Deliverance – West Palm Beach’s Post Office History

John C. Stowers

The postal service’s role in our everyday lives has changed so much that it is hard to imagine how important the postal service was to people years ago.

With email, digital publications, and online bill pay, we simply do not “get the mail” as we used to. But imagine a small community emerging from sugar sand and pine woods – fledging Westpalmbeach, as it was spelled then, a little sister to the grand resort of Palm Beach. The post office that emerged has seen its share of unusual characters serve as postmaster, sometimes with tragic results.

When John C. Stowers arrived on the scene, fresh from adventure mining for gold in the Black Hills of the Dakotas, he wanted to open a grocery store. The Maine-born man could see that the community needed a post office, so he applied for one on March 8, 1894 with the Post Office Department in Washington D.C. On April 17, 1894, Stowers was appointed postmaster of Westpalmbeach and opened the first post office in a tent at the corner of Clematis and Narcissus.  On his lots, Stowers planned to construct a wooden building with space for his post office and a grocery store on the first floor, and office space on the second; but the need for hotel space led him to instead build the Palms Hotel, with a space for the post office and other shops on the ground floor.

Post office within the Palms Hotel

On April 11, 1895, West Palm Beach had its first real post office building. West Palm Beach saw two tragic fires in 1896, and many blamed the town’s name as it had 13 letters; it was about this time that the name was officially changed to West Palmbeach, and finally, West Palm Beach on postal records. Stowers served 16 years as postmaster, and was succeeded by J. Paul Clarke on March 2, 1910.

Post Office, 1910

Clarke would achieve his fame not from postal work, but from his work with poisonous snakes, which he kept at the post office and in a museum adjacent to his house on Rosemary Street. More about that later.

The third postmaster was appointed November 29, 1913 and was a man all in the community knew – Guy Metcalf, who published the area’s first newspaper The Tropical Sun, put in the first road to Miami, and sold real estate through his Tropical Exchange Company. With Metcalf, the post office gained a new home. Metcalf’s father, Judge W.I. Metcalf, built an office building at 107-109 North Olive Street, and rented out space for the post office on the first floor.

Metcalf Building, 1915

The Metcalf Building still stands; it was remodeled twice as part of Hatch’s department store, then the first J.C. Penney in West Palm Beach in 1940,  and later  in 1950 it was remodeled again into a Burdine’s store. Metcalf’s tenure as postmaster was short; he was succeeded by J.D. Argyle. Guy Metcalf, who was elected the Palm Beach County Superintendent of Public Instruction, died tragically in 1918 when he committed suicide in his courthouse office over a disputed bill.

In 1920, West Palm Beach had its first woman postmaster in Miss Lena M. T. Clarke, Paul Clarke’s younger sister. She had served many years as assistant postmaster, and served a couple of stints as acting postmaster, and was finally appointed to the top spot. But after Paul Clarke died from a coral snake bite on Christmas Day, 1920 in his makeshift museum, Lena’s life began a downward spiral. A rumored affair with a married man left her scorned and looking for revenge – she found it when she shot her alleged former lover and fellow postal employee Fred Miltimore dead on August 1, 1921 in Orlando. Postal authorities immediately removed Lena from the postmaster position and she was replaced with C.W. Campbell. Lena Clarke was eventually found not guilty of murder by reason of insanity (see this blog for a more detailed account of the Clarke murder case).

As West Palm Beach prospered, the post office outgrew the Olive Street location. Larger quarters were built at Datura and Railroad Avenue (today’s Quadrille). The Post Office Arcade housed the post office and other businesses such as real estate offices. Being housed near the post office was a selling point in many real estate ads. With the new building came new postmaster George W. Smith. This post office served West Palm Beach through its “Land Boom” years in the 1920s.

Post Office Arcade Building

The 1928 Okeechobee hurricane and the 1929 Wall Street crash swept away all the big plans and big money from West Palm Beach. In 1934 O.B. Carr was named postmaster at the height of the Depression. It was about this time that West Palm Beach started lobbying the federal government to build a dedicated post office. Work began on the selected site at Olive Street and Fern in July 1936. The land chosen had a storied history, being a part of the original homestead declared by Irving R. Henry, who was the first to claim land in what would become West Palm Beach. John B. Beach eventually acquired the land. Beach, a nurseryman, raised tropical fruit trees for sale at his large nursery on the site. His widow, Annie Beach, presented the deed back to the federal government, 47 years after it had been deeded to Henry. The Beach house was demolished and rare plants and trees were moved to other locations in the city.

