Life's a Beach!

South Florida’s archaeological record dates back to the Pleistocene, approximately 13,000 years ago. Archaeologists use the terms Paleo-Indian, South Florida Archaic, and Glades Period to distinguish chronological eras in our pre-Columbian history. The first known settlers in the Boca Raton area are identified as people of the Glades period. Most of the archaeological evidence for these inhabitants in Boca Raton show they lived primarily by the ocean.

Glades Period
BC 500-AD 1763
During the Glades Period interior of South Florida was becoming wetter and wetter and the people of South Florida had to adapt to the new climate conditions by taking up residence in places that were dry, very often in coastal and hammock environments. They continued to practice hunting and gathering as a subsistence strategy with a strong reliance on marine and estuarine resources. During the Glades Period, populations began to increase and there were large permanent settlements along the coast. Pre-historic Boca Raton was settled by Native Americans around 500 BC. The evidence for this early occupation is found at Gumbo Limbo archaeological site. Around 750 AD the population of the Boca Raton coastline increased continuing throughout the Glades Period, which ended in 1763 AD, when the last of the indigenous people of South Florida were removed by the Spanish.

Pre-Columbian Boca Raton
Coastal Boca Raton is home to two pre-Columbian archaeological complexes, the Spanish River Complex (AD 1200-1763) and the Boca Raton Inlet Complex (Glades II 750-1200 AD and Glades III 1200-1763 AD.) By definition, an archaeological complex includes a burial mound or cemetery and a habitation area, usually a midden. A midden is an area where people have disposed of food and other remains like pottery, shell, stone, and bone tools.

Boca Raton Inlet Complex
The Boca Raton Inlet Complex consists of 3 black earth middens and a sand burial mound. This site includes evidence of the first visitors to Boca who established small camp sites along the barrier island as early as 500 BC. Much of the Boca Raton Inlet Complex has been destroyed by the modern development of the area.

Spanish River Complex
The Spanish River Complex is one of the largest archaeological sites in Florida. It includes 4 middens as well as the Highland Beach and Barnhill burial mounds. The latter was used as the main feature in Boca’s old “Ancient America” attraction. Faunal remains of the Great Auk in the Boca Raton Inlet Complex suggest that Boca Raton was cooler in the past than it is today.

Who Were They?
Boca Raton is a transitional area between the Tequesta Indians to the South and the Jeaga to the north so it is unclear which cultural affiliation should be assigned to the locality. The ancient people of Boca Raton were a non-agricultural, tribal people who exploited marine, estuarine, and terrestrial resources. Since stone for making tools was not available locally, they relied largely on the use of shell to make weapons, tools, and beads. In addition, shark’s teeth were drilled and mounted on wood to make cutting tools and drills. Stone tools in local assemblages provide evidence of far reaching trade networks. Today, all of the indigenous tribes of Florida are extinct. They were wiped out by violence and disease imported by the Spanish. The last survivors were removed by the Spanish when they withdrew from Florida in 1763.

Interpretive drawing showing a busycon shell axe and replica axe:


 St. John’s Checked Stamped pottery found on the beach at Boca Raton. The hole is a repair to tie broken pieces together:

  Map of pre-Columbian Boca Raton, courtesy Dorothy Block, Archaeologist, and Founding Chair, Palm Beach County Archaeological Society and Richard Randall.


The modern town of Boca Raton was established in the mid-1890s with the coming of the Florida East Coast Railway. Boca was a small farming community specializing in pineapples and tomatoes and winter vegetables in those days. The center of town was near the railroad tracks, well inland. The beach was not yet a desirable place to live—too many bugs and storms!

This is the earliest known photograph taken of Boca Raton’s wide open beach by pioneer settler Thomas Rickards, possibly in the 1890s. Note the wood and other flotsam on the beach, a common site in the early days. Salvaged wood and other products helped build many a South Florida residence in the pioneer era. 

 Boca Raton’s pioneers loved a day at the beach as much as any modern resident. Note the stylish bathing attire of the era. Left to right: Joseph Myrick, Peg Young, Helen Long, and Robert, Mamie and William Myrick, ca. 1915.


