Chapter 30: When Times Get Tough

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December 22, 1900
The L&N Train Depot, Chipley

The #22 L&N train pulled into the Chipley station a few minutes before 1 pm; it was a mild day for late December, about 55 degrees, an overcast, milky white sky.

Chipley is a nice town, but it has never really felt like home to me.

Even as a youngster, I had this idea I wanted to be somewhere more exciting, more interesting, more anonymous. Everyone knows you. If you are new, it will be only a matter of a few hours before you are old news, that’s how efficient the grapevine is in town.

My father, taking it easy in the back yard, in 1895, Chipley, Florida

My family is particularly well known since my Father has treated at least one member of every family in Washington County in his almost 20 years of practicing medicine. I was two when our family moved here; most of the townspeople have known me all my life.

They watched me at my Mother’s funeral; they watched me play shortstop for the town’s baseball team; they watched me work in the telegraph office of the railroad depot when I was 15; they watched me court a few of the local girls — and watched nothing ever come of it.

Paul Carter, as photographed in the 1900 West Florida Seminary yearbook, The Argo.

I sighed as I stepped off the train onto the depot platform, with my suitcase and satchel in my hands. I stopped for a moment to wait for my best friend, Paul Carter, who was stuck behind a few large passengers carrying bags and parcels.

I walked over to the depot; the double doors to the waiting room were propped open, people milling about, purchasing tickets, securing wraps around shoulders, clutching bags, preparing to make their way to the platform to board the train.

I saw Bailey, the station manager, counting out change and issuing tickets to departing customers at the window. He’d started out at the station with my older brothers, Frank Jr. and Meade, who worked their way up the line with the L&N railroad and were now in various positions of authority as conductors and managers. Bailey later trained me and my twin brother, Julian, who recently was promoted to assistant baggage handler in Pensacola.

Bailey trained me on the telegraph when I was 15, and to eventually manage a train station, something I did often up and down the L&N line during the two years I was saving money to go to West Florida Seminary. Back in the day, I figured Bailey would be out of here in a few years, off to run a larger train station somewhere in an exciting city, far away from here.

But no, Bailey was still here, still running the station, still looking the same.

Paul stepped up next to me, with his own bags in his hands. He’d followed my gaze; he’d read my mind.

“Nothing changes much around here, does it?”

I shook my head.

Paul gave a tight lipped smile. “It’s only for a week, Emmett. Then, we’ll be back to the fun and excitement of life in Tallahassee, for the next semester. Buck up, pal. It’s also Christmas. There’ll be company in from out of town, good food, and a chance to unwind before the upcoming exams. You might enjoy it, in spite of yourself.”

He made me laugh. “Yeah. All right.”

We walked away from the depot; Paul’s family lived on 5th Street, only a block and a half away from mine, on 6th Street.  I paused at the corner of South Railroad and 6th; Paul stopped too, inquiringly.

“Going home directly?” Paul asked.

“No. I’m going to stop off at my father’s office to say hello. I haven’t seen his new office. He moved in a few months ago, right after I left for school.”

“All right. I’ll catch up with you tomorrow.”

We shook hands, and Paul walked off towards 5th Street.

I looked up at the new brick store buildings now lining the block. Two years ago, the Great Fire of 1898 almost completely wiped out downtown Chipley: Over 30 buildings and businesses burned down, my father’s office included.

All parts of this article here from The Chipley Banner, May 21, 1898, page 3 via ChroniclingAmerica.gov. The article is extensive; click on the link to view all of the businesses listed in the original article.

I remembered that day clearly: Me and my brothers were startled in the middle of the dinner by ringing church bells, shouts of fire, and by my stepmother, Kate Jordan Wilson, frantically jumping out of her seat at the dining room table, telling us to hurry, and to get to town.

My brothers and I ran all the way, and were part of the bucket brigade to put out the fire.

We worked for hours; dozens of men and boys, side-by-side, black and white, passing buckets of water, feeling the intense heat blasts when one or two of the buildings that could not be saved fell in massive showers of sparks, clouds of smoke. I’ll never forget how hard we all worked, mostly trying to contain the fire so that it would not spread to other buildings, or to close by homes.

Finally, the fire was finally under control, and we all cheered and shouted with relief. Incredibly, no one was killed.

But our relief turned to despair rather quickly –  as the smoke cleared, we looked around, it was revealed to all of us the terrible reality that most stores, businesses, livelihoods were in ashes.

I remember Julian and myself looking around for our Father, and finding him, finally, looking at the space where his new office had been, on the second floor of a building that had an ice cream parlor on the first floor.

He was standing in a shirt that had been hastily tucked into his pants, his suspenders down around his hips. Father had soot on his face, on his shirt; in his hair. His beard appeared singed in some places. He was staring at the scorched brick and timbers on the ground where the building had been.

