Tim Stepien/The Coastal Star
By Ron Hayes
How does “Birdie Beach” sound to you?
Welcome to the city of Birdie Beach, Gateway to the Gulf Stream.
Call up the official Boynton Beach website and you’ll learn that “Major Nathan S. Boynton, a native of Michigan who distinguished himself in the Civil War, founded the city … Boynton directed the construction of the Boynton Beach Hotel from 1895 to 1897. He and his workmen, recruited from Michigan, brought their families and settled in the new town of Boynton. With other settlers …” And so on.
Among those early settlers were Frederick and Lillie Pierce Voss, whose great-grandson, Harvey Oyer III, knows the story well. Boynton Beach history is also Oyer family history.
“So went the story I grew up hearing and, like others, have passed along ever since,” Oyer writes in the foreword to Pioneering Palm Beach, by Ginger L. Pedersen and Janet DeVries.
“However, there was a problem with this story. It was not entirely correct. Major Boynton was not the person who platted the little town that today bears his name.”
Before Boynton, there was Birdie.
The 160 acres of land that grew to become Boynton Beach was first owned and platted by a pioneering journalist, short-story writer, environmentalist and intrepid land speculator from Nicholasville, Ky., named Byrd Spilman Dewey.
“In May 2011, I was at the county courthouse, trying to figure out exactly where Major Boynton’s hotel had been,” recalled Pedersen, the dean of curriculum and educational technology at Palm Beach State College. “I pulled the tract for area 27-28, which is Federal Highway east, and when I looked at the properties, all I saw was the name Dewey, over and over. Birdie Dewey.”
Pedersen emailed her friend, historian and former Boynton Beach City Library archivist Janet DeVries.
“Who the heck is Birdie Dewey?”
DeVries had heard the name.
“She wrote children’s books.”
“That’s interesting,” Pedersen said. And so began a search that took them to Miami and St. Augustine, Eustis, Jacksonville and the National Archives in Washington, D.C.
Birdie Spilman Dewey wrote children’s books and
was an early pioneer of Boynton Beach. Photo provided
Along the way, they found Birdie.
“Her only child, Elizabeth, died in infancy,” says DeVries, “so it’s hidden history that’s been buried for a hundred years.”
Born Feb. 16, 1856, Birdie Spilman was a grandniece of President Zachary Taylor.
Her husband, Fred Dewey, was a cousin of Adm. George Dewey.
In 1881, the Deweys left their Salem, Ill., home and came by train to Zellwood, northwest of Orlando, where they built a home on 20 acres. Later, they moved to Eustis, where Dewey Street still recalls the site of their cottage. In Jacksonville, they lived on Monroe and Mattie streets. And then, in 1887, the couple came south and left their footprints all over this area.
In 1892, Birdie Dewey bought 160 acres in what is now Boynton Beach — 40 in the original town site and another 80 along the Intracoastal Waterway. Three years later, she sold 120 of those acres to William Linton for $6,000.
Linton then sold 40 of his acres to Maj. Boynton. But he had paid only $100 down. Linton had a contract, but no deed. He defaulted, Birdie foreclosed, and in 1897 the land was hers again.
The next year, she platted the land.
“If you read the early accounts,” Pedersen noted, “they always say the town was named after Major Boynton, not founded by him.”
When she wasn’t buying Florida by the acre, Birdie Dewey was writing about it.
In 1899, her novel Bruno was published, based on the couple’s first year in Eustis as seen through the eyes of their dog. It stayed in print for more than 20 years and sold 100,000 copies.
In 1909, she fictionalized her time in West Palm Beach in From Pine Woods To Palm Groves, serialized in the Florida Review. Pedersen and DeVries found a rare copy in the Jacksonville Public Library.
She wrote for The Tropical Sun, West Palm’s first newspaper, and national magazines such as Good Housekeeping.
The Deweys left Boynton for Palm Beach in 1911, but Birdie didn’t sell her last bit of Boynton real estate until 1925, when she’d moved on to Winter Park and become the field secretary for the Florida Audubon Society.
Byrd Spilman Dewey died in Jacksonville on April 1, 1942. She was 86, and lived in a little cottage on Home Street.
“It’s ironic,” Pedersen said, “because in her writings, she always capitalized the word home, as if it were her concept of heaven or something.”
In her will, she asked to be cremated and her ashes scattered from the pier of The Breakers hotel in Palm Beach.
Her surviving sister, Anna Louise Spilman, buried her in Jacksonville’s Greenlawn Cemetery, in an unmarked grave near her brother and infant daughter.
Earlier this year, Pedersen and DeVries had a gravestone placed on the spot.
BYRD SPILMAN DEWEY
I am HOME
This year, on Feb. 16, the 156th anniversary of her birth, they burned a copy of one of her stories and scattered the ashes from the beach behind The Breakers hotel. Ú
Pioneering Palm Beach: The Deweys and the South Florida Frontier is available at Barnes & Noble bookstores and amazon.com. For more information, visit www.byrdspilmandewey.com.