Melville Evans Spencer was born 31 October, 1850 at Mansfield, Pennsylvania, the son of Valorus and Jane Keltz Spencer. He was educated there, but in 1872 his family moved to Baltimore. Melville had heard many favorable stories about Florida and decided to visit. He got as far as Titusville and got a job as a carpenter working for Capt. (Mr.) Titus at the north end of the Indian River. In an interview in 1937 he said “My aim was to come to Lake Worth, so I built myself a 16 foot cat rig boat buying the lumber from Mr. Titus. I sailed alone in my new boat down Indian River to Jupiter in May 1876.”
He selected a homestead on the ocean front, “123 acres from Sunset Avenue to a wedge in the Atlantic Ocean about the north line of what later became the McKenna place.” His first home was a palmetto cabin not unlike those of his neighbors. When his father, mother and two of his three sisters came a year and a half later, they built a house on 40 acres of state land just south of Melville’s on the banks of Lake Worth.
Melville had been doing some carpenter work for the Jupiter Lighthouse keeper, James Armour. When Armour’s nephew left the job of assistant keeper, it was offered to Mel, and he began working in September 1878. Within three months he was promoted to first assistant keeper and held that position for six years. Later he was made principal keeper at the Sombrero Lighthouse 40 miles east of Key West and he held that position for nearly six years. When he wanted to visit Lake Worth, he would take a boat to Miami and walk the beach the rest of the way.
In 1889, at a religious meeting in the old East Side schoolhouse, he met Josephine Bellows of Frankfort, Michigan, who was visiting her sister, Mrs. J.J. White. Eleanor came to Michigan from Rhode Island where she was born in September 1853. It was love at first sight, and they were married the following April. In March 1896, his sister, Flora (Florence) married Eleanor’ s brother, Adelbert in the old Bethesda Church and moved to Michigan where she taught school.
She was widowed seven years later and moved back to Florida. Another of Mel’s sisters, Mattie, married Circuit Court Judge Allen Heyser, the first county judge of Dade County. At that time Dade County encompassed the territory just south of Jensen to the north and Key Largo to the south, and it wasn’t until 1909 that Palm Beach County was laid off from Dade County. Mrs. C.H. Redifer, sister of Melville, came to Lake Worth in 1893 with her family. Each family built a home and cultivated the land by growing fruit and ornamental trees. In a letter to his brother, Frank, in Mansfield, Pennsylvania, Mel said, “We can grow Irish and sweet potatoes, cabbage and tomatoes, but our profitable crops are pineapple, banana, lemon, lime, orange, fig and juave (guava).”
When the ship “Providencia”, bound from Central America to Barcelona, Spain was wrecked off the coast, it lost its cargo of 20,000 coconuts. Mel salvaged over 1000 of them and set them out. When they matured in 10 years, he “could get $100 or $200 per year from this crop and I only have to pick the nuts.”
In 1894 Mel operated the first steamboat, the 12 passenger “Night Hawk.” He also towed lumber from Juno for Henry Flagler’s Royal Poinciana Hotel. Beside his occupation as boat builder, he was a machinist and a horticulturist as well as a lighthouse keeper.
Mel and Eleanor’s children were Louis Perry, born January 15, 1892, and died October 10, 1965, and Ervilla, born June 1893, and died 1973.