This view from the mid-1920s shows Boca Raton’s first beach house, located just south of Palmetto Park Road. The view is looking north and the small Palmetto Park Pavilion is just visible in the distance. Dr. Stanley Robbins, an early snowbird, built this large three story home in 1922. It featured open terraces on the north and south and six bedrooms. We know very little about Dr. Robbins other than he came to Boca Raton as early as the 1910s. Supposedly a cave (Butts Cave?) in the rocks led into the house, providing an inviting stash site for the local rum runners during the Prohibition era. It was sold several times but maintained by local residents serving as caretakers, including two of Boca Raton’s pioneer Jewish families, the Browns and Hutkins. In the 1940s it was a boarding house known as the Beach House Inn operated by Gladys Dixon. Later it became Hermansen’s Restaurant, demolished to make way for the Boca Mar Apartments in 1968.

This is a view looking west from the beach just south of Palmetto Park Road of the Stanley Robbins house, ca. mid 1920s.

 Boca Raton’s two earliest pioneer Jewish families, Harry and Florence Brown and in-laws, Max and Nettie Hutkin, lived in the Robbins house as caretakers when they first arrived in Boca Raton in the 1930s. In this view Nettie Hutkin, right, poses with her friend Mrs. Louis Malpi, on the back steps of the house in 1937.

 A man named Hermansen purchased the house in the 1950s and turned it into a popular beachfront restaurant, shown here in a color postcard from 1956. The structure was demolished in 1964 to make way for the Boca Mar Apartments.

Boca Raton’s principal “beach” has been located at the end of Palmetto Park Road ever since a bridge was built over the Intracoastal in 1917. That is also the site of a series of beach “pavilions” that have served as sun shade and meeting place for visitors and residents since the 1920s. The first such structure was a very modest and simple tent- like pavilion that served as a landmark of pride for the small community of roughly 200 people. By 1930, Hermann Von Holst, Chicago architect and developer of the Old Floresta neighborhood, designed a beautiful new structure for the site, seen in the large photographs here. It was known as “the lacy pavilion” by the locals. That too fell into decay and many horrific hurricanes pounding the coast. In the ensuing years, several less glamorous pavilions have taken its place, but the site remains “The Beach” to longtime residents. Today the Palmetto Park Pavilion is part of the city’s South Beach Park.

This postcard view shows the “lacy pavilion” at Palmetto Park Road and the beach in 1948. Note the salvaged anchor, recovered by the local scouts from the waters nearby. The anchor has long been removed and the pavilion replaced several times since this image was taken.


What is today South Beach Park can be seen in this 1948 image looking north to the “lacy pavilion.” Under the structure was a shower and restroom for beach patrons.

This modest structure was either the first or second pavilion at the beach - built at the end of Palmetto Park Road in the 1920s.

Boca Raton model (and Miss America runner-up) Dorothy Steiner strikes a pose just south of the pavilion in 1960.

The small town of Boca Raton was pulled into the onset of World War II in a dramatic way in 1942. The Boca Raton Army Air Field, the Army Air Force’s only war time radar training facility, was established in that year, initially headquartered at the Boca Raton Club (now Boca Raton Resort & Club) while the base was under construction. Meanwhile, sixteen merchant ships were attacked by German U-boats between Cape Canaveral and Fort Lauderdale in mid -1942. Locals recall the sounds of the explosions and flotsam and sometimes bodies from the wrecked ships would come ashore on Boca Raton’s beaches. The E.E. Barrett family owned one of few developed properties on Boca’s beachfront, tourist cottages known as Boca Raton Villas. The Villas were located just south of Palmetto Park Road where the Beresford Condominium stands today. The Barrett family recovered so much balata (raw rubber) that floated ashore from a merchant vessel they were able to resell it for wartime industries. They also found at least one still-unopened coffee can on the beach. This was a welcome find as coffee was being rationed at the time.

 Citizens throughout coastal cities in America suffered through night time curfews and blackouts; windows had to be covered so no light shown through in the evening. Car headlights were either turned off or painted black on top for the same reason. This was to minimize a target area for possible torpedo or air attacks. The same communities all had plane spotting stations manned by civilians of the Aircraft Warning Service or AWS. These were volunteers who manned towers or tall buildings near the beach. Boca Raton’s tower stood in the vicinity of today’s Red Reef Park. Locals of all ages and genders would climb the tower, armed with the knowledge of the silhouettes of both Allied and Axis aircraft. Their job was to record and report any such sightings via phone to the air raid marshal headquartered at Town Hall. The tower was demolished in 1946.

This gutta percha (rubber) model plane hung from the ceiling of the Boca Raton spotting tower to aid spotters in identifying aircraft.

This is an unusual 1940s view taken from the ocean off the beach at the Boca Raton Villas, where much flotsam floated ashore from merchant ships wrecked by the German wolf packs hunting just off shore in 1942. Today this is the site of the Beresford and Excelsior Condominiums.


