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.

How the Town of Boynton’s founding was discovered

Today the Palm Beach Post ran a story on a proposal I had written to rename a park in downtown Boynton Beach for Fred S. Dewey and Byrd Spilman Dewey. This week’s blog will relate how this discovery was made.

It happened this way: Readers from earlier blogs will know that I did quite a bit of land research on who were the original owners of land in the Boynton area. As part of that search, I wanted to see the history of the downtown Boynton Beach area and the ocean coastline. I opened the old registry books to the section, township and range for Boynton Beach. A rather puzzling mystery presented itself – it was not the name Nathan S. Boynton that was appearing, but the name Birdie Dewey, over and over again on that very first page of entries. I found that strange because I had never heard the name – who was Birdie Dewey?

Birdie Dewey

Byrd Spilman Dewey, from a picture in her book The Blessed Isle

I searched for Birdie Dewey and found the Lake Worth Pioneer’s website that had a page for Fred S. Dewey and his wife Birdie Dewey, whose full name was Byrd Spilman Dewey. The page indicated that Birdie Dewey was an author.

Further research at the courthouse gave the history of the downtown lands. The records revealed the land that constitutes the original downtown area was given to the state of Florida from the Federal government in 1879. The idea was to sell lands to raise money through the Improvement Fund. In 1890, the land was awarded to the Florida Coast Line Canal and Transportation Company that was to dig the canal that came to be known as the Intracoastal Waterway. The Canal Company in turn sold the land to George H.K. Charter, who intended to farm the land. Charter changed his plans and sold all of his holdings in the

Plat

Excerpt from the town plat in 1897

area to relocate to Jamaica. Birdie S. Dewey purchased the land January 29, 1892, all 120 acres, for $700.00. This was the 40 acres that made up the original townsite and 80 acres along the Intracoastal Waterway. It turns out that Birdie Dewey had quite the eye for real estate, and bought and sold land throughout Palm Beach and Broward counties.

I looked in the original plat books at the courthouse and found that indeed the Deweys had filed the original plat for the Town of Boynton on September 26, 1897. They also platted “Dewey’s Subdivision” on the other 80 acres. The lots in Dewey’s subdivision were subdivided into five-acre plots for sale as farmland. The rich muck soil along the canal was perfect for raising tomatoes. Mr. Dewey even had the first orange grove in Boynton, which was located south of where Ocean Avenue is today.

They sold lots in the town to settlers along the streets they had named for native plants, such as Palm Street and Poinciana Street. The only street to retain its original name is Ocean Avenue; the rest of the streets were renamed in the 1950s to numbered streets and avenues to aid in postal delivery. One street disappeared completely – Dewey Place, which would be slightly east of the Oscar Magnuson house on Ocean Avenue.

Ocean Avenue in 1910

Ocean Avenue in 1910

The Deweys had sold their holdings in West Palm Beach and had built a fine two-story home at the corner of Federal Highway and Boynton Beach Boulevard. They had planned to retire to Boynton; those plans were short-lived as Mr. Dewey’s health took a turn for the worse, the direct result of his service in the Civil War. The Deweys left in June 1910; Mrs. Dewey donated her extensive collection of literature and a small lending library was started at the Post Office. Mr. Dewey entered a military hospital in Tennessee and was in and out of military hospitals until his death in 1919 at the Sawtelle Old Soldiers Home in California. He is buried in the Los Angeles National Cemetery. Mrs. Dewey sold her last holdings in Boynton in 1925. She passed away in Jacksonville in 1942, and is buried in the Greenlawn Cemetery.

It is my great hope that these two pioneers will be recognized by the city they founded. January 29 will mark the 120th anniversary of their land purchase, so the timing of this could not be better. Our pioneer days before Flagler’s arrival are times of unimaginable beauty – and sacrifice. The Deweys truly embody that spirit.

UPDATE:The City Council of Boynton Beach did not approve the renaming of the park for the Deweys.

Mrs. Dewey’s image is from the book The Blessed Isle, published in 1907; the other images are from the Florida State archives through the Florida Memory Project.

Hands of Creation: Augusta Christine Savage

During this whole weekend, when I looked for something, I found something else, and each and every time it was much better than what I was actually looking for. So it was as I found Augusta Christine Savage, a famous African-American sculptor of the 20th

Augusta Christine Savage at work

century. Born on Leap Day 1892, in Green Cove Springs, Florida, she came from a poor family of 13 children. So many children and little money left the children with no toys. But the creative spirit in her found a way; in her case it was the clay pit near their backyard. She created sculptures of animals and often skipped school to create her animals. Her father, a minister, did not approve of her creating “idolatry” of God’s creatures and often punished her for the creations.

