True age of one of West Palm Beach’s Oldest Homes Found – The Spencer House – 115 years old.

I love old pioneer homes, especially those with Victorian elements. West Palm Beach was once the “Cottage City,” and filled with these lovely homes with their towers, gingerbread, and shingle features. Very few of these homes have stood the forces of nature – whether it be hurricanes, termites, or worst of all, the bulldozer; their numbers ever dwindle. I posted a picture of the Leamington, a small boarding house that stood near where the Meyer Amphitheatre is today. A friend, Jeannie Hoban, commented that it looked very much like a house she once owned at 201 Monceaux Road in West Palm Beach.

201 Monceaux Road

Intrigued, I looked up the house on Google Maps, then did the usual research – looked up the property on the tax assessor site, looked at the build date, and located the plat. I also looked for references to 201 Monceaux Road in the Palm Beach Post archive. The tax assessor site had the build date as 1925, which didn’t make sense to me for that style of house. The state survey said the house was built in 1927, and the Historic Preservation plaque on the house has the date as 1908.  In the 1930s papers, I found that a Harold E. Spencer was living in the house at 201 Monceaux. The plat revealed that Spencer had platted the land in 1926 as Monceaux, a lovely French name in a sea of Spanish-sounding names such as El Cid. I wondered why Spencer would have chosen lot 6 for the house, away from the waterfront along Lake Worth, to place his house.

Monceaux Plat, 1926

 

I searched in the Palm Beach Post archive and found a 1920 reference to a 1903 fire. 1903 had been a bad year for fires in the area, with the original Breakers Hotel, Eugene Dimick’s house in Palm Beach, and a mention that Spencer’s house all had gone up in flames. So I searched for that event, and a tragic one it was. In August 1902, Spencer had come to West Palm Beach looking for land. He bought acreage in the farming area that was once along the waters of Lake Worth, between West Palm Beach and what would become the town of Lake Worth. He built a two-story house overlooking the lake. Spencer’s brother Earnest, along with caretaker Herbert Zentis, were working on the house, readying it for his brother and their elderly parents imminent arrival. Several train cars of furniture were in the house, and the grounds had been planted with pineapples and orange trees.

Tropical Sun Article, 1903

The October 17, 1903 Tropical Sun reported that Earnest Spencer awoke to find his upstairs bedroom filled with smoke. He opened the door and was hit with flames, burning his hands and arms. He shut the door and crawled out a window onto the veranda roof, and jumped down. He heard Zentis scream, and tried to rescue him with a ladder, but the flames were too much. Clad only in his nightshirt and badly burned, he bicycled to the nearest neighbor, George C. Matthams, a prominent pineapple grower. Dr. Richard Potter was summoned to care for Earnest. A rescue party went to Spencer’s property, and found only a smoldering ruin – of poor Zentis, only some bones remained from the inferno. His remains were buried in Lakeside Cemetery, in a child’s casket.

Harold Spencer arrived in West Palm Beach in November, 1903. According to the November 4, 1903 Tropical Sun, Spencer planned to start rebuilding as soon as possible. And it was from that article that the true date of the Spencer house can be reasonably deduced – 1904. That makes it one of West Palm Beach’s oldest surviving cottages. When the land was platted in 1926, the house was moved from its original site to lot 6. According to Lewis Sorrell, who grew up in the neighborhood, the house stood in the middle of what would become Monceaux Road. Spencer moved the house north and turned it so the front door faces the east.

Tropical Sun Article, November 4, 1903

I became more intrigued about Spencer – who was he? Research through Ancestry.com and Newspapers.com revealed him to come from a blue-blood family of Tarrytown, New York.

Spencer Passport Photo, 1917

His father, James S. Spencer, was a rector in the Christ Church parish for 61 years. Harold Eldredge Spencer was born in 1871, and graduated from Columbia Law School and also attended Oxford University. He practiced law in New York. During World War I, he volunteered as an ambulance driver in France. His parents and brother lived with him in the house in what would become the south section of West Palm Beach. He sold the house in the 1940s to a widow, Mrs. G. Ray Sparks, whose son would become a West Palm Beach mayor. Harold Spencer passed away in 1955 at the age of 84. Jeanne and George Hoban bought the house from the Sparks family and lived there for many years. Jeanne’s instincts told her that the house was older than most thought, and she was right. She provided to me a floorplan of the house. Its layout, with bedrooms at each corner of the second floor, perfectly matches the description of the terrible fire.

