Menu Home

Chapter 107: New From the South

May 1, 2015
Chevy Chase, Maryland

I’ve been reading microfilm for hours. My eyes are dry.

Both Sterling, Illinois newspapers from 1905-06, from the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield, IL via InterLibrary Loan. Photo by the author.

But what a freaking goldmine.

Not only am I finding long-missing information about Emmett Wilson’s wherabouts during 1905 and 1906, there is a ton of contextual information about Nicholas Van Sant, Emmett’s roommates at his boarding house, Emmett’s law practice, and some of his social activities.

I’m happy to be able to fill in research blanks, but I am also frustrated that there’s so much I still don’t have, such as primary data (letters, journals, actual interviews, and so forth). Still, I am grateful for what I have.

One of the best finds in this film set was an article introducing Emmett to the Sterling community, published in the January 2, 1906 edition, page one, in the Sterling Evening Gazette:

Source: Sterling Evening Gazette, January 2, 1906, page 1; photo from microfilm by the author.

There’s interesting details here. To start (in the first sentence), the reporter likely misheard Emmett, as he wrote “Maryville” instead of “Marianna” as Emmett’s hometown, but says Emmett has already begun business with Nick Van Sant with the law firm. As Emmett just arrived in town on New Years Day, 1906, it’s likely Van Sant has been going about talking about the new firm and has been in and out of the new offices at 103 East Third Street.

“The office is established over the Killen & Peters shoe store.”

Source: Sterling & Rock Falls, Illinois City Directory for 1906;
Source: Sterling Daily Standard, Nov. 22, 1906.

I’ll bet anything that Emmett didn’t bring a pair of snowshoes or rubber boots to protect his shoes up with him from Florida, and I wonder if he bought his first (and probably only!) pair from this shop just downstairs from his office?

Here’s a photo postcard that has an approximate view of 103 East Third Street:

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

“This new law firm is destined to become a prominent one….” Well, of course the reporter thought that. Who wouldn’t? Almost every single thing Nicholas Van Sant did was successful, because Van Sant was thoughtful, careful, meticulous and sober (no pun intended) in all of his business dealings. That was his (and the Van Sant family’s) reputation. Not that Van Sant was perfect, mind you, but Nick Van Sant was not known for making a misstep in his business activities, so why would the new law firm not be successful?

“Mr. Wilson is a young man and unmarried.” Well, that’s an interesting point to bring out in the welcome article — maybe not so much the fact he was young — but not married yet. Was that really unusual at the time, for someone viewed as successful, prominent in southern society and now, likely prominent in Sterling, to still be single?

I asked my research partner, Nancy, what she thought about the notation in the article. True, Emmett wasn’t yet a political figure, but he was prominent for the time at age 25. She said:

Maybe Emmett appeared a little unstable, even though he might not have yet been a full-fledged alcoholic?

Here’s the second half of the welcome article:

Source: Sterling Evening Gazette, January 2, 1906, page 1; photo from microfilm by the author.

“He is a native of Florida and has practiced law in his native city for several years….”

There’s two inaccuracies right off the bat, which tell me Emmett was hiding facts. First, as we know from an earlier post, his ‘native city’ was actually the Toledo Settlement, British Honduras. The whole story about how his family emigrated back and reestablished themselves successfully is quite an achievement in itself — unless you consider the time frame and society, and where Emmett was trying to establish himself at this point. Emmett’s father left the U.S. to try to reestablish his family as expat Confederates in British Honduras, in an attempt to maintain the failed status-quo. This is not exactly details you’d want to announce when moving from the South to the North, when your new neighbors were Civil War veterans.

The second, about Emmett’s legal experience, is exaggeration. My colleague, Sue Tindel, Deputy Clerk, Jackson County (FL) Clerk of Courts, who provided archival information on Emmett’s practice while he was in Marianna was definitely not impressed with his experience by the end of 1905.

Email message from Sue Tindel on the differences between Emmett Wilson and Cephas Wilson. September, 2014.

In fact, she suggested that his later climb up the the legal ladder in Escambia County, Florida, was likely due to connections rather than caseload. I agree with her.

“While attending a law school in Florida…” that’s Stetson University “…Mr. Van Sant became acquainted with Mr. Wilson and the friendship grew steadily.” They were friends before and after, as the two obviously had stayed in touch.

“Mr. Wilson, being a very active and very energetic young man desired to get away from home so Mr. Van Sant arranged with him to come north.” Aha.

After reading this quote, I see Emmett as a young fellow who is impatient, especially after having lived independently at college for two years, then moving back home where everyone is watching him. Everything is provided to Emmett (room and board, job), so he feels beholden, as if he’s still under everyone’s thumb. He wants to prove himself without everyone watching him. I get it.

This also says Emmett and Van Sant wrote letters to each other. Emmett told his friend what it was like being back home and he wanted something different. Van Sant had an opportunity opening up, the planets aligned, and voila!

“Since coming he has encountered a snow storm, which is quite a new experience for him.” I’ll bet it was. Illinois winters are quite different from Florida winters.

“This afternoon, Mr. Wilson went to Morrison to attend the meeting of the grand jury and the circuit court for the purpose of meeting and becoming acquainted with the members of the Whiteside county bar association.”

So, it’s only the second day Emmett is in town, right after settling into his boarding house, new office, new community, and he jumped right into work. You have to give him credit for wanting to set a good example and to demonstrate the energy to get down to business. I hope he made a good impression on his new colleagues.

Stay tuned for more.

Categories: Book Congressman Family Interesting & Odd

Tagged as:


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

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: