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Henry Joseph Sterling

Henry Joseph Sterling (c. 1867-1947) was born in New Jersey to Scotch-Irish parents and worked in a cotton mill as a teenager. He married Mary Elizabeth Tucker of Maryland in 1887. The Sterlings’ daughter, Ethel, was born in Pennsylvania in 1891, where they heard that opportunities lay in South Florida at the end of Henry Flagler’s Florida East Coast Railway.

In 1896 the Sterling family came to Linton, which later became Delray, just two years after its founders, William S. Linton and David Swinton, arrived. Sterling bought land from Flagler’s Model Land Company and others and later said, “I had never done any carpentering, but I must have a house right away, a roof to cover my furniture, and my stock of groceries soon to arrive from the north. I went to work with hammer, saw, hatchet, level, and square, and with what help I could get from the neighbors I had my house and store constructed in due time. There was no dentist, no doctor, no blacksmith, no undertaker. I filled in in all such capacities; I pulled teeth, shod horses, visited the sick, and buried the dead; doing things which in my boyhood days I never expected to be called upon to do."

Sterling immediately built a packinghouse near the railroad and opened the Sterling-Russell Commissary on Atlantic Avenue with 4,200 pounds of “groceries” shipped by rail from Jacksonville. His partner, Russell, left after about a year, as did many of the early settlers after the first season’s freeze left nothing to put in the packinghouse, but Sterling had faith in Florida’s future. He invested in various businesses, including the first lumber and ice companies, and was a founder of the first bank in Delray.

Sterling donated land for the first white church at Atlantic and Swinton avenues and more than a city block for recreation where the police station was later built. He developed several properties, including the Casa Del Rey Hotel in 1925. The Sterlings added to their income by taking in boarders; in 1910 they included a fruit packer from the packinghouse, a news reporter, and two telegraph operators. By 1930 they moved to “Sea Lure,” their oceanfront home on what would become Sandoway Park.

Daughter Ethel was teaching the early settlers’ children by the time she was nineteen. She was chosen to place the cornerstone for the first jail in Delray Beach. Ethel married Dr. William C. Williams, Jr., whose ancestor William Williams was a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Dr. Williams was in the Georgia and Florida legislatures and a co-founder of Bethesda Memorial Hospital. Their son, William C. Williams III, became one of Florida’s youngest circuit court judges.

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