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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,180

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This is the grave of Carl Fisher.

In the history of America, some people are just born hustlers. They aren’t necessarily dumb (or smart) and they aren’t necessarily evil, though many of them are. But some people just hustle. The Big Chance is an American thing. Most everyone just totally fails at it. But some people succeed for awhile, we get to know them, and then they fail. Let’s talk about one of them.

Born in 1874 in Greensburg, Indiana, Fisher was just a working class kid. His father was a drunk and abandoned the family in the early 1880s. So the young Fisher had to work from the time he was young. That meant doing any number of jobs that poor kids had to do. In 1891, he and his two brothers decided to open a bicycle repair shop. This was the great era of transportation inventions. Another set of brothers would take their bicycle shop and invent the airplanes. The Fisher boys had a different path: the automobile.

Fisher was a tinkerer and he moved his bicycle shop into larger transportation manufacturing. In 1904, he got his big break, when a car manufacturer asked him if he could develop headlights. Indeed he could. Pretty soon, he was the major supplier of headlights to automobile manufacturers throughout the country. He later sold this new operation to Union Carbide and became a millionaire.

Fisher then pioneered the automobile dealership. Whether he pioneered the oversized gigantic auto dealership American flag remains unknown. But his dealership in Indianapolis is considered the first of its kind. He was a pretty brilliant salesman, taking one car, pulling out the engine, tying it to a hot air balloon and sending it over the city as a stunt to get people to come out and look at the cars.

Now, what makes Fisher particularly memorable is his contribution to auto racing. He and three partners created the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and had their first race in 1909. This wasn’t particularly well thought out at the time, though nothing about early auto racing was exactly well thought out. The track was crap, made out of loose rock that flew up everywhere, caused nasty crashes, sent flying debris into the crowd, and killed at least one person. So they had to cancel the race halfway through. Whoops. But did this stop auto racing in that city? Ha ha, no. People love the chance of death in their spectator sports. Fisher got investors to put in a real road made of brick and it reopened in 1911. No one died that time and the track became the finest racing track in the country. That was the first Indianapolis 500.

Fisher also pushed for a national system of highways. Early roads were atrocious. Fisher promoted the idea of the Lincoln Highway and led the fundraising for it. He got famous people such as Theodore Roosevelt and Thomas Edison to invest and used that to build up other investors. That was so successful he built upon it to promote the Dixie Highway as well, which is less well-known today but was a north-south road that is more or less I-75 today.

Fisher also was a major promoter of Miami as a vacation site. Up until the early 20th century, south Florida was just a swamp. But that changed very quickly and Fisher was a major reason for it. Of course, this could be more accessible due to the growth of decent roads, though taking a boat would also become a very popular way to get there. He invested a lot of his own money into Miami real estate and made a killing on it. He would invest heavily as well in the necessary infrastructure, including building bridges and even dredging Biscayne Bay. He built many of the big early hotels. Soon Miami would be a dominant piece of American popular culture, along with Los Angeles the first warm weather vacation destination in the nation. This one took awhile though. People were interested but it seemed so far to buy land. So he used his excellent promotional skills and it didn’t take long for rich people to want to move there. By the late 20s, his fortune was at least $50 million, at least in theory. Available cash, well…..

Fisher was a pretty bright guy, but he also knew it. That leads to hubris. He was determined he couldn’t fail. Moreover, it was the 1920s. Money was cheap and people were spending. Conservative, considered financial decisions were not exactly the order of the day. Fisher was as overextended as anyone else. Also, he was a heavy drinker and that was beginning to take a toll on his aging body. His wife had enough and walked out. He decided that since Florida had been so brilliant, he’d start another big resort community on the eastern edge of Long Island. Well, that wasn’t such a bad idea and of course the Hamptons are a getaway for the rich today. But he way overextended himself. The Depression hit. He was just crushed.

Fisher lost almost everything. By the early 30s, all he had was a little cottage in Miami where he sat and drank and drank and dreamed of remaking his money. And he did gather enough investors to try. His last big project was the Caribbean Club in Key Largo. A bit of coming down to Earth might have done Fisher some good and he envisioned this as a resort destination for working class Americans. But that wasn’t so well thought out–how were they going to get out there for one thing? What this did become known for was being the supposed filming location of Key Largo, with Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, and Edward G. Robinson in 1948, though in fact it was all shot on a sound stage, but the studio played it up this way.

The other thing about Fisher is that he was a racist par excellence. He made sure that Miami Beach would be an all-white community. He also refused to sell to Jews. Among the catchphrases that his properties used was “Always a view, never a Jew.” Classy. That no Blacks were allowed into the town except in a service capacity goes without saying. None of this hurt his business. It only helped with a racist and anti-Semitic American populace.

By this time, Fisher was dead anyway. He drank himself to death in 1939, with a stomach hemorrhage being the immediate cause. He was 65 years old.

Carl Fisher is buried in Crown Hill Cemetery, Indianapolis, Indiana. Got himself a pretty big tomb for a guy who ended up poor. Maybe he bought and built it when he was still rich.

Incidentally, in the comments the other day, someone mentioned why I so rarely discuss the families of these people. I thought that was worth addressing. The answer is pretty straightforward–these may be biographical sketches, but I am not interested in biography in any sense (I’m not interested in cemeteries or graves either per se, another common misconception; it’s not like I wander around cemeteries generally). Each post in this series exists as a way for me to make a point about America, for good or (usually) for bad. Someone else might highlight something different, humanizing them through researching family or whatever. That’s cool, but it’s not my bag. To me, the point of this series is to tell stories about America, not about individuals. The individual is just a conduit to the larger story. Anyway, I hope that clarifies the idea behind all this nonsense of a series.

If you would like this series to visit other American real estate hustlers, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. The ultimate hustler, Donald Trump, lives. But you can visit Fisher’s fellow partners in the Miami hustler. Thomas Walkling is in Miami and Dana Dorsey, Florida’s first Black millionaire and who ironically sold much of the land to Fisher, is in Allapattah, Florida. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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