And finally, the name Monceaux – what was its origin? Newspaper accounts had said it was named for Monceaux, France where Spencer’s mother had been born. But that proved not to be the case. In fact, his mother’s maiden name was Mary Francis Mounsey, and she was born in New York. Phonetically, Mounsey and Monceaux do sound much the same. Mounsey could be mistaken for “Mousy,” a rather unromantic name for a subdivision. Monceaux had a much better sound.

Now, the history of the cottage is complete. We can safely wish the house a happy 115th birthday.

Frances Mounsey Headstone

The Hidden Treat in the Hedges – The Cocoplum

Cocoplum fruit

Cocoplum fruit

You have seen them, and perhaps wondered what they were. Purple oblong fruits, tucked away in hedges in mundane places – at the supermarket, drug store, church, school – wherever this popular hedge plant has made its home.  The Cocoplum (Chrysobalanus icaco) has become a favorite landscape hedge of South Florida over the last 30 years. Its attractive red and green foliage creates a dense hedge that is drought and salt resistant, but a visit from Jack Frost would not be welcome. A true South Florida native, Cocoplums are found throughout the Caribbean, even as far away as West Africa.

I knew they were edible from a class I took in high school on all the native plants that can be eaten, and I had read accounts of the pioneers using them to make jelly. I even tried a few fruits over the years, but found them rather bland and tasteless.  The purple skin of the red tip variety hides a white pulp and large pit. I had a Bahamian cookbook my mother gave me from a trip to Abaco, and in it were some recipes for Cocoplum jam. I had dabbled in jam making through the years, but had not cooked jam in many years. A recent trip to a central Florida blueberry farm left me with several pounds of fresh blueberries, so I got to cooking. I had forgotten how delicious homemade jam was.

1850 Advertisement for Cocoplum preserves

1850 Advertisement for Cocoplum preserves

A friend asked what Florida native fruits there were to make into jam. I thought of the cocoplum, so I began to search them out. I saw a few in some hedges, and many of the white “Coastal” variety growing in a park, but harvesting isn’t allowed in public parks. A chance trip down a side street off of Parker Avenue in West Palm Beach brought me to an untrimmed shrub loaded with the purple fruits, some the size of ping pong balls. I collected a good many in a paint tray I had just bought, as I didn’t have anything else in the car.

Cocoplums growing near a parking lot.

I looked up some recipes and started them simmering on the stove – I washed them, removed any stems, and put them in the pot. As they began to boil, I must say the smell was not too pleasant – kind of reminiscent of old socks. But I didn’t want to give up just yet. Once the fruit had boiled, I squeezed the juice from them, and measured it out. Once I began to heat up the juice, a delightful aroma emerged from the simmering juice. I added a box of powdered pectin, got that to a boil, then added an equal amount of sugar to juice. It took a while to get back to a boil, and then I boiled it about 3 minutes. I ladled the beautiful burgundy colored hot liquid into prepared jelly jars, sealed the lids, then processed for 10 minutes in boiling water. It took about 24 hours for the jelly to fully “set” – then came the telling moment – how was it? Delicious…kind of a cross between blackberry and grape, maybe with a bit of boysenberry thrown in.

I imagined all sorts of possibilities beyond jelly – syrup for pancakes or drinks, or to drizzle over a piece of key lime pie; perhaps a basis for a tropical barbecue sauce. The cocoplum is also proving to be a medical wonder. It is being studied as a possible treatment for colon cancer, and also for use with chemotherapy to stop DNA damage. It is very high in resveratrol, that magic blue substance found in blueberries and red wine. Some people also “pickle” the cocoplums and claim they taste like olives (I have not tried that), or they dry them in the sun or in the oven. It also has a “bonus” treat – inside the pit is a “nut” or seed that is very high in oil and tastes sort of like a boiled peanut. The oil was used throughout the Caribbean to make candles or in cooking before cheaper substitutes took over.

So next time you see bushes full of these magical fruits, why not try some? Do make sure that you are permitted to pick, and that the bushes haven’t been sprayed with insecticide (look for spiders or ants).