This color postcard shows the tourist cottages of Boca Raton Villas in the 1950s. It was located south of Palmetto Park Road, where the Beresford Condominium stands today.

The coming of the Boca Raton Army Air Field, BRAAF, brought thousands of service men and women and civilian employees to the little town of Boca Raton (population a little over 700) during the years 1942-1947. Soldiers would fill the once lonely beaches every weekend. In this photo, BRAAF soldiers pose at the Palmetto Park Pavilion during the war.

Despite 800 buildings built at BRAAF, there was little provision for the wives and families of officers, particularly those stationed at BRAAF permanently. Locals built partitions within their private homes and created temporary boarding houses. Most of the area hostelries at the time were quite naturally, on the beach. The “Where to Live” map from ca. 1942 shows the offerings open to BRAAF families during the war. People commuted from as far away as Fort Lauderdale to Boca Raton - not unlike today.

Even a tiny town like Boca Raton observed the restrictions placed on its citizens during the days of Segregation. Despite its beachfront, resort - like setting, it was still a small Southern town. Boca Raton’s African American pioneers, very few in number, recall that the “black beach” was located north of the Palmetto Park Pavilion - where they were not welcome. hey also reported there were never any conflicts over integration of the beach as famously happened in places like Fort Lauderdale in 1961.

The black pioneers recalled big community picnics on the beach in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. Jimmy Goddard would bring his juke box to the beach on a truck along with a generator for electricity to provide music for the festivities. A fish fry was accompanied by sandwiches and ice cream and lots of punch (or age appropriate refreshment). Swimming, of course, was the major activity supplemented with dancing courtesy the juke box and ending with a friendly baseball game. The 4th of July was always celebrated in this manner as was May 20th - known as Emancipation Day in Florida. This commemorates the day the Emancipation Proclamation was read on the steps of the capitol in Tallahassee - May 20th, 1865.

Boca Raton pioneer Irene Demery (Carswell) in very trendy big legged trousers poses with her friend at Boca Raton’s“black beach,” north of Palmetto Park Road, in the 1940s.

Mizner’s Cloister Inn reopened as the Boca Raton Club in January of 1930. Owner Clarence Geist realized the need for beachfront access for the patrons of his exclusive new hostelry, so he had a cabana club built on the beach south of Boca Raton inlet. The Cabana Sun Club underwent many alterations and improvements over the years. In addition to beach access for hotel guests, it became the most public venue of the otherwise private resort. Youngsters could take swimming lessons there and thanks to the Schine family in the 1940s and 50s, locals could actually rent a cabana in the off season. Many a dance, barbecue, and public and private celebration were held at the Cabana Club. The years and many a hurricane took its toll; the club was demolished in ca. 1981 after the construction of the nearby Boca Beach Club. Today it is the site of the Addison condominium complex. The old porte cochere from the club was salvaged at the request of the Boca Raton Historical Society and relocated to South Inlet Park, where it serves as a picnic pavilion today.

This aerial postcard view of the Cabana Club shows the barely developed Estates section looking north in 1956.

This view of the Cabana Club was taken just before it was demolished ca. 1980. Note the rise of the beachfront condos south of the club. Today this is the site of the Addison Condominium complex.

The Moorish style porte cochere to the old Cabana Club is relocated up the beach to serve as the pavilion at the new South Inlet Park, 1981.

Boca Raton Hotel patrons pose for a postcard of Boca Raton’s famous Cabana Club in the early 1950s.

Young Jackie Hogan poses on the beach at the Cabana Club in 1937.

Rental sign from the 1950s.

Several generations of ladies enjoy the shade outside their cabana at the Cabana Club in the 1950s. Note the wooden doors in the background; they featured two types of cut out openings, seahorses and “rats” (for Boca Raton).

The doors shown here were salvaged from the Cabana Club just before demolition.

One of the few establishments on the beach was Smitty’s Driftwood, or simply the Driftwood Club, which stood north of Palmetto Park Road and operated from 1951 until 1962. The building was originally a 1920s era bungalow converted into a nightclub, meeting place etc., and owned by a Mr. H.Smith (Smitty). This newspaper view shows the club from the air ca. 1956.

The club featured one of the few swimming pools in the area and many youngsters learned to swim in the pool. Here the Red Cross swimming school team poses by the pool in the late 1950s. Left to right: Trudy Borchardt; Red Cross rep; Chickie Wentworth, H. Smitty Smith; Linnea Olsson.

