The Case of the Missing Tycoon

By Robert Sanchez

There’s one Florida railroad tycoon whose name does not appear on the list of 28 “robber barons” cited in the Florida Verve article titled “The Demon Moguls of Wall Street.” That tycoon, Ed Ball, had a problem: Born in 1881, he did not reach adulthood until 1902, and he didn’t achieve business success until the middle of “The Roaring Twenties.” By then most of the “robber barons” —  captains of industry including Florida railroad tycoons Henry Flagler and Henry Plant — had been driven into a fulsome retreat, first at the hands of Teddy Roosevelt’s “trust  busters,” or later at the hands Woodrow Wilson’s progressives. Many were punished for the crime of succeeding all too well in the marketplace of big business.

Ed Ball, a Virginia native who quit school after the sixth grade, certainly succeeded in the marketplace of big business, and his success came through a combination of shrewdness and luck. Fortune surely smiled on him in 1921 when his sister, Jessie Ball, married Alfred I. DuPont, scion of Delaware’s wealthy chemical and munitions family. DuPont soon brought his new brother-in-law into the business. When Alfred DuPont died in 1935, his wife inherited the estate, which was held in a charitable trust. While she attended to the DuPont Trust’s charitable activities, she gladly let her brother run the business.

There was a lot to do as Ball built the Trust’s assets from mere millions to billions through ownership of various enterprises including the Florida National Bank Group, the Florida East Coast Railroad, and the St. Joe Paper Company — once Florida’s largest landowner in terms of acreage. Ball was able to protect the Trust’s Florida businesses from undue government interference thanks to his extensive political influence on local and state officials who shared his views.

Unfortunately for Ball, however, he was less successful in dealing with a federal government that was dominated by anti-business liberals for much of the time between Alfred I. DuPont’s death in 1935 and Ed Ball’s death in June of 1981. The feds even succeeded in depriving Ball of control over the Florida National Bank Group — an enterprise he had saved from bankruptcy during the Great Depression and had nurtured for more than three decades thereafter.

Ironically, perhaps, Ball’s loss of control of his beloved Florida National Bank Group came about in part because he had also rescued the Florida East Coast Railroad (FEC), the line established by Henry Flagler. The railroad had gone bankrupt after the stock market crash of 1929 and was still in the hands of a receiver many years later when Ball acquired it for the DuPont Trust in 1961.

Ball soon clashed with the railroad unions, whose unreasonable contract demands made the railroad chronically unprofitable. In 1963 the FEC’s non-operating unions went on strike, and the operating unions refused to cross the picket line. The bitter strike ultimately lasted 14 years. Meanwhile, the FEC continued to operate, using replacement workers and even turning a profit despite frequent acts of violence and sabotage blamed on the striking unions.

Under Ball’s control, the FEC modernized, improving its tracks and its rolling stock while eliminating antiquated work rules that dated back to the days of steam engines burning wood or coal. The unions never regained their control of the FEC, but they got their revenge on another front: banking. They successfully lobbied Congress and the Federal Reserve Board to force the DuPont Trust to divest itself of its banking empire.

Although Ball was on good terms with many of Florida’s state and local officials during most of his reign at the DuPont Trust, there was one Floridian who was his sworn enemy throughout most of his long political career. Claude Pepper had been elected to the U.S. Senate in 1936 to fill out the term of an incumbent who died in office. A big supporter of FDR’s “New Deal” and later an outspoken advocate of friendship with the Soviet Union, Pepper was easily re-elected in 1938 and 1944. However, in a bitter Democratic Primary contest in 1950, Pepper lost to George Smathers, whose candidacy Ed Ball strongly supported.

After 12 years out of office, Pepper staged a comeback in 1962, getting elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in a newly created congressional district based in a liberal-leaning area of Dade County. Once in Congress, Pepper and some of his old friends were in a position to help the rail unions in their fight with Ed Ball. The unions had lost on the rail-related issues, but their lawyers and supporters were behind the effort that finally forced the DuPont Trust to relinquish its controlling interest in the banks.

The remarkable decades-long feud between Ed Ball and Claude Pepper is the subject of Tracy E. Danese’s excellent book titled Claude Pepper and Ed Ball: Politics, Purpose, and Power. Published in 2000 by the University Press of Florida, the book offers a rare insight into the politics of a bygone era whose issues nonetheless still resonate today, when a Presidential candidate — Sen. Bernie Sanders —  resurrected the term “robber barons.”

Danese’s book is a balanced account that supplies historical context for these old foes’ battles, which waxed and waned through roughly half a century of Florida history. Sure, Ball wielded political power behind the scenes and not always in the public’s best interests, but — among his many good deeds — he also purchased and saved what is now one of the crown jewels of the state’s park system, the aptly named Ed Ball Wakulla Springs State Park.

A more personal view of Ed Ball can be found in an article published in the Summer 2005 edition of The Journal of The James Madison Institute. In an Editor’s Note prefacing the article, I wrote that “Demonizing business and its leaders is one of the favorite techniques of the political left and its allies in Hollywood, the news media, organized labor, and the trial bar. This creates a climate of public opinion supportive of taxing, regulating, raiding, prosecuting, suing, and otherwise harassing business. Few business leaders have been as unjustly reviled as Florida’s own Edward Ball, whose enterprises enriched the state by providing capital, moving goods, creating jobs, and giving generously to various philanthropic causes.”

You can find the article at this link: Written for The Journal by the Miami Herald’s longtime Financial Editor James Russell, “A Visit with Mr. Ball” describes the way the ever-thrifty Virginian held court with his business chums when he was in residence at his Jacksonville home — a  modest three-room suite at the Robert Meyer Hotel. Ball divided his time between Jacksonville and an estate on the outskirts of Tallahassee, but in both of those settings he seemed to relish his dual role as a gracious host and resident curmudgeon, pouring drinks for his guests while also famously proposing a toast that became legend: “Confusion to the enemy!”

No doubt there were times when Claude Pepper crossed Ball’s mind when he raised a glass to propose that toast.

Featured Image: Edward Ball via Associated Press