HERstory: Boca Raton's Pioneer Women

Presented by the Boca Raton Historical Society & Museum







A New Frontier
Boca Raton’s first women pioneers were the wives and daughters of men who came to farm the rich soil of South Florida at the turn of the twentieth century. They battled numerous flying and crawling insects, unmitigating heat and humidity, and the occasional tropical storm. Many were from northern middle class families, accustomed to such amenities as electricity, indoor plumbing, markets, and department stores. Floy Mitchell recalled the rather primitive conditions when she and husband Joe arrived at their first Boca home, as late as 1923:

  A two-burner oil stove, small ice box, hand pump
 in the sink, and an oil lamp furnished the kitchen.
 A “chick sale” [outhouse] was in the back yard…
 We would have to take a bath in a zinc tub with
 water heated on the stove. Joe looked at me, and
 knowing we had left a home with indoor plumbing
 and all the modern conveniences of the time, said
 “Are you sure you want to stay?” I replied, “Wild
 horses couldn’t get me away from here.

Floy Mitchell with son Billy ca. 1930s

   Nettie Chesebro in boat.
Nettie Chesebro came to Boca in 1903 with her husband Frank and their three children. A sewing machine, washing machine, organ, and phonograph brought with them from Michigan helped ease a traumatic transition. Nettie worked side by side with her husband grubbing, raking, and planting, to make their large farm a success, She was later paralyzed –the result of lifting a heavy fertilizer sack. Here “Mother Chesebro” enjoys a bit of a rest in a small boat at the confluence of the Hillsboro River and the Florida East Coast Canal (today’s Intracoastal), ca. 1905.

Nettie and Frank’s daughters Ruth and Esther Chesebro pose on the bridge over the Hillsboro River—now the “stimulus” funded flyover bridge on Dixie at the county line.

Annie Raulerson, known to the town as “Aunt Annie,” raised daughters Myrtle and Ivy with her husband Burt in a handsome two story frame house on West Palmetto Park Road. Notice the sleeping porch at the back and the popular “landscaping” style of the time of this photo, ca. 1910s. The Raulerson house still exists, moved to a new location at 290 SW Second Avenue.

Despite the rough conditions, the wilderness that was Boca Raton was not without its charms in those early days. The fishing was plentiful in the surf, Lake Boca Ratone, or in the nearby fresh water canals. Virginia Kinney and husband Perl came to Boca to join fellow Vermonter Harley Gates in real estate investments in the 1910s. They lived in a bungalow on the FEC Canal (now the Intracoastal) southwest of the Palmetto Park Bridge. Virginia and Perl and an unidentified gentleman display a “days catch of bluefish at Lake Boca Ratone” ca. 1910s.

       Aldah Myrick
The pristine beauty of Boca beaches in those early years of the community proved an enticement for pioneer citizens young and old. Mamie Myrick and her husband William came from North Carolina to South Florida in 1910 for the sake of William’s health. They built the house now known as Singing Pines (today the children’s museum) on what is now Southwest First Avenue in ca. 1914. There were thirteen families in Boca upon their arrival; Mamie recalled the swamps, alligators, and wildcats which surrounded them. The Myricks were one of the few car owners in town; they would drive to the Intracoastal to take a boat to the beach, often accompanied by guests on the fenders and running board. Left to right: unidentified, daughter Aldah, Mamie, and son Robert and Joseph Myrick on the beach at Boca ca. 1917.

Local girls, not immune to the latest fashion, enjoy tomatoes at the wooden building that served as the freight station for the Florida East Coast Railway, located along the tracks north of Palmetto Park Road, ca. 1914. The occasion was a spectacular wreck as evidenced by the photo. Left to right: Aldah Myrick; Maude Johnson of Deerfield; sisters Esther and Ruth Chesebro ?; and unidentified.

Family Life
One of the principal occupations of Boca’s early female pioneers was that of wife and mother. They raised their children, cooked meals daily with available products—meat and dairy products were in short supply—and canned and jellied the local fruits and vegetables. They did the laundry outside with a rubbing board and washtub and ironed with heavy sadirons heated on the stove. They served as doctor and nurse and often school teacher as well. Photo Courtesy Historical Society of Palm Beach County.

