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Memoir recalls pioneer’s faith in Florida

Last week we told you about early settler Joseph Lark Priest and the memoir his family has self-published. Here’s the rest:

By 1908, Priest, who’d lived at times in the Treasure and Space coasts and the Daytona Beach and St. Augustine areas, had moved from Fort Lauderdale to what’s now Delray Beach. The settlement, then just “Delray,” would not incorporate until 1912. (It’s marking its centennial this year.)

“Delray at the time had just a school, two churches, three grocery stores, one lumber yard, one large canning factory, a post office, a Masonic Lodge and Odd Fellow’s Lodge. Here we found the best people on earth,” Priest wrote in A Florida Pioneer, the Autobiography of Joseph Lark Priest.

Priest wrote that “the train ran regular,” but there was just one sand road, leading north and south, and traveling options were by foot or mule team.

He said mules then cost from $250 to $300 each, at a time when “money was very scarce, common labor one dollar and a quarter per day, carpenters two dollars and a half per day and not many jobs.”

But, he wrote, “It would be impossible for a man to be so lazy that he would starve in Florida. If he will work he can raise anything he wants to eat. If he won’t work he can catch fish, he can get oysters and clams, he can kill rabbits, he can catch coons and opossums, he can cut palmetto cabbage.”

The nearest source of “fire water” was West Palm Beach, an 18-mile trip costing 60 cents on the train. Once, Priest said, he and pioneer John Shaw Sundy went to West Palm Beach by mule; the trip took five hours each way.

Writing his memoir late in life, and with the Depression settled in, Lark said, “Florida has many knockers, mostly by northern papers, but Florida will come. It will take a little time but it is coming. The boom come and went but Florida is coming to stay.”

Priest worked a while as tender of the Atlantic Avenue bridge. He and his wife are buried at the old section of the Delray Beach cemetery. Florida, of course, did come to stay, and it now sports more than 18 million people. “Delray,” now 100, holds about 64,000. Joseph wouldn’t recognize the place.

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Posted in Eliot Kleinberg December 22, 2011 at 10:06 am.

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