THE JACKSONVILLE CONNECTION
© 2008, Wanda L. Harrell
While considering whether I should even write this story, I thought about where I would begin. After a couple of weeks of careful reflection and talking several times to my mother in Tennessee, I came to the conclusion I should write it, starting with where most stories begin, at the genesis as I know it.
From all the facts known to me through just living and genealogical research, my Jacksonville connection began well over two hundred years ago in the northeastern part of Tennessee that was then a remote territory belonging to the state of North Carolina. Shortly after the end of the American Revolution, round about 1788, a young, tall, wiry, red headed man who was yearning to practice law traveled from somewhere over the mountains through a riverside settlement, then known as Greasy Cove, as he made his way to the village of Jonesborough. Upon his arrival there, he boarded at the Christopher Taylor home for a period of time before leaving for his final destination of Nashville. A sporting man, he brought with him a brace of dueling pistols, several hunting dogs and his pride and joy, a spirited race horse.
That young man’s name was Andrew Jackson. And yes, this was the same Andrew Jackson who would one day become the seventh president of these United States. Bearing a strong competitive nature, he was always interested in any sort of gaming rivalry. Temporarily settled in Jonesborough, Andy’s spirited nature was heightened when he heard tales of a race horse named Victor of All. The stories and tales told at the tavern and elsewhere around Jonesborough were that this particular stallion was faster than any around. Sweetening the contest, he discovered the owner, one Colonel Robert Love, an affluent land owner from Greasy Cove, had his own half-mile track along the banks of the Nolichuckey River. Nothing could be more perfect for Jackson. Little or no time was wasted when Love accepted Jackson’s challenge. Preparations began and the word was spread of the upcoming race that autumn day. Both men began readying their horses for the contest. Jackson chose for a jockey a slave who was well-known as a great horseman.
For the occasion, sturdy pioneers dressed in buckskin traveled from as far away as Wolf Laurel, modern day Abingdon, Virginia. In the exciting days before the impending race, the barbeque spits of venison and pork were carefully turned as the demijohns of corn liquor were quickly emptied. Betting was fast and furious as the appointed race day approached. Many a man would lose money, land or valuables that day, but only one would lose his pride.
The reveler’s excitement was contagious. Jackson’s jockey also got into the spirit, or more aptly, the spirits. Falling down drunk, he was unable to ride. Considered an unfair advantage, riding one’s own steed was not acceptable. However, the race was at hand, and Jackson had no other alternative than to ask Love for permission to replace his drunken jockey. Surprisingly, Love accepted the change. Jackson was a bit smug as he mounted his steed that day.
Whooping and hollering for their favorite, the spectators were overcome with anticipation as the two horses stood ready to run from the starting line of the course. Shrieks of delight echoed throughout the cove when the starting shot was fired. Every gallop the horses’ hooves made that day stirred up the dry dust. With their nostrils flared, they ran with all vigor. They were nose to nose as they came around the turn. It was a heated race, but Love’s jockey was able to push Victor-of-All to sprint ahead just as they approached the finish line. By a nose, Colonel Love’s jockey and horse had won.
Already renowned for his unpredictable Scot-Irish temperament, all eyes were on Jackson as he dismounted. His pride was obviously crushed. Amid the roaring crowd, a red-faced, angry, and swearing Jackson approached Colonel Love. With Jackson throwing the first punch, a vicious bout of fisticuffs erupted between the two rivals for a few moments before spectators could break them apart.
Not to be outdone, Jackson called out to Love and his brothers, “You and your brothers are nothing but land-grabbing pirates!”
Love, also with a Scot-Irish temperament, promptly retorted, “You are nothing but a damned, long, gangling, sorrel-topped soap stick.”
It is lost to history as to how long the two men remained enemies. However, at some point in their lives these two American Revolution veterans mended their fences, so to speak. When Colonel Love applied for his Revolutionary War pension about fifty years later, a part of his paperwork was illegible and was about to be rejected. In defense of Love, the former President Jackson, who abhorred spelling, wrote the following letter from his desk at The Hermitage in Nashville:
October 12th, 1839
Your letter of the 26th ultimo has just been received, its contents being
duly noted, I hasten to reply to it.
I sincerely regret to find from the contents of your letter the treatment
which that worthy man & patriot, Col. Robert Love, has received at the hands
of the pension office – that a man who thro life has sustained such an
exemplary character, his honesty, & probity should be suspected, in his
decline of life, must be truly mortifying to him, as well as to the people of
North Carolina who have shown by their repeated acts of confidence in him,
their high estimation of his moral worth.