He saw something glinting in the ash and debris that had been his store – he went over to it; took a handkerchief out of his pocket and picked it up – a silver metal scalpel. It was still hot to the touch, but Father didn’t seem to feel the heat. He wrapped it in the handkerchief, put it in his pocket. He didn’t say anything to us, or to anyone, but started walking home.

Father had just moved his office out of the house – something he’d wanted to do for years especially after my mother’s death – into a separate office in town. It made him feel like he was moving up, successful, prominent. But he’d lost all of his equipment, drugs, even medical books and records in the Great Fire. Like a lot of folks, he’d have to start over. There was no insurance, so this was a big financial blow to our family.

But now, as I gaze around, I couldn’t tell that there had been a fire. The town had recovered quickly; everyone had pulled together to help each other rebuild. For all that everyone here is in each other’s business, when times get tough, everyone in Chipley pitches in to help each other out. I know that Father and other merchants could not have recovered or rebuilt so quickly otherwise.

I look up at the second floor, where Father’s office is located. There’s a light on; he’s there. He’s always there, though. Looking after everyone else in town, regardless of whether he has an office or not.

I open the door to the second floor; I head upstairs to see my Father.

Next: Emmett’s home

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Chapter 29: Searching for Dr. Wilson’s Downtown Office

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Friday, May 24, 2014, Noon

After Whit dropped me off at the Washington County Historical Society, I notice that I have about a half hour before I was to meet the current owners of the Dr. F.C. Wilson home.

I took Judge Wells’ advice to do a self-walking tour around Chipley, to see buildings that Emmett would have seen, the businesses he would have patronized. I especially want to see the old First National Bank building. Perhaps Emmett used to cash checks there; more likely, I sense he visited the second floor of that bank, where fellow lawyers and friends had their offices.

A view of the Dunn Building, 1916, downtown Chipley. The historic bank building at the far right is in desperate need of repair.

Here’s a shot of First National Bank, about 1905, as it was under construction. Note the ladder on the edge of the roof. Source: State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/1532

The First National Bank, today. Emmett would have seen this building, conducted business here. His friends, notably W.O. Butler, had a law office on the second floor.

But the other place I hope to find is the location of Dr. Wilson’s office.

Once upon a time, Dr. Wilson’s practice was out of his home. But as it grew (along with his family, and his needs for full-time nursing assistance for patients), necessity dictated a surgery in a separate office downtown.

Chipley, 1913. Sanborn Fire Insurance map. Source: UFDC

I knew Dr. Wilson had two offices downtown once upon a time. No, Dr. Wilson wasn’t a ‘chain,’ but the May 14, 1898 Chipley fire destroyed his first office, which was located next to S.A. Cook’s store. A second fire wiped out his store in August, 1901. A clue in The Chipley Banner, dated September 7, 1901, tells me that the second fire was too much to overcome, at least as a retailer — because he sold what remained of his stock.

If you zoom into the Sanborn map, you can see two possible locations where Dr. Wilson may have had his office. According to The Chipley Banner, he had a drugstore and an office, with the office above the store. The Banner said that he sold his stock completely after the fire. I’m not sure if S.A. Cook’s store was on N. Railroad or around the corner on the bank side.

By 1913, Dr. Wilson had officially retired from regular practice. Papers from his Confederate pension indicate that he was no longer able to work, due to a heart condition. There were no other specifics other than a note that he had a “heart condition.”

This row of stores is called The Watts Building (and Dunn Building), and has a date of 1916 over the archway. They are next to the old bank building — the bank was there in 1913, but these stores were not. Photo taken by the author.

This is across the street from The Watts building. Photo taken by the author.

This is the Sanford Fire Insurance map of the block across the street from the current Watts Building. Notice that there is a drugstore on this corner. This might have been the original location of Dr. Wilson’s store and office as well, if the S.A. Cook store was, in fact, right next door. But, it isn’t clear that the building on the site today is the same as it was in 1913 or earlier.

I wish I knew the location of Dr. Wilson’s office, even if the building itself is gone today. According to the maps, any one of those drug stores may have been next to S.A. Cook’s store, but I’m not sure about Cook’s store location either.

I want to at least stand where Dr. Wilson did; and maybe where Emmett stood as well.

I’m sure Emmett visited his father at his office. I’m also sure that Dr. Wilson advised Emmett, not only as his doctor but as his father, that his drinking would eventually kill him, and he had to stop.

I wonder where they had that conversation.

I wonder what Emmett said to his father in return —

“I know what I’m doing, leave me alone,” or perhaps,

“I know it will too, but I can’t stop.”

As I reflect on those facts, and walk along the street, I realize that perhaps Dr. Wilson’s heart condition may have come about because his heart was actually broken. It’s possible, you know. People can die of broken hearts.

After all, Dr. Wilson’s beloved cause that he had almost given his life for was lost; his beloved wife died practically in his arms; his beloved practice seemed cursed by circumstance with the loss by fires.

