Great Oaks Part II & Florida’s Version of Scarlett O’Hara

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Great Oaks, Greenwood, Florida. Source: www.city-data.com

Great Oaks, Greenwood, Florida. Source: http://www.city-data.com

Last month, I had an article about Great Oaks, a historic house in Greenwood, Florida.

There’s an Emmett Wilson connection to it: His sister Dora married a man, W.E. Bryan Smith, whose relatives lived in the home. It is very likely Emmett saw this house, or, visited it in his lifetime.

A colleague wrote me afterwards to recommend a book — a story set at Great Oaks in the 1830s. The tale is fiction (the community was founded in 1824; Great Oaks was built in the 1860s), but a few events in the story are factual, and the point of reading the book was to get the description of Greenwood and Marianna, which hadn’t changed that much by the time Emmett lived there in the 1890s. Indeed, Greenwood — like Marianna — had grown up a bit by the 1890s, but it was still rural, timber was still king, roads were still bad, travel was still difficult and onerous, and so forth.

The book is out of print, so I put in a request through InterLibrary Loan. One week later, the book was in my office.

Here’s the book:

The Great Tide, by Rubylea Hall.

The Great Tide, by Rubylea Hall.

Not a very exciting cover, is it? Well, you can’t judge a book by the cover. That’s for sure. Take a look at the customer reviews of this book — talk about interesting! Here’s another, more ‘Scarlett O’Hara’ version of the cover from Amazon.com:

A little more interesting. Source: Amazon.com

A little more interesting. Source: Amazon.com

The book was written in 1947 by Rubylea Hall. Here’s a review of the book from the Chicago Tribune, October 5, 1947. Another review with excerpts, by Kenneth Kister, is here.

Back cover information on the author, Rubylea Hall.

Back cover information on the author, Rubylea Hall.

The inside jacket story.

The inside jacket story.

I read the entire book in about three days.

I thought Hall’s book was well researched; of course, Hall doesn’t include any research notes or bibliographic information in the book (because it is fiction), but some of the events that take place in the book are factual — i.e., the hurricane that wiped out St. Joseph, and the yellow fever epidemic. Also, she gives you specific, detailed descriptions of the land, the buildings, and how people actually lived on a 19th century plantation. We, who don’t have to make every single thing we own nowadays, get a good look at how hard and costly it was to obtain anything that wasn’t made right there on the plantation (for example, the materials used to make Caline’s wedding dress).

The Bellamy Mansion, which is no longer standing. Source: http://www.exploresouthernhistory.com/bellamybridge.html

The Bellamy Mansion, Marianna, which is no longer standing. Source: http://www.exploresouthernhistory.com/bellamybridge.html

The book also mentions a house, built by Dr. Samuel Bellamy, where the heroine, Caline Underwood, stayed on her way to her new home in St. Joseph, Florida.

It is a big book — over 500 pages — and it holds your interest throughout.

I have to also admit, while I got very good feel for what it was like to live in rural Florida at that time, as I was reading the story, I kept seeing parallels between Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind, which was published only 11 years before The Great Tide.

A few examples:

  • Remember when Scarlett O’Hara was fleeing burning Atlanta with Melanie Wilkes on an old mattress in the back of a rickety old wagon, with a sorry ass mule to pull them along to her family home at Tara? Caline flees St. Joseph, Florida with her ailing yellow-fevered husband Douglas on an old mattress in the back of a rickety old wagon, with a sorry ass horse, to pull them all the way to her family home in Greenwood.
  • Along the way to Tara, Scarlett’s mule dies, and she has to pull the wagon herself the last mile or so to Tara, only to find that the Yankees have trashed the place and her mother is dead. In Hall’s book, Caline and her small traveling party stop for the night, but awake to find their horse gone/stolen, and she has to pull the wagon the rest of the way to Greenwood, only to find that the family plantation is a shambles (in the story, the economy went bust and her family lost almost everything but the house and property in the process).
  • There are parallels in the personalities; i.e., Scarlett and Caline are sassy and outspoken, and don’t care if others (elders) disapprove. Also, the two women have little ‘catchphrases’: Where Scarlett says, “fiddle-dee-dee,” Caline says, “stuff and nonsense.”
  • In GWTW, the marriage between Rhett and Scarlett, at least initially, is a business deal. Likewise with Caline and her husband, the wealthy Douglas Underwood. Both Scarlett and Caline come right out and tell the men they aren’t in love with them; they want to be wealthy and comfortable, and not have to worry about poverty. 

