Monthly Archives: November 2012

NOW SHOWING at the Opera House: “The Deacon”

Opera House Play Bill 1907

An early 20th century play bill found at Agnew’s Restaurant near Baldwyn, Mississippi

On the western wall of Agnew’s Restaurant, just to the left of the cash register, is a framed scrap of paper, a hand bill for a theatrical production presented sometime and somewhere in the distant past. Its three-line heading reads,

“OPERA HOUSE.

Friday Night, Dec. 20.

THE DEACON.”

The bill lists the play’s cast of characters, its expected duration (“Time, Two and One-Half Hours.”), and a summary of the acts that would be presented. Finally, at the very bottom of the bill, the general public is informed that the production is offered “Admission Free.”

Now, I’ve seen this play bill many times, as Agnew’s is a firm and regular stop on our work gang’s weekly lunch circuit, but it was only a couple months ago that I asked eatery-owner Debbie Moore about it. Debbie informed me that the play bill had been given to her mother, Lana Sue Kesler, by long-time Baldwyn resident Jewel Tapp, when Debbie and husband Rodney were first collecting “historical decorations” for their restaurant.

As we pondered the paper’s possible origins, I remembered an account I had heard, from Billy Roberson, regarding a Baldwyn “Opera House,” where as early as 1904, professional theater groups performed. Roberson’s father-in-law, the late Claude Gentry, had described this particular Opera House in his 1989 book “Main Street Movie.” The theater he described was located in a 2nd-floor, 50’ by 80’ space over two buildings on the north side of Main Street. It seated in excess of 300 people, and was accessed by a stairway that rose from street level.

Maybe the “OPERA HOUSE,” the one named in the play bill on the wall at Agnew’s, IS this Baldwyn Municipal Opera House. That certainly seemed like a plausible explanation.

“Yep, that’s probably it.”

“Probably.”

I wondered if there might be something else to be discovered from this scrap of paper with just a bit more detective work. Debbie graciously made a photo of the document, and sent it to me.

“Let us know what you find out.”

And now, two months later, here goes:

In a search for the play “The Deacon”, I first uncovered, not the play itself, but an advertisement FOR the play, in the final pages of another turn-of-the-20th-century book. This lucky find revealed something new and important, the name of the play’s author, Horace C. Dale. Armed with this lead, I soon found the play’s publication date – 1892 – and finally, a month later, an on-line copy of all five acts, the comic tale of a diamond robbery, eventually resolved by the title character. With “The Deacon” found, the next question arose: “When was the exact performance, the one publicized on the wall at Agnew’s, performed … and by whom?” Certainly, it wasn’t produced before 1892.

There were 14 people named in the cast including Clarence Milton, Lula Caldwell and Nick Latimer. Though no name was specifically known to me, several were at least familiar as “Baldwyn names.” Using Ancestry.com, I eventually found information on all but two cast members. The entire group had indeed lived in Baldwyn in the early 1900’s, and they were ALL born – get this – between the years 1888 and 1896. Additionally, I noticed that one of the cast members – Paul Thomas – had died young, at the age of 22, in 1916. Obviously, the play had to have been performed in 1916 or earlier (and was almost surely performed in Baldwyn).

No year was provided in the date shown on the Agnew’s flyer, only “Friday Night, Dec. 20,” but the cast search had also revealed that the play’s youngest performer, Edith Sloan, was not born until 1896. The play could ONLY have occurred between 1896 and 1916. During that 20-year period, there were three Friday, December 20th’s: 1901, 1907 and 1912.

In 1901, the oldest cast member (Emma Smythe, born in 1888) was 13 years old, and Edith Sloan was 5. It seems very unlikely that this 5-act play would have been performed by children so young. I ruled out 1901. By 1912, Smythe would have been 24 and Sloan 16, with all other cast members falling between those ages. While this age range might not be out of the question for a “community theater” group, it seems inconsistent with the times that 20-year-olds would have produced this type of theatrical performance without more mature cast members on hand.

The most likely date of the play is December 20, 1907. In that year, each cast member would have been “school age,” from Edith Sloan’s 11 to Emma Smythe’s 19. In fact, apart from Sloan, all the other cast members would have been in high school at the time. When taking into account that the final line on the play bill is “ADMISSION FREE,” it seems logical that the production was a school play.

My conclusion to all this is that on Friday, December 20, 1907, fourteen Baldwyn school students, mostly high-schoolers, performed the Horace C. Dale 5-act play “The Deacon” in the “Opera House.”

