Chapter 45: On Frank Jr.

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October 21, 2014
McKeldin Library Research Carrel

University of Maryland Campus, College Park

Francis C. Wilson Jr. Source: Bell Photograph Collection, University of West Florida Archives

Sometimes when I hit a dead end in the Emmett Wilson research trek, I try a side-road, namely, I stop looking directly for Emmett and instead dig around for information about his siblings. I figure with nine brothers and sisters, the odds of my finding Wilson descendants were good.

And maybe, I’d find out more about Francis Childria Wilson, Jr.’s story.

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I’ve been intrigued by a comment I’d received during a phone conversation with Walker Wilson’s grandson, Jim Milligan, who had kindly sent me a copy of his family’s genealogy; namely, that alcohol was a ‘problem’ for many of the Wilson siblings.

Some of the extensive side research I’ve conducted while working on my own sobriety has shown me that alcoholic tendencies run in families. It is, statistically, more likely someone will be alcoholic if one or both parents are alcoholic. I don’t know if Emmett’s parents drank extensively; but booze was a familial presence, at least in the medicinal sense.

Source: The Washington Examiner, 1912.

I’ve mentioned the booze issue with older brother Max, and with Jim’s grandfather, Walker in previous posts. Cephas doesn’t seem to have had a problem; nor did Emmett’s twin, Julian. Still,  it wouldn’t be much of a stretch if Emmett’s other siblings had problems with alcohol. It is possible that Emmett’s older brother, Frank, was also an alcoholic.

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So, here’s what I know about Frank Jr.:

  • He was a lifelong railroader. Frank was one of the two older brothers who helped Emmett get a job with the railroad when Emmett was a teenager.
  • He loved fishing. As a kid, he would skip church to go fishing; in fact, he loved it so much that he eventually had a boat in Pensacola, and he would take his brothers out for a day of angling in the Gulf of Mexico.
  • He was a character. You might remember an earlier post where Frank actually asked his sister Katie to accompany him on his honeymoon — Katie wasn’t exactly sure if Frank was kidding. Perhaps, though it was because
  • He and Katie were always close. I have copies of several letters written by Frank to Katie (courtesy of Elizabeth Meade Howard), in which he you can tell he cherishes his sister.
  • Frank and Emmett were likely estranged at the time of Emmett’s death. 

There’s a clue that Frank Jr. might have had a problem with alcohol; namely this:

From The Chipley Banner, January 19, 1901. Frank with an ‘abscess of the liver.’ The Wilson family genealogy mentions alcoholism among several of Emmett’s brothers.

Research on liver abscess indicates alcohol abuse is a factor. (There are several resources about it; I have several, but here are a few: here, and another is here.)  According to a timetable I built on Frank based on biographical information, he was ill frequently leading up to his collapse during Christmas, 1900. There are clues in the articles I gathered that indicate most of Frank’s illness issues were tied to alcohol.

Like Emmett, maybe Frank knew he had a problem, but didn’t know how to stop. The difference between Emmett and Frank is that Frank truly hit bottom, during Christmas, 1900. He almost died as a result of his illness — and whether or not Frank had as ‘bad’ an alcohol problem as Emmett, one thing we know for certain: Frank had to have been told that if he continued to drink after treatment, he’d kill himself.

And that seems to have been enough for Frank.

May McKinnon Wilson. Source: Bell Photograph Collection, University of West Florida Archives

Another reason I don’t think Frank drank again after hitting bottom had to do with his very strong willed wife, May McKinnon Wilson. May (pronounced with a short ‘a’, according Douglas Gillis, a direct descendant of the McKinnon family), was someone who loved with all her heart, who knew her own mind, and had unshakable faith in that which she decided to believe in.

May McKinnon Wilson was nobody’s fool. And she knew what she was getting when she married Frank Jr.

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Frank and May were married October 24, 1901 in Marianna. They lived in several different places along the railroad line (Florala, Alabama; Pensacola) as Frank worked for the L&N all his life.

They had only one child, Mary Elizabeth Wilson.

