Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Just In Case

           When you were a kid, did you ever hold your breath when passing a cemetery?

           Why was that?

            I vaguely remember an older cousin telling me to hold my breath so I didn’t breathe in a ghost, but I couldn’t tell you if that’s why we did it. I do remember holding my breath every time we passed Woodlawn cemetery in West Palm Beach on our way to or from my grandparents' house in Delray Beach.  I made sure my brother did, too. If the car was slowed down by a car in front, we’d turn beautiful shades of pink, red, and then blue and almost pass out rather than give in and take a breath.

          I recently asked my mother if she remembered us doing that and she said.” Yes.” But then she shook her head and said, “You always did have a quite the imagination.”

            While driving down Lantana Road from Dixie on the way to I-95 a few weeks ago, I caught a glimpse of something I didn't expect to see along that busy road. Behind a high iron fence, one big banyan tree and some stones were sitting abandoned on a corner lot.

            "Wait!" I called out. "What was that?" But we were already past it and there was no time to turn back that day. 

            I've been up and down Lantana Road thousands of times from childhood on and never noticed that lot. The next time I drove through that area I slowed down a little and peered out the windshield trying to figure out what was there. It was a graveyard sitting beside the street. And I’d been driving past it all these years without once holding my breath.

            Since I can't stand driving by something unusual or old and not finding out about it, I did some research and eventually worked my way back again with my camera.

            The Evergreen Cemetery has been on the corner of Lantana Road and Arnold Road since 1892 when the Evergreen Cemetery Association was formed. Some of Lantana's early settler's are buried there and it continued to be was used for burials up until 1950.  The last person to be buried there was Dan McCarley, the Barefoot Mailman of the area who later served as the first police chief.

            “Pioneer Life on the Shores of Lake Worth” by Mary Lineham, now out of print, states there are around forty graves in this little cemetery and most of them are unmarked. The first burials were those of two sailors who washed ashore on a nearby beach after their ship wrecked. Only a few gravestones are left and the engraving on those is hard to read. Wind and weather have conspired to erase names and dates, leaving only eroded stones to indicate that someone’s loved one lies beneath the soil. The headstones try to stand up straight even as plants and bushes planted in remembrance try to shove them over. 
The lawn is mowed, but there is nothing fancy here. I drove by again on a recent rainy day and noticed that someone had placed flowers on several of the graves. The flowers were splashes of color against the grass and rainy day gray drizzle. It was nice to see that someone comes by to honor these people who could easily have been forgotten in the decades since they were laid to rest in Evergreen
            The Lantana Historical Society is working to complete iron fencing around the cemetery. For a small donation to this 501(c)3 organization, you’ll receive a certificate and the satisfaction of helping to preserve a part of local history. Their address is 1445 West Branch Street, Lantana, Florida 33462. Make sure you indicate your donation is for the fence project.

            Evergreen Cemetery is a peaceful place, even with cars zipping by on Lantana Road.  I parked on Arnold Road the day I went exploring and walked by the fence to get to some of the remaining headstones. I don’t think I need to hold my breath past a cemetery anymore, but I still think walking over a grave is not a good idea.

          Just in case.

This blog article was originally printed as my column titled "The Florida You Don't Know" in the papers distributed in Palm Beach and Martin Counties  by Seabreeze Publications, Inc. The blog article has slight revisions as more information came to light in between the newspaper publiation and now. But, wait! There's more! The full story which is way too long to post here will be one of the stories published in my book, "The Ghost of Sir Harry Oakes: Tales of Growing Up in Palm Beach County" which I continue to work on feverishly. (Ok, not feverishly. But I AM working hard on it!)

Copyright (c) 2012 Ruth Hartman Berge

Thursday, April 19, 2012


            Many things bring back memories of my childhood in Florida. Among them are sights and sounds. One of the best and quickest ways for me to travel back? The smells.

           Where does the smell of pine trees take you? It takes me back to Christmas morning in just a few seconds.
The smell of chicken roasting? That’s the ticket to memories of big noisy family dinners at my grandparents’ house.

Suntan lotion? I’m back baking on the beach as a teenager with my friends, radios humming at our heads.

            To me, few smells trigger memories of summers past more than the aroma of newly-cut grass. I drove through a cloud of it yesterday and smiled. One of my chores as a teenager was mowing the front lawn. I knew the smell of fresh cut grass up close and personal.
            St. Augustine grass seems to be the main type of grass growing in South Florida. It grows well in hot sunny spots and in the sand that covers most of the state. When I lived in St. Louis for a few years, I became vaguely aware that St. Augustine is not universally grown and a friend from Kentucky recently pointed out that not only was it not the grass of choice in northern climes, it was considered a weed. To him, the fescues and bluegrasses of his native state are not as coarse, and are more appealing and easier on the feet.

            But back to memories of mowing the weeds um, lawn. I fussed about it most of the time, but I actually liked it. Don’t tell my mother.  Let her have her fond memories of forcing me to do hard, manual labor in the hot, Florida sun.

