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Cape May native was integral to growth of West Palm Beach

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More information has surfaced from Florida and Cape May County about the man who was a native of Cape May City and went on to become the mayor of West Palm Beach in Florida as the century turned from the 19th into the 20th.

Wilmon Whilldin was born in Cape May on July 27, 1843, volunteered during the Civil War as a private from Aug. 9, 1861 to June 16, 1862, then migrated to Florida for his health in 1894 and helped start the cities of Orlando and West Palm Beach before he served as one of the first mayors of West Palm Beach from 1898 to 1902 before resigning. He died six years later in 1908.

Behind those obituary-like facts, however, is an interesting story of a man who with his wife, the former Hannah Leaming, went south and made his mark as a discoverer and an office holder. It is not unlike the story of the three Baker brothers who founded much of the Wildwoods about the same time and served as mayors of three municipalities there.

To understand the story of the Florida mayor, one must not confuse him with two other earlier arrivals with the same name. One was ship captain Wilmon Whilldin Sr. who died on April 2, 1852 followed by his son Wilmon Jr. who succumbed in May of 1866.

Wilmon the third was four years out of the war then, discharged for disability reasons, and probably was giving thoughts to going south, although it was not to happen until 1894 or possibly earlier. It is not clear what the third Whilldin’s connection was to the first, but there are indications they may have been cousins.

Whilldin apparently had some Camden connections too. In an 1894 passport application, approved in Orlando for a trip to Europe, he lists Camden as his “permanent residence” and his occupation as that of a shoe merchant. Another passport issued in Camden in 1891 lists 1132 Broadway as his place of permanent residence although not identifying the municipality.

There is some evidence, however, that after the war and his success in business Whilldin owned a house at 8 Broadway in Cape May. The information and the photo of the still standing house were submitted to the Palm Beach Post six years ago by Tom Dvorschak who said the house was owned by Whilldin.

Dvorschak claimed his grandparents bought the house in 1948 and it was bequeathed to him in 1989. He sold it ten years later.

Unclear is who were the owners between the time Whilldin was said to have given it up and when Dvorschak’s grandparents took over in 1948, 40 years after Whilldin’s death. The present owner is Richard Holland of West Caldwell who purchased it in 1999 from Dvorschak.

Dvorschak is said to have bought a small house at 432 Third Avenue in West Cape May which today is unoccupied and its property appears to be unattended. Dvorschak’s whereabouts is unknown and his West Cape May telephone number is disconnected.

But all that was still decades away when the 18-year-old Whilldin was to enlist in the Union Army Company 1 of the Sixth New Jersey Infantry on Aug. 9, 1861, some four months after the first shots were fired in the Civil War. Destined to fight in skirmishes in Virginia, Whilldin was to describe the hardships of war in a letter to the Cape May Ocean Wave on December 20, 1861.

“For near four months past,” he wrote, “we have been in the service of our country, endeavoring to frustrate anything that would tend to help on this unjustifiable rebellion.

“Friends at home can scarcely imagine the hardship soldiers have to endure. Often times, after a long and wearisome march, they are compelled to be out during the damp, chilly nights, with naught but the cold earth for a bed, a stone for a pillow and the sky for covering; but we cheerfully bear it all, and would rather fall at the cannon’s mouth than to see the blest abode of freemen rent in twain by fiend traitors, who are led on by high-minded southern demagogues, who grieve at and seek to avenge the loss of power. The Cape May boys of the 7th Regiment are in fine spirits, robust and healthy, ready at a moment’s warning to meet the foe on the battlefield and fight like freemen, or die like patriots.”

According to one article in an unidentified newspaper of that time, Whilldin was first active in “the development of the beautiful town of Orlando” before he settled in West Palm Beach in 1895. He chose West Palm Beach, the article claimed, because he wanted a spot “where the blighting effects of such a disaster as the great freeze were not to be feared.”

“He found the climate and location just to his taste, but the town was a most unlovely conglomeration of shacks and sandy wastes,” the article continued, a description not unlike that of the Baker brothers when they first saw the Wildwoods.

(In 1890, West Palm Beach had a population of 244. It increased to 564 in 1900 when Whilldin was mayor and in the last census it reached 99,919, about the same total as the number of year-round residents in today‘s Cape May County of 16 municipalities.)

When Whilldin initially saw West Palm Beach he decided to make it a city “in which it would be possible to live with some degree of comfort and satisfaction,” the article went on. “He went at it single handed, but all his efforts were crowned with success.”

Whilldin started buying property in the town and he did it not to make money, the article said, “but to transform the city into one in which he would be willing to live, and to furnish himself with a congenial occupation.”

“Mr. Whilldin’s pretty little cottages rose here and there all over town, and palms, lawns and shrubbery sprung up about them, as by magic, lessees came on the run. Everyone awoke to the value and possibilities of town property,” it was claimed.

West Palm Beach was incorporated as a municipality in 1894, and was to be the first incorporated municipality in Dade County. A year later Wildwood was also incorporated, and perhaps the successful news from the southlands first influenced the Bakers to name their community Florida City. They quickly revised their thinking, however, and decided to call it what they considered was the more appropriate name of Wildwood.

Whilldin, meanwhile, was pushing for attractive parks, clean streets, shady trees and sanitation facilities as well as big increases in valuations he said would follow the improvements. Outsiders began to take notice and the town started coming to life with new buildings and fancy houses that were owned or rented.

Soon, as Latimer Baker was to take office in Wildwood as its first mayor in 1895, Wilmon Whilldin was to begin as one of West Palm Beach’s first mayors in 1894. Both were on the paths that led their towns to becoming big seashore resorts on the east coast.

(Coming next week Wilmon Whilldin and his years as mayor.)

(Some of the information for this article came from the Historical Society of Palm Beach County in Florida and from the reference department of the Cape May County Library in Court House.)

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