New surfing museum celebrates Palm Beach County sport’s pioneers

Updated April 17, 2015

The 1960s were heady times for surfers in Palm Beach County.

They not only caught the best waves on the East Coast but also starred in their own “highlight reels” at local recreation centers — thanks to “Mr. Gruber,” as the surfers called him, a postman who spent his weekends at the beach, his camera trained on the waves.

When the lights would dim and M.E. Gruber’s slide shows would begin, “you’d have 300 people screaming,” recalls Tom Warnke.

Gruber’s color-soaked photographs, which he shot from 1965 to ‘72, are a centerpiece of the new Surfing Museum in Delray Beach. Eight years in the making, the museum opened its doors in late February on Federal Highway, a couple of blocks north of Atlantic Avenue.

Located inside a former art gallery, it’s a 3,500-square-foot tribute to the rich history of surfing in Palm Beach County, which at one point boasted a dozen surfing clubs, including Possum’s Reef in Riviera Beach, Southeast Surf Syndicate in Lake Worth and Cripple Creek in Boynton Beach.

“People are getting older, and we didn’t feel like our history down here was being saved and represented,” said trustee Fred Salmon, who is 63 and, on this day, sporting a Surf Fossils Surf Club T-shirt.

The surf clubs nurtured surfers who would become world champions and pioneered the way surfing contests are conducted.

But they were politically active, too, says Warnke, who continues to capture surfing titles at age 66. “When Palm Beach banned surfing (in 1965), Palm Beach County surfers took the case to the Supreme Court.”

And they won, with the judge ruling that communities can regulate surfing, but not ban it outright.

The museum also offers a look at the changing Florida coastline, with photos of the defunct Ormond Beach Pier, the pier that once stood near The Breakers in Palm Beach and previous versions of the Lake Worth pier.

Says Warnke, “We’ve watched the Lake Worth pier get knocked down quite a few times.”

The foundation of the museum’s permanent collection is built upon three components:

* Gruber’s 5,000 Kodachrome slides, which were bequeathed to Salmon by Gruber’s estate.

* A rare 1940, balsa-wood surfboard, made by famous board designer Fred Simmons. It’s worth an estimated $20,000.

* And a 70-panel, professionally designed exhibit about the history of Florida surfing, which the museum acquired last year from Florida Atlantic University.

Roughly 30 Florida-made boards also are on display, including a hollow board from 1964 made in the Seacrest High School wood shop and a 1953 Hobie Alter board, “before (Alter) was even putting a label on them,” Warnke says.

The nine volunteer trustees, who worked with the Delray Beach Historical Society to secure this location, want to create a destination attraction in Delray.

“There’s a lot to sink your teeth into here,” Warnke says.

There’s a lot of heart, too. The Surfing Museum is clearly the work of people who’ve had a decades-long love affair with their sport.

“I call surfing a bath for your brain,” Warnke says. “Every surfer has a story about the first time they stood up on a board. It’s so exhilirating that it stays with you.”

Says Salmon, “It’s a free ride. It’s that balancing act between you and the wave that keeps you coming back.”