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.
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.
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.
Communication, Arts, and the Humanities
The University of Maryland Global Campus