Pompano Beach is nearing the 100th anniversary of its incorporation. It is the second oldest city in Broward County, and the fifth oldest in all of South Florida. Only Key West, West Palm Beach, Miami and Dania Beach became municipalities earlier than Pompano (the “Beach” came later).
Other than Key West, which by the 1820s was already an important port and city, the towns of southeast Florida came into being because of the railroad. In 1896 Henry Flagler decided to extend his Florida East Coast Railway south from West Palm Beach to Miami, opening up land that heretofore had been a virtual wilderness.
All along the rail line small settlements were established; most of them were farming communities. In the Pompano Beach area, the few hardy individuals who had arrived before the railroad, and who had settled around what is today known as Lake Santa Barbara, eventually moved farther inland where the town was growing.
Local legend has it that the name for the settlement, “Pompano,” came about from a notation made on a survey map by Frank Sheen – apparently he had dined on the tasty fish and wanted to remember its name. Whether or not the story is factually true, there is no alternate account of how the name came about.
Most of the early residents, black and white, of the area came from northern Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas, although a number of blacks arrived here from the Bahamas.
Pioneer settler George Butler was appointed postmaster for the new settlement (supposedly he ran the post office from his home, out of a cigar box), and when, in 1899, the number of children in the area warranted a schoolhouse, his wife Mary was hired as the first teacher. At first the school was located near the Butler’s homestead near Lettuce Lake (now Lake Santa Barbara), but by 1907 the school was relocated to a new building closer to the expanding community near the railroad tracks.
In 1900 the first general store was opened by M. Z. Cavendish at NE First Street and Flagler Avenue. Soon a small commercial district paralleled the railroad tracks and a forerunner of the Chamber of Commerce, the Pompano Board of Trade was established.
Those who populated the area were attracted by its rich soil and mild temperatures. One of the early cash crops was pineapples. Competition from Caribbean and Hawaiian pineapple growers led most farmers to switch to growing tomatoes, which turned out to be more profitable. Later, farmers discovered that beans, peppers and other winter vegetables were even more financially rewarding.
One of the reasons that the settlement was interested in becoming an incorporated town is that it could then pass ordinances and laws regulating sanitation, public safety and unsavory practices such as gambling, public intoxication and panhandling. Following Pompano’s incorporation, John R. Mizell was elected to be its first mayor.
In 1908, when Pompano was incorporated, it was within Dade County. The following year Palm Beach County was created with its southern boundary being approximately at the Cypress Creek Canal. In 1915, Broward County was established with a northern boundary at the Hillsboro Canal. Thus, within eight years, Pompano had been in three counties.
Following the First World War, Florida's economy and population grow rapidly. This was the era of the Florida Land Boom and although Pompano was not affected to the extent that Fort Lauderdale or Miami was, it was not left out. New developments were platted on the beach and west of town, many of which were never built.
One boom-time development that seemed to hold great promise was a race track just southwest of town. It was an ambitious project, costing more than a million dollars. The grandstand could hold over 6,000 people (more than the population of Pompano) and there were stables for more than a thousand horses. Alas, after only a few days of racing and pari-mutuel betting, the State of Florida deemed it illegal gambling and closed it down. It was not until the 1950s that horse racing was revived at the track.
As the Boom turned into the Great Depression, Pompano received a boost from a local resident who had arrived in 1923. William L. Kester had originally come to this area for the fishing, but he stayed and became a major force in the economic and social development of Pompano.
Perhaps Kester’s most lasting fame came from the rental houses he had constructed during the 1930s on the beach. These wood-frame structures, which Kester would later describe as “pepper crates,” provided employment for the local workers who built them, and a means to attract tourists to the area. The sturdy, economical “Kester cottages” soon were being built throughout Pompano, to house local residents as well as winter visitors.
Kester also made his mark in Pompano by helping form the town’s first Chamber of Commerce, opening the Farmers Bank of Pompano, as well as his charitable gifts, including land for a public library and for a park that would be named in his honor. Much of today’s public beach was sold to the Pompano by Kester at a discounted price.
Throughout the Depression agriculture remained the economic mainstay of the community. Downtown Pompano came alive as farmers, brokers, railway agents and local residents congregated to make sure the crops got to market. Such was the level of activities, that in 1939 a new farmers market was opened just west of town along the Seaboard Airline Railroad tracks. When it opened, the Pompano State Farmers Market boasted a loading platform over 1000 feet long – supposedly the longest in the world.
World War II turned Pompano, as it did much of Florida, into an armed camp. Land northeast of town was acquired by the Federal government for an airfield that would support the big Naval Air Station at Fort Lauderdale. On the beach, blackouts were ordered and Coast Guardsmen patrolled the shoreline. Many residents were enlisted as volunteers, looking out for enemy submarines (which were very real) and aircraft (which were fanciful). Pompano sent its youth off to war, and mourned over the six servicemen who lost their lives in the conflict.
With the return of peace, South Florida entered another population explosion. In 1947 the City of Pompano merged with the newly-formed municipality on the beach and became the City of Pompano Beach. Subsequently other areas surrounding the city were annexed, although a few sought-after areas, such as Lighthouse Point and Coconut Creek, incorporated rather than join Pompano Beach.
In post-war economic growth led to the organization of the Pompano Beach Chamber of Commerce in 1948. At first the Chamber was located in a borrowed wood-frame building located at Atlantic Boulevard and NE 20th Avenue, but by mid-1949 the organization had dedicated its current headquarters at 2200 East Atlantic Boulevard.
As South Florida filled up with people, agricultural lands were turned into housing developments and golf courses. Although farming remained an important component of Pompano Beach’s economy well into the 1960s, tourism, light industry and boating were becoming equally significant. Motels replaced the small cottages and vacant lands on the beach, and west of town new firms such as the Chris Craft Boat Corporation diversified employment opportunities. In 1971, the Pompano Fashion Square opened as a state-of-the-art retail indoor shopping mall.
The spectacular growth of the 1950s and 1960s came back to haunt Pompano Beach in the waning years of the twentieth century. It was becoming obvious to civic and business leaders that Pompano Beach needed a major revitalization effort. Community Redevelopment Agencies were established for the East Atlantic/Beach corridor, as well as for the old downtown and Hammondville/Martin Luther King corridor.
These are still works in progress, but with other public and private developments, they hold the promise of a new Pompano Beach. By the time Pompano Beach celebrates its Centennial in 2008, it should be clear it is a city that is remaking itself while retaining its links to the past.