The Illinois Experiment

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Back in the mid-1980’s, when I was a year or so out of journalism school with some experience writing for daily newspapers under my belt, I got the itch to move on to a bigger newspaper market, with a more interesting beat, and more exciting stories to write. Columbus, Mississippi was a nice place to live, and the newspaper, The Commercial Dispatch, was a great paper to hone my skills right out of college, but once I had been exposed to big-city journalism (as I had my senior year at MSU as an intern at the Memphis Commercial Appeal), the small-town reporting routine got tedious.

The Commercial Dispatch. Same building for decades. Source: flicker.com

The Commercial Dispatch. Same building for decades. Source: flicker.com

I was impatient to do bigger, more interesting stories. I asked my editor for more important assignments. She told me that I needed more experience, and some patience to boot. I thanked her for the advice, then started shopping around for another job.

I thought I knew better.

I moved on to a larger paper, but I quickly realized that the ‘bigger, more interesting’ stories often went to reporters with many years of small-town, beat reporting experience. I wound up making some errors that indicated professional immaturity. Clearly, I had a lot of growing up to do in my writing career, and that was only going to happen with time and work.

Even now, I realize that writing is a lifelong skill. A true writer is always learning and sharpening his or her craft, even with 20 or 30 years experience.

I share this because I think this is the lesson Emmett learned too, in 1906, when he was also about a year and a half out of law school, and with some legal experience under his belt. He wanted to be a big shot like his brother: Successful. Rich. Powerful. He was impatient, though, and made a move that slowed his progress up the West Florida political ladder.

Different profession, different century, but it is the same old story. Here’s the scoop.


I came across the following item from the 1905 edition of The Chipley Banner:

Source: The Chipley Banner, 1905

Source: The Chipley Banner, 1905

This surprised me. In tracking Emmett’s career from 1904-06, there was no indication that the Wilson & Wilson law firm of Marianna had clients from Illinois, or had legal business outside of the state … except there was an item in the Pensacola paper in October, 1905, that said Emmett was headed to Illinois for a trip, and would pass through Chicago on his way home. There was no other information about that trip available.

I remembered seeing an item I found over a year ago from the Tallahassee Weekly True Democrat for August, 1906, that said Emmett Wilson, of Illinois, was visiting his friend JTG Crawford. Initially, I thought this was a factual error (or perhaps another man named Emmett Wilson). I’m glad I kept the news item. The timing is excellent: I haven’t been able to account for Emmett for the first six months of 1906, and now, I can.

Initially, I thought this was wrong. Source: Weekly True Democrat, August 24, 1906

Initially, I thought this was wrong. Source: Weekly True Democrat, August 24, 1906

This not only opens up a whole new set of sources to check for information on Emmett’s life, but it also raises more questions:

  • If Emmett’s family’s political/legal/judicial power base is in Jackson/Escambia Counties, why move 1800 miles away from it?
  • If Emmett’s family was strongly Democratic (and important players in the Democratic party), why move to a heavily Republican state to start your career over completely, as a virtual unknown, in a community where you have no family or close friends?
  • Was the work uninteresting, or, was Emmett not given that much responsibility on big, important cases? Were the locals more used to Cephas handling the important cases, and bypassing Emmett altogether?
  • What was in Sterling, Illinois, a small town not much larger than Marianna and at least a day’s travel from Chicago, that would make Emmett pull up roots?

Was it a woman? I strongly doubt it. The local papers were quite gossipy, and into everyone’s business. If he was seeing someone, it would have been mentioned. There wasn’t anyone serious. He was seeing someone in college, but that relationship ended when he graduated.

Would Emmett uproot his entire career for a woman back in the day? Maybe, but it seems to me that, in general, it was the woman who moved to where the man (the breadwinner) lived, not the other way around. Emmett’s career was just getting started. He had little money saved, he didn’t own a house or property. He was in no position to support a wife at this point.

To answer the last question first: What was in Sterling, Illinois?

Source: Robinson Constitution, November 20, 1905

Source: Robinson Constitution, November 20, 1905

Nicholas Van Sant.

I mentioned him in an earlier blog post: Wealthy, older, self-made man who went back to school because he wanted to fulfill a childhood dream, and graduated with Emmett from Stetson in 1904. Van Sant was 56 years old, and lived in Sterling, Illinois.

According to this news report, he also had just been admitted to the Illinois bar in October, 1905. Emmett and Nick were friends in college; they stayed in contact with each other. Nick told Emmett he wanted to start his own law firm. He knew Emmett was smart, he probably also knew Emmett was bored and/or wanted to get out from under Cephas’ shadow, and start over.

Emmett knew that an affiliation with Van Sant was good; he’d be allowed to practice law without the shadow of his successful big brother hanging over him. Also, Van Sant was a successful, well respected businessman, who brought himself up from nothing — he understood Emmett’s struggle to make something of himself. Finally, the political connections, albeit Republican, were not something to discount. Nick’s big brother was the governor of Minnesota.

Win-win, right?

I think it could have worked out well for Emmett if he could have stuck it out. Six months after he had moved to Sterling, this article appeared in the 1906 Chipley Banner:

Source: The Chipley Banner, July 26, 1906.

Source: The Chipley Banner, July 26, 1906.

Emmett’s visit in Chipley lasted longer than one month: He was back in Florida permanently. By mid-September, Emmett moved to Pensacola, where J. Walter Kehoe took him under his wing, and the whole mentorship-with-a-mature-professional routine started over again. This time, with Kehoe, it sticks.


From what I’ve learned, Nicholas Van Sant was an excellent choice as a mentor and/or business colleague. I’m curious about why Emmett lasted only six months with him. Perhaps Emmett was unable to pass the Illinois bar. Perhaps Van Sant was a worse taskmaster and/or business partner than Cephas. Perhaps Emmett was simply homesick for Florida, friends and family.

I think the issue was that Emmett was simply not seasoned enough a lawyer to go into practice with a mature businessman like Van Sant. Here’s a clip from an interview Van Sant gave about his first year as a lawyer (and this is when Emmett would have been working with him in Sterling):

Source: Stand By Magazine, December 12, 1936.

Source: Stand By Magazine, December 12, 1936.

I get the impression that the first year was tough, even though Van Sant was, basically, a millionaire and a business success story. I wonder if Emmett had anything to do with the low earnings that first year. Maybe some mistakes were made, and Van Sant had to cover them.

You can read the entire interview with Van Sant here. It is a great story.


 

I’ll order the Sterling, Illinois newspaper microfilm in a few days to track what was going on with Emmett’s career while in Illinois, and perhaps, we’ll find out what happened between Emmett and Van Sant.

 

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