Boynton’s Unsolved Murder

In reading through old books, newspapers and pioneer accounts, once in a while a name would pop up that intrigued me – Cecil Upton. Various accounts of Cecil described him as eccentric Englishman who bought land in the area that would become Boynton, and that he came from a very wealthy family. With those intriguing clues, the search began for the elusive Englishman of Boynton.

Mr. Upton first appears in a book describing the accomplishments of various Upton family members. Upton was from Long Eaton in Derbyshire, born in 1849, son of William Judd Eaton, a well educated clerk with bachelors and masters degrees to his credit. Cecil too was educated at Oxford. But the great opening of America called Upton, and he emigrated in 1873. Somehow, he made his way to wilds of Florida and bought 40 acres from the State of Florida near Deland on January 4, 1876. Somewhere on his Florida trip, Upton became acquainted with Mason Dwight. Dwight and his family had been some of the very first settlers on Lake Worth, in fact building what could be considered the first true house on Lake Worth, with wood, windows and fixtures brought from Jacksonville, but with a palmetto thatched roof. Life was just too difficult, so Dwight had left his nephew in charge of the Lake Worth homestead while the family had moved further north.

In February of 1876, Dwight came south to check on the Lake Worth homestead and brought with him Cecil Upton. Charles Pierce, in his book Pioneer Life in South Florida, provides our first description of Upton:

Cecil Upton was as Mark Twain describes in one of his books “a remittance man” and although highly educated, was a very odd character. He was forever asking questions that no one could answer, He would suddenly smile when he asked a question in his tremendous voice, and the smile would as quickly vanish when you started to answer. His smile coming and going reminded one of the flashes of lightening in a black cloud. Their first night on the lake they spent at Charley Moore’s. Everyone had been asleep for an hour or more; all but Cecil Upton; he was thinking of the many strange things he had seen, but his thoughts were mostly about coconuts. Suddenly he shouted at the top of his tremendous voice, “Any money in coconuts?” Of course his booming tones awoke everyone in the house. Charlie Moore’s temper was up as he answered “Cut one open and see.”

Pierce then states that Upton bought some land at the land office in Gainesville on his way back to Louisiana, where he was teaching in a Black school.

Upton did not buy any land at that time. He did buy 40 acres in 1880, 82 acres in 1881 and 90 acres in 1888, all located north of present day downtown Boynton along what would become the Federal highway and railroad, stretching to Lake Worth waterway (Intracoastal). He also appears on the 1880 Census as living in Louisiana,  a single man teaching school. So he sat on those 200 acres in Florida, paying the taxes and selling a few small parcels here and there.

Somewhere around 1910, Upton appears to have retired to Boynton to finally live on the land he had bought 30 years prior. When he first had the land, he had planted many tropical trees including coconuts, mango, bananas and pineapple. He was on the 1910 Census in Boynton, and listed his occupation as “farmer.” By 1920, his business interests were changing, and he purchased the original Scotia Plantation house owned by John Brown and opened “Upton’s Chicken Dinners.” It was only briefly open, and eventually became a “roadhouse” where liquor was sold during prohibition.

Upton increasingly became a recluse. Rumors began to circulate that Upton was very wealthy, receiving regular payments from his rich sister in England.

Boynton’s Strange Connection with two of America’s most Popular Songs


J.E. Spilman

The hamlet of Boynton, as it stood at the turn of the twentieth century, has direct connections with two of the most popular songs in American history. One of the most popular songs of the nineteenth century was Flow Gently, Sweet Afton, with music written by Jonathan E. Spilman, set to the poem by Robert Burns. Written in 1838, the sheet music was found in all the major song books of the time and remains a popular tune. A search of YouTube finds dozens of renditions; one of the most popular recent versions is by Nickel Creek:

The connection to Boynton? The composer, J.E. Spilman, was Byrd Spilman Dewey’s father! Spilman had written the song while a law student at Transylvania Law School. Spilman wrote other melodies which can be heard by clicking here.

If that were not enough, then there is America the Beautiful; many think that this song should be our national anthem. The song’s lyrics are the work of Katherine Lee Bates, who graduated from Wellesley in 1880; music by Samuel A. Ward. Cora Stickney Harper was one of Katherine’s best friends at Wellesley, and they remained lifelong friends.

