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This Week in History
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While much of southern Florida’s interior remains uninhabited swamp and scrub, most of us enjoy the luxuries of 21st century living, including traversing paved roads in air-conditioned vehicles. Not that long ago, all of Florida was unspoiled wilderness, and travel was more of an adventure.
Earlier this year, reader Harrison Hine of Tequesta forwarded to us a written account of four friends traveling by foot and canoe across the southern peninsula, from Fort Myers to Palm Beach.
The year: 1893. West Palm Beach would incorporate a year later, Palm Beach County not until 1909. This area still was part of Dade County, which stretched from the upper Keys to the Stuart area and sported all of about 1,000 residents.
The first-person account, typed on a manual typewriter in all caps, is by A.F. Gonzalez, who was at that point “85 years young.”
That late summer day in another century, he’d been only 19. And made a fateful split-second decision to join the sojourn.
The economy in tiny Fort Myers was dead and the four hoped to find work in Palm Beach, where Henry Flagler was building what would open in April 1894 as the Royal Poinciana Hotel, transforming Palm Beach from a wilderness outpost to “the American Riviera.”
At the last minute, one of the four men planning the trip changed his mind, and Gonzalez got permission from his mother to go. The four expected the trip to take four days. It took more than 15 and nearly killed them.
The four left Fort Myers on Sept. 1, 1893. They made four miles the first afternoon and by the second night were at Fort Denaud, near present-day LaBelle. They canoed through several lakes and spent a third night. They caught and ate a deer and a wild turkey the next morning. They spent a fourth night near the south shore of Lake Okeechobee, then raised sails on their canoes and sped to a spot they identified as Pelican Island, where they stayed their fifth night.
They then left their canoes and started walking east through the Everglades. They worked through water that at times was waist-deep and saw grass that Gonzalez said rose as much as 7 feet above their heads. They forded a stream that was “miles long with about 2 feet of water in it and about 50 yards across.” It was teeming with small fish who were being pursued by water moccasin.
“I tell you,” Gonzalez wrote, “I wished more times than one that I was back in Fort Myers.”
Next week: Rescue
For farming and other reasons, pioneers built their homes along what is now the Intracoastal Waterway. (Photo courtesy of Historical Society of Palm Beach County)
This Florida map, likely produced between 1889 and 1893, shows how southern Florida’s peninsula looked when A.F. Gonzalez, 19, and three others trekked from Fort Myers to Palm Beach.
Tags: maps, pioneers
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.
Tags: Delray Beach, pioneers
That the modern history of our area is relatively brief brings an advantage: We’re not far removed from its origins. And the best local history books are written not by professors but by the people who were there.
With Delray Beach now marking its centennial, this spring, retired filmmaker Ray Priest of the city sent us a copy of A Florida Pioneer: the Autobiography of Joseph Lark Priest.
Joseph, Ray’s great-grandfather, was born in Jessup, Ga., in 1860 and lived in Florida from 1866 to his death in 1938.
Late in life, Priest wrote a handwritten manuscript that was passed around until it all but fell apart in the 1940s. A daughter typed it up, mistakes and all, and the writings sat in a safe deposit box until 1962.
A relative eventually forwarded a copy to Ray Priest’s sister, Pam Priest Tubbs of Stuart.
“She was charmed by it,” Ray Priest said.
At the urging of some amateur historians in the Treasure Coast who’d done the same thing, Tubbs had it self-published in 2010.
At first, she had followed advice and had the grammar cleaned up. “It was terrible, so my sister was determined to leave it exactly as is,” Ray Priest said.
The family printed 500 copies and is distributing it to the historical societies of the areas where their patriarch lived — in Palm Beach County, the Treasure and Space coasts, the Daytona Beach and St. Augustine areas, and Fort Lauderdale.
A sister married immigrant Oswald Augustus Lang, leader of the Civil War Battle of Jupiter Lighthouse that we chronicled in our Aug. 11 and Aug. 18 columns.
The Palm Beach Inlet, or Lake Worth Inlet, was first called Lang’s Inlet. He had dug a trench toward the beach in the 1860s that lowered the lake to sea level.
“He said he was walking up the beach and he came to a place where the water was almost breaking over, so he picked up a piece of board and dug a small ditch across, got the water started and almost had to run to keep from being washed away,” Priest writes.
“In a few minutes, it was a large inlet there. He (Lang) said in a few days there came thousands and thousands of dead fish where the salt water had killed the fresh water fish.”
Next Week: Trains, mules and possums.
Joseph Lark Priest (seated, right) and his family, circa 1905. (Photo courtesy of Priest family)
Congress passed the Armed Occupation Act on Aug. 4, 1842, (three years before Florida became a state) to encourage the settlement of Florida after the Second Seminole War. The act granted 160 acres to anyone who would live on the land for at least five years. There were four concentrations of settlers in coastal south Florida: the Indian River community near present day Fort Pierce, the Jupiter settlement, the Lake Worth colony, and a small group in the Biscayne Bay area. Twenty-one settlers applied for tracts in the Lake Worth region. They were gone by the early 1870s when a new group of pioneers arrived to settle the area more permanently.
Tags: pioneers, This Week in History