Chapter 33: A force to be reckoned with

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May 17, 2014, Montgomery, Alabama, about 1 p.m.

I’m in a car Carol B., whom I met in person five minutes earlier. She’d picked me up from my friend Margaret’s house in Montgomery. Carol’s taking me to meet her mother, Jule Wilson Perry, whom I found about six months ago — and, still, even though has been several months since I made first contact with Jule, I remain in a sort-of shock and awe about it.

I’m surprised I found her.

Heck, I’m surprised she’s even alive.

Jule, you see, is Emmett’s niece. The daughter of Emmett’s twin brother, Julian. As of today, she’s a healthy and spry 97 (check) years old; clear, coherent, sharp. As a whole, the Wilsons were not exactly long-lived people; but Julian and Jule seem to be exceptions to the rule.

Jule & Emmett’s twin brother, Julian A. Wilson, about 1940.

What also rocks me about this whole upcoming meeting is the understanding that she is the only person alive today who would have laid eyes on Emmett, if she could remember it.

She would have shared the air with him in the same room. She knew the family stories. She is one-quarter Emmett’s DNA….

… and the idea of all of this, that this woman is the closest living connection to Emmett Wilson, dead since 1918, is only minutes away, thrills and scares me at the same time.

That’s probably coming out in my demeanor as we ride to Jule’s apartment. I’m sitting stiffly, my seat belt across my chest and lap; clasping my hands a little too tightly. I have a potted flowering plant for Jule next to my briefcase at my feet, all a bit crammed awkwardly onto the floor of Carol’s car. Carol glances over at me and gives me a friendly smile.

I smile back.

I have nothing to fear, but I am afraid. I don’t know what to think; this flood of existential questions gushes forward:

‘What am I doing here? What the hell am I supposed to be getting out of this crazy, self-imposed, self-directed project that has taken over my life? How in the world did I wind up in the car of a lovely woman who is distantly related, but also a stranger to me at the moment?’

Make no mistake: Both Carol and Jule know why I’m here. When I contacted them six months agoI made no pretense to either Jule or to Carol about how I got here in the first place; that I’m chasing information based on some strange and oddball request (that I very well may have IMAGINED) one late night as I had stared at a man’s photo, a voice asking me to tell his story…

…what the hell. Perhaps my discomfort is simply the fact I did not sleep well last night at my friend’s house, and I drank way too much coffee with little to eat all day.

Carol’s cell phone rings. “Excuse me,” she said, as she pushed a button on her steering wheel to answer it.

“No, sorry,” she says.  “I can’t be there this afternoon. I’m driving my cousin to see my Mother at the moment….”

— and just like that, I feel relief wash over me. I’m not a stranger anymore.

“Sorry about that,” Carol said, smiling at me as she disconnected the call.  “You said you had a funny story about Mama?”

I tell Carol about how I had come across Jule’s information initially from census reports, but then, her name was mentioned in an obituary about Julian, so that is how I was able to find her. There was a telephone directory listing from a few years back; I didn’t know if this was the same person, but I took a chance and made a cold call.

“I asked to speak to Mrs. Perry, and a lady answering the phone was very formal and polite, and said she wasn’t there. I asked if I could leave a message, and the person said yes, a little hesitantly.

“So, I told her my name, that I was with the University of Maryland, and gave a very brief description of the research project about Emmett.

“The suddenly, all formality is swept aside. The lady said, ‘Oh my goodness, I’m actually writing my own father’s story! You know my father was actually Emmett’s brother, don’t you?”

Carol laughed. “That’s Mama. She’s a force to be reckoned with; I guess you realized that right away.”

“Yes. But I also know someone calling out of the blue from 1000 miles away can be off-putting. I get that. That’s why I asked her to give my email and phone number to you in that call, so you could check up on me.”

Carol nodded with understanding. “I appreciate that.”