As you have requested, it gives me pleasure to state my knowledge of Col.
Robert Love. I became acquainted with him in North Carolina. I think in the
fall of *1784, and have known him ever since and eetot nothing in saying
that no man in this union has sustained a higher reputation for integrity,
than Col. Robert Love, with all men and with all parties. Altho himself a
uniform Democratic-Republican, and no man stands diservidly higher, as a man of great moral worth, than Col. Love’s has always stood, in the estimation of all who know him – that his integrity should, in his old age, be doubted must be a source of mortification, not only to himself, but to every man in No. Carolina, where he has been so often honored by this confidence, as a public character.
I am with great
respect yr. mo.
Addressed to: Mr. Michael Francis
*(In addition to his spelling and grammar, President Jackson’s date of 1784 was also incorrect.)
In those years between the race and the letter of 1839, Jackson regained his pride many times over, moving far beyond his original goal of a law practice in Nashville. As the first, and only, military governor of Florida, the newly ceded Spanish territory, Jacksonville, Florida was named in his honor. A statue of Andrew Jackson on “horseback” stands in Jacksonville. It is an exact replica of the one in Lafayette Park across from the White House in Washington, DC, which was the first statue of an equestrian ever erected in the United States.
The 1920s, 1930s, 1940s and 1950s
Now we need to fast forward nearly two hundred years to that same place where the Jackson-Love horse race had taken place. That territory became the state of Tennessee in 1796. Greasy Cove eventually became Erwin, the town where the bulk of my maternal family resided since the days of the race. My grandparents, Clyde Ernest Hampton, a great great-grandson of Colonel Love’s, married Ida Lee McInturff, his childhood sweetheart. My mother, their only child was born in 1928. They divorced three or four years later.
The Great Depression was in full force. Life was difficult for the vast majority of Americans in that era, but was even worse for a single mother. Ida worked several jobs, doing any honest work for a paycheck. At one time, washing dishes in a bar put food on the table for her and her child. Several years later, the still very young Ida married a widower, a man with two older children. Their marriage was far from a truly good marriage, to say the least, but she stuck it out for many years. However, during that period, she did get to go somewhere other than nearby Johnson City. They traveled to the rugged mountains of West Virginia where her husband worked in the coal mines and Ida rented out rooms to other miners, preparing three full meals a day for not only her family of five, but for their boarders.
Little Mary Lee, ill with Pleurisy and bedridden for a year, had to leave the coal country, so Ida and daughter moved back to Erwin. About that time, telephones became considered more of a necessity and were more affordable, so United Inter-Mountain Telephone began a growth spurt. Ida had a pleasing speaking voice, so she was hired by the phone company as an operator. While still young, but recovered from Pleurisy, Mary Lee slept on a cot in a tiny storage room back of the telephone switchboard when her mother worked the night shift. Time marched on. Upon graduation from high school, Mary Lee, with a similar speaking voice to her mother, was also hired as an operator.
Other than the trips to and from West Virginia, Ida and Mary Lee had never traveled. My grandmother’s unknown wanderlust eventually called out to her, beckoning her to see someplace far away from Erwin. At the telephone office, a co-worker told her about Mrs. Lemmon, a woman who had lived in Erwin, but had moved to Jacksonville Beach, Florida. And miracle upon miracle, she ran a guest house. Money was saved and plans were put in motion. Before long, Ida and Mary Lee boarded a Greyhound bus for a lengthy ride around the frightening hairpin curves on Spivey Mountain to Florida, a faraway flat land they had only heard about or seen in books.
When the wide-eyed pair arrived, there were all sorts of sights to see and experience, even on a limited budget. Awaiting them at Mrs. Lemmon’s house was a cozy room, along with a modern bathroom shared by all the guests. There they found bath towels were marked with personalized tags to distinguish one from another.
The Atlantic Ocean, the palm trees, the sand and the shells all fascinated them. At the boardwalk, there were rides, a carousel, roller coaster and Ferris wheel to name a few. The fragrance of the sea air mixed with the food vendor’s offerings probably put both women on sensory overload. There were people everywhere, more people than either woman had seen in one place at one time. The excitement of being in a very different place, long walks on the beach, skipping through the foamy surf and just soaking in the sights and sounds thrilled Ida and Mary Lee.
Mrs. Lemmon, a widow, also worked part-time for a food vendor on the boardwalk. It was there that Mary Lee met a young man whose name was David M. Gadd, a young sailor from Kentucky stationed in nearby Mayport. On dates with David, Mary Lee experienced her first rides on the massive roller coaster and Ferris wheel on the Jacksonville Beach boardwalk.
