EAST MANATEE -- Richard Sparks Haley couldn't resist telling a good story. Particularly when it involved pre-Columbian natives who left middens in the area, Spanish explorers who slashed through the Florida wilderness or his family's colorful Manatee County history dating back to Reconstruction after the Civil War.
In a 2010 Herald interview, Mr. Haley talked about his ancestors, Samuel Sparks Lamb, founder of Palmetto; and John Jasper Haley, who fought for the Confederacy at Sharpsburg, Fredericksburg and Second Cold Harbor.
Mr. Haley kept much of the paper proof of his lineage, which he traced back to 1690 in Scotland, in his
home office in rural Myakka City. His collection of artifacts included a number of fading 100-year-old photos and John Jasper Haley's Civil War rifle and bayonet.
Family and friends gathered Wednesday at Evangel Baptist Church to remember Mr. Haley, 73, who died Nov. 27 after a long illness. They spoke of his love of family and history and his skill as a building contractor for nearly a half-century.
"The best way to put it was that he had a computerized mind before computers were invented," said rancher Cully Rowell of his neighbor. "We did a lot of projects together. Ah, the stories that he told while we worked."
Cathy Dumont, Mr. Haley's oldest daughter, said the family has many fond memories of her father.
"He was always there for us kids. He had a dry sense of humor and loved to work. He loved to help others," Dumont said.
Mr. Haley was born at Bradenton General Hospital in 1940 and raised in Palmetto. He was a 1958 graduate of Manatee High School.
"I was exploring Gamble Mansion before it was a state park. It was abandoned, and all the windows were knocked out," Mr. Haley told the Herald in 2010 of his early interest in local history.
His great-grandfather, Civil War veteran John Jasper Haley, moved to Palmetto in 1887, planting an orange grove and taking up truck gardening.
John Jasper Haley would carry his battered rifle in local parades, according to family lore.
The Lamb and Haley families merged when Laura Lamb, daughter of Samuel Sparks Lamb, married Charles Edward Haley, son of John Jasper Haley.
Sutton and Lamb Park, built on land donated by Samuel Sparks Lamb, remain a focus of Palmetto community events.
Richard Sparks Haley and his wife, Suzanne, moved to an undeveloped area of Myakka City before phone service, electricity or paved roads were available there.
He named a rough stretch of right-of-way he used to get to his home Gopher Hill Road.
Mr. Haley built a fortress-like home on the property that incorporated some of his finds he rescued from building demolition sites.
In addition to his contracting business, he wrangled cattle and maintained fences on his Myakka spread.
He was also a former Manatee County Republican Executive Committee member and precinct committee member.
He donated some of his historic documents to the Carnegie Library in Palmetto, which are awaiting digitization and preservation.
Mr. Haley is survived by his wife, Suzanne; five children, Catherine C. Dumont, Laura C. Miller, Richard D. Haley, Louis H. Haley, and John A. Haley; 18 grandchildren; and three brothers, David, Michael and Chris Haley.
Funeral service was Dec. 4 at Evangel Baptist Church with burial at the Palmetto Cemetery.
James A. Jones Jr., East Manatee reporter, can be contacted at 941-745-7053 or on Twitter: @jajones1