As she turned into the parking lot of the assisted living apartment complex, and pulled into a parking space, I felt my stomach tense up. “I’m nervous,” I admitted to Carol, with a laugh.

She briefly touched my hand. “Don’t be. The letters and clippings you’ve been sending Mama this past year have been wonderful. She had no knowledge at all of her father’s family before this — she really has enjoyed getting to know you through your research. This has really been good for her, and I appreciate it, too.”

 

 

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Chapter 32: That tingling sensation

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Friday, May 24, 2014, 2 pm, 6th Street, Chipley

The May afternoon is brilliant and dry, but the porch is cool and shady, just as it would have been when my cousin, Dr. Francis Wilson, sat in his rocking chair, smoking his pipe, reading The Chipley Banner in 1913.

One of my favorite things about this house — the porch swing. I can see Emmett sitting there, rocking back and forth, perhaps seated with his father, talking. Photo by the author.

Closing my eyes and breathing in the stillness of his ghostly footfalls across the porch, I stand absolutely still on the steps of my ancestor’s home, facing Main Street. I’m here, in search of his stories. I know there are no Wilson artifacts in this house, but I am secretly hoping to absorb something about him through spiritual osmosis; to connect with him in some way, as I am told much of the house — including woodwork, fireplaces, hardware — are the same that his hands touched over 100 years ago.

One of the original doorknobs of Dr. Wilson’s home. Photo by the author.

The chains of the swing creak as a breeze moves across the porch. I turn and open my eyes expectantly — but of course, he’s not there.

A photo of the house dated 1899 reveals charming gingerbread trim and a seat on the front porch. There’s also a calf in the front yard tethered to a picket fence, and two young trees. The house appears cared for, beloved.

The house in 2017 looks similar to the original photo, except the porch now covers the entire front of the house. The yard is well manicured; the fence, trees and the calf long gone. But you can tell that the house is still well cared for, beloved.

I step off the porch and walk around to the right side of the house, where Dr. Wilson had an office with a separate entrance still intact; with a small porch with room enough for three or four patients to wait.

Popular and competent, Dr. Wilson’s medical repertoire was expansive: He extracted teeth, delivered babies, amputated limbs, fumigated houses stricken with yellow fever, counseled the alcoholic, embalmed the dead. His finger was constantly on Chipley’s pulse; what Dr. Wilson heard and saw remained within the walls of this office.

This house holds many untold stories. I wish I knew what they were, I say to my hostess.

Just beyond Dr. Wilson’s office was — and is still  — a simple door separating the office from his home, opening into the dining room. Morbidly, I wonder if the dining room table was occasionally brought into service for emergencies. My hostess has no idea; but she points out details about the cabinetry, and an odd little nook where prescriptions were filled. As I pass through, I touch the old-timey doorknob in the doctor’s former office, and a small spark pops at my fingertips, the jittery, tingling electric sensation running up my arm.

Static electricity?

Or, are you here, Dr. Wilson?

====

As originally published in Saw Palm: Florida Literature & Art
http://www.sawpalm.org/places-to-stand.html


May, 2017

Chapter 31: Doorway to the past

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Friday, May 24, 2014, 1:30 pm, 6th Street, Chipley

Barbara Russell is buckling her seat belt in my van, as I start the engine, and turn up the air conditioning as high as it will go. The heat is rising off the hood of my car in shimmering waves. Even though I parked in the shade, it must be about 140 degrees in this car.

Barbara and I are heading off, after a delicious lunch with her Mother and several local friends, to their home. Once Dr. Wilson’s home. Not really Emmett’s home per se, I tell Barbara: Dr. Wilson’s original house was on land outside of Chipley proper; this house was built right after he remarried.

The fact that she volunteered to ride in my car, me, a total stranger to her until this day, says a lot about her. She’s giving me a chance; she believes in my research to uncover the story of Emmett Wilson, and more to the point, the true purpose of telling his story, which still is elusive to me at this point.