Mary Lee and Ida made one more trip to Jacksonville Beach before the late autumn of 1947. At that time, Bruce Blevins, a friend of Mary Lee’s arranged a blind date for her with his visiting cousin from Pennsylvania, Billie Harrell. Billie, originally from over the mountains in Mitchell County, North Carolina, had moved up north as a child in 1942. Billie, two years older than Mary Lee, was a farmer. Having served in the US Navy during WWII, for $9,000, he bought a large home and farm with his VA Loan after service.
No one knew a whirlwind romance would start with that simple introduction. After just one date, Billie knew Mary Lee was the young woman he wanted as his wife. He asked. She accepted. Two days later, Billie went back to Pennsylvania; sold a cow to buy his fiancée a ring, drove back to Tennessee to get her, and together they went back to Pennsylvania where they were married in a small ceremony in Maryland on Christmas Eve 1947. Mary Lee spent her first wedding anniversary in the hospital, as almost exactly a year later, on the twentieth of December 1948, this writer was born. Three years later, another daughter, Ruth Elaine (Ruthie), was born to the couple.
Again, time marched on. In due course, Ida and her second husband divorced. She eventually wound up in Jacksonville Beach, where she worked in a nursing home. The little Harrell family drove down from Pennsylvania for a visit that winter. It was such an event that even though it was chilly, photos was taken of the little Harrell sisters on the beach.
Ida eventually moved to Saint Petersburg, Florida, where she bought a little bungalow and worked at The Garden Cafeteria, a well known dining establishment that closed during the hot summer months when the snowbirds from up north were staying cool in their native habitat. In 1959, during the summer between this writer’s fifth and sixth grade years, the Harrell family took a vacation to Tennessee. Billie had to get back to Pennsylvania, but it was decided Mary Lee and daughters would fly, for the first time, for a month long visit in Florida with Ida.
Boarding a plane at Tri-Cities Airport, the eager threesome set out for their first flying adventure. After takeoff, the stewards handed out gum to chew to relieve pressure on our eardrums. There wasn’t a change of planes needed, but we landed at Imeson Airport in Jacksonville for refueling. Eventually, we landed in Tampa. Unfamiliar with taxis, a nice couple from the plane drove us to my grandmother’s house in Saint Petersburg. After a month of beaches, gathering shells, palm trees, city bus rides, doughnuts and cheesecake from Webb’s City, the Million Dollar Pier, ferocious thunderstorms, rummage sales, iced coffee and precious time with my grandmother, Daddy drove down from Pennsylvania to take his little trio back home.
The 1960s and 1970s
Again, time marched on. We moved from Pennsylvania to Virginia to Tennessee and back to Pennsylvania. Finally, we moved back to Johnson City, Tennessee during the Christmas holidays of 1963. Later, my parents and their best friends bought a commercial parcel of land in Maggie Valley, North Carolina. On one of our trips over there, my parents met another couple, the Nifongs. Of course, they were from Jacksonville, Florida. Their daughter, Judy, was my age. She and I corresponded for a long time.
In those days, my teenage idol was Johnny Tillotson, a young man who happened to be a native of Jacksonville. More hours than I recall were spent hours listening to his music. I was lucky enough to see/hear him several times and get his autograph.
A few years later in Johnson City, among other things, I graduated from Boones Creek High School in 1966, going on to East Tennessee State University. However, I dropped out after a year. It was only a few months later, June of 1967, that I married Roger Wilson, a young man from North Carolina and co-worker with my best friend and her husband at Tennessee Eastman. We had a beautiful daughter, Julia Elaine, in early April, 1970. However, in November of 1971, like my grandmother’s first marriage, our marriage ended in divorce.
One summer morning in 1972, Julie and I went to church as usual. After settling in the pew with my mother and sister, I looked across the small church where I noticed a new face. The young man was sitting with a young couple, Steve and Kathy, who just happened to be neighbors of mine. I took note of his attire and look. Candidly, I didn’t pay attention to the service that Sunday. My eyes rarely left the young man. After services, Mother encouraged me to speak with him, but I was far too timid.
I couldn’t get him out of my mind, but said nothing about it until Kathy paid an unexpected visit one day. She began talking about an Army buddy of Steve’s who had paid them a visit a few months earlier. I exclaimed, “Oh, do you mean the guy who had a mustache and was wearing a navy blue blazer, striped red tie, gray slacks and wore wire rim glasses?”