And Emmett, one of his beloved sons, was destroying himself before his very eyes, and Dr. Wilson was powerless to do anything about it….

===

I glance at my cell phone — it was almost time to meet the current owners of the Wilson-Myers house for lunch.

Next: In Emmett’s words

 

Chapter 28: Dorothy, Whit, and Elizabeth

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Friday, May 24, 2014, about 11 a.m.

As the officer said, the old train depot in downtown Chipley wasn’t hard to find. Fifteen minutes later, I’m sitting my car, in front of a seafoam-green building that definitely looked like a train station from the early 19th century.

The original train station in Chipley is long gone; this is the current Amtrak station. Source: http://www.trainweb.org

I note that trains still run through Chipley; I had to drive across two sets of raised tracks at an intersection with a barricade that lowers as trains rush by.

The difference between today and Emmett’s day is that passenger trains rarely stop here; trains are primarily freight. Chipley isn’t the train hub it used to be, especially since the advent of automobiles. I get that: Everyone wants to control personal travel. In Emmett’s day, going to and from communities was a novelty; romantic and sweet, special, out-of-the-ordinary. There was something special about planning a trip 100 miles away, or even 25 miles away, for example, where you’d stay with friends or relatives; it didn’t happen every day for regular people.

But in 2014, I know folks who commute 25, even 100 miles round trip a day for their jobs — definitely not a novelty, and certainly not romantic and sweet, particularly in an eight-lane traffic jam on a regular basis.

A side view of the Washington County Historical Society building; a caboose on the grounds. Photo taken by author.

I get out of the car with my computer briefcase and notebook; straighten my skirt and blouse, smooth my hair.

I’m anxious that I’m on time and presentable, and glad that I was able to make it today: The Washington County Historical Society building is only open on Fridays from 10 am to 2 pm. The curator emailed me a week or so ago that she’d open it up for me, even if I arrived on a day it was closed. She has no idea how grateful and humbled I am about that. In all the years I’ve been doing research, no one has ever volunteered to open up an entire museum for me to study artifacts. I want to be sure I’m not any trouble; I know that most curators and the staff in small museums are volunteers.

I notice a number of people going in and out — I didn’t think it was a busy place; I thought it would be me and the curator — but today, the place is hopping!

Taken by the author during a lull in the comings and goings of Chipleyites.

The historical society is definitely a community gathering place — when I opened the door, numerous long-time residents were milling about. I later learned these are folks who stop by weekly when the museum is open. Several are gathered at the long tables with checkerboard tablecloths in the open back room to talk, drink coffee, read scrapbooks. It’s interesting — there are other visitors from out of state here too; one woman in particular from Pennsylvania searching for Florida ancestors. I realize that the local residents here are valuable assets to the historical society: They are keen genealogists and history buffs who can offer useful tips to the visitors on navigating official Florida record holdings, contact names and numbers, as well as excellent seafood restaurants while in the area.

The rooms are full of interesting artifacts on the walls, in old glass display cases from general stores. It’s busy, bustling, cheerful.

The curator, Dorothy Odom, recognizes me right away and greets me as if I was someone well-known to her; indeed, we’ve been exchanging emails for several weeks and I feel right at home. She introduces me to her adult daughter, Chelie, holding a gray kitten, who also greets me warmly.

Wonderful friends in the Washington County Historical Society library, Dorothy Odom and Whit Gainey. Photo by the author.

Dorothy loves that I refer to her collection as artifacts. I don’t think she realizes how important her collection is to me (or really anyone else putting someone’s story together). Dorothy has basically the things that Emmett saw on a daily basis in a house or an office, stuff he took for granted, but the same stuff that made him who he was, in a subtle way.

Take Ivory Soap, for example: It was an everyday thing in Emmett Wilson’s world in the 1890s. Maybe Emmett used it; liked the smell of it, like I like the smell of it. Ivory Soap reminds me of my childhood, or maybe what I wished my childhood would have been: Safe, reliable, predictable.

Here’s a photo of an original Ivory Soap package taken on May 20, 2014 in Pensacola while touring 1880-period houses in Old Pensacola. The display features products typically found in a home between 1890-1910. Photo by the author.

A collection of artifacts at the Washington County Historical Society. The red arrow points to a bottle of mucilage. Photo by the author.

Maybe it is that I see these artifacts with new eyes, thinking, Emmett saw this item, or that product in his parent’s kitchen pantry. He may have picked something like that up, used it.

Maybe Emmett, on a dare from an older brother, took a swig out of that bottle of mucilage convinced it was an exotic highball, his lips encircling the small neck of the bottle. He tips the bottle back, his eyes grow wide as he tastes the stuff ….

I quickly stop to look up the word on my phone —

— OMG. Well, I hope Emmett didn’t do that. I know absolutely that his brothers were pranksters. It’s possible it happened…

Dorothy touches my elbow to introduce me to retired Judge Perry Wells, a regular at the historical society; a senior gentleman with a kind, intelligent face.