Frank and May’s only child, Mary Elizabeth was five months old when she died on June 1, 1904. “A precious angel.”Source: Findagrave.com

Frank and May are buried in Marianna — and so, I reached out to my most awesome source for anything related to Jackson County, Florida history — the most awesome Sue Tindel, former court clerk of Jackson County, Florida and local historian. She put me in touch with one of her great-grand nephews, Douglas Gillis. He was kind enough to share a few anecdotes.

Here’s one Aunt May story:

I once asked Douglas if he knew if Aunt May was a strong temperance supporter; he said he didn’t, but he recalled “…Aunt May, my grandmother (a Jehovah’s witness) and Auntie [another relative] would only have a touch of wine around the holiday’s family gatherings (for medicinal purposes). So it could very well be [that Aunt May was a temperance supporter.].”

In some of the correspondence I’ve read from Frank to his sister, Katie Wilson Meade (generously shared with me by Elizabeth Meade Howard, Katie’s granddaughter), you can tell that Frank loved his family. He remembered birthdays. He caught up with his brothers and sisters with regular letters, mostly filled with humorous anecdotes. He sent amusing gifts to his siblings now and then ‘just because’. He loved his job working as a conductor for the railroad, and stayed until he absolutely had to retire. He loved to take family and friends to go fishing in his beloved boat, the “May.”

Frank took his brother-in-law fishing, along with a friend. From The Pensacola Journal, August 6, 1912. Source: ChroniclingAmerica.gov

I often wonder what Emmett thought about Frank; a fun-loving, family-loving big-brother who appeared to live a life of gratitude and appreciation for what he had.

Despite his fun-loving nature, Frank had his share of hardships, but appears to have been the one to model how important it was to see things through to the end, without the distraction of booze. What’s more, Emmett had to have witnessed that the choice to drink or not drink, to live or die, was in Frank’s hands, and that Frank made the choice to live without a filter of liquor to ease life’s difficulties.

I sometimes wonder, having witnessed how close Frank came to dying at his own hands, why that didn’t stay with Emmett over the years, as he was faced with the choice to drink or die in 1914.

And I supposed that may have had something to do with Frank’s estrangement from Emmett in May, 1918.

 

A structure worth saving

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As far as I know, most of my friends in the Florida panhandle survived Hurricane Michael. I’ve heard from almost everyone — thank goodness, all seem to have fared pretty well, given the severity of the storm.

Friends in Pensacola tell me they were lucky; Hurricane Michael didn’t affect them much. Others in Chipley report many trees down and some property damage, along with inconveniences related to interrupted utilities, blocked roads, and so forth. As one colleague said to me via email last night, “It wasn’t pretty, but all in all, it will be OK. We’re all fine. Things can be replaced, but people cannot.”

Marianna, unfortunately, was hit badly. Many buildings were destroyed; one news report said it looked as if a bomb had gone off in Jackson County, Florida, it was that bad.

And, unfortunately, Cephas’s old office, the building in Marianna still standing with a true Emmett Wilson connection, was significantly damaged.

Cephas’ old office, on the right. The front wall to the top floor is missing, and it’s hard to tell the extent of the damage to the structure. Source: https://postimg.cc/jWW1JwNx

Here’s what Cephas’ office looked like in October 2015, when I took the photo below:

Cephas’ old office has the bright blue awning.

I hope the current owner will be able to save it. Cephas built the red brick structure around 1909. When I visited the office with the awesome Sue Tindel, I took several photos from that second floor, which was unfinished, but had a great view of the courthouse across the street.

Obviously, not the original courthouse where Emmett and Cephas worked; but the current courthouse is on the original site.

A lot of damage especially to the ancient oaks. Source: Jeffrey Burlew, Tallahasee Democrat

I hope Cephas’ old office can be saved.

 

Medium, Message, Context

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As promised in the last post, I’ll now walk you through the process I use to review artifacts that inform my research on Emmett Wilson.

Here’s a document I received from Emmett’s grand niece, Elizabeth, who is the granddaughter of Katie Wilson Meade.

cephus-letter-original

Elizabeth’s original note with this document said that it wasn’t about Emmett Wilson, and so, she wasn’t sure if I would need or want to have it, but she knew Cephas was important in telling Emmett’s story.

