The Boca Interview: Susan Gillis of the Boca Historical Society

Susan Gillis (Photo by Aaron Bristol)

With a new capital campaign announced for the Historical Society & Museum, we sit down with its curator to discover some highlights from Boca’s past

Downtown may be changing before our eyes with four-star hotels and soaring luxury condo towers, but its small historic epicenter soldiers on: the pretty, gold-domed Town Hall, ca. 1927, that houses the Boca Raton Historical Society & Museum, with its artifacts and diaries, photographs and chandeliers, old wooden chests—even a battered Maxwell House coffee can that went down with a merchant ship in 1942 when it was attacked by a U-boat off our coast.

The keeper of these objects—and of Boca Raton’s history for the past 16 years—is the museum’s curator, author Susan Gillis, a Florida native and graduate of William & Mary, with a master’s in anthropology (emphasis on museum management) from the University of Denver. Gillis, 64, has been fascinated by history and historical artifacts since her childhood growing up in Miami, a passion that led to stints in historical presentation in Deerfield Beach, Fort Lauderdale and the Bonnet House, among others. She has received several awards and is the author of seven historical books, with more likely on the way. When the Boca Raton Historical Society’s beloved Peggy McCall retired, Gillis was hired to run the show, which now includes helping with the significant BRHS capital campaign it debuted last year to expand exhibit space in the museum.

“One might think [that Boca’s history is limited], but Boca Raton is blessed with some wonderful resources about those early days—the 1890s, 1900s—because people were smart enough to save those resources,” Gillis says.

In this pivotal year for the Historical Society, it’s perhaps a good time to ask Gillis to highlight a few facts about, well, the way we were.

Working in the bean fields in the 1930s (Courtesy BRHS)

What it was like at the beginning:

“It was a farming village, but we know it looked so different than it does now—it’s hard to wrap my head around that. We know there was a jungle between the Intracoastal Waterway and the beach—a true jungle. We know there were a lot of piney woods and scrubland that the farmers would only plant in clear places—they did not try to remove the trees… There were Everglades birds, and south of Lake Boca Raton there was a natural stream, and you could find every kind of wading bird. Along the beach you could find every kind of shell and conchs and edible food as well as pretty things. There’s a fantastic description that [early resident] Harley Gates gave of a “beauty spot, divinely placed.” He was a leading light and our folk historian. He was the first person to reflect on the history of the community because he lived through changing times—he was from Vermont and came down around 1913, 1914—he saw a little bit of the Boca that was. And put that on paper. He builds a beautiful picture of what it was like in its natural state.”

Why people moved here in the first place:

“Farming was almost full-time here in South Florida; a lot of our early pioneers were from North Florida, but we also had Michiganders, Vermonters and others who came clearly to get away from the cold winters. Land was relatively inexpensive and plentiful here, and for some reason they were attracted to Boca specifically. And maybe for [some of the same reasons] as today, because of its proximity to other communities. It was—and is—in the middle of things, and back then it was much more reasonable.”

Boca Raton Road in the 1940s (Courtesy BRHS)

And even earlier:

“We know the aboriginal peoples lived here hundreds of years ago. There is a pre-Columbian mound called the Barnhill Mound that used to be a tourist attraction called Ancient America up there where Boca Marina is. And there are other sites in town, particularly at the beach. Those people were gone from South Florida by the middle of the 18th century. The last survivors of those native peoples of South Florida—there were a few hundred left out of who knows how many thousands had once been here—literally got on the boat with the Spanish in Miami and went to Havana when the British took over Florida in 1763. Ironically, if there are descendants of those people they came back with the Cubans!

The Seminole people were down here in the 18th century as well. We know in the 20th century there was a Seminole camp by what is today El Rio canal and Palmetto Park Road; I have pictures of young Seminole children at the railroad depot, which was (and is) right here behind us. The Seminoles would come in their dugouts to buy goods at Mr. Rickard’s house, which was on the Intracoastal.”

Butts Road, Sanborn Square, Lynn University—where did all those names come from? Read here to find out!

Once and for all—the name game:

“The original Boca Ratones was in Biscayne Bay; the Spanish never came here. There was no there there in Boca back then—they were in Miami. We think it was a 19th century mapmaking error. We have a copy of a map that has ‘Boca Ratones’ down in Biscayne Bay—Miami Beach essentially—and Boca Raton Sound, which is where Lake Boca Raton is today. Somebody was very confused, but the name stuck with us.”

When things revved up:

“The ‘60s are definitely the pivotal era, when we started moving from a small, under-populated place to growing, growing, growing with the advent of several institutions, FAU being one of them, IBM being another and of course Arvida, the great developer of Boca and South Florida. Arvida ran one of the most successful real estate companies ever, probably on the planet, and helped bring about a lot of the beautiful communities that still have great cachet today.