The 1960s marked a new era for Boca Raton as “high rises” sprung up along Boca Raton’s coastline. One of the best marketed was San Remo, an extensive multi building development located south of Spanish River Park on the west side of A1A. Construction began on the first “villa” in May of 1966. San Remo, inspired by the Italian city of the same name, boasted a “Mediterranean Flavor,” and featured classical columns, statuary, and fountains on the grounds. The beach was just across the street. The original models cost as little as $14,000 and up.

San Remo is far from alone today; high rise condominiums line Boca Raton’s beach south and north of the inlet. They would have filled the beach completely had the city of Boca Raton not taken up the gauntlet to fight for public spaces on the beach.

Agnes Albers, Liz Matthews, Bert Gavigan, and Mary Walker pose for a promotional photograph on the beach near San Remo in 1968.

Aerial view of San Remo Condominium under construction in 1967.

This San Remo billboard shows great deals on the beach in ca. 1966.

A major factor impacting Boca Raton’s beaches has been devastating hurricanes and storms. One of the fiercest to strike here was the storm of September 17, 1947. Hurricane “George” struck near Fort Lauderdale with Cat 4 intensity. Hurricane force winds extended from south of Miami to Cape Canaveral. Most of the tarpaper and wood barracks of the Boca Raton Army Air Field were felled like dominoes; this massive destruction hurried the closure of BRAAF that year. The storm also took a major toll on all the local beachfront properties including the Boca Raton Club’s Cabana Club, south of the inlet. The Cabana Club, which served as the hotel’s beach access for hotel guests, stood on the beach where the Addison Condominiums now stand. It was damaged and rebuilt after a number of hurricanes and finally demolished ca. 1980.
Damage to the Cabana Club from the September 1947 storm.

Hurricane Betsy struck South Florida in September of 1965. Its broad path impacted not only Florida but Louisiana as well; it turned out to be one of the most destructive hurricanes in American history. Although the storm came ashore south of Miami, Boca Raton suffered high tides, battering waves, and beach erosion. This is after the destructive force of Hurricane Cleo had paid the town a visit in August 1964. In this photograph, locals view the power of the storm at the Palmetto Park Pavilion, 1965.

In the 1960s, it appeared to many citizens that Boca Raton’s once wide open beachfront was to become a concrete wall like that which lines Miami Beach. Development of Sabal Point and proposed development of the beaches north of the inlet spawned an impressive community response. A total of six different bond issues passed between 1966 and 1974 included funds for land purchase. The first area purchased was the 46 acre Spanish River Park, with beach and Intracoastal access, lagoon, overlook tower, boat docks etc. South Beach Park, which incorporated the Palmetto Park Pavilion, was developed in 1975. It was joined by the 67 acre Red Reef Park in 1981. Red Reef includes the Gumbo Limbo nature center and a par 3 golf course once a private course belonging to Sun and Surf Club.

Palm Beach County added to the “blue-green spaces” in Boca Raton when it opened South Inlet Park on the south side of Boca Raton Inlet in 1982. Aside from a great view of the inlet, the focus of the park is the historic porte cochere from the old Cabana Club formerly located where the present Addison Condominium sits today. Arvida Corporation, at the urging of the Boca Raton Historical Society, salvaged and relocated the ca. 1930 structure to serve as a beach pavilion at the new park.

This aerial view shows the wide open beachfront of Boca Raton looking south from what is now Spanish River Boulevard and the south end of Highland Beach in the mid 1950s. At center is Lake Wyman (Intracoastal). On the beach are the sites of the future Spanish River Park and Red Reef Parks. Lake Boca Raton and the inlet can be seen in the distance.

With the acquisition of beach front parks in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s came a growing environmental sensitivity in Boca Raton. Once a staple on local menus, sea turtles are now protected species and actually serve as a tourist attractions. Rick Wolf overlooks the city’s hatchery at Red Reef Park in 1988. Boca Raton News Photo Collection.

The Ocean Hearth Restaurant began life as a private beachfront club across from the entrance to the Sun and Surf development in the 1960s. It was destroyed by Hurricane Cleo in 1964, rebuilt, then burned in 1966. Today it is just a concrete pad on the beach at Red Reef.


Boca Ratonian Sherry Randall shows off the latest swimwear fashion in this shot taken at Red Reef Park in the early 1980s.

