Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Intra.... what??

Intracoastal at Jupiter Bridge Looking North 2012
Have you ever been stuck when a drawbridge went up so a tall sailboat could pass by?

If you were in eastern Florida at the time, you were likely waiting at a bridge crossing the Intracoastal.
Running inside the East coast of Florida is something at various times called, “the innercoastal,” “the intercoastal” and even the “entercoastal” once. It’s actually the Intracoastal Waterway and any time someone heads to the beach on the east coast of the entire state of Florida, he’ll pass over it.

When I was a child sailing up and down the Intracoastal in my dad’s boat, I thought nothing of it. It appeared to be just a river to me. When I spent the summer at Camp Welaka in Tequesta and the Girl Scouts paddled canoes down a branch of the Loxahatchee River to connect the Intracoastal, it never occurred to me that the sides were awfully straight in some places. (Frankly, by the time we hit the Intracoastal from the Loxahatchee, we were just grateful we had almost reached a landing point again. That river is long!) It’s kind of close to the ocean, but a river nevertheless. I was right and I was wrong.

The Intracoastal Waterway does have several natural rivers and inlets along it, but they are connected by man-made, dredged thoroughfares of water.
Intracoastal Looking South from the Jupiter Bridge
For anyone who takes the time to look at the river banks, it becomes obvious that the sides are too straight in some locations to be natural. Started in 1883 by the Coast Line Canal & Transportation Company, in cahoots with the State of Florida, it was completed from Jacksonville to Miami in 1912.  The man most hold responsible for the development of the East Coast of Florida, Henry Flagler, became associated with the company in 1895. He apparently viewed it as a vehicle to help extend his railway down the state.
Before the completion of the Intracoastal Waterway, traveling south in Florida wasn’t easy. You could  sail and hope you didn’t get seasick or run into a hurricane or,  by 1895, you could take one of Henry Flagler’s trains. By then, he had managed to extend service all the way to West Palm Beach.  A year later Flagler had the railroad extended to Miami. No interstate highways, though. No turnpike. Not even Military Trail, which is an interesting story for another day.

The Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway runs 1,095 miles from Norfolk, Virginia to Miami where it meets the Miami River.  It may have been completed in the early 1900s, but it wasn’t until 1944 that Congress agreed to provide the funding to dredge the Jacksonville-to-Miami segment the same twelve foot depth as the more northern segment and to deepen the already existing waterway from Miami to Key West.
Why did it become important in 1944? Seems it became rather urgent when the Germans decided to run their “Operation Drumbeat” along the entire US eastern seaboard. Ships were being blown up from New York to Key West. With the dredging, smaller boats were able to move to the Intracoastal Waterway where they were safe despite the German U-boats hunting off the coast.

So, the next time you head to one of those wonderful waterfront restaurants we have all over South Florida and sit under an umbrella gazing out over the very straight Intracoastal Waterway, you now know a few bits of history to astound and amaze your dinner companions.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Little Red Schoolhouse

Little Red Schoolhouse
Photo courtesy of Historical Society of Palm Beach County
           On trips home from my grandparents’ house in Delray Beach, my dad often drove north on A1A. I remember the first part of the trip as winding through woods. Not far north of the Lake Worth Bridge, there was a little house sitting beside the road. It was always shuttered and sat deserted. I never remember seeing anyone around it. My dad told me it was the first schoolhouse in Palm Beach County.

            Well. Dad was partly right. It was the first school house, but not just in Palm Beach County, but in all of what is now Miami-Dade, Broward, Monroe and Palm Beach Counties. 

            In the 1800s, Palm Beach County didn’t exist and was part of Dade County. What is now known as the “Little Red Schoolhouse” was built in 1886 on land on North Lake Trail on the island of Palm Beach, just north of the Poinciana Bridge.  The lumber alone cost  two hundred dollars. Dade County kicked in that cost, local men volunteered to build and local women worked to raise money for chairs and school supplies.

            What a difference a hundred years or so makes.

            At first, there were only twelve students and the teacher was a sixteen-year-old named Hattie Gale.  All students were taught in one room. There was no electricity or running water and on cold days, Miss Hattie lit up the wood burning stove.

            The School District of Palm Beach County is now one of the largest school districts in the nation. According to its website, there are 187 schools serving 174,004 students. There are 12,480 teachers. Miss Hattie would be lost.

Undergoing Recent Renovation at Phipps Ocean Park
            In 1960, the building was moved from its original location where it had become a tool shed for the Phipps family to Phipps Ocean Park along South Ocean Boulevard (A1A). Since the days we drove by the beat up old building, it has been restored and turned into an incredible learning experience for school children of today.

            The Preservation Foundation of Palm Beach now runs a “living history” program to show children what it was like to go to school in the 1890s in one room.  Complete with a Teacher’s Manual to help teachers prepare fourth grade students so that they get the most out of their experience, the Little Red Schoolhouse is once again fulfilling its original purpose - education.

