The Process


The posts are fewer and further between this month. Don’t worry. It’s all good. I’ve had my head down in the notes, charts, and multiple rough drafts as I try to close out the first book sometime before the end of December.

That’s my latest and most reasonable deadline. Thing is, life and teaching have tripped me up in this, the busiest month of the year for me.

It’s been write-edit-draft, write-edit-draft. A repetitive and sometimes irritating process, but it works. It is hard for me to push back against a routine that has proven itself reliable to me for years, but I’m not a patient person.

Did I mention I’m teaching three writing classes too? I toil with my writing projects alongside my students, and I share my writing angst. That gives some of them pause; but there are those students (particularly in the evening classes) who complain and curse me under their caffeine- and sometimes beer-scented breaths about my detailed feedback on their rough drafts, and the ongoing draft process. It never ends, they say. We just want it done, they say.

I get it. But all I can do is shake my head at them, and say:

“I curse it too. But one day, you’ll thank the process. Trust me.”

One of the keys to sticking with Emmett’s biography (now in its third year) is to enjoy the process.

What’s not to enjoy? I’ve made great friends, discovered new family connections; I’ve become a more thorough researcher.

Like my students, I’m impatient. Writing is mentally, emotionally, sometimes physically eviscerating. There are days when I just want to be done with the damn thing.

Three years, you know?

My 77-year-old dad kicked cancer’s ass in three years, and I’m still diddling around this book. What’s up with that? Right?


When I first started his project, I thought about six months would be enough time to find out everything I could about Emmett, then I could devote about six month to the manuscript.

The problem with that assumption was my attitude and ignorance. I’ve done research for years, but this was the first time I attempted another human being’s story. Sure, I can tell you anything about training and education, and wrap it in about a year.

But another human being’s story? How could I be so ignorant, and think I could sum up the facts and spit out the manuscript that way, you know, like a bullet-point list or something?

Writing-as-process. Over time, as you sit with the data, and do deep background work (such as, reading about how alcoholism was diagnosed and treated 100 years ago), I understand the man so much more than in the first two years. None of this process can be forced. That’s hard to convey to my students when we only have an eight-week or 16-week term. They’re under deadline pressure. I am too, although mine has been mostly self-imposed.

When I look at my notes from the first year, I notice a commonality: I was trying to force the research and the writing, and trying to force Emmett’s story along. What I needed to do was to let go, and live the discovery and writing process.

In the margins of my notes is this note to my higher power:


Funny thing. When I let go, and surrendered the process, the chapters started to come together; fall into place.

The book is coming together. There is light. It is getting done. Mostly I just have to stay out of my own way.

Before I close, I saw this quote yesterday from one of my favorite writers (and fellow friend of Bill Wilson’s) Anne Lamott:

“I’ve heard that if it’s my will, things get better first, and then harder. If it’s God’s will, it gets harder first, and then better.”

I tried enforcing my will on this writing/research process, and it just got harder and harder. But when I decided to accept and trust the process (which I attribute to my higher power), it has gotten better.

I’ll be back up for air in a few days. I really do have some interesting finds from the research that I’ll share.


An Expensive Lesson


Emmett’s best legal education came not at Stetson University (where he was the valedictorian of the 1904 law class; it came not at the hands of his esteemed and experienced older brother, Cephas Love Wilson, Esquire.

It came when he was, essentially, fired from his dream job in Sterling, Illinois in late May, 1906.

Nicholas Van Sant. Source:

Nicholas Van Sant. Source:

Emmett had left his home, his family, his old friends, and a decent job to move almost 1,000 miles away to start a new law partnership with Nicholas Van Sant.

Emmett’s criteria for his dream job:

  • To immerse himself in the law;
  • To be left alone to his own devices without well-meaning friends and family members offering suggestions/advice.

He got what he wanted.