I tell Judge Wells that Emmett’s older brother Cephas clerked for Judge W.O. Butler before he began a law career, and that I’m staying that night with the descendants of the Butler family while I’m visiting Chipley. Judge Wells nods approvingly, recommends I note the beautiful restorations of the Butler home and the photo gallery there featuring early 20th century photos of the home and family friends.

Coincidentally this day, Judge Wells had with him a small flyer for Jerry Williams Carter, essentially an old campaign flyer for Mr. Carter. I recognize Mr. Carter immediately — “Judge Wells, this is wonderful! Jerry Carter was Emmett’s campaign manager both times he ran for Congress!”

“Mr. Democratic Party,” Jerry Williams Carter wedding photo, 1910. Source: FloridaMemory.com

I wanted to hug the judge for showing me the unexpected flyer; primary sources of information about Emmett have been few and far between to say the least. Dorothy says she’s happy to  print a copy for me. While I waited, Judge Wells suggested I take a walk through the downtown area, and points me over to a rack that hold booklets featuring a walking tour of Chipley.

Dorothy hands me the copy of the flyer, then introduces me to Whit Gainey, a quiet and thoughtful gentleman with an expansive interest in Washington County history. Whit asks me if I am going to visit the Wilson house on Sixth Street.

“I’m expected at the house after lunch, but in the meantime, I was going to head out to the cemetery to visit Emmett’s parents’ gravesites.”

“Do you know where the Wilsons are buried? If you don’t, I have a map and I’m happy to show you,” Whit said, “Otherwise, it’s easy to get lost.”

===

A half hour later, I’m riding in Whit’s red pickup truck. A country music station is playing quietly as Whit drives around the main street of Chipley; he points out a few landmarks. The old First National Bank, which is in sad condition (there have been some efforts to save it, but nothing successful to date); a row of old storefronts that are in good condition. We turn onto more residential streets, and Whit points out a few Victorian homes that are well cared for, places where Emmett and his family would have seen, probably had dinner with friends and the like. Otherwise, we ride mostly in silence to Greenwood Cemetery; he’s not much of a small talk person with a stranger, and that’s fine. I’m not good with small talk either.

We drive through a small neighborhood to get to the cemetery. “The Wilson graves are in the older part of the cemetery,” he said, maneuvering the truck off the pavement onto a grassy drive. He pulls to a stop near a tree; pulls out the cemetery map with the plots outlined, and nods toward a collection of tall, white monuments. “That’s them up ahead,” he said.

We get out of the truck, and as we walk along the grassy drive, Whit tells me that he’s spent a lot of time over here, photographing headstones and uploading the images to Find-A-Grave.com, the cemetery database.

Whit pauses, and turns away politely to look around at a few other stones while I walk towards Dr. Francis Wilson and Elizabeth Wilson’s graves.

I stand in front of them; I don’t know what to do. Finally, I’m here, I think. I’ve been reading about the Wilsons, studying their lives for over a year — but this feels awkward; uncomfortable. I think I should feel something else, because we’re family.

Maybe it is that this has been, pretty much, a one-way relationship for over a year.  An introduction might help.

“Hello,” I say out loud, quietly, to Francis and Elizabeth. “I’m Judy. I’m glad to meet you, and I wish I’d known you in person. This feels weird but it’s true.”

I start to feel better.

But damn, I think to myself, as I look about. I should have brought flowers. I move towards Elizabeth’s stone, and touch the top of it: Lichens. It hasn’t been cleaned in a long time. I look down at both plots: The graves were dry and dusty.

I realize they hadn’t been visited in decades.

“I’m sorry about that,” I say to Francis and Elizabeth. “I’ll be sure to come by whenever I’m in Florida.”

Whit is walking towards me; he pauses in front of the Wilsons.

“These are your cousins?”

“Yes,” I say, and I begin to take photos.

Emmett’s mother, Elizabeth V. Wilson. Note the lichens at the top of the stone; the dry, sandy soil around the graves. Photo by the author.

Emmett’s father, Dr. F.C. Wilson. See the second line of text with the missing “PFC”, which has been pried off. Photo by the author.

Both graves have interesting additions at the bottom:

For Dr. Wilson, there’s a Confederate Army plaque — and someone has pried off the rank. I ask Whit about the damage to the plaque. He doesn’t think it was vandalism per se; he’s curious if there was an error on the plaque why a new one wasn’t ordered.

For Elizabeth, this is at the base of her tombstone:

The inscription at the base of Elizabeth’s tombstone. Photo by the author.

“Her death was the turning point in this family,” I tell Whit. “There were 10 children, the youngest was eight years old when she died. And Dr. Wilson,” I said, nodding at the other stone, “coped by burying himself in his work. He was a county doctor, one of three, so he was essentially not around for the two years up until his second marriage to Kate Langley Jordan.”