            It was a challenge to mow the lawn in precise lines while ducking under the Florida holly tree in the front yard. When mockingbirds were nesting, I had to push the mower with one hand while swinging a dog leash over my head to keep the protective birds from taking chunks out of my scalp. The cut grass would turn my white sneakers a beautiful green and the insects would make my ankles and calves scratch. Did I say I actually liked this?

            When I was finished, I’d sit in a lawn chair on the driveway with a cold lemonade or tall glass of ice water and cool off. The mower made ticking sounds beside me as it cooled off, too. The lawn was once again neat and tidy and I was once again covered in grass and rubbing my ankles together to scratch the itch.
            That smell.

            It promised long, salty days at the beach followed by barbeques in the backyard. It promised Fourth of July celebrations, firecrackers and sparklers, Girl Scout camp and late night swims in the backyard pool. It promised vacations to cool mountains and cold mountain streams. It promised tossing and turning to try to get to sleep under a fan barely moving the warm night air. It promised the sound of crickets carrying on their quiet, insistent concert in hibiscus bushes outside of bedroom windows. It promised long hours chasing tiny flashes from lightning bugs, a mayonnaise jar in one hand, metal lid with holes punched in it in the other.  It promised coconut scented suntan lotion and big sunhats, warm breezes and clear skies, and lying on blankets in backyards at night giggling with friends and looking at stars. 

            Yes, the smell of newly cut grass still makes me smile at the sweetness of summers past and promises kept.
(c) Copyright 2012 Ruth Hartman Berge
Pictures from Photobucket

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

When Worlds Collide

In 1913, my great-grandfather, Frederick Hartmann, got a great deal on a couple of lots in Delray Beach. It was buy one, get one and he jumped at the offer to purchase his piece of paradise. The lots were surrounded by pineapple fields. Adolf Hoffmann, one of the movers and shakers of the day, lived to the north and a few blocks to the south was Atlantic Avenue, even then a main street. Fledgling Federal Highway sat a short block to the west.

It wasn’t until 1926 that the house that sits on the southernmost lot was built. A large two-story house, it was later inhabited by my grandparents, Gustav R. Hartman and Ione Hartman and their children, Marjorie Ann, Norman, Warren and Allen. Gustav was the Assistant Postmaster of Delray Beach. I only found out through research recently that my Dad was arguably one of the best athletes of his era at Seacrest High School. He was always too modest to talk much about it although he did ‘fess up to holding a high-game basketball score that stood for twenty years or so. He had no choice on that one. The story about the twenty-six year record being broken appeared in the newspaper my senior year of high school.

My father has shared stories of riding his bike across Federal Highway to deliver papers to the Sundy’s and other residents to the west. My Uncle Allen told me of the days when he crossed Federal all by himself to walk to school at what is now Old School Square.

Over the years, the warp and weave of Delray Beach has wandered through a pattern of its own design. The neighborhood around my grandparents house went from pineapple fields to homes. Federal Highway went from a little scraggly highway in name only, to an actual thoroughfare. When I was around ten, Bud’s Chicken went in directly behind the house. My cousins and I were often sent through the ficus hedge, money in hand, to pick up chicken dinners for the family on those days when everyone stayed too long in the pool and no one felt like leaving the cool water to rustle up a meal.

The neighborhood surrounding the house has had it’s bad days. After my grandmother sold the house in 1973, the house fell into disrepair and became a derelict relic of the past. Federal Highway slid into vacant lots, old buildings and car dealerships as Delray struggled. Decisions on what to allow to be built on Federal Highway appeared to be made haphazardly based on a criteria few understood and Federal became a shadow of the busy center of commerce it had been years ago.

Somewhere in the 1990s, a new spirit entered the city and renovation, restoration and revitalization grabbed hold of the imaginations of the residents. The now thriving Atlantic Avenue is an incredible testament to the power of positive thinking following by determined action.

The house my great-grandfather built was finally blessedly bought by Benita and Jordan Goldstein who brought Delray Beach’s first bed and breakfast to fruition. The Historic Hartman House opened its doors in 2011 representing a revitalization of the Palm Trails neighborhood.

I never knew my great-grandfather, he died while my Dad was a child, but I sure knew my grandparents, Gus and Ione Hartman. They’d get a kick out of the "Historic" designation, I’m sure. The bed and breakfast has a well-deserved international reputation as a beautiful, peaceful oasis a few blocks from the hub of town. The Goldsteins make every guest feel like they’ve arrived home in a place they’ve never been before.

