…“So are we all toilers of the soil, keepers of the earth.”
From a letter dated 1902 from Anna Hofman, wife of farming pioneer Adolf Hofman, to her mother. The adventurous spirit of our early farming settlers and modern farming families will be remembered and celebrated beginning March 6th – April 30th, 2015. The Delray Beach Historical Society presents, “Delray Beach’s Agricultural & Farming Heritage,” an extraordinary exhibit detailing how our town was built through the stories and images of our earliest farming pioneers. From early Seminole settlement camps to current day farming families, this Exhibit will explore a part of our history not widely known. “This is one of the most comprehensive exhibits we’ve ever created, offering visitors perspective on how we developed as a community and what brought people here from the beginning. Since this Exhibit will coincide with the Delray Affair, we’re excited to share the history of the Gladiolus Festival days, straight form our archival collection,” says Historical Society President, Leslie Callaway. The story goes that in the late 1800’s word spread that the area around the town of Linton was America’s last frontier with an abundance of water and rich soil. Advertisements and land sale notices touting fertile farmland available at inexpensive prices attracted people from the Bahamas, the Eastern Seaboard and as far away as Michigan, Wisconsin and Illinois. African-Americans from northern and western Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina were the first non-native farming settlers in the Delray area, pioneering a rich agricultural heritage. Filled with awe for the pristine beauty of the untouched and wild tropical splendor, pioneers transformed raw land into the humble beginnings of a rural farm town along the banks of the canal. By the time Delray was incorporated in 1911, the area had become the epicenter of South Florida’s agricultural economy. Carving a town out of hostile wilderness was not easy! In the unrelenting sun, men fought off wildcats, rattlesnakes, boars and hordes of mosquitos. The land was covered with palmetto roots that often grew six feet long and three feet deep into the sand. They had to be uprooted before farming could begin. They survived the crippling freeze of 1895, sweltering summers and terrifying hurricanes. There are countless heroes in the tale of how Delray Beach came of age in the twentieth century. Delray had a harmonious racial and ethnic diversity that helped create a strong sense of pride and community. Among the first to arrive where the Sterling’s, Chapman’s and Hofman’s. Others would join them in the years to come, lured by the promise of year-round summer weather and plentiful farming. The Sundy’s, Zeder’s, Bonnets, McRae’s, Cason’s, Caton’s and Brown’s were some of the first white families. Other notable settlers included Otto Schrader, Carl Fessenberger, Peter Lewis, Frank Chapman, Frank Tennbrook, H. J. Sterling, Mr. French, Sam Ellenwood, Fred Jauris, Jack Rice and Mr. Tasker. The Chamber’s, Simm’s, Bright’s, Campbell’s, Smith’s, Bellany’s, Cole’s, Muse’s, Newman’s, Monroe’s and Cohen’s were some of the fist black families. Interestingly, many of the earliest settlers were also from Germany or of German ancestry. The Hofman’s, Wueppper’s, Zill’s, Roth’s, Blank’s, Miller’s and Frey’s were among this group. Henry Flagler completed the Florida East Coast Railway in 1896. He sold land to immigrants and families who populated new settlements along his ever advancing railway and raised crops that his trains transported to market. The F.E.C. Railway was essential to the success of the town’s agriculture-based economy and to the growth and development of Delray. Adding to the diversity in the early 1900’s, the Model Land Company brought in a number of Japanese immigrants who settled just south of Delray in a colony founded by Jo Sakai, called Yamato. The Japanese meticulously cared for their land and were highly respected for their unique farming methods characterized by the patient cultivation of small plots of land. They were successful cultivators of pineapples and vegetables. Around 1902 other farmers discovered that the wet, rich soil was perfect for growing pineapples and it is well documented that some of the finest pineapples in Florida were grown in Delray, known for their size and fragrance. The pineapple was the mainstay for Delray farmers for many years, however due to Cuban competition and soil degradation, the tomato eventually became top crop. Packing houses, canning factories and the famous Sundy Feed and Fertilizer were prominent and thriving businesses in Delray. Many women and young boys and girls of the community worked in the factories and also sewed canvas aprons, leggings and gloves for the pickers. For many years Delray hosted the County Fair and was the recipient of more blue ribbons for its products than any other town. Delray crops included mangoes, bananas, papayas, potatoes, peppers, string beans, lima beans, cucumbers, eggplant, cabbage, okra, strawberries, celery, oranges, grapefruit, sugarcane and guavas. In 1935, The McMurrain family moved to Delray from Georgia to farm 649 acres of green beans and later peppers. The Historical Society is grateful to members of the McMurrain family, Tom McMurrain of Ocean Properties and Bill Bathurst of Golden Bear Realty, who are both major sponsors of the Exhibit and opening night event. “We’re so pleased the Historical Society is honoring the farming heritage of Delray Beach and our family’s part in it,” says Tom McMurrain. During the 1940’s and 50’s, Delray Beach was a leading grower of Gladiolus flowers in the US, with more than 13 Gladiolus growers contributing to a $1 million-a-year industry. Families such as the Blood’s, Panuleta’s, Bowman’s, DuBois, Maychek’s and Massengil’s came along in later years and established farms, orchards and dairies from the 1950’s – 1980’s. Delray Beach Historical Society Archivist Arielle Lewis notes, “We’ve sourced rare images and stories from around the state and pulled from our own archives. We are looking forward to sharing this important history and many modernera family profiles with the community.” Mark your calendars! The March 6th Farm-to-Table event, “Winter Harvest,” kicks off the Agricultural & Farming Heritage Exhibit opening. Please call the Historical Society at 561-274-9578 or visit www.delraybeachhistory.org for further information and Exhibit hours.