Under the Sun

Before the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, Palm Beach Post and Miami Herald, The Tropical Sun brought the news – as well as poetry and some good recipes – to South Florida.


John Dolen

Published date: 

Mar. 1, 2018

In days gone by, there were, of course, no mobile phones, no internet, no radios, no TVs. There were newspapers. And those living in South Florida from 1891 on got their news first from The Tropical Sun.

The New River Settlement (not yet incorporated as Fort Lauderdale) was served by this weekly, printed in Juno Beach. The publisher was Guy Metcalf, a successful businessman who won the contract to build the first road connecting South Florida communities. The road went from Lantana to “Lemon City,” a small community off of Biscayne Bay, later called Miami.

Anyone writing about our history is probably indebted in one way or another to The Tropical Sun, because it was launched a decade before the newspapers that became the Sun-Sentinel and Miami Herald came on the scene.

Why Juno, just south of Jupiter? It was the county seat of Dade County, which then extended from Jupiter to today’s Miami.

Over the years, The Tropical Sun documented the land boom, tourism, the presence of malaria and a full plate of issues in the struggle to develop “the tropics.”

Like newspapers from time immemorial, sometimes it got things wrong.

Around 1900, The Tropical Sun reported the big news that high water tore out a new inlet at a key spot, connecting the New River and the sea. It was later found to be the work of Ed King, our city’s first big builder, along with 15 other men. In the dead of night they did a stealth dig, a controversial move to get better market access for New River vegetable and fruit sellers.

One of the best things the paper ever did was hire Byrd Spilman Dewey as its first columnist. She wrote a column called “The Sitting Room” under the pen name “Aunt Judith.” She also signed several poems and short stories with the initials J. S.

The Sitting Room column offered advice for the pioneer family, reflections on married life, and even recipes like Crystallized Pineapple, a way of preserving the fruit in sugar.

But don’t think that the columnist was a “lightweight.” She minced no words arguing for the right of women to vote.

“Some alarmists say we shall neglect the home if we take to the vote, but have we ever yet attempted anything we couldn’t do? Many mothers have to be business women, have to run farms… and still they have found time to keep the little garments mended – to see that there is wholesome food a plenty always ready for hungry little mouths…[and she lists more duties].

“The vote does not interfere with a man’s other business, then, why should it be an interruption to the life of the house-mother, who has always shown herself to be open to any emergency?”

Mrs. Dewey didn’t come from the backwoods. Her great-uncle was President Zachary Taylor. Her husband, Fred Dewey, was a cousin of Admiral George Dewey, a celebrated military hero.

Byrd and Fred came to Florida from Illinois because he was suffering from respiratory disease. They first settled in central Florida, later moving to the Lake Worth area. When Fred was sick, Byrd provided income with her writing. Eventually he recovered, becoming Dade County tax assessor.

A park in Boynton Beach marks her contributions, which were not only literary – a book about her pioneer experience called Bruno, articles in national magazines like Good Housekeeping – but also her work on behalf of bird sanctuaries and humane treatment for animals. And finally, it was she and her husband who first platted Boynton Beach, based on her successful investments in property.

You know about Hemingway in Key West. But did you know that Bruno became the first national bestseller written in South Florida?

Here is an excerpt from an exquisite Bryd Tilman Spellman poem, taken from a volume of her collected writings under a section devoted to her newspaper work. It could have been written yesterday about a South Florida sail with chatting friends.

How lovely!
A silvery moonrise on one side, a golden sunset on the other.
Oh for eyes all around like a spider!
How beautiful the cocoanuts, on that point against the sunset! There leaves, ‘each alone in feathr’y grace, against the tropic sky.’
That was written about the pine trees.
Yes, I know but it fits the cocoanut even better.
The afterglow dies swiftly. The beautiful moon!
We sail through the pathway of silver…

The Tropical Sun also covered highly local news. Among snippets from microfilm come items like so-and-so is opening a new canning plant, so-and-so just bought 43 acres, etc.

Then this 1894 item: “Frank Stranahan came up from New River last night to deliver election votes.”

From 1891: “Last week a lady in one of the Indian River towns fell on the sidewalk in a faint. The gallants who went to her aid did not feel much amused, when after various efforts to resuscitate her, she sprang to her feet, laughing ‘April Fool!’”

And finally, also from 1891: “Road master Charlie Pierce, with Guy Bradley, has gone to Hillsboro through the woods to view the location of the proposed road to Miami. The necessity of the road is questionable…”