Chapter 11: First Contact

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I remember Saturday, June 8, 2013, as one of those glorious late Spring days in Maryland — the sky was clear blue without a cloud in sight, the temperature around 72, the trees were (finally!) all full with fresh green leaves. The plants I’d set out a few weeks earlier after a long hiatus inside were full and lush on the patio. My kids were on a scouting trip in St. Mary’s County with my husband — so I was in my home office, grading final exams so as to meet the 72 hour grade posting deadline at the University of Maryland.

My cell phone rang — an unrecognizable number on caller i.d. — I was deep into work and loathe to interrupt progress, but something told me to answer it anyway.

“Is this Judy Smith? I’m Jim Milligan in Florida. You wrote to me on Ancestry about my uncle, Emmett Wilson.”

Uncle. Emmett Wilson.

I remember my adrenaline shot up — Omg. Omg. Omg.

I shoved the gradebook out of the way, pulled the research notebook in front of me and started scribbling madly, to capture everything Emmett’s blood relative was saying.

First contact with an actual Wilson family member.

This was gold! This was better than gold!!!!

Jim said he was interested in my research, and was glad to help out in any way.

“I have a document to send you by email — a family genealogy. It’s rather large, though. It will take a little while to upload. ”

I told Jim that was fine — to go ahead — and while I was waiting for the file to appear on my end, he filled me in on Wilson family facts:

Emmett’s siblings, Walker Wilson and his sister Katie Wilson Meade, in front of the Washington Monument, July 4, 1908. Photo was taken by their first cousin, Lizzie Meade.

  • Jim is the grandson of Walker Wilson, Emmett’s youngest brother. Jim never knew Emmett personally.
  • Jim was not certain how Walker died exactly; family members would not talk about it, which always led him to believe something curious or unusual about Walker’s death.
  • Drinking was reported to be a real problem in Emmett and Walker’s generation of the Wilson family.

And then, Jim said,

Emmett  “was an alcoholic, you know. He drank himself to death.”

I felt an internal jolt — I stopped writing.

“I didn’t know,” I said. “The death certificate I received says kidney disease was the cause of death, but I’ve also learned that the symptoms of kidney disease looked an awful lot like end-stage alcoholism in those days.”

As Jim talked about the genealogy, something came over me — clarity, actually — as if a piece of this strange puzzle materialized before me.

I told Jim that if Emmett was an alcoholic, that shed a new light on the information from the Christ Church burial record. But still, what we have at present is anecdotal, and Emmett was an alcoholic, we needed a medical record.

Jim was positive the story was that Emmett drank. “And he might have been gay,” he added.

I doubted seriously I’d ever find a confirmation about Emmett and homosexuality — not that it mattered — but Jim’s comment gave me the idea that perhaps if Emmett was, indeed, alcoholic, there was an underlying ‘thing’ he was trying to escape, since drinking to excess is a means of escape….

As he and I continued to talk, Jim’s file appeared in my email. I asked if I could follow up with other questions later after reading the genealogy, and that I would send him clips he might want to add to his own research. He said that was fine, contact him anytime.

I settled down with the document; it took three days to read the entire thing.

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Next: The family genealogy reveals tantalizing clues

 

 

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Application for Membership

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Source: Train Dispatcher’s Bulletin, 1913, Vols 18-19, p 216, via Google Docs.

Here’s information that Emmett’s youngest brother, Walker Wilson, was applying for membership in the Train Dispatcher’s Association of America (via Google docs).

Deciphering the item — S.A.L. was the Seaboard Air Lines railroad.

University of South Florida map of Seaboard Air Lines routes in and around Tampa, 1917.

Walker’s employment with the railroad was not simply a family tradition, but an important employer in the early 1900s — in contemporary terms, it is compared to working at NASA.

According to various city directory records, Walker remained with the railroad for the rest of his life, working his way up the management ladder starting as a clerk. Like his brothers Emmett and Julian, he became expert at the telegraph starting in the Chipley depot, then he was assigned to different stations and posts as his career developed over the decades.

Walker Wilson, Part Two

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Continuing the story of Emmett’s youngest brother, Walker (no middle name) Wilson:

Walker started a career with the Seaboard Air Lines Railroad around 1908, and moved to Tampa.

Two years later, in 1910, Walker married Jesse Evans, of Gainesville. The family genealogy reports that Walker met Jesse in Gainesville while on a job assignment.

From The Pensacola Journal, June 22, 1910.

Note how Emmett gets top billing over the names of both the bride and the groom in their own wedding announcement. From The Pensacola Journal, June 22, 1910.

Emmett may not have been present at the wedding in Gainesville, else he would have been listed here, too. Source: The Pensacola Journal, June 22, 1910

Emmett may not have been present at the wedding in Gainesville, else he would have been listed here, too. Source: The Pensacola Journal, June 22, 1910

After the wedding, Walker and Jesse moved to Tampa where he worked for the SAL in different capacities — as a clerk, then later, as a train dispatcher.

The U.S. Census was taken on April 28, 1910, a few months before their wedding. Walker does not show up in the 1910 U.S. Census; however, Jesse appears as Jesse N. Evans, still residing with her family. According to the census, she was an office stenographer before her marriage.

In 1912, Dr. F.C. Wilson visited his son in Tampa. And, once again, The Pensacola Journal takes this time to remind everyone that Walker and Dr. Wilson are related to Emmett:

From The Pensacola Journal, May 17, 1912.

From The Pensacola Journal, May 17, 1912.

