THE HISTORY OF KELSEY CITY

In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Junior "We are not makers of history. We are made by history." That could not be more accurate as to how Harry Kelsey and his associates would ultimately make South Florida what it is today and lay the groundwork for what was to come. Throughout time Kelsey City has become almost forgotten, even among lifelong natives. Our mission is to preserve this history through storytelling and craft beer. 

Our future plans include a small museum at the rear of our brewery so you can learn even more.

Harry Kelsey, founder of Kelsey City

On his first visit to Palm Beach County in 1919, Boston entrepreneur Harry Seymour Kelsey (1879–1957) joined the Florida land boom when he bought 30,000 acres north of West Palm Beach. Kelsey then sold his interest in the Waldorf restaurant chain he had created for $3 million, set up the East Coast Finance Corporation, and soon owned more than 100,000 acres, more real estate than anyone else in Palm Beach County.

Kelsey planned many agricultural industries for Kelsey City: sugar cane farms, demonstration and stock raising farms, hog and poultry farms, citrus groves, truck and dairy farms. The Kelsey Model Dairy Farm, south of the Earman River between today’s Alt. A1A and Prosperity Farms Road, was established by 1925 and one of the first dairies to offer delivery in Palm Beach County.

Kelsey chose the scrub ridge on Lake Worth for the town site and hired the firm Olmsted Brothers, Landscape Architects of Brookline, Massachusetts, and Dr. John Nolan of Boston to lay it out. Kelsey City was designed for working people, rather than the wealthy or retirees. Its plan is believed to be Florida’s first zoned community managing residential and commercially zoned districts.

Olmsted Brothers, Landscape Architects

The firm Olmsted Brothers, Landscape Architects, was originally founded by Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr. and Calvert Vaux when they entered into the park design competition for New York’s Central Park in 1857. When the partnership dissolved in 1872, Olmsted founded Frederick Law Olmsted, Landscape Architect and moved to Massachusetts. The firm’s name changed as new family members joined the firm. Frederick married Mary Cleveland Perkins Olmsted, his brother John’s widow, and adopted his three nephews, among them John Charles Olmsted. Frederick and Mary also had three children. The first died in fancy while the other two, daughter Marion and son Frederick Law, Jr. survived.

In adulthood, half-brothers, John Charles and Frederick Law, Jr. joined their father’s landscape architect firm. When Frederick Law, Sr. retired, the two brothers formed Olmsted Brothers Landscape Architects in 1898. They continued their father’s work designing parks, cities, and landscapes including Kelsey City, now known as Lake Park, Florida. Harry Kelsey, founder of Kelsey City, had hired the Olmsteds along with Dr. John Nolan of Boston to design the new venture. Other notable projects include the National Mall, the Jefferson Memorial, the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, and

Bok Tower in Lake Wales, Florida.

Above a giant arch at the city’s entrance on now-Old Dixie Highway, a welcome  sign read, “Gateway to the World’s Winter Playground.” It adopted many marketing slogans over the years. In 1921, a post office was established; Kelsey had invested a million dollars in improvements when the first lots were offered at auction in what is now Kelsey Park. He added a golf course on U.S. 1 and a town hall on Dixie Way (now Park Avenue), which is still the present-day town hall. It also has an official listing on the National Register of Historic Places. By 1922, property sales ranged from $250,000 to $500,000 per day, and in 1923 the Town of Kelsey City was incorporated. Children of residents attended the Prosperity school until 1923, when Kelsey City Elementary School opened, now Lake Park Elementary; thereafter the Prosperity children were bused to Kelsey City.  

Downtown Kelsey City, the mid-1920s

The industrial area included some of the Mizner Industries businesses, a lumber mill, and brick and tire factories. Kelsey’s friend Samuel James Blakely joined him from Boston to manage the public grounds and started a city nursery, which became Kelsey City Landscape and Nurseries Company with Blakely as president. In November 1925, Kelsey purchased the bankrupt Florida East Coast Canal (today’s Intracoastal Waterway) with plans to improve it for the city’s industries. The Kelsey City Chamber of Commerce had a hundred members by 1926. That year, Harry Kelsey and Paris Singer spent $500,000 to build the Palm Beach Winter Club and 18-hole golf course, now the North Palm Beach Country Club. When U.S. 1 was completed in 1927, the club ran a shuttle bus to bring tourists from Palm Beach. 

Rinker Concrete

Damage to the Premier Hotel 

The real estate boom began its decline after the 1926 hurricane, but things got even worse when the 1928 hurricane caused an estimated $1 million damage to Kelsey City, and the subsequent economic collapse hit the town hard. The residents of Kelsey City pulled together through their service organizations, such as the Garden Club, Community Church, and PTA. But Kelsey’s problems started before 1928, as he was heavily in debt to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). When he sold the Florida East Coast Canal to the State of Florida in 1927, the IRS seized the proceeds. In an attempt to protect his holdings, Kelsey put them in the hands of a receiver, but finally, he later said, he “had to let the whole thing go.” 

His efforts took farmland and untouched wilderness into one of the largest cities of its time south of Atlanta. The entrepreneurial spirit and vision he possessed left a legacy for all of us. Harry Kelsey passed away in 1957. 

By the late 1930s, things began to turn around and the Works Progress Administration (WPA) had paved roads in the town while 80% of the property was purchased by the Tesdem Company, headed by Sir Harry Oakes, who planned to create an exclusive residential community. Tragically, misfortune would strike the area yet again as the millionaire was murdered in 1943 before most of his plans could be implemented. He did however build a few homes in the southeast part of town and combined existing 25-foot lots into larger 75-foot lots.

As part of the effort to revitalize the community, the local garden club petitioned the state in 1939 to change the town's name to Lake Park. They also persuaded the local government to change from lettered and numbered street names to the use of flowers, plants, shrubs, and trees, a change that remains today. By 1940, the population had grown to 379 residents, and a new rattan furniture factory, yacht basin, docks, recreation building in the park, and apartment buildings for workers were built.

John D. MacArthur and wife Catherine 

World War II led to an influx of military personnel and their families in the area, which introduced post-war prosperity and another building boom to Lake Park. In the mid-1950s, John D. McArthur, the multimillionaire owner of Bankers Life & Casualty Company, bought the Tesdem holdings and invested large amounts of money in the area, which included a new water system, and a private utility company to handle sewage treatment. Pratt & Whitney, aircraft engine manufacture, led to yet another population increase. Things continue to grow from there.

Mr. MacArthur became another prominent figure in South Florida history and carried the area into what it is today. He was able to accumulate an enormous amount of wealth and later established his philanthropic foundations that are still donating to this day. He passed away in Jupiter, just to our north in 1978. 

TO THE FUTURE!

While the Town has struggled with the lingering effects of natural and man-made challenges, it is now experiencing a resurgence that celebrates its history and welcomes a bright new future filled with opportunity and potential.  The community has been the common goal between everyone that has had a hand in shaping our area. With some of the same vision and spirit the founders before us had, we want to leave Lake Park better off than when we started here. So far, that has happened! More than 100 years later, we think Harry Kelsey would be proud of what our area has become.

Come visit us and experience it for yourself!

Most of the information provided here is from The Palm Beach County Historical Society. If you are interested in learning more information please visit their website here : https://www.pbchistoryonline.org/

© 2020 The Kelsey City Brewing Company

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720 Park Ave., Lake Park, FL 33403 | 561.469.8930