There is little question that the City of Palm Beach Gardens had one of the most unique births in comparison to most cities in the United States. Like other cities, it was started by a group of people whose purpose was to join together for a common good. However, "The Gardens," as it is fondly referred to, got its start by the indisputable drive of John D. MacArthur, and a raw piece of land.
Many who did not know him personally as I did, cast him as an eccentric billionaire. He was in fact, a true visionary and saw what could be. Where most folks saw swampland and woods, MacArthur saw a city. He began to design and develop a purpose for the area, bringing the best of life's values into fruition, truly integrating a lifestyle that wasn't a cookie-cutter, programmed community.
Controlled by its residents, his city realized the two greatest aspects of a viable community; unparalleled recreational opportunities and an excellent base of middle-class employment opportunities.
In 1958, the ground was broken for the first structure in the city. Since that time, over 50,000 residents have come to call Palm Beach Gardens their home. It's the purposeful charter, created by visionary John D. MacArthur, who has fulfilled that special character exemplifying a wonderful way of life for a community that ranges from young families to senior citizens.
Imagine if you will, that you are living in the late 1800s and you were a typical "Snow Bird," or pioneer, wanting to establish a homestead and start a new life, you would probably want to head south to Florida. Seems reasonable and something easy to do, but the reality was truly difficult.
You would have to start by catching one of several trains that headed south and connected up with the FEC (Florida East Coast) railroad. The FEC train ride ended in Jupiter, since that's as far as the train could travel at the time. There was no bridge spanning the inlet that could carry the weight of the train.
The protected waterway (called the Intracoastal Waterway) hadn't been cut between the Jupiter inlet and the North end of Lake Worth. You would have had to boat across the inlet with all your baggage and personal belongings. Once you got off the transfer boat on the South side of the inlet you caught the Ox Train that carried you to the North end of Lake Worth where you then took a boat that headed south to the many destinations along the way where you could winter.
The land that Palm Beach Gardens now occupies was assembled in the mid-20th century by John D. MacArthur. The portion of his holdings that was finally packaged to submit to the state of Florida for incorporation reached some 4,000 plus acres. However, MacArthur believed the total land package was void of any inhabitants, only to find that there was one squatter, Charlie Cooper, who occupied a dilapidated house trailer. Mr. Mac, as he was called by many, quickly moved Charlie to a home in Lake Park with running water and electricity. The land was now clear of any obstructions prohibiting development.
With the FEC connecting Miami to the Northeast Corridor, it became necessary to have some stops along the way to pick up the crops from the Prosperity farmers while receiving needed supplies from the north. This is when the Prairie Siding was installed. This whistle stop on the FEC line was located at Monet Road. The residential developments, such as they were, were located between the railroad tracks and the ocean. The land in the area, ranging from the tracks to the West, became less desirable for use. In reality, old photos of that area show very little usable land because of ponding water, Palmetto and scrub.
There were numerous real estate booms and busts in the area from Jupiter south. Fortunes were made and lost during this period. One of the key figures was Harry Kelsey, a restaurateur from Springfield, Massachusetts, who, shortly after arriving here in 1919 to recover from pneumonia, acquired the land in North Dade County. At that time, it ran from Jupiter, south to Miami. Included in the purchase was some 14 miles of oceanfront property. The original Dade County Court House was located on what today is US Hwy One, about 100 yards north of PGA Boulevard.
In the late 19th century, the Intracoastal Waterway was dug from the Jupiter Inlet south to the north end of Lake Worth, connecting to the last southern section. This was done to encourage inland water "protected" travel, with the ability to carry heavy loads of goods and material. This completed the link from Trenton, New Jersey, to Miami, Florida. Initially, it was 5' deep by 50' wide and has since been increased several times to its current size of 10' deep to 120' wide in this portion of the waterway.
Incorporating a city from scratch, so to speak, placed Mr. Mac in a unique position. He was not hampered with any preconceived notions or commitments that had to be maintained, or that might have occurred with occupants on the property. This is where he excelled as a visionary.
His plan was to develop a balance between three functions in the city. First, to have upscale homes and the necessary facilities to serve them, second, to offer recreational facilities that complimented these new residences and the third function was a clean environment with well paying jobs for the residents.
He started on this journey on June 20, 1959, when Palm Beach Gardens became incorporated by the state of Florida. Its original administrative makeup consisted of five councilmen who were appointed by Mr. Mac to serve for the first three years of incorporation. However, to maintain more control, he had the State of Florida change the term of these first five councilmen to five years. Accordingly, they were fazed out of control and representatives for the residents were elected from the citizenry.
So, how did he propel his vision for the city? He started by blocking out the city in the areas with designated usage. Special considerations were made for land acquisition for schools and churches. Two areas were originally designated for residential construction. The area around Lake Catherine was first presented to the public in the "Parade of Homes.” Various builders constructed samples of their work for purchase consideration on lots within the city in various tracts that were established. These were moderately priced homes.
A section of more expensive homes was established in the "PGA Estates," located north of Holly Drive, west of Military Trail. These homes were designed and located to link with the PGA Country Club.
The second vision was to provide a means of upscale recreation. He accomplished this when he sent his real-estate representative, Jerry Kelly, to Dunedin, Florida, to negotiate with the Professional Golfers Association of America who were headquartered there at the time, but had run out of space. The PGA was persuaded to move...the price Mr. Mac paid was the cost of one new golf course and a commitment to loan the organization the money to build their clubhouse.
The third item to complete his vision of the city was to provide a clean environment with well paying jobs for the residents. Mr. Mac was very influential in getting Pratt and Whitney to build its plant in the area; however he felt there should be employment sources within the city. With this goal in mind, Mr. Mac persuaded Bob Sarnoff, Chairman of RCA to build the RCA computer plant on the site now known as the NorthCorp area.
A story that was revealed by a reliable source is that the RCA plant was to be built in Southern Georgia because the bid for the facility was a million dollars less than the one that was submitted by the contractor down here in Florida. Mr. Mac was reported to have called the local contractor and to tell him if he cut his price by a million dollars, MacArthur would make up the difference. The prices were cut and the plant was built in Palm Beach Gardens.
Our thanks to John D. MacArthur and to the men and women who continue to make a vision, a reality.
Compiled & Written by:
Donald L. Kiselewski, Sr.
Palm Beach Gardens Historical Society