Officials laid the cornerstone made of Stone Mountain, Georgia granite on October 31, 1936 at a ceremony with dignitaries present. A sealed lead box with documents of the time was placed in the cornerstone. The Palm Beach Post wrote “Local historians of the future may open the post office cornerstone in years to come… .” Construction continued on the modern concrete and granite building, taken from a California design made to withstand earthquakes – and hurricanes. On May 1, 1937, the new building was ready for business. That building served West Palm Beach for many decades as both a service office and sorting facility.

Dedication Day

As the 1960s came to a close, once again the need for a new post office developed. Representative Paul G. Rogers was instrumental in seeking funding for a comprehensive federal building and post office for West Palm Beach. A new post office was constructed at 801 Clematis Street, just west of the new Federal Building, named the Paul G. Rogers Federal Building; that site now houses the Social Security Administration building. Finally, the current post office at 640 Clematis Street serves downtown West Palm Beach.

Olive Street Post Office

The 400 South Olive Street building stood abandoned for years until 1979, when it was demolished to make way for affordable housing for older citizens as the St. James Residence to adjoin the St. Andrew’s Residence. What became of the cornerstone and the lead box with the documents remains a mystery as no mention of the artifacts appeared in the newspaper. Either it went unnoticed by the demolition crew or was taken by a worker as a souvenir.

Through all these locations, the same services as over a century ago are provided – mailing packages, purchasing stamps, picking up the mail; but something has been lost from those early days of the post office. The anticipation of a letter from far away, a catalog with the newest fashions, or an eagerly awaited magazine with the latest gossip is now instantly available to us. The ghosts of those old post office buildings still haunt their original locations with excitement, or dread, and the hope of good news.

Post Office Demolition, 1979

 

Original Post Office application from the National Archives

Sources:
The Palm Beach Post
The National Archives
The University of Florida
Historical Society of Palm Beach County
The Mandel Public Library, West Palm Beach
The United States Postal Service

For a complete list of West Palm Beach Postmasters please see this web page: Postmasters of West Palm Beach

What’s in a Name? The Curious Case of Deweese Road

This blog has so many twists and turns it is really difficult to know where to start. While researching how Palm Beach County acquired the land that would become Palm Beach State College, John Prince Park, and Lantana Airport, I found an article that stated the western border of the acquired land was “Deweese Road.” That had me stumped as there is no Deweese Road on a current map. After researching the Palm Beach Post archives, a much more complex story began to unfold. It made me realize once again how much things have changed, the past paved over and forgotten. Deweese Road was a dirt road that went from Second Avenue North to what would become Sixth Avenue South in Lake Worth.

George W. Deweese, his wife May, and daughter Flora came to Lake Worth in 1926 from Poplar Grove, Missouri. Deweese was a jack of all trades, being listed at various times as machinist, builder, farmer, and plasterer. He bought the land and put in the dirt road sometime in the late 1920s and sold lots and tracts. Twelve residences were along the west side of the road, and the area was considered “West Lake Worth.”

As the Depression took hold, Palm Beach County had federal Works Project Administration (WPA) money for road improvements. According to an April 11, 1939 Palm Beach Post article, a new road would be built with WPA funds that would extend the existing Congress Avenue, from Belvedere Road to Lake Worth Road, some four miles.

New Road

New Road to be built

But they needed a bridge for the new road across the West Palm Beach Canal. So they reused a bridge that was being replaced in Boca Raton, rather than demolish it. The Camino Real bridge was being replaced, which spanned the Intracoastal Waterway and was probably made of wood. The same article mentioned the road would be on the west side of “Engle Field” in Lake Worth. Engle Field? Did Lake Worth have an airport? Who was “Engle?”