But was this “Opera House” THE municipal opera house on Main Street? Well, most likely, it was not. From several independent sources that recounted stories of early 1900’s Baldwyn, the term “Opera House” was found to refer, not only to the city’s Main Street theater, but also to an open room on the 2nd floor of the 1904 schoolhouse, which stood approximately where the Baldwyn water tower is now. The most recent identification of this school location as an “opera house” was provided to me by Jimmy Cunningham who possessed a very similar play bill to the one hanging at Agnew’s. This bill, however, was clearly a school play, the senior class play of 1922, in fact, and was held in – you guessed it – the “Opera House.” It makes sense, when all the factors are considered, that a production by Baldwyn High School students, especially one that was “admission free,” would have been held on school grounds and not in the for-profit, downtown theater.

I reported back to Debbie Moore all that I had found out about the little scrap of paper that hung on their wall there at Agnew’s. She was surprised that so much could be scraped together from such a small, simple item. I was a little surprised myself. The “What,” “When,” and “Where” now answered, we looked at the paper and its still enigmatic cast list. Debbie asked, probably rhetorically, “Who ARE all these people?”

I thought, “Well now, that’s a pretty good question, too.” Next time.

Note: The Baldwyn Municipal Opera House, located above 110 & 112 West Main Street, was destroyed by a deadly tornado in 1942, and Baldwyn’s first brick school building, a two-story structure that existed near the current location of the city’s U.S. Post Office, burned in 1943. Both venues were lost to the community, over the course of just a few months, approximately 70 years ago.

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The Death of Colonel William H. H. Tison – Part 2

Col. William Henry Haywood Tison

Baldwyn resident Col. William H. H. Tison was Speaker of the House in Mississippi and a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in 1860. He rose through Mississippi’s political ranks from a modest start as a saddle maker in old Carrollville in the 1840’s.

Baldwyn, Mississippi – December 4th, 1882.  Having reached the crest of Town Hill now, where the dirt of Main and Front Streets intersect, the colonel looks first south to the depot, that beehive with cotton as honey, where he and Houston’s son Glen had pulled their pistols on the boy Thursday, and then north to Baldwyn’s engineering marvel, the railroad engine turntable.  He believes – no, he knows – the entirety of his future lies here before him.  Surely it does.  He pivots on the leg, wincing only slightly, and moves north up Front towards his warehouse, past the still darkened doorway of McDonald & Co., the December wind in his face.

Seventeen years before today, twenty days after the Battle of Franklin, Col. William H.H. Tison was finally able to send word to his family that he was not dead in Tennessee as had been reported to them.  Tison had survived, almost miraculously, the slaughter-pen that occurred November 30, 1864, where 6,000 of his fellow confederates died.  He survived, but he was not unscathed.  He sent word to Sarah and his children that he had indeed been injured, severely, and could not continue to fight.  He would soon journey home, and he suspected he would not be alone.  The war would be over within a few months if the bloodbath in Franklin was any indication, and it was.  Col. Tison’s return to Baldwyn was not that of the conquering hero that had been imagined by he and so many others some four years previous.  He limped into Baldwyn, his left leg, gashed by a broken shard of his own sword propelled by a Yankee mini-ball, not healed but functional, to find a buried child, his five year-old son Richard; a distraught wife; and destruction and hopelessness as far as the eye could see.

Today, his head high and his eyes forward as always, Tison can feel the December cold in every step as he turns north onto Front Street from Main, past McDonald & Co., and reaches the clapboard warehouse, just south of Phillips Supply,  where he keeps the reserve stock of merchandise for his dry goods store.  Crossing the porch and pushing through the double leaf front doors, he sees his whiskey in the dim light near the back wall, case after case.  It had all been ready for distribution last week, before he was delayed, before he had to deal with the distraction of brother Houston’s daughter Ellen and that boy.  More would be arriving on the southbound this afternoon, and the boys will need to clear some space.  Tison barks orders at the two fresh-faced clerks in his employ there on Front Street, and they respond immediately, quickly beginning to load a wagon with crates to be shipped out to Campbellton through the large doorway on the north side of the building.

His orders heeded, Tison plucks up his railroad shipping papers from a barrelhead just inside the warehouse door and wheels back across the porch onto Front Street.  He climbs the hill towards Main, on the way to the Mobile & Ohio depot, to discuss with the station agent the status of the shipments missed over the last three days.  He had not seen the agent since the business last Thursday night, when he had backed him into his depot office, while Houston did his duty on that Sanders boy.

