Founded in the late 1870s and incorporated 47 years later, Delray Beach, Florida is known for a storied history rooted in citrus growing, farming, and its famed white sand beaches that symbolize this Village by the Sea.
Located in Palm Beach County, Florida, as of the 2010 census, the city had a total population of 60,522. It is one of the principal cities of the South Florida metropolitan area, which had 5,564,635 people at the 2010 census.
As with any Florida land area, it is presumed to have been first populated by Native Americans, and historians believe that hunters, trappers, and probably runaway slaves may also have lived or passed through the area during the 18th and 19th centuries, but there is no record or evidence of that happening.
In 1868, Wisconsin natives William and Sara Gleason began purchasing thousands of acres of land in various locations in Florida including in what is now the City of Delray Beach.William Gleason was the Lieutenant Governor of Florida from 1868 to 1870.Two of their sons (W.H.H. and George) participated with them in handling real estate transactions using the business name of "Gleason Brothers, dealers in Real Estate."Many early settlers in the area bought property from the Gleasons.
Recorded town history begins with the Orange Grove House of Refuge, a haven for the shipwrecked, which was constructed in 1876 by the U.S. Life Saving Service, the forerunner of today’s Coast Guard. The house derives its name from the grove of mature sour orange and other tropical fruit trees found at the site chosen for the house but little information about who planted those trees has survived.
The first evidence of a settlement began around 1884, when African-Americans from the Florida Panhandle purchased some land nearby the Orange Grove House of Refuge and began farming it. By 1894, the Black community was large enough to establish the first school in the area.
Around 1894, Republican U.S. Congressman William S. Linton, of Saginaw, Michigan, bought a tract of land just west of the Orange Grove House, and began selling plots in for what he hoped would become a new farming community. Initially, this community was named after Linton. In 1896, Henry Flagler extended his Florida East Coast Railway south from West Palm Beach to Miami, with a station at Linton. The African-American settlers also established a church there.
Farming and Sharecroppers
The Linton settlers began to achieve success with truck farming of winter vegetables for the northern market. However, a hard freeze in 1898 set them back causing many of the settlers to leave, including its namesake William Linton, who ran into financial trouble and defaulted on his land payments. Partly in an attempt to change the community's luck, or to leave behind a bad reputation, the settlement's name was changed by town leaders in 1898 to Delray, after the Detroit, Michigan neighborhood of Delray. ("Delray" happens to be the "anglicized spelling of "Del Rey," which is Spanish for "of the king.")
After the name change, many German and Japanese families settled in Delray. By 1910, Delray had a population of 250. In 1911, the area was chartered by the State of Florida as an incorporated town. In the same year, pineapple and tomato canning plants were built. Pineapples became the primary crop of the area. This is reflected in the name of the present day Pineapple Grove neighborhood near downtown Delray Beach. By 1920, Delray's population had reached 1,051. Delray Beach, the area east of the Intracoastal Waterway, was formally incorporated in 1923. John Shaw Sundy was the first mayor of Delray and served seven terms. In 1927, Delray and Delray Beach merged into one town named Delray Beach.
Progress and Growth
In the 1920s, the draining of the Everglades west of Delray lowered the water table, making it harder to grow pineapples. Also, the extension of the Florida East Coast Railway to Key West resulted in competition from Cuba for the pineapple markets of the northern United States.
The Florida land boom brought renewed prosperity to Delray spurred on by tourism and real estate speculation. The town of Delray issued bonds to raise money to install water and sewer lines, and streets and sidewalks were paved. Several hotels were built. At that time Delray was the largest town on the east coast of Florida between West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale. The collapse of the land boom in 1926, however, left Delray saddled with high bond debts, and greatly reduced income from property taxes.
Post World War II Development
Since the end of World War II, downtown Delray, located in the eastern part of the city, along Atlantic Avenue, east of I-95 and stretching to the beach, has undergone a large scale renovation. The Delray Beach Tennis Center has brought business to the area. It has hosted several major international tennis events such as the April 2005 Fed Cup (USA vs. Belgium, the April 2004 Davis Cup (USA vs. Sweden), the "Delray Beach International Tennis Championships (ATP Event), and the Chris Evert / Bank of America Pro Celebrity.
Several local historic landmark structures were renovated during the last decade of the 20th century. The Delray School, built in 1913, now houses the Cornell Museum, part of Old School Square in Delray Beach. The John and Elizabeth Shaw Sundy House is on the National Register of Historic Places, and Cason Cottage, built in 1915, is operated as a museum by the Delray Beach Historical Society.
Old School Square has been turned into a cultural center. It also contains the Crest Theatre, a venue for the performing arts; the 1925 gymnasium, restored to maintain its appearance, which has since become a popular venue for local events such as wedding receptions and dances; the Cornell Museum of Art and History, built in the restored elementary school; and a recently constructed outdoor entertainment pavilion, which serves as a venue for musical performances and has also been used for events such as political rallies.
The historic home of teacher /principal Solomon D. Spady was renovated and has been turned into the Spady Cultural Heritage Museum. The Spady Museum houses black archives. It hosts exhibits and programs designed to recognize the efforts of blacks who were instrumental in shaping Delray Beach and Palm Beach County. In 2007, the museum was expanded by renovating a 1935 cottage into a kid's cultural clubhouse, and the construction of a 50-seat amphitheater named for C. Spencer Pompey, a pioneer black educator.
Atlantic Community High School was rebuilt in 2005 on a different site from the previous school, a plan which was met with contention. Downtown Delray has had a building boom from roughly 2003-2008 as many new mixed-use development projects were constructed in the areas immediately north and south of Atlantic Avenue.
The new mayor of Delray Beach is Tom Carney, who took over for Nelson “Woodie” McDuffie. McDuffie was required to resign to run for Palm Beach County supervisor of elections. One thing for which the community gained unwanted notoriety for, was in 2007, when the town was labeled the drug recovery capital of the U.S. for the number of halfway houses located there. In 2009, city officials approved ordinances outlawing the houses and other transient rentals to operate.
Delray Beach has always been on the cutting edge of progress and is a diverse community that is welcoming to all. For those looking for a great place to live, Delray Beach may just be the ticket for a love-set-match.
Debra A. Estock is managing editor of the South Florida Cooperator.