Katherine Lee Bates

Katherine Lee Bates

Cora founded the Boynton Women’s Club in 1909. This rendition of the song is quite beautiful – The song with lyrics was first published in 1910, so Cora would have heard it while living in Boynton.

Maybe it is just that “six degrees of separation” thing, but the connections are noteworthy.

Señor Boynton? Hotel owner had Hispanic roots

In celebration of Hispanic Heritage month, a recent discovery about Major Nathan S. Boynton, for whom the city of Boynton Beach was named, can be brought to light.

Recently I was helping a friend with some research on her family history, and I thought it might be interesting to see if I could find some more information on Major Boynton, who founded and owned the Boynton Hotel on the beach. I first found Major Boynton on the 1860 census, living near Cincinnati, Ohio. He was 23 and listed his profession as “Physician.” I had read he intended to study medicine after working in the grocery business (“mercantile”) for a few years. As the Civil War broke out, he returned to Michigan and enlisted in the cavalry. He rose in rank to Major, and mustered out in 1865, relocating to Marine City, Michigan. In the meantime, he married and started a family. On the 1870 census, he is listed as being an “editor” with wife Annie in the household along with children Charles, Annie, George and Frances.

Major Nathan S. Boynton (center, seated) and his family.

Major Nathan S. Boynton (center, seated) and his family.

He had purchased the local newspaper and served as editor. I did not find an 1880 census record for the family, and the 1890 census is pretty much gone, lost in a fire.

It was the 1900 census that presented some interesting information. Census forms changed over the years; one of the changes was the requirement to list the place of birth of the parents of each of the persons in the census. And in Major Boynton’s line on the census, place of birth for his mother was listed as Spain. I knew that Major Boynton’s wife was from Germany, but I had never heard his mother was born in Spain. A bit of looking found a biography of Major Boynton and it listed his mother as Frances Rendt Boynton, daughter of “Old Captain Lewis Rendt.” In looking at Captain Rendt, his actual name was Johann Ludwig Rendt, and he was born in 1773 in Germany. He was a Hessian soldier who had served in the British army. The British would “lease” entire battalions of Hessian soldiers to join their side in various conflicts; Captain Rendt had fought for the British in the war of 1812 against the United States. As part of his payment, he was granted land in the province of Ontario, very near the Michigan border. He married Joaquina Josephina Sophia Arliano from Cadiz, Spain and together they had eight children, born in Spain, Malta, and Canada. Among them was Frances Margaret Rendt, Major Boynton’s mother. She married Granville F. Boynton in Port Huron, Michigan. Granville died in 1845, and Frances remarried, to a Jonathan Graves. They had two sons together, who were half brothers to Major Boynton.

In today’s terms, that would make Major Boynton “Hispanic,” although such a categorization was unknown at the time. Major Boynton’s father was of English heritage, so Major Boynton certainly illustrates the melting pot of America as people of all lands sought its shores. You just never know what the census may reveal.

A Secret from the Past is Revealed

In the great adventure that has been the story of Byrd Spilman Dewey and husband Fred S. Dewey, who filed the plat for the Town of Boynton in 1898, a few mysteries remained, nagging for an answer. We had wonderful photographs of the grand house they built in West Palm Beach called Ben Trovato (meaning “well invented” in Italian), but we knew there was another Ben Trovato, and that home stood somewhere in Boynton.

Ben Trovato in West Palm Beach, 1896

Ben Trovato in West Palm Beach, 1896

We didn’t know where the house was, nor how it looked. Not one person living in Boynton today had any recollection of the house.
We had a few clues. When Judge Earl Hoover researched Mrs. Dewey in 1966, he had a letter from prominent Boyntonite Bertha Williams Chadwell, who had moved to Boynton in 1907 and was friends with the Deweys. Mrs. Chadwell wrote: “The Dewey home stood at the corner of Second Avenue [Boynton Beach Boulevard] and the Dixie Highway [Federal Highway]. It was a big two-story house facing east. It is no longer in existence. It stood where the Cities Service Station now stands. The house was destroyed by fire later when owned by a succeeding owner, about 1920.”

Bertha W. Chadwell

Bertha W. Chadwell

That was our only clue as to the house’s location and how it looked. We combed through old pictures of Boynton from books, pamphlets, historical society newsletters, and other archival collections, but none seemed to match the location and the description.
In July, a postcard with a lovely frame vernacular Boynton house owned by A.P. Lynch appeared on the eBay auction website.

