Celebrating our 125th annual Pioneer Picnic on Saturday, May 1, 2021!
May 6, 1984. In a few days, the footsteps of their descendants will be heard across the graves of early pioneers who are buried in Pioneer Park. Originally a cemetery and now the grounds of the Norton Gallery in West Palm Beach, the site is the location of the annual Lake Worth Pioneers’ Association picnic and meeting. May 12, this coming Saturday, will mark the 88th picnic to be held by the pioneer families since the formal organization of the settlers of the shores of Lake Worth in 1894.
Lake Worth, part of the intracoastal waterway, was named after Brig. Gen. William Jenkins Worth, who came to Florida in 1841 to try to settle military problems with the Indians and was later second in command of U.S. troops in our war with Mexico. Worth commanded the thousands of U.S. troops in Florida’s principal Seminole Indian War, which terminated in 1842. Worth Avenue in Palm Beach, the city of Lake Worth, and Fort Worth, Texas were also named after him.
Originally, the lake was a landlocked body of fresh water until early settlers created the first inlet. It was a lake so clear and clean that the bottom was easily visible even at its deepest point. After August Lang, who lived near the site of Palm Beach’s Old Bethesda Church during and after the Civil War, the first permanent settlers of the lake area came in 1873.
Until 1909, when Palm Beach County was established, Dade County extended to the St. Lucie River, at Stuart. In fact, Juno served as the county seat of Dade County from 1889 to 1899, following a county-wide vote in which the residents of the northern portion of the county outvoted those of the Miami area. Early settlers had to travel as far as Jacksonville by boat to buy the lumber and supplies needed to build the first homes on the lake shore.
Boats were the mainstay of early life on the lake, providing not only transportation of people, but mail, food, and the necessities for building a community. It was because of the importance of boat transportation that all of the earliest arrivals settled on or near the lake shore Homesteads were often widely spaced, with the nearest neighbors being a long distance away This made life lonely for many settlers, and to alleviate the isolation, they gathered together for picnics several times a year.
The first picnics were held on Christmas and the Fourth of July, two important holidays on the lake. People would travel for miles, sometimes having to stop overnight on the way, to enjoy the pleasure of each others’ company. A few houses were bustling with people, as shown by the account of a young woman who came to her family’s home on the lake in 1876, just after finishing college:
“My father’s house was, at that time, by far the largest upon the lake. A great hall, sixteen feet wide, ran from front to back, with large rooms opening on either side, and a repetition of this plan on a floor above. And oh, most curious, a thatched palmetto roof! In all ordinary storms, this roof proved as tight as a drum, and no drop of water came through. In this house were living several families; friends who had bought land on the lake and were making preparations for future homes. Life was hilarious, music and games during the evening; boating, bathing, and beach- walking filled each day.”
Game, fish, fruits and vegetables were plentiful then. One early settler’s account of the game killed the first winter he spent on the lake included 18 bears, 34 deer and 39 wild turkeys. Also abundant on the lake shores were swarms of mosquitoes. Nevertheless, with the game, sweet potatoes. and other vegetables, and wild fruit, the first picnics offered tables groaning with good things to eat, as well as gaiety and companionship.
As the small band of settlers along the shores of Lake Worth grew, they outgrew the homes where there was once ample room for picnickers. It was then that the picnics began to be held on Munyon’s Island, at that time a lush and beautiful island, near the north end of Lake Worth. It was a perfect spot for the now annual picnic, except for the land crabs who lived there. At each invasion of the reveling picnickers, the crabs would come out in force to torment and frighten the intruders. Later, the settlers left the island to the crabs and began picnicking on the beach of the Croker estate (below present Widener’s Curve) at the wreck of the ship, the James Judge. Later still, picnics were held at what later became DuBois Fishing Camp on the inlet in Jupiter.
The Lake Worth Pioneers’ Association was formally organized in 1894 by 84 of the original pioneers who lived around the lake. It became legally chartered by the state of Florida in 1897. Membership was limited to pioneer families and their descendants who settled on the shores of Lake Worth on or before December 31, 1893. Later, when the state charter was applied for, an associate membership was created to include those coming here up to and including 1895 (recently extended to 1900), as well as pioneer families living on the east coast of Florida from Titusville southward prior to December 31, 1893.
The families of those early pioneers have met for many years at Pioneer Park. Originally a cemetery and park, established before 1900, it encompassed the verdant grounds forming the site of the Norton Gallery before the Gallery opened in 1941.
A gazebo stood in the center of the park near an open-sided octagonal shelter, surrounded by plants and shade trees among which card tables were placed for picnics. The graves were inconspicuously located mostly on the north side, extending toward the center. When Mr. and Mrs. Ralph Norton wanted to establish an art center and gallery in West Palm Beach, the pioneer association endorsed the project and withdrew a requirement that the site be preserved as a park and cemetery.
In 1921, the trustees of the affiliated Lakeside Cemetery Association had released the land to the City of West Palm Beach for the sum of $10.00 per year so that it could become a city- maintained park. Many of the graves were moved across Dixie Highway to Woodlawn Cemetery, but many remain, unmarked, in Pioneer Park, some under the floors of the Norton Gallery. A bronze plaque listing those still buried there is located on the west side of the gallery building. The 1921 deed to the city stated that the property should always be known as Pioneer Memorial Park, that the monument erected there to honor the earliest pioneers should be maintained, and that the Pioneers’ Association should have the right to hold its annual and special meetings on the premises.
So it is that today those picnics which used to be held at the park on tables under the trees are now held in the Norton Gallery itself. The picnic tables still sag a bit under the myriad dishes brought by association members, but now they stand in the courtyard of the gallery.
