By Eliot Kleinberg
Across America, 1931 was a step in the morphing of a brutal economic downturn into a history-making Depression. In Palm Beach County, where the real estate boom had gone bust even before the rest of the nation crashed, people nevertheless were busy making towns.
This year marks the 90th birthdays of Ocean Ridge and Manalapan. One was named for high ground, rare in South Florida. One was named for a place up North, something that is not rare at all.
Water all around, no get out
Manalapan’s creation goes back to the 19th century.
George H.K. Charter, then 36, came to the barrier island in 1882. Five years later he became a contractor for the “barefoot mailman” delivery route. And on a 21/2-mile stretch of land, he would plant a coconut grove and build a home he called Buzzard Roost, using materials that washed up.
In 1889, President Benjamin Harrison issued Charter a homestead for 126 acres. Just two years later, Charter sold his property for $7,500 — about $216,000 in today’s dollars — to Elnathan Field, who created Hypoluxo Beach Co.
Field was one of many to employ “Hypoluxo,” the original name for Lake Worth — not the city, but the stretch of what’s now the Intracoastal Waterway that then was a closed-in lake. Hypoluxo is an indigenous word translated as “water all around, no get out.”
Three years later, in 1894, Henry Flagler’s first Palm Beach hotel opened. That same year, Field built a 21/2-story inn on stilts.
He called it Manalapan Cottage, for a township about 50 miles south of New York City in his native New Jersey. Its name is an indigenous word for “land that produces good bread.”
Two years later, Field filed a plat for Hypoluxo Beach and started selling lots.
In 1912, he sold his remaining property to a man who later sold it to Leila and A. Romeyn Pierson for $40,000, more than five times what Field had paid in 1891.
With a nod to Field, the Piersons called the tract Manalapan Estates — a neighborhood name that eventually would become a town name.
Soon the state wanted to open up the south end of Lake Worth. The logical spot on the barrier island was the narrowest, at the southern tip of the Pierson property. The Legislature condemned the tract and finished the Boynton Inlet in 1927.
Harold Vanderbilt moved from Palm Beach and in 1930 built the iconic Eastover, along with its massive seawall, that still stands today in Manalapan. BELOW RIGHT: Vanderbilt in 1930 after his America’s Cup victory.
Then “Commodore” Harold Vanderbilt showed up.
Harold, great-grandson of railroad magnate and college founder Cornelius Vanderbilt, was the last of his family to take an active role in their empire. When his father died in 1920, Harold inherited no fewer than nine railway companies.
Harold got the “commodore” moniker through his competitive yacht racing, including a victory in the 1930 America’s Cup. He also was an avid bridge player.
He was happy being part of Palm Beach society. But after the 1928 hurricane, he and the town had a falling-out. He asked the town to abandon to him the stretch of land between his home and the beach. The town declined.
So the commodore went down the coast road to Manalapan.
There, he bought 500 feet of oceanfront. He built Eastover, later listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Later, Vanderbilt and several other owners of large estates decided to split off their own municipality.
Vanderbilt wrote a charter for the town of Manalapan, and the Legislature approved it on June 23, 1931. He included the barrier island part as well as the south end of Hypoluxo Island, where some of his relatives and friends had built their estates. As late as 1953, it still had only 60 residents.
Built in the 1890s, the Boynton Hotel is shown here in 1910 with a trio of customers dressed in coat and tie. BELOW RIGHT: Looking west from the intersection of A1A and Ocean Avenue, the old police station is still standing at the corner in 1925.
On the beach
Ocean Ridge’s founding was a bit more complicated. Its back-and-forth with Boynton Beach, and the resulting mishmash of names, sounds like the “Who’s on First” routine.
As with Manalapan, the roots of Ocean Ridge go back to the 1800s. In 1877, H. Dexter Hubel filed for a homestead for 80 acres along the coast, east of what’s now downtown Boynton Beach. At the time, the beach wasn’t worth much. It was blocked by heavy brush — and in any case, settlers came to farm, not sunbathe.
The stretch of oceanfront did have a 20-foot ridge. An ocean ridge.
Hubel built a hut of palmetto leaves and driftwood and sent for his family in Michigan. After experiencing a cooking fire soon after, the Hubels gave up and went back North.
In 1880, the keeper of the Delray Beach House of Refuge — one of several federal coastal outposts that helped wrecked sailors — paid the federal government 90 cents an acre for the tract.
In 1891, the company digging the canal that would become the Intracoastal Waterway sold off 160 acres to settler George H.K. Charter. He paid $240, or $1.50 an acre. (A buck and a half is $44 in today’s money — still not a lot for acreage now worth millions.)
Just months later, Charter turned around and sold to pioneer Byrd Spilman Dewey, who lived near what’s now West Palm Beach. She paid $700, giving Charter a nice bump.
Pretty soon the land would be worth a lot more as Flagler arrived. Among those who followed Flagler, seeking their own fortunes, were two men from Michigan: William Linton and Maj. Nathan Smith Boynton.
Linton bought Dewey's land for $6,000, and Boynton built the oceanfront Boynton Beach Hotel.
But Linton ran into money problems. In 1897, Boynton tried to make whole the people who’d bought deeds from Linton that now were worthless. But those victims were so angry they took Linton’s name off their proposed town, changing it to Delray (no “Beach” yet).
On Sept. 26, 1898, Dewey and her husband filed a plat for the town of “Boynton” (again, no “Beach”). It would incorporate in 1920.
