Recorded history began with the construction of the Orange Grove House of Refuge in 1876. The house derived its name from the grove of mature sour orange and other tropical fruit trees found at the site chosen for the house of refuge, but no record or evidence of who planted the trees has survived.
Settlement began around 1884, when African-Americans from the Panhandle of Florida purchased land a little inland from the Orange Grove House of Refuge and began farming. By 1894 the Black community was large enough to establish the first school in the area.
The Delray School, built in 1913, now houses the Cornell Museum, part of Old School Square in Delray Beach.
The Arcade Tap Room was a gathering place for Delray’s “Artists and Writer’s Colony” visitors from the mid-1920s to the 1950s.
The Linton settlers began to achieve success with truck farming of winter vegetables for the northern market. A hard freeze in 1898 was a setback, and many of the settlers left, including William Linton. Partly in an attempt to change the community’s luck, or to leave behind a bad reputation, the settlement’s name was changed in 1901 to Delray, after the Detroit neighborhood of Delray (“Delray” being the anglicized spelling of “Del Rey,” which is Spanish for “of the king”), which in turn was named after the Mexican-American War‘s Battle of Molino del Rey.
Settlers from The Bahamas (then British West Indies), sometimes referred to as ‘Nassaws’, began arriving in the early 1900s. After 1905, newspaper articles and photographs of Delray events reveal that Japanese settlers from the nearby Yamato farming colony also began participating in Delray civic activities such as parades, going to the movies, and shopping. The 1910 census shows Delray as a town of 904 citizens. Twenty-four U.S. states and nine other countries are listed as the birthplace of its residents. Although still a small town, Delray had a remarkably diverse citizenry.
In 1911, the area was chartered by the State of Florida as an incorporated town. In the same year, pineapple and tomato canning plants were built. Pineapples became the primary crop of the area. This is reflected in the name of the present day Pineapple Grove neighborhood near downtown Delray Beach.
Prior to 1909, the Delray settlement land was within Dade County. That year, Palm Beach County was carved out of the northern portion of the region. In 1915, Palm Beach County and Dade County contributed nearly equal portions of land to create what is now Broward County between the two, leaving Delray situated within the southeastern portion of Palm Beach County.
By 1920, Delray’s population had reached 1,051. In the 1920s, drainage of the Everglades west of Delray lowered the water table, making it harder to grow pineapples, while the extension of the Florida East Coast Railway to Key West resulted in competition from Cuban pineapples for the markets of the northern United States.
The Florida land boom of the 1920s brought renewed prosperity to Delray. Tourism and real estate speculation became important parts of the local economy. Delray issued bonds to raise money to install water and sewer lines, paved streets, and sidewalks. Several hotels were built. At that time Delray was the largest town on the east coast of Florida between West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale. The collapse of the land boom in 1926 left Delray saddled with high bond debts, and greatly reduced income from property taxes.
Delray was separated from the Atlantic Ocean beach by the Florida East Coast Canal (now part of the Intracoastal Waterway). In 1923 the area between the canal and the ocean was incorporated as Delray Beach. In 1927 Delray and Delray Beach merged into one town named Delray Beach.
Beginning in the mid-1920s, a seasonal Artists and Writers Colony was established in Delray Beach and the adjacent town of Gulf Stream. Throughout the 1930s and ’40s, Delray became a winter enclave for artists and authors, especially famous cartoonists. Two nationally syndicated cartoonists — H. T. Webster (creator of “Casper Milquetoast”) and Fontaine Fox of “Toonerville Trolley” fame — had offices upstairs in the Arcade Building over the Arcade Tap Room; a gathering place where the artists and writers might be joined by aristocrats, politicians, entertainers, and sports figures. Other well-known artists and writers of the era who had homes in Delray Beach include: Herb Roth, W.J. “Pat” Enright, Robert Bernstein, Wood Cowan, Denys Wortman, Jim Raymond, Charles Williams, Herb Niblick, Hugh McNair Kahler, Clarence Budington Kelland, Nina Wilcox Putnam, and Edna St. Vincent Millay. These seasonal visitors helped soften the effect of the real estate downturn and The Great Depression on the city.
During the Depression, not much money was available since the two banks had failed, but progress continued, and the town still looked prosperous because of the previous burst of new buildings during the boom years. The “Artists and Writers Colony” flourished and Delray Beach’s fame as a resort town grew. This era is regarded as Delray Beach’s “golden age of architecture”; a period in which the city ranked 50th in population but 10th in building permits in Florida. Prominent architectural styles in Delray Beach from this period include Art Deco, Mediterranean Revival, Mission Revival, Monterey Colonial,Streamline Moderne, Minimal Traditional ‘Key West style’ cottages, and bungalows.