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‘C’ for Census: How the Census solved my home’s mysterious mailbox engraving

By Barbara Marshall
Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

For 22 years, I’ve wondered why there was a “C” on my mailbox door.

Now I know.

In 1940, John W. Cummings and his wife, Nora, owned my Flamingo Park house, according to just-released Census records. Cummings managed the Florida Theater on Clematis Street, now the home of Palm Beach Dramaworks.

He was from Tennessee, two years younger than his wife, and had completed only the eighth grade. Yet he made a comfortable $3,000 salary. At the time, his/my house, was valued at $6,000.

The mailbox is a cubby cut into an exterior wall that also served as a milk box for deliveries from the Alfar Dairy, a few blocks away, I’ve been told.

Now every time I retrieve a new batch of Bed, Bath & Beyond circulars and Pottery Barn catalogs, I’ll think of John and Nora.

And if they were the ones to install that hideous downstairs bathroom tile, I’d like a word.

Other posts about the 1940 Census: Vivid stories emerge from otherwise dry statistics and A tale of two lives from the 1940 Census


Posted in Flashback blog May 3, 2012 at 7:54 am.

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1940 Census: Vivid stories emerge from otherwise dry statistics

Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

They are snapshots frozen in the sepia haze of an April 72 years ago.

The day the census taker came to her house in 1940, unmarried 27-year-old Margaret Sowell operated a teletype in West Palm Beach and lived at home.

William Fagan, 23, dispensed sodas to help support his 11-member family on Parker Road in West Palm Beach.

And Marion Carter, 19, worked as a blacksmith’s assistant and lived in the “colored settlement” across the tracks in Jupiter.

By April, most Palm Beachers had headed north, but heiress Jessie Woolworth Donahue, occupation left blank, was still in her ocean-to-lake mansion, with 16 live-in servants including a seamstress and footman. Each worked 80 hours during the last week of March.

Henry Marshall earned $480 the year before as a “hunter” of “frog legs” in the Loxahatchee Groves settlement.

On each page of handwritten notations from the 1940 U.S. Census for Palm Beach County, an antiquated world pops forth, before air-conditioning or second cars or integration, where people worked as stenographers, ice delivery men, chamber maids, shine boys and service station attendants. The number of butlers is astounding. Who needed all those taxidermists?

In the 1940s, Clematis Street was a bustling downtown, lined with shops, movie theaters and offices. (Palm Beach Post file photo)

The time-lock on 1940 wound down last month, as the National Archives opened that year’s census records to the public, the largest number of digital documents ever released by the agency. So many people across the country wanted to look at them that the system crashed on its first day.

Privacy laws allow records to be released only after 72 years. Each of the 3.8 million handwritten records contains the outlines of up to 40 lives, sketched in the answers to 34 basic Census questions.

It’s history’s Facebook.

Census “enumerators” went to every address in Palm Beach County asking, “Who lives with you?” “What is your rent or the value of your home?” “What is your occupation? “Where were you living in 1935?”

The answers reveal that then, as now, the county was full of newcomers. Most arrived from the Northeast and Midwest, but hundreds also came from Georgia.

Debi Murray, chief curator of the Historical Society of Palm Beach, said, “This is like tapping into a gold mine. Seeing where and how people were living puts faces to what are otherwise dry statistics.

“For one thing, you see how much people had been moving around during the Depression. It wasn’t just the Dust Bowl Okies who had to leave their homes to put food on the table.”

From north to south, the survey of the county’s 79,989 people began April 2 with Charles Seabrook, who made $1,680 a year as the principal keeper of the Jupiter lighthouse. Helene Dent, a lodger in the Beach House Hotel, is the last Boca Raton entry on April 27.

Nearly half the county’s population — 33,693 — lived in West Palm Beach. But try to follow Belvedere Road west and you quickly run out of addresses. In 1940, Palm Beach County’s towns and cities were still strung like thin necklaces along the coast. Belle Glade and Pahokee hugged the shore of Lake Okeechobee. In between were swamps, farms, dairies and orange groves.

The spot where I-95 crosses Okeechobee Boulevard was a federal gunnery range, according to a Census map.

“West Palm Beach hadn’t expanded west yet,” said Murray. “There was nothing beyond Clear Lake except for Westgate.”

