By BILL MCGOUN
The history of Palm Beach County since World War II has been one of continuous growth. In a series of articles beginning with this one, I’d like to give a picture, as well as I can, of how Palm Beach County looked before that great boom got started.
In his book Pioneer Life in Southeast Florida, Charles Pierce defined a pioneer as someone who was in South Florida before the railroad came through in the 1890s. I agree. Someone who moved into Palm Beach County in 1943, as I did, is in no way a pioneer. We had paved roads, electricity, telephones (sort of, see below), water and sewer systems. In many ways the area looked as it does today.
Yet, in many other ways, it was vastly different. There were miles of open beachfront and relatively few people living between the CSX (then Seaboard Air Line) tracks and the Lake Okeechobee communities. There were six miles of open country between Delray Beach and Boca Raton, the latter
then a sleepy community of roughly 1,000.
World War II visible here
World War II was the dominant reality everywhere in 1943. Today’s Palm Beach International Airport was Morrison Field. Much of Boca Raton, including today’s Florida Atlantic University, was an Army Signal Corps base. Resort hospitals had been converted into hospitals or convalescent facilities.
I will try to re-create those days for people who never knew them, and to remind those who did know as to how it was. I have focused on the 11 years between my arrival in the county and our family’s move away from the center of Lake Worth in 1954. This is not entirely arbitrary, as I will explain later. In any case, almost any ending point would be somewhat arbitrary.
I have no intention of trying to glorify the “good old days” and suggest we were better off then. Consider the gas system of the 1940s. The natural-gas pipeline to South Florida had not yet been
built, so we relied on gas manufactured (from coal, I assume) at a plant in West Palm Beach – in the African-American community, of course.
The problem was capacity, or rather the lack of it. Our home has a gas heater in the living room. When it got cold enough to need the heat, however, the demand overtaxed the gas plant and pressure dropped to the point that appliances all but quit working.
Telephone service was not always easy to get
Telephones were another problem. Southern Bell also was short on capacity, to handle all who wanted service, and had to ration it. We did not have a phone until several years after we arrived in Lake Worth. We started out with a four-digit number, 5766. Later, it became 2-5766, and still later JUstice 2-5766. I had left town before the final change, to 582-5766.
The family of two of my schoolmates managed to get service more quickly, because an aunt who was a registered nurse lived with them. When applying for a phone, they neglected to tell Southern Bell she was retired.
At 72, I have several of the infirmities of aging but they are under control, thanks to drugs and techniques that were unknown in the 1940s. My computer keeps me in touch with the world from my country home in the mountains of North Carolina. I wouldn’t trade either of these advances for things the way they were.
Rather than glorify the past, I simply want to tell newer generations what used to be. While I must of necessity tell the tale as seen through my own memory, the real subject is not me but a Palm Beach County that will never be again.
My story begins with the prelude to our move, a visit to Lake Worth in 1941. Our neighbors in Sharon, Pa., the Smiths, were bringing their daughter Janet south for the winter to see if the climate would help arrest the wasting disease she had contracted working as a hospital nurse. (It didn’t; she died several years later.) Somehow, Mother and I wangled an invitation to come along.
We took lodgings with the McIntoshes, who had rental apartments over the garages behind their home in the 200 block of S. Federal Highway. The McIntoshes were the parents of long-time judge Russell McIntosh. Being but four years old, I have little memory of that winter. One day, however, stands out.
The road to Clewiston
One Sunday we headed west on State Road 80 to the Sugar House in Clewiston. In those days, that was one of South Florida’s tourist attractions. Cast-metal signs with an outline of the building, the wording “The Road to Clewiston” and an arrow pointing the way were on posts in West Palm Beach (pictured below).
I don’t recall what the road to Clewiston was like in 1941 but it was probably just as bad as it was when I first drove it in 1954. Between 20-Mile Bend and Belle Glade it was today’s State Road 880, with one exception. The curving concrete bridge over the Hillsboro Canal six miles east of Belle Glade wasn’t there. In its place was a one-lane wooden bridge. Coming east from Belle Glade you had to make a sharp left turn to go onto it.
Some drivers didn’t make it. The worst single traffic disaster in Palm Beach County history was in 1963, when a farm labor bus missed the turn collided with a truck and 27 workers died. The wreck occurred several miles from the bridge on Brown’s Farm Road.
West of South Bay the old road was south of the present highway, going through such communities as Bare Beach and Bean City. The only one of those communities that still exists is Lake Harbor. Portions of the old road still exist but most are barely passable.
The only thing I recall about the visit itself was learning that the sugar was only partially refined in Clewiston, producing a brown substance that was shipped in Savannah, Ga., for further processing. What I remember most about that day was the return home.
The Smith car, like most automobiles in those days, did not have a radio.
When we reached Lake Worth people were all about, standing on the sidewalk talking excitedly and gesturing.
“What’s going on?” we asked.
“What do you mean, what’s going on? Haven’t you heard?”
“The Japs have bombed Pearl Harbor! We’re at war!”
(I know “Jap” is a pejorative. It is a word I wouldn’t think of using today. But, trust me, no one on that day was concerned about the feelings of the Japanese.)
Along with the indignation and shock, many people had a question: “Where is Pearl Harbor?” In those days, Hawai’i was an exotic far-off location that few mainlanders had visited. Many people would have been hard put to locate Honolulu on a map. Of course, that may still be true today.
I can recall nothing of the rest of the winter. In the spring, Dad took his vacation from Penn Power Co. and came to Florida to fetch us. I believe the Smiths stayed on, though I’m not sure of that.
I do remember stopping in Birmingham, Ala., on the way north and seeing the statue of Vulcan. I had no idea at the time that within two years we would be living in Lake Worth.
NEXT: The War Years
From 1942-44, The Breakers served as a World War II Army hospital with a medical staff of about 400 people, many of them pictured above. In 1944, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt toured the hospital, “attractively attired in her favorite shade of Eleanor blue, complemented by contrasting navy,” noted a March 6, 1944, Palm Beach Daily News article. (Photo courtesy of the Palm Beach County Historical Society)
Captain Kenny Lyman (standing) poses with the day’s catch ‘around 50 years ago.’ With him are (from left) Fred Benson, Allan Hall, Dr. Robert Raborn with Richard, and Dr. Donald Hunter with Donald. Note the four-digit phone number on the sign at bottom left. (Photo courtesy of the Raborn family)
Bill McGoun is a retired editorial writer for The Palm Beach Post. He is the author of four history books, including Lake Worth High School: A History and Southeast Florida Pioneers, which tells the history of Palm Beach County, the Treasure Coast and the Lake Okeechobee region through the lives of noted individuals. He is working on a history of the Palm Beach County school system.