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 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.
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.
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