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 descendants 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 – 

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