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Teaching and Preaching

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The first schoolhouse in southeast Florida
and Palm Beach. Courtesy HSPBC.

The First School

The first schoolhouse in southeast Florida was built in 1886 on land purchased from David Brown and Squire Hoagland by the Ladies' Aid Society, about a mile north of the present Flagler Memorial Bridge in Palm Beach. Dade County contributed $200 for lumber, which came by schooner from Jacksonville, to build the 22-x-40-foot schoolhouse. Local men donated their labor and the Ladies Aid Society raised about $200 for books and furnishings. The restored building, known as the “Little Red Schoolhouse,” is now located in Phipps Ocean Park, Palm Beach. 

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Hattie Gale (1870-1958), from
Kansas, was the first teacher in
Palm Beach. After the first school
term Hattie returned to Kansas
to finish college. Courtesy HSPBC.

Hattie Louise Gale, the first teacher, was just 16 years old. The first class had 12 students, seven of them from the Dimick and Moore families, and ranged in age from 6 to 17. A decade later, Hattie recalled the school’s beginnings: 

There were few children and these were far apart. Their mothers were their teachers, or in some instances they were sent away to school. But … the busy mothers said, ‘We must give these little ones a school.’

The women’s fingers had been busy, and there was an accumulation of garments and fancy work, so of course there must be a fair. … The winter tourist was here, too. … [T]he first fair and the year’s work of the society [resulted in] $226.80. This was no trifling sum when the size of the community at that time is considered, [and] a quantity of chairs were purchased.

A rough table, running lengthwise of the house, had been built of scraps left from the building, and at this the pupils sat. There were no blackboards, and very little of the usual equipment of a school. The school books were such as could be gathered up in the several homes. … It is pleasant to think how largely it was a labor of love.

Hattie Gale Sanders, in Lake Worth Historian (1896)

Teaching and Preaching: Houses of Worship

After the first three-month term, Hattie Gale returned to finish school at Kansas State Horticultural College, where her father, Reverend Elbridge Gale, had taught horticulture until 1884, when he built the first log cabin on the west side of Lake Worth. 

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This was the first building for the
Bethesda-by-the-Sea Episcopal Church
which was constructed in 1889. It could
seat 100 people. Courtesy HSPBC.

One of the ways the pioneers came together was to practice their faith, which started as mainly Protestant Christian. The first recorded worship services, in 1875, were Congregational and held in homes around the lake. The pastor, Reverend M. E. Dwight, helped to build those homes as a carpenter, and performed the first marriage ceremony in the lake country. 

In 1881 the Congregational Home Mission Society sent Father Dilley, who wore a high silk hat while evangelizing up and down the coast. His church, Lake Worth Congregational, held services in private homes, in Commodore Clarke’s Yacht Club, or at the schoolhouse in Palm Beach.

About that time, the Episcopal Bishop of Florida also held a worship service in the schoolhouse. Two acres were purchased for $300.00 in order to build their own church. Reverend Joseph Mulford came from Troy, New York, to serve as vicar. His nephew, Sanford Cluett, described his uncle’s artistry in making the church’s seating during an interview in 1962:

[T]he first thing he did was to get some buoys and make a seat that could be tipped forward or back… And it could be put up higher or lower. And anybody that went near that place where he was building that little church, he’d ask them to sit down in this chair, and he made all these adjustments and got that person to say, 'Well, that’s the most comfortable thing, chair that I ever had.' Well, then he took a lead pencil and where certain joints were, he’d mark these all the way through, all these adjustments, every one. And I think, before that church was finished, that there probably had been 20 or 30 people from way down the southern part of that country to—well, for 20 miles, that used to come there.  [I]t was a nice little church and the people came, gradually, from all over. 

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Payne AME Chapel in Palm Beach, ca 1894.

Courtesy HSPBC.

Bethesda-by-the-Sea would soon outgrow this building on Lake Trail. Also in Palm Beach, a black community called the Styx developed for the African American laborers on Palm Beach, on County Road north of the Royal Poinciana Hotel. Two churches sprung up there in 1893: Tabernacle Missionary Baptist, and Bethel, renamed in 1894 as Payne Chapel African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.). When the landowners wanted to develop the Palm Beach property, the blacks reestablished their community and churches in West Palm Beach, where many of their descendants still live.

 

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