Chapter 42: The shape of a heart

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May 19, 2014, 3:30 p.m., Fort Morgan, Alabama

The crisp breeze off the Gulf of Mexico buffets me a little as I walk westward along the beach towards the old fort. The surf is comforting, but I watch my step as I walk along the edge of the warm water, because jellyfish have been plentiful along the beach this spring.

I’m alone; there is no one else here, either. It’s uncharacteristic, I think, for both myself and this popular spot along Alabama’s coast. Today is gorgeous: A bright blue sky, comfortable temperature, perfect for teenagers to skip class, or grownups to call in sick at work. I remember then that I did, in fact, decide to take today off because I’ve been working pretty much nonstop, every single day since April of last year, the day I ‘met’ Emmett Wilson.

I crouch down to watch the bubbles that pop up after the wave recedes; the bubbles that follow tiny crabs burrowing back down into the sand. I notice an interesting little shell. I pick it up; I turn it over in my hand, trace the edges with my finger. 

Out of the corner of my eye, I see someone in the distance, walking towards me. As he gets closer, I can’t hear footsteps over the sound of the surf. It’s a tall man in a dark suit, black leather shoes, completely dressed in almost funeral attire on a beach. That alone should make me feel afraid, but I’m not. But there is something really weird about this —

He stops about a foot and a half away from me. I look up at the man’s face…

…Emmett.

He hold out his hand. He wants the shell. And then he says…

“Hey girl! Wanna take a walk?”

I start a bit, as my friend Elizabeth nudges me.

“Daydreaming?”

I laugh. “Yeah, I guess I zoned out for a little bit.”

“I don’t blame you,” she said, pulling her beach towel more snugly around her shoulders as she stood up. “You’ve been working nonstop on this Emmett project since you’ve been here. You gotta be wiped out.”

Elizabeth and I have been friends for decades. She’s the lovely, calm, easygoing one, who always seems to have it together, and I’m the dysfunctional kook who needed a drink to feel whole. Somehow, we compliment each other, enjoy each other’s company, are always there for each other even though we live about 1,000 miles apart.

She knew I would be in Pensacola for a few days, so she invited me to her family’s beach house in Fort Morgan to sit on the beach and decompress, to catch up, to reconnect.

The view from the back porch of Elizabeth’s beach house. I’m gonna walk down that road and right onto the sand in about five minutes. Photo by the author.

This is the place where we can both recharge our psychic batteries. Elizabeth knows me well; we’ve seen each other go through job crap, personal crap, spiritual crap — and yet, here we are, four decades after we first became friends in Sr. Mary Clarissa Rose’s typing class at St. Joseph High School. Picture it: Five desks across by six rows of desks in a cinderblock 1960s school. All the desks have Underwood manual typewriters on them. The room is loud with the clacking of typewriter keys against paper and platen; hands in proper position arched properly, students focused, intent on increasing words per minute to earn the nun’s approval.

The old St. Joseph High School in Jackson, Miss. The red arrow points to the typing classroom. Source: stjoebruins.com

This went on five days a week, nonstop. It was mind-numbing.

One day, as the class was deep into typing mode, I reached into my sweater pocket, quietly winding the stem on the side of the toy. I turned around and caught Elizabeth’s eye — she looked at me questioningly. I opened my hand slightly and showed her the toy. Elizabeth gaped at me, then stifled a laugh.

It looked sort-of like this. Image source: amazon.com

I surreptitiously bent down as if to tie my shoe, and let it loose.

The result was laughter, excitement, welcome distraction as students moved their feet out of the way of the hopping chick moving randomly under desks, down the aisles, towards the front of the class. No one tried to stop it.

Except Sr. Clarissa.

She swooped down one row of desks, then another to catch it. Although the tiny toy was fast and unpredictable in its movements, the nun was agile, used to herding errant and nonconforming teenagers for several decades. Sr. Clarissa swooped down upon the little toy and held as high as she could for all to see (she was 4′ 11″ and everyone was taller than she was, including me).