But four months into the dream job, he’s discovered that his situation isn’t what he expected. As the solo lawyer in the firm (Nick had a full-time job as president of the Sterling State Bank), he certainly got to immerse himself in the law — but he was awful at office administrivia — and I don’t think he was prepared for how much work there was to do with the cases, by himself, even with the help of a secretary.

From The Sterling Evening Gazette. February 22, 1906,

I suspect Van Sant enlisted the assistance of one of his employees, possibly Frank Heflebower, to review the Van Sant & Wilson firm account books. From The Sterling Evening Gazette. February 22, 1906,

This was just the thing that Cephas had warned Emmett about back in Florida before he left: It wasn’t enough that Emmett was a good litigator. Running a law firm by yourself involves a lot of managerial and administrative skills that he just hadn’t mastered yet.

The loneliness got to him, too: Even though Emmett preferred solitude, it was because it was his choice to remain alone, on the outside of the social circle, if that makes sense. He was from a prominent social and political family in Florida, where he’d not had to worry about social acceptance — everyone who was anyone in West Florida politics and society knew him because of his family. Emmett didn’t have to put forth any effort to become ‘known’ back in Florida. His family’s reputation did that for him.

The red arrow is the approximate location of the Van Sant & Wilson law firm. Source:

The red arrow is the approximate location of the Van Sant & Wilson law firm. Source:

But in Sterling, Emmett was an oddity, an outsider, an unknown. After having family, friends, loved ones in your face (and in your business) every single day, as it was for Emmett back in Marianna, it probably was a relief for him to be left alone. At least for the first few weeks.

The locals in Sterling were certainly polite to him, but it was hard for him to break into professional and social circles when you are (just about) the only Southern Democrat in solidly Republican northwestern Illinois.

What I think also did Emmett in was the fact that he had to actually work hard to become a part of Sterling’s political and social community.

Think about this: The social and political relationships linked closely to business relationships in this small town. Emmett hadn’t had to work at any of these relationships at this level before leaving Florida.

I estimate that by the end of April, 1906, he realized that the move to Sterling was a mistake. It wasn’t his legal skill; it was the fact that he didn’t fit in, personally, and he didn’t know what to do about that, because he’d never had to give that thought.

That’s when he slipped back into drinking for relief. Eventually, the drinking interfered with his legal skills, which is when someone (or something) tipped Nick Van Sant that something was awry with his protege.

Whoever (or whatever) it was, it spurred Nick to stop by the law firm one day to examine the books. Nick, himself, probably turned them over to his cashier, Frank Heflebower, who would have gone over the accounts carefully. Frank would have advised Nick that something didn’t balance.

The clue that leads me to think this was about poor financial management on Emmett’s behalf comes from an interview Van Sant gave in the 1950s where he discusses his long career, and mentions that just about the only year the law firm wasn’t profitable was the first one, when he’d only cleared $700 that entire year. The fact that Emmett was drinking (probably on the job) didn’t help.

They parted on a friendly basis: Van Sant found another partner who he’d known for several years and was local. It is likely Van Sant also absorbed losses incurred from his partnership with Emmett.

Emmett started his career over again, in Pensacola, working for his uncle, Judge Evelyn Croom Maxwell, wiser for the experience and uncomplaining about his lot in life (at least he did not complain publicly anymore).

Alcoholic Deja Vu


I’m back after a brief hiatus. I’ve been deep into the writing for over a week; also, I’m teaching three classes at the moment, so I’ve let the poor blog wither a little. Sorry about that! The good thing is that Emmett’s manuscript is making excellent progress.

The not so good thing is that writing about another alcoholic’s demise is depressing. On my last visit to Florida, I remember an archivist talking to me about how the manuscript was coming together, and I told him it was downright hard in several places, because this is not a happy story. I know what happened to Emmett and how he got there, and sometimes, I just want go back in time and kick some sense into his ass once or twice.

Truthfully, I believe Cephas or Lula, or even his father did some fairly good ass kicking of their own, and had I shown up in my 21st Century ass kicking cowboy boots, they would have just told me to get in line. There were several interventions for Emmett; none of them worked. I don’t know why I think I would have made any difference; Emmett wasn’t ready to change his life.

