Among all the people, stories and places I have researched over the past few years of this blog, one captivated me more than any other, a story that was hidden beneath a soaring 19 story tower that shadows over an old West Palm Beach neighborhood. Fred S. Dewey and Byrd Spilman Dewey were adventurers in every sense of the word. I discovered them while researching land records for the Town of Boynton, intrigued by the fact that a woman had owned the land that made up the original town core. The land had been bought under the name of “Birdie Dewey” in 1892. As I searched for that name on the Internet, it opened a magical box that had been shut for almost a century, revealing a unique and wonderful story about the beginnings of Palm Beach County.
Frederick Sidney Dewey and Byrd Spilman Dewey had arrived in Florida in 1881, spent some years in Central Florida attempting an orange grove which failed, and had heard of the “Lake Worth Country,” the frontier to the south that bordered the famed Everglades. The Deweys arrived in 1887 and settled on 76 acres bordering Lake Mangonia where their nearest neighbor was more than a mile away. That neighbor, Reverend Elbridge Gale, was the subject of my last blog for his cultivation of the mango. On their land, the Deweys built a small cottage and started “pioneering.” Mr. Dewey was a bookkeeper and carpenter, while Mrs. Dewey was an author. She sat alone each day, completely isolated, and wrote magazine articles for publications such as Good Housekeeping and the Christian Union. After a time they bought five acres along Lake Worth, and built the famous home “Ben Trovato” which was the cultural and literary center of the west side of Lake Worth before West Palm Beach was even a thought. On the site now stands the 19 story Rapallo Condominium.
After a year and a half of researching and writing, the book Pioneering Palm Beach: The Deweys and the South Florida Frontier has been published by The History Press. The research took me and co-author Janet DeVries to many locales including Eustis, Jacksonville, Zellwood, Miami and even the National Archives in Washington DC. Along the way we met many wonderful helpful people, which was the most energizing part of the research. Once we started digging for information on the Deweys, it became a treasure hunt where each piece of evidence led to another discovery. The Deweys had no children, so distant relatives were tracked down in Illinois and North Carolina who provided photographs and letters. Although the Internet is much maligned, it is the greatest information and research tool ever developed. We discovered documents and letters through so many meticulously maintained databases in archives all throughout the United States. As Mrs. Dewey wrote in a fable, “Who seeks finds” and we found many a gem tucked away in old scanned books, magazines and newspapers on the Internet.
I think the thing that has amazed me the most throughout all the research and writing is how this inspiring story remained hidden for so long – how can someone write a best-selling book, as Mrs. Dewey did in Bruno, then be completely forgotten? How could an entire book she wrote about pioneering in Palm Beach County in the 1880s, be lost to historians? It was as if I dug in my own backyard and came across a treasure chest – in this case the chest was filled with Mrs. Dewey’s writings, the Dewey’s history and their role in the cultural emergence of Palm Beach County.
So if you love local history, pick up a copy of the book at Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble, or attend one of the upcoming presentations and book signings. Events are listed on my Author Central Page at Amazon.com – click here.
Reading the book will transport you back in time to a Palm Beach County of more than a century ago, to an unspoiled paradise still walked by bear and panthers. All the pioneer’s hardships and perseverance created the place we all call HOME.