Blame it on the reporter

This sign caught my eye the other day as I drove along Tamiami Trail (US 41) through the greater Port Charlotte metro area over on the west side of Florida.IMG_1360cI spent my career dealing with professional photographers all over the world so I knew the Blade was the daily paper in Toledo and not a sharpened piece of metal in the town of Toledo, Spain. (Digging even deeper, I can also recall that the Blade was one of the hundreds of papers in the Midwest I sent resumes to in my tough journalism job hunt in the early 1970’s)

And I knew the west coast of Florida has been heavily settled by retires from the Midwest (as opposed to the east coast of the state, where the migrating population comes traditionally from the Northeast.) So an Ohio impact on the nomenclature wasn’t surprising.

I was curious, though, about how it happened. Following my motto of Why Do My Own Research When I Can Find Someone Who’s Already Done It, I tripped over one account of it all by editorial writer Lindsey Williams.

One has to delve into ancient Florida history. Go back all the way to the 1950’s. That was when land was being gobbled up, drained, surveyed and divided into small lots all over the state to sell to Northerners. A company called General Development Corporation was in full charge of tens of thousands of acres of prime real estate along Tamiami Trail and they touted lots for sale heavily in Midwestern newspapers, with the Toledo Blade getting the lion’s share of the advertising dollars. (Explains the heavy influx of Ohioans into that area of the state)

At the same time, all those streets being plotted out needed names. ‘Easy Street’ was taken quickly of course (I saw that sign too, but traffic was too heavy for me to stop for a photo). As all the likely candidates (think plants, animals, places, etc) were being used and the need for more names continued, General Development encouraged its employees to make suggestions.

One man, Thomas A. Ferris, who was an executive of one of the companies General Development used to be and who went on to become a General Development director, pushed hard for the name Toledo Blade for a long winding street that ran through two counties. He had also lobbied earlier for the company to spend a lot of advertising money with the Blade.

And Toledo Blade Boulevard came into being. Who was Tomas A. Ferris? At one point in his life he was a reporter for the Toledo Blade.  The Lindsey Williams account of all this has him beginning his “successful career” there at the paper.

But, as with all tales involving reporters, there is an unvarnished version. This one was penned by Associated Press writer Ben Funk and appeared in the February 15, 1959, issue of The Miami News under the headline, “Publicist Preys on Vanity.”

In this account, Ferris started his career as a hand on seagoing freighters and then moved on to the Newark Ledger, Toledo Blade and the Associated Press, before hooking up with a publicity firm in Miami Beach. He soon opened his own firm, made enough to retire, lost his money in lousy investments, bounced back, then fell again, ended up jobless in Pompano Beach, FL, drove a cement truck for a while and then landed a job at a small development company called Mackle Brothers in Miami. Sounds like a reporter to me.

Mackle Brothers grew fast and became General Development Corporation, and Ferris’s publicity skills blossomed, according to Funk in the Miami News article. In it, he describes Ferris as a publicity genius ‘whose wise counsel can be worth millions to his employer.’

He says Ferris came up with a scheme to send letters to newspaper publishers, editors, columnists and reporters, advising them that a street in Port Charlotte was going to be named after them.

Soon there was a rash of stories in papers all over the country praising Port Charlotte. As one editor explained: “If you think I am going to say that a street named after me is not in a desirable place, you’re crazy.”

As Funk put it: “It was the kind of publicity windfall every business concern dreams about but rarely gets—unless it happens to have a public relations man with the ingenuity and know-how of one Thomas Addis Ferris.”

Well done Mr. Ferris.


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8 Responses to Blame it on the reporter

  1. …sounds like a reporter to me too


  2. Roger Haines says:

    Interesting and fun stuff, Ron. Well done!
    Some more tidbits…GDC (actually their water/wastewater utilities arm, GD Utilities or GDU) was, for a number of years, a big Florida client for my engineering-services-company ex-employer. GDC/GDU corporate was in Miami. They had developments, and water and wastewater facilities to serve them, in several areas of the state. I worked on water treatment plant and wastewater treatment plant projects for them at various SW Florida development locations, including of course Port Charlotte. Unlike most developers, they took their water and wastewater facilities seriously. GDU’s engineering director ended up employed with my company, for many years.


  3. Chas Hunt says:

    Hi Ron,
    Great article. This brings back many memories. The people mentioned were before my time at GDC. I started in 1973. I’ve passed your post along to several ex-GDC employees for their comments. Is Roger Haines referring to Harold Schmidt as the ex-GDU engineer? Many of us travel back to the Ports and are amazed at the current number of inhabitants (not always a good thing).
    One other interesting street name in all communities is Elkcam (that’s Mackle spelled backwards).


    • Ron Haines says:

      I’ll ask brother Roger if that’s the name. Yes, saw the explanation of Elkcam. Before seeing the explanation I was guessing it had something to do with elks and cameras.


    • Roger Haines says:

      Chas, the GDU engineer who left and went to work for CH2M HILL was named Tom Waldeck. He’s plus/minus 65 years old now I’d say. I’m a bit fuzzy on the timeline, but I’d guess he left GDU in the early 1990s.


      • Deborah Waldeck says:

        Roger…Tom left GDU as Director of Utilities and joined CH2M Hill Gainesville in 1987… how is the family?


  4. Harold Fenno says:

    The name Tom Ferris brings back many memories of my younger days. I started at 2228 Coral Way, Miami in 1956 ( the original HQ of the Mackle Bros.) as an auditor working for their independent auditors, Ring, Mahony and Arner. I subsequently joined GDC as controller in 1960. I’ll never forget Tom Ferris for his public relations/ marketing talents, but also for one of his favorite pranks when he traveled to northern cities on business during the winter. He would go to the address of his contact, call him on the phone and tell him how much he was enjoying the weather in Miami and wished he was there with him. Tom would then wait five minutes and then show up in person much to the dismay of the person he was visiting.


  5. Harold Fenno says:

    I noticed an error in the above address of GDC, it should have been 2828 Coral Way which was just west of the old First Federal Savings & Loan office.


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