Along U.S. 1: Postcards from the Past

12345055484?profile=RESIZE_710xColorful: Long before tourists celebrated their travels by posting selfie photos on social media, picture postcards were the rage. ABOVE: From the Rainbow Tropical Gardens, a Boynton Beach attraction from the 1920s to the1950s. BELOW RIGHT: A historic postcard from Delray Beach. Photos provided

Memories of U.S. 1 tourist stops come alive in historic collections

12345056881?profile=RESIZE_400xBy John Hughes

Florida was known for tourist attractions long before it was known for Disney World.

Hard to fathom, but that’s a fact.

Before Mickey and Minnie and being this tall to ride a ride. Before wait times and paid proxies as place holders in admission queues. Back when rubber alligators were prized. Back then, this state was thick as swamp air with attractions that often exploited the nationwide notion that Florida was America’s WILDerness.

Before there was Interstate 95 or Florida’s Turnpike (née Sunshine State Parkway), one two-lane road — U.S. 1 — was the highway to happy for camera-ready guests breaking up the distance with visits to America’s new vacation phenomenon: roadside attractions. They were the shows that made the journey a better part of reaching the destination.

Today there are amusement parks big enough to have their own police forces; maybe even their own ZIP codes.

But back when Big Joe “The World’s Biggest Crocodile” or roadside fruit stands shaped like oranges could draw a crowd, those parks were often owned and operated by families.

Mom and pop vacationers met mom and pop park owners.

12345057285?profile=RESIZE_710xABOVE: Africa U.S.A. had a home in Boca Raton from 1953 to 1961. BELOW RIGHT: Road signs at the intersection of U.S. 1 and Camino Real directed travelers to its 300- acre site. 12345059654?profile=RESIZE_400x

Such parks were part of the southern Palm Beach County landscape. The Pedersen family in Boca Raton, for example, opened and operated Africa USA — an attraction so popular that Life magazine featured it on the cover. A few miles away, outside Boynton Beach on U.S. 1, Harold and Angela Waite had the family name attached to their bird farm, where travelers took a break from the road to see performances by trained birds, monkeys, alligators and other animals.

The best of roadside parks offered acres of photo ops for visitors eager to snap selfies and post to Instagram or tweet on X or ...

No. When those guests wanted to brag about being somewhere and seeing something that would impress the gee willikers out of the poor saps back home, they bought and sent postcards. Picture postcards. Pay extra and get the colorized ones.

Mail. Stamps. Days to get word to wherever you wanted whoever to know that you were “having a great time.” If it was winter back home, scribble in the local temperature, just to rub it in.

Postcard collector and historian Janet DeVries Naughton has about 3,000 such postcards. She sees them as time capsules, but also as “artifacts to document history.”

About all that’s left, now, from the glory days of Palm Beach County roadside attractions are those postcard artifacts.

The postcards once held personalized greetings and memories. Now, they are links to a past lost to the realization of real estate. Simply put, more money could be made from developing the land for housing and commercial enterprises. The bygone attractions that lured so many here have all but been erased by Florida’s continuous redevelopment.

12345069101?profile=RESIZE_400xPostcards provided by Janet DeVries Naughton, Ginger Pedersen, the Boca Raton Historical Society and
the Delray Beach Historical Society.

12345064266?profile=RESIZE_584xOstrich-Alligator Farm and Zoo (1923-49), Lantana

12345067697?profile=RESIZE_192XIn March 1940, someone named Ella wanted Lottie DePue of Stroudsburg, PA to know that Ella was ‘having a grand time’ visiting Lantana. The temp was 70 and Ella was at the Ostrich-Alligator Farm and Zoo, where owners Frank L. Anderson and E.W. Goolsby invited guests to stroll their 10 acres of monkeys, kangaroos, and yes, ostriches. (Get a photo of one pulling a buggy!) Perhaps the main attraction was Zulu, ‘the largest known crocodile in captivity.’ The land today houses mostly two-legged domesticated animals, including the home of historian Janet DeVries Naughton, who has collected about 3,000 South Florida postcards such as this one.

***

12345066274?profile=RESIZE_584xJames Melton Autorama (1953-62), Hypoluxo

12345074657?profile=RESIZE_192XThat determined driver in the company of smiling women is James Melton, owner of the U.S. 1 autorama he opened in Hypoluxo in 1953 — moving his car collection from its original location in Connecticut. A radio and recording star of the 1920s and ‘30s, Melton got his own TV variety show around 1951. The program was sponsored by Ford Motor Co., a perfect union for the automobile enthusiast/performer. The autorama had more than 125 antique cars.

***

12345067860?profile=RESIZE_400x

Rainbow Tropical Gardens (1920s-50s)

12345067891?profile=RESIZE_192X1700 block, North Federal, Boynton Beach. Historian Janet DeVries Naughton sometimes visits the area where the gardens stood; they stretched from U.S. 1 to the Intracoastal Waterway. ‘Some of the structure is still there — parts of the waterfalls, stairways,’ she says. Today, the main building (circa 1929) is home to the Benvenuto Restaurant. In its glory, the Gardens led guests down flagstone paths among exotic flowers and plants and towering palms. It was one of South Florida’s leading tourist attractions.

***

12345068467?profile=RESIZE_400xHoffman property, north of Lake Ida Road on U.S. 1, Delray Beach

12345068278?profile=RESIZE_192XIt’s the early 1900s. You’re driving north on U.S. 1 outside Delray Beach. The ride is going to get chilly, so you’ve put on your long skirt and boots. But you realize you’ve not gotten that obligatory photo of yourself next to a palm tree. No problem. Stop. Hop out. Snap. Nothing to hinder your souvenir shot except maybe the dust kicked up by the Model T. Take as long as you need.

***

12345068294?profile=RESIZE_584xAncient America (1953-58), U.S. 1 near Yamato Road, Boca Raton


12345068660?profile=RESIZE_192XProprietor E.G. Barnhill was fascinated by American Indian culture. In addition to a replica Spanish Galleon, the 25-acre park held artifacts said to have been from when the Spanish ‘conquered’ Florida (16th century). Ancient America included a Native American burial ground which Barnhill excavated. He installed glass walls for guests who in that era had not yet learned to be morally repulsed by such an idea. Ancient America didn’t grow old.
By the late 1950s, Barnhill had shed the property (now site of The Sanctuary) and moved on to Wisconsin.

***

12345068854?profile=RESIZE_584xAfrica USA (1953-61), Camino Real near U.S. 1, Boca Raton

12345068098?profile=RESIZE_192XBusinessman-developer John Pedersen put the ‘wild’ into Florida wilderness when Africa USA’s 300 acres (at $25 per acre) opened. In 1952, his son Jack, like a 20th century Noah, loaded giraffes, zebras, cheetahs, emus, elephants and more onto a ship in Mombasa, Kenya, and unloaded them at the site. In the era before I-95 and Florida’s Turnpike, it lured U.S. 1 travelers, who paid $1.25 to enter and were treated to a botanical garden, boat rides and a ‘safari train tour’ to get up-close to the wildlife. Life magazine picked the park (not Disneyland!) for a 1960 cover feature.

 

 

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