“Whose is this? Whose is this?” She repeatedly shouted to the now-silent classroom.

No one answered. I dared not respond; I knew Elizabeth would never rat me out, but she was damn near choking on stifled laughter behind me. Sr. Clarissa gave everyone in the class a dirty look, then ordered us to continue typing.

Sr. Clarissa kept the chick in her desk drawer for the rest of the school year — after I’d received my final grade in the typing class and knew I was safe from her holy wrath.

“You know that plastic wind-up chick I had in Sr. Clarissa’s class?”

“Yeah?”

“I found it the other day in a box of stuff from high school. Damn thing still works.”

Elizabeth snorts with laughter. “Sr. Charisma was so pissed.”

“And it was the start of a great friendship.”

“Yeah.”

===

The thing about our friendship is that we feel comfortable telling each other anything, and we can listen to each other without judgment. I’ve always felt completely at ease around Elizabeth; I’ve never felt that kind of trust with very many people in my life. Her friendship is one of the most precious things in my life.

She knew me before, during, and after my drinking career, and she’s one of the few friends still around. And she’s never judged me for any of that.

And because we are completely honest with each other, I’ve told her everything that I’ve learned about Emmett Wilson so far, and the research itself. Elizabeth is curious why Emmett fascinates me.

“It’s the whole mystery of him,” I tell her. I’ve told Elizabeth how I came across Emmett in the first place, completely unknown to me; how we are distantly related. “Why is this story important to tell? I’m still in the artifact-information gathering stage, so I honestly don’t know him very well yet. Eventually, I’ll just put everything in front of me, and try to assemble the jigsaw puzzle of his story. Maybe then I’ll know what’s at the heart of the story.”

“Do you have a crush on him?” Elizabeth asks me.

I laugh. “Yeah. A crush on a dead man. It’s kind of a one-way relationship.”

“Yes, but you know, he did kinda reach out to you. Maybe it isn’t as one way as you think.”

“I’m skeptical, but I will remain open minded,” I say, as we continue walking along the beach.

And then, we stop and admire the small shells at our feet. One of them catches my eye. I pick it up…

…and it is remarkably like the one that Emmett seemed to reach for in my dream.

“Oh, that’s pretty,” Elizabeth says, looking at the shell in my hand. “It looks like a heart.”

 

I still have it.

Chapter 40: Awesomeness and Context (Walking in Emmett’s Footsteps, part 2 )

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May 18, 2014, 11:40 a.m. Pensacola Historic District

Clearly, I am in the presence of awesomeness.

I can’t describe it, but  as I walk around historic downtown Pensacola with Jacki Wilson, retracing Emmett Wilson’s everyday steps, I am aware and humbled by her true awesomeness.

The awesome Jacki Wilson showing me the old houses in historic Pensacola. Photo by the author.

For the record, my relationship with Jacki grew mostly from lengthy email messages on a variety of Emmett and Pensacola topics; messages that were back and forth for several months. That can be an awkward way to start friendships, but as I walk with her, I feel accepted and totally at ease, just as one would a friend I’d known for years. What comes out in our hanging-out together is an appreciation for history and mystery, and a love of obscure facts that tell the deep story of people long gone.

And in fact, she’s introducing me as her friend and a fellow researcher as we walk about in Pensacola.

It’s humbling. In this moment I realize how precious this dual gift of acceptance and friendship really is — and I receive it thanks to the man who was pretty much shunned the last year of his life. How ironic. Yet how gratifying.

The other thing you have to really admire about Jacki is her access. EVERYONE knows here in this, downtown and historic Pensacola. She knows where to go.

Plus, she has a BADGE. That badge is power. But the lady wearing it is graceful and easy with such access. I tell this to Jacki, who beams at me.

“Yeah, well,” Jacki says with a laugh. “I enjoy my work.”

Jacki inviting me into historic Seville Tower, once known as the American Bank Building. Emmett’s office was on the top floor. Photo by the author.

Before I know it, we are in front of a tall pink building. Seville Tower, once known as the American National Bank Building, constructed in 1909. This is where Emmett had a law office with his partner, J. Walter Kehoe, on the 7th floor.