Whit gazes around the immediate area surrounding the Wilson graves. “The second wife isn’t buried anywhere around here,” he said.

“That may be telling,” I say.

As we walk back to Whit’s truck, he says, “People handle grief differently. Sometimes they don’t handle it at all.”

“I think kids pick up on that,” I say, as I climb into his truck. As he starts the engine, I thank him for taking me to visit my cousins, and we ride back to the historical society building in silence.

Next: A closer look at Dr. Wilson

 

 

Chapter 27: A Chicken on Orange Hill Road

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Friday, May 23, 2014 

Once upon a time, U.S Highway 273 in Washington County, Florida, was a hard-packed dirt road. There were occasional ruts from wagon tires that dug deep after a heavy rain; the hot summer sun would dry the road quickly, and some of ruts would harden into mini-canyons, which could be treacherous for buggies and wagons moving at a fast clip behind a trotting horse.

Today, Highway 273, also known as Orange Hill Road, is a two-lane paved road with yellow lines down the middle — no packed dirt, no rutted path to town. No horses, no buggies — at least not on a regular basis.

Somewhere along Highway 273 is the old Wilson homestead, the house of Emmett Wilson’s childhood, located slightly south of Chipley.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the 60 acres that Emmett’s grandfather gave to his mother, Elizabeth Maxwell Wilson, upon the Wilson family’s return to the United States from British Honduras. The exact location of the original Wilson homestead has long eluded me. But thanks to county tax records, an 1885 Florida State census, and help from a local genealogist/historian  I chat with occasionally in the Washington County (Florida) Genealogy Facebook group, I narrowed the location to near Corbin Road. It’s not the exact location yet — but I’m closer to it.

Progress, not perfection, as we say in AA.

Because the 1890 census doesn’t exist, I tracked down the Wilson neighbors (several are listed as farmers; many kept their property in the family in subsequent generations) to confirm the approximate location of the original Wilson property.  I put a gray box around the Wilson information. Source: Ancestry.com, and the Florida State Archives.

One of the documents I hope to find on this trip to Chipley is a copy of the actual deed from Augustus Emmett Maxwell to his daughter, Elizabeth Maxwell Wilson. I heard from a few contacts in Chipley right before I arrived that the archives, located in the basement of the Washington County Florida Tax Assessor’s office, were in bad shape; i.e., dangerous-mold-you-shouldn’t-touch-or-inhale-in-the-old-books bad. Efforts were underway to salvage the records, but it was time consuming and expensive, and some were being relocated to another building (such as an armory) after they were cleaned up for the public to view.  The archives visit would have to be delayed.

I’m not expecting the Maxwell-Wilson property deed to miraculously appear while I’m here, but you never know. Emmett’s research has continued to surprise me whenever I least expect it.

But at this moment, I’m in my car pulled over to the side of the road, air conditioning pulsing high and low as the engine idles in already-near 90-degree heat this morning. Already haze is rising off of the asphalt, giving a wavy, weird appearance to the house and field across the street, as if I were looking at it through water. The grass alongside the edge of the road looks burned and pitiful, cooked indirectly by the surface of the road. I wonder if people actually could fry an egg for breakfast on the asphalt — but that’s not why I’m here.

The house and property that were given to Elizabeth by her father, Judge Augustus Emmett Maxwell, in 1884.

I have a photograph of the old Wilson home. I pull it up on my cell phone, then glance around at my surroundings.

I don’t see anything remotely like it out on the road today. I knew it would be a long-shot to expect to see that old place; I doubt it exists anymore.

I close my eyes. I try to get a sense of Emmett’s childhood home. I think: He would have learned to walk somewhere around here; to run; to ride a horse; to climb the trees in the front yard; to pick flowers off of his mother’s rose bushes in the front yard.

Probably he skinned his knees on the gravel walk in front; most likely he learned to fish in the nearby lakes. I don’t know much about what or who Emmett really loved, but I do know he loved fishing….

I turn off the engine, wait for a few passing cars to go by, open the door and walk to the back of my van, looking at the nearby random 20th century houses along the road, the knobby pine trees, kitschy yard ornaments. No, if the old house still existed in any form, it wasn’t visible, certainly not from the main road. I’d have to start knocking on doors, going from house to house.

If there are remnants of the old house or property around here, I’ll have to start physically looking. I imagine taking my cheap metal detector out of the back of the van and passing it over where I thought the Wilson family house stood and finding — what? Rusted hardware from the house itself? Emmett’s old retainer, maybe (which might explain why he never smiled in photographs)? Will the current owners demand to keep the retainer?

I think the heat is getting to me.

Before I can get up the nerve to start knocking on doors, a county police car slows down and pulls up alongside, as I stand behind my van, looking around. The passenger window of the police car slides down.

The officer nods at me politely.

“Everything OK, Ma’am?”

“Yes, fine thank you.”

“You’re a long way from home,” he said, noting my Maryland tag.

