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 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.”

 

 

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 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

 

Chapter 28: Dorothy, Whit, and Elizabeth

Standard

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