A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Our Rich History: The Deweys and the development of Palm Beach County, Florida

By Paul A. Tenkotte
Special to NKyTribune

Part 1 of a continuing series on Kentuckians and Ohioans in the development of Florida.

It’s summer vacation time for Cincinnatians and Northern Kentuckians. Many will be headed to enjoy the fun and sun of Florida. The annual pilgrimage south occurs several times per year. In the winter, “snowbirds” and retirees migrate to Florida, followed by university students during spring break, and families in summer. Interstate highway I-75 aids the annual pilgrimages, as do reasonable airfares from CVG (Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport) to Florida. But did you also know that Ohioans and Kentuckians were instrumental in the development of Florida?

Byrd “Birdie” Spilman Dewey, the grandniece of President Zachary Taylor, was born in 1856 in Covington, Kentucky. Birdie’s mother was Eliza Sarah Taylor, and her father Jonathan Edwards Spilman, an attorney and Presbyterian minister. Spilman was well-known nationally for composing the melody to a famous song, “Flow Gently, Sweet Afton” (1838), the lyrics of which were borrowed from a Robert Burns poem.

Photo of Byrd Spilman Dewey, on the cover of an edited volume of her collected works, by Ginger L. Pedersen and Janet M. DeVries (self-published, 2014).

The Spilman family lived in Covington from 1849 until 1864. There, Jonathan Spilman was an attorney in practice with Samuel M. Moore and John W. Menzies. In 1856, overworked and exhausted, Spilman changed professions, completing studies for the Presbyterian ministry. Ordained in 1859, his first assignment was as pastor of Covington’s Second Presbyterian Church.

In 1864, Rev. Spilman accepted the pastorate of First Presbyterian Church in Maysville, Kentucky. Two years later, in August 1866, Eliza Sarah Taylor Spilman died of injuries sustained during a fire on the “Bostona No. 3,” a steamboat bound from Maysville to Cincinnati. Rev. Spilman never remarried. Young Birdie received an excellent education at schools in Maysville, as well as at the prestigious Sayre Institute in Lexington, Kentucky.

In 1876, Rev. Spilman accepted a pastorate in Salem, Illinois. There, Birdie met a man eighteen years older than she, Frederick Sidney Dewey. Dewey was a Union veteran who had contracted tuberculosis during the Civil War. On September 25, 1877, Fred and Birdie were married by Birdie’s father. Fred worked as a bookkeeper at a bank in Salem.

In 1881, in an effort to find a climate more salubrious for Fred’s respiratory problems, the Deweys moved south to Florida, along with their beloved dog, Bruno. At first, they visited Jacksonville and Saint Augustine. Next, according to biographers Ginger L. Pedersen and Janet M. DeVries, in “Pioneering Palm Beach: The Deweys and the South Florida Frontier” (Charleston, SC: History Press, 2012), Fred and Birdie settled on ten acres of land in Zellwood, a small town in Orange County co-founded by Richard Goldsborough Robinson, Birdie’s first cousin. Later, they added ten more acres.

Cover of a pamphlet promoting tourism to Palm Beach and West Palm Beach, Florida, circa early 20th century, showing the Royal Poinciana Hotel; collection of Paul A. Tenkotte.

But life in Florida in the 19th century was far from paradise. Florida was still sparsely settled. Clearing the swamps and the land was difficult. Malaria, smallpox, and yellow fever were prevalent, and farming was at the mercy of the weather. So, in 1883, Fred accepted a bookkeeping job in nearby Eustis, where the couple built a cottage. In 1884, they moved to St. Augustine and next to Jacksonville.

In Jacksonville, Birdie gave birth to Elizabeth, the couple’s only child. Sadly, little Elizabeth died in infancy. In 1887, the heartbroken Deweys moved to the pioneer area around Lake Worth, in what would later become Palm Beach County. They obtained a federal land grant under the Homestead Act, settling 76 acres and building a small house in what is now West Palm Beach. About the same time, Birdie began writing articles for periodicals, the first known of which appeared in the “Christian Union” in November 1887.

Birdie’s career as an author blossomed. She wrote for a variety of publications, including women’s and children’s magazines. Her semi-autobiographical, children’s novel, “Bruno,” was published by the well-known Little, Brown and Company in 1899. It detailed her and her husband’s lives as Florida pioneers, changing the names of the characters and the place names, with the exception, of course, of their dog Bruno.

In 1890, the Deweys moved to a house and six acres in a more settled area of what is now West Palm Beach. Birdie began writing a women’s column for the local newspaper, the “Tropical Sun.” Fred became a politician, being elected to tax accessor and collector for what was then part of Dade County.

Witnessing the growing attraction of the Lake Worth area to wealthy Northerners seeking winter homes, the Deweys began investing in land in the area of West Palm Beach. Further, Henry Flagler expressed interest in extending his Florida East Coast Railway south from Titusville. Along with John D. Rockefeller, Flagler was co-founder of the Standard Oil Company. In 1893, Flagler began developing the town of West Palm Beach and its new resort hotel, the Royal Poinciana.

Flagler’s Royal Poinciana Hotel, from a pamphlet promoting tourism to Palm Beach and West Palm Beach, Florida, circa early 20th century; collection of Paul A. Tenkotte.

The winter of 1894-95 brought a great freeze to central and south Florida that the Miami area escaped. Miami’s founder, Julia Tuttle (1849-1898), originally of Cleveland, Ohio, convinced Flagler to extend his railroad further south to her land. In 1896, the Florida East Coast Railway steamed into Miami. Flagler’s new Royal Palm Hotel opened the following year.

By 1897-98, the Deweys began developing what is now the town of Boynton Beach. Meanwhile, Birdie continued writing, releasing “Bruno” in 1899. The book was a great success, going into a second printing in 1900.

With Fred’s health failing, the Deweys moved to Jacksonville in 1906, and eventually, to Johnson City, Tennessee in 1910, where Fred entered the Mountain Home Branch Hospital, for veterans of the Civil War. By that time, he suffered from Parkinson’s disease and cardiac problems. In 1915, he was transferred to Southern Branch Hospital in Virginia, and in 1918 to Pacific Branch Hospital in California. Birdie, meanwhile, bought a home in West Palm Beach where she lived alone. Fred died at age 82 in January 1919.

Birdie, widowed at only 63, chose to leave memories behind and move to Winter Park, Florida, a suburb of Orlando. She bought and sold land there, and became an advocate for conservation and the establishment of bird sanctuaries. She moved to various other Florida places, dying at age 86 in April 1942.

We want to learn more about the history of your business, church, school, or organization in our region (Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky). If you would like to share your rich history with others, please contact the editor of “Our Rich History,” Paul A. Tenkotte, at tenkottep@nku.edu. Paul A. Tenkotte, PhD is Professor of History and Director of the Center for Public History at NKU.

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One Comment

  1. Great job with this report. We are very proud of Mrs. Dewey and her accomplishments in South Florida. Bruno, her bestseller, is a wonderful book for all dog lovers and available free through archive.org. This history was varnished over, lost in the many layers of South Florida development. Thanks for bringing her story to her fellow Kentuckians!

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