By Rosa Sophia
She knew it was wrong to kill the birds and display their feathers on expensive hats, so she wore a cloth bonnet despite what the fashion of the day dictated. In 1920, later in her life, she was named the field secretary for the Florida Audubon Society, and she traveled all over the state making presentations on behalf of our feathered friends. Byrd “Birdie” Spilman Dewey was known for her ability to tame wild birds. She toiled in her garden, surrounded by the little creatures, until an unfamiliar person crossing into her magical world frightened them away in a flurry of feathers.
Until two historians revealed the discoveries they’d made while conducting research, no one knew the true identity of the founder of Boynton Beach. It was assumed Nathan Boynton, a Civil War Major, was the founder of the town that bore his name. When historians Ginger Pederson and Janet DeVries came across evidence that Byrd S. Dewey and her husband, Fred, once owned and sold the land Boynton Beach was built on, and founded it, they dug deeper and uncovered the facts behind one woman’s fascinating life. It was not Boynton’s name in the town’s land records, but Birdie Dewey—a total unknown until now.
While she married into the same family who would later create the Dewey decimal system, Byrd Spilman Dewey was also a relation of Richard Taylor, father of Zachary Taylor. Colonel Richard Taylor was her maternal great-grandfather. Interestingly, her father, Presbyterian minister Jonathan Edwards Spilman, was the author of the famous song “Flow Gently Sweet Afton,” only adding to the prestige and wonder surrounding Birdie’s family.
The couple was drawn to Florida by Fred’s respiratory health, which had worsened due to complications from his service in the Civil War. Arriving in 1881, they moved around a bit until hearing about the Lake Worth area, then journeyed there in 1887, and may have been living farther west than anyone else in Palm Beach County, according to authors Ginger L. Pederson and Janet M. DeVries. After acquiring seventy-six acres, they began farming two of them. At the time, Lake Worth was a lush paradise with few settlements. Fred did a little extra work on side, sailing to Palm Beach to do some bookkeeping and carpentry. After settling in the area, Birdie began a long and prosperous writing career, her most famous piece a novel entitled “Bruno.”
Birdie was born in 1856, a woman ahead of her time. Long before Frank Lloyd Wright proposed the idea of built-in furniture as a space-saver, Birdie was designing and writing up detailed directions on how to create a built-in sofa, and build furniture into a wall so as to create a bay window of sorts.
While her first book “Bruno” was about the beloved family dog, her second book, “The Blessed Isle and Its Happy Families,” centered around her cats.
To read about Birdie Dewey is to learn about a beautiful, incredible woman whose fortitude and independence led her to inspire others through her writing and protect the land and environment she adored.
In the incredible paradise that is Florida, Birdie’s beauty and intrigue enticed the local children, and they followed her about in the hopes of hearing her “Byrd” calls, and watching the little feathered creatures flock to their human friend. Florida’s birds could have no better advocate than a woman who could speak their own language.
In Birdie’s own words, “I whistle them in, and they come trustingly.”
She also noted that if the importance of conservation was ignored, future generations would end up with a “looted estate”—and indeed we have.
Looking back on photographs of Byrd with her animals, and reading her work, one gains incredible insight into what it was like to live in early Florida—from a woman who was ahead of her time.