Kathy explained that he was from Florida, but was stationed in Germany, and that they corresponded with him on a regular basis. She then admitted she was going to tell him about me. I blushed, but was delighted. Several weeks later, there was an Air Mail envelope in my mailbox from Jim Stalnaker. We began writing to each other, and I discovered he was from Jacksonville. After a few weeks of intense correspondence, he began calling me. Between the letters and phone calls, I found out lots of things, just one of which was that he was born in Jacksonville.
In March of 1973, Jim called again from Germany, but this time was different. He asked if I would be his wife. I accepted his proposal. As I announced our engagement to my family and friends, he made a similar announcement to his family in Florida. Disguising the engagement ring to deter theft, Jim sent it with some other small things in a shoe box.
I began writing to his family. When Jim’s grandfather passed away that summer of 1973, Jim was unable to obtain leave. A short time later it was arranged that I fly down to meet his family. It was a very unusual situation, since I really hadn’t met Jim yet. His family was living in Lake City, some 90 miles from Jacksonville, where the largest local airport was located. So, I flew into the new Jacksonville International Airport. Imeson, located not far from the new one, had closed its doors and runways some years earlier. After a wonderful visit, my future mother-in-law and a friend drove me back to the airport, but missed the exit and had to turn around at the next one at Pecan Park Road.
The months eventually passed. In late September, Jim came home from the Army, returning to Johnson City. We decided to live in Florida for a few years, but move back to Tennessee at some point. So, before the wedding, we made a trip, in my 1968 Mustang, to Florida to find a home. We found a brand new apartment on the Westside of Jacksonville. In late October, we were married in the little church where I first laid eyes on Jim that summer Sunday the year before.
We lived in Jacksonville for a few months, but moved to Gainesville and then, Lake City, where we were living when Jimmy, Jr. was born in Gainesville on 10 August 1974.
In early 1975, Jim applied for a position with a newly opened subsidiary of Anheuser-Busch in Jacksonville. He landed the job and the money was much better, so our family of four returned to his hometown, Jacksonville.
My beloved father passed away in Johnson City in late September, 1977. One of my dad’s favorite singers was Elvis, who died two months before my dad. Coincidentally, one of Elvis’ most famous songs, Heartbreak Hotel, was written by Mae Axton in Jacksonville, in house a hop, skip and a jump from where we lived. One of my neighbors/friends had Mrs. Axton as a music teacher and graduated with her son, the actor, Hoyt Axton.
About six months later in the spring of 1978, we sold our little bungalow home in the Lakeshore area to buy a much larger home, a four bedroom house in the Rolling Hills section of Jacksonville.
Completely settled into our newly acquired home, our last child, Jeffrey William, was born in Jacksonville on 6 April 1980, almost 10 years to the hour after his sister’s birth. Life moved on.
At some point, and I can’t recall what year it was, Mother and Ruthie came down for a visit. Somehow, Mother and I started talking about her first trip to Jacksonville Beach and David Gadd. Mother felt certain he had moved back to Kentucky after his stint in the military. On a whim, I took out the Jacksonville telephone book to see if, by some small chance, he had remained in Jacksonville. Lo and behold, there was the name, David M. Gadd. More miraculously, especially in a large city, he lived only a couple of miles from our home, but I did nothing about it. After they returned to Tennessee, I did call and found out this was the very same David M. Gadd who had taken my mother on her first roller coaster and Ferris wheel rides at Jacksonville Beach over three decades earlier.
The next time my mother and sister came for a visit, I arranged for David to come to the house for a reunion. When I answered the door, he said, “Mary Lee, you’ve not changed a bit.” I laughed, quickly admitting I was Mary Lee’s daughter. Mother, David and my family all gathered in the den for the get-together. They reminisced for quite some time. David told stories about his military career and retirement. He finally asked my mother to go out for a glass of Champagne, but my teetotaler mother declined his invitation. They did, however, keep in touch through the years with letters and Christmas cards.
The 1990s and 2000s
All three of my children, Julie, Jimmy and Jeffrey, attended and graduated from schools in Jacksonville. Julie married Michael Aalberg, had Sterling, a precious little boy. Julie and Mike divorced in 1995, and she entered college the following year. In the autumn of 1997, Jimmy married Brenda, a charming girl he’d met at work.
1998 was Jeffrey’s last year of high school. Jim and I divorced in July. Jeffrey left for college in August. Suddenly, I had a very empty nest. I was single again after almost 25 years of marriage. Almost 50-years-old, I was frightened and excited at the same moment. I knew I wanted to travel, so two of the first things I did was get new, lighter weight luggage and a passport.
