River before the turn of the 20th century: At Frank Stranahan’s trading post, a couple of Seminole canoes are off-loading pelts. A Seminole seamstress is looking over material to take back to their encampment.
The surrounding pine and scrub are interrupted here and there by a few shacks. Further out are a few farms, a small inn about the size of one of today’s suburban single family homes. Ed King is building a house down near Sailboat Bend.
Almost like a dream, a 90-foot floating palace named the Wanderer pulls up to the dock. Outside, guests on the expedition peer off the second floor deck, champagne glasses in hand. A massive paddlewheel and American flag grace one end of the vessel, great steam pipes the other. Inside are lavish recreation rooms and lounges, the area’s only piano, and hunting and fishing rooms that contain gear enough for everyone.
The Wanderer’s owner is a well-known naturalist and author, Charles B. Cory. His pal in all things recreational, America’s most popular actor at the time, is Joseph Jefferson. Soon they and their entourages will be partying like it’s 1899.
According to historian Stuart McIver, Cory brought to the area “a touch of spectacular luxury.” Visitors included President Grover Cleveland and Admiral George Dewey. “Cory held the wildest parties the river had ever seen,” McIver wrote. “From the American stage, Jefferson brought in young women described by observers as ‘wild actresses.’”
One of those who observed was a young Tom Bryan, from Fort Lauderdale’s pioneer Bryan family. “He would row his boat over to the Wanderer and peer through the darkness at the goings-on at the houseboat.”
Historical sources profile these visitors as gents enjoying the wealth building in special enclaves in Boston, New York, Chicago – wealth and pomp that wouldn’t be seen in these parts for some years.
Born in Boston, Charles B. Cory never had to really work. His father made a fortune in an importing business. At 16, however, Cory developed an interest in ornithology. Because he had the resources to travel anywhere in the world he wished, his collection of birds began to be noticed, and he was inducted into various ornithological societies. As years went on, he amassed 19,000 specimens which he donated to the Field Museum of Chicago.
The museum in turn gave him a curating position. During his travels he gathered material for landmark guidebooks, including one that Stranahan used, Hunting and Fishing in Florida. He went on to pen others, turning out a 600-volume record of his ornithological exploits.
Joseph Jefferson was born in Philadelphia and died in his Palm Beach home in 1905. A friend of Henry Flagler, he met Cory in Palm Beach and persuaded him to bring the Wanderer down to the New River.
Jefferson was best known for his portrayal of Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle, adapted for the stage. He made his theater debut at the age of 3 and scored his first big success in Our American Cousin in 1858. Other plays brought more success until he won enduring fame in the Rip Van Winkle adaptation. He commissioned it from writer Dion Boucicault during a trip to England. In London, he performed it to adoring audiences for 170 nights. Then he brought the same version back and performed it and other earlier works that captivated American theatergoers for years. His name lives on in Chicago theater’s annual Joseph Jefferson awards.
Of course partying could be done everywhere for these guys, given the mobility of Cory’s yacht. But it was not everywhere that you could hunt and fish as in this wild new territory.
When they hunted, it was in style, writes McIver in his book Fort Lauderdale and Broward County. “The party was equipped with tents, cots, the latest in camp stoves and an experienced chef to prepare meals.”
This account of a panther hunt was provided by Dick King, brother of builder Ed King. Their guides were Seminoles (“several of Charlie Willie’s boys”).
“Those Indian lads were smart fellows. They could have gotten that panther the first day out, but they strung things out as long as they could, and kept the party on the trail for ten days until they caught their cat… Cory didn’t mind though, as he loved the sport.”
One can only speculate about how crazy those parties got. But they were certainly a far cry from anything happening in the yet unnamed city, and a glimpse of things to come.