James Ponce: street signs give inkling of area history

James Ponce

Just had the pleasure of interviewing Mr. Ponce again, so am reviewing old stories I’ve had the pleasure writing about him.

Following is an all-time favorite old story of mine, from August 30, 1996, written for the Sun-Sentinel…

and click here for one on his gardens that I did for Residences about four years ago…

Signs Of History Dot Streets They Bear Names Of Pioneers, Even A Draft Dodger

James Ponce is part of Palm Beach County’s past – literally. He’s the official historian for The Breakers hotel in Palm Beach, and the island’s Chamber of Commerce. In fact, the island has named him an official landmark – the only person to have been thus honored.

Ponce also is a member of a pioneering family that helped settle the area. The city of West Palm Beach originally named a downtown street “Ponce Court” to honor his aunt, Mary Jane Ponce. It’s one of many streets in the county that bear the name of early pioneers and settlers.

Recently, the city of West Palm Beach approved a plan to develop the land where Ponce Court sits, so the city returned the old street sign to Ponce. After the ceremony, Ponce recalled his aunt, and the story behind the street sign. “Mary Jane Ponce moved here from St. Augustine at the turn of the century and opened up a millinery shop in the Palm Hotel” at Clematis Street and Narcissus Avenue in downtown West Palm Beach, Ponce said.

“She lived on top of the hill, just south of what is now the Federal Building.

Years ago, “I was walking by and noticed that a small cul-de-sac [nearby) had my name on it,” Ponce said. “An old woman was rocking [in a chair) on her porch, and I asked her if the street had been named after Mary Jane Ponce.”

“‘It sure was,’ responded the woman. ‘That old gal ruled the roost.'”

In part because he’s a member of a pioneering family, and in part because he is a professional historian, Ponce knows a lot about the history of other area street signs.

For example: Lang Drive, just south of Southern Boulevard and west of Interstate 95 in West Palm Beach, was named for Augustus Lang, a famous German immigrant. “Some consider [him a coward because) he moved here from Fort Pierce to avoid being drafted by the Confederate Army,” Ponce said. “But others consider him a hero. “In 1861, while he was the assistant keeper of the Jupiter Lighthouse, he took part of the lighting mechanism and buried it, to help Confederate blockade runners,” Ponce said. “Then he hid out the rest of the war on the shores of Lake Worth – the first white man to live there.”

Hammon Avenue, which cuts through the heart of Palm Beach, honors H.F. Hammon, the first pioneer to file a homestead claim on what is now Worth Avenue in 1873.

“He had 169 acres from Hammon Avenue north to Royal Palm Way,” Ponce said. “His mule pen was located by what is now the Colony Hotel. Mules were the [beasts) of burden in those days, and so he rented the mules to those who needed to do heavy hauling.”

Gale Place, within the triangle of what is now Palm Beach Lakes Boulevard, Okeechobee Boulevard and Interstate 95, was named for the Rev. Elbridge Gale.

“He was a professor of horticulture at Kansas State Agricultural College; when he retired, he moved to this area,” Ponce said. “He built the first log cabin on the west side of Lake Worth around 1888. Part of it is said to have been [added to) the present house at 401 28th St.”Meanwhile, “Old Northwood, earlier known as Mangonia, has been built on what was originally Gale’s 160-acre plantation.” Trees from Gale’s groves still are growing in Old Northwood.

Lanehart Court, Lyman Place, Porter Place, Rowley Drive and Spencer Drive are clustered around Gale Place. And for good reason. “These men were all early Palm Beach County pioneers,” Ponce said. “Porter’s homestead made up a good part of what is now downtown West Palm Beach. “Ben Lanehart arrived in this area in 1885. He was second cousin to Will and George, of Lanehart and Potter Lumber, founded in 1885. This company is still in operation today,” Ponce said. “Spencer was an early postmaster. Lyman ran the general store. Rowley drove the `school boat’ – he went around the lake and picked up the kids and took them to school.”

Sometimes, it wasn’t just pioneers who got streets named after them. For example, “Barton Avenue was named after C.V. Barton, an early tourist,” Ponce said. “Pendleton Street, Root Trail and Clarke Avenue in Palm Beach were also named after early tourists.”

Several old street names puzzle even Ponce. Take a street like Yellow Legs Landing in West Palm Beach. How did it get its name? Ponce laughed. “Someone must have landed with yellow stockings on,” he said.

James Ponce: Fertile soil for learning

James Ponce in his garden

Many of us know James A. Ponce, 90, proclaimed Palm Beach’s only “Two-Legged Historical Landmark” by the Town Council in 1996. He is the official historian at The Breakers and leads tours about Henry M. Flagler and the history of Palm Beach (click here for Ponce story on street names). But what is he doing when not enlightening visitors about the rich local history?

He’s in his garden, sprucing up his landscape and building hardscape. “I did this terrace for my 80th birthday,” he said, pointing to a lovely seating area by his front door. He also built the bridge that spans his lily pond next to the guest cottage. “I love working with rocks. And I like hooking things together with cement.”

