In the 1950's, south of White City, there were few homes. The area was a peaceful little slice of Florida. Not much more than a fish camp (Pruitt’s) along the St. Lucie River, roaming cattle from the few area ranches, and a fruit stand or two along the two-lanes of U.S. 1.
Then Gardner Cowles, (shown front right, with Mackle brothers) owner and publisher of Look magazine, discovered the St. Lucie River. He was one of the first to realize the potential of postwar Florida development. He purchased 8,500 acres south of Fort Pierce. In January of 1953 Cowles' St. Lucie River Land Company filed the plat for Unit 1 of River Park, the south St. Lucie County sub-division that was nestled just outside the northern border of soon to be Port St. Lucie.
Mr. Cowles developed a nationwide advertising campaign, designed primarily to attract retirees. He used magazine and newspaper ads to promote the areas natural beauty. He attracted buyers by marketing tropical living and a fishermen's paradise. When prospective buyers came to look at the property they were given a serene boat ride down the winding river. They almost always signed a contract when the tour ended.
Entrada Avenue and East Arbor Avenue were the first two streets laid out in his plan within River Park. Four homes built for the Youngerman Estate Company of Miami were completed in 1956. Guy & Gladys Clark were the first residents to move into the new development in 1957. Their new home was at 216 East Arbor. Four other families quickly followed, and by September of 1958 River Park had 42 families. There were no shopping centers. The closest store was 12 miles north in Fort Pierce. At first mail was delivered at Fort Pierce, then a FFA mailbox was put out facing U.S. 1 for the new residents. That same month General Development Corporation purchased the River Park sub-division from Cowles. Thus began the great Port St. Lucie land rush !
The unique evolution of the River Park sub-division was nothing short of remarkable. It was at first intended as the beginning of this new city to be named Port St. Lucie. However, as time progressed and circumstances prevailed, recognizing the differences between the vision of the developer and that of the River Park residents, the city was chartered to exclude River Park. To this day River Park abuts the northern border of Port St. Lucie in unincorporated St. Lucie County. While its residents, many of whom were and remain a vital part of the history of the City, are not within the boundaries of Port St. Lucie, they are a part of the fabric of the City.
With the passage of House Bill No. 953, introduced by State Representative Rupert Smith and signed by Florida Governor Bryant Farris, on April 27, 1961, Port St. Lucie became a city; a city without residents. The hundreds of River Park residents in the 1,000 acre development rejected incorporation, and remain to this day as part of unincorporated St. Lucie County.
The Mackles left GDC in 1962 to form the Deltona Corporation, another Florida development giant. The following decades reflect the impact of their vision. The population of the City of Port St. Lucie in 1970 was 330. In 1980 the city's population was more than 17,000, by 1996 it had climbed to 73,000-plus and by 2007 it had reached 160,000.
We can only hope that in the next decades, as we continue to grow our city, that we try and preserve much of the beauty of the river, the quiet of the western backwoods, the fish, birds and plants that appealed to Gardner Cowles.
In 1958 General Development Corporation (GDC) purchased the River Park property located just outside the northern border of the soon to be city of Port St. Lucie (and the adjoining 40,000 acres which on April 27,1961, became the city). General Development Corp. was a subsidiary of the Mackle Company. The three Mackle brothers, Frank, Elliott and Robert, created and developed eight other planned communities in Florida. Their budget of $50 million to develop a new community on the North Fork of the St. Lucie River created quite a reaction...the great land rush for Port St. Lucie was on!
Full page magazine ads enticed northern retirees. They could purchase an 80 by 125 foot lot for $10 down and $10 a month. Homes would sell from just under $9,000 up to $15, 000. Local ranchers began selling pasture land to speculators
The first big tract was sold by Lawrence Becker. He sold 6,000 acres of land for $1.3 million. That was $225 per acre, for land he had purchased at $6 an acre. Then the Mackles bought another 10,875 acres from the Helmly family west of U.S. 1. Over the next 25 years GDC purchased land from several other pioneer families, including the Carlton, Mattson, Sharett and Peacock's.
Marketing wasn't simply full page colored ads. Next to the GCD sales office at Prima Vista and U.S. 1 (in River Park) stood a building the company designed to look like a Mississippi River showboat. Prospective buyers had to pass through the showboat before they could see any of the GDC homes. Salesmen dressed in turn of the century gamblers costumes greeted customers. As many as 300 contracts were signed in a day! At Grand Central Station in New York a model home landscaped with Florida sand and pretty girls dressed in swimsuits lured many purchasers from that location.
Until 1959, when GDC opened a bridge over the Saint Lucie River, folks, who lived on the dirt road Prima Vista, would sit at the end of that road and wonder if they would ever be able to cross without a row boat. Once the bridge was built, plans for 200 more homes east of Floresta Blvd. and south of Prima Vista Blvd. began. The next year a recreational park was opened on North Port Island, including a Yacht Club and Marina.
By February of 1961, 250 homes were built in the area of the developing city. When GDC asked the state legislature to incorporate the 70 miles of uninhabited land into Port St. Lucie they purposely omitted the developed lands. To include them would have required approval by the residents that already lived there, which wasn't likely.