As you walk through the doors, there is a giant antique bookcase on the left hand wall. I wonder if Emmett ever saw this. Photo by the author.

Jacki says the building is on the National Historic Register, so it is mostly unchanged — and that goes also for the claustraphobically small elevator. Once upon a time, there was an elevator operator for this thing, Jacki says. Imagine how tight it was back in the day!

As we ascend to the 7th floor, I’m a bit hesitant as it is a law firm, we weren’t really coming with any advance  notice, and people were working, but Jacki is not a woman to be dissuaded for any historical fact-finding mission! That badge, you know, lends lost of authority.

(O.K. To be clear, her ‘badge’ is her Pensacola Historical Society nametag, but it has clout in this town. I digress.)

Looking out of Emmett's office on the 7th floor of the original ANBB. He used to work on the third floor of the one across the street.

Looking out of what may have been Emmett’s office on the 7th floor of the original ANBB to the old Customs House, where Emmett’s office was on the third floor. Today it is an art gallery and cultural events are held there. Photo by the author.

The doors to the elevator open to a law firm. The receptionist did not seem at all inconvenienced when Jacki explained out mission — she was very nice and let us take a look out of different windows of the office to see what Emmett may have seen back in the day — namely, his other old office building, which was (and is) right across the street.

Back in Emmett’s day, the building across the street was called the Customs House. It housed the post office, and several federal offices, which were located on the third floor. Emmett was the assistant district attorney for several years; so, his office was on the third floor of the Customs House.

The background about Emmett as the assistant D.A., I tell Jacki, was that he was the youngest D.A. in the country at the time. Also, when Emmett was named to the position, a lot of people were surprised because a) Emmett didn’t seek the job outright and b) he had little experience.

Emmett appointed acting U.S. District Attorney, until Fred Cubberly would come along in 1908. The photo is Emmett’s law school graduation photo. Source: PEN, September 7, 1907.

As we walked across the street to the Customs House, Jacki nodded her understanding, adding that not much seems to have changed in 100 years in political partisanship.

The Customs House is now an art museum. But when Emmett was a congressman in 1913, it had needed a lot of repairs. He lobbied for (and got) a $30K appropriation for the improvements. Today, that would be about $630,000. The improvements needed then were cosmetic (wall repair, painting, light fixtures, sidewalk). Unfortunately, something happened before the repairs were finished: The appropriations, somehow, never materialized, and the local party bosses (and community) blamed it on Emmett’s incompetency and/or ineffectiveness.

Editor Frank Mayes (and other political bosses) came to believe Emmett didn’t care enough about this project to see it through. Source: The Pensacola Journal, Oct 1914.

The Customs House today.

The Customs House today. Photo by the author.

Regardless, it looks as if the people of Pensacola care a lot about this historic building, because it is in excellent condition today.

One of the things I talked with Jacki about was the fact that there WAS a chance for Emmett to turn his image of incompetency around re the Customs House appropriation mess. In fact, Emmett did follow up on the issue. A mistake was definitely made somewhere in the bureaucratic document shuffling that is Washington, D.C. But in Pensacola, the only thing people understood was that Emmett said one thing, but something else happened:

The Montgomery Advertiser, October 27, 1914. Source: GenealogyBank.com

 

“But he didn’t. Or, he couldn’t,” Jacki said.

I think the political machinery was too much; that Emmett might have sold his soul, so to speak, for quick gain, to make something of himself so that he would be independent, or to feel good about himself, to feel fulfilled — and of course, I’m just guessing here at this point, I tell Jacki, as we walk along the sidewalks toward a diner for lunch.  “There’s a scrapbook that he willed to a friend, that somebody got, kept, treasured for a little while anyway. I just wish I could find it.”

Maybe you will, Jacki said. I hope so, anyway.

Lunch with the most awesome Jacki Wilson after the grand tour of historic Pensacola!

 

I hope so too.

