Pompano Beach celebrated the 100th anniversary of its incorporation on July 3, 2008. 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 celebrated its Centennial in 2008, it was clear it is a city that is remaking itself while retaining its links to the past.
Before Modern Settlement
Long before the European discovery of America, southern Florida was the home of the Tequesta Indians. They adapted their lifestyle to the area’s subtropical environment, living in small villages near the water, but frequently moving to be close to the sea life and game that made up an important part of their daily diet. Our knowledge of the Tequesta is not extensive, but we do know they engaged in religious ceremonies, and buried their dead in earthen mounds. One such mound remains in Pompano Beach, near the beach.
With the coming of European settlements, the local indigenous population fell victim to diseases, warfare and forced labor. By the time Spain surrendered Florida to the British in 1763, few Tequesta remained, and many of those were transported to Cuba.
By the early years of the nineteenth century the Seminole Indians were being pushed into southern Florida by the relentless press of American settlers. Florida became a territory of the United States in 1821, and within a few years friction between the two groups led to the outbreak of hostilities. In southeast Florida the military built a string of forts, including Fort Dallas (Miami), Fort Lauderdale, and Fort Jupiter. The modern thoroughfare, Military Trail, approximates the route the soldiers took as they marched along the coast.
Following the Seminole Wars, and the Civil War during which this area was a haven for both blockade-runners and deserters, few settlers remained in the region. The biggest impediment to settlement was the region’s isolation – there were no roads or railways into south Florida. Mail was delivered by the "Barefoot Mailman," who walked the beach and visited the isolated cabins of the few inhabitants.
The Coming of the Railway
When reporting on the 1890 population count, the Census Bureau stated that for the first time in American history there existed no frontier. While this may have been true in a technical sense, southeastern Florida was still a virtual wilderness. Not until 1892 was an all-purpose roadway constructed from Lantana to what is today Miami.
It was, however, the railway that connected south Florida to the rest of the nation, and the person who brought it here was Henry M. Flagler. A retired executive for John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil Company, Flagler had "retired" to Florida, but was soon buying and constructing hotels and resort, and building a rail line to bring in paying customers. By 1892 he had reached Palm Beach where he built his exclusive resort. It is said he intended to stop there, but that a disastrous freeze that hit Florida in the winter of 1894-95, ruining most of the citrus crops, convinced him to take his Florida East Coast Railway farther south, beyond the freeze line.
Surveyors preceded the construction crews, and many of south Florida’s coastal towns owe their origins to railway’s plats – Pompano included. The first train arrived in the small Pompano settlement on February 22, 1896.
There had been scattered settlers in the area from at least the mid-1880s, but the first documented permanent residents of the Pompano area were the George Butler and Frank Sheen and their family who arrived in 1896 as railway employees. It is said that Sheen gave the community its name – Pompano – after jotting down on his survey of the area the name of the fish he had for dinner. As other people settled in the area, George Butler was appointed the community’s first postmaster, and his wife, Mary the first teacher when a one-room schoolhouse opened in 1899.
Many early residents were farmers, coming south to escape the effects of the mid-decade freezes. Among those were Earl Ehmann, who is credited with introducing pineapple to the area, and the McNab brothers, Harry and Bob. Other pioneer families in the area included the Smoaks, the Hardys, the Blounts and the Samples.
Although the local community at first was located around what was then known as Lettuce Lake (now Santa Barbara), the coming of the railroad led to development farther west. A small commercial district began to grow near the Florida East Coast Railway depot. In 1900, M. Z. Cavandish opened a general store at N.E. First Street and Flagler Avenue.
In 1906 Pompano became the southernmost settlement in newly-created Palm Beach County. That year, the Hillsboro Lighthouse was completed on the beach. In 1908, Pompano was incorporated as a town; J. R. Mizell was elected the first mayor.
1500 NW 6 Avenue
Pompano Beach, FL 33060
Home of local educational and civic pioneers in Pompano Beach’s black community, this building now houses a museum featuring artifacts and documents relating to the Ely's and education in the black community.
First United Methodist Church (Chapel)
201 NE 2nd Street
Pompano Beach, FL 33060
This largely unaltered gothic revival style church was built in 1934, and is one of the oldest religious buildings standing in Pompano Beach. The new sanctuary, located just to the north, is a good example of modern architecture.
Hibiscus Avenue & SE 13th Street
Pompano Beach, FL 33062
954.786.4111 (Parks Department)
Located within this small park overlooking the Intracoastal waterway is a prehistoric Indian burial mound.
220 NE 3rd Avenue
Pompano Beach, FL 33060
Located in Founders Park, these two restored cottages were moved to this site in the 1980s. Originally two of dozens built on the beach in the 1930s, they provided construction employment for local residents during the Great Depression, and boosted the area’s tourist economy. Owned by the Pompano Beach Historical Society, one cottage is restored as a typical residence of the late 1940s, the other houses exhibits and artifacts relating to the history of Pompano Beach.
Old Pompano Fire Station
219 NE 4th Avenue
Pompano Beach, FL 33060
Built in 1925 as the City’s first fire station, this building has been restored and houses two antique fire engines, as well as photographs and artifacts relating to the history of fire fighting in Pompano Beach.
450 NE 10th Street
Pompano Beach, FL 33060
This historic home was moved to this location from its original site on North Dixie Highway in 2001. It was built in 1916 by local pioneer Neal Sample. The structure is significant for its size (4,700 square feet) and architectural style. The house was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1983. With support of individuals, businesses and local governments, the Sample-McDougald House Preservation Society undertook a multi-million dollar restoration and landscaping effort. In 2008, the City of Pompano Beach designated the house grounds as Centennial Park, in recognition of the municipality's 100th anniversary of incorporation. The house is open as a house museum of pioneer South Florida lifestyle.