The Coastal Star

Delray Beach: Historical Society holds keys to city’s past, dreams for its future

Delray Beach Historical Society President Leslie Callaway addresses the crowd

during the the 50th Anniversary Celebration of the Delray Beach Historical Society charter signing.

INSET BELOW: A portrait of Ethel Sterling Williams.

Tim Stepien/The Coastal Star

By Ron Hayes

    On Aug. 26, 1964, the Delray Beach Historical Society was born.
    On Aug. 26, 2014, it threw itself a birthday party.
    “In 1964, a group of caring and compassionate people got together to keep the Delray Beach story alive by preserving and protecting our city’s DNA,” Mayor Cary Glickstein told the crowd of about 100 gathered on the society’s campus at Swinton Avenue and Northeast First Street.
    One of the most caring and compassionate was a woman named Ethel Sterling Williams, who arrived in 1896 from Chester, Pa., when she was 5 and Delray Beach was still a little “village by the sea” called Linton.
    Sixty-eight years later, when that caring and compassionate group gathered in the Chamber of Commerce building on Southeast Fifth Avenue, Williams was named the society’s first president. They had a charter to sign that day in 1964, and a dream to fulfill.
    Half a century later, the Delray Beach Historical Society has a bucolic campus comprised of three historic homes — two moved to the site from Northeast Fifth Avenue and Southeast Sixth Avenue for preservation — an archive of more than 10,000 items chronicling the city’s past and more than 2,000 visitors every year.
    “My grandmother realized that nothing was so permanent as change,” Williams’ grandson, attorney William S. Williams, told the crowd. “But she also realized how a historical society should link the past and future. She wanted this town to have a sense of place.”
    Later, as guests greeted each other, sipping punch and enjoying what was touted as “the largest pineapple cake in the world”— 6-by-2 feet — Williams recalled his grandmother.
    “I remember her well,” he said. “She was a very independent thinker, and she wanted Delray Beach to be a viable community that didn’t look like the rest of South Florida.
    “She didn’t have much use for chain stores or malls. She thought they didn’t have a sense of place. She had no use for Starbucks, and she would not put up with high rises on the ocean. She called them filing cabinets.”
    Also present at the charter’s signing in 1964 was the society’s first recording secretary, architect Roy M. Simon. He’s 84, and still working every day.
    “I had an eight-page speech,” Simon confessed, “but they told me I had to cut it down to a few seconds.”
    The crowd chuckled.
    “And then the mayor gave my speech.”
    And the crowd laughed.
    But how do you share a lifetime of memories in just a few seconds? Simon was born on Southeast First Avenue — “second floor, room on the right” — and raised here.
    “At one time, this was a beautiful village by the sea, with Atlantic Avenue lined with palm trees,” he said.” Then that disappeared with progress. So we wondered what can we do to save this place.”
    What they had done, he noted, was help spare Old School Square from commercial development and start the city’s preservation board, which led to the establishment of the historic district.
    The historical society was already two years old when Simon’s daughter, Laura, was born in 1966. Now she serves on the board her father helped found.
    One of the first motions approved that day in 1964 was a resolution extending an “honorary lifetime membership” to Kenneth Ellingsworth, executive director of the Chamber of Commerce, for his “extraordinary services in initiating the formation of the society.”
    Ellingsworth was born at home here in 1926 and died in 2010.
    Now his son, Howard, serves as the board’s treasurer.
    “I was born at Bethesda Memorial Hospital in 1960, the year after it opened,” Howard Ellingsworth said, “so I’m sure I was one of the first 100 babies born there that year. I’d hear stories from my dad about tumbleweeds blowing down Atlantic Avenue when he was a boy, but it was always an awesome place to grow up.”
    At Atlantic High School, he remembered, there was a history teacher who told his class, “If you don’t know where you came from, how do you know where you are, or where you’re going?”
    For now, The Delray Beach Historical Society is going to keep celebrating 50 years.
    In late October, there will be a Halloween Fall Fest.
    On Dec. 6 comes a “Golden Pineapple Jubilee,” the society’s big fundraiser.
    Next February it will host a “Winter Harvest.”
    The Delray Beach Historical Society, which began with a small group of caring and compassionate citizens a half century ago, now has about 300 members and a new drive to reach 1,000 by the end of the year.
    If the past is any measure, they may well succeed.

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