Dewey, John (ca. 1767-1830)
John Dewey (ca. 1767-1830) was a New Bern builder, house carpenter, and joiner during the city’s era of fine building in the Federal style. In his account of early 19th century New Bern, memoirist Stephen Miller mentioned only two master builders in the city: John Dewey and Martin Stevenson. According to Miller, “Mr. John Dewey . . . superintended, if he did not personally work at the carpenter’s trade, and possibly he connected it with the manufacture of cabinet articles. I know that he was usefully engaged in the mechanic arts, and that he maintained a good reputation.”
Dewey, who was in New Bern by the early 1790s, acquired property including a town lot and slaves. In 1792 he married Mary Mitchell; their son, Charles, became a bank official.
Nothing is known of Dewey’s early life or training. During his career in New Bern, he took at least ten apprentices to the house carpenter’s and joiner’s trades between 1792 and 1817. Notable among these was Benjamin C. Good, who entered his apprenticeship with Dewey at age sixteen on July 19, 1796. Good went on to become a master artisan himself, and took as his apprentice Uriah Sandy, who later worked in association with Dewey and others on New Bern’s First Presbyterian Church. Notably, a graceful, undated drawing of a cornice molding in the Cameron Family Papers, Southern Historical Collection, is signed by John Dewey. The connection that placed that drawing in that collection is unknown but deserves further study.
John Dewey is most strongly associated with the construction and design of St. John’s Masonic Lodge and Theater (ca. 1801-1809) in New Bern. He was a longtime member of the lodge, and at the completion of the building he was identified as its “architect”—a term used with some flexibility at that time. On March 13, 1799, it was “moved and seconded that Brother J. Dewey draw up a plan of a building fit for a lodge of the dimensions of 50 by 36 feet also an estimate of the expenses to close the same in and building the chimneys and lay the same before the lodge.” The lodge as built, however, was much larger, measuring 78 by 45 feet.
The cornerstone was laid in 1801, and parts of the building were ready for use in 1805, though completion of the lodge room took longer to complete. Dewey received $250 as a “first payment” in February, 1801. In March 1804 he presented two plans for the upper portion of the building. The work went slowly, and in March, 1806, a floor for the north room was authorized to be laid by Dewey or another workman, and a door to be hung. Also in that year, according to a treasurer’s ledger, B. C. Good, the former apprentice of Dewey’s, completed a cupola on the lodge at a cost of $606.45 (the cupola was removed later). In June 1808 Dewey examined the lodge roof and rendered a bill for the completion of the lodge room, passage, and staircase.
Questions remain as to the sources of design for the handsome brick lodge with its Palladian façade centered on a broad, recessed full-height arch. Certainly Dewey was involved in supervising construction, but it is entirely possible that someone else took a role in the design. According to memoirist John D. Whitford, James Coor of New Bern provided an early plan for the building. Especially intriguing is a possible connection with William Nichols, the English architect, who was also a member of the lodge and was in New Bern from about 1800 to about 1806; the sophisticated and unusual composition of the façade has raised the idea that he was involved in the design, but no authorship has been documented.
In 1809, John Dewey announced in the local Carolina Republican of February 23 his intention to leave New Bern, and offered for sale “the lots and improvements on Broad Street near the Court House, where he now lives, and the lot and brick building on the same street adjoining Mrs. Vine Allen’s, several Negroes, some books, and a quantity of lumber.” The names and trades of his “Negroes,” some of whom may have been artisans, have not been identified. Despite this advertisement, in April, 1809, Dewey was in New Bern, where he was one of two Masons appointed to assist in planning for the lodge room consecration. The event took place on June 24, 1809. He participated by ceremonially returning the architect’s implements, and later served in important lodge offices including acting master (1814) and senior warden (1818).
Dewey continued as a prominent figure in New Bern’s building trades. He and house carpenter Martin Stevenson assisted Uriah Sandy in construction of the large and handsome First Presbyterian Church of 1819-1822, a handsome example of the Federal style in frame with a tall Ionic portico and staged tower. Given the long period of his shop’s activity and regular taking of apprentices, doubtless Dewey was responsible for others of New Bern’s fine Federal buildings as yet undocumented.
