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This Week in History
West Palm Beach
World War II
Our June 21 column about Air Force Beach prompted responses from readers.
From John C. Sansbury, Palm Beach County Administrator from 1975-1986: “I would like to set the record straight. The state of Florida had absolutely nothing to do with the acquisition of Air Force Beach from the MacArthur Foundation.”
Sansbury wrote from suburban West Palm Beach that the county bought the 325 acres in 1980 for $21.2 million. He said John D. MacArthur’s son, Roderick, persuaded the rest of the foundation to sell at a reduced price and throw in $10 million in value on top of that. “In reality, the park should be named the Roderick MacArthur Ocean Park,” Sansbury wrote.
Sansbury wrote he later raised the idea of the state becoming a partner. The state then paid half the purchase price and made the place a state park.
“Shortly thereafter, I recommended to the County Commission that we trade our half-interest in the park for 600 acres the state owned at the southeast corner of Forest Hill Boulevard and (Florida’s) Turnpike, directly south of the county’s 600-acre Okeeheelee Park,” Sansbury said. “This property is now the Dr. Jim Brandon Equestrian Center and Trails.”
And Don Grill, 80, of North Palm Beach called to say that for a long time, what would be Air Force Beach had the unofficial name of Manhattan Beach.
That’s for the 25,000-ton, 1,200-plus passenger cruise ship, the queen of the U.S. Lines, that grounded 300 yards off Singer Island on Jan. 12, 1941, and stayed for nearly a month.
Three private tugs spent weeks removing tons of cargo, including more than 150 cars, as well as some 4,550 barrels of oil from the ship, while crowds estimated at up to 20,000 lined the beach.
Entrepreneurs sold cold drinks and photo postcards of the stuck ship. The Manhattan finally was freed Feb. 3.
Don Grill was a kid at the time.
“They had to throw over a lot of stuff that they were transporting to lighten the ship for a lot of the tugs to pick up,” Grill said. “The commercial fishermen came up in their skiffs and picked everything up. All up and down U.S. 1 in Riviera (Beach), every vacant lot was a place where they sold this stuff. It was everything. All kind of general cargo. There were sneakers, and food, and you-name-it.”
Jupiter resident D. Howarth submitted this photo that was taken Jan. 13, 1941, of the SS Manhattan, which had run aground in Palm Beach.
Tags: beach, parks, shipwrecks, World War II
Do you know the history of Air Force Beach and how it got its name? I’ve been told the Army Air Force used the beach for R & R during WW II. Also, I was told that there is a possibility that it was used to practice beaching the Higgins Landing Craft prior to the various mainland invasions, primarily Normandy. It was used in a similar manner during the Vietnam War. Can you verify if any of this is true? — Dan Canavan, West Palm Beach
We asked Debi Murray, chief curator for the Historical Society of Palm Beach County:
“Air Force Beach became the U.S. Air Force beach when Morrison Field was reactivated during the Korean War. The Air Force had to have its own beach as the beaches were segregated then and they needed a beach where both blacks and whites could congregate. It was not U.S. Army Air Corps property during World War II.
“Although I haven’t been able to verify the location, I did see a photograph with a small corner of a coastal watch tower that was labeled as being on Singer Island. Camp Higgins was on the south side of the Lake Worth Inlet (northern Palm Beach island) and was manned by army personnel with 70mm cannons and tanks. So I’m sure the coastal watch tower would have been further north on Singer Island to cover that part of the shoreline.”
Here’s some more on “Air Force Beach” from a 2002 Post Time column:
Through the 1970s and into the 1980s, it was one of the largest nudist beaches in the nation. The ½-mile-long beach was owned by billionaire John D. MacArthur, a frequent skinny-dipper, and once drew hundreds of people a day, many of them without bathing suits, with the population rising dramatically during weekends and college spring breaks.
When the state bought the beach in 1982 and made it part of John D. MacArthur Beach State Park, the foundation that controlled MacArthur’s properties — he’d died in 1978 — recommended an area be set aside for clothing-optional use. The state refused.
The beach also has been listed as a popular destination on gay travel websites.
