October Losses

Margaret Anne Sproles Chavis Alexander, "Bigma," Sara's great-grandmother

“In the fall Bigma came to visit us and while she was there she died in her sleep one night in October, 1929. They took her back to Greenwood to bury her on the lot where T.C. was buried.”

Margaret Alexander (Bigma), Olive West Stott (Big), Thedorene Chavis West (Bama) with baby Rena Stott (Rawa)

October, 1929. Rings a bell, doesn’t it? America had been riding the crest of the “American Century” for many years and it seemed there was no end to the money to be made or the fun to be had. And then it stopped, like a Model T hitting a concrete embankment. The stock market plunged just a few days after Bigma’s death, but that seismic shock likely didn’t even register with little Sara. And I doubt that Howard and Jessie had much money, if any, invested in stocks, so the slow slide into Depression was a national event that would only reveal itself in retrospect. Cotton was still being picked and the seeds still had to be crushed, so Howard was in no danger of joining the sad lines of the unemployed that would soon be an all too frequent sight around the country.

But losing Bigma did register. Margaret (and how many years had it been since anyone had called her that?) was a woman of another century, the last living link to the brave (or foolish) forebears who lit out from the Carolinas and Georgia and Tennessee for unpredictable lives in a brand new state, Mississippi. She had survived indescribable hardships in rural Holmes County during the Civil War and said goodbye to two brothers who vanished in faraway battles. She buried two husbands, bore two children, struggled to make a living on often unforgiving land and followed her daughter and granddaughters and grandson down the hills to Greenwood in the first years of the twentieth century. She went from oil lamps to incandescent bulbs, from buckboards to Hupmobiles and from icehouses to General Electric refrigerators. For Sara and her siblings, Bigma bridged a chasm between their modern world of RCA and flappers and Snickers to a forgotten time of dogtrot cabins and dying soldiers. When Bigma slipped away in her sleep on Robinson Road, a chapter in our family closed forever, and Sara was probably the last of the Evans clan who carried any personal recall of Margaret Sproles Chavis Alexander.

If you’re born in 1845 and someone still carries fond memories of you in 2009, as Sara did of Bigma, you have made your mark on this world. We’ll just keep “handing her down” through the generations, weaving the threads together in an indelible knot.

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Look Out, Jackson

Old Capitol, Jackson MS, 1920s postcard

“Daddy had found a house at 1911 Robinson Street in West Jackson. It was owned by a cousin of his and was not far from the oil mill so we rented it and lived there the three years we were in Jackson. It sat in the middle of a lot of pecan trees with open fields on both sides and behind it. Later a street was cut through next to it, but that was after we had moved.

“The Matthews family lived across the street from us, but far back from the street on a hill, so we were really pretty isolated from the rest of the neighborhood, but we did have sidewalks out front so that we could walk up and down the block. At least this house did have three bedrooms but since Bama still had one of them Tiny, Mary and I slept in the same room and Son (and later Tricia) slept in the room with Mama and Daddy. We were still terribly crowded and still had only one bathroom, which was a very busy place in the morning with three of us trying to get ready for school and Daddy getting ready to go to work. There was an outside stair on the back of the house which opened into Mama and Daddy’s bedroom. Since Daddy was away from home a lot I don’t think Mama ever felt really safe in that house.

“We were immediately greeted on our arrival in Jackson by the Matthews girls, Phyllis, Dorothy and Charlotte. They lived up on the hill with their mother and daddy, his four old maid sisters and their grandfather, who was a Confederate veteran with a long white beard and a cane. We were not allowed to go to their house very often since Mama was afraid we would worry all the adults but it was interesting when we did go.

“The Matthews family was one of the older families of Jackson. They were extremely close with their money and owned worlds of property. The four old maids bossed the girls and their mother and told them every move to make. Mama was always sorry for Pina, the mother, because she didn’t have a life of her own. They could not believe all the things we had to play with since the sisters thought it was foolish to buy things like toys. I remember one year Dorothy, who was about nine, was so excited because on her birthday she got a ten cent red patent leather belt and a small box of marshmallows.

“The sisters were Daisy, Laura, Mae and Dora. Poor Pina would come over to visit with Mama and Bama to get away from them, and Grandpa Matthews would come down the hill to visit with Bama. Since she had been married to a Confederate veteran they had a lot in common. They would sit in the living room and listen to the radio, which by this time had improved and no longer had the bighorn and earphones. Bama loved to listen to ‘Amos and Andy’ and the very first of the soap operas. The radio was a lot of company for her.”

