How about a drive to Cuba – It was possible in the 1950s

Now more than 50 years after Fidel Castro’s takeover of Cuba, it remains a mysterious, forbidden and foreign place. Few of us can picture a time when Cuba was a friendly neighbor of the United States, and a place for a quick weekend getaway. When Flagler’s train reached Key West in 1912, some of the trains were loaded onto 300 foot long barges to continue on to Havana for gambling and exotic rum drinks, especially after Prohibition took hold in 1920.

Cover of Havana Ferry Folder

Even up to the late 1950s though, a car ferry service ran from Key West, with a connection for freight in West Palm Beach (see this web page for a great history on freight to and from Cuba from the Port of Palm Beach – http://www.portofpalmbeach.com/photo-gallery/port-rail-history.php). So you could saunter down to Key West in your car, drive to Stock Island and catch the ferry, which was operated by the West India Fruit and Steamship Company.

A map of the ferry route

The ferry left Key West Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays at 11:00AM. The S.S. Havana could accommodate 500 passengers and 125 cars. Arrival in Havana was at 6:00 PM, so the crossing took about 7 hours. The fare was $13.50 one way, or $26.00 round trip (about $190.00 in 2010 dollars). The ship then left Havana for the trip back to Key West at 10:00AM, so you were back in Key West at 5:00 PM.

The ship was air-conditioned and offered snack bars, lounges, a gift shop, and small day cabins. As relations with Cuba eroded in 1959 with the trade embargo emerging in 1960, the ferry service ceased and the ships were sold in 1961.

Interior view of the S.S. Havana

Could we ever see such a service again in our lifetimes? It could be possible. The Tampa Port Authority has proposed a car ferry service to Havana from Tampa. Approvals would have to gained from both U.S. and Cuban authorities, plus the logistics of taking a car to Cuba…there would be no calling AAA for a tow, and it might be a bit hard to fill out a claim form for your insurance company and list the place of accident as “Havana, Cuba.”

Still, the prospect of visiting a place essentially hidden from Floridians for more than 50 years is quite inviting.

Images courtesy of the website www.timetableimages.com,  from the collection of Björn Larsson.

Need a job? Look to the Madisons for inspiration.

I recently had the great pleasure to present some of my research at the Boynton Beach Historical Society’s monthly meeting. At that meeting, I mentioned an article I had found in the Palm Beach Post archives while looking for articles on the orange groves that once surrounded Lawrence Road in Boynton Beach. The article I found told the story of Warner Alexander Madison and his wife Juanita. It’s the type of story that reminds us how much things have changed, and yet that hard work transcends time and can get you through anything.

W.A. Madison and Juanita

The Madisons in 1939

The Madisons came to Florida in 1937 from Des Moines, Iowa, hoping to help Mr. Madison’s health. Mr. Madison was born in 1882 in New York. In 1916, he had contracted polio (or what at that time was called “infantile paralysis”) and was confined to a wheelchair. Land records indicate that the Madisons bought 18.6 acres from the Lake Worth Drainage District, right where Military Trail curves in Boynton Beach, in the vicinity of where Le Chalet Boulevard is today. In the first article published April 23, 1939, their story of purchasing the land and living for three months in their car was told.  They cleared the land and built a house with the help of the local Salvation Army. A contractor from Lake Worth even mined some rock from the property, creating a swimming pool for Mr. Madison to help his paralysis. Mr. Madison was a Mason, so the local chapter helped him build his house. The article does not give Mr. Madison’s exact age, except that he was past fifty. His wife Juanita had been a dancer and actress on the Keith vaudeville circuit.

Mr. Madison was a trained chemist, so he used his skills to create perfumes from the flowers that grew nearby at the Sun-up Grove, owned by Mabel Maull. Mrs. Maull sold the perfumes in her gift shop, and the Madisons finally had some steady income. They planted many acres of roses, planted vegetables which they canned, prepared datil peppers in vinegar for hot sauce, and raised chickens. One of the audience members at the historical society meeting remembered the couple and mentioned that the land became a little tourist attraction called “Madison Jungle Garden.” This gave me another clue to search on the Palm Beach Post archives. I found two more articles on the Madisons, and how they had indeed expanded and become one of those wonderful old Florida roadside attractions which have vanished from our landscape.

Jungle Garden

Madison’s Jungle Garden in 1953

In the February 11, 1940 article, it is mentioned that Mr. Madison wheeled himself out to their flagpole to fly the flag everyday. It had been a hard year, with a freeze claiming much of their flowers, vegetable crops and datil pepper plants. In the article published November 28, 1941, the Madisons tell of their attraction, how they had blazed a trail to the dense jungle that was in the middle of the property and how they set up picnic tables and a souvenir stand.  They even featured an old still that had been destroyed during Prohibition, still displaying ax marks . Mr. Madison made his perfumes, and Mrs. Madison handcrafted novelties from shells, pine cones,  palmetto fiber and fronds. She made dolls, hats, wall hangings and brushes from materials on the property. She made hundreds of visors from palmetto fronds and from the proceeds they were able to buy a small refrigerator.

To add to the feeling of their jungle, they added some animals such as a bobcat, monkeys, snakes and pheasants. To give the illusion of parrots perched in the trees, Mr. Madison carved the birds from wood and painted them in bright colors.

At some point between 1941 and 1953, Military Trail was rerouted to eliminate the awkward westward curve. This meant that Military would cut through the north end of the property.

