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From the Flaglers to the Carlins to the Greenbergs, the Palm Beach County we know and love today is thanks to dozens of pioneering families. Here, we dive into the rich history of our founding families and those continuing the legacy.
The pioneers who inhabited Palm Beach County at the turn of the 20th century found ways to live off the land. They carved creative niches, many of which exist today, along the curved coastline of sand, scrub and sea so they and their loved ones could prosper.
Max Greenberg opened a hardware store in Lake Worth that dealt in dynamite, guns and hammers and nails for early settlers eager to build homes. The store would later move to West Palm Beach and become Pioneer Linens, a boutique bath and bedding retailer on Clematis Street. Henry Flagler found fortune in the Florida East Coast Railway and earned fame by building its final link to Key West. The historic endeavor set the stage for the state to become a teeming tourist destination. Charles Robert Carlin led the U.S. Lifesaving Service in Jupiter, aiding wayward vessels returning to the inlet. The namesake of Carlin Park also built the town's first waterfront hotel.
Those and other famous families of the Palm Beaches left legacies of such importance that generations of homesteaders followed in their footsteps, essentially reinventing the region as a paradise, playground and port.
The county seat owes most of its modern-day makeup to the Greenberg and Coniglio families. Greenberg's establishment in 1912 provided basic construction needs to arriving residents, and then began bringing in domestics and furniture. Son George Greenberg, who died in 2007 at age 92, worked in the business since childhood and eventually inherited it. The always fully suited man acquired the title of “Mayor of Clematis Street” for, among other influential actions, creating the Downtown Development Authority.
“He was quite a man, that's for sure,” says Penny Murphy, Greenberg's daughter. “He had a wonderful personality and a great curiosity.”
He greeted customers courteously, using Mr. or Mrs. when addressing them, and showed interest in their home and social lives. He insisted on the highest-quality merchandise and invested in the community that would buy it. He also ignited the first sparks of the urban district's 1990s renaissance by spearheading a strategic plan aimed at street improvements.
“My dad didn't give up,” Murphy says. “He had the energy. He was always trying to be positive and doing what he could do to engage other people to not forget about West Palm.”
She now runs the store with her three children, making Pioneer Linens a fourth-generation family business that has seen West Palm Beach grow in scope, size and sophistication.
“I grew up in the '50s,” Murphy says. “Everybody knew everybody. It was your typical Main Street. There was no mall. I think that the key to having longevity is you have to change with the needs of the community.”
The Coniglio family's claims to fame are their gastronomical gems, most notably E.R. Bradley's Saloon fronting Flagler Avenue. They also own Cucina Dell'Arte and Nick & Johnnie's on Palm Beach. In addition to providing patrons with food and drinks, amply adding to the region's reputation as a foodie favorite, the family has made inroads in the fields of philanthropy and politics.
Patriarch Frank Coniglio sponsors benefits every Easter and Christmas for students at Hope Rural School in Indiantown, providing them with clothing, gifts, school supplies and toiletries to help better their lives as children of migrant workers. A holiday meal is prepared, and then served by boys and girls from Palm Beach Day School.
“He is the most philanthropic person that I know,” says son Nicholas Coniglio, owner and president of Coniglio Restaurant Group. “He loves to give back.”
The younger Coniglio describes his father's charity as a way to bridge the gap not only between the fortunate and less-fortunate, but also the island and mainland.
“If there's one thing that kind of continues to resonate with me, it's that Palm Beach was exclusive,” he says, remembering the move from Washington, D.C., at age 5. “When we came to town, it was hard to kind of break in.”
Matriarch Gail Coniglio managed to do just that and is serving a third term as mayor, earning a reputation as a connector and unifier.
“She has so many contacts with so many different people she can talk to as friends,” the 37-year-old says of his mother. “It's about relationships, and that has really carried over in all of our lives.”
He aspires to seek office someday so he can guide West Palm Beach through another renaissance that includes cooperation from leaders to the east. “We definitely are focused on bringing Main Street back, and Palm Beach needs to jump onboard with that,” he says. “That's paramount for me not only for my businesses but also to leave a lasting impression of the Coniglios."
Across the Intracoastal Waterway, famous families by the names of Flagler, Kenan and Koch have shaped the community through their respective American industrialism, entrepreneurial spirit and educational commitment. Flagler's monumental railroad impacted Florida more than any private undertaking in any state in history, and the fact that he chose to build a winter home on Palm Beach solidified the sunny island as a cold-weather retreat for the well-heeled during the glorious Gilded Age.
“He brought people here who would purchase land,” says Debi Murray, chief curator of the Historical Society of Palm Beach County. “We became America's first resort destination for extremely wealthy individuals.”
Completed in 1902, Whitehall, a 100,000-square-foot mansion with more than 75 rooms, is a national historic landmark and public museum.
“It's a treasure,” Murray says. “It's something that everyone should visit to help learn about how we grew through one man's vision.”
