The city’s evolution from incorporation in 1920 to a dazzling new $118 million Town Square in 2020
By Ron Hayes
On July 14, 1920, a Wednesday that year, 50 qualified voters gathered to decide whether their little Florida community should incorporate.
Forty-eight of them said yes, one said no, and one apparently said nothing.
They adopted a town seal, elected a mayor, five aldermen, a marshal and a clerk, and a week later, on July 21, the town of Boynton (pop. 602) made it official.
Sun worshippers relax near the Boynton hotel, which opened in 1897 and was torn down in 1925.
History doesn’t record if the occasion was toasted with food and drink, but a century later, on July 21, 2020, in the towering lobby of a gleaming new City Hall, 100 vanilla bean cupcakes topped with buttercream frosting offered themselves to anyone in the city (pop. 79,000) who wanted to celebrate its centennial.
“Boynton Beach,” a sign behind the cupcakes boasted, “100 Years In The Making.”
Of course, some might argue that there should have been 125 cupcakes that morning.
Or at least 122?
Actually, the making of Boynton Beach began long before July 21, 1920.
Sometime in 1895, a charter boat called the Victor carried a former Union Army officer named Nathan Smith Boynton of Port Huron, Michigan, down what would become the Intracoastal Waterway in search of real estate.
“The Boynton” opened two years later — 45 rooms, six cottages, a showplace.
A year after that, on Sept. 26, 1898, Birdie and Fred Dewey recorded a plat to be known as “the Town of Boynton.”
By 1920, when the town finally incorporated, Nathan Boynton had already been dead nine years.
The town of Boynton had incorporated just in time to enjoy the Florida land boom of the 1920s.
That first year, a Police Department was organized and a bridge built across the Intracoastal Waterway. The town got electric streetlights, a sewer system and a Chamber of Commerce.
By 1925, Dr. Nathaniel Marion Weems Sr. had opened the town’s first doctor’s office. A Woman’s Club building designed by Addison Mizner was being built, Nathan Boynton’s hotel was being torn down, and an inlet was being cut between the waterway and the ocean to flush out the brackish water flowing in from the Lake Worth Inlet to the north.
Completed in 1927, the inlet was 130 feet wide, 8 feet deep, and cost $225,000.
That would be about $3,331,000 today.
The town of Boynton was thriving, unless you weren’t white.
Of the 602 total residents counted in the 1920 census, 157 were Black.
The oldest church in town was the St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church, founded on Feb. 5, 1892. The original building, built in 1900, stood at the northeast corner of what is now U.S. 1 and Boynton Beach Boulevard, along a stretch of Black-owned homes and businesses. But it didn’t stay there.
On Feb. 19, 1924, the town passed Ordinance 37, which created a “Negro section” west of town.
The Black citizens living along U.S. 1 packed their belongings, put their small church building on a wagon and hauled it over to the new “Boynton Colored Town” along Wells Avenue, on land platted by Robert Wells.
“My great-grandfather helped build the church,” says Victor Norfus. “It was the family church on my mother’s side.”
Norfus, 57, is the great-grandson of Allen Meeks, who came to the area from Tallahassee in 1896 to work for the Florida East Coast Railway when it ended in West Palm Beach. He is the author, with Odessa Holt, of Foundations of Faith, a privately published history of Boynton’s Black community.
“The value of land went up in the early 1920s,” Norfus says, “so all the Blacks living on Boynton Beach Boulevard were forced to live in that area. It was like a reservation.”
But even then, some thought Black property rights mattered.
On July 18, 1924, the town sued James Butler, Nebraska B. Lee and Rhodia Lee for refusing to sell their property in the new “whites only” part of town. The property had been condemned so a new city hall could be built. The town won and was ordered to pay the Black landowners $2,500 for the two lots.
On Oct. 5, the town sued again to have the payment reduced to $2,000, which Butler and the Lees accepted.
Boynton hadn’t been incorporated two years when Charles Stanley Weaver was born on Jan. 19, 1922, in a wood frame house on South Federal Highway, just north of Southeast Fifth Avenue.
The young Weaver, the son of Marcus A. Weaver, who owned a small dairy farm west of town, was only 6 when the great “Okeechobee hurricane” of 1928 struck.
“The wind was so strong that even with the windows closed, water was coming in,” Weaver recalled in an oral history recorded for the Boynton Beach City Library in 1992. “In our dining room, which was on the east side of the house, Dad finally got a carpenter’s drill and drilled a couple holes in the floor. We had about 2 inches of water in the dining room.”