But for now, I treasure one of the best gifts of Emmett’s research, and that is of friendship.

 

Chapter 39: Walking in Emmett’s footsteps, part 1

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May 18, 2014, 10:45 a.m. Pensacola Historic District

It wasn’t hard to find the parking lot behind the old City Hall building in downtown Pensacola. Even if my van’s GPS decided to conk out, one wouldn’t get lost. The darn thing is a hulking example of beige Spanish architecture. It’s pretty, unique. You can’t miss it.

The Old City Hall, now the T.T. Wentworth Museum. Source: historicpensacola.org

Speaking of unique, I’m meeting the head archivist of the Pensacola Historical Society for a walkabout of Emmett’s old haunts this morning: His old offices; the park he probably walked through; the site of the old theatre where he watched vaudeville or maybe a picture show; the place where he filled prescriptions or bought shoelaces when his broke; the place where he probably ate, or argued with friends, or laughed, or cried in private, perhaps.

I really can’t wait — this woman is truly one of a kind. She and I have been emailing each other for months about my research. She’s been patient, helpful, and wonderfully interested in what I’m doing, though I admit having a hard time accepting the last part — I mean, Emmett as a research topic is odd and obscure.

But Jacki Wilson loves the obscure and unique. She’s someone who gets what it is like to track down disparate mysterious pieces of what seems to be disconnected information. She is also someone who understands these pieces are often connected and lead to greater understanding of who we are today, and where we’re going.

Historic Pensacola Village

The first thing Jacki and I did, after we met, was to visit the Pensacola National Register Historic District — a group of 27 properties in all — and to tour several that were specific to 1890-1920, several, Jacki said, were certainly homes that Emmett likely would have visited, because they belonged to prominent Pensacolians. And at a minimum, she said, I’d get an understanding of the decor, the home environment, the economic scale of which Emmett was accustomed. He was, after all, moving in high society circles up to the point that he was a U.S. Congressman, so that made perfect sense.

She’d reminded me in an earlier email that even though Emmett was their congressman, there was absolutely nothing of significance in their holdings about him. So, Jacki’s interested in Emmett too. She reminded me that Emmett’s grandfather, Augustus Emmett Maxwell, was hugely important in Pensacola — it seems strange to her that given the connection the archive has nothing on Emmett.

A sitting room. Photo by the author.

A quiet corner inside another Victorian sitting room. Photo by the author

One example of a Victorian bedroom. Photo by the author.

Another bedroom in one of the Pensacola houses. Photo by the author.

Calling cards on a vestibule table in one of the houses. EW would have left his card, too. And no, his wasn’t in this pile. Photo by the author.

Another house — this one Jacki said was rumored to be haunted, by not by Emmett. Photo by the author.

We walked over to the original 1832 Christ Church on 405 South Adams Street, which is still in the Pensacola National Register Historic District. Jacki tells me that this would be church that Emmett’s mother, Elizabeth Maxwell Wilson and his grandfather, Augustus Emmett Maxwell, would have attended when they lived in Pensacola. The ‘newer’ Christ Church — the one Emmett attended — and was buried from — was built in 1903 and is located at 18 West Wright Street.

Side view of Old Christ Church. Photo by the author.

Inside Old Christ Church. Photo by the author.

Inside old Christ Church. Somehow we set off the alarm when we were walking around in here — but we didn’t get in trouble because Jacki Wilson is a historian superhero and knows everyone who has anything to do with historic facilities in Pensacola.  Photo by the author.

Next, we walked towards the business district. Jacki points out two sites of significance: the Blount Building where Emmett’s uncle Evelyn Maxwell worked. Jacki and I had had an email conversation about Emmett’s uncle and grandfather; both were and still are much revered in Pensacola history. She wasn’t surprised that Emmett’s family had paved the way for him more than a few times; that seemed natural then as now for established family to help those on the way up.

Uncle Evelyn gave Emmett his first job when when he moved to Pensacola in 1906 after he’d was either fired or ‘invited’ to quit from his ‘dream job’ in Sterling, Illinois,” I tell Jacki, as we look at the building from across the street. I can — and do — point out Evelyn Maxwell’s old office window on the corner, four floors up.

