The last of the “barefoot mailmen,” Henry John Burkhardt was literally one of the most colorful characters in the early days of the lake area. Believing in the beneficial effect of the sun’s rays on the whole body, he not only walked the beach barefoot, but naked. His skin turned bronze and, with his brown eyes, the Seminole Indians were convinced he was an Indian who had become a white man. Burkhardt, of course, put on his clothes when approaching a settlement or another beach walker.
Henry John Burkhardt was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 26 June 1862, the son of Gottlieb and Christine Daubman Burkhardt. He joined the Navy and traveled around the world before serving his last three years in Italy, where he enjoyed the mild climate. After his discharge at age twenty-four in Philadelphia, he traveled south in search of a climate like that of Italy and found what he was looking for in south Florida.
Burkhardt homesteaded 160 acres of land on Biscayne Bay in today’s Coconut Grove. He took the job of beach mail carrier after the tragic disappearance of Ed Hamilton in October 1887. (See Barefoot Mail Route.) It was 60 miles each way between the Bay and Lake Worth and Burkhardt, striding six mile per hour, enjoyed the job. His job terminated in 1892 when a road was built between Lantana and Lemon City and the mail was transported by wagon.
H.J. was so happy with his new location, he wrote to his brother, Louis W. Burkhardt, to “come on down.” Louis did, bringing his family, and the brothers built a wood and canvas home and store on the east side of Lake Worth upon the site where Flagler’s “Whitehall” currently stands. Together they ran a grocery store and semi-restaurant.
When Henry Burkhardt had to file his homestead claim in 1889, he traveled to the new county seat of Juno, at the head of Lake Worth. He saw a business opportunity there, bought a boat, which he named “Maud S.B.” after his niece, Maude Stewart Burkhardt, and began running a passenger service. Juno was the southern end of the Celestial Railroad and from there passengers needed to travel to various destinations on Lake Worth by boat. Burkhardt charged 50 per person to take them to Brelsford’s dock or $10.00 to go outside in the ocean to Miami. He lived aboard his boat and made Juno his headquarters.
When Henry M. Flagler was ready to build his Royal Poinciana Hotel on the lake shore in Palm Beach, he ordered all commercial businesses to the west shore, where he had bought up property and hired Henry J. Burkhardt to head up a crew to clear the land for a town. Tn 1894, the grocery store was floated by barge across the lake and installed on Clematis Street on the lot the Burkhardts had bought for $400. Henry later sold his half for $500.
H.J. Burkhardt was one of the early organizers of the new town of West Palm Beach. He was elected to be one of the first seven aldermen and presented the first seal of West Palm Beach, a coconut tree encircled with the words, “West Palm Beach, Fla.” which was adopted 5 November 1894.
He moved back to the Miami area in about 1897 and opened a store. He also married Bessie E. . He was hired to be in charge of bringing coconut trees by barge from Elliott’s Key to be planted in Royal Palm Park on the Miami River. Burkhardt ran unsuccessfully for county judge. In the U.S. Census of 1900, he gave his occupation as Quartermaster Cuba, U.S. Service. He and Bessie had a daughter, Mary, born in April 1900.
About 1915, Henry John Burkhardt moved to California and by 1937, had a fruit grove and chicken ranch near San Diego. He died before 1940.