Whoever said alcoholism is hardest on the alcoholic doesn’t know what they are talking about. It’s infinitely worse on the loved ones who are powerless to change the addict’s behavior.

Occasionally, I have to take a step back from both the writing and the research for a day or two just to remind myself that I’m sober and OK. Emmett’s story is not my story. But the lesson of his life is something that helps keep me on the beam.

And really, this whole process has been great for my own sobriety. When you have several years, or almost a decade, of sobriety, it is easy to forget what the drinking days were like; even easier to listen to the disease in your head telling you that ‘you’ve earned a break,’ or ‘you can handle it now.’  In a way, writing Emmett’s story has kind-of made him a spiritual sponsor all this time. I know I talk to him about his disease often enough; and he has never told me that I’ve ‘earned a break.’ Not from sobriety, and not the damn manuscript. Ha!

I’ll have some interesting new research to share with you in a few days; meanwhile, my thoughts and prayers are with my friends and colleagues in Florida today who will be dealing with Hurricane Matthew.

No one to blame


In one of the Wilson family genealogies, there’s a curious statement recorded by Emmett’s nephew. It says:

“…my mother always said that Emmett fell in with some rich Northern lumberman who started him drinking, and he drank himself to death.”

Hm. A rich Northern lumberman.

Who could that be?

Over a year ago, I started going through the wealthy residents of Pensacola — Emmett’s home from 1907 to his death in 1918 — figuring out who his friends were, and who he ‘ran’ with as a lawyer in prominent social circles. Here are the five men who would have been most likely the ‘rich Northern lumberman’ in Pensacola from the genealogy:

William Swift Keyser — b. 1856 in Massachusetts. Became head of his family firm when still at Yale. He was a member of the Episcopal church, the wealthiest man in Pensacola. He and his family were considered the leaders of Pensacola society. Owner, the WS Keyser Company. Quoted as being ‘a cultured gentleman of fine literary attainments;’ also, a Democrat with political interests (but he never sought office himself). Emmett would definitely want to emulate someone like Keyser.

F.F. Bingham. Source:

F.F. Bingham. Source:

Fraser Franklin Bingham — Born 1872 in Michigan. Southern States Lumber Co. VP. A yachter and accomplished writer. Had seven children; married money with his first wife. Started out as a stenographer (like Emmett did) and worked his way up the ladder. Republican; Well respected and liked. Wonderful bio on the St. John’s Cemetery website.

Rix M. Robertson — Born 1851 in Michigan. Robinson Point Lumber Co. Republican. Also appointed as Postmaster in 1898. Yachter; had an incredible home. No children, but quite a few articles about him and his private parties, private club memberships, and the like.

H(erman) H Boyer — Born 1858 in Ohio. German American Lumber Co. Not much biographical information, but had large family and was considered a prominent community member. 

William Henry G. DeSilva (HG DeSilva) — Born 1860 in New York. HG DeSilva &Co. Manufacturer of building materials in Florida. The Pensacola Journal reported some lawsuits filed against him (employees hurt on the job); Emmett was not involved on either side of the DeSilva cases. 

I have a lot more information on these guys, but I have to tell you that after kicking this thing around for almost three years, I don’t believe the man I’m looking for is in this list. Here’s why:

These men probably knew Emmett, but I doubt they traveled in the same social circles. We are talking about men who kept regular company mostly with each other in their tight and exclusive country club circle, who kept yachts in Pensacola Bay, who had summer homes (mansions, actually) back in their native northern states, and large, sweeping estates in Escambia County. Emmett could not afford to keep up with them except closer to the year he ran for Congress (1912).

These men are much older than Emmett — not exactly peers. I’m sure they knew of him and vice versa, but they weren’t close at all. Professionally, these men wouldn’t have had that much contact with Emmett as they had their own attorneys (not Emmett).

