Roddey Burdine: “Merchant Prince,” Civic Leader, Part I

A whole lot of history : A snapshot of Greater Miami over time
Dr. Paul S. George

Three decades ago, I received a call from a representative of the Burdine family requesting a meeting to discuss the possibility of my writing a history of the family and their namesake store.  Soon after, I found myself in the presence of Zada Phipps, a gracious, genteel Southerner and the daughter of Roddey Burdine, the merchandising genius, and singular civic leader who drove Burdines and his adopted city of Miami to new heights during a twenty-five year reign at the helm of the store.  A few years after that meeting, I completed a history of the family and store, which would expand beyond fifty-five locations in Florida by the early 21st century.

The store’s beginnings in Miami are traced to 1898, when William Burdine moved his family to the two- year old city from Bartow where he had operated a dry goods store, a precursor of the department store.  Soon Burdine & Son, a reference to the oldest sibling, John, was operating in a tiny space on today’s S. Miami Avenue and Flagler Street, on a portion of the site of the firm’s  later downtown flagship store.  Roddey Burdine, one of several children of William and Mary Burdine, entered the family business in the early 1900s, when he was still in his teens. Roddey’s employment followed his suspension from school when his father, determined to teach him a lesson, assigned him the task of sweeping out the store each day along with other menial tasks. Roddey soon worked his way up to the level of a salesman, and, later, a buyer in the shoe department, exhibiting at each stop a remarkable aptitude for the “dry goods” business.

When William Burdine died in 1911, 23-year old Roddey became president of the firm, then known as W. M. Burdine.  Among the Magic City’s most successful businesses, the store employed 15 persons, occupied 5,000 square feet of floor space, and recorded annual sales of $250,000.  Among the firm’s best customers were Miccosukee and Seminole Indians, who had been trading partners with Burdine’s since its opening in Miami.

In the early weeks of Roddey’s presidency, Burdine’s, as everyone now called it, acquired contiguous property pursuant to erecting Miami’s first five-story building .  The completion of the city’s first “skyscraper” in 1912, an audacious venture for a 24 year old, created an immediate sensation.  With the opening of the “Big Store,” Burdine’s retail space grew to 10,800 square feet, far larger than that of any of its competitors.  Miami was growing rapidly, too, its population soaring from 5,500 to almost 30,000 in 1920.

This growth was a prelude to a period of great expansion and development that overtook Miami and other parts of Florida with the real estate boom of the 1920s.  The boom transformed greater Miami, still exhibiting vestiges of its frontier past, into an emerging metropolitan center with an unofficial population of 150,000, a downtown of tall buildings,  many new municipalities,  and an increasing awareness of the region in the nation’s psyche.

Burdine’s was at the retailing epicenter of the boom.  For fiscal year, 1925-1926, the store employed 1,750  persons, while registering sales of $10 million, the largest figure recorded up to that time by a store south of Baltimore.  The firm’s advertising campaigns reached into the northeastern United States, while its fashion apparel had gained a wide following among northerners preparing to visit Miami. By then, Burdine’s had also opened new stores on Miami Beach and West Palm Beach.

In the next installment of this column, we will complete our look at Roddey Burdine, his  namesake store, and the city he served.

Paul S. George, Ph.D., serves as Resident Historian, HistoryMiami Museum.  He conducts history tours throughout the County and even beyond for HistoryMiami. Dr. George also leads Little Havana tours as part of Viernes Culturales, a monthly celebration, every third Friday, of the culture and history of that quarter.

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