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From Backwater to Beautiful

In 100 years, Boca has boomed and the beat just keeps getting better

Source: Boca Raton Chamber of Commerce, BOCA RATON ANNUAL 2001-2002

  If you traveled back in time to see Southeast Florida in the late 1800s, you would marvel at how vastly different our cities looked back then.

  A hundred years ago, the area was cut by inland rivers that flowed from the Everglades. Riverbanks were dense with oak and mahogany hammocks and prairies were vast. Travel between sparsely populated settlements was mostly by boat along the rivers and bays. There were few sand or rock roads across the isolated wooded terrain. Florida encouraged development by offering railroads land in exchange for each mile of track laid.

  Henry Morrison Flagler became the true father of South Florida by taking advantage of the land-for-track program. He brought his railroad down the   East Coast and his Model Land Co. was granted more than two million acres of land from the state. Flagler’s efforts opened South Florida to the 20th century.

  In the years that followed World War I, Florida developed rapidly along the entire southeastern coast. National prosperity and the inexpensive automobile made a winter vacation possible for the country’s growing middle class. Real estate developers and local governments launched campaigns to encourage tourism and land sales. News spread that an inexpensive lot in Miami purchased in the fall could quadruple in value by spring. The land boom in Florida gave developers like Addison Mizner great promise in areas like little Boca Raton.

  However, by late 1926, investors’ skepticism, tax investigations by the federal government, and transportation problems made Florida’s land boom go bust. The Depression swallowed the nation in 1929, and only added to the area’s woes.

  Still, because of certain individuals and their shrewd decision-making, Southeast Florida— and Boca Raton in particular—maintained some economic stability in the ‘30s.

  The financial strength and control of one man, Clarence H. Geist, the owner of the private Boca Raton Club, helped keep the city afloat during this difficult time. Geist’s efforts to strengthen Boca Raton ensured that an airport would be built as part of a New Deal Works Progress Administration project. Because of the airport and the city’s coastal location, Boca became the site of a U.S. Army base during World War LI. The army helped build infrastructure that set the stage for growth.

  In the 1950s, the Arvida Corp., headed by Arthur Vining Davis, introduced well-planned, lavishly landscaped, expensive subdivisions, ultimately changing Boca Raton’s image forever. The founding of Florida Atlantic University and IBM’s arrival in the 1960s led to a population explosion in the ‘70s. This growth sparked concern among residents about the quality of life in their city and resulted in the passage of strict building codes and restrictive growth caps.

  In just 100 years, the efforts of early settlers and the dreams of architects and developers led to Boca Raton’s metamorphosis from a farming village, into the breathtaking, luxury community that it is today.

  The timeline that follows gives insight into the people and events that created our rich heritage in Boca Raton.  


Henry Flagler’s railroad arrives in Boca Raton and later Miami, opening South Florida to development. The Florida Coast Line Canal, now the lntracoastal Waterway, had been dredged in 1892 from Jacksonville to Miami, aiding passage through the long state. Surveyor and engineer Capt. Thomas Moore Rickards and his family build the first house on the north shore of Lake Boca Raton. He begins clearing and platting the area for Flagler’s Model Land Co.


Five families have settled in the area: the Rickards, their friends the Longs, the Cheesebros, the Raulersons and the Purdomes. Life was challenging and primitive, but the warm climate and farming possibilities attracted these adventurers to South Florida. Laborers walked from Deerfield or Defray Beach to work on the farms. The Raulerson’s house is still standing on Southwest Second Avenue.


Drawn to Boca Raton by Flagler’s land company, Japanese colonists arrive to farm pineapples under the direction of Jo Sakai at the Yamato Colony he established. Thomas Rickards becomes their trusted friend and acts as liaison between the Japanese and the land company. The colony totals 40 by 1908.


Boca Raton’s first wood-plank bridge is built across the Hillsboro River. today’s El Rio Canal, to reach land west of town.


George Long’s packing house is used as a school until a one-room schoolhouse is built on Northwest Second Avenue. The town’s first schoolteacher is “Professor” Rhebinder.


Vermont Realtor Harley Gates and his wife Harriet purchase five acres of land along the canal, today’s Intracoastal, and names it Palmetto Park Plantation. The homestead gives its name to the principal east-west road. Gates becomes Boca Raton’s first mayor.


At age 18, Laurence McKinley Gould is the town’s fourth teacher. He leaves Boca Raton in 1916 to fight in World War I. Gould reaches fame in 1930 as second in command to Adm. Richard Byrd during a South Pole expedition.

Land owned by Thomas Rickards, who left Florida in 1906, is sold at an auction. Alex Hughes buys it and becomes the first black man to purchase land and live in Boca Raton. He established the black community, Pearl City. The true origin of the name has been lost, but local historians speculate that it comes from a type of pineapple that was grown in Boca Raton during this time, the Hawaiian Pearl.