Though his Christian zeal, ignited once by a pious and convincing Methodist circuit-rider, was now dim and decades behind him, Tison still required high moral standards, at least publicly, from his family, if not for their own sake, at least to preserve reputation.  The colonel never thought that he would have to save that reputation in the fashion required on the depot platform Thursday.  Three days it has taken since to get Houston, his wife Sarah Ann, the four girls and the three little boys removed to Memphis.  Glen, who also held a pistol that night to collect the debt owed his sister and father, will remain in Baldwyn and attend to Houston’s property and business until other arrangements can be made.  A niece with child, out of wedlock, is simply not something the Speaker of the House of Mississippi can have in full view of constituents.  The liquor is one thing, but immorality of this nature is not overcome in Mississippi politics in 1882.

“You,” a voice calls from the east-facing doorway of McDonald & Company, the street level business in the three-story whitewashed Cox Building.  The Colonel turns toward the voice, over his right shoulder.  In the doorway is the boy, Ed Sanders – the boy who Col. William Tison and his nephew Glen held at gunpoint on Thursday when he got off the train, the boy whose child Houston’s girl is carrying in Memphis, the boy Houston beat almost to death three days ago.  Sander’s left eye is still swollen almost shut, his chin and forehead are scabbed over, unbandaged, and he wobbles slightly until he braces his left shoulder against the door frame.  The fingers of his right hand press against the dual triggers of the double barrel shotgun he holds, leveled perfectly at the Colonel’s right side, not twenty feet away.  The Colonel starts to speak, but there is no hesitation in Sanders, the boy who thinks he loves the girl of privilege, the girl who has been separated from him to Memphis, the girl who is carrying his child.  His first blast strikes the colonel waist-high and drops him to his knees on Front Street fifteen yards north of the crest of Town Hill where Main and Front intersect.  The shot instantly summons the populace to doorways and windows.  Those on the street turn to the sudden sound that has shattered the normal Monday of a Mississippi railroad town to see the kneeling, bleeding colonel.

“Boy, don’t thi—“

The second shot catches the colonel in the throat removing most of it.  Twice more the ex-Confederate Colonel William Henry Haywood Tison breathes the air of Baldwyn through extraordinary will or perhaps just habit, his body not yet knowing that this cause, too, is lost.  Authorities descend on the abused animal, the boy Sanders, who drops the shotgun not having thought beyond this moment, his vengeance complete, and the blood of Col. William H.H. Tison – legislator, postmaster, merchant, newspaperman, farmer, husband, father, and maker of saddles in old Carrollville – descends into the hard-packed dirt of Front Street, fifteen yards north of the crest of Town Hill, the trajectory of his soul unknown.

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The Death of Colonel William H. H. Tison – Part 1

Col. William Henry Haywood Tison

Baldwyn resident Col. William H. H. Tison was Speaker of the House in Mississippi and a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in 1860. He rose through Mississippi’s political ranks from a modest start as a saddle maker in old Carrollville in the 1840’s.

Baldwyn, Mississippi – December 4th, 1882.  It’s Monday morning, and Col. William Tison could use some sleep.  Life has been a tumultuous whirlwind the past three days for this veteran of war and politics, but he managed, as he always has, through righteous persuasion or brutal coercion or, sometimes, an elegant balance of the two.   At this stage in his life, the confederate colonel-turned-legislator would be hard-pressed to name anything he couldn’t handle.  And he wouldn’t if he could.

Tison dismounts and leaves the black mare, on which he has just covered a mile of hard-packed dirt, at the livery stable on the south side of Main Street across from the Irishman’s shoe shop.  The bustling little railroad town parts for its acknowledged leader, and he strides with his recognizable, hitched but confident, gait east down Main, toward his warehouse and the Mobile & Ohio depot, where there is money to be made.

Aged 60 years and 28 days, Colonel Tison rules Baldwyn.  Despite constant pain from a left leg that has never been the same after the devastating injury he suffered at the Battle of Franklin, and despite all the maneuvering that was required to keep him and his family afloat and prosperous through Reconstruction, and despite this latest unsavory business with his brother Houston’s girl and that clerk boy of McDonald’s, William Henry Haywood Tison had managed to climb to the top rung and stay there.  It isn’t 1845 anymore, and “Bill” Tison isn’t making saddles in old Carrollville these days.  Farmer, merchant, statesmen, veteran – Col. W.H.H. Tison is the current Speaker of the House in Mississippi, and frankly, a run for governor is not out of the question.  A history as a decorated and battle-hardened confederate can take a man in Mississippi a long way in 1882, especially one who has a way with words to begin with.  Has it really been thirty years since he was editor of the Eastport Republican?