During lunch, I’d told Barbara and the group of ladies who met me at Bailey’s Surf & Turf about my weird ‘message’ from Emmett to tell his story, and the family connections that arose that I’d had no idea were there. No one at the table seemed to think that was strange at all — at least, Barbara wasn’t acting like it.  She seems to understand that ‘something,’ a force beyond my comprehension compels me to work on Emmett’s story. I think several of the local women at the table understood that too.

“Genealogy research can be addictive,” one of the ladies said, in between bites of fried chicken during lunch. “Not everyone would get that.”

And Barbara seems to understand I’m not some kind of crackpot maniac from the vapors of the Internet world, and for that, I tell her how much I greatly appreciate her time and sharing the story of the Wilson-Myers house with me.

This isn’t just a one-way relationship, though. Barbara tells me that for years, they’ve been trying to get the Wilson-Myers house on the National Historic Register. Emmett’s connection, and the prominence of his family in early Florida history will be of tremendous help.

Now known as the Myers-Wilson House in Chipley, Florida. Built in 1895. Photo by the author.

“But the thing is, once the house is approved and listed on the National Historic Register, then we have to allow for tours at specific times in the year. And,” she said, with a grimace, “if the Wilsons had wallpaper with purple and orange stripes back in the day, we have to replicate that as well.”

“Good grief,” I said, grimacing back at her. “How will you be able to sleep in the house, with such loud wallpaper?”

Barbara laughs, then directs me out of the parking lot of the restaurant.

===

Here’s how Dr. F.C. Wilson’s house became the Wilson-Myers House, according to Barbara, and related historic documents:

The Wilson house was built around 1895, after Dr. F.C. Wilson married the widow Kate Langley Jordan. They were married in 1893; it took about two years for the house to be built.

Kate Jordan and Dr. Wilson’s marriage announcement in the Columbus (Ga.) Daily Enquirer. Source: Genealogybank.com

The new Mrs. Wilson had resources; she was a wealthy widow whereas Dr. Wilson, while financially comfortable, did not have spare funds enough for a second home. It is most likely that Mrs. Wilson paid for the construction of the new house.

Dr. F.C. Wilson’s house, about 1895. Photographer unknown. Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Meade Howard. The picket fence, tree next to the curb, the cow, and the dirt road are long gone, but most of the house footprint remains the same.

Like the old Lucille Ball/Henry Fonda movie, Yours, Mine, and Ours, this was a merging of large families — maybe not 18 children, but Dr. Wilson had 10, and Kate had two. And notice that this doesn’t look like a large house to shelter 12 children and two adults.

Rest assured, that didn’t happen. In 1895, Dr. Wilson’s oldest children (Max, Cephas, Percy, Frank Jr. and Meade) were mostly on their own. Max was a musician and pharmacist; Cephas and Lula Wiselogel had married in September of 1893, just a few weeks before Kate and Dr. Wilson were wed; Percy was in medical school in Mobile; Frank Jr. and Meade were working for the L&N Railroad.

The daughters Eudora and Katie were almost of marriageable age, but were still in school. According to The Chipley Banner, the Wilson girls were earning teaching certificates for Washington County schools, so were likely in the family home.

The Wilson youngest children, obviously, lived at home: Twins Emmett and Julian, age 12; and Walker, age 8, attending Chipley public schools.

Kate Langley Jordan Wilson had two daughters, Lucille Lavinia Jordan and Catherine Caroline Jordan.

(L to R): Lucille, Kate, and Catherine Caroline (later known as Miss John) Jordan, around 1895.

I guestimate that, in 1895, seven children and two adults lived in the Wilson home. I mention that as I walk up to the Wilson house with Barbara. “There was a sharing of bedrooms, then,” she said. The 21st century iteration of the Wilson-Myers House is not that much different than the original structure. There was a few rooms added to the rear of the house, but not until the mid-20th century. I tell Barbara I have census records from 1900 that tell us who was here five years after Dr. Wilson and Kate Langley Wilson were married.