The South Florida connection emerges with the family’s move to West Palm Beach in 1907. That move, however, cut her off from her beloved clay. While on a school trip, she rode past a local business called “Chase Pottery” and she knew clay was there. She yelled for the wagon to stop and ran to the shop. The potter was so impressed with her excitement that he gave her three buckets of clay to take home. Her father still disapproved of her sculpting, but after seeing her sculpture of the Virgin Mary, he realized her talent and accepted her art. Several teachers at the school for Blacks also noticed her talent, and after graduation, she was asked to stay on as a teacher of art at the school for the salary of one dollar a day. She went on to study one year at Florida A&M University at the teacher’s college.

Mayor George Currie

George Currie

Among those who noticed her talent was George Currie, a local leader who was an attorney, developer and had also served as mayor of West Palm Beach. Artistic talent was his too; he wrote several books of poetry. At that time, Currie was serving as the secretary of the Palm Beach County Fair, which was held near the train depot. Over considerable objection from other fair officials, Savage was allowed to have her own display booth of her sculptures. Not only did she sell $175 in sculptures, she won a $25 prize at the fair.

1921 County Fair

County Fair Article

Currie knew her talent was there, so he helped her study in New York. With a letter of introduction from Currie to a sculptor he knew in New York, she studied at the Cooper Union, a tuition-free art school. She supported herself with a cleaning job, but the job was soon lost. The advisory board at the Cooper Union agreed to pay her board as they felt her Mention of Savage, 1921, Tropical Suntalent so great. She applied for a summer art program in Paris, but was solely denied because she was Black. The story of her denial was carried in several papers, and artists came forward willing to have her study with them. Among them was Hermon Atkins MacNeil. She continued her studies and supported her family through working in a laundry. Her family back in West Palm Beach soon had to join her as their home was destroyed in a hurricane.

She received her first commission, a sculpture of W.E.B. DuBois to be done for the Harlem library in 1924. In 1925, she won a scholarship to an art school in Rome, but was unable to attend because it only covered tuition. Her dream of studying abroad was finally realized in 1929 when the Julius Rosenwald foundation funded her study at a leading Paris art school. She toured Europe as part of the experience, displaying her works along the way.

She returned to the United States in 1931, ready to sculpt and create, but the nation was in the throes of the Great Depression. In 1934, she opened her own art school in Harlem, Savage’s Studio of Arts and Crafts. Many famous African-American artists emerged from

Lift Every Voice and Sing Sculpture

her studio. In 1939, she received a commission from the New York World’s Fair, and she created a sculpture entitled Lift Every Voice and Sing. The large sculpture was cast in plaster as she could not afford bronze. Small copies in metal were cast and sold as souveniers at the Fair. It proved to be one of the most popular attractions at the Fair.

Unfortunately the plaster cast of the sculpture was destroyed after the fair as there was no money to preserve it. It was at this time that Savage abandoned her art career. She moved to upstate New York and only occasionally created new art. She rarely spoke of her career and worked at a mushroom farm. Occasionally she would teach an art class.  As her health faltered, she moved in with her daughter in New Jersey. She died March 26, 1962.

Her works are real and captured the spirit of her time. Had not George Currie seen her talent and had the courage to stand up to the prejudice of the fair officials, her career and

Gamin Scupture

talent may have never been realized. Today the few surviving pieces of her work sell for thousands of dollars. In this way, she has suffered the same fate of many artists who never realize the monetary value of their talent. But by remembering her and appreciating her work, her spirit and message survives in the beauty of her art.

This article was researched through the Tropical Sun archives, Wikipedia, and Alan Schroeder’s book on Augusta Christine Savage, In Her Hands.

They paved Banyan Street and put up a Parking Lot

If you have visited downtown West Palm Beach, Florida to enjoy the Green Market, have dinner or shop, you probably have parked in the Banyan Street garage, which is on

Banyan Street

Banyan Street as it appears in 2011

the south side of Banyan Street from Olive Avenue to Narcissus Street. It’s a rather nondescript three-story building built in the 1970s, but in the early 20th century, it was the hot spot of West Palm Beach.

Most famous of all the businesses that were located on this block was George Zapf’s Seminole Hotel, first built in 1894 at the corner of Banyan and Narcissus. The Zapf family had bottling businesses in many Florida cities including Miami, Jacksonville and West Palm Beach. He was an alderman in the city, and certainly was one of the real characters in early West Palm Beach.

