Monday, April 26, 2021

Searching for paradise in Daytona

Screen grab of part of 1909 newspaper
Mrs. Crane talked about how to 
improve Daytona Beach
I'm a sewist and a fan of old sewing machines. So I took notice when learning that Thomas H. White once frequented Daytona Beach. The industrialist - a sewing machine manufacturer, among other things - was a repeat winter guest in the early 20th century. 

What I discovered after researching his visits here had nothing to do with sewing. No, I turned up a 100-year-old problem that still plagues the coastal city.

That White chose Daytona Beach isn't surprising. He was also an automotive pioneer and one of his companies was the White Motor Company. 

White was among the 1 percent of the time. His comings and goings in Daytona were newsworthy. On Jan. 15, 1909, an excursion earned front-page coverage. 

He and two couples "made a trip to Allenhurst ... by automobile in two and one-half hours' time." The party returned with fish and ducks and deemed their trip a success. 

Allenhurst no longer exists, but it was a sport fishing hot spot at the time. Today its land is part of NASA in Brevard County. 

Getting to Allenhurst from Daytona in two and a half hours in 1909 was, yes, somewhat newsworthy. It meant the travelers averaged about 25 mph. You might laugh, but regular vehicles' top speeds were 40 to 45 mph back then. Only daredevils on beach runs hit the 90s, 100s, and higher mphs. 

Plus, road conditions were treacherous. The newspaper reporter commented on the good travel time, and said White and his group "found the road in fairly good condition." That means they didn't have to stop and dig themselves out of deep sand too often.

White's wife didn't accompany the travelers to Allenhurst. You'll soon learn why. But she, too, garnered her own newspaper coverage. One example is part of Local News on the front page of the Daytona Daily News on March 20, 1909

Mrs. White had hosted a theater party. She invited "a party of a dozen to witness the performance, 'How Wives Fool Their Husbands,' in the tent show. The guests entered into the spirit of the occasion and enjoyed a merry evening." 

The tent show was a big happening in town, with the apparently popular show presented by a visiting troupe.

The busy social season revolved around the year's Great Automobile Race Tournament. The March 23 edition of  the newspaper reported that a stiff north wind had blown the beach into perfect shape for the sixth edition of beach racing. Races started that day.

"All the famous professional drivers in the country are gathered here," the paper said. 

Town was abuzz with the sport's and its fans' A-listers, and social events swirled in elite neighborhoods. The March 20 article had referenced only Mrs. Thomas H. White (no first name given) but it did mention that the Whites were of South Beach Street. The prime riverfront real estate was an ideal location for a theater party.

The Whites maintained a busy social life even when it wasn't race week. On Jan. 14, 1909, the paper noted that Mrs. White and her houseguests took an "automobile trip to DeLand." One of the guests, a Caroline Bartlett Crane, wanted to see the county seat. 

Mrs. Crane was a guest of note at the White residence, and likely the reason Mrs. White didn't join the travelers to Allenhurst. 

Mrs. Crane, of Michigan, was a speaker of national importance. The same page of the newspaper that included the Allenhurst trip news also featured two - not one - two articles about addresses presented by Mrs. Crane.

She enlivened a meeting of the local Palmetto Club during the ladies' regular gathering. Of more importance was the public evening address the "noted Civic League lecturer" gave at the town Armory. The event had been organized by the Palmetto Club.

Mrs. Crane "delights and instructs a representative audience" the newspaper headline stated. The large Armory was filled to standing-room only.

The crowd's size proved how much local people had an "interest in a better, a bigger and more beautiful Daytona," the reporter said. They even braved inclement weather in order to attend.

Yes, the noted lecturer was in town to talk about how to improve Daytona Beach. In 1909. More than a century later, noted lecturers still come to Daytona Beach and still talk about the same thing. 

Mrs. Crane "held Daytona up for inspection, introspection and a retrospection, and by various comparisons showed what better things may be attained," the article stated. Beautifying the waterfront was mentioned.

Here's my favorite line. The article says Mrs. Crane quoted a recent Daytona Daily News commentary "in which it was pointed out that Daytona Beach could and would approach within a stone's throw of paradise if only the people would work toward that end."

That 1909 sentence remains true today. How sad. The city is still trying to beautify the waterfront. Still trying to get close to paradise. People are still trying to work together. What has been going on for the past century?

Daytona Beach long ago lost its appeal for winter residents like the Whites. On a side note, their name lives on in town, at White Hall at Bethune-Cookman University. White was also a philanthropist (a White foundation still exists today). He knew Mary McCloud Bethune and donated generously to her school.

A lot of good people have spent - and continue to spend -  a great deal of time, money, and effort to improve Daytona Beach. They've been at it for over 100 years. As the 1909 reporter said: "... it is sincerely hoped that they may strike home." Soon. 

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