Saturday, August 02, 2008

Early Daytona Beach

Recently, Jordan Kahn of the Daytona Beach News-Journal wrote a very fine history of the early days of surfing at Daytona and Miami Beaches, in Florida. Below, is an Excerpt of "Surfing's Lost Chapter - How did Daytona Beach become Florida's 1st surf city," By JORDAN KAHN, DAYTONA BEACH NEWS-JOURNAL, 27 July 2008.

There is a grainy photograph of surfers posing near the Main Street Pier [in Daytona Beach, circa 1938] that holds clues to a lost chapter of local history...

[In the 1930s] Few people in the world had ever seen such a thing as surfing then... Yet there they are, sepia-toned Florida surfers wearing wool swimsuits and riding 16-foot wood boards at a time when Studebakers and Model A Fords rolled down the beach...


From a campsite on the beach a few blocks south of the pier, three brothers waded through the sea foam, and surfing in this city began.

"People didn't know what a surfboard was, and for years they didn't know what we were doing," said Dudley Whitman, one of those brothers.

The puzzling sight of these three brothers from Miami Beach standing above the waves didn't go unnoticed long so near the Boardwalk. In the 1930s, this was the hub of beach activity.

Pep's Pool and Pat Sheedy's Handball Courts were there. The "Flying Mile" race was held on the sand, and boxing rings were erected on the beach.

Within a few years, a chain reaction of surfing discoveries was spreading.

James Nelson of Daytona Beach Shores remembers the day some 70 years ago when he was at the handball courts and saw something in the ocean.

"Some of the lifeguards were out there fooling around on these boards . . ." he said.

Nelson, now 91, was fascinated. He went to talk to them and found out one of the lifeguards made and sold surfboards. Soon afterward, the young Stetson University law student bought an 18-foot red board for $25...


None of the men in that 1938 photo was the first person known to surf Florida, but the details of their boards contain the fingerprints of the man who was.

A fin is visible on one board. And a few bear the telltale dots of nails securing plywood to a hollow frame. These are the inventions of Tom Blake, the seminal trailblazer of surfing as not just sport, but lifestyle and craft.

While living in Hawaii, Blake put the first fin on a surfboard only [four] years before that photo was taken...


... [Hawaiian] Duke Kahanamoku... was famed as much as a surfer as for being an Olympics sensation, setting world records and winning three gold medals in the 1912 and 1920 games.

It was Kahanamoku who inspired Blake to take up surfing.

When Kahanamoku traveled to swim meets, he saved surfing from disappearing by giving the surf exhibitions for which he is now renowned as the "Johnny Appleseed" of modern surfing.

Kahanamoku told his biographer that by 1900, western colonization had so completely stamped out native Hawaiian culture that "surfing had totally disappeared throughout the islands except for a few isolated spots . . . and even there only a handful of men took boards into the sea."

It is surfing's narrow escape through this historic bottleneck that gives it a lineage like a family tree. Ancient Hawaiians are surfing's roots. Kahanamoku is the trunk. And surfing's genesis in Daytona Beach is only one branch removed.


Whitman said lifeguards visiting Miami from Virginia Beach, where Kahanamoku had held a surf demo, first showed him and his brothers how to surf in 1930.

Two years after that, the Whitman brothers were at their oceanfront workshop in Miami Beach when they saw someone paddling a surfboard.

It was Blake, who in his biography, "Tom Blake: The Uncommon Journey of a Pioneer Waterman," said he was looking for these Florida surfers he'd heard about.

Blake taught the Whitmans to build his boards that transformed the sport's 180-pound planks into 80-pound hulls.

These brothers' surfing experiments may have begun in Miami, but they did most of their actual wave riding in Daytona Beach as students at the University of Florida in Gainesville.

"We worked every minute so we could leave on the weekend and go to Daytona and surf," Whitman said.

"We actually surfed at Daytona; probably one of the first times was after the 1934 hurricane. . . . We carried our surfboards on a trailer and camped on the beach."

Blake could have directly influenced other locals, too.

