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

Great Oaks, Greenwood, Florida. Source:

Great Oaks, Greenwood, Florida. Source:

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

A little more interesting. Source:

A little more interesting. Source:

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:

The Bellamy Mansion, Marianna, which is no longer standing. Source:

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.


The Sterling Dilemma


A few weeks ago, I found out that Emmett decided to pull up stakes and relocate from Marianna, Florida to Sterling, Illinois in January, 1906.

This just seemed odd to me: Why would someone up and leave his home, family, business and professional contacts, and budding political network to relocate 1,500 miles away, where he’d be virtually starting over, all alone?

And, why go from Florida to rural Illinois in January, for goodness sake?

There had to be something to that. Emmett wasn’t a spur-of-the-moment guy when it came to building his career: He was boringly methodical. What was the trigger that drove Emmett to make such a big move, where he’d be freezing his arse off and pretty much alone, only to return home six months later?

Well…I might have that answer in a few days! This came in today via InterLibrary Loan:

Both Sterling, Illinois newspapers from 1905-06!

Both Sterling, Illinois newspapers from 1905-06!

Both Sterling, Illinois newspapers from the time of this six-month relocation stint!  Thank you, dear colleagues at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library! (Virtual non-threatening hug here!)

I’m so thrilled! I’ll start reading the film this afternoon, and I’ll let you know what I find out!

Before I go: A tip of the hat to the librarians and archivists working with me on the Emmett Wilson biography. Every librarian, archivist, research assistant, and staff member I’ve contacted so far has been nothing less than wonderful and helpful.

Librarians and archivists rule!

54709441Or, they should.

Outlier, Outcast, One of Us

Some issues of The Chipley Banner are available online via the Library of Congress' section, Chronicling America. The 1918 edition is on microfilm only, and available through my institution's InterLibrary Loan service. I have much appreciation for U of Maryland's Library Overlords.

Some issues of The Chipley Banner are available online via the Library of Congress’ section, Chronicling America. The 1918 edition is on microfilm only, and available through my institution’s InterLibrary Loan service. I have much appreciation for U of Maryland’s Library Overlords.

Yesterday afternoon, I finished reading the 1918 edition of The Chipley Banner. This publication is significant in Emmett’s research because Chipley, Florida was Emmett’s boyhood home. His father, Dr. F.C. Wilson, was a well respected townsman and the postmaster (a patronage gift from Emmett while a congressman).

While Emmett was a hotshot lawyer in Pensacola, and then a newly elected Congressman, you could find a mention of him  often in The Chipley Banner — he was visiting his father, he was stopping through to say hello to friends, he was running for reelection — you get the picture. He was mentioned almost as often as he was mentioned in his own hometown paper, The Pensacola Journal. You’d also occasionally find little articles in the Banner mentioning Dr. Wilson’s parental pride at having such an accomplished son, so young, so smart, such a credit to both the family and to Chipley. I’m sure Emmett’s father — and the local citizens — were proud of him.

I even found one little article — an interview that was conducted with the owner of a general store in Chipley right after Emmett was elected to Congress in 1912 — that said the owner remembered Emmett when he was in knee pants, and that he was a credit to his family back in the day. “I knew Emmett was a good boy even back then,” he’d said.

I’m sure Emmett was, indeed, a good boy. All of the research I’ve uncovered to date bears that out.

Unfortunately, my research has also uncovered the fact that he had a serious addiction to alcohol that would not only unravel his career, but also his health, and no one could help him. Not even Emmett could help himself, I’m certain.

The other thing I’ve uncovered in the months spent researching Emmett and his life is that alcohol was a big part of who he was, and I can’t ignore that. While I truly believe there is more to him than the fact that he was an alcoholic, much of his story is going to be told through the lens of his addiction.

Thing is, the general impression people have about alcoholics and their addiction has not changed much in 100 years. True, today, we have Alcoholics Anonymous, and a variety of medications and therapies to help people stop drinking, to help family members who are also caught up in the hell of dealing with a problem drinker in their midst. But the research will bear out the fact that alcoholics are still viewed disparagingly. Families still feel the shame, frustration, anger, and helplessness in dealing with someone who just can’t seem to get their act together, to get help for themselves.

Emmett’s family and friends did try to help him. I’m sure they thought — and said — Emmett is a smart man. He comes from a good family. Why can’t he help himself? How could he have done this to himself? How did this happen in the first place? Why can’t someone — anyone — get through to him to stop the madness?

And, I’m sure, many of Emmett’s family and friends had given up on him in the end. Why? Because of what I found in The Chipley Banner for 1918 about Emmett:

Absolutely nothing.

Article on Percy Wilson's death, March 1918, The Chipley Banner.

Article on Percy Wilson’s death, March 1918, The Chipley Banner.

There’s occasional mentions of Dr. Wilson visiting his other sons who lived in Marianna, or Sneads, Florida. There’s a mention of the death of Emmett’s older brother Percy a mere eight weeks before Emmett, himself, died at Pensacola Hospital on May 29, 1918. Brother Percy was not a former congressman, nor was Chipley even his boyhood home. So, Percy Wilson gets a short obit mention in The Chipley Banner, and local son Emmett Wilson gets nothing at all?

Another clue that family and friends had given up on Emmett at the end: The fact that Emmett died, alone, in Pensacola Hospital, and family members (even local family members in Pensacola) had to be told where Emmett was, and that he had been sick, then died. No one knew. I don’t want to project an unsubstantiated idea that no one cared, but it sure looks that way to me.

It is as if Emmett’s friends and family were relieved the madness was over for them and for Emmett, and they just wanted to put it all aside and move forward. It is understandable. I’m not passing judgment on them; just stating the facts. People who have not dealt with end-stage alcoholics have no idea the hell Emmett’s family and friends — the ones who were still around, that is — went through with Emmett during the last few months of his life.

I have a friend, a nephrologist (who also has experience dealing with alcoholic-related illnesses of the liver and kidney, and who is helping me with Emmett’s biography) who asked me the other day why I was so surprised that Emmett’s family wrote him off the last few years of his life.

Still moving forward, one day at a time.

Still moving forward, one day at a time.

“What would you have expected, given the hell he put them through?” she asked.  “Think about the condition he was in at the end. Think about the frustration, the opportunities he had had before him — they thought Emmett had just thrown them away.” Emmett’s family and friends were tired of it, alcoholism, and of him.

By the way, in the spirit of full disclosure, not only are Emmett and I related, but we also belong to the same club. We may be 100 years apart, but I feel like I can relate to some of the reasons why he drank. How he drank. The frustration, anger, and sadness that family members felt towards him.

The difference is, thank God, is that someone was able to get through to me. I only wish Emmett could have found another way out besides death.