Bama (Thedorene Chavis West), Confederate widow and Sara's grandmother

So Sara and her family make it to Jackson. It’s the summer of 1929, the summit of an era of excitement and excess and devil-may-care America, and Howard’s new job has propelled this little band of Deltonians into a bigger, brighter, more treacherous world. For an eight-year-old girl, it must have been thrilling to have the whole Capital City laid out in front of her doorstep every day. New stores, new schools, new friends, and she soaked up every detail. It’s intriguing to me that she records nothing about sad goodbyes in Greenwood or who bought the Strong Avenue bungalow. Maybe her relentless optimism allowed her to suppress those unpleasant details, and it really wasn’t as if they had moved to Borneo.

The house on Robinson Road was still standing twenty years ago, and when Sara was in Jackson visiting us, we would occasionally ride out to West Jackson to see it. When her family arrived in 1929, that was the far western edge of the city, very nearly in the country, and in the ensuing half-century it cycled through development of middle class enclaves to post-war boom housing to its present state of seedy decline. On our excursions out there, she always had me pull over on the side street, just off busy Robinson Road, and let her just consider the old house for awhile. She did not have the romanticized affection for that home as she had for Strong Avenue, but that must have been as much a function of age as for the dramatic changes life wrought on the Evans family there. We’d sit there for a little while and then she’d say, “OK, let’s go, that’s enough.” She had paid her respects and was ready to leave that page of her life behind.

Wouldn’t you love to peer into the Matthews household on a summer morning in 1929? Imagine the excitement of those three girls (aged 12, 8 and 6, according to the 1930 census) as they watched the Evanses pile out of their Nash onto Robinson Road. One… two…three girls…..a toddler boy….a grandmother……a doting mother, herding them toward their new home…..Howard unloading boxes and turning keys and trying to keep this circus on track…..toys and bikes and dolls and noise and confusion and the potential for lifelong friends. In my mind, the four “old maid sisters” are on the porch, clucking and muttering like dowager hens, telling the Matthews girls that they are not to even think about running down that hill until proper introductions are made and genealogical pedigrees examined. And Pina, trapped between generations, trying to raise those three girls while keeping the harpies happy and Grandpa out of trouble. I hope Jessie made her life just a bit easier and brighter.

Ed. note: The 1930 census shows John C. Matthews, age 83, living in that house on the hill. I assume he was the bearded Confederate veteran. His four daughters were Daisy (55), Mae(53), Madora (49) and Laura (47); his son John was 44 and Pina 40. Pina died in Jackson in February, 1984, and I just hope she had many years of peace and quiet with no sisters-in-law trying to run her life. And I hope Dorothy married a very rich man and was showered with expensive belts and all the marshmallows she could eat.

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Last But Not Least

Patricia Evans on the Stott house front walk, 1933

Daughterofthedelta takes a slight detour today to wish Happy Birthday to everyone’s favorite aunt, Patricia Evans Ellington Evans. She completed the Evans family circle while they lived in Jackson, and she’s taken care of each and every one of us through the years and the generations. Happy Birthday, Tricia……We love you!

Son, Sara, John Stott, Tricia and Roy Stott on the front steps of the Stott house, 1933.

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Moving on

 

Sara, Mamie and Tiny, probably their last winter in the Strong Avenue house

Sara’s memoirs take us now from Greenwood to Jackson for a little over three years, but we’ll be returning to Greenwood in 1932. The Strong Avenue house will not reappear in these stories, so today’s blog is a tribute to a fine bungalow and the girls who knew it as home.

Howard’s album also mysteriously ends here. He left us a treasure trove of photos from about 1917 to 1927, but then it just ends. Maybe he was so thrilled with Son’s arrival that he dropped the camera. I’m grateful that Sara saved the album and for the photos which do survive, but I do so wish there were more.

Sara, Tiny and Mamie, all decked out on the bungalow porch steps.

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The End of the Beginning

1212 Strong Avenue, with Mamie, Tiny and Sara on the bungalow steps.

“By this time we were enjoying Son more than ever. Every morning Mama would build a fire in the living room for us to dress by. She was trying to potty train Son and would tell us to hold his little pot in front of the fire to warm it. We made up a silly little song, ‘Warm his pot, but not too hot, or it will burn his little bot.’

“In the spring of 1929 we began making preparations to move to Jackson. When school was out that year we said goodbye to our friends with mixed feelings of not wanting to leave and of excitement about moving to a larger town. I can remember sitting on our front steps, where we had played so often, remembering the good times we had had and wondering if things would ever be the same.

“I am sure Mama and Bama must have had a hard time accepting the move because by that time Greenwood was home, and with Big and  her family living just across town they had their whole family there. But Daddy was doing well with the Delta Cotton Oil Company, and certainly the family needed to be together again. Daddy had found a house at 1911 Robinson Street in West Jackson. It was owned by a cousin of his and was not far from the oil mill, so we rented it and lived there the three years we were in Jackson. It sat in the middle of a lot of pecan tees with open fields on both sides and behind it. Later a street was cut through next to it, but that was after we had moved.”

