A look at the adventurous women who set out to change Delray in the early 1900s
By Kayleigh Howald
In 19th century Florida’s undeveloped wilderness, women and men alike were dedicated to their families’ survival. Multiple first-person accounts describe women working in the fields to clear the land and care for livestock and crops, alongside their husbands and fathers. Although men are often credited with settling Florida’s east coast, the communities themselves were developed by the work and ingenuity of women.
On Feb. 28, 1902, a group of enterprising women founded the Ladies Improvement Association with the purpose of developing infrastructure for the burgeoning village. Early members included several prominent women within Delray’s community: Ellen Sherwood, Elta E Sherman, Nellie Blackmer, Gertrude Zeder, Lucy Chapman, Mary Sterling, Elizabeth Sundy, Anna McRae, Frances Tenbrook, Elizabeth Lane, Ina Helena Haygood, Marie Pedersen, Anna Eliason, Jessie McLeod and Sarah Tasker
Working for cold hard cash
In addition to membership dues of 5 cents per meeting, the Ladies Improvement Association raised money by selling a variety of goods. The group often took commissions for dresses, bathing suits, baby sacks and corset covers, as well as shirts and nightshirts for “bachelors and widowers” for 25 cents each. At the meetings, the women sewed thick canvas mittens and leggings for pineapple harvesters. They also made aprons for butchers and masons, and seed bed covers for farmers. The women sold embroidery, candy, cakes, sauces, butter, peanuts, nutmeg, cloves and fish.
Ice cream socials, however, were the society’s most successful money-making endeavor. The ladies sold ice cream at different events and areas throughout town, including the packing houses and railway station. These sales were not without their difficulties, namely mosquitoes.
According to one recollection, “When we were selling the cream the mosquitoes were so thick that someone had to keep a brush waving over the person dipping the cream.”
While the ice had to be shipped in from West Palm Beach, the Ladies Improvement Association fully utilized it by renting the ice cream freezer to other residents for 25 cents a day.
After organizing and raising funds for the building of the Town Hall in 1906, the association rented the space for public meetings. While church societies could use the hall for free, other organizations paid up to $60 per year. For groups holding regular dances or banquets, the Ladies Improvement Association collected half the proceeds for each event.
Furthermore, the association established an ongoing tradition of serving banquets, receptions and other social dinners to raise money for community service projects and important causes affecting Delray.
Its first endeavor was a paved or “rocked” walkway down Atlantic Avenue, which was completed five months after the association’s first meeting.
Following this project’s success, the association organized and funded the replacement of the lighter barges over the canal, the construction of Town Hall and of the town’s first library. The women also established the town’s first cemetery and started its first newspaper.
Additionally, the ladies organized cleanup days for the town, secured land from owners on Atlantic Avenue to widen the street and plant royal palms, took charge of beautifying the school grounds, helped fund the public school, promoted a community Christmas tree and arranged for the building of the beach pavilion.
Public health, civic action
Along with essential projects, the Ladies Improvement Association used its influence in the community to support causes related to public health, children and families, and civic engagement.
Records show the society was frequently contacted by the Florida No-Fence League, an organization fighting to change laws surrounding free range livestock and eradicating the cattle tick. The No-Fence League and similar groups reached out to women’s associations throughout Florida and posited that free range cattle produced substandard milk, which would cause malnourishment in children, and unchecked livestock could trample citrus groves and fields.
The Ladies Improvement Association also was contacted by the Florida Board of Health, which requested the group encourage local officials and community to be vaccinated against typhoid and diphtheria.
The association wrote to U.S. Sens. Park Trammell and Duncan U. Fletcher of Florida, asking them to support the Sheppard-Towner Maternity and Infancy Act (1921). The act provided federal aid to states for prenatal and infant health care and was designed to combat high infant and maternal mortality rates, especially in rural states.
Moreover, women in Delray fought for participation in local elections and municipal affairs. In its 1916-1917 annual report, the Ladies Improvement Association announced women had won the right to vote in town elections. Delray was only the second city in Florida where women legally could vote (Zena Dreier of Fellsmere became the first woman to vote in both Florida and the South in June 1915). The right to vote became a great source of pride and the group continued to teach civic engagement through classes and workshops throughout the 1920s.
In November 1924, the Ladies Improvement Association voted to change its name to the Woman’s Club of Delray Beach. Under this new name, women continued to work and support local and state issues, including hospitals, education, voting rights, civil rights and the environment. Throughout its 121-year history, the Woman’s Club has remained a stalwart advocate for Delray Beach, Palm Beach County and Florida.
This story originally appeared in the Delray Beach Historical Society’s newsletter in honor of International Women’s Day in March and celebrates the organization’s early contributions to Delray Beach. Kayleigh Howald is the Historical Society’s archivist. For more information, email DBHSArchivist@DelrayBeachHistory.org.
Photo inset: Annie Hofman, daughter of Anna and Adolf, with some of the family harvest before the Palm Beach County Fair, around 1913.
A letter from 1896: 'Love to all, Anna'
From Letters from Linton by Charles Hofman (2004): A letter dated June 9, 1896, from Anna Hofman, wife of pioneer Adolf Hofman, to her mother in Germany:
“Today I am heading for the fields since Adolf needs me with him now that the okra is ready to be picked. Annie [their daughter] must come with me because there are no neighbors nearby to watch her. …
“Sturdy though I am, I am still a victim of the flying insects that eagerly attack me. They are constant and relentless, and I must cover Annie’s basket with cheesecloth netting to shield her from their vicious attacks. …
“And the sun in Florida is equally unmerciful at this time of year. Our clothes are wet and cling heavily all day long and well into the night from the high humidity. The sun is known to actually burn and blister the skin if one is not careful to wear a wide-brimmed hat and keep the long sleeves buttoned.
“Thus are our days in the fields, but I am content to follow Adolf and feel a part of this new adventure and the rich soil that surrounds us.
“Love to all at home, Anna”
About the author
As the archivist at the Delray Beach Historical Society, Kayleigh Howald helps to collect, preserve and share Delray Beach’s diverse history.
“As a historian, I love to explore the fascinating stories connected to each document and object in the archives,” Howald says. “For example, the Delray Beach Historical Society archives holds the meeting minutes for the Ladies Improvement Association dating to their founding in 1902, and it is a treasure trove of evidence to the courage, ingenuity and resolve of these pioneer women.”