A.P. Lynch House

A.P. Lynch House

We checked land records and noted that the Deweys had sold their seven-acre citrus grove to Mr. Lynch in 1912. The Lynch house was two-story, but located on the east side of Federal highway at the corner of Ocean Avenue and Federal. We saw the Lynch house noted on the well-known 1910 “Boomer” map of Boynton, and a portion of the house is visible on an old snapshot from Cindy Lyman Jamison.

Lynch house location

Lynch house location

In August we pulled all the lot sales records from the original Town of Boynton at the Palm Beach County Courthouse for careful inspection of the lot buyer’s names and lot locations. We found that in 1912, the Deweys sold lots 1 through 5 in Block 1 of the original Town of Boynton to Charles T. Harper, which according to Mrs. Chadwell, is where the Dewey house stood. This information would also coincide with the year Mr. Dewey reentered the Soldier’s hospital in Johnson City, Tennessee and the Deweys left Boynton. Harper and wife Cora Stickney Harper would have lived in the house until they moved to Fort Pierce in 1913 when Charles was transferred to the Florida East Coast Railway station as head agent. In 1923, Charles sold the five lots to the Austin family.

The 1924 Sanborn Fire Insurance map shows no structures on lots 1 and 2, where the house had stood. It could be that the house had burned down by the time the map was drawn. This supports Mrs. Chadwell’s report of the house burning down in about 1920. Without further evidence we were left with only the probable location, and no idea what the house was like, other than it was two-story.
Then something very strange happened. Last week I was searching through the old Florida East Coast Homeseeker magazine, which was a sales tool for selling off Henry Flagler’s vast land holdings he had gained from the state of Florida for building the railroad. Several copies of this publication are scanned online in the HathiTrust archive, and once in a while I like to scroll through the pages and clip old photographs of areas long since developed.

As I was looking through the Homeseeker late one evening, Janet DeVries texted me about the Dewey house – would we ever really know what it looked like – could it be the Lynch house after all? I answered back that I doubted we could ever know what it looked like. I continued to scroll through the Homeseeker issue, which featured the Everglades drainage project. Some interesting pictures of dredges and such, then a picture of a Delray house with a wooden cistern that looked like a scene from the 1960s television show Petticoat Junction.

Then I scrolled to the next page—and saw a rather imposing two-story house in the woods—and the words “Ben Travato” [sic] sprang out from the page…and Dewey…and Boynton. It was as if I was guided to that page, that one page among the millions of books scanned online and their billions of pages, the one page that had a picture of the Dewey house in Boynton, at the exact moment we wanted to solve that mystery.

Ben Trovato in Boynton, 1910

There it stood—in the wilderness of pine trees that was Boynton—the big two-story house, with a wonderful deck and unusual windows that is reminiscent of a Frank Lloyd Wright design. A shingled frame vernacular design with high ceilings and screened porches. There stood Fred and Byrd, she in her signature white dress with parasol, and Fred looking down from the deck with his familiar grey hat. The design was probably Byrd’s; from a 1936 letter: “I’ve built nearly a dozen cottages, and several big houses. My biggest ‘job’ is doing that sort of thing, as I’m my own architect, as well as landscaper, and it PAYS when we’ve needed nice sums in a hurry, and my husband was unable to work.”
The photograph is not sharp, having been scanned from the original lithographed magazine page. The photographer was listed as the “Florida Photographic Concern” and “Fort Pierce.” The company was based in Fort Pierce and run by Harry Hill, who was a bee-keeper and avid photographer. Many of his glass negatives have been preserved by the St. Lucie County Regional History Center; we contacted them to see if an original photograph exists in their archives. Hill did much photography for Flagler’s businesses, so he was probably hired to photograph the Dewey house.
I will leave the reader to draw conclusions as to how this happened as it did. A parable written by Mrs. Dewey, “Who Seeks Finds,” certainly fits what occurred in the rediscovery of the Dewey house in Boynton. The joy and triumph of finally seeing that wonderful home in Boynton still lingers. If spirits do return…

UPDATE 4/16/2016:

The newly updated Palm Beach Post archive at revealed that the Dewey house burned May 16, 1916 in the early morning hours. No cause was given.