There’s nothing like rousing words to accomplish a man’s goals, the colonel had always thought.  In the early days of Tishomingo County, a patriotic oration on the 4th of July from Bill Tison was as regular and certain as the annual barbeque held in Carrollville, the county’s first settlement, and always appreciated.    In fact, the Independence Day band of 1853 responded to a particularly boisterous Tison address, in which he recounted American wartime victories over England and Mexico, by spontaneously striking up “Old Dan Tucker” and playing it, not once, but repetitively until the budding politician finally stepped down from the bandstand and into the cheering crowd of his contemporaries.  Yet it was his eloquence with the printed word as editor of the Eastport Reporter newspaper in the early 1850’s to which he generally pointed as the thing that drew the attention of a young Sarah Selina Walker.  Sarah, a sister to the county sheriff (and thirteen other siblings), had newly arrived from Jackson County, Alabama, and she and William were married on April 21st, 1853.  In all, they had five children – Eliza Sale, Nancy, Richard, Rebel Quitman, and James Henry – between 1855 and 1866.

Today, force of will alone moves the colonel’s leg in the low, circular motion that’s left to him, and each cold step lands with pain.  The impotent December sun hangs there in the morning sky at the end of Main Street, above the Home Hotel and the depot and the M&O.  If the irony was not so bitter, the colonel would laugh at how the “easy life” had approached Baldwyn like a freight train twenty-two years ago.  The joke is:  “It was a freight train.”  Never has optimism faded, been crushed, in a town so quickly or decisively.  Standing near the crest of the hill at the crossing of Front Street, Col. Tison can almost hear 1860 and that first train whistle blowing, can almost smell the smoke of the engine that ground to a halt, right there, by the cotton platform.  Then, the war started, within three months, and absolutely nothing, railroad or no railroad, has been easy since.

Over the last twenty years, tragedy became the rule rather than the exception for most of the Baldwyn families who had been prominent before the war.  The bloody battles from 1861 to 1865 claimed sons and fathers from virtually every household in town, and while the Colonel would never publically admit that the cause he had promoted was not a just one, the once-zealous Methodist surely knew that it was not, and he knew, too, that it was the pro-slavery stance of his Mississippi delegation, and their subsequent walk-out from the 1860 Democratic National Convention, as much as anything, that led to the election of the Republican Lincoln and the war of pride that cost the lives of brothers and cousins and friends.  In spite of it all, somehow, Tison had held on to his dry goods business, and after Reconstruction ended, his politician-colonel persona also reemerged and with considerable success, but even the mighty Tisons knew pain and loss.

For Tison’s wife Sarah, it was Richard’s death at the age of 5 in July of 1865, their first boy, that would always be the low point of her life.  Richard died in her arms in Monroe County, where the family was trying to survive, fatherless, awaiting the return of the colonel, who was still recovering from the injuries he suffered in Franklin.

Sarah’s grip had been shaken already in December of 1864, just seven months before the loss of Richard, when she had received a false report from the war front.  She was informed, not that William had been injured, but that he had in fact died at the Battle of Franklin.  As she learned later, had it not been for the indomitable survival instinct of her husband, this pioneer who with Lowry and Belsher and Clayton and Walker pulled up Carrollville and then Baldwyn out of the Chickasaw wilderness, that report would certainly have been true.

As a battle raged on November 30, 1864, near Franklin, Tennessee, some 20 miles south of Nashville, where 6,000 confederates died, repulsed in ordered charge after charge into superior Union forces, a Yankee mini ball struck the tip of a sword William Tison carried, a blade he had captured from a Union officer earlier in the war.  The sword tip and ball both gashed into the colonel’s left leg, and he fell immobile on the battlefield.  The severity of the wound and the loss of blood forced his company to abandon their leader there in the Franklin field, where the South lost 54 other regimental commanders and fourteen generals.  He was truly “left for dead” and reported as such by his own men, but he did not die.  The man who had risen from the ground as a frontier saddler to become a leader in the Mississippi Democratic party and an already commended officer, wounded and cited for bravery in Atlanta, refused to give up the ghost there in Tennessee or to lose his leg or to not walk again.

Having reached the crest of Town Hill now, where the dirt of Main and Front Streets intersect, the colonel looks first south to the depot, that beehive with cotton as honey, where he and Houston’s son Glen had pulled their pistols on the boy Thursday, and then north to Baldwyn’s engineering marvel, the railroad engine turntable.  He believes – no, he knows – the entirety of his future lies here before him.  Surely it does.  He pivots on the leg, wincing only slightly, and moves north up Front towards his warehouse, past the still darkened doorway of McDonald & Co., the December wind in his face.