The 1900 U.S. Census, Chipley, Florida. The notation indicates an enumeration of Chipley town; Emmett’s name has an arrow next to it. There are only five children listed as residents of the Dr. F.C. Wilson home. Source: U.S. Census for 1900, via Ancestry.com

The youngest child enumerated on the 1900 Census was John J. Wilson, listed as a son. The census taker must not have been a local; he or she would have known that the John was actually “Miss John” Jordan. An unusual name for a girl in the late 1800s. Miss John led mostly a quiet life, never married.

The back story of Miss John’s unusual name was that when Catherine Jordan‘s first husband, Dr. John Jordan, died of tuberculosis in Columbus, Georgia, she was so bereft that she had her youngest daughter’s name changed to John, so that her deceased husband’s name was always on her lips. She never got over the loss of her first husband, even after remarriage to Dr. Wilson in 1895.

The Jordan and Wilson families called Miss John  “Johnnie.” Johnnie later attended now defunct Palmer College and obtained a music degree. Miss John supported herself by teaching piano in the Wilson home.

“Miss John was the last Wilson family member to live in the house,” Barbara said, as we walked towards the front door. “She made a few changes to the house, such as added a bathroom in the one of the bedrooms for convenience. She was bedridden towards the end of her life.”

I wonder what it was like for Emmett and his brothers to have two new sisters added to his family after Dr. Wilson’s remarriage. Not to sound cold, but most of the information I have on this remarriage indicated it was one of necessity. Not grand passion.

As such, I don’t believe Emmett and the Jordan girls were particularly close; they weren’t enemies, but they got along because that was what was done. Also, most of the Wilson family documents I have indicate Emmett was closest to his older brother Cephas and sister Katie Wilson Meade. Interestingly, both siblings acted unofficially as mother and father figures to Emmett most of his life.

So, Miss John was probably as much of an enigma to Emmett as he was to everyone else in his life as well.

“I wish this entrance could talk,” I say to Barbara, as I look up at the doorway. Barbara nods. She waits while I take the house in for a moment. Emmett was here, I think to myself. He walked onto that porch, through those doors, how many times in his life, I wondered.

I know many things may have been updated since Emmett stood before this house decades ago, but that doorway is the same; the entrance remains the same. Photo by the author.

I touch the columns on my way in; I imagine Emmett sitting here, leaning against the column, maybe reading a book, writing a letter, or planning his future as a lawyer one day….

I smile at Barbara as she indicates I should go on in. “Feel free to look at anything you want; take pictures of anything you need. I have the historic building application here if you want to look at the paperwork,” she adds, as she organizes papers on a nearby table.

Next: More on the house.

Chapter 30: When Times Get Tough

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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 father, taking it easy in the back yard, in 1895, Chipley, Florida

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.

Paul Carter, as photographed in the 1900 West Florida Seminary yearbook, The Argo.

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.

All parts of this article here from The Chipley Banner, May 21, 1898, page 3 via ChroniclingAmerica.gov. The article is extensive; click on the link to view all of the businesses listed in the original article.

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

Chapter 28: Dorothy, Whit, and Elizabeth

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Friday, May 24, 2014, about 11 a.m.

As the officer said, the old train depot in downtown Chipley wasn’t hard to find. Fifteen minutes later, I’m sitting my car, in front of a seafoam-green building that definitely looked like a train station from the early 19th century.

The original train station in Chipley is long gone; this is the current Amtrak station. Source: http://www.trainweb.org

I note that trains still run through Chipley; I had to drive across two sets of raised tracks at an intersection with a barricade that lowers as trains rush by.

The difference between today and Emmett’s day is that passenger trains rarely stop here; trains are primarily freight. Chipley isn’t the train hub it used to be, especially since the advent of automobiles. I get that: Everyone wants to control personal travel. In Emmett’s day, going to and from communities was a novelty; romantic and sweet, special, out-of-the-ordinary. There was something special about planning a trip 100 miles away, or even 25 miles away, for example, where you’d stay with friends or relatives; it didn’t happen every day for regular people.