And Emmett was neither prominent nor considered socially important until around 1910-12 — when his name began showing up on the front page of The Pensacola Journal and other West Florida newspapers related to his work as District Attorney, then States’ Attorney.

While Emmett aspired to social prominence (and he worked for it), he was long considered on the social periphery of Pensacola’s high society, until he was elected to U.S. Congress. Emmett would have been lucky  — and grateful — to have been invited to the same party as these older, much more established and experienced fellows. So, none of these guys were the cursed ‘rich, Northern lumberman’ mentioned in the genealogy.

But now, I believe I know who it was.

Nicholas Van Sant. Source:

Nicholas Van Sant. Source:

After much deliberation, I’ve come to the conclusion that the rich, Northern lumberman mentioned in the Wilson family genealogy was probably none other than Nicholas Van Sant, the man who brought Emmett to Sterling, Illinois.

Van Sant’s family was already wealthy; their fortune was in shipping. Nick started out in shipping, then sold his share to his brothers; then made his own personal fortune in timber. He certainly ‘fell in’ with Emmett: Emmett was Van Sant’s protege, and, I believe, Van Sant considered Emmett the son he never had.

Now, think about this — the excerpt doesn’t say that the Northern lumberman was a drinker. Van Sant didn’t have to be — but, I believe that Emmett (who was already drinking when he moved to Sterling in 1906) was under a tremendous amount of stress working with Van Sant. Emmett had something to prove to the folks back home, and to himself.

Emmett was lonely, without friends, and it was freezing cold in Illinois that year — not only was it a depressing situation for Emmett, but the snow and ice storms broke records that year, as the ice on the river burst through the bridge and caused extensive damage and flooding in Sterling. Power went out for several days. There were shortages of fuel and food; Sterling was no Winter Wonderland in February, 1906.

Details on the Ice Gorge of 1906. Source: Historical Centennial Program, Rock Falls, Illinois

Details on the Ice Gorge of 1906. More details on this dramatic event at the link. Source: Historical Centennial Program, Rock Falls, Illinois

And by then, Emmett was probably missing Florida. It was also Carnival time back home. And here he was, freezing cold, without friends, and treated as an outsider, even though he was the exalted Van Sant’s protege. I can definitely see how his drinking probably accelerated to alcoholic levels while he was in Sterling.

I want to say to the Wilson family genealogist that the rich Northern lumberman didn’t ‘make’ Emmett drink. Van Sant is not the bad guy here. Emmett was an alcoholic before he ‘fell in’ with Van Sant.

It is also important to remember that Van Sant was strict temperance. Van Sant was the man who helped BUILD the Sterling YMCA, from the ground up. Van Sant believed in the principles of this organization, including and especially sobriety. If Emmett was going down the rabbit hole of alcoholism, Van Sant would not have ‘made’ Emmett drink; if anything, I believe Van Sant would have tried to save him, and would have done something to help Emmett, because he looked upon Emmett as the son he never had.

No one makes an alcoholic drink.

There are no bad guys here; there’s no one to blame but Emmett himself, and there was nothing anyone could do for him.


Out of Desperation


One of the reasons why Emmett left Florida and moved to Illinois in January of 1906 (in the middle of a blizzard) is because he was desperate. He wanted to get away from his family, because his loved ones were in his face about his life — and especially his drinking. Emmett was only 24, and already acting out of control. He was getting a lot of pressure from family members to (at least) cut back on the booze, to settle down already, and Emmett wasn’t having any of it. He was smart, but also stubborn: He didn’t like anyone telling him what to do.

If you think about it, Emmett was surrounded by alcohol, and likely ‘drinking’ even when he wasn’t drinking: It was in the toothpaste. It was in over-the-counter sleep aids and stomach medications. Alcohol was everywhere.

And if you think about it, that’s still true. There’s 12-15% alcohol in NyQuil. There’s alcohol in mouthwash. If you are desperate for a drink, you can find it somewhere else besides a liquor store.