Historians expect the 1940 census, once it is fully studied, to reveal an America on the cusp of change. While some families were still mired in the Depression, others were finding work in the country’s ramp-up to war.

Few people lived alone. Virtually everyone in the county resided with family members, often with two or three generations. Except on Palm Beach, which is full of divorced women, you can go pages without finding a “D” under marital status.

The census takers’ elegant cursive notes two severely segregated races, “W” in the eastern neighborhoods and “Neg” relegated to the “colored towns” on the west side of the railroad tracks. In West Palm Beach’s Pleasant City neighborhood, rents were as low as $8 a month.

The enumerators’ terse jottings contain tantalizing mysteries.

In the Children’s Home on 45th Street, the six Fountain children, ages 6 to 16, were among 31 foundlings. What happened to their parents?

Why were seven research engineers for a Philadelphia petroleum company renting rooms at 235 Belmonte Road in West Palm Beach? Had someone struck oil in El Cid?

Was it desperation that drove James Williams, who had a college degree, to a laborer’s job with the Works Progress Administration (WPA)? He had three children and a 1939 salary of $200.

It’s a shock when a famous or tragic name pops out.

Here is 10-year-old Herbert Pulitzer Jr., known as Peter, the future husband of Lilly and Roxanne, whose father was renting a house on Middle Road in Palm Beach for $150 a month.

Peter Pulitzer with his sister Patsy, pictured in the Jan. 17, 1933 issue of Palm Beach Life magazine

At 211 Dyer Road in West Palm Beach, we find Judge Charles Chillingworth and his wife, Marjorie, 15 years before they will die, wrapped in chains and thrown into the ocean in one of the county’s most infamous crimes.

In Delray Beach, Fontaine Fox lives on North Ocean Boulevard making a princely $5,000 a year as a syndicated newspaper cartoonist drawing the Toonerville Folks strip, which ran in hundreds of newspapers from 1913 to 1955.

Small details paint vivid pictures.

Pardon and Wilda Rickey left Berlin sometime after 1935 to move to Delray Beach.

Lake Worth was full of tradesman and craftsmen, most eking out a living on a few hundred dollars a year.
Hiram Walker, the county sheriff, made $5,000, but West Palm Beach Police Chief Robert Millwin half that. Ruth B. Hyatt made $1,530 as principal of Conniston Junior High, while a secondary school teacher in Jupiter made $975.

And there’s so much more.

If you have the time to research it, they’re all here, every single 1940 resident, their lives frozen forever in the answers to 34 simple questions.


From the Palm Beach County census:

County population: 79,989

West Palm Beach population: 33,693

Greenacres City population: 345

Lake Park was still called Kelsey City.

Riviera Beach was known as Riviera; Boynton Beach was called Boynton.

Shawano, which no longer exists, was an experimental farming settlement outside of Belle Glade.

The largest Palm Beach estates required more than a dozen live-in servants.

Cities and towns were only a mile or two wide but several miles long.

Apartments on Worth Avenue rented for $50 a month.

Wellington, Royal Palm Beach, Palm Beach Gardens, North Palm Beach, Palm Springs and Lake Clarke Shores did not yet exist.

Staff researcher Michelle Quigley contributed to this report.

Other posts about the 1940 Census: ‘C’ for Census: How the Census solved my home’s mysterious mailbox engraving and A tale of two lives from the 1940 Census


Posted in Flashback blog May 3, 2012 at 7:52 am.

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A tale of two lives from the 1940 Census

Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

When the 1940 Census time capsule cracked open, the childhoods of people now in their 80s swam into view.

There on Page 5 of the “Palm Beach Town” records is 13-year-old James Griffin, son of the superintendent of Mar-a-Lago. With his parents and three siblings, Griffin lived in the caretaker’s cottage just past the estate’s front gates. Today, it’s a Mar-a-Lago Club guest house.

This snapshot from the 16th Census shows entries for the Griffin family. Click on the image to view a larger version.

At the time, owner Marjorie Merriweather Post (Mrs. Joseph Davies in 1940) opened her vast palazzo for only three months in the winter.

“We had the whole 18 acres to ourselves most of the year,” said Griffin, 86, who lives in Lake Clarke Shores. “I chased the rabbits and foxes and fished for bluefish off the beach.”