But in 2014, I know folks who commute 25, even 100 miles round trip a day for their jobs — definitely not a novelty, and certainly not romantic and sweet, particularly in an eight-lane traffic jam on a regular basis.

A side view of the Washington County Historical Society building; a caboose on the grounds. Photo taken by author.

I get out of the car with my computer briefcase and notebook; straighten my skirt and blouse, smooth my hair.

I’m anxious that I’m on time and presentable, and glad that I was able to make it today: The Washington County Historical Society building is only open on Fridays from 10 am to 2 pm. The curator emailed me a week or so ago that she’d open it up for me, even if I arrived on a day it was closed. She has no idea how grateful and humbled I am about that. In all the years I’ve been doing research, no one has ever volunteered to open up an entire museum for me to study artifacts. I want to be sure I’m not any trouble; I know that most curators and the staff in small museums are volunteers.

I notice a number of people going in and out — I didn’t think it was a busy place; I thought it would be me and the curator — but today, the place is hopping!

Taken by the author during a lull in the comings and goings of Chipleyites.

The historical society is definitely a community gathering place — when I opened the door, numerous long-time residents were milling about. I later learned these are folks who stop by weekly when the museum is open. Several are gathered at the long tables with checkerboard tablecloths in the open back room to talk, drink coffee, read scrapbooks. It’s interesting — there are other visitors from out of state here too; one woman in particular from Pennsylvania searching for Florida ancestors. I realize that the local residents here are valuable assets to the historical society: They are keen genealogists and history buffs who can offer useful tips to the visitors on navigating official Florida record holdings, contact names and numbers, as well as excellent seafood restaurants while in the area.

The rooms are full of interesting artifacts on the walls, in old glass display cases from general stores. It’s busy, bustling, cheerful.

The curator, Dorothy Odom, recognizes me right away and greets me as if I was someone well-known to her; indeed, we’ve been exchanging emails for several weeks and I feel right at home. She introduces me to her adult daughter, Chelie, holding a gray kitten, who also greets me warmly.

Wonderful friends in the Washington County Historical Society library, Dorothy Odom and Whit Gainey. Photo by the author.

Dorothy loves that I refer to her collection as artifacts. I don’t think she realizes how important her collection is to me (or really anyone else putting someone’s story together). Dorothy has basically the things that Emmett saw on a daily basis in a house or an office, stuff he took for granted, but the same stuff that made him who he was, in a subtle way.

Take Ivory Soap, for example: It was an everyday thing in Emmett Wilson’s world in the 1890s. Maybe Emmett used it; liked the smell of it, like I like the smell of it. Ivory Soap reminds me of my childhood, or maybe what I wished my childhood would have been: Safe, reliable, predictable.

Here’s a photo of an original Ivory Soap package taken on May 20, 2014 in Pensacola while touring 1880-period houses in Old Pensacola. The display features products typically found in a home between 1890-1910. Photo by the author.

A collection of artifacts at the Washington County Historical Society. The red arrow points to a bottle of mucilage. Photo by the author.

Maybe it is that I see these artifacts with new eyes, thinking, Emmett saw this item, or that product in his parent’s kitchen pantry. He may have picked something like that up, used it.

Maybe Emmett, on a dare from an older brother, took a swig out of that bottle of mucilage convinced it was an exotic highball, his lips encircling the small neck of the bottle. He tips the bottle back, his eyes grow wide as he tastes the stuff ….

I quickly stop to look up the word on my phone —

— OMG. Well, I hope Emmett didn’t do that. I know absolutely that his brothers were pranksters. It’s possible it happened…

Dorothy touches my elbow to introduce me to retired Judge Perry Wells, a regular at the historical society; a senior gentleman with a kind, intelligent face.

