“Doc” Dammers – The Selling of Coral Gables 

Visionary or Huckster? The Life & Times of Edward “Doc” Dammers 

Consummate salesman, swami of the circus pitch, and master of self-reinvention, many Gables residents’ only knowledge of “Doc” Dammers comes from visiting the much-loved bar and grill located in the Colonnade building years ago. Others might recognize that he was famous for being the brains and voice behind the successful selling of property in George Merrick’s meticulously planned development. 

Edward “Doc” Dammers was the first mayor of Coral Gables, serving a three-year term from 1925 to 1928. For a man known by so many, very little is known about his life. He seemed to spin his own story, just as he did for the properties he sold. Looking past his sketchy written history, we ventured down the rabbit hole of archival research to find out more. 

Edward “Doc” Dammers, the ultimate promoter and salesman

The Hunt for Dammers’ Story 

Hired to sell lots in Coral Gables beginning in 1921, Dammers was the ultimate promoter, known for bringing in exotic entertainment and standing on the back of his auction wagon holding forth with crowds of up to 5,000. At various times, he offered free transportation, boat rides, and tours, holding free raffles for much-desired prizes like tea sets, pearl opera glasses, rare vases, gold watches, imported clocks, and dolls. He would famously give away 100 boxes of grapefruit and featured live music, all while serving “Coral Gables Punch.” 

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1867, Dammers was one of five children of Colonel James Dammers, a naval officer with accolades from the Mexican War who served the Union during the Civil War. The Colonel moved his young family to Massachusetts, where Edward would later maintain a home, even during his tenure as Mayor of Coral Gables. From ages 12 to 24, Dammers’ trail runs cold. There were rumors that he ran away from home to join the circus, and his obituary, most likely produced by his family, said he was in the service of the Forepaugh Circus as treasurer.  

Dammers never missed an opportunity to promote residential sales in Coral Gables

In the late 1880s, the Forepaugh Circus was the main rival of P.T. Barnum and was led by the wealthy, eccentric Adam Forepaugh known for his business and marketing acumen. Before selling his circus to Bailey (of Barnum & Bailey fame) and the Ringling Brothers in 1889, Forepaugh apparently left a lasting impression on the youthful Dammers. Forepaug’s practice of keeping his name and appearance prominently visible, as well as a knack for flashy promotion, are mimicked throughout Dammers’ career. 

Tracking Dammers through news clips places him in the late 1880s as a 25-year-old salesman in Chelsea, Massachusetts; at Elks dinners in Los Angeles and Santa Fe, New Mexico; and staging the comedic musical farce “Errors” in New York. A social news brief has him in Newport News, Virginia, with his wife, presumably Elizabeth “Lizzie” Moncreiff. No record of the marriage can be found. In any case, Lizzie was with him for the rest of his life. Oft-repeated and unattributed articles and ads claim Dammers had a 20-year career in Los Angeles real estate, but like many of his claims, there is no hard evidence to be found. 

Proving to be a master at reinvention, by early 1897, Dammers surfaces as an optical shop owner. For the next 15 years, he aggressively promotes his optical business with ads featuring his picture, offering free exams and gold frames, utilizing testimonials, and making grand claims such as “… Edward E. Dammers is considered by the optical trade all over the world to be the brainiest, the most successful and Most Scientific Eye Specialist Known.” It was an advertising style he would continue to employ during his days in Miami. Undoubtedly, this is when he picked up the nickname “Doc,” and he never objected when he began to be addressed “Dr.” 

“Buy Right, Buy at Auction” 

Dammers arrived in South Florida around 1911, with self-proclaimed credentials as an auctioneer from New York City. His NYC firm was Dammers & Gillette, but if there ever was a Gillette, he was a ghost. It didn’t take long for Dammers to move south from Palm Beach County to auction property on Miami Beach in 1913. Largely credited – and disparaged – for his contribution to the South Florida land boom leading up to the Great Depression, Doc proved to be a charismatic, colorful, and extremely successful real estate auctioneer. He was personable and from all accounts well-liked.   

In his 1932 book “Boom in Paradise,” T.H. Weigall wrote that George Merrick “genuinely disliked publicity . . . He was never interviewed, and during the whole time that I was in Coral Gables I never heard him make a speech.” Dammers was a perfect alter-ego for the more conservative Merrick, and Merrick hired him to sell his new development. The first auction took place just after Thanksgiving in 1921. 