The Blount Building, about 1909. Source: Floridamemory.com

Blount building today. Source: Wikipedia.

“An interesting thing about Emmett — he had a lot of opportunities given to him, literally, that he didn’t seem to have to work too hard for — and it seems like he just never was able to launch successfully,” I say to Jacki.

Maybe that was the problem, Jacki says. Maybe something about him was never developed; maybe that held him back all his life.

“And maybe that was really what was at the heart of who he was, something broken that he never got over.”

Maybe there was a broken heart involved, she says, as we walk along the sidewalk towards a giant pink building that was the tallest structure in West Florida during Emmett’s time.

 

 

Chapter 34: In choosing happiness

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May 17, 2014, Montgomery, Alabama, about 3 p.m.

Her eyes.

They are so blue, piercingly blue. I catch my breath audibly. But it isn’t just her eyes that get me —

it is the moment. I can’t believe it.

And in response, she laughs, kindly, cheerfully at me.

I am taken away by the very fact that here before me is the only living connection to the man long dead, the man I want to know more about than anything, the man whose research has consumed me for months. Finally, impossibly it seems, a living connection.

Still speechless I walk towards  Emmett’s niece. She reaches out her hand to me. It is warm, friendly; still holding my hand, she covers mine in both of hers.

“I am so happy to meet you,” I say.  But then, as the intensity of the moment washes over me, “I’m sorry,” I say, turning away slightly, and self-consciously. “I feel like I’m going to cry.”

Carol chuckles as she looks on the counter for a box of Kleenex.

“I’m fine,” I say to her, with a slight chuckle. “I am just so grateful and appreciative of the chance to meet you.”

Jule gestures to the sofa behind a coffee table; she takes the chair on the right; Carol sits next to me.

The first moment is a bit awkward; but Carol says she’s seen the letters and articles I’ve sent Jule, and is amazed at how much information I was able to find about the Wilson family. “We’ve really known nothing about them.”

“And my grandfather’s picture,” Jule says, nodding at the framed sepia-tone photo prominent in the living room. “I’ve never seen a photo of him before. It’s a miracle, really, all of this,’ she adds, gesturing at me, my briefcase, the fact we are all together.

Dr. Wilson on call at the W.O. Butler house, in Chipley, Florida, 1911. Original photo is courtesy of Jule Wilson Perry.

“I have so much more to show you, and to send you,” I say, opening my laptop. Carol leans forward expectantly. I show them the folder on the desktop with several articles from contemporary media that I found a few days earlier. Jule doesn’t have a laptop computer, so my habit has been to print out articles and mail them to Jule, then copy them in email to Carol.

“Two articles are interesting because they talk about your Father,” I tell Jule. “They describe what he looked like compared to Emmett. I was surprised to find out the twins didn’t look anything alike.”

Source: The Daily Northwestern, Oshkosh, Wisconsin. May 29, 1914

And this:

The Daily Northwester, Oshkosh, Wisconsin, February 12, 1913.

“So they were fraternal twins,” Carol said. “And Mama probably got her blue eyes from her father.”

Jule then reaches into an envelope on the table, and hands me a cardboard photograph of three children.

“I’d always thought that the two blond headed boys were the twins, but now we know better,” she says.

Emmett (left), Walker (center), Julian (right), in 1890, taken for New Year’s Day 1891. Source: Jule Wilson Perry, used with permission. Copyright EmmettWilsonbook.com

It is unmistakably Emmett. I turn it over and read the beautiful copperplate handwriting — Emmett’s name is on it, and the year 1891. I smile up at Jule, so full of gratitude and appreciation.

Emmett’s hand is not exactly clenched and not exactly relaxed. Maybe he didn’t like being dressed up with a fluffy bow around his neck, I say to Carol and Jule, who nod in agreement.

“But what’s incredible is Emmett’s expression. Every photo I have seen of him so far is the same look — serious, focused, maybe a little uncomfortable. And here it is again, even as a child,” I say.