1212 Strong Avenue, Summer 2010. Infrared photo courtesy of Mary Rose Carter

No, Sara, things would never be the same. They never are, no matter how much you wish for them to be or how carefully you plan. In retrospect, you can spot where a life or a job or a family began to slip off the rails, but it’s always too late to make the adjustments that might have made a difference.

For the past twenty years, I’ve dealt with old houses and their abandonment and loss and nothing that I’ve researched or written about affects me like these photos of 1212 Strong Avenue. This was a home in every sense of that overused word, a safe haven and an anchor and the pride of Howard and Jessie and their four children. It must have been a wrenching decision to pack up and leave, lighting out for the unfamiliar streets and challenges of Big City Jackson, saying goodbye to the town which had become their own. When they returned three years later, they returned as a vastly different family, forever altered, and one that never made it back to Strong Avenue.

Sara loved the bungalow, and it registers in my memory as one of the first Greenwood sites which I knew was special to her and to our family. Like so much of that part of town, it rocked along and was cared for and seemed peaceful until the last ten or twenty years, when time and poor choices and carelessness began to pull it down. The beloved porch, where dolls were lined up and hoses sprayed and jacks thrown and dreams dreamed, was enclosed for some purpose or another. The paint along the windows has begun to visibly crack and the yard has grown wilder and the whole house seems to be losing heart. Which I suppose is understandable when you’re ninety years old. Ninety years, for Pete’s sake. How did that happen?

I’d love to slip in there, just for a few minutes, and see the breakfast room window where Sara spotted “the nake” and the hallway where Mrs. Pettey and Mable huddled with Bama and Jessie and the girls during storms, and the bedroom where Tiny borrowed her daddy’s handkerchiefs to make fake slings for fake broken arms. And the fireplace where the big sisters warmed Son’s potty chair: If that little singsong ditty doesn’t have Mamie’s devilish humor written all over it, I can’t imagine what does. Happy times, happy children, memories still echoing through the rooms of 1212 Strong Avenue. I just hope whoever lives there now loves it. That’s all you can hope for in any house.

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Tiptoeing through the Tombstones

Buckeye Cotton Oil Mill, Greenwood, date unknown

“Daddy left his job at the Buckeye Oil Mill and opened up a cotton brokerage office on Howard Street in about 1927, but the next year accepted a job as manager of the Delta Cotton Oil Company in Jackson, and we learned that we would sooner or later be moving to Jackson. Mama, who I am sure did not want to leave Greenwood, decided that she and the children should stay in Greenwood during the school year of 1928-29 and then move to Jackson in the summer of 1929.

Howard with Tiny, Sara and Mary at the Strong Avenue house

So Daddy got a room at the Walthall Hotel in Jackson, assumed his job at the oil mill, and came home on the weekends. Having him gone was a big adjustment for all of us, and we were always so happy when he would arrive home on the weekend.

Capitol Street, Jackson, circa 1930. The Walthall Hotel was about halfway down the street on the left.

“Mama learned to drive the car and transported us to and from school when we didn’t walk. We came home for lunch every day. When we walked to or from Davis School we usually cut through the old Greenwood Cemetery where the early settlers of Greenwood were buried. I thought it was kind of spooky going through the cemetery, but that was the shortest route home. Most of the tombstones have since crumbled or were knocked down during the Depression when people hired by the Works Progress Administration [WPA] hit them with the mowers. It was said that the city built a goldfish pond with some of the stone at the old City Barn.

Old Greenwood Cemetery. Photo courtesy of Mary Rose Carter.

“There are few markers left out at the cemetery today, but Mama said she had been told that there was someone buried under every inch of the ground. The black cemetery had been across the street where the City Park is now. There are forty Confederate veterans buried in the old Greenwood Cemetery.

“Just past the cemetery was Feaster’s Store, a small operation run by Mr. Feaster. It was a real treat to stop by there on the way to or from school and to choose candy from the various kinds stored in big glass jars on the counter. The ones I liked best were marshmallow type hands with a gaudy ring on one finger. Of course, I didn’t really like the chalky tasting hand as much as I did the ring. It was just like buying the Cracker Jacks for the prizes. We would buy winding balls, which changed colors as you sucked them, and all day suckers, which were made of a caramel like candy which took hours to consume, thus giving them their name.”