George Zapf

George Zapf at his home – he is second from the left

The original wood structure burned in the Great Fires of 1896. First, on January 2, 1896 a fire started from an overheated stove in Nicoli and Puckett’s “Midway Plaisance Saloon and Restaurant” and the entire Banyan block was burned. Then on February 20, 1896, the rest of Narcissus Street burned to the south when an oil lamp overturned in a tailor’s shop. Zapf immediately had the hotel rebuilt, and the new Seminole Hotel was then constructed of brick as a “fireproof” hotel.

The Seminole Hotel

The Seminole Hotel in about 1900

The Seminole Hotel’s street level shops offered many services and businesses such as a lunch room, a tailor and barber shop, billiards, several saloons, cigars and candy, clothing and a drug store. The rest of the Banyan block had restaurants, offices, a grocery store, a bottling works and a Chinese laundry. At the corner of Narcissus and Clematis was the Palms Hotel, where the original Anthony Brothers store was located.

Seminole Hotel

Ad from The Tropical Sun for the Seminole Hotel

Of course, it was the saloons on Banyan Street that were the big draw, being the only place in West Palm Beach that served liquor. Many Palm Beachers also came across the bridge to enjoy late night drinking on Banyan. Some even called the street “Whiskey Street” and it drew the ire of Carrie Nation, the crusading leader of the Woman’s Temperance Movement, who showed up with her hatchet to clean up the place. The map of the entire block exactly as it appeared in 1903 is part of the Sanborn Fire Map series for West Palm Beach. These maps were produced to estimate fire insurance rates. Buildings in yellow were wood frame construction, and buildings in red were brick or brick veneer. The types of businesses are noted on the map. Several different years are available online at the University of Florida library (http://ufdc.ufl.edu/?c=SANBORN) and the maps provide a glimpse of how the city grew from 1903 through 1920.

Banyan Street

Banyan Street as it appeared in 1903

Zapf eventually sold the hotel, and it was renamed the Lake Park Hotel. It was razed sometime before 1950, but the exact date of the razing was not indicated in Palm Beach Post articles on the hotel.

So next time you park in the Banyan Street garage, think of the people who shopped in the stores, imbibed in some spirits or stayed in the hotel and enjoyed the good times of days past. Perhaps their spirits still walk Banyan Street.

This article was researched through the Palm Beach Post Historic archives and the Photographic Collection of the Florida Archives.

Going Postal, 1920s Style – The Strange Case of Lena Clarke

This is another blog posting that found its way to me in mysterious ways. I was looking for information on the Clarke family that farmed the Lake Clarke area in the old Tropical Sun newspapers online. What I found instead was a story that belies belief. My timing in finding this story also showed it to be another Orlando Florida murder trial that ended as no one expected.

Lena Clarke

Maude Clarke (standing) and Lena Clarke, dressed for the Seminole Sun Dance Festival, 1916

Lena Marietta Thankful Clarke was by all accounts an outstanding, intelligent young woman, born in 1886. Her father, the Rev. Almon Taylor Clarke was a minister, and Lena devoted much of her time to the Red Cross, the Congregational Church and selling War Bonds during World War I. Her sister Maude was the City Librarian for West Palm Beach, and the whole family had moved to West Palm Beach and lived on Poinsettia Street (later Dixie Highway).

Lena seemed to be a very intelligent and precocious child, reportedly reading philosophy books at the age of 6, according to author Stuart McIver who told of this twisted tale in his book Murder in the Tropics. Lena had worked at the West Palm Beach post office for 10 years, where her brother John Paul Clarke had served as postmaster. He met a strange and untimely death on Christmas Day, 1920 when he died of a Coral snake bite. Paul was a taxidermist and snake charmer, and had left the post office in 1918. After the subsequent postmaster resigned, the postmaster’s job was open; Lena was named postmistress in 1920 with support of the community through a petition signed by local businessmen.

Here is where the story begins to turn. Post offices took in quite a bit of cash beyond stamp sales and mailing parcels, mostly for money orders and war bonds. On July 26, 1921 she sent what was supposed to have been $32,000 in cash in two registered mail sacks to the Atlanta Federal Reserve Bank.

When the sacks arrived, they were filled with mail order catalogs cut to the size of currency. A postal inspector arrived and questioned Lena about the theft. On Sunday, August 1, Lena hired a driver (Baxter Patterson) to take her to Orlando. There she checked into room 87 of the San Juan Hotel in downtown Orlando under an assumed name. She met up with a former mail carrier with whom she had worked, Fred Miltimore, who had left his post office job in West Palm Beach and was now running the Arcade restaurant in Orlando.