A curious find was that Walker, a clerk with the SAL in 1913, was boarding at the Hotel Oliver instead of living with his family. That same year, Jesse gave birth to their first child, John Evans Wilson.

From the 1913 R.L. Polk City Directory for Tampa, Florida.

From the 1913 R.L. Polk City Directory for Tampa, Florida. Walker appears to be living apart from Jesse.

In 1914, Walker and Jesse are listed together in the Tampa city directory; their address given as Central Avenue, in Seminole Heights. Walker is listed as a train dispatcher with the SAL.

Their second child, Margaret, was born in Tampa in 1917.

There isn’t a lot about Walker in the media or in genealogy files — the next item found was his WWI registration card, dated September 12, 1918. What’s new here is that we have a specific address — 5606 Central Ave. Also, a physical description: Medium height and build, with brown eyes and dark brown hair, which was characteristic of most Wilson siblings.

September 12, 1918. Source: Ancestry.com

September 12, 1918. Source: Ancestry.com

Walker and his family remained in Tampa until about 1930.

The 1929 Tampa city directory.

The 1929 Tampa city directory.

The 1930 Jacksonville city directory.

The 1930 Jacksonville city directory.

Walker spent most of his professional life with the SAL, and had a satisfactory career.

From the October 31, 1924 issue of the Tampa Tribune. Source: genealogybank.com

From the October 31, 1924 issue of the Tampa Tribune. Source: genealogybank.com

In the 1940 U.S. Census, the Wilsons have moved to 1st Street in Jacksonville. Walker is still with the SAL; both John and Margaret are out of the family home.

U.S. Census for 1940. Source: Ancestry.com

U.S. Census for 1940. Source: Ancestry.com

Walker died June 22, 1943. He was buried in Tampa.

Circle of Family: Walker Wilson

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Our last sibling essay in Emmett Wilson’s family story focuses on the youngest son, Walker Wilson.

Walker Wilson, about 6 years old, December 1890.

Walker Wilson, about 6 years old, December 1890.

Walker was born in Chipley, Florida in 1884, six months after his family emigrated back to the U.S. from Belize, when Emmett was two years old.

I have a few clips from the Chipley newspapers from the late 1890s about Emmett and Walker out on camping/fishing trips to St. Andrews during the summers.

Emmett and Walker often spent the first two weeks in August together, accompanied by family and friends, on these outings, every year.

From The Chipley Banner, July 1899. Source: ChroniclingAmerica.gov

Some outings probably less traumatic than this one. From The Chipley Banner, July 1899. Source: ChroniclingAmerica.gov

Given that there was only two years difference between Emmett and Walker, they were probably close while they were children and teenagers, but after Emmett started college at West Florida Seminary, they spent little time together. In 1899, when Emmett was in-between semesters at WFS, he was working as a telegrapher and railroad station manager and Walker was still in grade school while doing occasional odd jobs around Chipley (clerical work, and railroad depot jobs).

By 1902, Walker was a telegraph operator at the railroad station in Chipley, following in the footsteps of several older brothers, and working his way up to the position, just as Emmett and Julian.

The telegraph operator's job was important -- and dangerous at times. Source: The Chipley Banner, July 1902

The telegraph operator’s job was important — and dangerous at times. Source: The Chipley Banner, July 1902

This was unusual, I thought: Walker, 19, is still in grade school as of January 1903. Source: The Chipley Banner, February 1903.

This was unusual, I thought: Walker, 19, is still in grade school as of January 1903. Source: The Chipley Banner, February 1903.

I’ve been in touch with Walker’s grandson, Jim, who was kind enough to share an extensive family genealogy document with me — it’s wonderful — and it was written by Walker’s son, John Evans Wilson, in 1990.

The genealogy includes this interesting comment:

I wonder if, perhaps, Walker resented having to pay for Emmett's higher education, because Emmett was the only Wilson sibling in school while Walker was still living at home and under his father's authority. Source: John Evans Wilson Genealogy, 1990.

I wonder if Walker resented having to pay for Emmett’s higher education. Emmett was the only Wilson sibling in school while Walker was still living at home and under his father’s authority; Walker never went further than eighth grade. Source: John Evans Wilson Genealogy, 1990.

I get the impression that Emmett and Walker’s communication/visitation was sporadic for a few years; although in 1904, when Emmett moved to Marianna to live and work with Cephas (as the junior law partner of Wilson & Wilson), Walker also moved in with Cephas. In case you haven’t been keeping score, Cephas’ household in 1904 included himself, Lula, Ceph Jr., and daughter Kathleen, as well as three of his brothers (Emmett, Julian and Walker). It almost feels like Cephas’ home was the launching pad for his siblings before they struck out on their own.

Walker was visiting his father in Chipley. Source: The Chipley Banner, 1904.

Walker was visiting his father in Chipley. Source: The Chipley Banner, 1904.

In 1905, Emmett wanted to get away from his family and his try his wings, so he moved to Sterling, Illinois. It only lasted six months.

By 1908, Walker would move on to work for the Seaboard Air Line railroad and relocate to Tampa. Walker would spend several years in Tampa, working his way up the ladder.

Walker and his sister Katie Wilson Meade, in front of the Washington Monument, July 4, 1908. Photo was taken by their first cousin, Lizzie Meade.

Walker, on a visit to Washington D.C. with his sister Katie Wilson Meade. Photo was taken by their first cousin, Lizzie Meade, in front of the Washington Monument, July 4, 1908.

I’ll continue with Walker’s story tomorrow.