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.