By Ron Hayes
DELRAY BEACH — The land was worthless, after all.
No roads, no houses, impractical for farming.
Plagued by mosquitoes and cut off from the mainland.
Nothing but sand and bugs.
And so, in 1899, three women donated a mile of beachfront property to the public. Maybe they were civic minded. Maybe they just wanted to rid themselves of some desolate dunes. But on Oct. 29, about 75 people gathered on South Ocean Boulevard across from Bay Street to dedicate a marker honoring Sarah Gleason, Belle G. Dimick Reese and Ella M. Dimick Potter.
Their worthless land is the Delray Municipal Beach now, and priceless.
“It’s worth about $300 million at current value,” estimates Robert Ganger, president of the Delray Beach Historical Society, which also honored a much more recent gift to the city that day.
From his home, Robert Neff, a visitor since the 1920s and a resident for more than 35 years, can see the coquina-and-bronze marker he and his family donated to honor those other, long-gone philanthropists.
“Mr. Neff's gift allows us to tell the story of how, for over a hundred years, people have been able to enjoy this beach unfettered,” Ganger said.
And it’s quite a story.
In 1895, Sarah Gleason and her husband’s business partner, William H. Hunt, sold a parcel of land to William S. Linton for about $10 an acre. A U.S. congressman from Michigan, Linton was hoping to develop a town called Linton. When Linton defaulted, the property reverted to Mrs. Gleason, along with Reese and Potter, the heirs of her husband’s partner, Hunt. And three years later, the women deeded it to the town.
“I choose to believe that our pioneer families knew that someday the beach would be a magnet for future generations to enjoy,” Ganger told the gathering. When the town received the ladies’ gift, the only building in sight was the Orange Grove House of Refuge, north of Atlantic Avenue. In May 1876, Capt. Hannibal Dillingham Pierce became its first keeper, and at the recent ceremony, his great-great grandson, Harvey Oyer III, praised the benefactresses as pioneer royalty. “There really are not bigger names in the history of our area than Gleason, Hunt, Dimick and Potter,” said Oyer, chairman of the board of the Historical Society of Palm Beach County. “These were the folks who, with little support or means, built the infrastructure and the communities we take for granted today.”
Sarah Gleason was the wife of William Gleason, a carpetbagger as colorful as he was corrupt. Moving to Florida after the Civil War, Gleason was appointed lieutenant governor in 1868, then tried to overthrow Gov. Harrison Reed by instigating bogus impeachment proceedings. When the state Supreme Court ruled against him, Gleason was removed from office, settled below what is now Miami and started buying property from modern-day Brevard County south.
He was so unpopular, Oyer said, that much of the land was held in his wife’s name.
When Gleason’s partner, William Hunt, died in 1882, followed by his only surviving child in 1892, his interest in the beach was passed to his heirs. Belle Dimick Reese was the daughter of Cap Dimick, the first mayor of Palm Beach and the founder of its first bank, a state senator and the man who built the middle bridge across the Intracoastal Waterway in West Palm Beach.
Her first cousin was Ella Dimick Potter, who married George Potter, a mayor of West Palm Beach and the co-founder, with George Lainhart, of the Lainhart & Potter Lumber Co., still in business today.
“Delray Beach is a role model for progressive and inclusive growth and economic development, while simultaneously weaving its history into its future,” Oyer told the crowd. “You are demonstrating the same long-term vision that Mrs. Gleason, Mrs. Reese and Mrs. Potter demonstrated some 109 years ago.”