For what it is worth: When I mention the comparison between Hall and Mitchell’s books, the point is not to be critical of Ms. Hall as a writer, but to highlight how we are all influenced by what we read, study, research. Writers borrow literary tricks from other writers all the time; Rubylea Hall surely read GWTW (like everyone else did when it became a best-seller), and was influenced by it.)

Borrowing writing formulae/structures is not wrong, nor is it plagiarism. For example, many novels, books and stories follow a tried-and-true storytelling structure  — an eight-point arc.  Go ahead, pick a book you like, and chart it out. You’ll see what I mean.

It was good to discover this book. I enjoyed reading it, and it gave me a really good ‘feel’ for the Marianna environment, which will be useful when I start writing that section of Emmett’s story.

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Circle of Family: Dora Wilson Smith

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Emmett had two sisters: Eudora Neely Wilson Smith, and Catherine Elizabeth Wilson Meade. They went by “Dora” and “Katie.”

I’ve introduced you to Katie Wilson Meade already; Emmett was very close to Katie, who was born in British Honduras about five years before Emmett and Julian.

Even after two years of digging around in Wilson family arcana, Dora is still a bit of a mystery to me. I simply don’t know that much about her; I haven’t been able to locate a lot of information just yet. (I’m also thin on information about a few of Emmett’s other siblings as well). I’ve not been able to locate descendants, either.

Here’s what I know about Dora:

  • She was born in 1875 in Holly Springs, Mississippi, when Emmett’s parents had moved in with Elizabeth Wilson’s sister and brother-in-law, Everard and Lucy Maxwell Meade. This was right before the entire family moved to British Honduras, where Emmett would be born.
  • She earned a teaching certificate to teach third grade in Washington County (I have no record that she did, though).
  • Around 1900, she and her sister Katie moved to Marianna, to live with their older brother Cephas and his family (wife Lula; daughter Kathleen, son, Ceph Jr.).
  • About 1902, Dora married Wynter Elijah Bryan Smith, a lawyer, who eventually served as Mayor of Marianna, and he served in the state legislature in 1909. Family information indicates he went by “Bryan.”
Members of the 1909 House of Representatives, Tallahassee, Florida. Source: State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory

Members of the 1909 House of Representatives, Tallahassee, Florida. Source: State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory

 

And heeerrreeee's Bryan! Third row, third from the right. Source: State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory

And heeerrreeee’s Bryan! Third row, third from the right. Source: State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory

 

I’m not exactly sure where Dora and Bryan lived in Marianna, but I found an interesting story in the Jackson (Florida) County Times about the Smith family; there’s mention of a historic home there called Great Oaks. It is unclear if Dora and Bryan actually lived there; but Bryan’s family did. It would be great if there were artifacts or documents related to Dora and Bryan (and of course, anything relevant to Emmett). I know Emmett and Bryan had some interactions over the years related to law cases and politics. I’m not certain that this was a close relationship, though.

Minimally, I’d love to find a photograph of Dora. I’m also interested in her middle name, “Neely.” I haven’t seen that in any of the Wilson or Maxwell genealogies to date.

All I have is a graveyard shot of Dora's head stone. I'd love to see a photo of her. Source: Find-a-grave.com

All I have is a graveyard shot of Dora’s head stone. I’d love to see a photo of her. Source: Find-a-grave.com

Perhaps I’ll find a photo of her when I make the research trip down to Marianna in September. Maybe I’ll luck out and some out there will have a photo of her! I hope!


I’ve been writing up a storm the past three days. I’ll be back in a day or so to give you an update.