He was a lifeguard in Florida during the early 1930s and toured with the Red Cross promoting the use of surfboards to save people from drowning.

And among the surfers in that 1938 photo are Paul Hart, a lifeguard examiner for the Red Cross, and Donald Gunn and Dick Every, who are both wearing the wool tank-top uniforms of the day for Daytona Beach lifeguards.

Every even remembers a picture of Blake surfing in Daytona Beach at Harvey Street.


... "I remember seeing Dudley driving into town in a fancy convertible with surfboards towed behind it," said Every, now 85. "My brother and I decided to build boards like them."

Gaulden Reed said in an interview before his death in November [2007] at 89 that people started making Blake-style boards in Seabreeze and Mainland high school shop classes.

Bill Wohlhuter, the owner of Port Orange Seafood today, said he built his board from plans he got from Every's brother, Don.

"I once mounted a 1 1/2-horsepower Water Witch outboard on that board," Wohlhuter said. "I steered the tiller with my foot!"

Many of these men -- including the three Whitmans -- are in the photo, preserved by the surfing hall of fame in Cocoa Beach, the Halifax Historical Museum in Daytona Beach and the Whitman family museum in Miami.

The occasion is said to be the East Coast or Florida surfing championships. By today's standards though, those boards are closer to boats.

"They were kind of like a freight train," Whitman said.

"They were very much faster for paddling, slow to get started of course, but probably faster than you could paddle a canoe once you got going. And you could catch big waves much farther out."

After hurricanes, to make it past the onrush of whitewater, Reed said he used to throw his board off the pier and dive in.

"During the hurricane season, you could catch some pretty good-sized ones, maybe 7- , 8- , 9-foot waves that were breaking out there beyond the pier," Nelson said.

"You'd have to really walk the board. You'd catch the wave and you'd have to walk about four or five feet to keep the nose down and then walk it back and forth to keep it going."

They stuck their hands in the water like oars to prod those big boards into turns.

"To be a cool cat and get the girls," Nelson said, "you had to lean over with your hand to steer it."

The real hot dog move was shooting the pier, surfing through the pilings from one side to the other.

"I almost lost a kneecap trying to do it," Nelson said.


When some of Daytona Beach's surfers made their first pilgrimage to the sport's birthplace, these Florida upstarts would achieve a degree of stature with the world's most hallowed surfing club.

The relatively advanced boards the Whitmans are holding in that 1938 photo defied odds in arriving in Waikiki... They were beautifully crafted; one made with mahogany and brass screws.

Blake had given the Whitmans a letter of introduction to the Outrigger Canoe Club, the first surfing club.

"We were just kids and we showed it to Duke," Whitman said. "But he didn't really have time for a couple of haole (Hawaiian slang for mainland outsiders) boys. So we went ahead and unwrapped our surfboards. People gathered around to watch us unpack and when the Hawaiians saw our surfboards, they gave us surf racks of honor."

The Whitmans were made club members and they surfed next to Kahanamoku. Reed also flew [probably travelled by steamship, as commercial aviation was still in its infancy] to Hawaii and met Kahanamoku and Blake. And Every met and surfed alongside Kahanamoku at Makaha.

Sadly, the life these men gave to an embryonic Daytona Beach surf culture nearly vanished.


A nucleus of roughly 45 Daytona Beach surfers had developed. As quickly as surfing was becoming part of life in Daytona Beach, World War II and its exodus of young men would all but end it.

In the days leading up to the war, Nelson sold Mainland High School grad George Doerr "a half interest" in his $25 red wooden surfboard.

"When World War II came along," Nelson said, "(Doerr) went into the Air Force and he was a fighter pilot and got shot down and was in a German prison camp for a couple of years."

Reed said the only person he remembers surfing with during the war was Brewster Shaw, a famous local beach race driver.

And on a coast suddenly on high alert for German submarines and spies, surfing went from a bizarre to a suspicious sight.

"Brewster and I were in front of the Boardwalk and we came in after dark because the waves were so good, and we were reported to the police that two men had come in on torpedoes," Reed said.

