This book is a tribute to the City of West Palm Beach, my home for over four decades, on the occasion of its Centennial celebration... November 5, 1994. It has been a wonderful community in which to establish roots, raise a family, and serve as a physician. Although we would not have believed it at the time, some residents now regard the Roberts as "urban pioneers at the mid-century."
West Palm Beach has contributed significantly to the enlightened economic and cultural growth of Florida. This "City of Homes" - also known as "Orchid City" - can take justifiable pride in its business and professional institutions, excellent hospitals, fine colleges, famous centers for art and the performing arts, notable churches and temples, dozens of outstanding service organizations, and a wide variety of athletic facilities and activities.
I am not an official chronicler, tenured historian or politician. Over the years, however, my appetite became whetted for information about the evolution of West Palm Beach. This largely reflected a better understanding and appreciation of the enormous efforts by those who paved the way. There is a pertinent saying: "It is not the place that honors the man, but the man that honors the place."
With the approaching Centennial, it seemed appropriate to go public with this "hobby." Someone punned that newspaper journalism is "history in a hurry." Considering that two decades were required to assemble this history, I am not concerned about the accusation of having written it "in a hurry." I shall summarize many facts for residents and other interested persons. Experience has confirmed the increasing importance of such information. Polybius (Histories 1)aptly observed: "History offers the best training for those who are to take part in public affairs."
The importance of proper historical perspective concerning democratic and quasi-democratic traditions dates back to antiquity. Pericles' address in 431 B.C., commemorating Athenian dead heroes during the Peloponnesian war against Sparta, is an example.
"I shall begin with our ancestors; it is both just and proper that they should have the honor of the first mention on an occasion like the present. They dwelt in the country without break in the succession from generation to generation, and handed it down free to the present time by their valor. The Athens that I have celebrated is only what the heroism of these and their like have made her. You, their survivors, must determine to have as unaltering a resolution in the field... and feed your eyes upon her from day to day, till love of her fills your hearts."
Many current history texts are criticized for inadequate information or warped emphasis. James J.
Kilpatrick, the syndicated columnist, emphasized that they should "do nothing more than tell the truth'
(The Miami Herald January 29, 1986, p. A-15). This includes factual details about "our attributes... our triumphs and about our defeats." I have attempted to follow such advice, especially when dealing with certain controversial events and topics.
In preparing this book, I made two resolutions: to be accurate, and to avoid "revisionist history." Beware the contemporary author who easily becomes hypercritical of decisions made by prior elected officials and planners. On the other hand, criticism based on careful scrutiny of the facts occasionally seemed warranted as in the case of arbitrarily approving several controversial high-rises on lakefront Flager Drive (Chapter 18). None of my observations, however, have been motivated by disrespect or malice to any individual or organization.
In the belief that they might be of interest to readers seeking more details, brief commentaries are included under various subjects, especially about Florida's history. Two examples involve the background of Seminoles and "black Indians" in South Florida.
I am also mindful of the truism that victors are generally the ones who write history. Michael Gannon, a dean at the University of Florida, commented on the eclipse of Spanish Thanksgiving celebrations by subsequent English ceremonies in this context (The Palm Beach Post November 27, 1985, P. B-8). Juan Ponce de Leon landed in Florida during 1513, and conducted Thanksgiving ceremonies more than a century before the Pilgrims at Plymouth.
Understandably, some readers may be dismayed by occasional references to my wife's activities. They are included for two reasons. First, her efforts represent legitimate footnotes to the history of West Palm Beach and Palm Beach County. In 1975, she became the first woman elected to the West Palm Beach Commission. After serving as a four-term commissioner and Mayor, she was elected to the Palm Beach County Commission for two terms. Second, such proximity provided me with contemporaneous insights about the background and nature of important events as they evolved
It is impossible for those who record historical data and events to predict the value of such information for future generations. When does "old news" become a "historical" item?
The Archives of the Indies is a repository of 43 million documents recording the Spanish conquest of the Americas. It was brought to Seville in October 1785 at the insistence of Charles III, nicknamed the "paper king." This unique treasure would have been of little interest to illiterate bandits of the time because Spain no longer received a flow of gold, silver and precious stones from the New World. But it did contain invaluable letters. They included those written by Miguel de Cervantes (author of "the book that killed the nation"), Christopher Columbus, Amerigo Vespucci, Fernando de Magellan, Hernan Cortes (the "Conquistador of Mexico"), and even a letter to Chiefs of the Choctaw Indians signed by George Washington on December 17, 1787. These Archives later provided treasure hunter Mel Fisher with clues for locating the galleon Nuestra Senora de Atocha, which sank 41 miles off Key West in 1622 with a cargo of silver and precious jewels.
When appropriate, I venture beyond the confines of West Palm Beach, as with severe weather disturbances that affected "the Gold Coast." A related consideration pertains to West Palm Beach as the forerunner of a series of centennial celebrations by other communities that will be held over the next two years in South Florida including Boynton Beach, Delray Beach and Miami (July 28, 1996).
The Photo Section appears separately because of the extensive cross-referencing. Its arrangement generally corresponds with the sequence of chapters in the text.
This volume is not intended as an in-depth analysis of every aspect of the history and evolution of Greater West Palm Beach. The constraints of space preclude mentioning many other pertinent occurrences and persons who made substantial contributions to the community. Even so, I hope that it will be considered a worthy retrospective of its first 100 years.
West Palm Beach H. J. Roberts, M.D. October 1994