Engle was Arthur B. “Pop” Engle, born in 1880 in West Virginia. He and wife Emilie had purchased a tract of land in April of 1937 from J.I. Keller to open his own private airport for small planes and flying lessons, mostly using Piper Cub aircraft. Many articles refer to the place as “Engle’s Field” or “Lake Worth Airport.” According to the obituary for Emilie Engle, who died in 1984 at the age of 96, the Engles came to Lake Worth in 1922 and operated an ice plant and managed the LaVerne Apartments.

They were flying enthusiasts, and taught hundreds of new pilots to fly. It became more difficult to operate a private airport during World War II, due to the need for armed security.screen-shot-2016-09-17-at-1-57-42-pm

The 1949 hurricane destroyed what was left of the airport. Finally, the Engles sold the property in 1953 and it is now the Englewood Manor subdivision east of Congress between Second Avenue North and Tenth Avenue north.

Back to Deweese Road. That name stuck until the late 1940s – many references to selling livestock, chickens and other farm goods were found in old classified ads. Even a circus stopped by, held on the present day site of Palm Beach State College in 1951. A 1940 Department of Agriculture photo shows Deweese Road and some of the airfield buildings along Second Avenue. The Deweese family did have many heartaches over the years; their house burned to the ground in 1931, and their 32 year-old daughter Flora died in 1944 of a sudden illness.screen-shot-2016-09-17-at-1-57-09-pm George Deweese also knew sign language as he was asked to be an interpreter in court in a case involving hearing impaired litigants.

In later years, the Deweese Road name was lost to Congress Avenue, as Congress was expanded through the years to stretch all the way to Yamato Road in Boca Raton, through what was then cow pasture and woodlands as it meandered south. Both the Deweeses and the Engles are interred at Lake Worth in Pinecrest Cemetery. Very few, if any, persons living in Lake Worth today would have any memory of these places. But next time you venture down Congress, think of the vast open spaces of what was considered the “country” part of Lake Worth.

1940 Aerial Photograph

1940 Aerial Photograph

The Barefoot Mailman’s Wife – The Amazing Story of Yallahs Pierce

Something was gnawing at me today – a name I see every time I help conduct cemetery tours at Woodlawn Cemetery in West Palm Beach – an unusual name belonging to a woman whose husband is among the most well-known local pioneers. Charles W. Pierce, of Barefoot Mailman fame and chronicler of local history, married a woman named Yallahs Lizette Wallack February 26, 1896 in Lemon City, north of Miami.

Yallahs Pierce, 1906

Yallahs Pierce, 1906

It was said she was from Jamaica, but nothing more was known of her. I surmised she was named for the Yallahs river in Jamaica. The 1910 federal census entry for Yallahs states that both her parents were born in England. Yallahs died early at age 47, February 14, 1922. Articles had mentioned she was treated for an illness at Jacksonville and at Johns Hopkins, and was not expected to live.

I began to search for Jamaican records in various sources such as Familysearch.org and general Google searches. A most unusual story emerged, pieced together which told of her famous parents. I found the first clue in a book by Errol Hill titled “The Jamaican Stage, 1655-1900.” In it, Hill told the story of Walter Hope “Watty” Wallack, born January 23, 1830, a traveling showman from Liverpool, England who was a one-man production of comedy, singing and acting involving dozens of characters he would portray on stage.

The book mentions his many stops in Jamaica, with his young wife, Fannie Wallack. Searching their names revealed that Fannie Wallack died of malaria when only 30, and her obituary helped to crack the case. Fannie Louise Petersen was born in London, England May 1, 1854. She traveled with her parents to St. Kitts, where her father, Peter Petersen, a native of Sweden, had a mercantile house. Fannie’s musical talents were known very early, with her beautiful soprano voice. She first appeared with Watty Wallack at the age of 10, and married him when Fannie was 15 in the Cathedral of St. John’s, Antigua.

Together with Watty Wallack and his cousin the comedian James A. Rider, the three formed the group “The Wallack Tripologue.” They toured the Carribbean, South America and the American South. In 1872, Yallahs Wallack was born in Jamaica, probably as her parents were on tour, and her emigration date to America was listed as 1874.Screen Shot 2015-12-28 at 2.53.40 PM

In 1880, Yallahs appears on the federal census as living in Key West at the age of 8 (listed as the phonetic “Alice Wallack”), with the Patterson family, one of Key West’s most important families. Fannie Wallack died in Kingston, Jamaica, November 26, 1885 at the age of 30. Her obituary mentions  “She leaves one child, a daughter thirteen years old, who is at college in Key West, Fla.” It could be that Yallahs was boarding with the family while attending school in Key West.