In 2004, Jimmy and Brenda had a precious little girl they named Grayland. Julie married again in March of 2002. That August, Jeffrey married Rachel, a delightful girl he met while in college. In 2006, they had a precious daughter, Sophia. Rachel had wanted to use a family name, so I went through my genealogy files. There were many choices, but the one she and Jeff decided to use for a first name was the name of one of Colonel Love’s daughters.
Every single flight, be it domestic or international, that I’ve ever taken has involved the Jacksonville airport. In 2000, I moved from the house I’d shared with my family for twenty two years to a rented condo. The I-95 exit for it was Pecan Park Road, the same place where my mother-in-law had done a turnaround for the airport all those years earlier. And, the rented condo was a stone’s throw from JAX and Imeson.
While residing in the condo, a man I dated from New Orleans who had lived in Jacksonville many years earlier. When he drove to Jacksonville for a visit, he said he felt like he was coming home. On the phone one evening, we hit on the subject of teenage idols. I told him of my adoration of Johnny Tillotson, his music, the fact I had friends who’d known him to some degree when he was a kid, and that I’d never written him a fan letter. He asked if I had ever checked as to whether or not Johnny had a web site.
Immediately, I went to my computer. My eyes lit up when I found just that. When I noticed there was an e-mail address that was with AOL, I was doubly delighted. I’d been a member of AOL since 1995. Coincidentally, at that time, one of their main hubs was in Jacksonville. After the phone call ended, I whipped out a belated fan letter. I’ve since lost it due to a computer crash, but I recall starting it out by saying that this was a belated fan letter and I didn’t expect Johnny to read the letter. A few days passed. I received a reply, but thought it would be something computer generated. Much to my amazement, it was not. The person writing was Johnny’s wife, Nancy. She began by saying, “Wanda, Johnny has read your belated fan letter…” She and I corresponded for a few months, but with the passage of time lost touch.
In 2004, my landlord sold the condo, so a move was necessary. After 31 years in Jacksonville, I transplanted myself to Kingsland, a very small town just over the FL/GA border. It is located 20 miles from the condo, but in Georgia. Shortly after moving in, I needed to have a document notarized, so I went to a mailbox store two blocks away. Several people were there that day, so when the lady handed me my document, I turned to anyone who was listening to ask a question.
“Can anyone tell me where I go to get my driver’s license?” I queried. Everyone sort of pitched in to give me directions. I thanked them and began to walk out.
As an afterthought, I turned to ask, “Does anyone happen to know the hours they are open?”
A tall, skinny, red-haired man, with a very slow Southern drawl answered, “Thursday.”
Accustomed to most things being open at least five days a week, my jaw dropped.
A couple of the people sort of chuckled. One said, “You must be from the big city.”
I proudly answered, “Yes, I’m from Jacksonville.”
One day in early 2007, my mother called from Tennessee to ask a favor of me. She was concerned because she had not heard from David Gadd since the Christmas card she’d received from him in 2006. She said, “It’s very unlike him to not have sent a card this Christmas past.” Immediately, I set about looking his number up in an old Jacksonville phone directory. The number was there, but was no longer in service when I tried it. At that point, I went to the computer to look up Jacksonville obituaries. There I found the sad news; David M. Gadd had passed away shortly after Christmas 2006. Also, I discovered he had been buried in Jacksonville at the cemetery right around the corner from our house in Rolling Hills, the very place he and my mother had reestablished their friendship years earlier.
As I went through Jacksonville yesterday on my way back home from a visit with Jimmy, Brenda and Grayland, I thought about this story. Then, as I passed the all too familiar exits for the Rolling Hills house, the airport and Pecan Park Road, memories flew through my mind like photos never taken. There is definitely a Jacksonville connection for me and my family, generations past and present, one that seems to have started well over 200 years ago with a horse race between two men, both of whom were in that North Carolina territory we now call Tennessee, were avid equestrians, Presbyterians, of Scots-Irish descent, veterans of the American Revolution and staunch Democratic-Republicans.
To mark the area where the racetrack was long ago, there is a historical marker and the section of I-26 that runs along that river bottom land is called the Jackson-Love Highway.
I question if there is really just 6 degrees of separation from everyone in the world, and if so, does that also include historically? Colonel Love is/was my 4th great-grandfather, so that’s six generations back. Another question is who would have thought the Jackson-ville connection, an association that started out so poorly, would linger down through all these years?