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.