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The Rediscovery of Agnes Ballard

West Palm Beach’s Mandel Library on Clematis Street has a wonderful collection of Florida books, maps and rare documents. Among the most fun are old city directories, which people used to find persons and businesses. The earliest edition in the library’s collection is from 1916. The advertisements list businesses, hotels and restaurants of almost a century ago.

One such ad intrigued me. It stated “Agnes Ballard – Registered Architect, member of the Florida Association of Architects.” I thought that was unusual, to have a woman in business for herself in such a male dominated field.

Agnes Ballard's ad from the city directory

Agnes Ballard’s ad from the city directory

When back at a computer, I began an Internet search on her life. And the story that unfolded had to be documented so that someone who lived in Palm Beach County for over 60 years and contributed so much to its betterment would not be forgotten.

Agnes was born September 14, 1877 in Worcester, Massachusetts, the daughter of Dana and Jennie Ballard. Her father’s occupation on the 1880 Census was listed as “driving a job wagon.” But a different path other than menial labor was meant for Agnes. In 1905, she graduated from the State Normal School in Worcester (the teacher’s college) with a teaching certificate.  She also attended Wellesley College and Oxford in England. Her first teaching stint was in Palmer, Michigan, but the cold weather and snow were too much for her. “I wanted to go somewhere where I never would see snow again.”, she told the Palm Beach Post in 1958.

In 1906, at the age of 29, she set out on a grand adventure that landed her in West Palm Beach, Florida, a single woman seeking her fortune. In 1906, the school board approved her appointment to teach 6th grade. Later, she was one of the first teachers at the Palm Beach High School, teaching geography, biology and chemistry. In 1908, she worked at Grace Lainhart’s private school north of downtown where she taught Latin and mathematics. Her income was tight, so she took a better paying teaching job in New York. The cold proved too much and she was back in the spring, finishing out the term teaching in St. Augustine.

But her interest in learning architecture could not be accomplished in Florida. Instead she took a job as a secretary in LaCrosse, Wisconsin to study architecture in the firm of Percy Dwight Butler, according to author Sarah Allaback in her book The First American Woman Architects. It was not uncommon for students to learn architecture by apprenticing in a firm, rather than through formal study in a university, and she did so from 1911-1914. Once she learned her craft, Ballard returned to West Palm Beach in 1914 and began practicing architecture. Her ad from a 1916 Palm Beach Post listed her office as 224 Clematis Street, and her drafting room as 312 Jefferson Road, which also served as her home. She ran several newspaper ads in both the Palm Beach Post and the Palm Beach Daily News for her architectural services. In 1915, she became the first registered woman architect in the State of Florida, according to the Report of the Secretary of the State of Florida. She was one of 82 registered architects in the state. Addison Mizner befriended Ballard and together they founded an architect’s club, with Mizner as president and Ballard as secretary. She was not too impressed with him: “He was very clever with original designs, but I still think he was lazy.”

But a monumental event in 1920 was to drive her career in a completely different direction. On August 18, 1920, the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, granting woman’s suffrage. Not only could women vote, but they also could run for public office. And Agnes Ballard did just that. She ran for the position of Palm Beach County Superintendent of Public Instruction. The League of Women Voters supported Ballard and Clara Stypmann, who ran for school board, and held rallies around the county to get women to register to vote. The campaign was heating up in September. The Palm Beach Post wrote September 17, 1920: “And with a political cartoon too! Little Johnny and Mary, school books under arms and hand-in-hand, stand on the shores (of time) calling for help, which help seemingly is to be rendered in the golden dawn, for Miss Agnes Ballard is the rising sun.” She wrote new lyrics for a popular tune of the time as her campaign song (

Campaign ad for Ballard and Stypmann

Campaign ad for Ballard and Stypmann

Election day – November 2, 1920. Turnout among the voters was good, and the first vote by Palm Beach County’s women was a success – both Agnes Ballard and Clara Stypmann won their elections. Neither had run on the Democratic nor Republican ticket, and Ballard beat both the Republican Kishpaugh and Democrat Bell by more than 500 votes, thus becoming the first woman elected county official in Florida. “On election night I recall standing on Clematis Street near Olive Street watching election returns being flashed on the side of a building. Shortly before 11 o’clock my name was flashed as a winner in the school election. I was so excited I didn’t go home until 2 o’clock the next morning.”