     Eula Purdom Raulerson
Florence Purdom came to Florida with her husband Perry in 1905 to help the Burt Raulerson family with their farm. Florence bore eleven children and raised the surviving eight in a typical farm house with kerosene lamps and a pitcher pump in the yard. Perry did not allow Florence to work in the fields, but the older daughters Eula and Viola helped with the farm work as well as assisting their mother with the children and housework. Left to right: Harry and Eula, mother Florence with baby Ernestine, father Perry behind Thelma, Viola, and Jewel.

Boca Raton’s earliest African American farm workers actually lived in nearby Deerfield - making the long walk to Frank Chesebro’s lands south of Camino Real and east of Dixie Highway on a daily basis. Here an unidentified family of Chesebro’s workers poses in what looks to be their Sunday finest beside a citrus grove ca 1915.

Suye Kobayashi                                            Sada Sakai
Women of Yamato
In 1904, a young Joseph Sakai established the Japanese agricultural community of Yamato adjacent the Florida East Coast Railway tracks in what is now northern Boca Raton. Primarily bachelors, the young recruits were eager to experiment with new crops and techniques in a new land. Women started to arrive in 1906. One of the first was Jo’s young wife of nineteen, Sada. She willingly left behind a comfortable life and a houseful of servants to come to a wooden shack where the cooking was done “al fresco.” Mosquitoes, torrential rain, and pineapple blight caused many colonists to return to Japan. Despite the hardships, life in the Yamato colony was very liberating for many Japanese brides. Women prepared food for the field hands and often accompanied the men on trips to West Palm Beach or Miami. They quickly exchanged kimonos for western clothing.

Here a group of Yamato wives picnic with the children ca. 1910s.

  African American pioneer Pearl Swanson
Women of Pearl City
Pearl City was established by pioneer George Long on behalf of landowner Thomas Rickards as a housing community for the African American field hands who worked as sharecroppers for Long, Chesebro and other white farmers. By the 1920s and 1930s many families began to migrate to Boca from Deerfield, Delray, and other areas to take advantage of higher farm wages. Pearl City women were employed as domestic servants, laundresses, and cooks for area residents and seasonal visitors. They played important roles in local religious and social activities, teaching Sunday School, organizing gatherings, and cooking for fund raisers. Pioneer Belle Demery came to the area in the 1910s with her husband to seek a new life. She found employment as a domestic and hand packing vegetables for the local farmers while raising her large family.

Belle Demery and daughter                 Pearl City residents leave Butt’s bean fields ca. 1930s.

  Mamie Myrick at the beach
Leisure Time
Life was not all work and no play for women in Boca’s early days. Social gatherings were equally important to the survival of the young community; providing networking opportunities as well as rest and relaxation for the women as well the menfolk.

A jovial gathering at the Hillsboro Lighthouse ca. 1915. Left to right: unidentified; Bill and Peg Young; unidentified; Mamie Myrick; William Myrick; Laurence Gould in tree; unidentified; Joseph Myrick; Aldah Myrick; Robert Myrick; unidentified.

Margaret “Peg” Young came to Florida from Scotland with her new husband Bill. Together they ran a small commissary at Palmetto Park Road and Dixie Highway and Peg served as postmistress for fifteen years.

A tent revival meeting in nearby Deerfield provided an opportunity for religious and social fulfillment for local African American residents ca. 1911.

Courtship and marriage were of primary importance in the life of a young woman on the South Florida frontier. With few cultural or sporting activities available, young couples made do with a stroll up the road or a picnic at the beach. Here two unidentified couples pose on the bridge over the Hillsboro River, now canal, at the Deerfield line, ca. 1910s.

Ladies (and gentlemen) didn’t allow the uncomfortable bathing costumes of the 1910s stop them from enjoying a day at the beach. Woman wore woolen tunics or “jumpsuits” with attached bloomers and matching skirts for modesty. (And at public beaches like those “up nawth,” one could be arrested for going “stockingless.”) Here Peg Young (front) and Mamie Myrick disdain such modesty as they enjoy Boca’s bounty ca. mid 1910s. The boys include: William (with the tie), Robert, and Joseph at far right.