“My ancestors lived in this area a long time ago. I’m trying to figure out where the old homestead was located.”

I couldn’t tell if the officer believed me or not as his eyes were hidden behind the mirrored sunglasses.

“Just visiting, then?”

“Yes sir,” I said. “I’m headed into Chipley to visit folks at the historical society, who may be able to help me too.”

“OK. Well. You aren’t far from their office; just up the road at the old train depot,” he said, pointing in the general direction. “Have a good day.”

The window slid up; his car moved along a bit slowly, probably watching as I hesitated, then decided to walk back to the driver’s side of the car, and get in. It was only then that the officer drove ahead, disappearing into the distance. I wonder if maybe the neighbors called and reported my suspicious mom van — but no matter.

I’m here to visit Emmett’s home town, to piece together his fragmented story, which is actually part of my own story, I’m discovering.

You want to know something strange? Even though I’ve invested myself fully into Emmett’s story at this point, I’m afraid of it. Chicken. I acknowledge that. It’s hard to pick up a phone and call complete strangers, to tell them about the Emmett project, to ask for help. It is getting easier, as most of the folks I encounter are generous with time and resources, and are willing to help.

I can get over the hurdles of other people’s not understanding why this obscure guy is my project; mostly folks see me as an oddball academic anyway.

And ultimately, I do pick up a phone and call complete strangers after a moment’s hesitation. I’ve learned that hesitation actually is a gift, as it gives me a moment to think about what to say when asking about a resource, or an artifact, or to ask permission to visit.

But the chicken part? I’m scared about what I might find out about Emmett. I’m scared to do it because of what I may learn about myself in the process as well.

His story, my story. There really is a connection.

Maybe the neighbors, in peering out the windows, saw something about me that I can’t see about myself yet.

Hesitating won’t get me into Chipley, I decide.

I pulled out onto Highway 273 and drove into Chipley.

 

Chapter 26: I suddenly grew up

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The final page of Katie Wilson Meade’s narrative is brief:

Source: Elizabeth Meade Howard. Used with permission.

There were no wharves or piers to land near, so the “big” boys jumped over-board and carried us in their arms. It was a lot of fun!

We were much freer out there because there was no jungle to breed wild animals. At “Big HILL” we hd to watch out for tarantulas, snakes, and big red ants right in the yard. Here it was entirely free of such things. This sounds like a dreadful place to live, but we didn’t feel so at the time.

Looking back on it seems much worse than when we were living through it.

Our Mother was always cheerful and gay and would play on the piano and sing hymns on Sunday afternoons, teaching us to love them and to sing in church.

She gave us a happy life until I was 12 years old — I suddenly grew up then, and helped care for the three “little” boys.

The last page of Katie Wilson Meade’s narrative ends abruptly — and curiously.

What I knew in the early days of Wilson family research was that Emmett and Katie’s mother, Elizabeth, died in Chipley, Florida, when Emmett was eight and Katie 12 — but that was all I knew. Katie’s narrative suggests Elizabeth was a loving, hands-on mother, someone who paid attention to details, but wasn’t a martinet. Elizabeth was the kind of mother who kept the family close, who knew the importance of faith to get through all kinds of situations — good, bad, tedious.

Emmett’s mother, Elizabeth V. Wilson.

Make no mistake: Elizabeth had led a privileged life, but what wife would follow a husband into an untamed jungle if she wasn’t strong, if she didn’t have faith that bad times would work out if everyone pulled together, even if the move was something she was afraid of in some ways?

Katie says her father, Dr. Francis Wilson, was tough; Elizabeth was much the same, I’d wager.

And Katie indicates in her narrative that Elizabeth’s death was unexpected; impactful, not just to her, but to everyone.

I have no idea what Emmett thought or felt when it happened; Katie doesn’t indicate anything about what anyone else thought but herself — she had to toughen up, grow up suddenly. Likely Emmett felt the impact of his mother’s death sharply as well.

Next: Sudden death

 

Chapter 25: We began a new life

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Page six of Katie Wilson Meade’s narrative continues from the trip out of the jungle back to civilization. This section picks up from the last sentence of page five in the previous post.

The men walked along side of the wagon, so when the oxen got stubborn the men yelled and lashed them with long raw-hide whips — But nothing doing! They wouldn’t move!

At last, a native worker made great balls of mud and pushed it up their noses and they struggles so hard they pulled us out!

We went from Punta Gorda to Belize that way. We boarded a ship in Belize, going up a rickety ladder hung over the side. It was a sailing vessel going to New Orleans.

The trip took about a week. It was here that I saw my first train, as it huffed and puffed into the station, the steam coming out from both sides and black smoke out of the smoke-stack. It was a fearsome sight to a child raised up to this time in a jungle.

