Northwood Hills is one of the very few South Florida communities with "hill" in its name that actually sits on a promontory of any significance. In our mostly flat portion of the Sunshine State, the slope made the area mighty desirable to early settlers. The first houses in this West Palm Beach neighborhood were built in 1920 by rumrunners, Prohibition-era liquor smugglers who from the hilltop could keep an eye on their contraband-laden boats anchored in the Intracoastal Waterway below.
Not exactly a history to be proud of -- depending upon your view of Prohibition -- but Northwood Hills was built on more than black-market booze. It was built on mangoes. Before the rumrunners showed up, George Gale, a professor of agriculture from the Midwest, moved south in the late 1800s and planted nearly the entire hill in mango orchards.
"He had a student that was in India, and that student shipped him seedlings from a mango tree," says John Klepeis, a member of the Northwood Hills Neighborhood Association. "He planted those seedlings on the hill, and they grew, and he shipped some of those seedlings to a Captain Haden in Coconut Grove [in Miami], and that's how we got the Haden mango, which is now one of the most popular mango varieties."
The Second Annual Northwood Hills Mango Festival
Along 36th Street between Greenwood and Windsor avenues in West Palm Beach
Saturday, July 22, from 4 to 10 p.m. Admission is free. Call 561-626-4677 or log on to www.mangofest.com
Neighborhood association members discovered this history while researching their area a few years ago. They also found out that when Gale sold off his orchard land near the end of the century, he kept the title to one plot, the one on which he claims to have planted the first Mulgoba mango tree in Florida.
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"We're still trying to figure out exactly where it was," says Klepeis. "There were two or three lots it could have been on."
Not knowing hasn't stopped Northwood Hills residents from celebrating their fruity past with the annual Northwood Hills Mango Festival.This weekend's event is the second annual, and if last year's is any indication, some 1500 folks should turn out for the street festival and all of the mango goodness it has to offer.
Several blocks along 36th Street near the center of the 900-home neighborhood will be blocked off for concerts by reggae band Natty Remo and electronica outfit Corps of Discovery, a selection of arts and crafts booths, and -- of course -- plenty of culinary mango delights.
Fest organizers expect the return of last year's mango cook-off winners, Two Sisters and a Pot caterers, who won with their recipe for conch fritters in mango sauce. Another hit last year was a booth that sold green mangoes and hot sauce, and this year festivalgoers can expect to find every variety of jelly, jam, chutney, and sauce that could possibly be made with mangoes. For history's sake we hope that includes mango daiquiris in deference to Northwood Hills' rumrunning past.