I tell Judge Wells that Emmett’s older brother Cephas clerked for Judge W.O. Butler before he began a law career, and that I’m staying that night with the descendants of the Butler family while I’m visiting Chipley. Judge Wells nods approvingly, recommends I note the beautiful restorations of the Butler home and the photo gallery there featuring early 20th century photos of the home and family friends.

Coincidentally this day, Judge Wells had with him a small flyer for Jerry Williams Carter, essentially an old campaign flyer for Mr. Carter. I recognize Mr. Carter immediately — “Judge Wells, this is wonderful! Jerry Carter was Emmett’s campaign manager both times he ran for Congress!”

“Mr. Democratic Party,” Jerry Williams Carter wedding photo, 1910. Source: FloridaMemory.com

I wanted to hug the judge for showing me the unexpected flyer; primary sources of information about Emmett have been few and far between to say the least. Dorothy says she’s happy to  print a copy for me. While I waited, Judge Wells suggested I take a walk through the downtown area, and points me over to a rack that hold booklets featuring a walking tour of Chipley.

Dorothy hands me the copy of the flyer, then introduces me to Whit Gainey, a quiet and thoughtful gentleman with an expansive interest in Washington County history. Whit asks me if I am going to visit the Wilson house on Sixth Street.

“I’m expected at the house after lunch, but in the meantime, I was going to head out to the cemetery to visit Emmett’s parents’ gravesites.”

“Do you know where the Wilsons are buried? If you don’t, I have a map and I’m happy to show you,” Whit said, “Otherwise, it’s easy to get lost.”

===

A half hour later, I’m riding in Whit’s red pickup truck. A country music station is playing quietly as Whit drives around the main street of Chipley; he points out a few landmarks. The old First National Bank, which is in sad condition (there have been some efforts to save it, but nothing successful to date); a row of old storefronts that are in good condition. We turn onto more residential streets, and Whit points out a few Victorian homes that are well cared for, places where Emmett and his family would have seen, probably had dinner with friends and the like. Otherwise, we ride mostly in silence to Greenwood Cemetery; he’s not much of a small talk person with a stranger, and that’s fine. I’m not good with small talk either.

We drive through a small neighborhood to get to the cemetery. “The Wilson graves are in the older part of the cemetery,” he said, maneuvering the truck off the pavement onto a grassy drive. He pulls to a stop near a tree; pulls out the cemetery map with the plots outlined, and nods toward a collection of tall, white monuments. “That’s them up ahead,” he said.

We get out of the truck, and as we walk along the grassy drive, Whit tells me that he’s spent a lot of time over here, photographing headstones and uploading the images to Find-A-Grave.com, the cemetery database.

Whit pauses, and turns away politely to look around at a few other stones while I walk towards Dr. Francis Wilson and Elizabeth Wilson’s graves.

I stand in front of them; I don’t know what to do. Finally, I’m here, I think. I’ve been reading about the Wilsons, studying their lives for over a year — but this feels awkward; uncomfortable. I think I should feel something else, because we’re family.

Maybe it is that this has been, pretty much, a one-way relationship for over a year.  An introduction might help.

“Hello,” I say out loud, quietly, to Francis and Elizabeth. “I’m Judy. I’m glad to meet you, and I wish I’d known you in person. This feels weird but it’s true.”

I start to feel better.

But damn, I think to myself, as I look about. I should have brought flowers. I move towards Elizabeth’s stone, and touch the top of it: Lichens. It hasn’t been cleaned in a long time. I look down at both plots: The graves were dry and dusty.

I realize they hadn’t been visited in decades.

“I’m sorry about that,” I say to Francis and Elizabeth. “I’ll be sure to come by whenever I’m in Florida.”

Whit is walking towards me; he pauses in front of the Wilsons.

“These are your cousins?”

“Yes,” I say, and I begin to take photos.

Emmett’s mother, Elizabeth V. Wilson. Note the lichens at the top of the stone; the dry, sandy soil around the graves. Photo by the author.