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My mother’s father gave her about 60 acres of land about half-way between Pensacola and Tallahassee, and we built a new house on it and began a new life. Father practiced medicine in the little town and for forty or fifty miles in the surrounding country. He was available day and night, from a baby case to small-pox to yellow fever. He would off a man’s leg one day and pull his tooth the next!!

A much beloved “family doctor,” whose chief interest in his life were his patients and his family of ten children — eight boys and two girls. A brave man and a Christian gentleman.

P.S.

Occasional reference to the ‘Big’ boys in this story means the five older boys who were born before either of the girls. My sister, Eudora, was four years older than I; then came a pair of twin boys, and last, my youngest brother, Walker. All these married in due course of time, except Emmett Wilson, the Congressman.

There are so many nieces and nephews scattered around in Florida I cannot tell the names, nor where they live.

When I was born the natives working on the Plantation came in to see the ‘picayune bambino’ and from that day to this I was called “Pic;” all the folks in Florida still use that nick-name — in Miami, where I visit each year the friends of Eloise (my niece) call me “Aunt “Pic”. I don’t mind; it reminds me of the old days of long ago.

In the Spring our parents took us all on a little trip to the Sapodilla Keys (Islands), not many miles from the coast of British Honduras where only natives lived. We ran around half clothed and played with the natives and loved every minute of it.

The steamer “City of Dallas,” a ship of the Macheca Line, which ran between the US from 1868 to 1900. This is the ship that carried Emmett and his family back to the U.S. in 1884. Source: http://onewal.com/jpmacheca/mships.html

The “City of Dallas” was a 915 ton steamer that ran regularly between the Port of New Orleans, Belize, and other Carribbean destination, according to the website. The ship’s master at the time the Wilsons boarded for their trip back to the United States was Reed.

Information about the “City of Dallas” from Macheca Fleet.

Katie mentions climbing aboard the steamer by way of a ‘rickety ladder,’ perhaps a rope ladder tossed over the side. Katie and Emmett’s mother, Elizabeth Wilson, was about three months pregnant with Walker Wilson in June, 1884, the date of their departure [Walker Wilson was born December, 1884 in Chipley, Florida]. Poor Elizabeth — I hope she didn’t suffer seasickness in addition to morning sickness simultaneously during the week-long voyage between Belize and New Orleans.

Manifest of the passengers on the City of Dallas, June 1884. The Wilsons only had a few trunks of possessions and clothing to take back to the United States, not much more than they had brought with them on the original trip to British Honduras back in 1875. Source: NARA, via Ancestry.com

From New Orleans, Katie said the family took the train to Chipley — it is possible they would not have had to pay for the fare, because Elizabeth’s father, Augustus Emmett Maxwell, in addition to his important political connections, had railroad connections — he was once president of the Pensacola & Montgomery Railroad, and family members could travel free or at a significantly reduced rate. But, it is more likely Maxwell paid for the railroad trip because there are several family sources that state the Wilsons’ sugar plantation investment was not successful (despite Katie’s description of a box of gold British coins in an earlier post).

Even though he was not president of the railroad in 1884, it is likely Maxwell paid the fare for the family because of the financial problems reported at this point in other Wilson family genealogies. Source: Herringshaw’s Encyclopedia, page 626

Here’s another clue that the Wilson family’s finances were in bad shape: Katie said that Augustus Emmett Maxwell gave his daughter, Elizabeth, 60 acres between Pensacola and Tallahassee. We now know that property was in Chipley, Washington County, Florida, and today it is located outside the city limits, on Orange Hill Highway. I wrote about it in an earlier post, here, which explains why I thought Maxwell gave the property to his daughter (and not Dr. Wilson).

Dr. Frank and Elizabeth Wilson’s original home on Orange Hill Road, about 1890. The property was given to Elizabeth by her father, Judge Augustus Emmett Maxwell, around 1884-1885, and not Dr. Wilson. Source: Elizabeth Meade Howard.

The mystery of who “Aunt Pic” was was finally solved with this page of Katie’s narrative. I’d seen the reference to ‘Pic’ here and there in the genealogies, but I wasn’t sure if that was a reference to Katie, Dora, or even Lula Wiselogel Wilson (Cephas’ wife, and Katie’s sister-in-law), or if it referred to another Wilson relative.

“Eloise”, mentioned in the narrative, was Eloise Smith, the daughter of Dora and W.E.B Smith.

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There’s one more page of Katie’s narrative; stay tuned.

 

 

Chapter 24: Leaving Belize

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The fifth page of Katie Wilson Meade’s finishes the story began on page four about the family parrot named “Ada” and the family’s return to the United States in 1884.

…and looking positively devilish! She (Ada) was glad to get home though: We could tell!

Frank was the brother that always got into trouble. Often I was put in his care; he took me many times on little jaunts around the place.

One day he and some of the other boys were getting some bamboo canes and sharpening the ends to make arrows. I was sitting on the ground near by when they started shooting them. Frank shot his first and it hit me right behind my left ear; when Father examined it he said one inch further would have gone into my brain! I’ve carried that scar all the rest of my life. Fortunately, my hair covers it.

