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SAMUEL PROCTOR ORAL HISTORY PROGRAM at
the University of Florida.
To \-'\ t4
D--We are doing an interview with James S. Fortiner. The date is Monday,
March 28, 1988. The interviewer is David Dodrill and it's approximately
2:25.in the afternoon. The interview is being held in Mr. Fortner's office.
In Ft. Myers, Florida.
Before we started, tell me a little bit about you background as far as....
J--Where do I fit? Well, I came here on vacation in 1954, for the month of
April and stayed at the beach and fell in love with it, and I had been
general manager for Osgood z General and made power cranes and draglines
and I had travelled all over the United States and Canade for five years.
And I saw an opportunity here, so when I went back, I resigned as general
sales manager and started over in Ft. Myers living at Ft. Myers Beach and
looking for some way to make a living. And we were here 30 days after
we left we were back with my wife, two cars, 2,000 dollars, and two girls,
and furniture for a two bedroom house, and that's all. No job. But I
had been promised several jobs, one in Orlando, one in Coral Gables, and
one in Jacksonville, but my wife would not tink of living any of those
places. She wanted to live in Ft. Myers Beach and for a heavy machinery
mand, there want anything. Anyway, I, my background is in hotel admin-
istration. I went to Cornell in 1941 and if you look at that closely
it says IIOme Economics, but the hotel school was part of the Home Economics
when I was there. But, the class of '41. Anyway, there was not a hotel
opportunity here either, and no heavy machinery, and nothing much. But
we did look at, and we had sold several machines in the business.
We sold machines down in Key VWEst where they walked them out right of the
mainland or one of the islands. You keep walking them out with a drag-
line and keep dragging the ocean and making canal lots. And we sold al
lot of machines down there because it wears them out awful fast, the salt
wter. But anyway, I saw an opportunity here, maybe to get into the real
estate business and eventually the land and real estate business. So I
started a firm called Fortner, Miller REalty and Development Company.
And my partner was Addison B. Miller. He was a grand old man of develop-
ment and real estate in Naples. And he just died a hear of so ago. But
he was very big in real estate in Naples. And so in 1956 we opened the
office in August on First STreet, that little office that First Federal
Savings and Loan had occupied and then moved out into bigger quarters.
Anyway, I had, I met the Mr. & Mrs. Keller, who Mrs. Keller was one of
the daughters of Dr. Miles of the Miles Laboratroy Family of
Indina, They had a home at the beach and we were living at the beach
and we had friend from Chicago that were close friends of theris, any-
how we got to socializing with them and they helped me get started in
the real estate business, offering to help me get the listing on the
property that we were talking about at that time which was land on the
river on the north side some 1721 acres that was owned by the Miles
family. That had the Kellers owned another 800 acres which they called
four Mile Ranch. But this 1721 acres was further south and was near what
they call [M^^ Point. It included Point, I believe. And
anyway it was good land and it had a high bank right out to the water's
edge. It was at least as high as this desk, above the average tide. The
word swamp did not apply to any of the land that was in that 1721 acres
that they started with. It was all good land. There was a road called
Harney Point Road which stopped at least, I would think two miles or three
miles, in fact, the last place that you would get off is three mile
Ranch which was Keller's Ranch where they had some very good
cabins and so forth. But there was no road after that. I hd an old jeep
station wagon when we would go down and we'd follow the trail. Hunting
trails is all there was. And on down through this three miles of river-
front. In order to show it. And we showed it a couple of times but we
didn't really have the listing yet. Because Mr. Keller had not been able
to get all of the ten heirs that were involved to all agree to sell.
Some wanted to sell, some didn't. And so, finally got it all set that
they would sell and....
D-'There were ten heirs all together?
J--Ten including. But they all finally agreed. It took Mr. Keller about
a year to get it done. And so he gave me the listing, in other words,
I kew it was coming, so I had notified a friend of mine who was a major
syndicator from Palm Beach and he had bought quite a few tracts of land
around south Florida. Especially around Lee County and he was named Ed
Green. I can't remember any more specifics. But Ed Green ran a club
called the 99 Club which was made up of 99 millionaires and it was a
second story club. They went for lunch in Gardens. It was a pri-
vate little club with its own restaurant. And they would go to the club
and buy a piece of land if he had something going for the day. Or they
woudl shoot the breeze aobut it. And they bought alot fo tracts all
D--Vfat city was this?
