Reprinted from Overdue in Paradise, The Library History of Palm Beach County, Part I: Public Libraries; Lake Worth Library, pp.77-81, with the very kind permission of contributing author and editor, Ginger L. Pederson. Published by Palmango Press, copyright 2017 by Janet Devries. All rights reserved.
In 1909, Palm Beach County had just emerged after being carved out of Dade County. Many could see the potential of this tropical paradise, and land sales were picking up. A corporation began quietly acquiring large tracts of land along the body of water known as Lake Worth, about seven miles south of West Palm Beach. This high land, mostly covered with its primeval oak and sand pine forest, was farmed by hardy pioneers such as Samuel and Fannie James, the first homesteaders in what would become Lake Worth. The settlers grew pineapple, citrus, and tomatoes on the sandy soil. The land parcels were stitched together by Harold J. Bryant, Fredrick Edward Bryant and William Greenwood, who formed the Bryant and Greenwood Corporation. Their grand scheme was to offer prospective Floridians farmland west of the proposed town site. The three men also owned the Palm Beach Farms Company, which had thousands of acres of land west of the coastal area. If one bought five acres of farmland, they received a free twenty-five-foot lot in the proposed Town of Lucerne. Many investors bought acreage, but many more people simply bought a town lot or two to build their cottage in paradise.
The proposed Lucerne town name went to the United States Post Office for approval, but Bryant and Greenwood had to quickly think of a new name for their settlement because Lucerne was already taken. Given its prime location on Lake Worth, the name became self-evident-the town of Lake Worth.
Although the town officially incorporated in 1913, settlement had already begun. In 1912, still bearing the Lucerne name, a newspaper began publication to chronicle the new settlement's story. There was no printer in Lake Worth, so the fledgling Lucerne Hearld was printed in West Palm Beach with R.D. Strong as publisher. Bryant and Greenwood mailed the paper's first issues in 1912 by the thousands across the nation as an advertising vehicle for selling their town lots and farm acreage. However, within that paper was an interesting plea - to send books to start a library. Those first pioneer residents of Lake Worth knew that to grow a community, a library was needed to help adults and children in their avocational and personal interests.
That plea for book donations was heard across the nation, and books began to pile up in the stock room at the printery in West Palm Beach. A narrow, gleaming white shell rock road connected West Palm Beach and Lake Worth, not yet given the name Dixie Highway. It was simply called the "Rock Road" and its dusty, sandy stretch was walked by many, or ridden on by bicycle. Automobiles were making their first appearance, and were a luxury most could not afford. As if my magic, a couple volunteered to transport all those books to Lake Worth, and even set up a makeshift library in their new home. John L. McKissock, a plumber by trade from Pennsylvania, and his wife Retta, pedaled all the books back to their home on O street from West Palm Beach. They helped catalog the books, keeping records as patrons checked them out. On November 30, 1912, R.D. Strong, the publisher of the Lucerne Hearld, and the McKissocks founded the Library Association.
As the collection grew, a larger home was needed for the fledgling library, and the newly build Lake Worth Club House was selected. Fundraising began for the dream of having a dedicated library building for the town. The collection soon outgrew the club house, and the library board made arrangements with the town to move the collection to a room in the city hall building. Finally, in 1926, the Lake Worth Public Library was formally established as part of the Town of Lake Worth by the town voters. A budget of $6,000 was allocated for the library by a vote of 188 to 24. Lots were purchased on M Street and Lucerne Avenue, and the sums of money began to grow, but not enough to erect a facility.
Local residents hatched an idea to have the proposed library to be a memorial to General William Jenkins Worth, for whom soldiers had named the body of water as they were scouting the area in 1842. Fort Worth in Texas was named for the General, as well as Worth Square in New York City, yet no memorial existed for him in Florida. In 1939, Senators Claude Pepper and C.O. Andrews proposed a bill in Congress that $60,000 be appropriated to build the Major General William Jenkins Worth Memorial Library to commemorate the one hundredth anniversary of the naming of the body of water. Congress approved the bill, but President Franklin D. Roosevelt vetoed the measure, dashing the hopes of resident and the library board.
Local fundraising efforts were pushed, and enough funds were in the bank to begin construction in 1940. Architect Edgar S. Wortman received the commission for the library building. His design was a Mediterranean-style building that would complement other buildings in the downtown Lake Worth area. Just as construction began, two longtime winter residents, twin brothers James D. Strait and William S. Strait, made a $10,000 donation to the library board for the erection of a museum. A museum wing was added to the library plans, and the Strait Museum added to the cultural offerings of the town.
Ground was broken October 7, 1940; by February, 1941, the building was substantially complete. Although funds were not available for air-conditioning the building was constructed to allow for its eventual installation with ducts and a small room for the plant. The dedication took place on August 12, 1941.
The Lake Worth Art League took up residence in the Strait Museum, and patrons enjoyed may years of art instruction and exhibitions. The design of the building, with its high ceilings and open spaces, also made it a wonderful venue for paintings and other forms of art, including the R.Sherman Winton collection of paintings, and many other paintings depicting historic and colorful subjects.
During the 1950's the Lake Worth Library had the highest number of patrons and circulation among all Palm Beach County libraries by a wide margin, and seasonal patrons especially enjoyed its spacious rooms and customer service.
By the early 1960s, sufficient funds were collected to install a heating and air-conditioning plant. This would keep patrons more comfortable, especially in the hot Florida summers, but more importantly allowed the book collection to be kept under better conditions for preservation.
As the decades passed, the library kept up with the needs of patrons. LP vinyl records were replace by cassettes and CDs; books on tape became books on CD. Lake Worth installed one of the first library security systems to reduce theft of library materials, and in 1982 the library became handicapped accessible. In the 1990s, computers for patron use were introduced, and soon the Internet became a service the library offered its patrons.
As the City of Lake Worth celebrated it centennial in 2013, the library played a central role in the festivities. A groundbreaking look into the city's hidden history revealed the town's original inhabitants, Samuel and Fannie James, and resulted in the publication of Pioneers of Jewell. All proceeds from the book benefited the library.
The evolution continues into the twenty-first century. Most recently the library opened its "CreatE-Lab" were children and teens can study and explore technology to support their studies and interests.
Over its more than one hundreds years, the Lake Worth Public Library has served thousands of patrons, from locals to winter residents. The library building is the focal point of downtown Lake Worth, as it has been for more than seven decades, and it will continue to serve its patrons with information and services for education, entertainment, and enjoyment that only a good book, or new knowledge, can bring.