Poor old Frank! He was far from a stupid boy but somehow he always came out on the wrong end of things.

He was a grand and lovable person! When he was getting married he wanted to take me along on his wedding trip! I did not go, however.

Later in life he had a summer home down on Perdido Bay about 20 miles outside of Pensacola, Florida. He had a two-cabin cruiser and often went on fishing trips in the Gulf of Mexico. He always took his man-of-all-work along to wait on him. Once when he and Dan had been out all night he wanted to rest awhile and told Dan to take the wheel. He said, “Dan, do you see that star right up there in front of you? Well, you must keep the bow pointed right towards that star.”

“Yes sir, I sure will Boss!”

Some time later he came and woke Frank up and said, “Boss, I dun passed that star, you’ll have to get another one!”

Back to Honduras — My parents were expecting another child and were persuaded to return to the United States. They had a couple of boy twins and me down there in Honduras, and that made nine children to educate where there were no schools and not much of anything but wild country. They had been sending one boy at a time back to school in the U.S. and it was rather heartbreaking to put small boys on a ship alone, so they finally decided to give in and go back Home. It was quite a move!

We were packed in a wagon drawn by two oxen. It was during the rainy Season and the roads were almost impassable! At one point we sank down so far the poor oxen were standing in mud up to their stomachs! They couldn’t or wouldn’t move!

…to be continued!

Family photo at Frank’s summer place in Perdido Bay. Left to right: Everard Meade (son of Katie and Emmett Meade), Frank Jr., Katie [behind the dog], Emmett Meade, Julian Wilson, May Wilson (wife of Frank Jr. behind Julian), Jule Wilson Perry (age 11), and Jule’s mother on the end. Photo courtesy of Carol Ballard.

The comment about Katie’s parents sending some of the older boys back to the U.S. for education is interesting, particularly because of Katie’s comments that these were “small boys on a ship alone”. As we view this through a 21st century lens, it would be unthinkable to send small children unescorted on a long voyage, not to mention unlikely; child protective services would be called in immediately.

We estimate the Wilsons left for British Honduras around 1874 or early 1875. Katie was born in British Honduras in August, 1875.

There are five older brothers than Katie. Below are the approximate ages of the brothers at the time the family emigrated to British Honduras:

  • Augustus Maxwell, born 1866; by 1875, age 11
  • Cephas Love, born 1868; by 1875, age 9
  • Frank Jr., born 1870; by 1875, age 5
  • Percy Brockenbrough, born 1871; by 1875, age 4
  • Everard Meade, born 1873; by 1875, age 2

Fast forward to 1884. Take a close look at the passenger manifest for 1884 for the ship, “City of Dallas” headed back to New Orleans with the Wilson family on board:

Manifest of the passengers on the City of Dallas, June 1884. The Wilsons only had a few trunks of possessions and clothing to take back to the United States, not much more than they had brought with them on the original trip to British Honduras back in 1875. Source: NARA, via Ancestry.com

Here’s a closeup of the Wilson family on the manifest:

From top to bottom:

  • Dr. Frank Wilson, age 42, physician;
  • “L.B.” is Emmett and Katie’s mother, Elizabeth V., who also was called “Lizzy”, age 39.
  • K Wilson, (Katie) age 8
  • E Wilson, (Eudora, also called Dora) age 11
  • A Wilson (Augustus Maxwell, who also went by Max), age 16
  • C Wilson (Cephas), age 14
  • Meade Wilson, age 10
  • E Wilson and J Wilson (Emmett and Julian, twins), age 2

Elizabeth was pregnant with Walker when the family left British Honduras.

The Wilson children not listed on the passenger manifest were Frank Jr. and Percy. Let’s say that the Wilsons sent the boys back to the U.S. in 1880; so Frank Jr. and Percy would have been 10 and 9 years old, respectively. Maybe the Wilsons had a maid or caretaker travel along with the boys, but based on Katie’s narrative, I’m going with the idea the boys traveled alone, one at a time. As a parent of young boys, I cannot imagine what it was like to entrust a child to strangers (most likely) for a risky trip through the Gulf of Mexico in the 1880s.

Francis C. Wilson Jr. Source: Bell Photograph Collection, University of West Florida Archives

Frank — a real character, wasn’t he? Imagine asking your SISTER to go on your honeymoon. Imagine his fiancee, May, being OK with that. Yeah. No. Me neither. Still, I wish he were still around to interview.

The last item about leaving British Honduras during the rainy season (June to November) first via a wagon drawn by oxen is intriguing. I feel mostly for Elizabeth Wilson, who was pregnant at this time with Walker Wilson (born December 1884 in Chipley, Florida), and caring for two-year-old twins, in addition to older children (who likely assisted their parents and the younger children).

The Wilson family saga continues in the next post. Stay tuned!