MANATEE — Richard Sparks Haley is 70, looks 50, and would appear to have DNA loaded with longevity.
His mother, Mary Louise Haley, is 95, and until recently was a regular tennis player.
But Haley, a local rancher and builder, knows that he won’t live forever and is anxious to preserve the photographs and documents that record his family’s history in Manatee County.
Haley traces his family tree back to Samuel Sparks Lamb, founder of Palmetto; and John Jasper Haley, who fought for the Confederacy at Sharpsburg, Fredericksburg. Wilderness, and Second Cold Harbor.
Haley’s relations also include the Fullers and the Reasoners, names prominent in Manatee County history. The Fullers as entrepreneurs and developers and the Reasoners as pioneer nursery operators.
Haley has a thick computer printout that traces his family roots back to 1690 Scotland.
There are boxes and boxes of material, but many of the photos are a century old and showing it, turning yellow, the images fading.
In 1989, Haley found a receptive ear at the Florida State Archives, a staff member who seemed interested in cataloguing and preserving some of what he had. But she died of a heart attack, and another champion failed to come forward to take on the project.
More recently, he has been working with the Carnegie Library in Palmetto on how to archive some of his documents and photos.
Carnegie’s Lynn Pope, whose husband is related to Haley, said the repository of Palmetto history can supply archival boxes and labels, but admits that it is a daunting task, and resources are limited.
“Some of it is on his father’s side, some of it is on his mother’s side,” she said of Haley’s complex family history.
Another possibility that Haley has yet to explore is the Manatee County Public Library Historic Photograph Collection, which includes images from the late 19th Century through the early 1980s.
The digital collection, made possible by funding of the Library Foundation Inc., includes more than 20,000 images.
John Van Berkel, library services manager, said the library is putting all of its historic images on the web through a contract with the University of South Florida.
The web represents a new way of preservation, leapfrogging the old system — microfilm — in ease of use and accessibility to many more users.
The digital photo collection, in addition to “depicting schools, churches, hospitals and means of transportation, feature many prominent local families and their important role in building and documenting Manatee County,” according to the USF Library website.
Haley’s interest in history — his family’s and the community’s — came early.
Raised in Palmetto, he was born at Bradenton General Hospital in 1940 and graduated from Manatee High School in 1958.
“I was exploring Gamble Mansion before it was a state park. It was abandoned and all the windows were knocked out,” he said.
He was also aware of the stories about some of his relatives who help settle Manatee County.
His great-grandfather, John Jasper Haley, was born in Orange County, N.C., and joined the Confederate army in 1861, taking part in campaigns in North Carolina, Virginia and Maryland.
“He escaped capture and wounds at the hands of the enemy, but lost a finger as a result of the carelessness on the part of one his comrades,” wrote Rowland H. Rerick, in Memoirs of Florida, published by the Southern Historical Association in 1902.
After the Civil War, John Jasper Haley returned to his North Carolina home, and then moved to Tennessee in 1870, farming there until 1887, when he moved to Palmetto.
In Palmetto, he planted an orange grove and resumed truck farming.
Though John Jasper Haley died before Richard Sparks Haley was born, family lore has it the old man would carry his Civil War weapon in local parades.
Richard Sparks Haley has the Civil War veteran’s rifle and rusty bayonet, battered by many campaigns, and generations of family handling.
Laura Lamb, daughter of Palmetto founder Samuel Sparks Lamb, married Charles Edward Haley, the son of John Jasper Haley, and grandfather of Richard Sparks Haley.
The Lamb name lives on in Palmetto with Sutton and Lamb Park, built on land donated by Samuel Sparks Lamb.
Laura and Charles’ son was John Sparks Haley, a grocer, builder and mail carrier, and father of Richard Sparks Haley.
He operated Haley’s Market on Old Main Street in Palmetto and would deliver orders to the customer’s door.
“My dad sort of closed it up and then reopened it during World War II,” Haley said. “He could get butter and other things.”
Richard Sparks Haley is related to the Fullers through his mother, Mary Louise Haley.
Suzanne Haley says her husband is “easy going, interesting, and interested in everything. People mainly.”
When the Haleys moved to a largely undeveloped area of Myakka City, Gopher Hill Road wasn’t much of a road. The Haleys were always getting stuck trying to get to their property, and initially the area didn’t have electricity or phone service. It was Richard Sparks Haley who gave the road, such as it was, its name: Gopher Hill Road.
He built the Haley home like a fort with poured concrete walls, Suzanne Haley said.
Among the distinctive features in the home are a stairway railing made from a floor joist rescued from the demolition of the Frankie Howze school in Palmetto. The school was named after a pioneer Palmetto teacher.
Set into the windows of the house are colorful globes of glass, actually insulators from a telegraph line that preceded modern phone service along the railroad trac running to Fort Lonesome.
When the phone lines were added, workers often discarded the old insulators in the palmettoes along the tracks. Haley rescued them from the woods.
Richard Sparks and Suzanne Haley raised five children: John, Louis, Ricky, Laura and Cathy; and have 28 grandchildren. Haley also took a turn as school master, home schooling his two daughters.
Above the door in his office is a knitted sampler with the words “Gopher Hill School.”
It was Haley himself who made the sampler.
“Everybody made one,” he said of the class project.
“When you do precision welding, you learn to hold still,” he says of his way with a stitch.
“We home-schooled our girls, right here in this room,” he said, looking around his cluttered home office, which contains so much of his family history.
“I always knew I had to behave myself and not dishonor them,” Haley said of his family tree. “They were incredible people.”