Black history month
This Week in History
West Palm Beach
World War II
A recent inquiry reminded us about a giant orchid operation in Boynton Beach owned by the Merkel brothers.
Here’s more from an obituary for Jean Merkel when he died at 93 in April 2005:
Merkel and his brother Norman ran the fabled Alberts and Merkel Brothers Nursery in Boynton Beach for 65 years.
Christopher Merkel, their grandfather, had owned and operated 4 acres of greenhouses in Mentor, Ohio, near Cleveland, beginning in 1890, growing roses, carnations and African violets.
During a visit to Florida, Christopher’s son Louis founded the spread at 2210 S. Federal Highway, just south of Wool-bright Road.
The six acres between the highway and the Intracoastal Waterway were bought for $12,000.
Louis’ sons, Jean and his younger brother Nor-man, operated the long rows of greenhouses.
Jean Merkel, born in Ohio in 1911, taught celestial navigation as a World War II lieutenant commander.
He earned a bachelor of science degree in horticulture at Cornell University and became interested in orchids.
In 1936, the same year the Merkels bought the property, Jean Merkel began photographing and cataloging his plants. That led to several books and one of the first floral catalog businesses.
Jean Merkel said he was drawn to orchids because “there are so many thousands of varieties that you can’t live long enough to see them all.”
He traveled the world to bring back exotic orchids and crossed species to create 7,000 variations.
He sold orchids to celebrities and decorated the homes of U.S. presidents.
He supplied plants to the Bronx Zoo aviary and Asian animal habitat, to botany schools and to botanical gardens.
When North Florida orchid expert Bruno Alberts joined the Merkels in 1947, the business became known as Alberts and Merkel Brothers Nursery.
Alberts retired in 1958; he died in 1970. Norman Merkel died at 76 in 1990.
In 2001, a developer paid Jean Merkel $1.5 million for the land and built Tuscany on the Intracoastal, an apartment community.
He moved the business west to Hagen Ranch Road, just south of Boynton Beach Boulevard.
According to Jean Merkel’s daughter, Martha Banting, the business was hit by hurricanes Frances and Jeanne in 2004, and then was heavily damaged by Wilma in 2005 and never reopened.
Jean Merkel at his Boynton Beach orchid nursery, Alberts and Merkel Brothers, in October 1990. (Palm Beach Post file photo)
Tags: Boynton Beach, business
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The Boynton Inlet bridge under construction in 1928 (Palm Beach Post file photo, source unknown)
The Boynton Inlet channel was blocked by sand in January 1956. (Palm Beach Post file photo)
The Boynton Inlet bridge, probably in the late 1950s (Palm Beach Post staff photo by Dick Haeseler)
Boynton Inlet bridge (Undated Palm Beach Post file photo)
The Boynton Inlet bridge on Aug. 1, 1961 (Palm Beach Post staff file photo)
Fishing from the Boynton Inlet jetty (Palm Beach Post staff photo by Nick Arroyo, published March 25, 1970)
Demolition of the old Boynton Inlet Bridge is almost complete with only a single arch remaining intact. The old bridge is giving way to a modern structure which will carry SR A1A traffic between Ocean Ridge and Manalapan. (Palm Beach Post staff photo by Ken Steinhoff, published April 23, 1974)
The “no diving or swimming” order was frequently ignored. (Palm Beach Post staff file photo, 1975)
The Boynton Inlet is a popular area for fishermen, swimmers and divers. Acording to the signs which seem to be everywhere, the swimmers and divers are breaking the law. The fishermen are quite legal. (Palm Beach Post staff photo by Ruth Cincotta, published Aug. 11, 1979)
Teenagers spend the day drinking and jumping from the bridge. (Palm Beach Post staff photo published June 21, 1980)
It’s a long drop to the inlet below. (Palm Beach Post staff photo by John Kaplan, published June 21, 1980)
Two fisherman try their luck at the Boynton Inlet, casting their lines into turbulent seas and holding on to a rail as the waves broke over them. (Palm Beach Post staff photo by C.J. Walker, published Oct. 17, 1981)
Diving from the Boynton Inlet bridge. (Palm Beach Post staff file photo, published March 6, 1981)
On hot July afternoons, people usually take to several conventional ways to cool off — like swimming at the beach or the pool. A few daredevil types continue to practice a more radical method of beating the heat, bridge-jumping at the Boynton Inlet. This long-practiced and exttremely dangerous sport has been going on for years at the bridge, in spite of efforts by the harbor patrol and sheriff’s department to put a stop to it. (Palm Beach Post staff photo by John coley, published July 29, 1981)
Surfer Jason Barnett, 24, leaps into the water off the Boynton Inlet jetty. Barnett said the only time he would do this is when the wind is from the southeast. (Palm Beach Post staff photo by Thomas Graves, published March 25, 1987)
Tags: Boynton Beach, inlets, photos
As recently as the start of the 20th century, much of South Florida still was a sparsely-populated, rugged stretch of coastline.
The 1875 Gilbert’s Bar House of Refuge, east of Stuart on Hutchinson Island, is the only surviving one of several built by the U.S. Treasury Department between Cape Canaveral and Cape Florida for shipwreck victims. Down in Delray Beach, the Orange Grove House of Refuge 3 stood. Not far away, the Inchulva sank in 1903.