            Located at 2185 South Ocean Boulevard, Palm Beach, Florida, you can get more information at

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

What Happens to Old Feed Stores in Delray

Sundy House Photo from Yelp
            Tucked away on Swinton Avenue is a little house that was added to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places in 1992.  Built in 1902, three years after John Sundy moved to Delray, the John and Elizabeth Shaw Sundy House, originally home to the John Shaw Sundy family, is still welcoming guests.
            My dad, who grew up in Delray Beach, remembers going past the Sundy house and feed store to deliver newspapers to the Sundy family among others. He rode his bike the few blocks from his house (now the Historic Hartman House Bed & Breakfast) on N.W. 7th Avenue over Federal Highway to the neighborhood around Swinton where he slung papers at front doorsteps.  
            Mr. Sundy became the first mayor of Delray in 1911 and served as mayor a total of seven terms. There were no calls for term limits under his leadership.
            The Sundy family’s feed store was a thriving business in the 1940s when my dad was sent over to buy chicken feed for the family chickens, Henny and Rooty.  Sadly, Henny and Rooty ended up on the family table despite their status as family pets. My dad and his siblings couldn’t eat knowing who was on the serving platter. My Granddad, being the gruff, no non-sense German father raised on a farm and working hard to make ends meet, didn’t appreciate their hesitation. He made sure they knew they either ate the chickens or there would be trouble. I’m sure we can all imagine how that story ended.
            There were no chickens or chicken feed in sight when I had the pleasure of dining at the Sundy house on a beautiful Sunday morning recently. My friend knew I love old houses and history and thought I would enjoy the experience. He was so right. The lush, beautiful landscaping around the driveway was just an indication of what was hidden behind the screen of tropical green.
            We walked into what must have been the front parlor, through another room with a huge tree rising through the roof and into a side room.  Seated at a little table overlooking a pond where koi swam peacefully just beneath the surface as orange darts of color, we had a leisurely breakfast.
            The brunch buffet was excellent and had everything one could possibly hope to eat and then some. We enjoyed every bite. The waffle bar was a surprise and the smell of baking waffles insisted that a freshly baked one had to rest briefly on our plates before being devoured.

Pool at Sundy House from Yelp
            After brunch, we strolled through the gardens past gazebos, tropical flowers and plants. I was amazed at the dark pool. The gunite forming the sides and bottom of the pool is very dark and the pool is inhabited by little fish. The dark pool lining and sweetly swimming fish combine to make the entire area look natural, as if the little pool had always been there, tucked away behind the building just waiting for one to discover it.
            There’s no feed store on the Sundy property these days, but it’s a wonderful place to eat and just right for a special occasion.
            Located at 106 South Swinton Avenue, Delray Beach, the Sundy House is open for Sunday brunch 10:30 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. Lunch is served Tuesday through Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and dinner 6:00 to 10:00 p.m. It’s free to drive by and gawk out of your car window, but to really experience it, reservations are best. No fishing in those ponds or pool, though. Call 561-272-5678 or reserve on line.

          This article was published originally in Seabreeze Publications, Inc. as my monthly column "The Florida You Don't Know."

(c) Copyright 2012 Ruth Hartman Berge

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Rescuing Mom

Head Waters of the Spring From Florida State Park Website
     Or How I Saved My Mother From Drifting Out to Sea.

     Itchetucknee Springs State Park is four miles northwest of Fort White in the northern part of Florida. The bone-chilling crystal clear water entices kayak and canoe enthusiasts as well as the hardy souls who ride the current in huge inner tubes. Our family was no different.

     My brother was perhaps seven and I was fourteen the summer we stopped at Itchetucknee for a tubing adventure. In 1972, about the time we were there, the head spring was declared a National Natural Landmark by the U.S. Department of the Interior.  It was easy to see why it was a popular place. The frigid water was just the ticket on a sweaty humid Florida summer day. 

     Dad rented huge inner tubes for all of us from a little beat up wooden shack near the side of the road on the way to the head spring. My brother and I perused the selection of innertubes as if there was a world of difference between any of the tubues in the mountain of rubber piled up beside the store. We debated whether or not it mattered that the number painted on the side of the tubes in bright yellow paint was a low number or a high number and if so, who got to choose the higher number. After finally making our choice, or more accurately, after Dad pointed to four and said, "We'll take those" we stuffed them in our Volkswagen van and headed to the park.

