he left a large fortune rather than debt.
Collier also served as a special deputy police commissioner in charge of the Public Safety Bureau from 1922 to 1925 in New York City, where he developed the use of white or yellow lines down the center of roads. He was commissioner in charge of foreign relations of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, and he was a founder of Interpol, the International World Police, for which nine foreign governments decorated him. Collier was acting president of the Boy Scout Foundation of Greater New York, director of Boy Scouts of America, and founder and director of the Museum of the City of New York. Oglethorpe University bestowed upon Collier an honorary doctorate of commercial science. He wrote two books, Stopping Street Accidents (1925) and How Is Business in the United States (1927). He belonged to the Union League Club of New York and Chicago, New York Yacht Club, Metropolitan Club of New York, and Sons of Confederate Veterans, among many other groups.
Barron Collier invested millions of his advertising fortune in Florida’s future by creating a new county, developing the infrastructure, and using his advertising skills to attract settlers. Before environmentalists recognized the damage to the freshwater aquifer, Collier drained part of the Everglades to create dry land. But he also left a legacy of scenic primitive wetlands—Everglades National Park, Big Cypress Swamp, Corkscrew Cypress Rookery, and Collier Seminole State Park.
There is no known repository of Collier’s papers. The most expansive biographical information about Collier can be found in Charles E. Harner, Florida’s Promoters: The Men Who Made It Big (1973) and Florida from Indian Trail to Space Age, vol. 3 (1965). Additional illuminating articles appear in the Floridian, 10 Mar. 1974, and the Sarasota News, 22 Mar. 1959. An obituary is in the New York Times, 14 Mar. 1939.