By Dorothy W. Patterson
Adapted from Introduction of Postcard History Series—Delray Beach
The land where Delray Beach now exists seems a place lightly used by humans until about 1895. We have no knowledge of early Spanish settlement although the 1894-95 settlers found an old sour orange grove and the remains of a rock wall near the beach. The indigenous people that Jonathan Dickinson met in 1696 when his ship wrecked north of Delray were gone at the time the Lower Creeks (Seminoles) advanced into Florida in the 18th century. An 1841-42 military map drawn during the Second Seminole War shows a Seminole camp in the area of a spread-out swampy lake now known as Lake Ida. These were temporary camps of small Seminole groups. On some 19th century maps a place in the area, now east Delray Beach, was designated the Orange Grove Haul-over.
The U.S. Life Saving Service built the Orange Grove House of Refuge No. 3, one of five constructed on Florida’s southeast coast, in 1876. At that time between Lake Worth and Biscayne Bay were sixty miles of practically uninhabited tropical wilderness. West of a wide beach was a coastal ridge covered with saw palmetto and cooled by the prevailing southeast breeze. The great river in the ocean, the Gulf Stream, swung in close to land here. Some days the roll and pitch of huge waves scalloped the horizon line. The muck land around the present Intracoastal Waterway was a swampy morass, and a creek called the Spanish River ran along the coast from present Boca Raton to Boynton Beach. Mosquitoes loved it. Caves existed in the ridge along the beach in the area to the north. The old coastline of a previous age can be recognized by a crest of higher land about a mile inland. This second ridge and the land to the west consist of white sandy soil. Settlers from the North thought it looked like snow. Before, and at the beginning of settlement days, it was covered with scrub pine and palmetto.
When Florida became a state in 1845, Section 16 in each township (one square mile) was for the use of the township to support public schools. In 1871 the east half of section 16 was conveyed for $1.25 an acre to William H. Hunt and Sara G. Gleason, the business partner and wife of William Gleason, who served a two-year term as Lieutenant Governor of Florida. Gleason had lived in Florida such a short time that he was later ruled ineligible to hold the office. By 1895 the East Coast Canal had been made navigable to the House of Refuge. When Henry Flagler’s company, the Florida East Coast Railway, began laying track along the southeast Florida coast, speculators took note. Anticipating settlers as the railroad pushed south, the Gleason family advertised the land for $25 an acre. Former Saginaw postmaster, U.S. Congressman William S. Linton, saw the advertisement and purchased one-half section in the beach area from Gleason and Hunt. Other parcels were purchased by settlers from Flagler’s Model Land Company as well as Georgia land speculators, Simeon Brinson and John Herring. W.S. Linton named the fledgling town for himself.
When the Linton party arrived with a civil engineer, a railroad clerk, a railroad supply agent, and about five farmers, a few families of African descent were already settled west of the canal, now known as the Intracoastal Waterway. They were working as farmers and fishermen. Many of early residents built houses on Atlantic Avenue and on Swinton Avenue west of the beach area, on the higher land of the old coastal ridge. The people in Linton held high financial hopes for the sale of winter crops to be sent north on the Florida East Coast Railway, completed through the Linton area in the spring of 1896. The true pioneer experience of these first years included hunger, discomfort, suicides, and fear of epidemics like yellow fever. The hardest times were comparatively short; however, because the 20th century and its rapidly compounding technology were fast approaching.
Clearing the deep palmetto roots from the land and enduring the heat and stinging insect was difficult, dirty work. No machines were available, and there were only a few horses and mules to help with the work. Moreover, the high hopes were smashed when the hard-won first crop was killed by a freeze. Some of the settlers left amid financial ruin. William Linton defaulted on his land payments, and those who stayed had to pay for their land again. W.W. Blackmer, a former railroad clerk, brought townspeople together in the schoolhouse and proposed a new beginning and a new name. “Delray” was chosen because Blackmer, a Detroit native, liked the name of a section near his old city called Del Rey, later anglicized to Delray. The name had come from Mexico when a veteran of the Mexican War, Belgrade resident Augustus D. Burdeno, had successfully petitioned the town of Belgrade, Michigan, to change its name to Del Rey (of the king in Spanish). African American families stayed when many others left and gave the young community stability. Residents of the African American neighborhoods established a school, two churches, and a Masonic lodge before the end of the 19th century.