Mr. Ponce enjoys building bridges.

Ponce has owned this property for 40 years. It wasn’t much to look at four decades ago, he explained: “It was almost naked. The magnolia and one other tree, a Norfolk pine — that’s all that was here on the west side.” Now, though, there’s plenty to see. “All of it I grew, planted, or raised from a seed.”

Mr. Ponce learned about gardening from his parents.

Ponce acquired his love of gardening from his parents. His father grew roses and fruit trees. His mother raised sweet peas. By the time he was 9, he had his own garden of petunias. He hasn’t spent a lot of time planning this garden, he confessed: “When I found things I didn’t have, I got them and kept setting them in vacant spaces. I call it ‘collage gardening’ — I have such a mixture of plants.” They include a variegated Christmas palm. “These are very rare, but I have one.”

His Bismarkia palm has bromeliads under it. Something that he calls a Vesuvius palm has “stems that are so long that the leaves are split all the way down. I’m not sure what it is. I purchased it at a Mounts plant sale,” he noted.

Mounts Botanical Garden in West Palm Beach holds periodic plant sales and events. On Mother’s Day weekend, Ponce’s garden will be one of 10 on Mounts’ Connoisseur’s Garden Tour.

Ponce had only a couple of trees in his yard 40 years ago.

He loves his gumbo limbos because the trunks are interesting. He has 34 varieties of palms, some that he raised from seed. His bromeliads are legion and “keep on multiplying,” Ponce quipped. His horticulture education comes from the school of life. “I just learned from mistakes and successes,” he admitted. “Sometimes I preach more than I listen.”

Despite the wide variety of plants, Ponce doesn’t spend all his time maintaining them. Take his bromeliads, for example: “You put them in the ground and forget them. Some of these beds around these trees have been here for five or 10 years. They are minimum care plants.”

About palms, he espoused: “When they are young, they like to be in the shade. I’ve planted many from seeds, and once they get a little size on them, then you can put them out in the sun.”

Here’s how he preached on orchids: “Most of mine are hand-me- downs from ladies who didn’t know what to do with them after they stopped blooming. The ones I’ve put on tree trunks seem to flower longer. Use peat moss, wet it and put it on the trunk. Then put the roots, add more peat moss, and strap it on with green wiring. Orchids like trees with crevices.”

Here’s one sermon he regrets not listening to: “I wish I hadn’t planted that star fruit. It bears so much, fruit is all over the ground.” Well, live and learn.

For Ponce’s history lesson on Street Names, go here.

Discover Local Artists: Natural Interactions

“April Showers,” by Feliciano is porcelain and wire 5 feet X 21 inches

The intersection of nature, creation and human influence on both is explored by three Palm Beach State College artists in “Natural Interactions,” an exhibit that runs from Oct. 18 through Nov. 23, with the artist’s reception on Tuesday, Oct. 18 from 5:30 to 8 p.m. at The Art Gallery at Eissey Campus.

Nazare Feliciano

Professor Nazaré Feliciano, an 11-year-instructor at Palm Beach State who lives in Palm Beach Gardens, teaches ceramics and art appreciation at the Eissey Campus.

Her ceramic pieces represent atmospheric interactions in nature. “Clouds and the formation of clouds, water, heat, and air and the interactions between these elements are present in my art work,” she said.

“Clay is porous at the fired stage, enabling trapped smoke to penetrate its body. The porcelain clouds with cascading rain are filled with flowers; this my way of celebrating the bounty of spring.”

Karla Walter

Art Gallery Specialist Karla Walter’s mixed media ceramics of crows explores the similarities between the social interactions among crows and that of humans.

“As an artist, it is important to recognize a message and seize that moment. Crows are messengers, omens for change. Several personal encounters with crows have compelled me to express my personal creativity through this messenger.”

“Communion,” by North Palm Beach resident Karla Walter is Ceramic and mixed media, priced at $1,000
Christina M
Christina Major of Boynton Beach.


Christina Major, adjunct drawing instructor, creates oil paintings on canvas and wood.

She catalogues her memories and thoughts along with the thoughts of the subject by painting under, into and over the subject in her own handwriting.

“I am interested in creating art which allows the viewer the ability to connect to it from their own grounding, to participate with it rather than to merely observe it,” says Major.

“Components of Self,” by Christina Major is an oil on canvas, 48 by 60 inches priced at $6,000.

“Natural Interactions” will exhibit from Oct. 18 through Nov. 23, with the artist’s reception on Tuesday, Oct. 18 from 5:30 to 8 p.m. There will be approximately 20 pieces on display, and all work is available for sale, with prices ranging from $250 to $6,000.

The Art Gallery at Eissey Campus is located in the BB building, 3160 PGA Blvd. Gallery hours are Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Tuesday 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. For more information, contact Karla Walter at 561-207-5015 or visit  www.palmbeachstate.edu/x10295.xml.

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