Growth brings Boca Raton out of the pioneer era. The settlement receives a telephone line, establishes a Board of Trade (its first governing body), and the Boca Raton Power and Light Co. is created.


 A manually operated drawbridge on Palmetto Park Road makes the beach easily accessible. Lucas Douglas, the second bridge tender, serves from 1919 to 1947. The Palmetto Park Road bridge is later named after Douglas.


Boca Raton’s new brick elementary school opens. Fruit and vegetable farming is the area’s main industry.


The first bridge at the Boca Raton Inlet is a fixed wooden span. Alex Hughes organizes the opening of an elementary school for the children of Pearl City.

Jones Cleveland (J.C.) Mitchell and his wife, Floy, move to Boca Raton and become successful in real estate during the land boom. J.C. is mayor from 1939 to 1949. Later, they lead a drive to build a community church on land donated by Floys father.


The town of Boca Raton is incorporated. As the town grows, so does the need for law enforcement. Charles Raulerson is appointed as the first marshal. There are five people on the police force during the land boom. The force is disbanded in 1929.

  Well-known Palm Beach architect Addison Mizner arrives in Boca Raton. He dreams of designing and creating a resort city with his development corporation. He hopes to develop a 16,000-acre tract with Mediterranean-style structures for comercial and residential use.


A 150-mph hurricane strikes, blowing freight ears off railroad tracks, snapping telegraph poles and tearing the roofs from buildings.


Mizner’s Cloister Inn opens as a Ritz­Carlton Investment Corp. project. Though Mizner’s Development Corp. fails within two years, the opening of this hotel as a winter mecca sparks a promotional build up that ultimately turns Boca Raton from a sleepy town into an exclusive resort area.

Town Hall, designed by Mizner, is scaled down and finished by Delray Beach architect William Alsmeyer. It houses the volunteer fire department and the fire engine, “Old Betsy.” Today, the engine is fully restored and under the care of the city’s fire department.

Clarence H. Geist buys the Cloister Inn for $71,000 at a courthouse auction and assumes $7 million of the Mizner Development Corp.’s debt.


The first railroad passenger station in Boca Raton is constructed at Geist’s request at Camino Real and Dixie Highway. Enlarging the Cloister Inn, Geist creates the private Boca Raton Club. The Cabana Club is built south of the inlet offering 200 private cabanas facing the ocean, informal dining rooms and card lounges. By this time, the Boca Raton Inlet is dredged for clear passage.


Boca Raton’s first airport was a New Deal Works Progress Administration project obtained through the efforts of Clarence Geist.


With the U.S. involved in World War II, Boca Raton’s airport and coastal locale make it an ideal site for an army base. The U.S. Army takes over the Boca Raton Club for offices, classrooms and officers’ barracks. The IJ .S. government forces the few remaining Japanese colonists to vacate land west of the railroad to make way for an air base. Completed in 10 months, the base is used as a radar training school.


J. Meyer Schine buys the Boca Raton Club and the Spanish River Land Co. from Clarence Geist’s estate. The club reopens as the Boca Raton Hotel & Club in 1945.


The city buys the 2,404-acre air base. In a contract with the federal government, the city agrees to operate a civilian airport west of the El Rio Canal.


The Art Guild of Boca Raton is established, displaying exhibits at Town Hall and the Boca Raton Hotel & Club.


Africa U.S.A., a 177-acre park with free-roaming African animals, opens. The next year, Ancient America opens, featuring Indian burial mounds. Both close by 1953. Today’s Camino Gardens subdivision is located on the animal park, and The Sanctuary is on the Ancient America site.


W. P. Bebout Sr. is appointed temporary chairman of an organizational committee to create the Boca Raton Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber’s priority is to provide tourists with information about the city.


Arthur Vining Davis, founder of the Aluminum Co. of America (ALCOA), purchases the Boca Raton Hotel & Club.

He creates Arvida Development Corp. and sets the precedent for future commercial and residential development in Boca Raton.


J.C. Mitchell Elementary School opens as the fourth school in Boca Raton.


The Florida Cabinet approves construction of the fifth state university, Florida Atlantic University, in Boca Raton.


St. Andrew’s School, founded by the Episcopal School Foundation, opens.


Royal Palm Plaza opens as the town’s first shopping plaza. It is affectionately known as the “Pink Plaza.”


The F.E.C. Railway ceases passenger service out of Boca Raton’s train depot. Boca Raton High School opens, eliminating the need for students to travel to Seacrest High School in Delray Beach.


Florida Atlantic University opens and is dedicated by President Lyndon B. Johnson. Thomas F. Fleming receives the university’s first Award.