Dewey’s apprentices included the following youths: James Probost (aged 13, 1792); Benjamin Cofield Good (aged 16, 1796); Samuel Carlton (aged 16, 1797); Joseph Good (aged 13, 1798); Wallace Nelson (aged 17, 1801); Miles Wilder (aged 14, 1804); John Parks (aged 12, 1804); Daniel Moseley (aged 10, probably a free person of color, 1811); and Tom Long, a free person of color (aged 16, 1817). Another apprentice, William Little (aged about 18 in 1812) was an apprentice of Dewey’s who ran away in 1812, and for whom Dewey offered a reward of $5 for his return in the Carolina Federal Republican of February 29, 1812. Dewey also owned slaves who may have been artisans. The New Bern carpenter Jack Dewey was probably owned and trained by John Dewey and also worked with Asa King. In the 1830s, Jack Dewey was hired out by John’s son, Charles Dewey, to the Cameron family for work in Hillsborough and Raleigh.
John Dewey died in New Bern in May, 1830, aged 63, as reported in the New Bern Spectator of May 29, 1830.
Update 2015: Further information about the planning and construction of First Presbyterian Church appears in a notice in the Newbern Sentinel of February 13, 1819, which suggests that Dewey had a leading role in the project. The notice, signed by building committee members Robert Hay, William Hollister, James Griswold, and S. M. Chester, announced that the committee on behalf of the church trustees would receive proposals for “contracts to furnish materials for the construction of a wooden Meeting House, 72 feet long, 52 feet wide, and 28 feet high; and also for building the same. For further particulars, as to the structure, reference may be made to Mr. John Dewey, who has a plan of it in his possession.” Whether Dewey or someone else had drawn the plan is not known.
- Catherine W. Bishir, North Carolina Architecture (1990).
- Catherine W. Bishir and Michael T. Southern, A Guide to the Historic Architecture of Eastern North Carolina (1996).
- Carolina Federal Republican, Feb. 29, 1812.
- Carolina Republican, Feb. 23, 1809.
- Gertrude S. Carraway, Years of Light: A History of St. John’s Lodge, No. 3, New Bern (1944).
- James H. Craig, The Arts and Crafts in North Carolina, 1699-1840 (1965).
- Lynda Vestal Herzog, “The Early Architecture of New Bern, 1750-1850,” Ph.D. dissertation, University of California (1977).
- Frances Benjamin Johnston and Thomas Tileston Waterman, The Early Architecture of North Carolina (1941).
- Stephen F. Miller, “Recollections of New Bern fifty years ago, with an appendix Including letters from Judges Gaston, Donnell, Manly and Governor Swain,” Our Living and Our Dead (1874-1875).
- New Bern Spectator, May 29, 1830.
- Peter B. Sandbeck, The Historic Architecture of New Bern and Craven County, North Carolina (1988).
- Donald R. Taylor, A History of the First Presbyterian Church, New Bern, North Carolina, 1817-1972 (1972).
- Lachlan C. Vass, History of the Presbyterian Church in New Bern, North Carolina (1886).
- Dates:1819-1822Location:New Bern, Craven CountyStreet Address:412 New St., New Bern, NCStatus:StandingType:ReligiousImages Puslished In:Catherine W. Bishir, North Carolina Architecture (1990).
Catherine W. Bishir and Michael T. Southern, A Guide to the Historic Architecture of Eastern North Carolina (1996).
Frances Benjamin Johnston and Thomas Tileston Waterman, The Early Architecture of North Carolina (1941).
Peter B. Sandbeck, The Historic Architecture of New Bern and Craven County, North Carolina (1988).Note:Further information about the planning and construction of First Presbyterian Church appears in a notice in the Newbern Sentinel of February 13, 1819, which suggests that Dewey had a leading role in the project. The notice, signed by building committee members Robert Hay, William Hollister, James Griswold, and S. M. Chester, announced that the committee on behalf of the church trustees would receive proposals for "contracts to furnish materials for the construction of a wooden Meeting House, 72 feet long, 52 feet wide, and 28 feet high; and also for building the same. For further particulars, as to the structure, reference may be made to Mr. John Dewey, who has a plan of it in his possession." Whether Dewey or someone else had drawn the plan is not known.
- Dates:Ca. 1801-1809; 1904 [remodeled and addition]Location:New Bern, Craven CountyStreet Address:516 Hancock St., New Bern, NCStatus:AlteredType:FraternalImages Puslished In:Catherine W. Bishir, North Carolina Architecture (1990).
Peter B. Sandbeck, The Historic Architecture of New Bern and Craven County, North Carolina (1988).Note:Simpson did a remodeling and enlargement for the theater of the lodge, of which he was a member.