The town included, across the Intracoastal Waterway, a piece of barrier island 3 miles long and a half-mile wide. One-third of that was under water.
The Boynton Inlet separates the present day communities of Manalapan and Ocean Ridge.
It was dug initially to provide outflow for the polluted Intracoastal Waterway, and completed in 1927.
The Deweys left Florida in 1911. In 1925, the Boynton family sold the oceanfront hotel and surrounding property to George W. Harvey, who razed the hotel for a new one. Harvey didn’t count on hurricanes in 1926 and 1928 and a crash in 1929. The new hotel never was built.
When bad blood began to bubble in Boynton, it was about — no surprise — taxes.
Boynton was reeling from the real estate collapse. Homeowners who are broke can’t pay their property taxes, and as late as September 1931, the town had collected less than half of what it was owed for the 1930 budget year. Holders of municipal bonds totaling about $150,000 (or about $2.6 million in 2021 dollars) were putting the legal screws on the town, whose total debt to all creditors, including interest, was an astounding $967,650, about $16.8 million today. The town was teetering on municipal bankruptcy.
Its eastern part had just 12 homes, nearly all owned by winter residents. The snowbirds said they accounted for a small portion of the town, but paid half the taxes. The town countered that the barrier island got fire and police service and water and plenty of other benefits.
On April 14, 1930, a municipal split that would affect hundreds of thousands of people in ensuing decades passed by a vote of 118 to 50. At the time, Boynton had a population of about 1,000.
In the divorce, the new town agreed to absorb half the old town’s debt of $1 million. The mainland would supply water to the oceanfront town.
Around the time Boynton had incorporated, it spent $6,000 to buy an oceanfront park. In 1928, it built on that spot a casino (at the time, the term could mean just a meeting place). The casino would remain Boynton property and be free from any taxes levied by the new town as long as Boynton owned it.
A town is born
After the Legislature approved the new town, it became official on May 15, 1931.
Now it needed a name. Suggestions included Royal Palm Beach, West Palm Beach South, and Coconut Grove. Residents picked “Boynton Beach.”
It wasn’t hard to understand why a town wanted “Beach” in its name. It was a walking enticement for freezing Northerners.
And what could go wrong?
But “Boynton Beach” would have been wise to limit its order of town stationery. The name lasted just six short years.
The problem was the post office. Town leaders discovered postal clerks were confusing “Boynton Beach” with “Daytona Beach.” Leaders also worried about natural confusion with nearby Boynton.
The muddle of towns with similar names is not new to Palm Beach County. Palm Beach and West Palm Beach had been around for decades. And in ensuing years, the county would include Royal Palm Beach, Palm Beach Gardens, and Palm Beach Shores.
In April 1937, Boynton Beach Mayor Michael White declared a contest for a new name, with a $100 prize.
The winner turned out to be none other than the mayor’s daughter. She had suggested a name that went all the way back to that stretch of high ground encountered by settlers in the late 1800s: Ocean Ridge.
The name would become official in 1939 by a vote of 14 residents. Then things got really complicated.
Soon after, the town on the mainland started thinking that, since Ocean Ridge didn’t need “Beach” anymore, it was a shame for it to go to waste. So, in 1941, that town changed its name from Boynton to — wait for it — Boynton Beach.
Meanwhile, the barrier island’s name game wasn’t over.
In 1951, some Ocean Ridge residents said they didn’t like the name after all. They wanted to play off Palm Beach, just to the north. There was a push for “South Palm Beach.” But the idea failed. The vote was 10 to 7.
“South Palm Beach” didn’t sit unused for long. In May 1955, the town of that name was incorporated just up the road.
Boynton Beach/Ocean Ridge didn’t just change names in the 1930s. It also shrank.
In December 1937, the Florida Supreme Court ruled the 40-acre mobile home park known as Briny Breezes could separate from the town of Boynton Beach and become part of unincorporated Palm Beach County. The judges said the park successfully argued it was getting no benefits from the town. (Briny Breezes would itself incorporate in 1963 as one of the county’s smallest towns.)
What’s in a name?
The Boynton-Boynton Beach-Ocean Ridge-South Palm Beach merry-go-round is just part of the identity mess along the barrier islands.
Boynton Beach doesn’t extend to the ocean, right? What about Oceanfront Park? Isn’t that part of Boynton Beach?
Actually, no. Boynton Beach bought that property back in the 1920s. The municipality is a landowner, just as an individual is, but the property is in Ocean Ridge!
There is one piece of Boynton Beach along the waterfront. On Aug. 15, 1972, the city annexed the planned $10 million — in 1972 dollars — St. Andrews golf course and condominium, saying it would be a tax boon.
But part of its tennis courts are in Gulf Stream. And the road in front of it is the jurisdiction of Palm Beach County. In fact, St. Andrews is in a 3/4-mile-long strip on either side of State Road A1A that’s sliced up among five governments: Boynton Beach, Briny Breezes, Gulf Stream, Ocean Ridge and the coastal pocket of unincorporated Palm Beach County.
Longtime Gulf Stream Mayor William Koch, who died in 2012, would call it “the pizza.”
Sources: The Palm Beach Post, The New York Times, Miami Herald, Palm Beach County Historical Society, Boynton Beach Historical Society, city of Boynton Beach, town of Ocean Ridge, town of Manalapan, New Netherland Institute, www.officialdata.org, and The History of Ocean Ridge, by Gail Adams Aaskov.