They were surrounded at gunpoint by military police.

Reed said another time he was out past the end of the pier and a patrol boat approached him, machine guns drawn.

"I'm saying, 'No! No! No! Surfboard! Surfboard! Don't Fire!'" Reed said. "Scared my mule!"

When Every returned home from the war in '45, he said, "there was no surfing at all."

Tony Sasso, a longtime director of the East Coast Surfing Hall of Fame Museum in Cocoa Beach, said it's been very hard to come by stories about surfing at that time.

"Right around 1940 the trail goes dead. It doesn't start back up again until the 1950s," Sasso said. "Everything started from scratch again."

It is as if the war erased the heritage of Daytona Beach's surfing pioneers as cleanly as footprints washed by waves from the sand.

Only a few photos and people survive to stake Daytona Beach's claim as Florida's first surf city.

"I kind of hate to admit it, being from Cocoa Beach where we call ourselves the East Coast surfing capitol," said Sasso, "but the first seeds were planted in the Daytona Beach area."


By 1958, foam and fiberglass surfboards had transformed the sport.

Richard Brown of Daytona Beach turned 14 and bought his first surfboard that year. He remembers being one of the very first people at Seabreeze High School to have one.

"There were some guys at Mainland," he said. "But by '69, everybody at Seabreeze had a surfboard, or damn near."

To those who were catching this new wave, it felt as if surfing had just been born. But Richard and his brother Dana, who today own the insurance company Hayward Brown Inc., grew up around surfing.

And it was some of these early surfing pioneers who almost literally handed down the sport. Dick Every, who had the first foam surfboard in town, used to lend it to Richard and Dana. And Oscar Clairholme made a hollow board they used to play on as kids.

"In fact, we had it out in the ocean one day and it sank. We lost it," Richard said.

What has generally been remembered as Florida's first generation of surfers was, in fact, the second. And these Floridians lived the kinds of experiences romanticized by Hollywood's beach-blanket movies.

As a lifeguard, Dana Brown often hung out on the beach in a palm frond and wood shack in front of the Daytona Plaza Hotel and rented surfboards.

"In the summertime," Richard said, "my brother Dana used to anchor a sailboat out off of Daytona Plaza. We had pretty big boards back then, too, and my brother and his friends would each put a case of beer and a beach bunny on their board and paddle out to the sailboat for an evening of revelry."

... Richard remembers one of the best days of surfing he ever had was after a hurricane in 1964.

"I came home from Gainesville because I knew it was going to be good and I surfed in front of the old Voyager Hotel," he said. "You couldn't lose your board because it would smack into the sea wall. There was no beach... We'd never seen waves like that; it was so big, 10- or 12-foot waves."

Richard even saw what he called "the day the style of surfing changed."

He was in high school when two road-tripping surfers from California paddled out. They were all shooting the pier, riding gently rolling outside waves they called "humpers." Suddenly the Californians headed in.

"We figured, 'Well hell, they don't like it. They're leaving,'" Richard said. "And the next thing we see is their heads from the back of the waves screaming right and left and then they would do a kick out and the board would come flying back out of the wave.

"We were just sitting there dumbfounded. We thought you'd be killed if you tried to surf in the shallow water in big wave shore pound," he said. "Then we started doing it."


Is it possible that boogie boarders were the first wave riders in Florida?

There are numerous accounts of belly boarding, as it was called generations ago, predating surfing in the state.

Dudley Whitman said in 1930 when the group of lifeguards visiting Miami taught him to surf, he and his brothers had already been riding belly boards.

The St. Augustine Record archives contain an article about a man named Guy Wolfe riding the waves in 1914. The article says Wolfe rode on his belly on wood planks covered in painted canvas that had "barrel stays" for a sled-like nose.

And one of Daytona Beach's first surfers, native Gaulden Reed, who was born in 1919, said in his life both body surfing and belly boarding had always been among the sights at the beach.

