RIP mr ponce

one of my first stories…

Signs Of History Dot Streets

They Bear Names Of Pioneers, Even A Draft Dodger

August 30, 1996|By CHRISTINE DAVIS Special to the Sun-Sentinel

James Ponce is part of Palm Beach County’s past – literally.

James Ponce in his garden

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.