Jule says this was the only photo she knew of with the twins together as children, though there probably had been other photos taken of them.

I ask Jule to talk to me about Julian — she’d already told me some things in our correspondence — but I am interested in hearing about Julian’s personality, if he had any hobbies, what he did for relaxation, his relationship with other members of his family.

While she talks, describing her father, she shows me several other family photos, starting with a group photo.

The summer place in Perdido Bay that Frank owned. Left to right: Everard Meade (son of Katie and Emmett Meade), Frank Jr., Katie [behind the dog], Emmett Meade, Julian Wilson, May Wilson (wife of Frank Jr. behind Julian), Jule Wilson Perry about age 11), and Jule’s mother on the end. Photo courtesy of Carol Ballard. Used with permission.

Jule remembers one aunt and uncle in particular, Uncle Frank Jr. (who lived in Pensacola and had a fishing boat) and Aunt Katie Meade (who lived in Virginia with her cousin Everard Meade). Fishing was a very big deal for Julian, she says and that was the thing he liked to do most for relaxation.

Carol says that Jule attended The George Washington University in Washington, D.C. in the 1930s, and that her cousin Everard and Aunt Katie were kind to her; seeing her often when she was in college, so Jule didn’t feel alone so far away from home.

Jule and Julian Wilson in the 1940s. Jule still has that lovely smile.

“The only time I saw my father cry was when he put me on the train from Montgomery to Washington, D.C., to go to school,” Jule says softly, as she hands me a photo of her with her father at a national park taken in the 1940s. “But he was always such a kind, quiet, peaceful man. I can say he was a happy and satisfied man; he loved our family very much.”

One of the packets of clips I sent to Jule a few months earlier included a copy of Emmett’s death certificate, along with two other corroborating reports that his death was directly related to alcoholism. I pull up the digital copy of Emmett’s death certificate on my computer while I ask Carol and Jule about it.

“I don’t remember that I met Uncle Emmett, but then, I was only a six-month old baby when he died,” Jule says, pointing at the date of May 28, 1918. “I might have, but I don’t know.”

The genealogy from Walker Wilson’s grandson mentioned alcohol as a problem with this branch of the Wilson family; but  did Jule know about this?

She shakes her head. “No. And that was probably the big reason why my father never mentioned his twin brother in any kind of conversation.” It wasn’t that Jule thought Julian didn’t love his brother, but it was probably overwhelmingly sad; frustrating. People even today don’t know how to deal with family members who have drinking problems, even with all the science and information available — imagine what it was like over 100 years ago.

Jule closes her eyes, rubs her forehead in thought as we talk about the relationship between Emmett and Julian. I’m worried if this is too much for her. She says no, it’s fine.

“Now that I think about it, with Daddy, it was more what he did not say about his brother than what he said.” She pauses a moment to gather her words carefully; she opens her eyes.

“Truth is, Daddy rarely drank, and now we know there was probably a reason for that. I know that there was also a sadness about Daddy when it came to talking about his family — and he never talked about Emmett, which seemed odd given that they were twins.”

I tell Jule and Carol that my own grandparents never talked about their family either — and I knew that several family members died of alcoholism.

Carol says that her grandfather would have an occasional beer, but only one, and that was it. Jule nods. “I imagine it was because of what he’d seen happen to Emmett.”

In the end, Jule said, it just didn’t seem like Emmett was a positive force in her father’s life, that he wasn’t happy, and perhaps that was behind her father’s choices to distance himself from a relationship with his twin brother.

I imagine this may have been a hard but necessary thing to see, much less live through in any family. I remember that Jule’s experience in social work throughout her career probably helped her understand the logic at Julian’s choice to set this boundary in his family, because there was nothing anyone could do to save his brother. It wasn’t just that Emmett couldn’t help himself — but according to addiction science, saving oneself only works when the addict decides to do whatever it takes to save himself.

“My father chose his family, and happiness, in the end,” Jule said.

And there’s a lot to be said for that.

