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Palm Beach County as it was: The wide-open west

By BILL McGOUN

Fifth 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

The region west of the coastal cities was just as wide open in the 1940s as was the coastline. I n fact, west of U.S. 441 it was really open.

The Seaboard Air Line (now CSX) tracks were the western limit of coastal development. To the west were a scattering of small communities such as Westgate, Loxahatchee and Haverhill.

The only incorporated town west of the coast and east of the Glades in the 1940s was Greenacres, consisting only of the old part of town centered on Swain Boulevard.

(In those days, when it was anything but a city, it was named Greenacres City. Today, when it is a city, it is named just Greenacres. In fact, the official name in bygone years was Town of Greenacres City.)

The old-time Greenacres was an interesting mixture of Old South and Old West. One of the Greenacres students in my class at Lake Worth High, which then took all students living west of the city, brought a jug of moonshine to Senior Skip Day.

There were a few small neighborhoods here and there between Lake Worth and Greenacres. To the west, after Lake Worth Road jogged south and Jog Road crossed it there, there were to the best of my memory three houses in the five miles to U.S. 441, then State Road 7.

That road was best known then as the Range Line. Before 1949, Florida was an open-range state, which meant that in rural areas cows could go where they wished and if you hit one on the highway it was your fault. As I recall it, everything west of the Range Line was open range.

Chief Ho-To-Pi

I remember one of those three houses because it was the home of the one of most fascinating characters ever to descend on Palm Beach County. He was Chief Ho-To-Pi.

hotopicubscouts

I recall Ho-To-Pi regaling my Cub Scout pack with Indian lore. We met at Calvary Methodist Church in Lake Worth, which is where he worshipped. We also went to his house at least once.

I don’t remember anything about the chief’s hygiene but I do know that one Calvary Methodist parishioner had strong views. When asked one Sunday about the morning service, he remarked that unfortunately he was sitting next to “a ripe Indian.” That was before churches, or other buildings for that matter, were air-conditioned.

Ho-To-Pi was emphatic in declaring he was not a Seminole, but rather a Cheyenne. When he died in 1969, it turned out that he was neither. He was a Greek, born under the name George Courtrulis around the turn of the 20th Century on the island of Corfu.

He evidently emigrated in childhood, as his tombstone shows he served in World War I from Illinois. What happened then remains a mystery. He already had taken the name Ho-To-Pi by 1931, as he is reported to have given several concerts in the Pittsburgh area in January of that year. He was referred to then as the “Indian Caruso.”

In 1935 he evidently was known for a song called “My Canoe (Indian Song),” listed in the sheet music collection of the California Digital Library.

He sang a concert in Cocoa Beach in January of 1947, the same year he showed up in Lake Worth. In a 1950 newspaper article he was said to have studied music in Chicago and New York City and to have toured Europe.

A 1953 magazine article referred to him as “the famous Cheyenne opera singer.” If he ever sang in my presence, I don’t recall it.

hotopiprofile

Farmland and wilderness camps

It’s hard today to envision a Palm Beach County in which there was more agriculture east of 20-Mile Bend than west, but that’s the way it was. There were more farms between Military Trail and the Range Line, and fewer in the Everglades, than today. With the exception of the enclaves I have noted, just about everything west of Military Trail was farmland.

While homes have replaced crops to the east, sugar has replaced sawgrass to the west. There had been sugar farming in the Glades since the 1920s, but the industry really took after Fidel Castro took over Cuba in 1959 and the United States cut off imports from the island.

Lake Osborne west of Lake Worth was still open country. Boy Scouts camped in what then was a wilderness along the west shore. Today the wilderness is gone and the camp is the John Prince Park campground.

The camp got its 15 minutes of fame in the early 1950s when a West Palm Beach scout leader claimed to have encountered aliens from outer space there.

The land that would become West Palm Beach’s Westward Expansion, bordering Clear Lake on the north and west, similarly was wilderness. Okeechobee Road was a two-lane highway circling the south side of the lake.

The upper Loxahatchee River wasn’t exactly west, but it certainly was wild. After the war Dad became an accountant for Southern Dairies, a division of Sealtest. The West Palm Beach plant held its annual picnic at J.O. Bowen’s Camp Loxie. A highlight of the day was a boat trip up the Loxahatchee to Trapper Nelson’s.

trappernelson
Victor Nostokovich, better known as Trapper Nelson (center), on his property on the Loxahatchee River with two unidentified men.

Nelson was a local legend. In those days the only way to get to his ramshackle zoo was by boat and the Loxahatchee was as wild as any river around. It felt like a trip into Darkest Africa navigating the few miles upstream from Camp Loxie.

I’ve read a lot of accounts about Trapper’s place and the one thing none of them mentions is the smell. Even to a child’s nose, which generally speaking is not as sensitive as an adult’s, the stench was overpowering.

Nelson, born Victor Nostokovich in New Jersey, came to a mysterious end. He was found dead of a shotgun blast behind his house in 1968. The official verdict was suicide but a lot of people had their doubts.

No need for a turnpike

In the 1940s the fastest way to drive from West Palm Beach to Miami was to head west to the Range Line and then south. There was nothing except scattered farmhouses in Palm Beach County and little more in Broward. That would not change until the turnpike came through in 1958.

There were no four-lane roads west of the coastal cities, but there wasn’t any traffic to speak of, either. The intersection of 10th Avenue N. and Congress Ave., west of Lake Worth, was marked with a flasher. The only building there was a small grocery on the northeast corner operated by the father of future major league baseball players Dick and Larry Brown.

There was a small grass-runway airport east of Congress and north of 2nd Avenue N. The latter was connected to 2nd Avenue in Lake Worth by a bridge over the Seaboard tracks that was eliminated when I-95 was built in the 1970s.

Many of today’s major highways were just fragments then. I do not recall Jog Road existing anywhere except in the Lake Worth Road area. Congress did not cross the canal south of John Prince Park. Belvedere Road had been cut in two by the extension of Morrison Field’s northwest-southeast runway during World War II and would not be reconnected until several years after the war.

fourpoints
Aerial view from the 1940s or 50s of the “Four Points” intersection of Southern Boulevard and Military Trail. Photo courtesy of the Quincey Collection of the Historical Society of Palm Beach County.

There was no Beeline Highway. To get from West Palm Beach to Okeechobee city, you had to drive north to Jupiter. When headed to Camp Loxie we used A1A, today’s Old Dixie Highway, when then ran through open country between Lake Park and Jupiter. Somewhere around the midpoint of that stretch going north it crossed to the west side of the Florida East Coast Railway.

The route west then was Central Avenue Center Street to Loxahatchee River Road if you were going to Camp Loxie, or on to Indiantown Road if you were going to Okeechobee. As I recall there was no Indiantown Road east of the present Central Avenue Center Street intersection.

All of this would change as the postwar boom gained steam. I will look at those changes, as I remember them, in the final part of this series.

NEXT: Changing Times

billmcgoun1
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.

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Posted in Flashback blog April 13, 2010 at 9:01 am.

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