The International Business Machine Corp. (IBM) buys 550 acres of land from Arvida and builds a 300,000-square-foot facility. Boca Raton is the birthplace of the IBM personal computer and home of OS/2 Warp.


The Boca Raton Community Hospital is dedicated and built entirely with money raised from the community through special events such as the Annual Fiesta de Boca Raton.


Arvida builds the 26-story tower at the Boca Raton Hotel & Club.


Wilmington College (Delaware) President Donald E. Ross assumes the presidency of Marymount College, renamed the College of Boca Raton. After acquiring university status in 1991, the college is named Lynn University in honor of a major benefactor.


The Boca Raton Historical Society is founded as a project of the Junior Service League.

Concerned voters pass a referendum imposing a 40,000-dwelling-unit “growth cap” to curb the city’s expansion. The cap is struck down in Palm Beach County Circuit Court in 1976 when a judge rules it’s an arbitrary figure.


The city adopts a comprehensive land use plan placing density limits on all properties. The plan achieves the goals of the growth cap while the issue is pending in higher courts. After spending more than $1 million in appeals to the Florida and U.S. supreme courts, the city admits defeat in 1980 on the growth cap issue.


Town Center at Boca Raton opens. The City Council creates the Community Redevelopment Agency to return economic vitality to downtown Boca Raton.

Its first project is the beautification of Sanborn Square, opposite Town Hall.


City officials lease the original Town Hall to the Boca Raton Historical Society and authorize its restoration. Through state grants and private funding, the historical society restores the building, which is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.


Gumbo Limbo nature center opens on 67 acres of waterfront land purchased through a bond issue. It is now called Gumbo Limbo Environmental Complex, educating the public about local ecology.


The F.E.C. Railway Station is purchased and restored by the historical society. The landmark is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.


The Art Guild changes its name to the Boca Raton Museum of Art. The organization offers exhibits and art classes.


In recognition of a generous donation from the Count and Countess de Hoernle, the F.E.C. Railway Station is named the Count Adolph de Hoernle Pavilion.


After 126 years in New York, W.R. Grace & Co. moves to Boca Raton, relocating 250 employees and their families.


The International Museum of Cartoon Art moves to Mizner Park. Its founder is Mort Walker, the world famous creator of Beetle Bailey. Groundbreaking is December 8, 1994.


Florida celebrates its sesquicentennial (150th birthday). The Boca Raton Historical Society continues its efforts to share the history of Boca Raton with the community.


During the summer, the exterior of the Greater Boca Raton Chamber of Commerce is renovated. The brown lettering becomes teal and the building becomes reminiscent of the Addison Mizner architecture so prominently known and recognized in Boca Raton.


Greater Boca Raton Chamber of Commerce renovations are completed in February and it’s back to business as usual.

Camino Real, the Camino Real bridge and the porte cochere at South Inlet Park are designated as historic sites by the Palm Beach County Commission. The movement to designate the sites is led by the historical society.

The historical society celebrates 25 years of “Preserving the Past for our Future.” A yearlong celebration of events and educational programming is highlighted by the Silver Anniversary Ball during the grand opening of the Boca Raton Resort & Club’s elegant Mizner Center.


The Count and Countess Memorial Room opens at the Boca Raton Historical Society in Town Hall


The city of Boca Raton kicks off its 75th anniversary celebration at Sanborn Square with a historical exhibit on Boca Raton’s mayors at Town Hall.

The city enters into a contract to purchase 310 acres for $45 million from Boca Technology Center. The land includes the area south of Spanish River Boulevard between I-95 and Military Trail and most of the property to the west of the existing development north of Spanish River Boulevard. The Boca Technology Center purchase is one of the most significant land acquisitions, in terms of both size and impact, in city history. The goal is to preserve a big piece of land for future use, as well as reducing traffic and other impacts that would have occurred had the development proceeded as approved.


The Boca Raton Museum of Art opens its new 44,000-square-foot facility in Mizner Park, showcasing the exhibit, “Picasso, Passion and Creation, The Land Thing.”

The Boca Raton Resort & Club kicks off its 75th anniversary year with a “pink” party in the front courtyard for more than 2,000 invited guests. Pink champagne, pink birthday cake and fireworks highlight the late afternoon party.

The Boca Raton Historical Society, in partnership with Boca Raton magazine, the Design Center of the Americas (DCOTA) and DuPont-O’Neil & Associates announces plans to restore the two streamliner rail cars at the F.E.C. Railway Station, Count de Hoernle Pavilion. Florida Atlantic University plays their first football season at Pro Player Stadium.

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Last modified: November 21, 2004 ©THINK, Inc., Boca Raton, FL