A few years prior to conceiving Whitehall, Flagler developed the Hotel Royal Poinciana on the western shore of the island, and oceanfront Palm Beach Inn. The former became the largest resort in the world, and the latter became the inimitable Breakers.
“If he hadn't come down here and built those two huge hotels, we'd be an entirely different community,” Murray says.
Descendants of Mary Lily Kenan, Flagler's third wife and the one to whom he gifted Whitehall, have carried on the rich tradition of The Breakers, a hotel so synonymous with Palm Beach that it symbolizes the town.
“They carried on the legacy in that they continued to insist on a high standard of guest services and bettered what was there before,” Murray says.
What The Breakers does through resplendent brick and mortar, James Ponce does through posthumous heart and soul. Ponce, who died in December at age 98, was a celebrated resident whom the town council proclaimed a “Two-Legged Historical Landmark” in 1996. An ancestor of Florida explorer Juan Ponce de Leon, Ponce's storied career included offering guided walking tours of Worth Avenue.
Rick Rose, who has led the walking tours since 2011, describes Ponce as “one of the most passionate historians of our time.”
“Having lived so long, done so many things and met so many people in our community, Jim provided a unique window to our past like no other,” Rose says. “His passing is a real loss for our community.”
William Koch, a well-known Palm Beacher who founded a multinational company that markets products to facilitate coal and oil production, bankrolled a progressive high school where every student receives a MacBook Pro. Oxbridge Academy's curriculum caters more to projects and less to textbooks.
“In our classrooms, students learn how to ask the right questions, how to collaborate and how to think critically while also learning that their voices are valued and that they have important contributions to offer their peers, their community and their world,” says Krista Sponsky, the school's director of communications.
To the north of Palm Beach lies a true outpost, a town that was the first between Titusville and Key West to be inhabited by non-Native Americans. Jupiter counts among its famous families the Carlins and DuBoises.
Charles Robert Carlin constructed the area's maiden home in 1887 and called it the Carlin House. The residence soon morphed into a hotel headed by Carlin's wife, Mary. It was a natural—and necessary—transition, as the Irishman who moved to America under government employ became commander of the U.S. Lifesaving Service's Jupiter Inlet station. He and his crew spent their days rescuing sailors.
“There were all these shipwrecked people everywhere,” says Jamie Stuve, president and CEO of the Loxahatchee River Historical Society. “This community and this inn, in particular, started out as one of rugged pioneerism.”
The Carlins' daughter, Emily Carlin White, gave birth to William Carlin White in 1907. White lived to age 107, perpetuating the family's “rugged pioneerism” and getting elected twice as mayor. While in office, he helped erect Jupiter Medical Center, replace the 1912 Damon Bridge and modernize municipal operations. The town named a day (April 25, 2007) and a bridge (the one leading to the Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse and Museum) after him.
Harry DuBois arrived in Jupiter a decade after the Carlins. The New Jersey native relocated in 1892 and worked at the lifesaving station for the elder Carlin who, true to form, set up the mate on a blind date.
“He was known as quite the ladies' man,” Stuve says of the handsome commander. “When you look at pictures of him, you get it.”
The story goes that DuBois proposed to Susan Sanders at the top of the lighthouse and found his new bride as well as his new home. He spotted 18 acres atop a 20-foot-high, 600-foot-long shell mound on the Loxahatchee River and built an abode there in 1898. The structure functioned as a busy fish camp and popular restaurant and still stands. The county operates it as the DuBois Pioneer Home.
In 1924, the DuBois' first child, John, married Bessie Wilson, and the newlyweds took over the camp and restaurant.
“Bessie DuBois was known for her oyster stew and seafood dishes, and her husband was saving people's lives,” Stuve says. “They defined Jupiter. They were really tough and very entrepreneurial and brought home money for their families. That was their stamp, and it's still here, this maritime culture that continues to be a big part of Jupiter's personality.”
Wealthy insurance magnate John D. MacArthur started snapping up land in North Palm Beach and Palm Beach Gardens in the 1960s, amassing close to 100,000 acres at one point. The brash businessman famously ran things out of the coffee shop in the Colonnades Hotel on Singer Island. Twenty years after MacArthur's death in 1978, the family foundation proceeded to sell its real-estate holdings to commercial and residential ventures, signaling an end to much of the ruralness of north county. The exception: an expansive environmental oasis on Jack Nicklaus Drive managed by the Florida Park Service.
West Palm Beach lawyer Harvey Oyer III has ties to one of the barefoot mailmen, a group of 20 or so postal workers who, in 1885, were assigned a new route from Lake Worth to Biscayne Bay—along the beach. Oyer has written four children's books about his great-uncle Charlie Pierce and the enduring legend of the letter carriers who treaded daily down the strand.
Donald Ross, namesake of Donald Ross Road in Jupiter, was the first Lake Park resident killed in World War II. Ross died Dec. 18, 1944 in the Battle of the Bulge.
Frederick Small, namesake of Frederick Small Road, also in Jupiter, ran a camp for African-American Boy Scouts, believed to be the first of its kind in the south in the 1940s.