Emmett’s father, Dr. F.C. Wilson. See the second line of text with the missing “PFC”, which has been pried off. Photo by the author.

Both graves have interesting additions at the bottom:

For Dr. Wilson, there’s a Confederate Army plaque — and someone has pried off the rank. I ask Whit about the damage to the plaque. He doesn’t think it was vandalism per se; he’s curious if there was an error on the plaque why a new one wasn’t ordered.

For Elizabeth, this is at the base of her tombstone:

The inscription at the base of Elizabeth’s tombstone. Photo by the author.

“Her death was the turning point in this family,” I tell Whit. “There were 10 children, the youngest was eight years old when she died. And Dr. Wilson,” I said, nodding at the other stone, “coped by burying himself in his work. He was a county doctor, one of three, so he was essentially not around for the two years up until his second marriage to Kate Langley Jordan.”

Whit gazes around the immediate area surrounding the Wilson graves. “The second wife isn’t buried anywhere around here,” he said.

“That may be telling,” I say.

As we walk back to Whit’s truck, he says, “People handle grief differently. Sometimes they don’t handle it at all.”

“I think kids pick up on that,” I say, as I climb into his truck. As he starts the engine, I thank him for taking me to visit my cousins, and we ride back to the historical society building in silence.

Next: A closer look at Dr. Wilson

 

 

Chapter 27: A Chicken on Orange Hill Road

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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.

Because the 1890 census doesn’t exist, I tracked down the Wilson neighbors (several are listed as farmers; many kept their property in the family in subsequent generations) to confirm the approximate location of the original Wilson property.  I put a gray box around the Wilson information. Source: Ancestry.com, and the Florida State Archives.

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.

The house and property that were given to Elizabeth by her father, Judge Augustus Emmett Maxwell, in 1884.

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.

 

Chapter 26: I suddenly grew up

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The final page of Katie Wilson Meade’s narrative is brief:

Source: Elizabeth Meade Howard. Used with permission.

There were no wharves or piers to land near, so the “big” boys jumped over-board and carried us in their arms. It was a lot of fun!

We were much freer out there because there was no jungle to breed wild animals. At “Big HILL” we hd to watch out for tarantulas, snakes, and big red ants right in the yard. Here it was entirely free of such things. This sounds like a dreadful place to live, but we didn’t feel so at the time.

Looking back on it seems much worse than when we were living through it.

Our Mother was always cheerful and gay and would play on the piano and sing hymns on Sunday afternoons, teaching us to love them and to sing in church.

She gave us a happy life until I was 12 years old — I suddenly grew up then, and helped care for the three “little” boys.

The last page of Katie Wilson Meade’s narrative ends abruptly — and curiously.

What I knew in the early days of Wilson family research was that Emmett and Katie’s mother, Elizabeth, died in Chipley, Florida, when Emmett was eight and Katie 12 — but that was all I knew. Katie’s narrative suggests Elizabeth was a loving, hands-on mother, someone who paid attention to details, but wasn’t a martinet. Elizabeth was the kind of mother who kept the family close, who knew the importance of faith to get through all kinds of situations — good, bad, tedious.

Emmett’s mother, Elizabeth V. Wilson.

Make no mistake: Elizabeth had led a privileged life, but what wife would follow a husband into an untamed jungle if she wasn’t strong, if she didn’t have faith that bad times would work out if everyone pulled together, even if the move was something she was afraid of in some ways?

Katie says her father, Dr. Francis Wilson, was tough; Elizabeth was much the same, I’d wager.

And Katie indicates in her narrative that Elizabeth’s death was unexpected; impactful, not just to her, but to everyone.

I have no idea what Emmett thought or felt when it happened; Katie doesn’t indicate anything about what anyone else thought but herself — she had to toughen up, grow up suddenly. Likely Emmett felt the impact of his mother’s death sharply as well.

Next: Sudden death