Toni Anne Wyner, covering herself with only a copy of the Bill of Rights, is led away by state park officers on July 14, 1990, at the ‘Air Force Beach’ area of John D. MacArthur Beach State Park. Wyner was charged with disorderly conduct after she led a protest against a law banning thong suits on state beaches.(Palm Beach Post file photo)
Possibly because nudists had scheduled a rally at Air Force Beach, park rangers armed with billy clubs were on patrol. The beach was one of the most popular nudist sites in the nation during the 1970s. (Palm Beach Post file photo)
The beach had not yet opened as a Palm Beach County Park when this aerial was shot in March 1981. Air Force Beach streched from the lower part of the photo north to just in front of the nearest condos at the top. (Palm beach Post staff file photo by Red Morgan)
Tags: beach, Morrison Field, place names, war
The Palm Beach Pier opened on Labor Day of 1925 as the “Rainbo Pier.” Admission was a dime. The owner was Gus Jordahn, of Gus’s Baths fame.
In 1931, Jordahn sold the pier to local businessmen William D. Gray and Hedley Gillings, who renamed it the Palm Beach Pier and added a coffee shop, liquor store, cocktail lounge and a restaurant with a patio for dancing. Hurricanes in 1947 and 1949 tore off the end of the pier, and two 1960s storms damaged it further.
By 1967, the pier had been sold several times and it was in shambles. A 1969 winter storm was the last blow. Revitalization plans were scrapped and, after another winter storm in 1969, the town ordered it demolished.
A brass marker with an etching of the pier was dedicated in 1991. It sits on a concrete pedestal across from Worth Avenue.
Aerial view of the Palm Beach Pier. The Billows Hotel is just west and north of it. (Palm Beach Daily News file photo, courtesy of Davidoff Studios)
Lake Worth resident David Gately submitted this photo of the Palm Beach Pier, taken in the mid- to late 1920s. The two men in the picture are Gately’s grandfather, Henry, and his great-uncle, Frank.
A 1926 ad from the Palm Beach Daily News boasts of “everything for the fisherman” at the Rainbo Pier tackle shop, and “the very latest styles in beach and bathing attire,” including “satin, wool and rubberized bathing capes.”
The patio in the 1950s (Photo courtesy of the Historical Society of Palm Beach County)
Palm Beach Gardens resident Richard Meyers sent in this postcard of the Palm Beach Pier.
This 1962 Palm Beach Post story describes local pier fishing of the day.
A 1969 plan to rebuild the damaged pier and turn it into a “something Palm Beach could be proud of” was denied by the town council. In 1972 another plan to build a new pier and a private club on the site was also denied. (Click on the images below to browse larger versions of the news clips.)
The Palm Beach Daily News revisited the Palm Beach Pier in a centennial feature in 2011.
Palm Beach Life featured Gus’ Baths in 2002.
Tags: beach, fishing, Palm Beach, Palm Beach Pier
By BILL McGOUN
Fourth in a series.
Part 1, Memories of Palm Beach County, 1943-1954
Part 2, The war years
Part 3, Before the urban sprawl
Part 4, The wide-open coastline
Part 5, The wide-open west
Part 6, Changing times
Today it is hard to envision the beachfront east of Lake Worth as it appeared in the 1940s. It was quite truly another world.
There was no Sloan’s Curve. State Road A1A continued south along the ocean beyond Ocean Avenue in Lantana, curving over to the lakefront where Manalapan Town Hall now sits.
(It was State Road 1 when we came to Lake Worth in 1943. The As were added later to avoid confusion with U.S. 1.)
There was only one house between today’s Sloan’s Curve and the Lake Worth Casino area. I heard that it belonged to Lily Pons, then one of the world’s leading sopranos, but I never have been able to confirm that.
Across the street to the north of the casino was a nightspot named the South Ocean Club, which burned in 1957, after we had moved from S. O Street. Kreusler Park occupies the site today.
The casino itself (pictured above in a 1938 Palm Beach Post file photo) was the original 1922 building, the north half of the present structure. There was a salt-water pool behind it and an underpass in front leading beneath State Road A1A to the beach. The walkway along the beach was wooden, with several gazeboes. At least two of them extended eastward over the sand.
At the south end of the Lake Worth beach were the studios and transmitter of radio station WWPG. I had an old console radio next to my bed and WWPG was the only station near enough that I could hear it.
South of WWPG there was nothing on the ocean until Manalapan.
This aerial photo taken from a 1940s postcard shows the Lake Worth Casino in the center with A1A running the entire distance north and south of the casino right along the beach. The road in this area was later moved away from the water. Photo courtesy: Florida Photographic Collection.
