Living on Flagler’s lands? You probably are.

I often wish I could build a time machine and see Palm Beach County as it was in the late 1890s. One thing is for sure though – I better have some good wading boots with me. Almost all of the land would have been under water during the rainy season from June to November. So who would want all that swamp land? Henry Flagler would – and he got most of it for free.

The federal government had a long-standing program of granting land to railroad builders, usually to the tune of several thousand acres for every mile of railroad. Palm Beach County was no exception, and through land grants and purchases from homesteaders, Flagler had amassed more than 100,000 acres in Palm Beach county. Much of the land was useless as it was, so in stepped the Lake Worth Drainage District to make the land arable for agriculture and dairy. The work was begun in 1916 and more than 131,000 acres of land was drained at the cost of 2.8 million dollars. This involved digging hundreds of miles of canals and ditches to drain the land out through the major canals like the Southern Boulevard and Boynton


Model Land Company ad from 1924.

(now the Weaver Canal). This also meant all lands were now part of a “taxing district” and owners had to pay a yearly drainage tax on land that was not producing anything. Check your tax bill – chances are you are still paying a tax to the Lake Worth Drainage District if you own land in their area.

Once work was largley finished by 1921, the land was sold in farming size tracts of many sizes. The Model Land Company was formed in 1898 and was led by J.E. Ingraham, whom Flagler recognized as having good business sense. The Model Land Company sold land up and down the east coast of Florida from the land Flagler amassed through the railroad. Flagler never made any money on his hotels, and the railroad itself was a financial disaster from day one. The land sales, however, kept everything else afloat. As individual settlers bought various land tracts from the Model Land Company, they probably farmed on it or leased it out to bigger agricultural concerns. Gradually, tracts were sold and consolidated until finally landing in the hands of developers. From the 1930s to the 1970s, these developments were more of the City of Atlantis-type where streets and utilities were laid and individual lots sold for a house custom-built for the owner. From the 1980s to today, the developments are the typical “cookie-cutter” variety with three or four models from which to choose.

As I searched through the online archives of the Model Land Company (available at I found a letter dated February 3, 1923 that mentioned a land owner who wanted to sell his tracts (all the land between Military Trail and Lawrence Roads from the Boynton Canal south to where Woolbright Road is today) to Norwegian settlers. The owner could not afford the drainage taxes and would eventually lose the land. He wanted the Model Land Company’s help in getting a road built through the land. A community center was to be built in the center of the tract. Hard to imagine we could have had a little Norwegian village with 100 families in Palm Beach County. A June 14, 1923 article from the Palm Beach Post proclaimed “Norse Colony to be formed near Boynton.” I don’t know if the families ever came, or whatever happened to the idea. That is a mystery to be solved.

Boynton’s Lost Lakes

Last year I was channel surfing and landed on Channel 18, Boynton Beach’s public access cable channel. The station was airing a film on Boynton Beach’s history produced in 1980. In it they mentioned that where the Leisureville community stands today, Lake Boynton once stood.

How could a whole lake disappear? I started my quest to find the lost lake and found that not only was Lake Boynton lost, but a whole chain of lakes that stretched from Lake Osborne south all the way to the present day Woolbright Road were gone.

My first clue was this map scrap from 1925, listing all the Boynton Lakes – Lake Webster, Lake Jackson , Lake Bessie and Lake Boynton.

Boynton’s Lakes from 1925

So where did the lakes go? A September 21, 1980 article from the Palm Beach Post helped fill in most of  the details. In 1916, the canals on the map above were dug by the Lake Worth Drainage District to help make the land more attractive for agriculture and dairy farming. Boynton Beach was to become the main dairy lands of Palm Beach county, and draining the land helped that process. C. Stanley Weaver was interviewed for the Post article. The Weaver family moved to Boynton in 1910 and owned over 1,500 acres of land in the vicinity of Old Boynton Road, Military Trail and Lawrence Road and were in the dairy business. Mr. Weaver told of the time when the lands around Lake Boynton were hunting grounds for quail and dove and that swimming and fishing in Lake Boynton were popular with all the kids. By the time he returned from World War II, additional drainage canals such as the El Rio Canal has drained away all the lakes, including Lake Boynton. The land changed hands many times before finally being developed in 1968 as Leisureville. The muck was removed from the land and fill added to provide stable home sites.

So what stands today on the land where the second largest lake, Lake Webster? I made a very crude overlay map

Overlay Map of 1925 Map and 2010 Map

Everything lined up perfectly including the small drainage canals that still exist. Much of what was Lake Webster is now the High Ridge County Club and the Quantum residential communities south of Miner Road, but this shows how very large the lake was, compared to the small runoff lakes that dot the communities in the picture. I am sure no one who lives in that area realizes they are living on an old lake bed.

