John P. and Lillian Pedersen of Racine, Wisconsin, brought their three children to Florida after the Great Depression and bought and developed land throughout south Florida during the 1940s. They purchased 300 acres in 1950, originally homesteaded by the pioneer Raulerson family, from the City of Boca Raton and Palm Beach County.
The Pedersens developed about 175 acres into Africa USA. Miles of canals and lakes were dug, with an artificial waterfall and geyser. Over 55,000 plants were added to the landscape.
Attorney Frederick C. "Ted" Prior recalled visiting the project under construction:
Roy Weber of Brockway, Weber and Brockway [engineers]; Tommy Cochran, CPA, in the Comeau Building; [my law partner] Bud Dickinson; myself—about eight of us went down to see Africa USA. It was just getting started. They were digging the canals … and we were potential investors. … [W]e did not participate.
The Pedersens’ son Jack spent seven months in Africa collecting animals, including rare Grevy’s zebras. The animals made a nine-week journey to Port Everglades by steamship, with Florida Senator George Smathers’ assistance in obtaining permission for their arrival; the animals all arrived safely. Additional animals were purchased from zoos.
On March 10, 1953, Africa USA opened with free admission to the gardens; the Jungle Train Tour was 95 cents. The animals all roamed free, a new concept at that time; Lion Country Safari would not open in West Palm Beach until 1967. Africa USA attracted 300,000 visitors a year, and appeared on the cover of Life magazine on August 1, 1960.
But as Boca Raton grew, residents complained about the noise and traffic generated by Africa USA. The City of Boca Raton tried to condemn land for other development. Additional problems, including a bug infestation, with the Department of Agriculture led to the closing of the attraction in 1961. The animals were sold to zoos around the country. The property is now the Camino Gardens subdivision.
During Thanksgiving weekend 1969, Palm Beach International Raceway hosted the First Annual Palm Beach International Music and Arts Festival, nicknamed “Woodstock South.” Raceway owner David Rupp lined up top bands such as Sly and the Family Stone, the Byrds, Jefferson Airplane, Grand Funk Railroad, Janis Joplin, and the final act, the Rolling Stones. Performers were ferried by helicopter between the festival and the Colonnades Hotel on Singer Island, as was society photographer Bob Davidoff, hired to document the 72-hour event.
About 40,000 concertgoers bought $20 tickets to the weekend, which was marred by rain and cold, and sales of tainted drugs; Rupp lost $300,000. Sheriff William Heidtman later admitted to planting red fire ants and encouraging alligators into the nearby canals; his deputies made 114 drug arrests.