On May 15, 1931, the small community on the ocean ridge that had dubbed itself Boynton Beach split from the town of Boynton. Each municipality agreed to take on half the debt.
Boynton and Boynton Beach remained separate municipalities until 1938, when Boynton Beach, on the ocean ridge, changed its name to Ocean Ridge.
Three years later, by a vote of 155 to 3, the town of Boynton became the city of Boynton Beach.
Boynton’s Black citizens had been forcibly moved to a segregated district along Wells Avenue, but they didn’t stay in their place.
On Nov. 7, 1933, the town fathers passed Ordinance 136, a “sunset law” making it unlawful for any “person of the Negro race over the age of 18 years to loiter, wander, stroll or be about” in the “White District” after 9 p.m. in the winter months or 10 p.m. in the summer. To be fair, the law also prohibited “any person of the Caucasian race” from loitering in the Black District after dark.
The first of Dr. Nathaniel Marion Weems’ seven children arrived in 1927 and grew up to become Dr. Nathaniel Marion Weems Jr.
When he was a teenager in the 1940s, his hometown still had only 1,357 residents.
“It was a lot slower pace,” he would recall for the library’s oral histories. “Boynton was sort of a small town between Delray and Lake Worth. There was a movie usually at both of those places and not one in Boynton. A municipal swimming pool over on the beach in both Delray and Lake Worth, but not in Boynton.
“I’m not sure when the first red light went in between here and Fort Lauderdale,” Dr. Weems said. “I think it was probably in the ’50s.
“There was a caution light in Boca.”
In 1956, C. Stanley Weaver’s younger brother, Curtis, married Nathaniel Weems Jr.’s younger sister, Alice.
A year later, they had Curtis Weaver Jr.
The Weaver dairy farm stood west of town in an area now filled with shopping centers. Marcus A. Weaver (1887-1960) and his son Marcus (1924-1997) pose with a heifer. M.A. and his son C. Stanley Weaver each served as Boynton’s mayor. Photos from Boynton Beach City Library collection
Between 1950 and 1960, the city burgeoned from 2,542 residents to 10,467, and the Weaver Dairies had grown to 3,000 acres and 1,500 cows.
Bethesda Memorial Hospital opened in 1959.
Boynton Beach may have called itself a city, but even in the 1960s it was still a small town to Curtis Jr.
“We used to take our horses into town once or twice a month in the summer and ride them on the beach,” he recalled recently. “Right down Boynton Beach Boulevard all the way into town, up and over the bridge where the Two Georges restaurant is and go right up to the beach. All that wasn’t developed in the 1960s.
“We sold the horses and got motorcycles when I was 13 or 14.”
TOP: In 1924 teacher Ella Lakin posed with her class of sixth-graders at the Boynton Beach Elementary School.
BOTTOM: Still segregated in 1950, teacher Blanche Girtman with her class at Poinciana Elementary.
The 1960s were a decade of change, and Boynton Beach changed a lot in the coming decades.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 ensured African-Americans’ right to stroll, eat and swim where they wished.
In the 1950s, the Negro Civic League served as an unofficial Black city commission because Black residents had no formal representation in government.
Today, the five-member City Commission has two Black members.
Interstate 95 was completed through the city in 1977, and in 1985 the Boynton Beach Mall opened.
C. Stanley Weaver, who served on the Boynton Beach Commission from 1951-1956 and was elected mayor in 1955, died Sept. 1, 2010.
Dr. Nathaniel Marion Weems Jr. practiced medicine in the city from 1957 until 1990. He died Aug. 14, 2015.
Victor Norfus continues to work for historic preservation and redevelopment in the city’s Black community.
Three years after being moved to Wells Avenue, the St. Paul AME Church was destroyed in the 1928 hurricane. A new church was built on the site a year later, and in 1954 the present church building rose directly across the street.
Wells Avenue is now called Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
Along with those 100 cupcakes, the centennial brought a proclamation from Mayor Steven B. Grant.
“As significantly important it is for the city of Boynton Beach to honor and celebrate its beginning,” the proclamation read in part, “it is equally important to look to our future and create future legacies.”
And then, 100 years to the day after the city was incorporated, he cut the ribbon on a beautiful new City Hall/Library complex called Town Square, which cost $118 million to build.
On July 21, 1920, it would have cost about $8.6 million.