In old newspaper ads from the 1920s, the land was being sold from anywhere from $400 to $2,000 an acre. An ad from October 29, 1925 offered the 850 acres around Lake Webster for $2,5000 an acre. That sounds pretty inexpensive today, but was an incredible sum of money at the time. The 1928 Hurricane brought all the land speculation to a halt. I would guess that in the 1930s or 1940s, the land could have been bought for less than $100 an acre. As we all have learned in the last few years, land and housing busts can happen suddenly and last a long time.

The Military Trail you don’t know

Military Trail, which runs from Jupiter to Pompano Beach, is a familiar highway to most South Floridians. A collection of shopping centers, developments and nurseries dot the roadside along this long and historic route.

Here is a picture I took of Military Trail in Boynton Beach, June 25, 2010:

Military Trail in Boynton Beach

So where are the six lanes of divided highway and lovely strip centers? A one lane road? This is the only glimpse left of what Military Trail probably looked like in the 1950s (my guess is that prior to that it was a shell rock road). This small stretch is in Boynton Beach and occurs where the road curves southwest, probably to avoid a once-swampy area as the road/trail was blazed. This small 1/2 mile stretch runs on both sides of the current Military Trail and is designated as “Old Military Trail.”

The Military Trail is undoubtedly the oldest “trail” in Palm Beach County, having been blazed in 1838 as part of the Seminole Indian War. The Seminoles had fled from the Jupiter area south, and left behind a blazed trail along the pine ridge that extended southward all the way to Fort Dallas (the original name for Miami). This “Pine Ridge” was the only somewhat navigable land inland. The land between the ridge and the ocean shoreline was covered with swampland. The only east-west through-way was Okeechobee Boulevard. The trail was widened by 233 soldiers of the Tennessee Volunteers; it took them 4 days to clear the 63 miles from Jupiter to the New River in Fort Lauderdale.  It was first known as “Lauderdale’s Route” and was used by the army for 20 years in their battles with the Seminole Indians. After the Seminole wars had ceased, covered wagons continued to ferry freight and passengers south to Fort Lauderdale. More commonly though passengers would sail along the Intracoastal south and later the train provided passage southward.

A historical marker is located in Jupiter designating the starting point of Military Trail.

Military Trail Historical Marker in Jupiter

The Barnhill Mound at Boca Raton

When most people think of Native Americans in Palm Beach County, they may think of the Seminole Indians or perhaps the Miccosukee. But the original Palm Beach county residents go back much further in time. No one knows the exact date that Native Americans set foot in Palm Beach county. Most lived along the coastline of the Intracoastal Waterway or the barrier islands ocean side. They hunted and gathered food and practised no form of agriculture. Best estimates are that people first inhabited the county 700-1000 years ago.

One of the more prominent archealogical sites is the Barnhill Mound in Boca Raton. The mound was known in the 1920s as a high hill covered with fine sugar sand.

Picture of the mound in the 1920s

The property was eventually aquired by E.G. Barnhill, a famous early Florida photographer. Born in 1894 in South Carolina, Barnhill is famous for his hand-colored photographs and paintings of the old Florida landscape. He was also interested in Native American culture and collected artifacts throughout the nation. Upon having the property explored by University of Florida archeaologist Dr. Ripley Bullen, it was discovered that the large mound was actually a burial mound. Barnhill named the attraction “Ancient America”  and opened it in 1953. The bones of the deceased were bundled together and placed in small niches in the mound. Barnhill tunneled through the mound and set glass panels in the sides so tourists could peer in and see the bundles of bones. The attraction was open until 1958, and never proved to be popular.

Postcard from Ancient America depicting the ancient village

Archealogists mapped the original site and assume it was a ceremonial center and village, probably housing 150 residents. The most likely tribe are the Tequesta, who populated the areas that today are Broward and Dade counties.

So what happened to the Barnhill Mound? In 1981, the site was long abandoned and was on a list of Palm Beach county sites to be purchased for historical preservation. But that didn’t happen. Instead, it was sold to developers who built the Boca Marina Yacht Club.

I went down to see what was actually left of the mound. Most articles I had read on the site indicated that the mound was completely gone, but that proved not to be true. I took the picture below from the sidewalk on the street. I wanted to get a bit closer, but the guard would not let me walk back to the mound. I asked the guard if she knew what the hill was; she did not know, thinking it was just a pretty hill. When I told her that this was actually an indian burial mound, she got a kind of creepy look on her face. What is sad is that were this property available today, it would be a park and educational site. But alas, the mighty dollar spoke.

The Barnhill Mound as it appears today.

Paul Dreher – Johnny Appleseed of West Palm Beach

Back in 1991 I was visiting family in Germany. At dinner one night, my uncle asked me if I had ever heard of a “Dreher Park” back home in West Palm Beach. I thought the question rather odd because it was a local park and zoo, something that certainly would not be heard over in Germany. I said sure, it was a nice local park…but how do you know about it? He explained to me that Mr. Dreher was his best friend’s uncle, and that his friend wanted to travel to Florida and visit his uncle as Mr. Dreher was advancing in years.