J--This was in Palm Beach, Florida on Wharf AVenue. And I had lunch there
on one occasion. It was an exciting day. But, anyway, so I told him
about it, he said, we'll take it. So he wrote me a check for $42,000,
which was approximately ten percent of the purchase price.
D--What were they asking for it?
J--They were asking $250 an acre for 1721 acres. Let me see what it really
is, I forget now. That's about $420,000. And so that was ten percent.
And that money laid in my hands so I had the check and I got the contract
signed and delivered it and it was accepted because we had met all the
terms and conditions of the listing. It was a ten year contract and
about 25 percent down or something like that and ten years on the balance.
I don't remember the interest rate. But in any event, they were getting
three miles of riverfront, all good land for $250 an acre. In the fall
of 1956. I say my office opened up in August and this was my first
important acreage sales. At my recollecton it was probably in October
or November. Mr. Keller had, having been a licensed real estate person
and his father being a developer from Indiana who had done 25 subdivisions
of his own up there in Indian, he went ahead and had a lawyer do a title
search to get everything all cleared up. They found some old stuff be-
cause the Miles family had owned it for more than 30 years. I don't
remember how long now. They went through the process of doing a quiet
title suit to clean up various minor objections that might have been made
by people buyin it. So Mr. Keller didn't want to have somebody study the
title and say that's not going to work and get another six months to fool
around. Stretch it out. So we had all that done in advance and when
Mr., when we deliver the information to Mr. Green and their attorney they
came up with some more things that could have been objected to eventhough
we had it all cleaned up. As you know, lawyers are good at that. But
in any event, they, about three months into this situation after we had
the contract, instead of closing, they had these exceptions and they
would have to get them cleaned up. Anyway, Mr. Green called me and
asked me if I wanted to participate with them in the.... Because they
were going to try resell this property, before they closed. And I said
no, I couldn't do it. I'm just getting started in the office and I
wouldn't do it. I said I won't have anything to do with flipping. I
didn't know if they had anybody in sight at all. I don't think they did.
It was just the way they did it. They tried to get the brokers who were
participating to make it easier to syndicate something if you have the
brokerage to start with. But I told them no, I needed the money to get
my office on its feet. Anyway, to make a long story short, they went
ahead and found Mr. Rosen, I think, Mr. Baker he worked for REynolds
at the time.
D--So what did Tom I3aker do?
J--Tom Baker worked for 1311i Reynolds. A fellow named Tom Baker worked for
Bill Reynolds. He was a salesman for the office. And either he or Bill
Reynolds himslef or maybe the two of them together and you'll have to get
that from them, they rounded up the Rosen bothers. I don't know how they
D--Well, I already talked to Bill and from what I understand, Bill heard it
from the grapevine that they were interested. They were up near PUnta
Gorda with 1ilt Mendelson up there and Harbour Heights. And Bill men-
tioned that he heard it through the grapevine somehow that they wre inter-
ested in a large tract of land and he gathered up maps and headed up there
and that, from what I understand was the original contact there.
J--O.K. What they did, Bill Reynold had sold land to Ed Green. Other land
in Lee County and Ither places. And so he knew that Ed Green had con-
tracted with me to buy the Miles land. So anyway, so when he got ahold
of Mendelson he already knew that Green would be interested in selling
because that's all he did was buy and sell. Sometimes he closed. They
were quite capable of closing. They didn't have to float. They had
oodles of money. But this particular one because the Mendelson situa-
tion and the Rosen situation came along during that six months and eight-
een days from the time they went to contract to the time they actually
closed. They were able to find another buyer. REynolds came along
with another buyer and went to Green and said we'll buy that contract.
And so they negotiated the deal with the contract for $375 an acre. Or
fifty percent more than the amount of the contract that I had negotiated
with Mr. Keller and Mr. Green. So Green sold his contract and we all
attended the closing because it was a double closing and it was in the
office of Cook And Cook in West Palm Beach. They were old line lawyers
that were hired by Mr. Keller for the fee. And Mr. Leonard Rosen was
and I don't remember the other lawyers that were there, but I think it
was the same lawfirm and theri office next to Bill Reynolds.
D--Was it Bill Carmine?
