Alan Schmitt came to the Keys for the same reason most people do — the warmth. There was just one small difference.
Schmitt settled in Marathon in 1954. He had been working as a building superintendent in what he later described as one of the worst places to live in the United States, Detroit.
When wife Pat’s uncle, Phil Sadowski, who was one of the important early developers of the area, offered him an opportunity to come to the Keys, Schmitt jumped at it.
“All the kids had the sniffles all the time,” Schmitt recalled in 2003. “They’d be so bundled up in the winter that they couldn’t get up if they fell down.”
The Marathon the Schmitt family encountered in the mid-1950s was quite a different place than the real estate company that Schmitt founded — what is now Coldwell Banker Schmitt Real Estate — and later helped develop. In the middle 1950s, only two small areas had any concentration of population, the area now referred to as Old Town and the Sombrero section of town.
“There was nothing here. There was no grocery store, no bank. All we had were the mosquitoes — and plenty of them. The women would get together and drive to Key West in a station wagon to do their grocery shopping,” Schmitt said. “However, we loved it immediately, especially for the kids.”
What Schmitt and his family particularly loved was that people were so friendly. Everyone left their keys in their cars all the time and drove one-handed so they could use the other one to wave to the folks they passed on the highway. They trusted one another.
Schmitt began work as a sales representative for Phil Sadowski. When Schmitt first arrived, Sadowski was developing the Marathon Shores area. His crews dynamited the canals and Sadowski built and then sold one-bedroom, one-bath houses for $5,995 in the area that became Little Venice.
Mortgages were hard to come by, and that presented another challenge for these early settlers. Schmitt said First Federal Savings and Loan in Key West (at that time) had only $2 million in assets, so there wasn’t much money available. Many were financing their homes through banks in Miami.
While there weren’t many people living in the Middle Keys, the Marathon airport was already quite an active place when he arrived.
“There were two airlines running trips to Havana for $10 each way,” he said. Asked if people were going to Havana to gamble, Schmitt shook his head.
“They were going for the women. People at that time said that taking your wife to Havana was like taking a sandwich to a banquet.”
Later, as Sadowski began to develop what became Key Colony Beach, Schmitt helped him sell lots for $5,000 apiece. They also sold 10 lots for $35,000. Often the people buying these would resell them later for a quick profit.
Schmitt parted ways with Sadowski after a couple of years and began working independently as a broker. Starting in 1957, he sold lots for Stanley Switlik, who was developing the Sombrero area.
Switlik had made his money manufacturing parachutes (one of Switlik’s chutes saved the first President Bush’s life when he bailed out of a fighter plane in World War II), life vests and other similar equipment. And just like Sadowski, Schmitt was busily reshaping the island into what it was to become.
Schmitt’s beginnings as a broker ultimately developed, of course, into the largest real estate firm in the Keys, Coldwell Banker Schmitt Real Estate. That business didn’t really begin to take off, however, until the 1970s. At that time, Monroe County had begun to spray for mosquitoes and, in the early 1980s, the highway and the bridges were greatly improved. Both contributed to rapid growth.
Ed Fussell, director of the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District, said the U.S. Navy began spraying for mosquitoes in the 1940s in the Keys, but only in the Lower Keys. It wasn’t until the ’70s that the county sprayed in the rest of the Keys, and population statistics bear this out.
For example, the population of the Keys in 1940 was 14,000 — with 13,000 of those people living in Key West. By 1950, the population had increased to 30,000, but 27,000 of them lived in Key West. It wasn’t until 1970 that the shift is apparent.
At that time 56,000 people lived in the chain of islands — but now only half of that number were in Key West.
In 2003, at age 77, Schmitt continued to work as an appraiser, leaving the reins of the real estate operation to sons Brian and Bruce.
Schmitt was optimistic about the prospects for this area.
“If you have any money to invest,” he said, “put it into real estate in the Keys. It’s going to continue to grow and, as long as we have such a limited availability of property, increase in value.”
It’s a promise that Schmitt only saw a glimmer of in 1954 — but he had the vision at that time to see its potential.