The house is gone but parts of the Inchulva remain about 200 yards off shore.
But for early pioneers, shipwrecks were like visits from Santa Claus, and many a salvaged item became part of early South Florida.
For Boynton Beach, a special boon was the wreck of the Coquimbo. In the October newsletter of the Boynton Beach Historical Society, longtime president Voncile Smith describes the incident:
Early one morning in the early months of 1909, the barkentine ran aground about a mile south of where Ocean Avenue is now. Registered in Norway, it had two square rigged masts forward and a schooner rigged mast aft. It had taken on a full cargo of pine lumber in Mississippi. Foghorn blasts from the stranded vessel awakened guests at Major Nathan Boynton’s Boynton Beach hotel. A rescue vessel brought in the 15 crew members: three Swedes, one Dane, one Finn, and 10 Norwegians, including the captain.
The hotel did not extend its accommodations to the crew, and they spent the next two months camped on the beach on makeshift tents created from the ship’s sails.
A steam tug, up from Key West to push the stranded Coquimbo off the reef, worked for days without luck.
By the spring, the pounding of waves had worked on the ship, and pieces of the cargo began washing ashore: lumber neatly cut into 4-by-4, 4-by-10 and 6-by-12 pieces.
For the pioneer region, these building materials were a gift from heaven. Residents stacked the lumber in piles but soon a federal marshal showed up and told them the wood would have to be auctioned, although residents were allowed to mark their piles and buy the wood later at very low bids.
Much of it formed the structure — literally — of early Boynton Beach.
The Coquimbo wrecked in early 1909 off the coast of what’s now Ocean Ridge. (Photo courtesy Boynton Beach City Library)
Auction notice from the March 25, 1909 Miami News
Tags: Boynton Beach, shipwrecks
In 2010, we asked Ineria Hudnell, the unofficial historian for black West Palm Beach, about how current generations are amazed there was a time when segregation once was the law. She said that’s really good, but also really bad.
Some victories were long in coming.
Some were paid in blood and pain. Other barriers fell with little fanfare.
That was the case 50 years ago this week. Back in the 1930s, before McDonald’s and Burger King became ubiquitous, a chain of hamburger joints dotted the South, mostly in Florida.
It was Royal Castle.
The name still sparks nostalgia for its small burgers and its birch beer.
But it also was part of the segregated south, and well into the 1940s and 1950s, blacks had to order from a side window.
On Sunday, Aug. 26, 1962, about 30 black teenagers converged on a Royal Castle at 502 N. Federal Highway, just north of Boynton Beach Boulevard and adjacent to a city fire station.
The teens were said to be high school kids from Fort Lauderdale
Without incident, they filled every seat, the counter man served them and they left.
The occurrence sparked only a small story in The Palm Beach Post. It quoted a local man — “a Boynton negro” — named Willie Miller who said some local blacks were on hand to give the teens “moral support.”
Boynton Beach police told the newspaper they’d heard of the incident but it never was officially reported to them.
The event was by no means the quietest in the local desegregation saga.
One weekend in the 1960s, Lake Lytal, who would serve a record 32 years on the Palm Beach County Commission, summoned workers to the county courthouse, where they painted over signs at drinking fountains that read “white” and “colored.”
The following Monday, when workers showed up, the facilities had been integrated for good.
The old Royal Castle site now is a vacant lot. The Royal Castle chain is long gone, side windows and all.
Update: After our June 28 column on the George Zapf beverage bottle — misspelled “Fapf” — Laura Thayer of Jupiter wrote to say she too had such a bottle, having found it in 1998 in the Intracoastal Waterway: “It would not have been easy to correct this error, so there are probably a lot more like them out there,” Thayer wrote.
Tags: African Americans, Boynton Beach, restaurant
Palm Beach Post-Times staff photo from July 15, 1966: “The tiny five-acre spoil island is shown in the background of this view of the Boynton Inlet. Title to the wooded island is being sought by the Florida Outdoor Recreation Council, so that it can be turned into a county park. The island is on the north side of the Inlet channel.”
Palm Beach Times staff photo from April 25, 1972: “Disgruntled charter boat fishermen who are being evicted from the berth at the Boynton Inlet commercial docks to make way for posh and exclusive new condominium complex say the inlet’s nearby Beer Can Island will have to have its name upgraded to Champagne Island before the undeveloped 4-acre fill island can fit in the inlet area’s changing new image.”
The caption on the back of this undated Palm Beach Times staff file photo: “Visitors to Beer Can Island complain that even when people do use the trash cans, authorities fail to dump them when they get full.”
Sandy McCrorie, 14, (left) Sandy Lafayette, 14, Marie Gore and Rock Tate, 14 (right) haul trash bags of beer cans off Beer Can Island in this 1973 photo. The 8-acre island is now called Bird Island. (Palm Beach Post staff file photo)
Aerial view of the Boynton Inlet and Bird Island in 2012. Recreational boaters frequented the island until the 1990s, when its new owners, The National Audubon Society, gave it a $1.1 million makeover and turned it into a bird sanctuary. (Palm Beach Post file photo)
Tags: Boynton Beach, Intracoastal Waterway, photos