Elizabeth was correct — Cephas was a HUGE influence on Emmett, and of all his siblings, was closest to Emmett, as the relationship weathered several ups and devastating downs all through Emmett’s life. So, this document is valuable for background information. Of all the Wilson family members, Cephas was Emmett’s mentor. He stood by Emmett, guided him, counseled him as long as Emmett would take constructive advice.

Examining the Medium

I examine artifacts through three lenses: Medium, Message, and Context. Today, we’ll examine the medium; i.e., the document itself.

The first thing I notice is that Cephas wrote a personal letter to his brother-in-law, Emmett Augustus Meade of Alexandria, Virginia, on his office letterhead.

letterheadCephas’ information on the letterhead tells us a lot, too, even though it is sparse. There’s not much detail because Cephas Wilson didn’t need that much detail for identification in West Florida back in the day. I imagine my historic research colleague Sue Tindel would agree with me if I said that in 1910, a stranger could cross the city limits of Marianna and say the words, “Cephas Wilson” out loud, and any bystander would immediately know who the stranger was talking about, and where that stranger could find Cephas.

intestateman

Not Marianna’s Elvis in 1910, but Ceph did have Elvis’ hair. Source: FloridaMemory.com

It would be akin to saying “Elvis” out loud, anywhere in the United States. Most folks would say, “Elvis? He’s in Memphis.” (I’m not saying that Cephas was Marianna’s “Elvis” in 1910, but you get the idea.)

The personal letter to his brother-in-law, Emmett Augustus Meade, is typewritten. There’s samples of Cephas’ handwriting on the letter. His handwriting is neither illegible nor difficult to read, but more significant to me is that Cephas wrote this personal letter to his brother-in-law in his office. Not at home.

This gives me a clue that Cephas spent, probably, most of his time at work, and perhaps an 80-hour work week was normal for him. I don’t know that Cephas was a workaholic, but it is possible. Consider:

  • In 1910, Cephas was a lawyer, a state senator, a president of a bank, a business owner, and up for consideration to run for Governor of Florida all at the same time.
  • And, in 1910, Cephas’ net worth was close to or equivalent to a self-made millionaire today. Cephas didn’t have a lot of down time, and when he did, it was probably taken in his office.

So, we have Cephas writing personal letters in his office. Truthfully, I can understand why he’d have done that: His house was busy, not large, but full, with children and relatives temporarily living with him and Lula. I doubt seriously if Cephas was able to steal a quiet moment away from the noise and hubbub of his surroundings except for his office.

Another thing about typewriting a letter as opposed to handwriting a letter — I find it easier to type a letter these days because my thoughts move so much faster, and the words flow smoother if I use a keyboard as opposed to a pen and paper. Yeah, I still carry around the old school notebook and pen, and I do write in an old school journal. But my handwriting isn’t very good, because I’m used to writing fast, and it is frustrating trying to capture my thoughts with slow and sloppy penmanship. With all that Cephas had going on in his life, I feel as if that is also why he’d write personal letters on a typewriter.

The typewriter, by the way, was on Cephas’ secretary’s desk, which would also explain a little why Cephas used professional stationery instead of a plain piece of paper, or personal stationery: Cephas’ letterhead was probably the most convenient paper on hand when he sat down at his secretary’s desk to write the letter.

Below is an example of professional correspondence written by Cephas in 1908. It is a short letter in which Cephas wastes no time; he gets right to the point. Note the margins and line spacing, compared to the personal letter at the top of this post.

cephas-letterheadletter

 

I usually examine the back of the document too, but an image of the back was not included in the scan Elizabeth sent.  Also, I like to go over the document in a bright light and with a magnifying glass. I look for things like fingerprints or other subtle marks on the front or back of the document.

This is just a short analysis of what I do in the ‘medium’ analysis of a document. In my next post, I’ll walk through the message of Cephas’ letter to Emmett Meade. That’s a more intense, line-by-line dissection; so, stay tuned!