Looking back down a long road

Historian Irving Eyster said that when he settled in Key West in 1947, it was a much different community.

“It was more like Cuba or the Caribbean or the West Indies,” he said. “We liked it. The people there were very nice. There wasn’t any traffic and the dogs would lay in the street all day and the cars would go around them.”

That was one of many historical views that the Upper Keys historian gave his audience during a Matecumbe Historical Trust presentation on Monday. Eyster’s presentation was mainly focused on looking further back, to Florida in the 19th Century.

In the historical group’s monthly lecture at Island Community Church in Islamorada, Eyster, 92, showed a presentation with many old photos and prerecorded narration before fielding questions from the audience.

Many of the photos and stories he presented are included in his book, “Dr. Jeremiah Reade Travels Florida,” about the travels of his grandfather in 1882-83. The book is one of four that Eyster has written over the years.

Besides being a physician, Reade was a columnist for an Indianapolis newspaper and made a deal with his publisher to travel Florida and write about his adventures. The photos show a primitive land more than 120 years ago, when the cities of Tallahassee, Tampa and Miami were mere villages.

Reade traveled the entire state but had a special fascination with South Florida, Eyster said. The presentation included photos of Indian Key, the island on the oceanside of Islamorada that was the first county seat for Dade County when it was formed in 1836 as a much larger area than today’s Miami-Dade County.

At its founding, Dade County “went from Bahia Honda Key to Lake Okeechobee to the ocean and included Miami, Fort Lauderdale, part of Palm Beach and everything in between,” Eyster said. “There were more people living on Indian Key than in the rest of the county put together.”

Eyster lived in Key West during the period when President Harry Truman regularly visited the island city.

He recounted a story of a time when he had lunch a local eatery. Dirty from working, Eyster was trying to be discreet by sitting in the rear of the restaurant. It was his birthday and some employees of the café sang “Happy Birthday” to him. Truman was also in the café and stopped by Eyster’s table to wish him well.

“I had to thank him for coming, even though I was a mess,” he said.

A temporary community cultural center will soon be open in Islamorada under Eyster’s name and a permanent museum and cultural center are also being planned.