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 Perhaps it was the influence of his early life in Cape May, but whatever the cause Wilmon Whilldin the third made tourism a top priority when he was elected mayor of West Palm Beach, Fla. in 1898 at the age of 55.

Cape May, of course, had a big advantage over West Palm Beach in the tourism industry. It was well on its way as a tourism center when it was incorporated as Cape Island in March of 1851, eight years after Whilldin was born there on July 27, 1843. And after the Civil War, in which Whilldin served as a private, it was to continue in tourism, albeit with some ups and downs, with the changed name of Cape May in the spring of 1869.

West Palm Beach, on the other hand, was not incorporated until November 5, 1894 and was the first municipality in Dade County to be incorporated. That was four years before Whilldin became mayor.

Facts about his election are skimpy. Research by the Historical Society of Palm Beach County has shown that he received 77 votes in a municipality whose population went from 244 in 1890 to 554 at the turn of the century.

Cape May City’s year-round population in 1890 was 2,136 and increased to 2,257 in 1900, according to figures reported by Cape May County’s planning office. While Whilldin was mayor of a blossoming West Palm Beach, James Hildreth was serving as mayor of a well established Cape May.

No documentation has been found, however, as to whether Whilldin had any election opposition. The voters, it has been recorded, were white, male and property owners. (Women were not to be given the right to vote nationally until Aug. 26, 1920 although some states, not Florida or New Jersey, went ahead earlier on their own. Wyoming was the first in 1890. Obstacles blocking African-Americans from voting were removed via the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.)

The details of how and when Whilldin became involved in politics are also sketchy. His gravestone at the Woodlawn Cemetery in West Palm Beach claims he was “a pioneer in the upbuilding of Orlando and West Palm. Beach.”

In the U.S. passport applications section of the ancestry library there is a copy of his April 1894 application for a passport to Europe. He applied in Orlando, long before Walt Disney discovered the city.

Another passport application was requested in June of 1901, about 11 months before he retired as mayor. He listed as his address 1132 Broadway in Camden, where he was said to have a successful shoe business. There is a claim that he once owned another house on Broadway in Cape May, just a brief walk from the ocean.

While some holes remain in the story of the life of Wilmon Whilldin, undeniable is the fact that he served as mayor from 1898 to 1902 and that tourism was high on his agenda. In 1902 he encouraged business leaders and others to start a board of trade which was to boost the trade of tourism in the municipality. Today it is sometimes known as tourism commissions or boards or is incorporated within the chamber of commerce.

The idea for a board of trade in West Palm Beach was not new on the East Coast. In fact, Whilldin may have brought it there from Cape May where, despite its already long success in tourism, it had started its own board in 1897, the year before Whilldin became mayor.

As the new century was approaching and touirism competition was increasing from Atlantic City and Wildwood, Cape May’s fathers decided they better take new steps to enhance the historic city’s image and to woo more visitors to it. Holly Beach, still the major municipality on Five Mile Beach, and the budding Wildwood were forming their own trade boards and spending big dollars to advertise their products, so Cape May decided it better follow suit if it wanted to continue to do well in the tourism game.

To the south, however, the idea for a board of trade was just beginning to take shape in 1902 and Whilldin was its chief cheerleader. He called it “one of the best steps taken by our townsmen” and said there were at least 75 men in West Palm Beach who were qualified to serve on it.

He also predicted that it could be a useful auxiliary for the town council “in devising ways and means for the pushing ahead of our promising town, and also as an appreciated advisor in many local matters.”

But he warned that there should be harmony among those involved in the new venture, a warning that might well be applied to current municipal affairs.

“As an adjunct to the council,” he said in a letter to the editor of The Tropical Sun, “it will prove most beneficial by moving harmoniously, avoiding carping or uncalled for criticism.”

Then too, he continued, the meetings of the board of trade “will prove a source of much good pleasure in a friendly way, bring the leaders together socially, getting them in close touch, killing out such fungus growths as petty cliques and factions, developing a spirit of concord and general fellowship from all of which only the happiest results can be the outcome.

“A municipality,” he advised, “is a community of interests where all are concerned, all are copartners in its weal or woe, and all should possess a spirit of pride in the performance of civic duty.”

And he concluded, “With this energetic, representative body of citizens, working as a unit for town improvement, enforcement of law, morality, economic expenditure of public funds, fair treatment in transportation matters, awakening of a progressive public spirit, West Palm Beach will feel its impulse to a degree, rebounding to her strength and general uplifting. Yours for the board of trade, Wilmon Whilldon.”

After his words of wisdom Whilldon didn’t stay in office much longer to see how they worked out. Given West Palm Beach’s success to this day, his early advice probably pioneered the tourism progress of the resort.

But it was in May of 1902 that Willmon surprised many people when he suddenly announced in a letter to the council that he was resigning. He cited as his reason “urgent business matters requiring my attention.” He reportedly was in the shoe business and still had ties back in New Jersey, particularly in Camden.

“Men of Mayor Whilldin’s stamp are a strength to any town or city,” wrote The Tropical Sun, the first newspaper in West Palm Beach, “and it will be a difficult matter to select a successor who will carry out the work of town improvements so energetically, unselfishly and willingly as the gentleman who has so satisfactorily filled the office of mayor for the past few years.”

Whilldin lived another six years until his death at his home in West Palm Beach after a long siege of grippe, an influenza-like disease. He was 65 years old.

 Coming next week: Whilldin’s widow and the scandal. 


Some of the information in this article came from the Historical Society of Palm Beach County and from the reference department of the Cape May County Library.

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