J--Carmine. It was Carmine. They were lawyers for them at that time, in
the very beginning in the early days. So Cook & Cook and CArmine did a
double deal. Grene never took title to it at all. The title went direct
to Rosen in whatever name he put it in initially.
D--Were you ever in on any other sales plan to Gulf American?
J--Yes we sold them some other properties. We sold them land that had been
mined and their was a shell, you know we build roads around here with
shell. And there was a marl pit and it's up there where they
have a park know. Lake Kennedy is the basis of that whole marl pit.
And some people named Lines owned that land and we sold it to Gulf Amer-
ican at that time. There were a couple of other tracts, they were inciden-
tal. But Lines and Miles were the two that were significant.
D--Let me ask you a question. You mentioned Four Mile Ranch. Is that near
where they called Four Mile Cove?
D--Now, was that land ever sold to Gulf American?
J--No. It was not in the city. We have 193 acres of that ranch for sale
right now. It's owned by a man nmaed Fleming. That piece of land has
sawgrass on the front. What they call Black Rush. And I've been cri-
ticized by my environmentalist friends for calling it sawgrass. It's
black rush and it's kind of marshy. And there is a marsh there but it
was never developed. And it never will be. And right next to it was
another piece that was bought by Gulf American but was never subdivided.
And that's called Eco Park at the end of Four Mile Cove Road. And so
we have a tract there that we are going to show tomorrow to one of the
largest apartment developers in the country. He's coming here tomor-
row to look at these 193 acres. The interesting part of that property
is that it was also available at the same time. At $250 an acre. But
the Keller's Ranch was available for $165 an acre. But it didn't have
good land to the river. I thad this marsh. Good large number of acres
was not really good. But we didn't worry about it in those days be-
cause we could fill it in. Dug canals and got on with it. 1973 they
fixed it so we couldn't dig canals anymore.
D--So the majority of the land, not only that first 1721 acres, but the
majority of the land was now Cape Coral was not swampland.
J--The swamp was on the perimeter to the south. There was one area out
towards Sword Point that was near the rose garden. Beyond the rose
garden was kind of sad and there was another big long swatch on the
far western side which ahd a significant amount of mangrove and is
pressently in what they call environmentally sensitive land. But
the part they dug the canals in was not. They got 20,000 that was all
in one piece there,
D--It was Phipps land wasn't it?
J-Phipps land. That's right. And they got that one big chunk of it.
D--Do you know anything about that purchase?
J--No. I think it was very inexpensive but I think it was 200 or 400 dollars
an acre. Somewhere in that range. It was pretty cheap. REynolds was
involved in that also.
D--So the land was basically pretty high. What did it look like? Did it
have trees on it or was it basically grass?
J--It had trees on it, yes. But what happened was, their idea was not to
convert the land from swamp to, but they wanted to build another Ft.
Lauderdxale. They knew what land sold for on canals. That were naviga-
ble to the saltwater. And they were right. Its that aspect that sets
Cape Coral apart from most of the other subdivisions. They were able
to get most of their canals dug and get most of their canals open. Now
there's still a lot of them that are freshwater canals, unfortunately.
But the ones that are salt are doing fine. And there are loads of them.
Those lots continue to be worth more and more money.
D--One other question. Do you have any recollections or information of
how Connie Mack got involved in Gulf American?
J--Well, just generally. Connie Mack had moved here about three or gour
years before I did. But I think he came here about 1950, about there.
And he had made some investments. He had been into some shrimp boats
if I remember correctly, And that didn't produce how he wanted it.
And then he got involved in the development of an island out on the
way to Sanibel called Connie Mack Island and that was being developed
by Ft. Myers REalty. And I went to work for Ft. Myers Realty for about
tne months while I was waiting to get my broker's license, learning how
to sell real estate. And I tried to sell some lots out there on Connie
Mack Island. And he loved to play golf and he was a good friend of Mr.
Bill Reynolds. And he had his license with Bill Reynolds. And I think
Bill Reynolds suggested or brought him into the picture and of course,
Leonard Rosen's concept was let's get as many people with recognizable
names to use in our advertising. And so they put him on the payroll and
the next think you know, he is working for them. Connie is a very nice
guy, very well liked. He's 6'6" or 6'8" or some very grand number and
makes a fine impression and he know how to talk, very fluent and easy
to meet person. But in those days that name was much more famous than
it is today because in those days Connie Mack was associated with the
Philadelphia Athletics. And they were more important in those days.