Sozodont had 37% alcohol. Source: NMAH Archives Center 0060 Warshaw Collection of Business Americana Series: Dentistry Box 2 Folder 16 Advertisement for Sozodont

Sozodont had 37% alcohol. Source: NMAH Archives Center; Warshaw Collection of Business Americana, Series: Dentistry. Box 2, Folder 16, Advertisement for Sozodont. As presented by


It wasn’t that everyone around him was into prohibition; the Wilson family drank socially; so did many of Emmett’s colleagues. But he was demonstrating alcoholic behavior already, just when his career was getting off the ground. Emmett had so much potential — I can see his brother Cephas and other family members were worried about him.

And not to sound mercenary about it, but several Wilson family members made a significant investment in Emmett so that he could go to law school, especially Cephas. Everyone in the Wilson family who could chipped in, made sacrifices so that Emmett didn’t have to work during the school year.

Emmett’s family loved him. They wanted the best for him. But they were practical people, too. So, of course, Emmett’s family probably felt they had the right to speak up about his drinking.

And how did Emmett respond? He set out to prove everyone wrong.

What better way to get those loved ones off your back than to make a dramatic move 1,000 miles away, to work with a colleague well respected, well connected, and a Temperance leader in his community?

In making this move, Emmett was telling everyone: I don’t have a problem. I’m in control. Get out of my business. I can handle this. And to prove it, I’m moving to a place to work with a prominent man who is even more tightly wound in terms of drinking than anyone in Florida.

And so, Emmett moved to Sterling. Nicholas Van Sant literally set up an office for him. Literally GAVE him a practice to run all by himself in the heart of Sterling.

Ironically, Emmett’s office was surrounded by saloons.

Emmett's office was right across the street from Dietz & Maxfield's saloon, but there were plenty right there on Third Street. Source:

Emmett’s office was right across the street from Dietz & Maxfield’s saloon, but there were plenty right there on Third Street. I like the thought of a saloon right in the rear of a bank. Source:




The rest of the listing for Sterling's saloons in 1906. Source:

The rest of the listing for Sterling’s saloons in 1906. Source:


There’s a third part to this story — which I’ll continue tomorrow.

102 East Third Street


Emmett’s law office in Sterling, Illinois, in January 1906, was located at 102 East Third Street, on the second floor of the two-story Wolf Building.

Source: Sterling & Rock Falls, Illinois City Directory for 1906;

Nicholas Van Sant & Emmett Wilson’s law office address. Source: Sterling & Rock Falls, Illinois City Directory for 1906;

The law firm was located atop the Killen & Peters shoe store, which also did a brisk business in boots, according to ads in the Sterling Daily Standard.

Source: Sterling Daily Standard, Nov. 22, 1906

Source: Sterling Daily Standard, Nov. 22, 1906

Emmett probably bought his first and only pair of snow boots at this store, at the recommendation of his host family, the Annings. In fact, Emmett arrived in Sterling in the midst of a major snowstorm on January 1, 1906 — which he said was a new experience — and likely in the wrong shoes. It was reported that there were several inches of snow on unplowed streets when his train arrived.

The green arrow indicates location of 102 East Third Street today. Source: Google maps.

The green arrow indicates location of 102 East Third Street today. Source: Google maps.

Here’s a photo of Third Street, looking East, from about 1900.

The red arrow is the approximate location of the Van Sant & Wilson law firm. Source:

The large building to the immediate left is the Sterling National Bank. The red arrow, pointing at the red brick building, is the approximate location of the Van Sant & Wilson law firm. Source:

Unfortunately, I don’t have a better photo of the Wolf Building from 1906. I would love to have a front view of that building, which very likely featured “Van Sant & Wilson Law Offices” painted on the windows facing the street.

Below is a photo of what is there now:

A bank is located on the original site of Emmett's office. Source: Google maps.

A bank is located on the original site of Emmett’s office. Source: Google maps.