So that following spring, Mr. Dreher’s nephew and my uncle flew over from Germany and stayed with my parents. My mother invited the Drehers to dinner at our house and it was my task to pick them up from their house. They lived on Queen’s Court off of Olive Avenue in West Palm Beach in the shadow of the Rapallo condominium tower…a rambling house on a large lot. I had never met them before, and they were both in their early 90s. I got the feeling they did not get out much as they seemed quite amazed to be on I-95…”Where did this road come from?” they asked.

Mrs. Alice Irene Dreher was an absolute delight. She had lived in Palm Beach County since the 1920s (her parents were Mr. and Mrs. Roland L. Owen and they ran the Lee Manor Inn in Boynton Beach). They were married Easter Sunday, April 5, 1931. She had a real “Palm Beach County accent” that you simply never hear anymore…I can still hear her explaining something, ending with the statement “that seemed right to us, by our way of thinkin’.” Mr. Dreher captivated us at dinner, still able to speak German, on his many

Paul Albert Dreher

adventures in Palm Beach county. He was originally from a small town near Reutlingen, in the southwestern German state of Baden-Wuerttemberg from the town of Erpfingen. He told us of his boyhood in Germany, finding Roman coins while digging a new fence in the yard.

So what brought Mr. Dreher to South Florida? His Aunt, Anna Maria Dreher, had married Adolf Hofman, one of the pioneer settlers of Delray Beach (then called Linton). They moved to the Delray area in 1895, building a house just east of Federal highway north of Delray. Dreher emigrated in 1924 at the age of 21. He talked of the 1928 hurricane, and the horrible task he was assigned of bringing bodies in by the truckload from Belle Glade for mass burial.

He planted literally thousands of trees in the West Palm Beach area and founded the Palm Beach Zoo, which was originally a petting zoo and was called the Dreher Park Zoo. He aquired the name “Johnny Appleseed” as he always was collecting rare seeds and plants. As I picked them up from their house, he greeted me with some fruit and seeds from a Jaboticaba bush.

As I brought them home that evening, he wanted to give me a mineral from his collection of rocks. Inside the house was literally like entering a museum – the collections of a very long life. I still have that stone, a small piece of picture rock.

Mr. Dreher passed away in 1993 at the age of 90. The seeds he planted over his life bring us shade to this day.

Africa USA – America’s First Drive-Thru Animal Theme Park

I would be doing a disservice to my family if my first article was on something different than Africa USA. This will be the first in a series of articles about Africa USA, and is a general overview of the attraction.

Imagine its 1951, here in Palm Beach County. There were only about 115, 000 people in the county, and Boca Raton was in a bit of post-war funk. Boca Raton had been the site of a huge army air core training base(where Florida Atlantic University now stands). The city and county owned quite a bit of land that was taken back from the Mizner Corporation after the housing bust right before the Great Depression. Into this picture steps an entrepeneurial man of 100% Danish heritage – John Peder Pedersen. He purchased over 300 acres of land from the city of Boca Raton and from Palm Beach

Africa USA Sign

Sign at the entrance to Africa USA

County for about $25 an acre.

So what to do with all that land? As my grandparents were avid gardeners, they first thought to open a botanical garden…but what could make it more exciting? My father, Jack Pedersen, noticed how the land with its grasslands and trees really looked a bit like Africa…so why not create something that had never been done before, create a zoo with no cages? My dad set off for Africa to purchase animals. And people laughed at him. You want to buy HOW many zebra? It took him about two months before anyone would even take him seriously. He did manage to buy many animals and leased a ship called the “African Planet” to ferry the animals from Mombassa to Port Everglades. They also purchased animals from other zoos around the country.

Africa USA opened in March 1953 to great fanfare as Palm Beach county’s largest attraction. There were zebra, ostrich, gazelle, giraffe, gnu, sitatunga and many other African Savannah animals. Visitors could ride an open-air tram through the Tanganika Territory, or take a boat ride past Monkey Island, the Watusi Geyser and Zambezi Falls.

Through many events that future articles will explore, the park closed in September 1961 and became the Camino Gardens subdivision and several shopping centers and professional plazas. The only visible relic from the original park is the geyser base, visible at low tide as a large cement mound in the lagoon. A plaque commemorates Africa USA in the park at the entrance to Camino Gardens.

Plaue for Africa USA

Africa USA Plaque

Our County has history!

Each week I will write something about the history of Palm Beach county. We all have heard the big stories and names – Flagler, the Kennedys, Palm Beach…but what about the ones you haven’t heard of like Alligator Joe or Trapper Nelson? Or places that no longer exist, such as Ancient America or Africa USA? If you have a story of old Palm Beach County, please let me know by leaving a comment below.