By Seth H. Bramson
What a story! What an amazing and incredible story! It is difficult to imagine, given the world-class city that Miami has become, that the entire region was, barely more than 115 years ago, a wilderness, replete with huge reptiles, hungry bears, panthers, innumerable snakes, rodents and other such varmints - as well as, perhaps, the most misery-creating of all, the mosquitoes. Oh the mosquitoes! Literally billions of them throughout the area, making life for the early settlers--particularly during the long, hot, humid, precipitation-filled and rain-drenched summers--miserable, if not perilous. And yet the idea of being pioneers, of coming to an American frontier in a place far south in a mostly unknown state called Florida, held a certain allure and attraction to a unique breed of men and women, not necessarily rough-and-tumble types (although there was no shortage of them) but rather people who saw opportunity and who would come to the southernmost part of what someday would be known as the Sunshine State to buy land, build homes, raise families, construct schools, open businesses and, most importantly, build a city.
William M. Burdine, the founder, was a retired Confederate army officer, father of seven children by two wives, citrus grower, merchant and entrepreneur.
The names of the first settlers, beginning in the mid- to late 1870s, from Gleason and Hunt to Sturtevant, Brickell, Tuttle, Collins, Pancoast, Merrick and Cohen, are well known to longtime Miamians, but the true and real beginning of what would, just a few years after it had become an incorporated municipality, become known as the "Magic City" is generally accepted as being the week of April 15 to April 22, 1896--on the former date the first train (a construction and supply train) of the fabled Florida East Coast Railway arrived on the shores of Biscayne Bay, while the first passenger train, carrying the legendary Henry M. Flagler, arrived on the latter date. It is from those two events that the commercial history of Miami emanated.
William M. Burdine, the founder, was a retired Confederate army officer, father of seven children by two wives, citrus grower, merchant and entrepreneur. It would be his 1898 trip from Bartow, in Polk County, Florida, east to Miami, in Dade County, that would set the stage for the birth, growth and development of what would, along with Rich's in Atlanta, become one of the most famous department store chains in the South, if not in the country.
Brothers John and Everest Sewell long claimed that they owned and operated "Miami's first store," but whether there is complete truth to that statement is debatable, for it is also possible that the beloved Isidor Cohen, Miami's first permanent Jewish settler--having arrived at the Lemon City dock (at the time Miami's only usable ship-berthing facility) on February 6, 1896--may have opened Miami's first retail establishment. Interestingly, though, William Brickell was operating a trading post--which certainly could have been referred to as a store, since goods were bought and sold or, in some cases, traded to and fro--beginning in the late 1880s.
Eventually, with stores in Orlando and other cities, Burdine's was a formidable statewide presence.
However, it would be the 1898 arrival in the fledgling city of one William M. Burdine (September 30, 1843 - February 1, 1911) and his son, John M. June 8, 1875 - December 11, 1951), that would set the stage for the single greatest, and ultimately most famous, name in Miami's retail and dry goods merchandising history: Burdine's.
The Burdine's story actually began in Bartow, Florida, where William Burdine, with a partner, operated a dry goods store. When his partner left the business in 1897, Burdine was operating the store in Bartow when he heard about a dynamic frontier town on the far southeast coast of Florida; he moved there to open a store in the tiny, but already bustling, city of Miami, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Burdine's store grew through the early years of the twentieth century, thrived and prospered through the great Florida "boom" of the early to mid-1920s and successfully managed to wend its way, using careful and time-tested business practices, through the "bust" that followed the great "boom." Then, using the lessons learned in that time of declining business, and through the leadership of Roddey Burdine, William's son, it not only
weathered the Great Depression of the 1930s but, no small degree, actually prospered.
With the coming of World War II, the stores thrived and business reached new heights. The 1950s brought Burdine's into national prominence, as much for its tag line "Sunshine Fashions" as for its later becoming "the Florida Store." The years that followed saw the company outhustle, outcompete and outlast all of its competitors.
The story not only of Burdine's growth but also of its importance to and impact on all of South Florida is inestimable, and whether being run by founder William, sons John and Roddey (October 14, 1886-February 15, 1936) or, later, by professional managers who were not part of the family, Burdine's would be a Miami (and South Florida) home-owned business until 1956, when, in a stock swap, the company, then with stores from Miami to West Palm Beach, became part of the Federated Department Stores holding company.
Under Federated's ownership, Burdine's would take over the equally famous Maas Brothers Department Stores on Florida's west coast, converting them to the Burdine's name; eventually, with stores in Orlando and other cities, Burdine's was a formidable statewide presence.
In May 2003, Federated announced that Burdine's would become part of its Macy's brand, and with that decision, a company whose name had been part of South Florida's business and, to many people, personal landscape and history for 107 years would fade forever from the Florida scene, leaving the Florida East Coast Railway (FEC) as the sole remaining corporate entity that has been a part of Miami since its founding- it is the one and only name and company with ties going back to the days and months before Miami's incorporation as a city in July 1896.
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Burdine's: Sunshine Fashions & The Florida Store
Burdine's: Sunshine Fashions & The Florida Store