We don't have the PHiladelphia Athletics anymore. The A's went west.
He did work for Reynolds for a while and they were good friends. They
golfed together an awful lot.
D--Is there anything else about Gulf American or anything?
J--Oh, I don't know. Sort of a general comment. The only other thought
I had is, I guess, they had a very good engineering company. And although
they made a few mistakes in marketing, we're trying to sell their proper-
ties today. All of their commercial properties were 25' by 150', little
tiny lots to be sold to a whole string of people. Or they are 40' by
125'. And you have to put a lot of them together to make any kind of
a deal. So they were selling them in little pieces to a lot of investors
early on and the net effect is that we've had to go back and in order
to utilizes this land in any commercial way, we've had to go back and
piece together string of these lots from half a dozen or a dozen other
owners. And, as a result, Cape Coral has very pieces of prime commer-
cial property. The only, the shopping center situation when they
sectioned areas for a commercial site, they were much too small. They
didn't set aside a major tract of land for that purpose. The engineering
company was looking for the short range rather than the real success
that they brought around and what it finally turned into. The Carl
Wood Mall which had K Mart and Winn-Dixie and several other good stores
in it, was assmebled by taking a whole groups and groups of individual
lots and making it into a buildabel site. The property that was not
taken into, which was not part of Gulf American's which is a half a mile
further north of Carl Wood which was named Carl Point, was largely the
part that was never taken in was the north edge of that section. And
it was the north 3/8 of Mrs. Keller's ranch and it was sold to people
from Connecticut, Dr. Padula and some other folks. And, so they kept
that and subdivided it. And into another subdivision. And, anyway,
a portion of it has been developed and another portion was not developed.
And the part, some of it was flatted and canals dug and they bought it
back and reworked the canals taking part of that old subdivision off
the books and then the part up front which is aobut 20 some acres with
a Wal-Mart and a Publix and a Walgreen Drugsotre, McDonalds and the others.
They're occupying that 20 some acres that's out in front of the Four Mil
Ranch which is the portion that Dr. Padula bought. And the land to the
east of it is owned by a Mr. Kirby now, a 73 acres tract that I was devel-
oping and got it all ready to record and Mr. Kirby came along and bought
it, from me, gave me a profit, and said, "Never mind, we'll do it out
way." And he went and had it redeveloped so to speak and did a poanned
unit development there. And got 73 acres of it turned into a proposed
condominium development. Dug bigger canals and did a lot of work in there.
But did not, has not gone forward in building anything. And then Mr.
Flemming bought some of this land from Dr. Padula and he was going to
build a big golf course in there back in the days when you could build on
this Black Brush and he bought it in 1972, I believe, early '73. And he
no sooner got it and got the plans drawn and the environmental people
came along and lowered the boom. And he's had it ever since. Although
we did sell the commercial land out front and got it developed, pretty
well got most of his marbles back. But he still is actively working or
actively working right now to sell that big tract. So that's what's
happening around there.
D--Let me ask one last question. The people in Ft. Myers, generally, was
there kind of an attitude that Cape Coral and Gulf American was kind of
low class and kind of out there?
J--Well, I think the attitude was that it was being sold by exaggeration.
And promised that were not likely to be fulfilled. And so there was an
attitude on the part of a lot of people that they thought it was not to
get too deeply involved. I remember in the early days, we sold about
sixty lots on the river. That's all I ever sold until recently until we
got back into the commercial end about five years ago. We started selling
commercial land. But as far as selling lots, I don't sell lots in general
except for commercial use. So, we sold about 60 lots over there, if I
remember correctly in the early early days and they were sold, 100 foot
lots, were sold for $6,000, right on the riverfront. Good land, didn't
have to be filled or anything, the good stuff. And part of the original
tract and they were sold in Connecticut to various investors up there
around And I had a friend that was active up there.
Anyway, obviously those lots, instead of being worth $6,000 today are
worth I would think around $120,000.
D--That's what I've heard.
J--That's right. And they are gone. Maybe one out of 1,000 is still avail-
D--Well, good. Some helpful information.
J--I oughta fill in a gap or two for you.