On April 3, I attended the Delray Beach City Commission meeting. I was there to support the Goldsteins and their neighbors as they stated their opposition to the opening of a proposed detox center in the Delray Inn, an old motel on Federal Highway behind the Palm Trails neighborhood that sits catty-corner to the Historic Hartman House. My argument was that after all the work the town, the Goldsteins and the local historical groups did to restore and renovate the Historic Hartman House, a detox center would be a glaring neon light on a peaceful landscape. Disruptive to the natural ebb and flow of the neighborhood much as plopping a bunch of movie premiere spotlights on the beach one evening to light up the sand would be to the serenity of the beach. 
Current Delray Inn
(Photo from their website)
The Commission chambers were filled to overflowing with people who had variations of the same argument as well as some other pointed questions. I sat horrified as the attorney for the Delray Inn accused those speaking in opposition to the center of demonizing addicts in our quest to keep them out of the area. Far from it. Many who spoke knew all too well the personal toll addictions take. It’s just not possible to have the best of both worlds when we speak about a detox center abutting a neighborhood filled with historical homes. Which is more important? Which belongs there?

Don’t misunderstand me, I strongly believe that there is a need for detox centers. Addicts don’t choose anything but their very first hit. After that, they, their families and friends, are victims. They're controlled by other forces and breaking those chains are not only difficult, but dangerous. But does one belong at the back door of a neighborhood fighting to re-emerge from decades of struggling against the slide into decay?

The Delray Beach City Council voted no. Among other issues and concerns, the compatibility issue loomed large and added to the grounds to deny the center on the Delray Inn property.

History is that topic a lot of kids hated in high school. I had friends who’s eyes glazed over as they walked in the classroom door. But history IS important. We can’t tell where we’re going if we don’t have a clear picture of where we’ve been. Sometimes, it’s only by looking at the past and relishing the good things about way back when that give us courage to keep moving forward in a sometimes harsh and frightening world. There's a feeling of helplessness when economic collapse sits waiting to pounce on anyone and the future looks bleak.

Yes, a detox center is crucial. Perhaps Delray doesn’t need ALL of the rehab centers that make Delray Beach the "rehab capital of the world." I don’t know. What I do know is that there is another place for a detox center. A place where it would be welcome. A place near the hospital for those dangerous physical side-effects of detoxification. It didn’t have to be located at the Delray Inn.
From Wikipedia
I know that on April 3, the Delray Beach City Commissioners voted to permit the historical flavor of the city to continue to grow. It chose to continue on the path of restoration and renovation to keep pushing and pulling Delray Beach toward a reputation as a destination worth visting-worth moving to-worth living in. It chose to cherish and protect the remnants it has of those days when pineapples outnumbered people in Delray Beach.

Worlds collide. And this time, the past won.

(c) copywrite 2012 Ruth Hartman Berge

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Shopping in the Woods

              A few times a week, I meet my best friend and cohort in “crime,” Becky, to walk The Gardens Mall for exercise.  There are lots of stories about the messes she and I have found ourselves in, but those belong in a longer story.  And no comments from those who knew us in high school about how things haven’t changed a bit. We get those same comments from our kids who swear we act like fourteen year olds a good portion of the time.
The mall is a safe, cool area to walk when it’s dark or when Florida summers are just too hot to contemplate walking outside.  As those of you who’ve been in Florida during the summer know, some days, it’s brutal to walk even the distance from the car to the cool air-conditioning behind the glass entry doors.
As I pulled into the parking lot to meet Becky last Saturday, I had one of those moments. The ones that make me stop and say, “hmmm.” Having grown up only a town away in North Palm Beach, we drove by the area where the Gardens Mall now sits a lot and I found my self reminiscing about what was there before the first foundation was poured and Burdines first opened its doors there.
 So, I went digging for information. I found out the mall first opened on PGA near I-95 in Palm Beach Gardens in 1988. I was living in Broward County then and missed the grand opening.
Before the 1.4 million square feet of luxury known as The Gardens Mall was built, though, that area was nothing but Florida scrub. Unusual for most parts of Florida, there were a few small hills that made my brother and his dirt-bike riding friends ecstatic.
The website for the City of Palm Beach Gardens describes the pre-development city as one of cow pastures, pine trees and swamplands. That pretty much is how I remember it.
In 1970, there were only about 7,000 people living in Palm Beach Gardens.  By the late 1970s when I was tooling around northern Palm Beach County in my huge 1968 yellow and white Buick Skylark, Palm Beach Gardens was primarily residential with most streets bearing the names of flowers. A few apartment buildings and some business buildings scattered along Military Trail and PGA Boulevard, but not much was west of Military Trail. When I-95 was finally completed between Fort Pierce and Palm Beach Gardens in 1987, business started booming and by the time The Gardens Mall opened, it seemed the entire area had exploded.
There’s not much left of the woods the mall replaced. This part of the city is crowded most days. A boon to the tax base and a beautiful place to shop, but between you and me, I still long for the woods sometimes. I have found a compromise, though. When I get to the mall before Becky, I sit on the benches outside the entrance by Ruby Tuesdays and listen to the fountains. Tiny birds flit in and out of the bushes and bright flowers bloom above the perfectly manicured lawns.

It’s not the woods I remember being here, but it’ll do in a pinch.