Deep in the Heart of Deerfield
When Jim Collier was growing up in Deerfield Beach, the land behind the row of white cottages lining the north side of Hillsboro Boulevard -- now a suburbia-scape -- was still wooded and vacant.
The Kestor houses, as the twenty or so tidy Florida bungalows were known, were constructed by early settler and builder W.L. Kestor during the Twenties and Thirties, providing much-needed Depression-era housing and jobs for the town, then known as simply Deerfield.
Collier, a 63-year-old Deerfield Beach native and the town's historian, moved into one of those houses with his family when he was six. It was 1941. "I had a horse in town I kept," recalls Collier. "A boy down on the corner had one too, so we usually rode them to the beach. There was only a one-lane bridge, so we had to get off and try to pull them across. When they heard their metal shoes hitting that wooden bridge, we had a time getting them across there to the Intracoastal."
Hearty trekkers on this Saturday's Deerfield Beach History Walking Tour can retrace that beach trip and the rest of the community's past --on their own hooves. The history of the town's growth from thriving agricultural rail center into tourism-driven beach community is preserved in several sites on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.
One of them, the Pioneer House, is a 1937 Kestor cottage moved in 1975 from East Hillsboro Boulevard to Pioneer Park for preservation. The two-bedroom residence was built of extremely hard -- now rare -- Dade County heart pine. Its interior is done in pure Depression style. A Twenties Hooser cabinet, complete with built-in flour sifter, is joined in the kitchen by a table set with green Depression glassware, a kerosene stove typical of the day, and an Ice Chamber ice box, which originally sold for a whopping $6.90.
The home retains its original kitchen sink and bathroom fixtures, bonus amenities back then. "These homes were considered quite modern for the time," says Mary Mowry, director of the Deerfield Beach Historical Society.
So where's the air conditioning?
"If you stand here," she explains, pointing toward the house's bathroom, which gives access into both bedrooms, "you can see how it all opened up. The houses were set so they always had a wonderful breeze, even in summer."
Also on the walking tour is the Seaboard Coastline Railway Station, now used by Tri-Rail and Amtrak. Back in 1926, however, the masonry station house with barrel-tile roof was a prosperous produce-shipping center. Brothers James and George Emory Butler, prominent pioneer agrarians who established Butler Brothers Farms, helped acquire the right-of-way for the rail line and insisted the station be stylistically equal to the larger depot in West Palm Beach, upon which it was modeled.
Farmers from Lake Okeechobee to Pompano rented warehouses near the bustling new rail center, and Butler Brothers shipped carloads of cucumbers, beans, peppers, and eggplants to cities as far away as Chicago.
Additionally, the tour includes the 1920 Old School House, whose two rooms once held all eight grades, not a problem when the first class of five boys graduated. Today one room is refurbished as a Twenties-era classroom, complete with wooden desks, inkwells, and the original wooden blackboard frame.
Collier points out that he missed by several years attending the Old School House. (He went, instead, to Deerfield Beach Elementary School, completed in 1926.) But he was soon getting another type of education, one that probably propelled him into the role of historian for his native burg. "When I started in junior high, I would go every Monday evening to Uncle Jim and Aunt Alice's," Collier remembers, referring to his stops at Butler House. "That's what all of us young people in town called them."
James and Alice Butler saw all three of their children die before reaching age four, and were fond of having children around. Collier recalls sitting at the couple's knees drinking pink grapefruit juice and munching cookies while listening to tales of Deerfield life in 1910, when the Butlers arrived. "There were only 200 people in town," Collier explains. "Dixie Highway was a nine-foot-wide rock road."
The newlywed Butlers actually were on their way back to James' native Georgia after visiting his sister in Deerfield when they decided their fate -- and that of much of the community -- on a whim. "Mr. Butler had Mrs. Butler out in the middle of Dixie Highway and asked her what they should do," Collier remembers the Butlers telling him. "She looked around and said they should stay."
He became the prosperous farming entrepreneur, helping the Deerfield economy grow, and was active in local politics; she was the society lady, active in the church and a founder of the Federated Woman's Club.
The remaining evidence of the couple's legacy -- aside from millions of dollars in scholarships for Deerfield High -- is Butler House, yet another stop on the walking tour. Following Alice's death in 1976 it was inherited by the Historical Society.
The Butlers built the golden-beige two-story with a barrel-tile roof in 1923. It cost $10,000, designed from limited-edition plans Alice Butler ordered from Ladies Home Journal. Its current art deco-green exterior will soon be restored to beige.
Most of the furnishings in the house are original, save the dining room table -- replaced after the first one was used to board up the west dining room window in the hurricane of 1928. The beige wicker furniture suite was purchased in Palm Beach in 1923 for just $500. Alice's personal touches are still evident, including the breakfast nook's hand-stenciled wallpaper and violet bathroom fixtures from an art deco redecoration project.
"It's a nice walk," guide Pat Howell says of the tour. "And for people new to the area, it gives them a sense of connection to the community."
That's something harder to come by these days.
"What we got left is what was in the past, because everything else in town has been torn down, I think," sighs Collier, who watched Deerfield grow into Deerfield Beach. "The only sad part about it is that when we were small, everybody knew everybody, everybody looked out for everybody, but those days are gone now."
-- John Ferri
Deerfield Beach History Walking Tour. Cost is $5. 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Held again December 13, January 10, February 14, and March 14. Bring comfortable shoes, hat, sunscreen, lunch, and snacks. Preregistration required. Departs from Sea Board Air Line Railway Station, 1300 W. Hillsboro Blvd., Deerfield Beach; 954-360-1320.
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