Fresh Picked Cocoplums

Cocoplum Jelly or Jam

80-100 Fresh Purple Cocoplums (the white ones can be used but will not result in the delightful purple color)
1 box powdered Sure Jell Pectin for low sugar recipes (pink box)
Sugar (see below)
1/4 cup lemon juice (bottled)

Wash the Cocoplums well, removing any stems. Place in a large pot and cover with water. Place pot on medium heat till they simmer, and simmer for 1 hour, occasionally crushing the fruit with a potato masher. If you want to make a clear jelly, strain the hot fruits through a colander lined with cheesecloth and let the juice drip out into another pot or bowl (or use a jelly bag). If you want a heartier jam, squeeze the fruits through the colander without cheesecloth so more fruit bits end up in the juice.

Measure your resulting juice. Then measure an equal amount of sugar, or up to 1/2 cup less if making jam (i.e., 4 cups of juice would mean 4 cups of sugar for jelly, 3 1/2 cups for jam) and set aside. Prepare your jars for canning (see this link for details – https://www.thespruceeats.com/preparing-jars-for-canning-3052438). Return the juice to a clean pot, mix in the box of pectin and lemon juice, and stir according to pectin box instructions. The mixture is ready for the sugar when it is boiling and cannot be stirred down. Add the sugar all at once (careful of splashing) and stir constantly as the mixture returns to a boil. Once it has reached boiling and cannot be stirred down, boil for three minutes. I find this does not foam up at all, probably due to the oil from the kernels inside the pit. Remove a hot jar from the water bath and fill the jar using a wide mouth funnel (you really need a funnel and a pair of jar tongs – less than $5 at WalMart). Fill each jar within 1/4 of the top, clean the rim with a wet paper towel, and place a sterilized lid on the jar and tighten the band. Once all the jars are filled, return them to the hot water pot where you sterilized the jars and process them 10 minutes. Carefully remove the jars with the jar tongs and place on a counter to cool 24 hours. You will hear each jar “pop” as the vacuum seal forms. Check after 24 hours and make sure all the seals are depressed down. If you find one that is not properly sealed, store it in the refrigerator. Otherwise the jars can be stored up to one year in a cool dark place. But once you taste it, the jars won’t last that long.

Variations:

Spiced Cocoplum Jam – Add 1 teaspoon of cinnamon and 1/4 teaspoon of cloves to the pressed juice.
Cocoplum Syrup – Make as above for jelly, but omit pectin, and store in the refrigerator.

Remembering Fred S. Dewey – A Century Since his Passing

January 5, 2019 marks a century since the passing of Fred S. Dewey, one of the most important South Florida pioneers. Frederick Sidney Dewey was born October 10, 1837 in Bloomfield, Indiana. His family had moved west from Massachusetts, where father Lonson Nash Dewey was born.

Lonson N. Dewey

Fred was a descendent of Thomas Dewey (often called “Thomas the Settler”), whose seven sons and their descendents count such notable names as Admiral George Dewey, the hero of the Spanish-American War, Thomas Dewey, governor of New York and presidential candidate, John Dewey, educational philosopher and professor, and Melvil Dewey, developer of the Dewey Decimal System and professor.

Fred’s father Lonson ran a hat factory in Indiana, where he had homesteaded much land. He married, but first wife Harriet Day died in 1835. He then married Nancy Jones, and Fred was their first child. Soon four more boys followed, and a daughter, Hattie. The family continued their trek westward, with Nancy serving as teacher for the children. Their next stop was Scott, Illinois, then on to Marion, Illinois.

Nancy Jones Dewey

In 1862, Fred joined the Union Army serving in the 31st Infantry from Missouri. He was quickly promoted to Master Sergeant, and saw action in Mississippi. But Fred was removed from duty not from war injuries, but illness, which killed more soldiers than the battles did in the Civil War. He had contracted tuberculosis, and was hospitalized for months in Mississippi. Finally, in 1863, he was discharged from the Union Army, not expected to live.