I’m sure there was a lot of open beach in south county but I don’t recall ever having been there before the Lake Worth High School graduation party of 1955. The party was held at the Boca Raton Club’s beach pavilion, south of the inlet, which has long since given way to more intense development.
To the north, Palm Beach was already developed but there was virtually nothing between Blue Heron Boulevard in Riviera Beach and Jupiter Inlet. All I remember are the Seminole Country Club and some houses in Juno Beach.
Singer Island was still empty in the late 1950s; I attended a beach party there while a student at Palm Beach Junior College (now Palm Beach State College).
Bridges were lower, one was manually-operated
Getting onto Singer Island was a bit of an adventure. The Blue Heron bridge was a low-level wooden structure and the floorboards bounced as we rode over them. The Southern Boulevard bridge was similar, but in better shape. The Lake Worth bridge of that era was concrete; a part of it is in use today as a fishing pier.
South of the Lake Worth bridge, roughly where the Bryant Park boat ramp now is, was a wooden dock. This structure served two purposes. First, it allowed people to tie up their boats. Second, it concealed the pipe beneath that dumped raw sewage into the lake.
Lake Worth wasn’t the only city polluting the lake. When I was in the PBJC choir, we appeared on the Today show when it was broadcast for a week from the parking lot of the Society of the Four Arts in Palm Beach. To provide a backdrop, water skiers were enlisted to ride on the lake.
People watching elsewhere probably thought that was a natural occurrence. We who lived in the area knew it was an anomaly. Ordinarily, no one in his right mind would ski on that cesspool.
The most interesting bridge was the manually-operated turn span on Ocean Avenue in Lantana. After lowering the gates, the bridge tender would walk to the center of the span, insert a long steel rod looking like a giant Allen wrench into a hole in the floor, and walk around it in large circles to open and close the span.
James Willard Easton and two unidentified women manually crank the mechanism that opened and closed the Lantana Bridge. Undated photo provided by Lantana Historical Society.
Inlets haven’t changed much
Palm Beach County’s four inlets were pretty much as they are today, except for the extension of the north jetty at Boynton Inlet to shield the waterway from the prevailing rollers out of the northeast. Those rollers could be treacherous and the narrowness of the inlet, which was cut originally to improve circulation of lake water and not for navigation, allowed little room for error.
Once I rode a charter boat through the inlet. The skipper positioned his craft northeast of the opening and watched the sea behind him. When he saw what he wanted, he jammed both throttles wide open and the boat almost leaped toward the inlet.
Charter boats could outrun the rollers, but drift boat could not. In 1964, a following sea capsized the Two Georges as it tried to get into the lake and swamped it. Five people died.
When I got my first bicycle in 1945 I celebrated by riding out to the ocean, south to Lantana, west to U.S. 1 and back north to our home via Dixie and Federal highways. When I got home I was exhausted and my parents, whom I had neglected to let in on my plans, were frantic.
By that time, with World War II nearly ended, the beach was open day and night. During the early years of the conflict, when German U-boats attacked the shipping lanes off Southeast Florida, the beach was closed at night and patrolled by mounted Coast Guardsmen.
There was a wooden tower on the casino from which volunteers watched for enemy activity. I had a book with silhouettes of German and Japanese airplanes so I would know right away if one flew over.
I never saw one.
but the beach has changed
To people in Lake Worth then, the beach was theirs for the asking. If they wanted to hold a beach party, they could do it just about anywhere. No one dreamed that someday that beach would be separated from the road by a string of condominium buildings.
The beginning of the end for an open beach came in September of 1947, when a powerful hurricane roared ashore. The ocean road was so badly damaged that it was abandoned. Lakefront land was filled and the road moved westward to its present location. In the process, Sloan’s Curve was created.
The casino and the boardwalk also were hammered. The casino was rebuilt and expanded and the wooden walk and gazeboes replaced with concrete structures.
A look at a map shows that Sloan’s Curve lines up almost perfectly with the West Palm Beach-Lake Worth border and the Palm Beach-South Palm Beach border similarly lines up with the Lake Worth-Lantana
border. That’s because what today is Palm Beach south of Sloan’s Curve once was part of Lake Worth.
In what must go as one of the most short-sighted decisions in history, Lake Worth gave all that land, except for the casino property, to Palm Beach.
I should have got a hint of the future one day about 1950 when Herb Engelman and I started walking along the lakefront south of WWPG, where the first apartment building in the area was being constructed. Suddenly a man came from the building waving a handgun and shouting, “This is private property! Get off!”
