In The Depths Of The Great Depression, Here’s How Residents Of A Small Town Turned Into Millionaires

While most average Americans in the 1930s saw their incomes plummet during the depths of the Great Depression, the residents of Quincy, Florida, had different fortunes. In fact, thanks to savvy business acumen, many of them actually became millionaires. And some of the townspeople’s families remain wealthy even to this day.

But how did the Great Depression begin? Well, the 1920s were something of a boom time for the United States’ economy. The country’s prosperity grew roughly twice as large throughout the decade, in fact. This era therefore became broadly known as “the Roaring Twenties,” as many people prospered during it like never before.

As the ’20s progressed, though, members of the public often used their excess money to play the stock market. Folks from all walks of life gambled carelessly with their assets, in fact, buying up shares while the going seemed good. But unfortunately, the boom couldn’t last forever, and the good times soon came to a shattering halt.

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Towards the end of the decade – around August 1929 – the stock market had therefore reached its peak. But at the same time, production was slowing down, and unemployment was on the rise. And as a result, share prices were worth much less than they appeared to be – yet that wasn’t the only problem.

As wages stagnated, you see, consumer debt spiraled out of control. The agricultural economy was, meanwhile, in peril because of drought and the plunging costs of food. And to top it all, the banks had lent out more money than they could afford. So, with the average American’s wallet squeezed, the U.S. slipped into recession mid-way through 1929.

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Despite the decrease of spending and output, however, stock prices were still accelerating to unrealistic levels. And soon enough panicked investors started selling their overvalued shares across the board. This then caused the stock market to crash in October 1929.

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So the Great Depression was sparked because the economy failed. And this 12-year period of economic jeopardy affected the whole of the Western world – not least the U.S. itself. In the end, in fact, the nation would only find its feet again after entering the Second World War in 1941.

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Needless to say, then, life in Depression-era America was extremely tough. Why? Well, as investment and spending waned, businesses were forced to decrease production – and so also lay off employees. In 1931, in fact, six million Americans were left unemployed, and the country’s industrial output had halved.

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And even those in work were hit by falling wages. Homelessness therefore became almost commonplace. Breadlines and soup kitchens also sprang up across the nation in a bid to feed a hungry population. Yet all the while, crops were left decaying on land where farmers no longer had the funds to harvest them.

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But it was in this uncertain climate that a small-town Florida banker had a brainwave. That individual was M. W. Munroe – otherwise known as “Mr. Pat.” In 1860 Munroe had been born to parents who’d immigrated from Scotland to Quincy in the mid-1800s in order to farm the land.

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Munroe had therefore grown up in the aftermath of the Civil War. And according to reports, Mr. Pat grew to be a towering figure, measuring six feet and three inches in height. He was bespectacled, often wore a bow tie and reportedly consumed large amounts of chewing tobacco.

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Yet the glory days of Quincy had long disappeared. In the early 1800s, you see, the town had depended on farming, specifically cotton and tobacco. And before the Civil War, Gadsden County – within which sits Quincy – had been one of the most profitable places in Florida.

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It seems that much of its prosperity relied on slavery, however. After this shameful practise was abolished, then, many plantation owners failed to replicate the same financial successes they had enjoyed before the war. So, in search of another highly profitable crop, farmers turned to tobacco. And as a result, the crop became Gadsden County’s next prominent industry.

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This was also seemingly good news for Munroe, who subsequently thrived in these post-war conditions. He became Quincy State Bank president, for one thing, and therefore had great influence over the area’s tobacco farmers. And he also changed the fortunes of the area in a most unexpected way.

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Through his work, you see, Munroe was linked to an Atlanta-based entrepreneur by the name of W. C. Bradley. Bradley was at the time a major stockholder in the Trust Company. And in 1919 the Trust Company was one of many buyers to snap up shares in Coca-Cola after the drinks company went up for purchase for $25 million.

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Contemporary shares in Coca-Cola cost $40 each. But that price soon plummeted to $19 after the company clashed with sugar providers and bottlers. And it was then that Munroe spotted an opportunity.

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The banker reportedly noted that, even as the Great Depression took hold, Quincy locals continued to spend what little money they had on Coca-Cola. The popularity of the product apparently signaled to Munroe that the problems facing the company would not last. And so, he urged his neighbors to follow his lead and invest.

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Munroe was confident that by snapping up Coca-Cola shares while they were at their lowest, people could secure their financial futures. Plus, the company offered solid returns on capital. And so reportedly up to 67 local families put their trust in Munroe and invested in shares.

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At the time of the Stock Market Crash in 1929, Coca-Cola was earning more than $10 per share. And as the Great Depression grew worse, the company mostly maintained a similar figure. In 1933 – when the economy was really in tatters – Coca-Cola shares were even still capable of bringing in more than $8 a share.

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More importantly, though, shareholders saw their dividends increase during the Depression. In 1929, for instance, payouts per share were $4.90 – but in 1933 they had risen to $6. As a result, the Quincy residents who’d bought shares had some form of wealth throughout the period.

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It was this Coca-Cola money that helped to keep some Quincy locals in work throughout the Depression too. It also allowed many residents to keep their homes. And when shares were inexpensive, some could even afford to invest more into the drinks company.

