Birdie Dewey’s South Florida: from wilderness to paradise

“Pioneering Palm Beach: The Deweys and the South Florida Frontier,” by Ginger L. Pedersen and Janet M. De Vries. The History Press. 128 pages. $19.99.

The authors bring us on a delightful journey into the history of that part of Florida defined largely (in the nineteenth century) by the borders of Lake Worth. It truly was a frontier. Sketchily populated and without much of a commercial or transportation infrastructure, this beautiful but isolated region appealed to only the hardiest souls. Fortunately for the authors, they found a magnificent focal point in the lives and writings of two such pioneers, Fred and Birdie Dewey, providing readers with a general story of the region’s gradual development anchored by a specific, personal story.  

The opening chapters outline the lineage of Fred Dewey’s lineage and Byrd Spilman. Each person’s family gave rise to many prominent American citizens. Birdie, in fact, was a great-niece of President Zachary Taylor. Ms. Pedersen and Ms. De Vries trace generations of the families’ activities in Kentucky and Illinois, where Fred became a notary public for the town of Salem. In 1876 or 1877, Fred and Birdie met and were soon married. He was thirty-nine and she was eighteen years younger. Fred’s later work included being a bank clerk. They both loved pets, and as they never had any children, pets played a large part in their family life.

Birdie was a well-educated book lover, and she would became a productive, successful writer. In fact, the narrative of Fred and Birdie that the authors have constructed depends largely on three published novels by Birdie, all set in Florida, which they treat as disguised autobiography. Fortunately, the authors bolster these sources with many others, rendering their autobiographical readings of the novels plausible.

Fred’s physical discomfort in Illinois winters was one motivating factor in the couples’ decision to consider a relocating to Florida. More importantly, they were both adventurous, independent spirits. They had energy and imagination. They wanted to be part of something new and to test themselves. Homesteading in an unsettled patch of Florida seemed to be just the right thing. The Deweys settled on the Lake Worth area after exploring several more northerly locations.

DeVries and Pederson in front of Birdie Dewey portrait

In treating the Deweys’ role as settlers, Pedersen and De Vries detail the history of the region leading up to the Deweys’ arrival on the scene, then continue by stressing the hardships they had to face. Readers receive vivid images evoking the material culture of the time. Once committed to Lake Worth (the lake – there was no town), they built several homes, bought and sold large property tracts, and generally did quite well for themselves.  In the early decades of their Florida lives, Fred and Birdie dealt with a remoteness and isolation that made it very difficult to obtain necessary supplies. Transportation was mostly along rivers and the lake. Merchants were few and far between. There was little social intercourse and no amenities of higher culture. For Birdie, this isolation was depressing. . . .

To see this review in its entirety, as it appears in the October 31, 2012 issue of the Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the November 1 edition of the Naples and Palm Beach Gardens / Jupiter editions, click here: Florida Weekly – Pedersen and DeVries

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Filed under Authors and Books, Florida Authors

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