He recalls a childhood far removed from the despair unspooling on the west side of the Intracoastal.

“When Mrs. Davies was there, there were parties every night. I met senators, congressmen, all kinds of famous people, even the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. It was a wonderful, wonderful world.”

In 1955, Griffin inherited the superintendent’s job from his father. When Donald Trump bought Mar-a-Lago in 1985, he inherited Griffin, who stayed until his retirement about 10 years ago.

Jimmy Griffin in a family photo and today. Griffin grew up at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, where his father (at right in the family photo, next to a young Jimmy) was the estate’s superintendent. Griffin became the superintendent there in 1955. (Photo credits: Left, provided by Jimmy Griffin, right by Brandon Kruse/The Palm Beach Post)

“No house numbers in Riviera,” the census taker wrote on the record for the small fishing village, to which “Beach” hadn’t yet been appended. There on Page 21 is 10-year-old Garnett Knowles, who lived on Inlet Avenue, now 15th Street, in what was known as “Conch Town.”

“I was proud to be a Conch, still am,” said Knowles, 82, who lives in Palm Beach Gardens. He grew up with nine siblings in a three-bedroom wooden cottage near U.S. 1. “But nobody knows about us anymore.”

Yet the year before the Census, a WPA writer and photographer found the community of white Bahamian fishing families so compelling, he chronicled their net-to-mouth existence in a photo essay called Conch Town.

Knowles remembers gathering palm fronds for his mother and aunts, who plaited them into hats for tourists. To earn money, he dug clams, oysters and conch from the lake bed and sold bait shrimp.

But outside his neighborhood, Conch was synonymous with redneck or cracker, Knowles learned when he entered Palm Beach High.

“You could tell people treated you differently. They isolated from you and called me Conch, but I didn’t care,” said Knowles, who went on to hold the football team’s touchdown record.

He retired as a communications specialist for Pratt & Whitney.

Garnett Knowles in a family photo (provided by Knowles), and today, pictured in front of a boat supply store where his childhood home stood in Riviera Beach (Brandon Kruse/The Palm Beach Post).

Other posts about the 1940 Census: 1940 Census: Vivid stories emerge from otherwise dry statistics and ‘C’ for Census: How the Census solved my home’s mysterious mailbox engraving


Posted in Flashback blog May 3, 2012 at 7:52 am.

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Palm Beach County in the 1940 Census

Hotels and other transient housing

April 9, 1940, was the day designated for counting people in hotels. The official manual instructed enumerators: “You are to complete the enumeration of all tourist or trailer camps, missions, and cheap one-night lodging houses in your district on the evening of April 8th, and of all hotels in your district on April 9th.”

The tourist camp and hotel enumerations in the Census are separate from the street-by-street listings that make up most of the Census images for Palm Beach County (you can find all of the Palm Beach County images online here).

Here’s an example of one of the enumeration pages for Palm Beach hotels, listing the Surfside Hotel, Balmoral Hotel, Southland Inn, Ocean Hotel, and the Brazilian Court:

Click on the image to see a larger version.

Guests at the Ocean Hotel included a singer, a petroleum products salesman, a newspaper correspondent, a broker of hides, and a rubber goods exporter.

Only one guest was counted in the hotels in Delray Beach, a building management executive staying at the Colony Hotel. Others listed on the hotel page include hotel owners, staff and their families.

Two tourist camps were listed in Lantana, Young’s Tourist Camp and Jitterbug Jungle Camp:

Prominent locals

In April 1940 George Morikami lived on Federal Highway near the end of Old Dixie Highway in what is now northern Boca Raton. He was 53 years old and listed his occupation as farm operator.

Click on the image to see the whole page from the 1940 Census at 1940census.archives.gov.

Morikami had come from Japan with a group of farmers who planted acres of pineapples, peppers and tomatoes. Ultimately the Yamato Colony failed, and most of the farmers moved to other parts of the United States or returned to Japan.

George Morikami remained after the colony disbanded, and continued cultivating fruits and vegetables and buying land. He lost much of his land during the Depression, and later the federal government confiscated more of it for the Boca Raton Army Air Field, but Morikami eventually donated 200 acres to Palm Beach County, which opened the Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens on that land in 1977, one year after Morikami’s death.

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Posted in Flashback blog April 4, 2012 at 4:15 pm.

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