Edward Ball (March 21, 1888 - June 24, 1981) was a powerful figure in business and politics in Florida for decades despite the fact that he never held public office and did not own the assets he controlled. He worked for and with his brother-in-law, Alfred I. du Pont for nine years before running the trust's businesses by himself for another 46 years.
Ball had no interest in running for office and little desire for material things; for most of his life, he didn't even own an automobile. Ball used various means to acquire enormous unofficial political power in Florida. He amassed a wide network of connections, and was the key figure in a group of 20 rural, conservative, north Florida politicians that controlled Florida from the 1930s to the 1960's called the Pork Chop Gang that was Florida's version of McCarthyism. Their public spokesman was Florida Senate President Charley Eugene Johns from Starke. The coalition supported racial segregation (which was practiced at the St. Joe Paper Mill) and was known for toasting, "Confusion to the Enemy!" with Jack Daniel's whiskey.
Ball rarely, if ever, took a public role is politics. With control over the vast du Pont business empire, he exerted political influence through his Florida banking empire, his ownership of numerous Florida newspapers, and by funneling unregulated and unreported cash to political operatives. Ball did not need to get his hands dirty or risk personal resources. Ball was a main (but not the only) financer of the defeat of Claude Pepper's effort to be reelected to the United States Senate in 1950. Pepper's liberalism and Ball's conservatism feuded through much of the 1940s and 1950's.
According to a 1979 article in the New York Times, Edward Ball at various times was called a Robber Baron and a political power broker; a clever man with a dollar and a dangerous man to cross; a courtly Virginian with the ladies and a ruthless foe. He is known for "orneriness" but insists his reputation is undeserved; he claims he was just a trusted functionary who did his best for the institution he served. Critics say he hijacked the trust as a tool of his personal power, treating the assets like a miser hoarding pieces of gold. He had the reputation of a "tart-tongued, hard-nosed conservative financier".
Ball built the Florida National Bank building at 214 North Hogan Street in Jacksonville in 1961. The structure was eleven stories tall and contained the corporate offices for the bank. Ed Ball also kept his principal office there for managing the du Pont Trust. After Ball's death, the structure was renamed the Ed Ball Building.
On March 7, 1989, First Union Corporation, based in Charlotte, North Carolina announced that it would acquire Florida National Banks in a deal worth $849 million. The transaction was consummated the following year.
Construction began in 1936 and from 1938 to 1996, the company operated a paper mill at Port St. Joe, Florida. The company invigorated the local economy following the depression, employing thousands and paying good wages, but wreaked havoc on the environment. The mill released sulfurous exhaust and dioxin, a byproduct of the paper bleaching process that is a carcinogen. By the 1950s, the company was drawing 35 million gallons of water a day from the Florida aquifer, seriously depleting the water table. St Joe Paper also clear-cut millions of acres of old growth forest, engaging in silviculture to replant the areas with slash pine. The practice decimated the native longleaf pine stands, reducing the species to "2 percent of its former range." Because of this, the United States Department of the Interior designated parts of the region a Critically Endangered Ecosystem. Under Ball, the company also kept workers at the mill racially segregated.
Ball continued the trust's aggressive land purchases throughout the 1940s and 1950's, sometimes for "mere dollars an acre" and landholdings reached 1.2 million acres. Most of the land was situated between Tallahassee and Pensacola, but there was substantial acreage in southern Georgia. The paper mill was most profitable in the 1960s, with products being directly marketed to company-owned box plants.
Ball dynamited parts of the Wakulla River to open the way for boats bringing his guests to the springs, then fenced off the water passage to keep out the riff-raff.
In the mid-1960s, he donated land to Florida State University for a marine laboratory, which was completed in 1968 and named in his honor. Ball then sold the remaining land surrounding Wakulla Springs to the state of Florida, who created Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park.
In 1961, Ball purchased a majority ownership of FEC for the DuPont Trusts, allowing the FEC to emerge from bankruptcy. That same year, a labor contract negotiation turned sour, leading to a prolonged work stoppage by non-operating unions beginning January 23, 1963, and whose picket lines were honored by the operating unions (the train crews).
Arguably the most noteworthy chapter in Ball's business career was his battle against the railroad unions in the Florida East Coast Railway strike of 1963 to 1977. In order to try to save the railroad from its three decades-long state of bankruptcy, which if allowed to continue would have threatened the railroad with physical deterioration and even partial abandonment, Ball fought for the company's right to engage in its own contract negotiations with the railroad unions rather than accept an industrywide settlement that Ball thought would include featherbedding and wasteful work rules. His use of replacement workers to keep the railroad running during the strike led to violence by strikers that included shootings and bombings. Eventually, Federal intervention helped quell the violence, and the railroad's right to operate during the strike with replacement workers was affirmed by the United States Supreme Court. As the strike continued, the Florida East Coast took numerous steps to improve its physical plant, install various forms of automation, and drastically cut labor costs, all to an extent that most other railroads would not succeed in matching until years later. Ball therefore was a pioneer in the American railroad industry's struggle, beginning in the 1960's, to improve its' economic efficiency.
"When I go across the creek, it will be because I can't help myself or can't work any longer." Shortly before his death, he said, "I waited until I was too old to decide what to do with my own personal assets and have decided that I worked most of my business life managing the duPont estate."Ball said he was very proud of what duPont had established in the Nemours Foundation and he decided to leave it his entire estate, other than a few minor bequests, to the Nemours Foundation, with one stipulation. He wanted his money to be used in Florida only."
No one can dispute that he was an astute investor: when Ball died at the Oschner Clinic in New Orleans in 1981, the value of the du Pont trust had ballooned to $2 billion. His late sister's foundation, the Jessie Ball duPont Fund, had assets of $75 million. Ball's own estate, estimated to be worth $75-200 million, was destined to help the citizens of the state where he lived most of his life, Florida.