Fannie Wallack and her troupe were renowned on the stage. In 1881, they played a six-month stint at Vercelli’s Theatre on East 42nd street in New York City. Fannie could sing in seven languages, and was much loved for her singing, dancing and elaborate costumes. The resemblance between Yallahs and her mother in the illustration below are striking.

 

Fannie Wallack

Fannie Wallack

After Fannie’s death, Watty Wallack continued to tour with his cousin and managed the Heine Concert Hall. Watty Wallack died in St. Louis, Missouri, July 26, 1901 at age 71 with cousin James A. Rider by his side.  The obituary stated “In recent years they lost their fortunes. Captain Rider is now in St. Luke’s Hospital, prostrated with grief over the death of his friend.”

Yallahs eventually moved to Lemon City where she met and married Charles W. Pierce, and the couple moved to Boynton at its beginning.

Charles W. Pierce

Charles W. Pierce

They had one child, Charles Leon “Chuck” Pierce, one of the first babies to be born in Boynton, who had a long career in banking. The Pierce family lived on Ocean Avenue, where Yallahs passed away.  She now rests at Woodlawn Cemetery, with Charles by her side.

 

 

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The Palm Beach Mall – Outta Time…

Yesterday I took my last trip to the Palm Beach Mall; not even the whole mall, just the JC Penney store as they are closing out its last merchandise. It was with such reflection that I looked over the chain link fence to the rubble that once was one of the largest malls in the nation.

The Wonderfall in the Mall's center

The Wonderfall in the Mall’s center

The Palm Beach Mall opened in 1967 and began that era in American shopping that is coming to an end. There were several shopping centers around the county at that time, but nothing that rivaled the Palm Beach Mall until Town Center in Boca Raton opened in the early 1980s. In those early years, you didn’t need to say “I’m going to the Palm Beach Mall” all you had to say was “I’m going to the mall.” Everyone knew what you meant.

I was four years old on my first visit. I can remember going there with my parents and grandparents, and being allowed to pick out something. For me, it was Gumby and Pokey figurines from Richard’s Department Store, which was on the east end of the mall, in the space where Sears eventually located. Over the years, it became an almost weekly ritual to head to the mall for anything we needed, especially school clothes, shoes, toys, records, anything a teenager could want. It was our Internet for shopping and our Facebook for friends – we could rendezvous with others, and even with no cell phones, communication was easy – we just went to the information booth and had them paged! Sometimes the customer service clerk would not be accommodating if you asked too many times.

So as I entered Penney’s yesterday, I had to buy one last item in the mall. The shelves were pretty empty around the store. A display of clocks caught my attention, and I thought that was very fitting – a clock, to signify that the mall was out of time. It is made of slate with just simple clock hands, practical for the patio, where metal clocks always corrode.

So I took the clock to the check out, where a woman who was perhaps 20 years-old

Palm Beach Mall, 1967

Palm Beach Mall, 1967

was working. She looked at the clock  and was rather puzzled. “The clock does not have any numbers. How will you know what time it is?” I replied “I think I will know.” She said “Well maybe if its 6 o’clock you would know, but I don’t see how you would know other times.” Oh my. A generation that tells time in a different way and shops in a different way. My mall has made way for her new shopping experience. But that is progress, I guess. And I can tell the time just fine without numbers.

To learn more about the Mall’s history, see the web page at http://www.africa-usa.com/pbmall/ 

When Curiosity Changes your Life

Curiosity has solved many mysteries and helped spin many tales. But how a simple question could evolve into such a story that changed my life and how I view history and time is the subject of this blog posting. I had become interested in land research and how our current landscape came to be. For my city, Boynton Beach, the question was quite simple – where was the Boynton Beach hotel exactly located on the oceanfront? My history

The Boynton Hotel

The Boynton Hotel

readings told me that Major Boynton had built a large hotel on the beach and he had founded the town located to the west. But when I reviewed Palm Beach County Court records, a different story was told. Records did confirm Major Boynton’s hotel and its location on a plat map, but the town site records told a very different story. A different name emerged that was to send my co-author and I on a journey of discovery, inspiration and meaning.

