Boca Raton History Part 2: The Pioneer Era

boca raton history part 2 - the pioneer era

Through our first entry, we reviewed the sometimes sordid history between the natives and the eventual settlers of South Florida. For centuries, the area known as Boca Raton was a sparsely inhabited area known for its beauty by the Spanish and Seminoles alike. The wild, salt-kissed hammocks of Boca Raton were hardly inhabitable save for the cultures who knew the land for millennia and the pirates who sheltered from storms and attacks by the Spanish galleons they sought to plunder. During the late 19th Century, Palm Beach and Miami became the only significant American towns in the region. Boca Raton was host to less than a dozen white families for the decades that followed, supplying the honorable Joshua Bowen as its first serving congressman. As evidenced by the legend of the Barefoot Mailmen, the journey from Palm Beach to Miami was made solely by doggedly determined pioneers, soldiers, outlaws, and natives.

In the 1890s, this would change drastically. Led by a legendary entrepreneur with a near-ubiquitous name in our state, the first surveys and settlements began to truly take root in Boca Raton. Today's story begins with that man, his right hand in the region, and the few brave enough to settle and change the landscape of Boca Raton forever.

florida east coast railway


Thomas Moore Rickards is the first settler credited with carving the city lines for Boca Raton. Rickards first bought land in 1892, arriving on a schooner from Titusville, which at that point served as the southernmost terminus of the Florida East Coast (FEC) Railroad. Rickards was a civil engineer, surveyor, and farmer who was impressed by the natural beauty of the area, returning the year after to build the first home in Boca Raton. This home was built entirely from beachfront wreckage, going as far as the doors and windows, proving the remarkable ingenuity of Rickards. In 1897, Rickards provided the first surveys, divided into ten-acre tracts and sold to northerners. During this time, Rickards planted his pineapple plantation, beginning what would be a short run on pineapples as the predominant agrarian product of Boca Raton. In 1884, Henry Flagler, then already a millionaire with 35 years of business legacy behind him, gained a second wind to carve a second legacy - both apart from and part of his legend in the business. 

Rickards House in Boca Raton

The Rickards House, the first home built in Boca Raton (Courtesy of the Boca Raton Historical Society)

Flagler first visited St. Augustine to escape the cold snap of a northern February, where the private university of his namesake would eventually be founded. It was there he commissioned a grand hotel and frequented the town during his winters. It was a friend of his, Mr. Frederic Robert, who lured him to Palm Beach, where he would become so enamored with the mystifying natural beauty that he immediately set upon the transformative work that led to the Palm Beaches we know today. According to the records of Harley Gates, one of the best primary sources from the era, Flagler cared little for luxury or extravagance. He was neither a huntsman nor a fisherman, caring purely for the thrill of doing things big. Turning his beloved new home from a backwater settlement to a palatial wonderland was the last of his major undertakings. Flagler set about establishing the Florida East Coast Railroad from Palm Beach to Miami, with Boca Raton serving as a midpoint. With Rickards serving as his agent, the earliest underpinnings of real settlement took place. No longer would Boca Raton be solely inhabited by a ragtag bunch of newcomers looking to start anew or escape something old? With the creation of the FEC Railway Station and the maps provided by Rickards, Boca Raton began its emergence from pre-settlement to the fullness of the Pioneer Era.

boca raton first farmers

The First Farmers Arrive

Rickards's farm, The Black Cat Plantation, named for the silhouetted Florida Panthers spotted at dusk, thrived during its early days growing pineapples and tomatoes as primary staple crops. In 1902, George Long and his family came to Boca Raton. The Long's if known for anything, are known for the George Long Packing House. This large warehouse facility served the farmers in the packing, shipping, and receiving of agricultural products while doubling as a place for municipal meetings, social gatherings, and as a general all-purpose assembly hall. In 1908, the historic packinghouse served as the first school in Boca Raton, while a schoolhouse for white children was under construction at the current Boca Police HQ. Another prominent name in Boca Raton's early agrarian history is Frank Chesebro.  Chesebro and family ventured from Michigan and by 1903, had more land in Boca than any other. His land and farm were intelligently built nearby the FEC railroad tracks, where he would join Rickards and others in providing pineapples, tomatoes, and winter vegetables to ship northward. In 1909, Palm Beach became an official county.

yamato ladies in boca raton

The Ladies of the Yamato Colony enjoying a luncheon (Courtesy of the Boca Raton Historical Society)

The Rising Sun Sets On Boca

If there was any international influence to credit for the flair of Boca Raton, it would be the Spanish, Italian, and Latin-American influences that led to the early architectural development through the vision of Addison Mizner. For many, the name "Yamato" and the presence of a sprawling Japanese Garden don't fit the idea of Boca Raton and its geography about Japan. However, as part of the early Pioneer Era, the small group of Japanese families who settled in Boca Raton in 1905 made a lasting impact on the region. In 1903, Jo Sakai, a graduate of New York University, arrived to speculate what would eventually become the Yamato Colony. With the promise to introduce new crops and agricultural methods, the locals were enthusiastically supportive of this fledgling Japanese enclave. Sakai contracted with James Ingraham, a Vice-President of Flagler's and the Model Land Company. Unfortunately, the practical application of the colony never truly took hold. Sakai struggled to recruit young families necessary for the long-term success of the colony, and eventually, the promise of new crops reverted to those that would sell and were known to thrive. The best years of the colony saw several families on small 5-20 acre farms cultivate and ship 10,000 crates of fruit from just 43 acres. During this same season, 20,000 crates of tomatoes were shipped, further cementing the colony's commitment to the most profitable cash crops of the day. Unfortunately, the agrarian revolution never took hold the way it was envisioned.