Later that evening, she walked into the police station in Orlando and into Chief E.D. Vestal’s office. She told how officers needed to go the San Juan Hotel and arrest Miltimore for the theft of the $32,000 that he had stolen from the West Palm Beach post office. She

newspaper

Newspaper headline from the New York Times

claimed to have drugged him with a morphine pill. Vestal confirmed with West Palm Beach that she was indeed the postmistress. He sent officers out to the hotel, but they did not find a drugged Mr. Miltimore – they found a dead Mr. Miltimore, having been shot in the chest, with a gun lying nearby.

With Lena still in his office, the officers relayed the information on Miltimore’s demise back to the chief. He immediately accused her of killing Miltimore. She initially denied it, but did confess that yes, she had shot him because Miltimore would blame the theft on her. Within days, she was indicted on charges of first degree murder in Orange County.

In the months before trial, her story became more sensational and her celebrity status rose. She received fan mail and flowers on many occasions, and she redecorated and repainted her jail cell. She even wrote an autobiography of sorts from her jail cell which was sold through local newspapers for 25 cents. She soon recanted her confession, and claimed to have no recollection of making it to Chief Vestal. She also took to writing poetry in her jail cell:

A Fool’s Wisdom
I told you the course you pursued was wrong
But you laughed and said women are poor, weak fools
So I hushed on my lips life’s merry song
To pray, while you all disregarded God’s rules
I knew how your castle would crash on your head,
How the flowers would turn in your hands to weeds;
I saw when you turned from the ruins and fled;
Do you think I can meet, now, your soul’s sorest needs?
You expect I will comfort you and show you how
To bring your mistakes to successes still.
You look to my cunning to save you now.
Weak fool of a woman, perhaps I will.
Of course, love will fill the bitter years;
Perhaps was too cruel of a word to say.
Angels, blot from your records my prayers and my tears.
Lest they hide them from God at the judgment day.

headline

As the trial approached, she once again changed her story about the money. Now she claimed that the money had really been stolen in 1918, and that another man, Joseph B. Elwell, had loaned her $20,000 to cover the theft. Except there was a problem – Elwell was dead! He had been shot dead in New York in 1920 in a murder that remains unsolved. The $32,000 was recovered among her belongings and bank accounts.

Lena hired two law firms to defend her – an Orlando law firm and the West Palm Beach law firm of Chillingworth and Chillingworth. Both firms had settled on an insanity defense and Lena did much to support their case. She testified for several hours. Imagine this scene – gazing into the crystal ball she brought with her on the witness stand, telling of the twelve previous lives she had lived. She had lived in the Garden of Eden, had been the goddess Isis in Egypt, then Berenice, the last queen of the Jews, then King Herod’s wife, then she was eaten by lions. Now we jump forward many centuries and she is with William Shakespeare, and served as the role model for the Ophelia character. Throughout these scenes, she claims Miltimore was also there, and always persecuting her in various ways.

She proclaimed that she would be found innocent and that this would be the start of her national career, serving as vice president of the United States and then president as the president (Eugene V. Debs, head of the socialist party) would be assissinated.

booklet

Ad for booklet of Lena’s life

Several psychiatrists, or “alienists” as they were then called, testified as to her mental state. Two found her to be insane, while one thought the whole thing to be a clever ruse. The jury recessed and came back two and a half hours later with their verdict – not guilty by reason of insanity. The judge committed her to the Florida State Mental Hospital at Chattahoochee. She was not happy about that, proclaiming she would have rather been sent to the gallows.

Alas, her stay was short at Chattahoochee, less than one year. She quietly returned to West Palm Beach and resumed her work with the church and the Red Cross. She lived in the house with her sister on Poinsettia Street, with neither woman ever marrying. The house, however, belonged to the Chillingworths; it was payment for their legal services. They trusted her enough to send her to England to research their family history. She shows up frequently in articles with her relief efforts through the 1940s and 1950s. She died in 1967, and is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in West Palm Beach.

The echoes to an unexpected verdict from an Orange county jury after a short deliberation certainly brings to mind the Casey Anthony case. At the time, the Orlando Morning Sentinel relayed that more reporters were in town to cover the trial than at any other event that had occurred in Florida. That certainly can be said of the Anthony case as well.

Was Lena crazy? Perhaps…crazy like a fox!

Marker

Lena Clarke’s marker in Woodlawn Cemetery

This story was researched through the New York Times, the Tropical Sun and the Palm Beach Post archives, and the book by Stuart McIver, Murder in the Tropics.