Children still flock to the meetings held in Pioneer Hall following the picnic to hear the often fascinating tales told by those who still remember the early days along the shores of Lake Worth. They no longer get to miss a day of school, as they did when the meetings were held on Thursdays. But nonetheless, they are drawn by the magic of the early days and the tempting food.
As the footsteps of the pioneer families sound in the halls of the Norton Gallery and prayer is given at the beginning of another picnic, the oldest existing association in Palm Beach County will once again gather together. The members will share good food, fond memories and the joy of being with old friends once again. And this time they will be joined by an important guest, the great-granddaughter of August Lang, the very first white inhabitant of the Palm Beaches, 120 years ago.
1952 Pioneer Picnic attendees
Today there stands a stone tablet on the southwest corner of the Norton Art Gallery Grounds on Dixie Highway in West Palm Beach. Engraved on each side of the tablet are 42 names of pioneers, one group having arrived on the shores or lake Worth between 1873 and 1885, and the other between 1886 and 1893. There are no first cc middle names, just initials and the last names. The idea for this book came about when the authors determined to find at least one given name for each of these pioneers. In the process, they found out much more about many of them.
In 1890, the entire population of Dade County was 257. Dade County reached north to the St. Lucie River and south to Cape Florida. About 200 of the county’s residents lived on the shores
of Lake Worth. There was no one living between Biscayne Bay and Lake Worth.
In May 1893, Henry Morrison Flagler began building the Royal Poinciana Hotel on what is now Palm Beach. It was to be the largest wooden hotel in the world at that time. Meanwhile, Flagler was extending his railroad southward to the shores of Lake Worth to bring in hotel guests.
Late in 1893, the area’s settlers, realizing things would never be the same, decided to form the Lake Worth Pioneers’ Association, limited to those already living on the lake. Eighty-four heads of families signed up, the ones whose names are on the stone tablet. This by no means represented the total pioneers as some declined
to join, and many had wives and children.
In hunting for these pioneers’ given names, the authors found much more: names of spouses and children, as well as articles about their lives in early publications. An exciting “find” was a scrapbook, kept by Ella Dimick, with many obituaries of the pioneers and some marriage notices.
Much effort was made to be as accurate as possible but some errors are bound to occur. The sources did not always agree requiring very thorough research. Mary Linehan had the use of many local sources and interviewed descendants. Pioneer family members have shared information and illustrations.
This, then, is a collection of biographies of as many of the original pioneers as information was found for, and also includes some local history of their day. 2018--the biographies referred to in this excerpt can be found as "Original Pioneer Bios" alphabetized by pioneer last name.
Lounging the other morning in my massive rocking chair
Upon the front porch of our house I idly wondered where
In all the world, there could be found a spot so passing
And as I sat and gently rocked, the spirit of the place O’er came me. And I yawned, and dozed, and covering up my face, I dreamed a dream whose outlines in these rhymes I’ll try to trace.
The trade wind rustled through the cocoa’s ever-restless boughs;
The crow cawed hoarsely in the tree, his distant mate to rouse, The mocker whistled to his love, “Oh! Come and be my spouse.”
A happy worker, passing by lifted his voice in song; The clock inside tolled out the hour in querulous “dingdong.”
And neighbor Dimick’s loud-mouthed mule brayed oft, and loud, and long.
Yet ears are not the only things that revel at Palm Beach Complete delight for every sense is here within one’s reach;
And Touch, Taste, Sight and Smell can surely nothing more beseech.
But lest these introductory remarks may tedious seem, I’ll cut them short, and quick proceed to tell about my dream -
That vision which afforded me enjoyment so supreme.
As I gazed forth upon the Lake (this was my dream you
A little village I espied, whose houses - white as snow -
Straggled along the water front, for half a mile or so.
I looked again, and doing so, could scarce believe my eyes;
And surely there was cause enough for my complete surprise;
To think that in one day could grow a village of such size!
And while I gazed and wondered, I beheld a lot of steam;
And very much to my surprise, I heard a whistle scream.
It was the southbound “fast mail” train - strange as it may
A hundred eager passengers rushed from the train, pell mell, To board the little steamboat, which, with loudly ringing bell, Would quickly ferry them across to Dimick’s new hotel.
This was a building vast and grand, which fronted on the
With full four hundred guest-chambers, where one could
And every winter, here, did Dimick lots of money make.
Thus, when the horse car passed the door, toward the Inlet bound, The tiniding of the horse’s bells seemed no uncommon sound.
Indeed, I scarcely noticed it nor turned my head around.
So, when I looked at Brelsford’s Point and saw a “Grand Hotel.”
With broad piazzas round three sides, and crowds of people - well -
I marvelled not one whit; nor did I think my dream a “sell.”
But when I took the car and rode down “Lake Worth
Past three good miles of mansions fair, I will confess to
It almost took my breath away ‘Twas too good to be true
And, as I note the changed scene and view the crowds so gay, I slyly hug myself, and think; Didn’t I always say That this lake would become a winter resort some day?
Here, young or old; here, grave or gay; here delicate or strong
Can find that perfect climate which they’ve sought in vain so long.
If ‘tis not so, I pray you then, what means this mighty throng?
And, as I maundered thus, I heard a wild tumultuous
And saw a mighty ocean steamship landing at a pier,
With crowds of tourists, who had come direct from New
Just then my dream came to an end for sure as I’m a sinner, My wife’s voice sounded in my ear, “Go catch some fish for dinner.”
by Samuel Barton, 1891
1919 Pioneer Picnic attendees
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