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But it wasn’t just individuals who benefited from Munroe’s savvy financial advice. Indeed, the Coca-Cola shares have been credited by some with keeping Quincy itself going throughout the period. It was during this time, after all, that the small town established itself as one of the wealthiest places per capita in the whole country.

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And the Coca-Cola income didn’t just help during the Depression, either. Joshua Kennon reported, for instance, that a man in charge of the trust department of the bank Munroe once ran said the money has helped Quincy survive “every recession since.” So needless to say, the people’s gamble paid off.

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People seemingly stayed loyal to their Coca-Cola shares, too, passing them from generation to generation rather than cashing them in. And their patience undoubtedly paid off. Eventually, in fact, the stocks’ price rose so high that they split – making Quincy’s investors even more affluent.

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“No one would dream of selling [the Coca-Cola shares] – or of letting their heirs sell,” said the erstwhile president of Quincy State Bank W.C. “Bud” Branson, speaking in 1988 to Coca-Cola’s internal publication Journey. “They say, ‘You can sell anything else, but not the Coca-Cola stock. It’s been too good to us.”

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To give an idea of the stocks’ true worth, just one Coca-Cola share purchased for $40 back in 1919 was in 2010 potentially worth $6.4 million. However, this figure would have required all dividends to have been put back into the company. So it’s unclear just how much Quincy’s Coca-Cola millionaires are actually worth today.

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It’s quite possible, though, that no one made as much money from the shares as Munroe himself. When he died, you see, he reportedly left $1 million to each of his 18 children. And at least one of them, his daughter Julie Munroe Woodward, lived in Quincy until her death in 2012.

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But despite her father’s role in making Quincy the one-time richest place in the U.S., Woodward seemingly wasn’t particularly eager to publicly discuss the so-called Coca-Cola millionaires. In fact, in 2010 she was approached by a reporter from Tallahassee magazine. And in response she told them, “That’s an old story, and I’m not interested in talking.”

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In 1986, however, Woodward had briefly talked about the town’s fortunes during an interview with Florida Trend. But even in this dialogue she seemingly couldn’t understand the interest. “Daddy died in 1940, and it’s amazing that people still inquire about it,” Woodward said at that time.

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Woodward isn’t the only Quincy resident to have deflected the attention the town receives from its links to Coca-Cola, though. Speaking to the Florida Trend, one local even warned reporters not to refer to investors as “Coke millionaires.” She warned, “They don’t like it.”

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Yet, despite this apparent reluctance from the Coca-Cola investors, there’s no denying that Quincy has boasted some very rich residents in its time. In 1996, in fact, Bloomberg News reported that the town’s residents owned 7.5 million shares of Coca-Cola stock. This would have been worth $375 million at the time.

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Some estimates have even suggested that Gadsden County was home to more Coca-Cola stock than any other place in the U.S. Another report also said that Quincy residents, at one point, claimed a massive 68 percent of that stock. However, Coca-Cola historian Phil Mooney believes that these claims are exaggerations.

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Mooney did, however, concede that Quincy was home to a lot of long-term Coca-Cola shareholders. “On a per capita basis, considering the size of the community, it’s a very significant event,” he told Tallahassee magazine. He did, though, refrain from elaborating on just how many shareholders there were.

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Today, then, there are apparently few indicators of the Coca-Cola millionaire’s presence in Quincy. Some stocks have been sold off, in fact, while other investors have moved away from the area. And at first glance, the town looks much like any other of its size and age in the state.

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Many visitors actually wrongly believe that Quincy’s historic buildings and grand homes are a result of its residents’ Coca-Cola wealth. On the contrary, though, many of them were reportedly built by tobacco farmers long before the Coke shares went up for sale. As a result, it’s hard to tell which families may have benefited from Munroe’s tip-off.

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Many investors likely still practice the buying-and-holding approach to shares too. And as a result, lots of Quincy’s investors could live modest lifestyles with no indication of their reported worth.

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Another reason why Coca-Cola millionaires might prefer to downplay their wealth could potentially be down to the fact that Gadsden County is among the most impoverished in Florida. It ranks poorly in terms of income, education and healthcare, in fact. This means that the gulf between the largely white Coke millionaires and the rest of Gadsden’s overwhelmingly black population could be vast.

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According to City Data, for instance, the median income for Quincy households as of 2016 was $35,545. However, 16.2 percent of households actually earned an annual income of less than $10,000. On the other hand, only 0.9 percent brought in more than $200,000 annually. And there have been a number of further challenges facing the community too.

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In 2010, for example, Tallahassee reported that the county faced a number of water infrastructure problems. Furthermore, the publication said there was no hospital at all in Gadsden. And as a result, it reported, if someone was in need of medical care, they would have to travel almost 30 miles to Tallahassee.

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However, Tallahassee also reported that Quincy’s Coca-Cola millionaires had in some ways shared their wealth with the town. They had seemingly helped to redevelop the downtown area and opened a new performing arts center, for instance. Some had also apparently been involved in various charitable endeavors in the area. They are, after all, living proof that even a little money can go a long way.

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