Birdie S. Dewey was that name.  I was intrigued that a woman was selling all the lots in the Boynton town site. The name didn’t ring any bells for me, but it did for my co-author, Janet DeVries. She knew the name. She knew that Birdie S. Dewey was an author. We then embarked on a research effort that eventually resulted in the publication of our book “Pioneering Palm Beach: The Deweys and the South Florida Frontier.”

Our research reconstructed the lives of Byrd Spilman Dewey and her husband Fred S. Dewey from their early days of marriage in Illinois to their adventuresome move to Florida, from newspaper articles, letters, land records, court documents and most

Byrd Spilman Dewey

Byrd Spilman Dewey

important of all, Mrs. Dewey’s writings. Her books provided the insights and clues that unraveled the mystery of their lives and roles they played in Palm Beach County and the founding of Boynton Beach. Being the “true founders” of Boynton is firmly established and supported by the historical record.

But the Dewey’s personal story is much more compelling and had a profound affect on me. Being forgotten to history and time is certainly sad, that our contributions to the community and its development can become covered over by circumstances as they occur.

What we build in our lives –  houses, farms or buildings – completely disappear with development, especially here in South Florida. What stood for decades can be gone in minutes when the bulldozers wipe the land clean of our existence. So the realization of the temporary nature of all of our creations hit home with me. There are but a handful of

1893 Tea Party

1893Tea Party

buildings in West Palm Beach left from when the Deweys lived here – St. Anne’s Church, a few buildings on Clematis, and scattered homes.  All else has been lost to hurricanes, fires and most of all – development and redevelopment. Which means the South Florida we know and recognize today will also not exist in the next century – we too will be demolished and paved over with something bigger, better and more massive.

Our book resurrects those pioneer times; their wildness, adventure and bravery. That time has been paved over, literally, by our high rises and parking lots. The majestic Dewey home, as it stood on Lake Worth, was expanded and reimagined by its subsequent owners, the Baldwins, as a fine home on South Flagler Drive, which had its direct ties to the shores of Lake Worth cut in 1952 when Flagler drive was completed. The house survived until 1971, when the bulldozers sounded its death knell early one morning. In its place, a 19

The Dewey-Baldwin House in the 1950s

The Dewey-Baldwin House in the 1950s

story Rapallo condominium was built, and a parking lot sealed over the footprint where the house once stood.  No one who lives there now even knows the house existed.  And that is cruelest fate of all – to be forgotten. So in some small part, we did our best to make sure the Deweys would not be forgotten again. A book does that. Words are put to paper and become a part of the permanent history, to be read and remembered, to be archived and preserved. Mrs. Dewey’s books played that role in our research, providing the timeless tale that had to be retold.

Woodlawn Cemetery Tour – Remembering our Pioneers

Woodlawn Cemetery, located on Dixie Highway across from the Norton Museum, is the

Woodlawn Cemetery at Dusk

Woodlawn Cemetery at Dusk

resting place of some of Palm Beach County’s most prominent pioneers. With Janet DeVries, I had the great pleasure of sharing some pioneer tales with about 250 people on Wednesday night for our inaugural tour. It was wonderful to see such interest in our local history, and the enthusiasm of those present for an evening tour.

Woodlawn Cemetery was developed by Henry M. Flagler in 1905 on an old pineapple field and first served as a place to stroll with its fine landscaping and pathways. It replaced an older cemetery that was located across the street (Lakeside Cemetery) where the Norton museum buildings are now located. About 40 people remain interred under those buildings.

People ready for the tour

People ready for the tour

Our first tour featured the stories of 22 pioneers, citing their triumphs and tragedies that are life. Donations were received, and those monies will be donated to the Woodlawn Foundation for restoration and improvement of the cemtery grounds.

Look for announcements of future tour dates from the city of West Palm Beach websites.

