The story of the Japanese settlement that paved the way for Yamato Road and the Morikami Museum
A view of Rocky Point and Yamato Island
In the bust following Florida’s land boom of the 1920s, the city of Boca Raton, desperately seeking tourists, erected a painted plywood camel that stood astride Dixie Highway (State Road 811) somewhere near today’s Yamato Road. Costing $1,000 to build, the camel couldn’t be missed by auto traffic heading either north or south, as Dixie Highway, a rutted sand track following the coastal scrub of the dry ridge that Flagler’s railroad crews had surveyed earlier, was the only game in town. The selection of a camel was deliberate. Knowing that the Shriners had scheduled their national convention in Miami and that the camel was one of the symbols of their lodge, Boca Raton’s city fathers were banking on out-of-state Shriners to drive beneath the camel and notice a sign that featured rest stops at the town hall. A few months later, undaunted burghers nailed antlers to the head of the camel when they learned that the Elks were also convening in Miami.
Today, there appears to be no trace of either the beaverboard camel or its antlers. Nevertheless, without either one, Boca Raton has become a thriving, vital community in one of the most developed population centers of the state. Its Yamato Road, an east-west artery with a posted speed limit of 45 mph, stretches across southern Palm Beach County, passing beneath Florida’s Turnpike, through country club neighborhoods and the former 1.7 million-square-foot IBM complex, all the way to Federal Highway. The significance of Yamato Road is not so much that it connects the Florida Turnpike with U.S. 1, or even that it brushes Barnhill Mound, considered the most important Indian site in Palm Beach County. Its note is what the name represents to Florida’s history. More than 100 years ago, Yamato Road, near the intersection between the railroad and U.S. 1, was the site of a farming colony of Japanese immigrants.
They called their settlement Yamato, an ancient designation for Japan and the name of the clan that ruled Japan in the fourth century. The colony dated to an early period of Boca’s development just after construction of the 66-mile extension of Flagler’s railroad from West Palm Beach to Miami. Boca Raton, whose name is Spanish for “mouth of a mouse,” was still a sparse settlement situated where dunes and mangroves gave way to hardwood hammocks that covered the marine terrace known as the Atlantic Coastal Ridge. Before Paris Singer commissioned Addison Mizner to design the Everglades Club, and before Napoleon Bonaparte Broward, who vowed to drain the Everglades, was sworn into office as Florida’s 19th governor since attaining statehood, colonists from Miyazu, Japan, wearing suspenders and straw boaters, were hacking away palmetto roots to plant pineapples.