The Liberating Twenties
In the years following World War I a new economic prosperity, the completion of the Dixie Highway, and the new popularity of the automobile helped initiate a Florida land boom pioneers still call “The Boom.” New residents were drawn by the investment possibilities and the lure of a warm climate. The coming of the Mizner Development Corporation, Villa Rica, and other boomtime developments literally put the little town on the map.

At the same time, the new prosperity and the passage of the nineteenth amendment helped changed attitudes among and about women in America: the flapper with her short skirt and bobbed hair and very different ideas about the role of women in society became the new symbol of American womanhood. In Boca Raton, the influx of new residents and a change in morays encouraged the growth of cultural, social, and educational opportunities for local women.

Nothing symbolized women’s new freedom like access to an automobile. Harriette Gates came to Florida as a newlywed in 1915. The young Vermonter had to learn to overcome the challenges of her wild South Florida environment. She and husband Harley built a home called Palmetto Park Plantation on the northwest side of what is now the Palmetto Park bridge; it was equipped with indoor plumbing and a telephone. Harriette was what we would call a feminist today. She served as the chairman of the Boca Raton chapter of the League of Women Voters in 1920.

The 1920s land boom brought an influx of new residents to the area. It also brought economic opportunity and jobs to Boca’s female residents. One career open to women was that of schoolteacher. Miss Alice Presley taught for several years in the new Boca Raton school building located on the present site of Boca Raton Elementary School. Here she shows off the cropped hairstyle and long-waisted, “short” hemmed dress that became the de rigueur fashion of the times. Students include (first and second row, left to right): Pauline Raulerson; Dixie Sellers; Ivy Raulerson; Bertice Tanner; Carl Douglas; Grace Douglas (row 2); Grace Bowsman, Theron Dillingham; unidentified; Paul Sellers; Charles Raulerson. Top row: Myrtle Lee Raulerson; Odas Tanner; Clifford Purdom; Pearl Dillingham; Elizabeth Dillingham. 

The Boca Raton Woman’s Club, formed in the early 1920s promoted “general philanthropic work, along practical and educational lines.” The club grew to twenty-eight members in 1926. The group sponsored plays, dances, musical entertainments, lectures, and a tree planting campaign. It also provided an important social outlet as well as encouraging civic activism for local women.

Members of the Boca Raton Woman’s Club gather at the Purdom’s home, located at the present site of city hall, ca. 1920s. First row, left to right: Harriette Gates; Miss Harris?; Helen Stokes; Lillian Williams; (with Clifford Purdom, born 1915). Second row, left to right: Ethyl Chesebro; Annie Raulerson; Ms. Stokes (Helen’s mother); Mrs.Tony Brenk; Florence Purdom; Mrs. Norton. Third row: Mrs. Billy Sherman; Eula Raulerson.

The Woman’s Club holds a fund-raising bazaar at the side of Brenk’s store, located at the corner of Palmetto Park Road and Northwest First Avenue, ca. mid 1920s. Left to right: Annie Raulerson; Mrs. Norton; Helen Stokes.

Addison Mizner’s “Boca Raton” development in 1925-1927 literally put the little farm town of Boca Ratone on the map. Mizner Development Corporation ads appealed to women as well as men to invest in Boca Raton.

Two “Boca flappers” enjoy the view at the Addison Mizner’s newly opened Cloister Inn, ca. 1926-27. Harriette Gates, at left, sits with friend Helen Howard, who first came to Boca in 1923, where her parents had built a winter home. She returned to New York in 1927 but was lured back to Boca Raton in 1940.

By 1927 the Mizner Development Corporation was bankrupt along with many other boom time South Florida projects. The September 1926 hurricane which hit Miami and Fort Lauderdale and the September 1928 hurricane which struck West Palm Beach and the Lake brought the final blows to the Florida land boom. The Great Depression came early to South Florida. Boca Raton returned to its farming roots with one important exception. Mizner’s Cloister Inn became the Boca Raton Club, an exclusive resort which survives today as the Boca Raton Resort & Club.

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