 

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 29: Searching for Dr. Wilson’s Downtown Office

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Friday, May 24, 2014, Noon

After Whit dropped me off at the Washington County Historical Society, I notice that I have about a half hour before I was to meet the current owners of the Dr. F.C. Wilson home.

I took Judge Wells’ advice to do a self-walking tour around Chipley, to see buildings that Emmett would have seen, the businesses he would have patronized. I especially want to see the old First National Bank building. Perhaps Emmett used to cash checks there; more likely, I sense he visited the second floor of that bank, where fellow lawyers and friends had their offices.

A view of the Dunn Building, 1916, downtown Chipley. The historic bank building at the far right is in desperate need of repair.

Here’s a shot of First National Bank, about 1905, as it was under construction. Note the ladder on the edge of the roof. Source: State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/1532

The First National Bank, today. Emmett would have seen this building, conducted business here. His friends, notably W.O. Butler, had a law office on the second floor.

But the other place I hope to find is the location of Dr. Wilson’s office.

Once upon a time, Dr. Wilson’s practice was out of his home. But as it grew (along with his family, and his needs for full-time nursing assistance for patients), necessity dictated a surgery in a separate office downtown.

Chipley, 1913. Sanborn Fire Insurance map. Source: UFDC

I knew Dr. Wilson had two offices downtown once upon a time. No, Dr. Wilson wasn’t a ‘chain,’ but the May 14, 1898 Chipley fire destroyed his first office, which was located next to S.A. Cook’s store. A second fire wiped out his store in August, 1901. A clue in The Chipley Banner, dated September 7, 1901, tells me that the second fire was too much to overcome, at least as a retailer — because he sold what remained of his stock.

If you zoom into the Sanborn map, you can see two possible locations where Dr. Wilson may have had his office. According to The Chipley Banner, he had a drugstore and an office, with the office above the store. The Banner said that he sold his stock completely after the fire. I’m not sure if S.A. Cook’s store was on N. Railroad or around the corner on the bank side.

By 1913, Dr. Wilson had officially retired from regular practice. Papers from his Confederate pension indicate that he was no longer able to work, due to a heart condition. There were no other specifics other than a note that he had a “heart condition.”

This row of stores is called The Watts Building (and Dunn Building), and has a date of 1916 over the archway. They are next to the old bank building — the bank was there in 1913, but these stores were not. Photo taken by the author.

This is across the street from The Watts building. Photo taken by the author.

This is the Sanford Fire Insurance map of the block across the street from the current Watts Building. Notice that there is a drugstore on this corner. This might have been the original location of Dr. Wilson’s store and office as well, if the S.A. Cook store was, in fact, right next door. But, it isn’t clear that the building on the site today is the same as it was in 1913 or earlier.

I wish I knew the location of Dr. Wilson’s office, even if the building itself is gone today. According to the maps, any one of those drug stores may have been next to S.A. Cook’s store, but I’m not sure about Cook’s store location either.

I want to at least stand where Dr. Wilson did; and maybe where Emmett stood as well.

I’m sure Emmett visited his father at his office. I’m also sure that Dr. Wilson advised Emmett, not only as his doctor but as his father, that his drinking would eventually kill him, and he had to stop.

I wonder where they had that conversation.

I wonder what Emmett said to his father in return —

“I know what I’m doing, leave me alone,” or perhaps,

“I know it will too, but I can’t stop.”

As I reflect on those facts, and walk along the street, I realize that perhaps Dr. Wilson’s heart condition may have come about because his heart was actually broken. It’s possible, you know. People can die of broken hearts.

After all, Dr. Wilson’s beloved cause that he had almost given his life for was lost; his beloved wife died practically in his arms; his beloved practice seemed cursed by circumstance with the loss by fires.

And Emmett, one of his beloved sons, was destroying himself before his very eyes, and Dr. Wilson was powerless to do anything about it….

===

I glance at my cell phone — it was almost time to meet the current owners of the Wilson-Myers house for lunch.

Next: In Emmett’s words