Ballard took office January 4, 1921, and faced an underfunded and exploding school district.

Ballard wins election

Ballard wins election

The 1920s boom was on, and each day new residents arrived with children in tow, wanting to enroll in school. She floated bonds to pay for school expansion at several of the area’s high schools, and even designed some of the smaller schools herself. She also urged teachers to have students attend the fledgling Palm Beach County Fair “The children can learn more Palm Beach County geography and conditions agricultural and otherwise in one day at the fair than perhaps days of study from ten books.”

Building of new schools couldn’t happen fast enough. In 1923, schools at Boynton and Jupiter were holding double sessions . To expand, $35,000 in bonds were issued for school expansion. But taking care of schools wasn’t Ballard’s only vocation. She continued her architecture practice, but also advocated for “Near East relief” – “If everyone in this city would contribute 10 cents for Near East relief then no one would have to give until it hurts and Palm Beach County would go far above its quota of $3,000. ”

To beautify local streets, she urged county commissioners to grant her permission to plant Australian pines and Royal Palms along the Dixie Highway, and they granted that in 1922. In education circles, she assumed leadership roles, being elected president of the Royal Palm Educational Association, an alliance of Dade, Broward and Palm Beach County schools. In 1924, she decided not to run for reelection to the office of superintendent, wanting to spend more time in architecture. Joseph A. Youngblood took over in 1925. She returned to architecture and with the land boom on, she saw the opportunity to make money in real estate.

With her earnings, she took extensive trips to Europe in 1926 and in 1928. But in the depths of the Depression, architects could find little work. In 1933, she contacted Superintendent Youngblood about a teaching job and was granted one at Conniston Road School. In 1934, she began teaching at Palm Beach Elementary School, where she remained until 1947. At that time she resumed her architecture career full-time, employing two draftsmen to keep up with the work. She designed houses, apartment buildings, and often taught technical drawing classes at the high school at night for adult students.  One of the homes she designed in Palm Beach was demolished in 2009. No detailed record of her designs in Palm Beach County exist.

With this busy schedule, she still managed to continue her education. By attending in the summer, Ballard earned her B.A. degree from the University of Florida in 1936. She met Dr. John I. Leonard there, who was busy getting Palm Beach Junior College started. She wanted to help the effort, so she donated a large portion of her book collection to the fledging college and its library.

In civic circles, she was very active in the Girl Scouts, often guiding them on beach walks to learn the constellations, as astronomy was another hobby of hers. She was an active Screen Shot 2014-07-26 at 9.32.25 AMmember of the Bethesda-by-the Sea episcopal church, the West Palm Beach City Library, the Society of the Four Arts, and the Women’s Garden Club. The library work had to have been a bit of a sore-spot. She was initially chosen to design the Memorial Library in Flagler Park, but was later dropped in favor of the Harvey and Clarke firm.

She attempted to reenter politics in 1957 when she ran for school board at age 80, though she was unsuccessful. As she retired, she became more active in local organizations, especially in gardening and church work.

When the Daniel Hulett Children of the American Revolution Society installed its officers in 1961, Ballard was on hand to swear them in at age 84, in the old red school house in Palm Beach. Agnes Ballard died November 24, 1969 at the age of 92 after living at 415 Hampton Road for many decades. Her house was demolished when the parking lot for the then “Sears Town” was expanded. Her obituary in the Palm Beach Post said the following about Agnes: “If knowledge is power, and modesty a real attribute, thoroughly mix with a keen sense of humor and you will have Miss Agnes Ballard.”

A house designed by Agnes Ballard at 411 26th Street in Old Northwood.

A house designed by Agnes Ballard at 411 26th Street in Old Northwood, 1951.

Agnes Ballard was a renaissance woman who lived a life as she saw fit – unconventional, challenging, and fulfilling. The pathway she blazed through the jungle for women today is one we think was always there as millions traverse it each day. But someone had to take that first swipe at it here in Palm Beach County. And it was Agnes.

This story was researched through the Mandel Public Library, the Palm Beach Post archives, the Miami Metropolis archives, and several books at and Google Books. 


UPDATE: Agnes Ballard was featured in the Palm Beach Post July 10, 2016 –

Agnes Ballard is also featured in the book “Legendary Locals of West Palm Beach.” –