Florida State Parks Website
    Squealing and grimacing at the cold, we made it into the water and the family set off. The trip was long and slow as we meandered with the current.  We could see clear down to the white sand bottom and the fish that swam below us. The bottom was visible no matter how far down it was from our feet. The river gently turned us from one side to the other as we talked, laughed and splashed each other just to hear a scream. From the moment we entered the water, Mom cautioned us to keep an eye out for the landing beach.
Florida State Parks Website
     As you would suspect, the waters of the Itchetucknee attracted people to its shores way before the 50s and 60s when college students discovered the area and tubing became a big deal. There was a Spanish/Native American village in the area called the Mission de San Martin de Timucua. Built in 1608, it wasn't even the first. There appears to be evidence of humans in the area thousands of years ago. There was even a little town of Itchetucknee by 1884.

    After stopping on a nice sandy beach for lunch, we resumed floating, and my mother once again started warning us of doom if any of us missed the landing beach. "You'll just float out to sea. I don't know where we'd be able to find you" she'd say. Hours later, we saw the beach approaching in the distance. (See "Tube Take-out Point" on the map below.) My Dad, brother and I paddled our way toward the shore and slipped out of the tubes to stand on the mucky bottom. We then turned around and watched as Mom floated by with a look of panic on her face. She was heading toward the wetlands and the Sante Fe River. She was heading out to sea. I turned and looked at Dad who was looking at Mom and just shaking his head. My brother yelled, "Mommy! Mommy! Where are you going?"

     Junior life guard that I was, I bravely dove in the water and swam to her rescue. I grabbed the side of her inner tube and started trying to pull her to shore. Suddenly, the idea that SHE was the one who had missed the landing beach she had been warning all of US about for the last several hours struck her as funny and she started laughing. So, I started laughing. My father stood on the beach next to my starting-to-panic little brother, hands on his hips, with an I-can't-believe-this expression on his face as my mother and I shrieked like banshees celebrating New Year's Eve as we slowly drifted down the river.

     I couldn't tell you how far past the beach we got before we calmed down enough for me to swim her to shore. I did finally manage to bring her in, though. It was quite some vacation and the memory of Mom floating past us still causes snickers among family members.

     I went down the Itchetucknee River a few times after that while I was in college at Florida State University. The water never got warmer. It was always clear to the bottom. But I never did get to pull anyone else out of the river.
Florida State

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Eyes East

Lake Worth Pier by Land & Sea Imagery
     When I write one of the blog articles, columns or short stories about South Florida and growing up here, I work hard to paint such a vivid picture that you, my wonderful readers, can almost see what I'm describing. I want you to get a glimpse of the beauty of Florida - both what was and what is now. My hope is that I can convince you to love the state like I do.

     I have two friends from my childhood who aren't as nuts about writing about South Florida history as I am, but both have an incredible eye for the unusual along with a deep love for Florida and the ocean that lies off the east coast. Together, they formed Land & Sea Imagery to bring their vision to others.

     Fred Holmstock, a very modest guy, was born in West Palm Beach and I first met him at North Shore High School. The school no longer exists (it's now Bak Middle School of the Performing Arts), but the friendships that started there definitely do.

     Fred, who graduated from the University of Florida with a degree in English and Journalism (Broadcast) and a minor in Engineering, apparently had a thing for color photography way back in the mists of time.   Check out this Kodak International Newspaper Snapshot Award announcement in the Palm Beach Post archives from 1980. The winner of the color division looks vaguely familiar to me...

     These days, Fred takes vivid pictures of South Florida scenes which are then tweaked with intense color and baked on to aluminum. His work in Broadcast Production steered him to computer graphics and animation which led to his creation of a unique computer code. That code is part of what he uses today for the enhancement effects on his images. The result is a Florida beyond imagination. Some of the prints look like hand-colored postcards from the 1940s and evoke the kinder, simpler times we remember from our childhoods. Others are almost futuristic. All are wonderful.

     Jim Abernethy was born in Connecticut, but has been in Palm Beach County from early childhood. We both went to North Palm Beach Elementary School and in later years to Northshore High School where Jim and Fred were on the swim team together. As Fred puts it, they swam when they "weren't hanging out at the beach." Those of you who read my story, "Salvation in the Earman River" have already met Jim. He's the boy who grew up to play with sharks.

     Jim has been diving with sharks for decades and is one of the most highly-recognized authorities on sharks and their behavior in Florida. Perhaps far beyond Florida. He runs Jim Abernethy's Scuba Adventures which not only takes thrill seekers out to dive the waters of South Florida and The Bahamas, but is devoted to education about shark conservation. Jim takes undersea pictures of the creatures who swim off our shores. Recently, he worked with Guy Harvey to produce "This is Your Ocean: Sharks" a movie that seeks to entertain as well as educate.
Jim Abernathy with Emma
     If you haven't visited Land & Sea Imagery on line yet. Please do. You can find them on Facebook as well as clicking on the link above.

     There are many wonderful things about growing up in Florida. One of the best is knowing people like these two guys. I'm sure they'll be part of the Florida history stories our great-grandchildren read.