Christmas at Ben Trovato – 1897

This fictional short story presents the characters of Judith and Julius Sunshine, Byrd Spilman Dewey’s characters that were stand-ins for herself and husband Fred. It is a little glimpse of life along Lake Worth more than a century ago. The story takes place at the Dewey’s lakefront home, Ben Trovato, which is pictured in the masthead above.  The Rapallo Condominium now occupies the homestead. Ben Trovato means “well invented” in Italian, and I hope you find this little story “well invented” as well – enjoy the holidays! – Ginger Pedersen

Christmas 1897 at Ben Trovato

Preparations were well underway for the Christmas holidays on The Blessed Isle. The two stockings, that of Judith and Julius, were carefully hung on the hearth in the parlor of their lovely lakefront home, Ben Trovato. Judith was busy preparing Julius’s favorite sweets, cinnamon sugar cookies. She had to keep a careful watch on the oven to make sure the temperature was just right, and a watchful eye on their cats, Kitty Winks and Catty Meow, as they were eyeing the butter.

“You kits will soon get your little treat,” said Judith. “But you’ll have to wait till I’m finished.” As Judith put the last of the cookies in the oven, the kits eagerly awaited as Judith placed a large dab of butter on a dainty plate. Two very happy kits licked away at their prize.

Christmas was always different in Florida than it was up north. This year it was especially warm, and everything was a shimmering green. Julius had found a perfectly shaped spruce pine in the woods around the Blessed Isle, and cut it to display in the parlor. This much amused the “cattle,” which is how Julius always referred to the cats. Kitty Winks found it silly to bring a tree in the house when so many were all around the house. When the ornaments began to adorn the tree, the kits were certain they were carefully placed toys just for them!

As Christmas Eve approached, Julius had a real dilemma – how to get Judith out of the house for a few hours so her Christmas surprise could be delivered. He spoke with their nearby neighbor, the old German professor. “Maybe you could come over and say that your wife needs some assistance in baking”, said Julius. “Then I could get everything set up and it will be a great surprise.”

But Julius was not the only one planning. Judith also had a Christmas surprise, something she had been working on for weeks. Julius was very proud of his naphtha launch, the Calamity Jane, so Judith thought it fitting that he should have a fine cap and coat – a commodore’s coat! She worked on it on the days he was away on business over in the settlement. Soon it was finished and carefully wrapped under the tree.

On Christmas Eve morn, the old German professor appeared just as planned. “Oh Mrs. Sunshine, do you have a few minutes?” said the professor. “My wife is having some trouble in the kitchen.” “What sort of trouble?” said Judith. “I am not entirely sure, except that she was crying that she is such a hopeless housewife.” Looking very downtrodden, Judith was not happy about being out of the house on Christmas Eve; she had lots to do herself to prepare for Christmas Day.

She put on her bonnet and followed the professor over to his place a few hundred yards to the south. There sat the professor’s wife with a kitchen full of ingredients. Judith sighed at lack of cooking skills of the young wife, but soon things were progressing in the kitchen.

After about an hour, suddenly Kitty Winks appeared, meowing in great distress. Judith heard her cries, and went out on the piazza to see what could be wrong. As Kitty Winks saw Judith, she cried even louder and ran towards Ben Trovato. Judith knew something was wrong at home. She rushed back in to say she must check on things at home. As she dashed through the woods, she could see the house – and strange figures upstairs! Julius was away in the settlement, so she was certain it was not him.

What to do! She thought how smart the cats were to alert her to this most serious situation. She went back to the professor’s house and told of the burglary underway. “If only Julius were here!”

Of course the professor knew who it was, but did not want to spoil the surprise. “We’ll go over there and check things out.”, said the professor.

As they walked through the woods, just then Julius was arriving at the wharf. The professor quickly approached him and apprised him of the situation. Julius chuckled a bit. He walked quickly towards Judith and said “don’t worry, we’ll catch that burglar!”

“Oh please be careful Julius!” cried Judith.

After a few minutes, Julius called to Judith from the upper piazza “I have the culprit up here – come up here and see.” Judith thought this odd, but she proceeded up the stairs. As she rounded the corner, she saw it…a beautiful new writing desk! “Oh Julius!” she cried “you planned this whole thing!” “Well, not the part with the cattle sending out the alarm!” said Julius.

