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Surprised by Treasure: Discovering a Florida Explorer of Yesteryear

I come across a real gem every once in a while. This time it was in the form of a book, Ghost Towns of Florida by James R. Warnke. But what makes this special isn’t necessarily the content of the book, but the spirit of the book.

I was browsing the shelves of my work’s library for anything interesting to take home with me, and my eyes rested upon a thin battered book. What’s this? Ghost Towns of Florida, I read. Hmmm.

I took it off the shelf and paged through it. It was held together by ancient tape. The pages were wrinkled and bent at the corners. A smiling picture of the author was on the back. He looked friendly. “Alright, I’ll give it a whirl,” I said.

That night I fell in love, not so much for what the book said, but for its spirit. The author, Warnke, travels across Florida in search of old, abandoned ghost towns. He explores them, documents them, and then digs up their histories to present to us, the readers.

Like I said, it’s about the book’s spirit. While interesting, some of the book can come across as dry (Just the facts, m’am.). And most of the featured ghost towns have probably long since been paved over and cannot be visited, with the exception of their possible reincarnations as strip malls or parking lots. So there’s not a lot of relevancy for today’s destination explorer.

So why was this book dear to my heart? Because James R. Warnke was a Florida Explorer. He had that spirit that I am trying to embody with this blog. He needed to explore, he needed to know, and he needed to share.

Plus, from the scraps I could gather about him from the book, he sounded like a pretty cool dude.

From the back of the book:

“Mr. Warnke abandoned the cold of Wisconsin for the warmth of South Florida in 1956. His interest in the early history of his adopted state began while skin diving along the southeast coastline and the Keys searching for the remains of Spanish Galleons. He later broadened his explorations to almost every corner of the state…”

Yup. He’s a treasure hunter as well as an explorer. That’s pretty cool. Reading further from the back of the book, we learn he worked as a technician for Southern Bell Telephone and Telegraph Company, was a columnist for the Boynton Beach Star, had written articles for diving magazines, and was involved in local history groups. The last bit of text on the back tells us he explores all over Florida and goes camping with his wife and kids. It ends with this:

“He feels that there is a large segment of Florida’s history that remains to be recorded and preserved for future generations.”

Amen, brother. I couldn’t agree more.

Ghost Town of Florida

So this, of course, made me curious and I wanted to find out more about Warnke and his contributions to Florida exploring. I searched through the internet and this is what I was able to dig up:

Ghost Towns of Florida  (1971)

Side Roads of Florida (1973)

The Ghost Towns and Side Roads of Florida (1978)

Balustrades and Gingerbread: Key West’s Handcrafted Homes and Buildings (1978)

Search! (1982) 

Five books; there very well could be more out there. Sites like Amazon.com
only had a few copies of each book in stock, usually for around $10.00-$25.00. New copies of the books were going for around $175. Yikes! A little steep, I think, for books clocking in around 100 pages. But I suppose it is all about supply and demand.

The Boynton Beach Star which he wrote for has been defunct for the last 45 years. It was a weekly paper that ran from 1961-1968. For anybody interested in viewing the papers it appears they are still available in the Boynton Beach City Library. This information comes via the Library of Congress and can be found here.

Then the last thing I looked for (crossing my fingers but not holding my breath) was to see if he was still around. But, alas, according to ancientfaces.com, there is a James R. Warnke from Boynton Beach that lived from 1923-2004. He was 80 years old. It appears the old explorer has passed on.

It’s sad that he is not with us anymore, and I wished that I would have had the opportunity to meet him, but he has still left a lot behind for the rest of us to continue to explore. I, for one, am going to scour the Florida library system for copies of his books to read and enjoy and inspire. Maybe someday I’ll even make the trip down to Boynton Beach library to get my hands on old copies of the Boynton Beach Star.

Here’s to you James R. Warnke!

As always, thanks for reading and keep exploring!

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