 Edward “Doc” Dammers selling lots in Coral Gables.
Edward “Doc” Dammers had a reputation as a slick salesman, arriving in Coral Gables with self-proclaimed credentials as an auctioneer from New York City. Dammers (on the wagon) was the ultimate showman, selling land in a circus-like atmosphere.

Dammers’ circus days explain his marketing techniques. One early auction event for a Miami property featured Miss Mabel Cody and her flying circus. The “dainty” and “fearless” Mabel, a niece of Buffalo Bill, jumped out of a Curtiss plane holding an umbrella before parachuting to the ground. For the record, Mabel, a petite gal who wore two-and-a-half size shoes, missed her landing target, instead ending up in a nearby backyard where she immediately took out a powder puff and powdered her nose. The event was described in a Miami News article as a “double ring circus with all the acts going at once.” 

Ever big on slogans, Dammers launched the ad campaign for Merrick with: “Where Coral Gables Lies, Your Money Multiplies.” Other Gables slogans included “Where Your Castles in Spain Are Made Real” and “Miami’s Master Suburb.” Ads ran in magazines across the country, around Florida and in local papers, using
catchy headlines and often lengthy missives from Doc touting
his past successes. In just 1925 alone, $1 million was spent on advertising, the equivalent of more than $15 million today. 

Go Big or Go Home 

Dammers’ promotional ideas found traction in Coral Gables. At one point, if you bought a Gables lot you got a ride on a “big German Battle Plane” stationed at the Coral Gables Flying Field (located on the corner of Le Jeune Road and Coral Way). Buying on North Greenway Drive got you free shares of stock in the Coral Gables Golf Club and Public Utilities Corp, and builders were offered free plans and native stone to construct your new home. 

Originally billed as Dammers & Gillette, later Dammers took on a new partner, Harry a. Burnes and launched ad campaigns for new homes in coral gables.

Along the way, Dammers took on a new partner, Harry A. Burnes, but stayed in the spotlight. Ads listed names of the buyers, holiday messages from “Doc,” free home plans, offers to provide financing, and a day of golf for $1.00. Dammers was a workhorse. He gave regular lectures about Gables real estate, participated in charity events and auctions, and traveled for business. His wife Lizzie was rarely mentioned and sadly, no pictures with her, or of her, can be found. 

At its peak, Dammers’ salesforce reached 3,000, with offices not just in Miami, but throughout Florida and in New York City, Atlantic City, Boston, Columbus, Washington, and Chicago. His team generated $150 million selling Coral Gables home sites the first five years, of which Merrick spent $100 million on city improvements. After the sudden death of Burnes, the ghostly Gillette was officially buried, and the Edward E. Dammers Realty Corporation was formed with very real partner C.F. Flynn. Dammers ultimately acquired the unusual title of “real estate counsel” to Merrick. 

The Tide Turns 

Rather incredibly, after being named the first Mayor of Coral Gables, Doc launched his own development just across from the community’s western boundary on Red Road. “Central Miami” was controversial from the start, with Miami officials objecting to the name and Dammers promising in ads he would “never hurt Coral Gables.” Although many lots sold, not much was ever built, and the only remaining vestige of Dammers’ dream are the medieval-style stone towers still standing at the entrance of Schenley Park. 

The Central Miami Gates all that’s left of Dammers’ central Miami venture are the massive gates just outside Coral Gables along the red road, put on the national register of historic places in 1988.
“Doc” Dammers House
George Merrick built this house for his colorful, entertaining, and highly successful salesman in 1924. Designed by H. George Fink, the home at 1141 Coral Way is now a protected historic site. From 1925 to 1928, Dammers served as the city’s first mayor; after losing re-election he left the area by 1929 and died of heart failure in 1930.

After the 1926 hurricane, things were a bit shaky in the world of Florida real estate, and Doc’s popularity began to fade. By the following year, his Central Miami project became known as the “Western Section of Coral Gables” and famed humorist Will Rogers (who was also mayor of Beverly Hills) disparaged him during a local appearance. When he ran in 1928, along with 13 others, for one of Coral Gables’ five City Commission seats, Dammers lost. It was a bad year for Doc. His surviving sister died, he was reduced to auctioning store contents and used cars, and the new city commission began an immediate audit of all city finances. 

In early 1929, he sold his impressive home on Coral Way and began an addition to his new house on Ferdinand Street. We can only speculate how the stock market crash at the end of October contributed to Dammers’ major stroke in November. He never recovered. Within weeks of his March 1930 return to his long-time Cochituate, Massachusetts summer home, he died of heart failure and was buried in Lizzie’s family plot. He left no descendants, a contested estate mired in legal issues, and a legacy of questions.