Judith then scurried down stairs and took Julius’s package –“you can’t guess what it is!” Julius opened the package and beamed like a child “Oh its perfect – I’ll put it on right away -let’s go for a ride!”

Julius put on the new coat and cap, and Judith and Julius motored happily along the moonlit waters of Lake Worth that Christmas Eve…Judith dreaming about the new writing desk, and Julius happily attired in his new coat. And at Ben Trovato sat two very relieved cats, comfortable under their spruce pine Christmas tree, contented in their Florida paradise.

Read the Dewey’s biography – Pioneering Palm Beach: The Deweys and the South Florida Frontier – http://www.amazon.com/Pioneering-Palm-Beach-Florida-Frontier/dp/1609496574/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1356447734&sr=8-1&keywords=pioneering+palm+beach

Palm Beach’s Pioneer Author – Lost for more than a Century

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.

Byrd Spilman Dewey

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.

The Mango and the Reverend

Mango season is in full swing in South Florida, and the sweet succulent fruit many call the “peach of the tropics” has a long history in Palm Beach County. The fruit, native to the Indian sub-continent, has traveled across the planet and is grown in all tropical and sub-tropical regions. Henry Perrine was the first to attempt to grow mangoes on his immense plantation in what today is southern Dade County. Perrine had brought mango trees from Mexico, but the trees died after the plantation was abandoned in the 1830s. D.G. Watt made another attempt at growing mangoes, this time in Tampa. The trees arrived from India in poor shape; only two survived and were growing nicely, but a freeze soon did them in.

Elbridge Gale

Reverend Elbridge Gale

Enter Reverend Elbridge Gale. Gale was born on Christmas Day, 1824 in Vermont, and became a Baptist minister. He preached in several churches, before settling in Manhattan, Kansas. He preached until 1870, when he was offered the chairmanship of the horticulture department at Kansas State Agricultural College, where he was also chair of the Kansas Horticultural Society. His health beginning to fail, Reverend Gale arrived in the Lake Worth region in 1884 and homesteaded land in what would become the Northwood section of West Palm Beach. Two of Gale’s children came too; George Gale was a leading citizen and daughter Hattie Gale became the area’s first schoolteacher.

The United States Department of Agriculture sent several mango varieties to the region to be grown by local farmers, including Reverend Gale. All the trees died except one – a tree of the Mulgoba variety that Reverend Gale cared for during the many freezes of the 1890s. In the late 1890s, his mango tree was the only one growing in South Florida. The healthy tree and its delicious fruit drew attention throughout South Florida, and farmers up and down the coast took seeds or cuttings from Reverend Gale’s tree. Gale was so enamored with the fruit that he named the area “Mangonia,” which survives today in Lake Mangonia and in Mangonia Park. Mango fever hit, and new residents wanted their own mango trees.

JOhn Beach

John Beach

John Beach, a fertilizer salesman from Melbourne, established his first nursery and began selling trees. When a freeze hit Melbourne, he moved further south to West Palm Beach and started his nursery in 1894 along Dixie Highway. Beach eventually moved his nursery west of Parker Avenue.

In 1902, Captain John J. Haden planted mango seedlings he had obtained from Reverend Gale on his Coconut Grove farm south of Miami. As the trees grew and matured, one tree in particular produced a delicious fruit. The trees were tended by Haden’s wife Florence as Captain Haden had passed away only a year after planting the trees. The Haden mango was an accidental cross between the Mulgoba mango from Gale and a “turpentine” mango, a variety with poor taste and texture, but excellent root stock. The Haden cultivar is still a popular backyard variety, but disease and fungus stopped commercial production many years ago.

John Beach’s Ad in the Tropical Sun, 1898

Many other Palm Beach County growers went into the business, including the Garnett brothers in Hypoluxo, and James Miner in Boynton. Miner planted mangoes on his property where Miner Road is today along US 1, and planted trees further west along Boynton Beach Boulevard.  Several packing houses shipped mangoes all over the country as South Florida was the only source of the tasty fruits.