The Rickards family, considered the first permanent residents of Boca Raton (Courtesy BRHS)

Our historic visionaries:

  • Mr. Thomas Rickards is considered our first permanent resident. He platted the city for Mr. Flagler and had the first known house here; he was a grower from North Florida. (He grew garden vegetables, had citrus groves and pineapples.)
  • Mr. Cheseborough is one of our most important early residents. He came in 1905 from Michigan, and he kept a daily diary from the day he arrived to the day he died in 1936. And so we have this incredible record. (Today, he has a Twitter account, and we tweet his memoirs.) He was visionary, but the first time he came here he wasn’t impressed; the second time he came here, he said, ‘I’m going to settle here,’ as did his family; he could see this was a good place for growing—it was all about farming.
  • Mr. Mizner was the one who comes along and really puts the stamp on Boca—(even today we worship at his altar!) He literally put little Boca Raton on the map. Boca was one of the most famous land boom developments, partly because they had really good press—Mr. Mizner was really good at that—and his clients were high-end, so he had a lot to show off in terms of Palm Beach and so on. He laid out the city’s downtown area much as it is today. Even though a lot of his projects were never built, it was the concepts that he had—the layout of the community—which we have really stuck to ever since.
  • Mayor J.C. Mitchell was one of our longtime mayors. Mr. Mitchell was sent by the town council to Washington to lure one of the new military facilities here during WWII, and he was successful. The Boca Raton Army Air Field became the Town of Boca Raton for the years it was here—1942 to 1947. That was an incredible boon to the local economy. A lot of the servicemen who were stationed there returned later on to South Florida, even to Boca, with their new families in tow because they appreciated our Florida winters, if not our summers… and then we had people like Mr. Davis with his great Arvida and changing the hotel into a true conventional hotel from a seasonal resort, which was not practical at that time.

There were so many others. Tom Fleming, who is almost singlehandedly responsible for getting Florida Atlantic University here—the town did a very good job of convincing the Department of Education to place what was then their newest university here in Boca instead of Fort Lauderdale.

Postcard of an aerial of the Boca Raton Resort in the 1930s (Courtesy BRHS)

Coming and going:

The first road we had was called the County Road, which was more or less Dixie Highway and the railroad. The County Road was not real navigable—people didn’t have cars yet. That didn’t happen until Dixie Highway was built in 1915. And it was pretty crummy in spots. But that was our first Interstate—and it goes to Sioux St. Marie, Michigan (from Miami). It still exists, technically speaking, but what it was was a series of interconnected local roads that created a highway…and we built it here. So when it was completed through this area in 1915, that was big doing. That was hot stuff. That allowed for automobile traffic. And who knew then that automobile traffic would be so important in settling South Florida. And that’s what happened.

Federal Highway didn’t come along until the late 20s, which was the Depression, and it was not really important until modern times. By the time people came to settle here, the Florida East Coast railway was here. That’s what brought people here, with the exception of Mr. Rickards.”

On the future:

“I’m an observer. Of course it’s very interesting to see what’s going on downtown; I hope we won’t become a Fort Lauderdale. I love Fort Lauderdale. I have a lot of connection with Fort Lauderdale, but I hope that we consider preserving the past; we need to know where we’ve been or we won’t know where we are going. The historical sites are relatively few—our railroad depot, Old Floresta, Pearl City, Royal Palm Realty, the Raulerson House, Singing Pines. Now that it’s been 50 years since the ‘60s, there are quite a few properties that are eligible for historic designation…and we need to think about which of those should be preserved in memory of that era as well.”

Rachel Mizner Room rendering (Boca Raton Historical Society)

What’s next:

“We are preparing major new exhibits. I’m very central to that planning process, because I select the artifacts and write the label copy. Right now I’m working on the pioneer room, and we’re going to have a button where you listen to some of the voices of the past. I wanted to make sure it’s a complete view of what it was like, including farming, memories of Pearl City, Yamato Colony, the jungle near the beach. People have no idea that it was like that, and I am blessed to be able to introduce them to it.”

Some of the special pieces:

“We have a lot of artifacts from Mizner Industries [the factory of artisans Mizner employed to make his distinctive home furnishings, wrought iron and tile work] and so much more, but one of my favorite pieces is a can of Maxwell House Coffee. It came off a merchant ship that was attacked by a U-boat off our shores—down to the bottom, came to the top, floated ashore and one of our friends, Dr. Barrett, who was a little boy then, collected it and saved it and kept it all these years. So it’s never been opened—and still good to the last drop.”

This story is from our September/October 2019 issue of Boca magazine. For more content like this, subscribe to the magazine.