The aerial photo above from 1953 shows that, but it looks like the attraction was still active at that time. I did not find any other articles about the Madisons, so in my next visit to the courthouse I’ll have to see when they sold the land. Today the land  is the Grande Palms development and parts of Gateway Palms.

Gateway Gardens Development

I am sure that everyday was hard for the Madisons. Being disabled, coming out of the Great Depression and moving to a strange and wild land were all obstacles that the Madisons overcame with hard work and creativity. I will see if I can find out what eventually happened to the Madisons and their little slice of Florida heaven.

UPDATE: Through FamilySearch, I found a 1945 Florida Census record for Lantana, Florida that listed a Juanita Madison, age 53, born in 1892. Mr. Madison had passed away in 1944. I also found an obituary in the Palm Beach Post archives for a Juanita Madison Ring, who died in 1961 at age 69 in Lantana. That would agree with the 1945 Census for her age. I think it is her because the listing said that a Christian Science reader would be presiding at the funeral. In the 1939 article about the Madisons, it is mentioned that Mr. Madison had regained the use of his arms from a Christian Science healer.

The Myth of Knollwood Groves – BUSTED!

Knollwood Groves, which was located on Lawrence Road in Boynton for over 75 years, was the last of the old-time Florida attractions in Palm Beach County. I went there often as a child, and was lucky enough later to live adjacent to the groves during its last years of existence. If you never visited the place, it was a true classic Florida-style attraction – a gift shop, free orange samples, an alligator wrestling show, fruit shipping, and a wagon train ride through the groves and hammock.

Knollwood Groves Wagon Ride

Which brings us to the myth. When you took the wagon train ride, the story of the founders of Knollwood Groves was told, that the groves were founded in 1930 by the actors who played the “Amos and Andy” characters on radio, Charles Correll and Freeman Gosden. In the few articles still on the web about Knollwood Groves, there is always reference to the Amos and Andy founding tale.

I wanted to find out more about this tale, as it must have been big news at the time, that the most famous comedy team in the nation was going into the citrus business in Palm Beach County. So  I researched the historic archives of the Palm Beach Post. Nothing about this was ever mentioned, which I found very strange. I then did a general search on farms in Boynton, and came across an interesting article (see below) and the myth began to unravel. The article mentioned that there was a farm in Boynton owned by Kenneth G. Smith, president of the Pepsodent Toothpaste Company (his father Douglas had invented the formula for Pepsodent). Pepsodent sponsored the Amos and Andy radio show, and Smith named his farm the “Amos and Andy farm” in their honor – could this be Knollwood Groves? The article only mentioned that the farm was located in northwest Boynton.

1939 Article from the Palm Beach Post

The only way to answer the question was to search the official records of Palm Beach County.  I started online at the Clerk of Court website, but saw that records online are only available back to 1968. I did learn the legal description of the land, which is the holy grail in a land search – the section, township and range.  Off to the courthouse I went and found the original handwritten registry books where all transactions were recorded. I was actually surprised that I was allowed to handle these original records. Each book weighed about 20 pounds. The original deed to the land was awarded to the Florida East Coast Railway company, so as I had written in an earlier post, this is land that Flagler got for free for building the railroad. The company sold the land to many individuals, and eventually Frederic Foster Carey and his wife Madeliene bought the land. Mr. Carey was a wealthy stock broker and the Careys had a mansion in Palm Beach (“Villa Vinca”).

The sheer number of land transactions recorded  in the 1920s land boom was staggering; the land was sometimes changing hands several times a year. But by 1930, the bust was in full swing. The Careys  formed a corporation in 1930 called Papaya Groves, then changed that to Tranquillity Farms and the land was held in corporate name. A warranty deed sold the property to Smith May 4, 1933, the day before Mr. Carey died (probably some sort of inheritance move).   Smith either sold the farm in 1945 to Knollwood Groves, Inc., or moved the property from his name to the corporate name.  In 1937, sponsorship of the Amos ‘n Andy show moved from Pepsodent to Campbell Soup, so he would have to rename the farm. It is possible that he called it “Knollwood” for the famous golf course north of Chicago, his home town.

Registry Books where land transactions were recorded

I can understand how the story got a little twisted and people thought the Amos and Andy characters founded the groves. As time went by and Knollwood Groves changed hands many times, it was down to about 35 acres. The hurricanes in 2004 were the final blow, as the fruit trees and buildings were badly damaged. The land was sold to DR Horten for a housing development. Sadly, the beautiful hammock was not preserved and was bulldozed to make way for the houses. The development is known simply as Knollwood, and I doubt many of the residents know anything of the long and storied history of the land. The track of land adjacent to Knollwood (where the Lawrence Oaks and Fox Hollow developments are located) was also owned by the Florida East Coast Railway. The first purchaser was M.A. Lyman (the Lymans founded Lantana) and the deed was recorded September 1, 1910, almost exactly 100 years ago to the day! The price paid for almost the entire section – $500. The Lyman corporation sold tracts of land until it was dissolved in 1942.

Doing this kind of land search was actually much easier than I imagined. All you need to do this kind of search on your land is the section/township/range of your property (click here for a map) and a few hours at the Palm Beach County Courthouse, 4th. Floor. The staff there were very helpful. Sometimes the information in the registry books can give you enough information, but if you want the detail, you can note the book/page and type of document, and they can retrieve the original document from microfilm for $1.00 per page.

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