All of these larger groves have been lost to development, but mangos are still grown in Palm Beach County on a few small farms. The most notable farm is “Hatcher’s Mango Hill” on Hypoluxo Road. Located on the high ridge, this four-acre farm has survived development and remains a family-run farm. John Hatcher developed the cultivar in the 1940s ,and it is most likely a cross between the Haden and Brooks mango. The Hatcher family ships the fruits by mail order all over the nation.

Hatcher’s Mango Hill

The best place to experience the mango is in the Redlands, the area near Homestead that is home to the Fruit and Spice Park and Fairchild Farm (part of Fairchild Gardens in Coconut Grove). This too has a tie to Reverend Gale, as Dr. David Fairchild’s father was president of Kansas Agricultural College, and Fairchild knew Reverend Gale as a boy growing up in Kansas. He visited Reverend Gale in 1898 at his West Palm Beach home. Reverend Gale passed away in 1907 at his daughter’s home in Mangonia. The Industrialist, Kansas Agricultural College’s journal, wrote “In short, his was an active and useful life, and thousands of pioneer Kansans and  former students at College are indebted to the kindly old man, now buried on the beach of his new home state, Florida.”

To celebrate the fruit, Fairchild Gardens is holding its 20th Annual International Mango Festival, July 14 and 15th, 2012 at its Coral Gables location, 10901 Old Cutler Road, Coral Gables, 305-667-1651. Please see the website at www.fairchildgarden.org for a complete event schedule for the two-day festival.

And next time you bite into a juicy, sweet mango, thank Reverend Gale.

Reverend Gale with wife Elizabeth

Señor Major Boynton? Hotel owner had Spanish Roots

With the release of the 1940 census, another chapter of American history can be explored and our ancestors found. All census records from 1850 forward are available through various websites such as Ancestry.com, FamilySearch.org and Fold3.com. Some the censuses are more complete than others; for example much of the 1890 census data was

Major Nathan S. Boynton

lost in a fire. Recently I was helping a friend with some research on her family history, and I thought it might be interesting to see if I could find some more information on Major Nathan S. Boynton, who founded and owned the Boynton Hotel on the beach and for whom the associated town is named.

I first found Major Boynton on the 1860 census, living near Cincinnati, Ohio. He was 23 and listed his profession as “Physician.” I had heard he intended to study medicine after working in the grocery business (“mercantile”) for a few years. As the Civil War broke out, he returned to Michigan and enlisted in the cavalry. He rose in rank to Major, and mustered out in 1865 and relocated to Marine City, Michigan. In the meantime, he  married and several children were born. On the 1870 census, he is listed as being an “editor”, with wife Annie in the household along with children Charles, Annie, George and Frances. He did indeed purchase the local paper and served as editor. I did not find an 1880 census record for the family, and as mentioned, the 1890 census is pretty much gone.

It was the 1900 census that presented some interesting information. Census forms changed over the years; one of the changes was the requirement to list the place of birth of the parents of each of the persons in the census. And in Major Boynton’s line on the census, place of birth for his mother was listed as Spain. I knew that Major Boynton’s wife was from Germany, but I had never heard his mother was born in Spain. A bit of looking found a biography of Major Boynton and it listed his mother as being named Frances Rendt Boynton, daughter of “Old Captain Lewis Rendt.” In looking at Captain Rendt, his actual name was Johann Ludwig Rendt, and he was born in 1773 in Germany. He was a Hessian soldier who was in service of the British army. The British would “lease” entire battalions of Hessian soldiers to join their side in various conflicts; Captain Rendt had fought for the British in the war of 1812 against the United States. As part of his payment, he was granted land in the province of Ontario, very near the Michigan border. He married Joaquina Josephina Sophia Arliano from Cadiz, Spain and together they had eight children, born in Spain, Malta, and Canada. Among them was Frances Margaret Rendt, Major Boynton’s mother. She married Granville F. Boynton in Port Huron, Michigan. Granville died in 1845, and Frances remarried, to a Jonathan Graves. They had two sons together, who were half brothers to Major Boynton.

In today’s terms, that would make Major Boynton “Hispanic,” although such a categorization was unknown at the time. Major Boynton’s father was of English heritage, so Major Boynton certainly illustrates the melting pot of America as people of all lands sought its shores. You just never know what the census may reveal.