"Prior to (surfing), we were really expert body surfers," Reed said before his death last year. "We also built belly boards that were about 4 feet long and 2 feet wide by putting thin boards together and crossing them with two small boards and rounding the nose. They were only good for catching a breaking wave and riding the foam in."

How this more basic wave sport made it to Florida before surfing is unknown...

The idea could have been imported by people who had either visited Hawaii or cities in California and the eastern seaboard that had been exposed to canoe surfing, traditional surfing and body surfing as demonstrated by Duke Kahanamoku in his travels.


... [At] the East Coast Surfing Hall of Fame Museum in Cocoa Beach and the Halifax Historical Museum in Daytona Beach... Only two of the 16 people are named... Dudley Whitman and Floyd Graves, but the names are written in a way that indicates who is who.

A total of 28 names of people surfing in Daytona Beach during that time were given during interviews for this story.

These are the 16 surfers in the 1938 photo. Fourteen of them are now identified; Wilbur Flowers, Barney Barnhart Jr., Bill Whitman, Stanley Whitman, Dudley Whitman, Don Every, Earl Blank, Bill Wohlhuter, Paul Hart, Donald Gunn, Floyd Graves, Al Bushman, James Nelson and Dick Every.

An additional 13 surfers of that era were named in interviews: Gaulden Reed, Welling Brewster Shaw, Oscar Clairholme, George Doerr, Tom Porter, Buster MacFarland, Nelson Rippey, "Nudder" Wilcox, Charles Spano, Carlisle "Boop" Odum, Earnest Johnson, George Boone and George Jeffcoat.

Plus there are two surfers from the 1938 photos that remain unidentified. That's a total of 29 surfers.

James Nelson remembers the photo as taking place after the event and after some of the competitors had already left. And in the photo, only 16 surfers are shown, but Dudley Whitman is wearing a No. 24.

Dick Every said there were probably about 10 or 15 more surfers in the area who didn't come to the event, giving 1938 Daytona Beach a rough estimate of 40 to 45 surfers.

"There was nobody from New Smyrna surfing and I don't recall anybody from Cocoa either," Every said.

Paul "Bitsy" Hart won the contest that day, which in interviews was sometimes called the Florida Surfing Championships and sometimes the East Coast Surfing Championships.

"(Hart) was in the same fraternity we were in, in Gainesville," Dudley Whitman said. "We used to stay with him. His mother had the drug store on Main Street. He built his own surfboard."

Earl Blank, who died in 1993, was, among other things, a lifeguard and a hobby beekeeper.

Bushman and Nelson were law students at Stetson University in DeLand when the photo was taken.

Barnhardt remembers Boone and Jeffcoat were lifeguards in the 1930s.

Johnson's family owned bait-and-tackle stores in the Daytona Beach area.

Wilcox was a boxer and a lifeguard.

Spano was a city champ handball player and a head lifeguard.

Clairholme was a builder in the area.

Shaw was the father of William "Flea" Shaw, who coached and married the four-time world champion surfer from Flagler Beach, Frieda Zamba Shaw.

It's noteworthy that Pep's Pool was a public swimming pool at the Boardwalk near the foot of the Main Streer Pier in the time because the son of the pool's owners is in the photo, Barney Barnhardt Jr.

"The kid on the far left is a boy named Wilbur Flowers," Barnhardt said. "We were both 12 years old then.

"We weren't in the contest, but the photographer said, 'Hey you've got a board. Get in the picture.' Let me tell you an interesting thing about that picture. My grandfather lived in Akron, Ohio, and he saw that picture in the Akron Beacon Journal because it went out on The Associated Press wire."


  1. What was factually incorrect?
    -- Jordan Kahn

  2. Jordan ~ You did a fantastic job with this article. There's so little really known about the earliest days of surfing on the USA's East Coast... Any errors you had in the article are minuscule in comparison with the piece overall... Would love to read some more! ~ Malcolm

  3. Awsome info. Great job.

  4. Poor Daytona Beach, today is but a shadow if its past. The horrible economic decay caused by years of corruption has taken its toll. For Daytona Beach Unfiltered, Unadulterated News, see The Daytona Post.


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