The young Fred S. Dewey

Fred made his way back to Illinois and settled in Salem.  He was a trusted public servant in many roles including deputy sheriff, notary, and bank clerk at the Salem National Bank. It was in Salem that he met Julia Bird Spilman (the later Byrd Spilman Dewey) and they married September 25, 1877. Fred was still suffering from the effects of tuberculosis; the doctor’s recommendation was to seek a warmer climate. In 1881, Fred and Birdie headed to Florida, and first bought land in Zellwood, Florida. Their attempt at citrus growing was a failure, so Fred took up his old job as an accountant in Eustis before the pair headed to Jacksonville. Fred worked in Jacksonville at a few lumber companies as an accountant and bookkeeper. After the loss of their only child, the two sought a new adventure in the wilds of South Florida. In 1887, Fred staked a claim to 78 acres in the highlands north of West Palm Beach in what today is Northwood Hills. On that land Fred cleared a few acres for growing tropical fruits and built a four-room house. He worked in Palm Beach, at the Hendrickson Store and the Brelsford Store, along doing carpentry work as it presented itself. He also served as the Health Officer in Jupiter to inspect incoming ships and boats for possible Yellow Fever victims.

Fred Dewey in the 1870s

In 1890, the Deweys purchased a 5-acre plot of land with a small house on the shores of Lake Worth about a mile south of West Palm Beach. Fred expanded the existing structure to become a beautiful lakeside cottage. He also became a county officer, serving as notary, county commissioner, tax collector and tax assessor for Dade County, which at that time stretched from the upper Keys all the way to Stuart. This meant that he would have to be away from home for days or months as he traveled from homestead to homestead collecting taxes. He served in that role until 1892. One of his tax collecting trips was chronicled by Mrs. Vincent Gilpen, and later published in the Tequesta Journal in 1942. The hardships of such a job were chronicled in this adventuresome tale.

Fred and Birdie began to buy lands in Dade County, many times quickly flipping them for nice profits. In 1892, Birdie purchased 160 acres at the foot of Lake Worth, in what was called the “Hypoluxo Garden Lands.” Her $700 investment was quickly flipped to William S. Linton (founder of Delray Beach)  for $6,000. The deal fell through when Linton defaulted. The Deweys sued Linton and got their land back in 1897. They platted the land in two developments – The Town of Boynton, a 40-acre townsite, and Dewey’s Subdivision, 5-acre farm plots along the intracoastal canal where tomatoes grew well. The Deweys began selling the lots and farming plots. Fred planted a seven-acre citrus grove just south of where the Ocean Avenue Bridge is today in Boynton, on the north end of what is Sterling Village.

Fred and Birdie, 1885

Fred’s talent in real estate and genial nature didn’t go unnoticed. He became a land agent for the Florida East Coast Railway Company, the Boston & Atlantic Land Company, and the Sawyer Land Trust. These interests held thousands of acres of valuable South Florida land, gained through the building of the railroad and digging of the canal from Boynton to Fort Lauderdale, today’s Intracoastal Waterway.

Fred’s territory went from Boynton south to Fort Lauderdale; according to newspaper reports, no one sold more land than Fred. The couple lived in West Palm Beach until 1906, when they returned to Jacksonville as Fred’s health was beginning to falter. The couple sold their West Palm Beach lakefront home in 1909, and built a new home in Boynton at the southwest corner of what is today Federal Highway and Boynton Beach Boulevard. According to Bertha Chadwell, Boynton pioneer, she would drive the Deweys to Palm Beach so that Fred could meet with Henry Flagler on real estate matters in South Florida.

They lived in Boynton briefly before Fred’s health again took a turn. At the age of 73, Fred was admitted to the Mountain Home Veterans Home at Johnson City, Tennessee  with multiple ailments. He was then transferred to a soldier’s home in Virginia, and then on to the Sawtelle Soldier’s Home in Los Angeles, California. Birdie sold her Palm Beach house on Seabreeze Avenue and moved to California to be near Fred. He passed away January 5, 1919, and is buried in the Los Angeles National Cemetery.

Fred Dewey in 1901

Fred Dewey’s Headstone, Los Angeles

I visited his grave site in 2016, and the experience was quite moving, to visit the earthly remains of a Florida pioneer. He served his country and he served his adopted state in so many different ways. His offspring, the little Town of Boynton, is today a thriving community of over 69,000 residents.

Read the complete biography of Fred S. Dewey and Byrd Spilman Dewey in Pioneering Palm Beach: The Deweys and the South Florida Frontier  – Available on Amazon –  https://www.amazon.com/Pioneering-Palm-Beach-Florida-Frontier/dp/1609496574/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1546719880&sr=8-1&keywords=pioneering+palm+beach