Florida’s pioneer days have always held a fascination for me—those that were brave and stalwart enough to come to South Florida in the 1800s, before there was air conditioning, mosquito repellent, or even a grocery store to buy supplies. About three years ago, while looking through old land transaction records, I found a couple of those pioneers whose names and accomplishments had been lost to time—Byrd Spilman Dewey and her husband Fred S. Dewey.
Their names were prominently displayed in the earliest land transactions in the area that is today Boynton Beach, Florida. As I peeled back the layers of history from these two, the story became more intriguing at every new discovery. Mrs. Dewey was the grand niece of President Zachary Taylor, while Mr. Dewey was a cousin of Admiral George S. Dewey. As it turned out, the Deweys were the true founders of the town of Boynton, having platted the settlement in 1898.
If all these facts were not intriguing enough, it was the discovery that Mrs. Dewey was a well-known writer of the time that sparked the publication of Pioneering Palm Beach: The Deweys and the South Florida Frontier with my co-author, Janet DeVries.
We knew that the second phase of our research into the Dewey story would be to produce an anthology of Mrs . Dewey’s writings. That proved more difficult than we initially thought as tracking down her literary works in old magazines, newspapers and journals took us from the Palm Beach area all the way to Jacksonville, and even to the National Archives in Washington, D.C.
In 2014, we published The Collected Works of Byrd Spilman Dewey which presents her impressions and experiences in coming to the untamed paradise of South Florida. The following excerpts will illustrate her enchanting way of presenting the unspoiled Florida paradise of more than a century ago.
“We bought a tract of land from a friend and client of his, who offered us the use of a small homestead shanty near our land, to live in while we were building. This shanty looked decidedly uninviting, but the alternative was a room in the house of our relative, a full mile away from our place; so we decided in favor of the shanty. It was built of rived boards, slabs split out of the native logs. It had one door and no windows. In fact, it needed none; for the boards lapped roughly on each other, leaving cracks like those in window-blinds, so we could put our fingers through the walls almost anywhere.” – Bruno, 1899
“We had built so many hopes into our pine-woods home, which had seemed to us to be guarded by a ‘standing army’ of giants carrying silver banners, especially imposing on moonlight nights when the wind kept the banners of moss swaying under the immense pine-trees. We had seen it in imagination blossoming as the rose, a quiet little nest, far from the madding crowd. And now to abandon it at the beginning and go back to village life, it was leaving poetry for the flattest of prose.” – Bruno, 1899
“The Lake Worth Country, then but little known, beckoned with alluring hands. All Southern Florida bordering the Ocean had ever seemed to us a land of romance, fanned by mysterious, spice-laden breezes.” – From Pine Woods to Palm Groves, 1909
“It was a new Florida we had discovered. True, there were already a few families living there; but we felt ourselves to be, none-the-less, real discoverers. This was partly because much that we found existed only for, and to us. The elect will understand this. To others, it will seem only a riddle to which there is no answer. All the country was practically an Island; because its only highway was the water.
An isle of charm, mosquitoes, sandflies, redbugs, makeshifts and charm. The charm predominated. It was first and last; but all the other things were just as real.” – From Pine Woods to Palm Groves, 1909
“Occasionally such heavy squalls arose, that the schooners were forced to fly before the wind and take refuge in the wide-mouthed Bay nearly one hundred miles further south. Once a schooner loaded with groceries was kept dodging back and forth until the exasperated crew had eaten all the cargo; so, instead of making further effort to enter the Inlet, they signaled to the anxious shore-watch the nature of their plight, and sailed back to Jacksonville for a fresh cargo.” – From Pine Woods to Palm Groves, 1909
“The boat-house life was now to satisfy another dream; for it was in many ways like house-boat living. The ceaseless lap-lapping of waves, the aids to easy housekeeping in the ability to throw or sweep over-board every sort of trash or ‘clutter,’ and to watch at ease the movements of fish, or other water-creatures while busy at indoor tasks.” – From Pine Woods to Palm Groves, 1909
“Anyone who has been ten days without news from friends, relatives, and the world in general, can imagine how we felt with all this mail and no light. We built up a fire of fat-wood knots, and sat down on the floor in front of the stove, with its fire-doors open, our treasures of mail in our laps, devouring the words until the backs of our heads began to feel cooked. Never before had we fully appreciated the blessing of artificial lights—the help they are to civilization, and the joy they give!” – From Pine Woods to Palm Groves, 1909
“Pondering these things, we arrive at the truth, old as human feeling, that the only realities of life are the things that do not exist. What are called realities—life’s necessities—these never quicken the pulses, nor choke the breath with hurried heart-beats. But the intangibles—love, art, beauty, music, and again love; for love, in all its many kinds and degrees, is what gives meaning to art, beauty and music—these are the things that stir us to the depths—these are the things that grasp us with resistless power, dragging us up by the roots to throw us down quivering where we perish; or else take hold anew with our soul-fibers.” – The Blessed Isle and Its Happy Families, 1907
“In welcoming the fulfillment of maturity, we lose not the garment of youth. We hold fast, with loving trust, to the joy of living. Youth of the year—youth of life—youth of the heart—trinity of happiness. Everything gilded by life’s sunshine, which is power to love, a happy trust in The Angel of Destiny, a loving tenderness for all created life. And this is the spirit of youth—unfading youth—the guardian angel leading us through life’s mysterious mazes to the draped doorway which opens into that vast region beyond peopled with our loved ones—a country glorified with the radiance of Youth Eternal.” – O Youth Eternal, 1914
The Collected Works of Byrd Spilman Dewey
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