We did. Looking back I can see that this was a foretaste of what was to come. At the time all I thought of was self-preservation.
The beach itself south of Sloan’s Curve remains public, because the old right-of-way abuts it, making the county the upland property owner. Unfortunately, Palm Beach County has never done anything to
improve access, bowing to the will of affluent oceanfront residents who do not want to share “their” beach.
This 1981 Palm Beach Post file photo shows a path that used to be State Road A1A along the ocean from Sloan’s Curve in Palm Beach south to the Lake Worth Casino. The stretch of road was washed out in 1947.
NEXT: The Wide-Open West
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.
Tags: beach, Bill McGoun, bridges, inlets, Lake Worth, Lake Worth Casino, Sloan's Curve
A few weeks ago, we asked folks to submit their memories of early Lantana days as the town prepares to celebrate its 80th birthday. Below are a few comments from area residents. Some were shortened because of space considerations.
Bill Davis, Lake Worth:
When my family moved here around 1951, we lived in a two-bedroom house at the end of the paved part of Lantana Road on Ridge Street, just west of the Publix shopping center. The only thing I can remember on Lantana Road was the A.G. Holley Hospital. From our house, the road was shellrock to what is now Lake Osborne and on past the “new” airport out to a shellrock, two-lane Military Trail. As I remember Jog Road, it was a dirt track out in the woods and I was told it was so named because when the road came to a tree it “jogged” around it.
My dad and his family would come to Lantana on vacation in the ’30s by railroad and stay in the rows of cottages on Ocean Avenue west of the Old House/Crabpot restaurant building. My dad said property east of the tracks was $50 an acre, just west of the tracks $25 an acre and as low as 50 cents per acre in the now Congress Avenue area.
My dad’s first job was as a gardener in Palm Beach for $45 per week. Then he went to work for McArthur Farms as a route “milkman.” I think he was making $60 a week then. I went to South Grade Elementary and then to Barton Elementary when it was first built, then to Lake Worth Junior High and on to Lake Worth High. My mom started to work at the junior high in 1962 and is still at it in Lake Worth Middle School at the age of 78!
My first job, two days out of high school, was on the Mart Jean Fishing fleet at the old Boynton Inlet docks. I’m still in the recreational fishing trade. I’ve spent 30-some years operating nearly all the drift-fishing boats in the area and several private boats locally and in the Bahamas.
My kids don’t really know what natural wonders they have missed with the development of this area. I would dearly love to show them what it was like to play in the woods that is now I-95 or to swim and play in the unpolluted waters of Lake Osborne, or to see the abundance of wildlife and fish we enjoyed when I was their age. This is still a good place to live, but it was a lot better then. Things change, some for the good, some not. Lantana still has the small town feel to it, but for how much longer?
Verna N. Grove, Lantana:
My husband and I came to Lantana in late September 1947, and met our first hurricane. We waited it out for three days in St. Augustine, then gingerly made our way south to Lantana.
We found the little cottage we had rented to be in 3 feet of water – no rooms available, no restaurants open, no electricity. My husband remembered a family friend who had a winter home on Lantana Avenue, now Ocean Avenue, near the bridge. Lucky us, their bachelor son was there and he invited us to stay.
Paul Dunbar’s Ye Tower restaurant had gas stoves, so the whole town piled in there for meals. I doubt if the population was more than 200.
I remember when A1A ran along the dune. You could park your car anywhere along A1A, leave it unlocked and spend the whole day on the beach with no fear of anything being bothered. You didn’t bother to lock your house unless you were going to be gone overnight.
In those days we really had a nice beach and clean ocean water loaded with fish. I also remember the little drugstore on the corner of Lantana and Federal and the little post office just east of it.
Susan Lewis Miller, Lantana:
I have lived on Hypoluxo Island in Lantana for 40-plus years. The amazing thing is that Lantana has not changed all that much. Businesses have come and gone, but Lantana still has that small town appeal.
I attended Lantana Elementary and Lantana Junior High. I played softball for Lantana Lassie League on the old fields, which are now being developed into housing. I was at the first lighting of the National Enquirer Christmas tree when Burl Ives sang. I enjoyed coconut cream pies from Ye Tower restaurant every Thanksgiving and always got a piece of cheese when visiting George’s Meat Market. I even jumped off the Lantana Bridge once or twice (but don’t tell my kids!).