 

In this day and age, it’s difficult to imagine a world where three little girls could walk home for lunch every day, much less one where the Old Greenwood Cemetery was merely creepy and not downright dangerous. It was a logical route, though, off the campus at Davis School, down Church Street, over the concrete steps by the big curve in the road and past the markers that dated back to the 1840s. Then a few blocks down Strong Avenue and into the safety of the brick bungalow for a quick dinner. I can just see Tiny leading the Evans pack, no-nonsense, on a mission, and probably mortified to have Mamie and Sara trailing along, certainly if Sara was sucking on one of those hideous candy hands which she describes. Sara tended to dawdle when there was sugar involved, and if that trait made Tiny furious, well, so much the better. If Mamie got candy, it was carefully wrapped and tucked away for later enjoyment, much to Sara’s everlasting regret.

As has been mentioned before in these blogs, the Old Greenwood Cemetery is still there, but more in spirit than reality (pardon the pun). If, indeed, every inch of space held a grave, as Jessie claimed, no more than a tiny percentage of those graves are now marked. The 1906 iron fence, paid for by public donations, was taken down in 1994 and the vandalism and disrespect for the cemetery increased dramatically. And I don’t even want to think about a goldfish pond lined with tombstones at the City Barn. Even in a town noted for its quirkiness, that’s a bit much.

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It’s a Boy (Finally!)

Sara with Son (Howard McTyeire Evans, Jr.), circa 1930

“The year before we moved I was in second grade with Miss Tallou Townsend as my teacher. It was an uneventful but happy school year, and I was still in the class with most of the friends I had made in first grade. At least by that time I had gotten over the daily crying spells.

Davis School, late 1920s. Notice the 1924 building in the left background.

“On September 30, 1927, Son [Howard McTyiere Evans, Jr.] was born in the hospital next door to our house on Strong Avenue. Mama had gone to the hospital after we were in bed, and Daddy, the proudest papa you ever saw, woke us up the next morning with the news. Since in those days children were never told where babies came from (I really thought the stork brought them) none of us even knew that Son was expected. We were in total shock as were some of the neighbors who had not been told either and just assumed Mama had gained more weight. I think Mama was always embarrassed to be pregnant. Those big aprons she always wore helped to conceal the fact.

Jessie with Mamie and Tiny

“From the day he was born we adored him and could not wait for him to get big enough to walk and talk and wear cute little boy clothes like those on the paper dolls we cut out of the Sears catalog. Mary immediately asked, ‘Can he wear little sailor suits?’ When he was brought home from the hospital he was just like a doll to us. Daddy took Tiny and Mary and me to Stein’s Jewelry Store to buy him a little silver comb and brush.

Howard Street in the late 1920s; Stein's Jewelers is by the third car on the left ( the one that's not parked very efficiently).

His friends said they had never seen anyone so proud of having a boy. I guess after three girls he had about given up hope of having a namesake.”

Son and Tricia, 1933, in front of Stott House, 115 East Washington.

What would you expect of a young man who was the firstborn son after three girls, sprung on those girls like an early fall Christmas present, dressed up and doted on and all but worshipped in his adorable little manliness? The answer to his father’s prayers, surrounded by women who pinched his cheeks and cuddled him and assumed he could do no wrong? Wouldn’t you expect trouble coming like a runaway freight train down that line? Seems likely to me that this should have produced some insufferable, overly entitled merger of Little Lord Fauntleroy and Jay Gatsby. Howard Evans, Jr. was so special within this family that none of us, of any generation, ever called him “Howard.” To each and every one of us, he was “Son.” With a capital “S.” He was The Son, long anticipated and crowned at birth. And any of you who knew him know that he somehow survived the early adulation and rather unconventional childhood to become the kindest, gentlest, most compassionate gentleman imaginable. To this day, as I reintroduce myself to Greenwood and the Delta, dropping his name as my uncle unlocks doors and lights up faces with fond memories and devotion. He touched so many lives and quietly helped so many people through tough times (family and friends and strangers) that he remains a symbol of all that’s gracious and kind in this town.

Sara’s feelings towards her brother are obvious in that photo at the top of the page. That isn’t one of those posed sets where you just know the mother is saying, “If you don’t put your arm around your little brother, there will be hell to pay when we get home.” No, this is two children who are clearly buddies and confidantes, and they would remain so until his all-too-early death from pancreatic cancer. Sara filled most of a scrapbook with clippings of his civic and professional honors. Son’s portrait hangs in the newest wing of the Greenwood Leflore Hospital, named in his memory after decades on the hospital board, and Sara would invariably point him out to whichever nurses’ aide was pushing her out to the car in her last months. “That’s my brother,” she would brag. “Doesn’t he look like Mama?”

Tricia, Sara, Son, Mamie and Tiny, some Christmas Eve in the early '60s.

Ed. note: I actually found Tallou Townsend on a geneaology site. She was born in 1890, so she would have been around 37 when she was teaching Sara’s second grade class. She later married and died in Winona, where she is buried, in February 1976. Dealing with Sara probably shortened her natural lifespan.

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