By the Florida Land Boom of the 1920s, many families cashed out and moved on. The few remaining families would lose their land to the federal government in 1942 as the Army Air Corps expanded their base of operations at today's Boca Raton Executive Airport. Fortunately, despite the mass internment of Japanese-Americans during the war, none of the remaining families would be interned, although the Kobeyashi, Kamikama, and Morikami families would have their assets frozen and movements restricted as resident enemy aliens. George Morikami was the last to leave, passing away in 1976 in Delray Beach. For his part, he ensured the legacy of the Japanese Yamato Colony would remain. The beautiful gardens that carry his name would be donated by Morikami with the condition they would become what we all know to love. The opening of the Morikami Gardens in 1977, just a year after his death, would ensure the legacy of the Japanese settlers during Boca Raton's Pioneer Era lasted far longer than any pineapple crop could.

pearl city new

An early map of Pearl City (Courtesy of the Boca Raton Historical Society)

Pearl City 

In 1915, Dixie Highway was completed through Boca Raton. Soon after, Pearl City, a segregated community for African-Americans, was established between Dixie and Federal Highways just south of Glades Road. 1915 also saw Boca Raton get its first telephone service and establish its first Board of Trade. The ever-determined locals also dug out the closed Boca Raton inlet by hand, paving the way for the modern Intracoastal canal system that is part of the waterfront real estate market in Boca Raton. Pearl City promised to be the only segregated city east of the country road that extends to the canal system. Set to be governed solely by African-American residents, Pearl City became part of a peaceful but separated triumvirate of communities in Boca Raton - joining the Yamato Colony and the white pioneers as part of their new venture. Housing mostly farm workers who made the trek south to Deerfield, Pearl City would start from humble beginnings to eventually include its own churches, businesses, schoolhouse, and entertainment. Much of the best records and quotes from the time were taken from the Demery family, who wrote of the earliest days of Pearl City, where new residents took up abode in wooden shacks on sandy grounds, years before asphalt would be poured. Residents farmed, hunted, and fished in the old traditions that many held from the deep South, inheriting knowledge from their ancestors, many of whom were enslaved.

A Deerfield Family working for Frank Chesebro (Courtesy of the Boca Raton Historical Society)

Many of the migrants to Pearl City would work for Frank Chesebro and later Butts Farm. Residents made better incomes. According to resident Ulysees Brown, he made $0.30 per day in Georgia and was raised to a full $1.00 by Chesebro. Without the well-entrenched mindset of a still very segregated and prejudiced south, Boca Raton and Pearl City provided a new lease on life to African-Americans looking for better pay, new landownership opportunities, and a relative shelter from the predations of bigotry. Families carried on the tradition of Southern African Americans at the time, holding church, discipline, and family togetherness at the center of life. For the most part, the people of Pearl City kept to themselves and mixed well when necessary with local whites. Without centuries of sordid history, there was less to strain race relations, despite Florida's presence in the South and as a former Confederate state.

Rev. and Mrs. Henry Clark at Ebenezer Baptist Church (Courtesy of the Boca Raton Historical Society)

Pearl City residents helped establish the first Baptist Churches in Boca Raton, brought new music, ways of living, and recreation to the city, and worked determinedly to change their circumstances while elevating the prospects of those who were fortunate to employ them. Like the rest of the South, Pearl City desegregated following the U.S. Civil Rights Act. While this undoubtedly changed the landscape and populace of this historic place, the legacy left behind has never been lost.

Boca Homeseeker Magazine

A 1900 copy of Homeseeker Magazine (Courtesy of the Boca Raton Historical Society)

Setting The Stage 

By 1920, Boca Raton emerged from a tiny enclave of wily settlers to a tri-pronged community of immigrants, migrants, and black settlers to a vaunted paradise sold to the highest bidder. In the decade that followed, "The Roaring '20s" as history remembers transformed Boca Raton from the colony that it was to the bustling city it became. The glitz, glamor, and wealth that would permeate the landscape and be seen in the style the city posed would define the next era of Boca Raton's history, and the place our story continues. In our next chapter, learn of the legendary Addison Mizner, the Florida Land Boom, and the eventual crash that would define the period between the world wars. Stay tuned!

Read Our Previous Chapter Here: Boca Raton History Part 1: Presettlement and the First Pioneers

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