The Dairy Bar was one of my favorite hangouts, in the parking lot next to where Papa John’s parking lot is now on Dixie Highway (then Penguin Cleaners). The Sandspur was one of the only places you could get pizza.
Some things have changed. The roads are wider. Drugstores have replaced gas stations, there are more people, and the Lantana ball fields are new and greatly improved.
I know my children will have their own fond memories of Christmas parades, fireworks displays, ball games and pieces of cheese.
Gee Gee Meade Morgan, Lantana:
I am the oldest of five children. I was raised, schooled and have had a business in Lantana for 25 years.
My dad, Frank Meade Jr., was very much a part in putting Lantana on the map. He moved here from Detroit in 1946 and opened the first motel in Lantana called the Cocongo Court, for the families of patients in the tuberculosis hospital.
He was the first policeman for eight years, patrolling by foot, then a motorcycle, then Graham-Paige car. My dad built the 7-Eleven Shopping Center on Ocean Avenue after paying $500 for the land. It had a huge Banyan tree on the land with fields of lantana flowers on it.
My dad’s hotel was on Lantana Road, just about where Pearl’s Restaurant is now. As a Lantana policeman, my dad was in charge of getting alligators in people’s yards or ones crossing the street. I remember him tying an 8-footer to a tree at the hotel so he could kill it for dinner.
My dad later sold the hotel and moved us to about 27 different homes in Lantana as he became a builder, the only one in Lantana.
My dad just celebrated his 76th birthday and is still healthy, strong and working. I am 54 and lived in Boston, New York, Maine and Cleveland, and returned to Lantana 25 years ago. There is no place like home.
Dorothy J. Jones, Lantana:
I remember when we parked on the old A1A to go to the beach. I remember when Lantana got its first drugstore (Sullivan’s Pharmacy) and we no longer had to go into Lake Worth’s Ideal Drug Store.
A little while later we got the Lantana Shopping Center and many of us met at W.T. Grant’s for coffee.
On Dec. 8, 1959, we had the organizational meeting for the Lantana Chamber of Commerce. Mr. W. Durham Sullivan was the first president. Installation of the first officers was held Dec. 19, 1959, at the Lion’s Club.
We moved into Lantana in July 1956 and never left. Lantana has grown gracefully, but I do miss the close knit group of people who were here.
Eileen Bayer, Lantana:
The mention of Paul Dunbar or Ye Tower to an old-timer in Lantana immediately brings visions of creamy malted milks served in authentic milkshake glasses at a real soda fountain counter. Or the best barbecued beef, not to mention luscious cream pies at 75 cents a slice. That and an extra helping of nostalgia for this now-gone local restaurant and the wonderful, kindly man who opened Ye Tower in 1925.
Paul Dunbar arrived from New York in 1924, opening a restaurant in Boynton Beach with his brother. This was the heyday of the real estate boom. People were being bused south from all over the country to look at wonderful bargains in what appeared to be sandspur-covered lots.
Up the road in Lantana, a 55-foot tower had been built by developer A.O. Greynolds (think Greynolds Circle today). The tower served as a viewing platform from which buyers could see all the property available for miles to the west.
In 1925 the Dunbar brothers bought the tower and building and opened it as Ye Tower Lunch. Lantana had a population of about 100 to 150. Not enough to support a restaurant certainly, but the next year Dixie Highway was put through in front of it.
More bus loads of possible land buyers continued to arrive and the restaurant was a favorite stop. It took the powerful 1928 hurricane to bring the tower crashing down. In its place a smaller, 5-foot one was to top the restaurant, which continued to flourish, even after Paul’s brother went elsewhere.
Feeding Lantana residents wasn’t the only thing to occupy Paul Dunbar (and he did the cooking himself, including baking those fabulous pies). He became involved in the growing town and in 1940 began a term on the town council, where he continued until he was elected mayor in 1948, serving in that capacity until 1957. It was Dunbar who insisted the town buy the 3,000-foot frontage on the ocean for $80,000, guaranteeing a public beach for the town’s residents.
Paul Dunbar closed Ye Tower in 1987, signaling the end of an era in Lantana’s history. On May 9, 1993, at age 90, Paul died in Lantana, a well-remembered and much-esteemed part of the town’s fond memories.
It was a sad, sad day when bulldozers razed the restaurant, and small shops were built in its stead at Ye Tower Plaza. Such is progress.
Tags: beach, Lantana, restaurant