For some reason, the Federal census-taker skipped the small settlement in 1900. After 1905, newspaper articles and photographs of Delray events reveal that Japanese settlers from the Yamato farming colony, south of town, began participating in Delray activities such as parades, going to the movies, and shopping. A look at the 1910 census shows a town of 904 citizens from twenty-four states (many from Southern states and Michigan) and the District of Columbia. In addition Germany and eight other countries are listed as the birthplace of residents with a significant number from the Bahamas (then British West Indies). Although small, Delray was a fully formed town interested in education and cultural pursuits. Dramatic performances, music clubs, and bands were popular from the beginning. Later a community theater would flourish. Major occupations continued to be farming and fishing. Incorporation of the Town of Delray came in 1911 with John Shaw Sundy serving as the first mayor and altogether for seven terms.
With the coming of the 1920s Florida real estate boom, Delray shed its homespun pioneer garb and tool in the more sophisticated attire of a pretty resort town. Especially during 1924 and 1925, stuccoed Spanish-style home and buildings were going up at a rapid pace, and remodeling was popular also. The mood in South Florida was high; people were making quick profits in real estate, and as a result, were buying new cars.
The effect of the sudden real estate bust and depression in Delray at the end of 1926 was softened by seasonal visitors who had started a winter colony in Delray and the nearby town of Gulf Stream. During the 1920s and for many years afterward, Delray became known for its artists and authors, especially famous cartoonists. Two nationally syndicated cartoonists—H.T. Webster (creator of Casper Milquetoast, the Timid Soul) and Fontaine Fox of Toonerville Trolley fame—had office upstairs in the Arcade Building over the Arcade Tap Room. Other well-known cartoonists came to town, such as Herb Roth, W.J. “Pat” Enright, Wood Cowan and Denys Wortman. The Arcade Tap Room on East Atlantic Avenue was a relaxing gathering place for the artists and writers who stayed in Delray during the winter season. Among them were illustrators Charles Williams and Herb Niblick and writers Hugh McNair Kahler, Clarence B. Kelland Nina Wilcox Putnam, and Edna St. Vincent Millay. They were joined by titled aristocrats, famous politicians, entertainers, and sports figures.
During the Depression, not much money was available since the two banks had failed, but progress continued, and the town still looked prosperous because of the previous burst of new buildings during the boom years. In 1927 the City of Delray merged with the beach area and became the City of Delray Beach. Some have called the 1930s Delray Beach’s “golden age of architecture” when the city ranked 50 in population and 10th in building permits in Florida. In the 20th century homes and buildings in Delray were never very large or pretentious. Although several high-rise condominiums appeared along the Intracoastal Waterway in the 1960s, the cityscape was primarily low-rise, low-density, understated, and filled with palm trees.
For the four years of World War II, citizens of Delray Beach volunteered to watch the beach and ocean 24 hours a day from the faux bell tower atop the seaside Seacrest Hotel. Nearby, military personnel patrolled the beach on horseback. Most of Florida, especially those towns that had been used as military training bases, began changing even more rapidly after World War II. Some of the veterans who had trained at Boca Raton’s close-by airfield returned to settle in Delray Beach after the war.
African American citizens organized the Delray Beach Civic League and the Naciremas Club (American spelled backward with an “s” added), founded in 1946, as a base for civil rights actions. Conflict and political turmoil continued into the 1960s over the use of the municipal beach, city pool, and city golf course, among other issues. By 1970, the schools had been integrated.
Growth and changes persisted though the 1950s and 1960s. The vibrant social life of the winter months continued and famous people came to see the polo games at Gulf Stream and to attend the Polo Ball in Boca Raton. Prominent figures in many fields patronized the restaurants on Atlantic Avenue.
Delray Beach grew in population by a significant percentage in every decade during the 20th century, but because the town was so small in the beginning, it was 1980 before the population passed the 30,000 mark. During the 1970s, the city started to spread west. Land used for farming, ranching, and hunting was being developed for housing, and the city experienced what some newspaper accounts called “the second boom.”