Surf’s not always easy to come by but this intrepid surfer is catching a wave at the north end of Spanish River Park, 1990. Boca Raton News Photo Collection

Jonathon Kubiak, aged 12, gets pulled out of the sand by brother David,14, as father Richard and sister Julie, age 10, look on at Red Reef Park, on Christmas Day,1987. Boca Raton News Photo Collection.

“Boca Clips” decorative beach towel clamps made in Boca Raton ca. 2009.

Souvenir of the “World Famous Keg” burger/ beer joint which once stood on A1A adjacent the entrance to the Palmetto Park Pavilion. Collected by patron Lee Weaver in the late 60s.

Beach mat giveaway from the City of Boca Raton, 2004, and beach bag, 2005

The area just to the north of Boca Raton’s inlet, known as Sabal Point, was a hot topic of local conversation in 1950s-60s Boca Raton. This area formally belonged to the owners of the Boca Raton Hotel (now Resort & Club), heirs to much of the property of the 1920s era Mizner Development Corporation. It also sat undeveloped for decades and was used by local citizens as a public beach, known for its surf fishing and bluefish runs. In 1956, hotel owner Arthur Vining Davis fired the first volley by posting chains and signs keeping out beach patrons. By the 1960s, Davis’s company, Arvida, made its plans clear with the construction of the first of three sister (now) condominiums north of the inlet known collectively as “Sabal Point.” Arvida also revealed its plans for a multi-million dollar hotel just north of the inlet. Local citizens were appalled at the loss of their “public beach.” They also didn’t win that round. In 1980 Arvida opened the new “Beach Club,” replacement for the Boca Raton Hotel’s aging Cabana Club on the site literally on the inlet. And construction on Sabal Point still continues.

This aerial view shows the beginning of the development of Sabal Point, 1968. The Sabal Ridge and Sabal Point Apartments are shown at right. Note the “new” inlet bridge constructed in ca. 1963, over the inlet. Lake Boca Raton is at center and the tower of the Boca Raton Hotel and Club is under construction at the southwest corner of the lake. The modern photograph shows the same view in 2012, photo courtesy Courtenay Gilbert and Peter Lorber.

This poster was made to advertise the Boca Raton Hotel’s glamorous new beachfront hotel and cabana club just north of Boca Raton Inlet. Its planned name, “Sabal Point,” was reconsidered due to the great resentment felt by local residents, accustomed to using the site as a public beach and prime fishing spot. The hotel marketing staff did a bit of a rethink and instead the new facility opened as the Boca Beach Club in 1980.

Vintage suits loan courtesy Patsy West.

Case 1:
Left: Mohair “bathing costume” which would be worn with a corset, stockings, and a cap, ca. 1900.
Right: Man’s bathing costume ca. 1910s. Note the “modesty skirt.”

Case 2:
Left: Woman’s wool swimsuit, 1920s. Note the revolution in women’s fashion and the change from “bathing” to actual swim wear since 1900. The new suits had no interior support or lining.
Right: Man’s wool swimsuit, 1920s. The only marked difference between this and the women’s suits is larger armholes.

Case 3:
Left: Woman’s wool swimsuit, 1930s.
Center: Man’s wool swimsuit with detachable top, 1930s. In some resort towns, modesty laws prohibited men from baring their chests, even at the beach.
Right: Woman’s swimsuit made of “Lastex.” This woven satin finish elastic and silk material supplanted the wool formerly used for suits in the 1930s and made more figure hugging attire possible.

Case 4:
Left: Woman’s two piece ruched suit, 1940s. By this time women’s suits were made with bra cups and lining.
Right: Man’s Jantzen brand swim trunks, 1940s. Jantzen, established in the 1910s, developed superior knit fabrics that provided much better coverage and superior design than less expensive swimwear. Jantzen is easily identified by its “diving girl” logo and today these suits are particularly collectible.

Case 5:
Left: Gantner Wikies man’s swim trunks with Hawaiian print, 1950s.
Center: Alix of Miami “house print” swimsuit and beach cover up, 1950s.

Right: Photograph of two models posing on the beach at the Cabana Club, the Boca Raton Hotel’s beachfront establishment, early 1960s.

Case 6:
Left: Woman’s swimsuit made by Jantzen. This suit features a well-fortified bra and a girdle-like fit.
Right: Modern version of ca 1960s era “cabana jacket,” a cotton shirt with terry cloth lining.

Sailfish caught by Hilda Mays, 1975.


71 North Federal Highway|Boca Raton, Florida 33432
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