To be continued …

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What It’s All About

Granny Gardner - After Appendectomy - c1954

In the wheelchair is Alice Rogers “Granny” Gardner. Dr. R.B. Caldwell (standing, right) removed her appendix at Caldwell Memorial Hospital when she was 97 years old. She lived another 10 years. Also pictured, standing left to right, are Jane Waters and Hester Spight.

When I walk out the front door of my office, on the north side of Main Street, the block between 2nd and 3rd, I can look to my right and see the place, the very spot, where I entered this world.  In September of 1964, through the Herculean efforts of Dr. Gene Caldwell and my mother, my initial entry into what would be my hometown – Baldwyn, Mississippi – occurred.I made my debut south of Main at the Caldwell Memorial Hospital, a medical facility created and operated by a family of local physicians including father R.B. and sons Gene and Mike.  I weighed in at 10 pounds and 3 ounces and proceeded upwards from there.  At this same Caldwell Hospital, a decade earlier in 1954, Dr. R.B. Caldwell removed the appendix of my very own great, great grandmother, Alice Rogers Gardner.  “Granny” was 97 years old when the surgery was performed, making her the oldest woman ever to have had such a procedure, at least at that time.  She lived another 10 years.

If I turn and look a little farther west, past the red light at the intersection of Highway 145 and Main Street, I can see the historic First Methodist Church, a survivor of multiple tornadoes over its century-plus existence, two deadly ones in a single day in 1942.  In this church, I married the love of my life, the lovely and talented Rothann McGee.  As my neighbor and First Methodist member John Haynes often reminds me, “I’m crazy about her.”If I walk out the back door of my office overlooking Clayton Street, I can almost see the Phillips 66 service station (now Mayor Michael James’ Southern Auto Sales) where I worked for my grandfather Mort Gardner and my great uncle Jack Hamblin, Jr., pumping gas and fixing flats, summers and Saturdays, for much of my boyhood.  Past that, just out of sight, is the high school where I graduated, where I took chemistry under Fred Benjamin and math under Margaret Roberts and Red Shelton, and where I played basketball on a District Championship team in 1982 with old friends Roscoe Taylor, Sleepy Price, Skip Dobbs, Mike Ford and Patrick Calomese, among others.On a fall Friday night, I can look east out my back door, across the same railroad tracks that gave birth to our town in 1860, and I can see the glow of football lights above Latimer Park.  Under those lights, I played four seasons of high school football, all for head coach Hubert Tucker and assistants Bud Reynolds, Willie Bender and Jimmy Dillinger.  It was in Latimer Park that Willie Bender instructed me on the need to take immediate action, when opportunities arise, with this pearl of wisdom: “He who hesitates is lost.”   In fact, he told me this so many times, I would have sworn it was in the Bible, and I’m still not certain that it’s not.  On the other hand, defensive coordinator Bud Reynolds would occasionally offer his own commentary on my performance, critiques that, even then, I understood were probably not biblical quotations, at least not verbatim.

Along the streets here in downtown, the old storefronts bring to mind many things – seeing a movie at Wayne Stone’s Ritz Theater; browsing at a very young age through Forrest Grisham’s Golden Rule store with my mother; shopping with Rothann, newly married, for a washing machine at Tom Hassell’s; and eating some kind of chopped-walnut-in-syrup concoction over sundaes at Tom’s Drug Store after school (a possible reason for my weight proceeding upwards from that initial 10 lb., 3 oz. start).

I worship God in Baldwyn; I’m a member at First Baptist Church.  My children – four sons, 9 to 22 – are being or have been raised in Baldwyn.  All four of my children’s grandparents live in Baldwyn, within easy reach for dog- or kid-sitting duty.  My engineering company, Quail Ridge Engineering, now approaching 17 years in business, where I spend my days, is located right here at 112 West Main Street in Baldwyn.  In fact, historically, currently, consistently, the most important events of my life have occurred in a not-very-big circle around where I currently stand, on Main Street, with its crosswalks and handrails and street lights and ghosts of wonderful people gone on.

Recently, I was approached by the Main Street Chamber to assist in developing a “Historic Walk” for downtown Baldwyn.  The task was to supply a history for the buildings within the Historic District and then to summarize that history to a plaque-sized paragraph that would, in a nutshell, supply a visitor from anywhere with the quintessential “story” of each building.  As a person who loves history and writing, I jumped into this task with both feet (Chamber Director Lori Tucker might add the caveat, “after only a year of procrastination”).  Quickly I discovered, or at least realized, that the real stories to be found in these buildings, the compelling ones, the most interesting ones, were not just the brick and mortar structural descriptions nor even the properties’ business-to-business timelines over decades of use.  The essential tales to be told were the stories of the people who occupied the buildings and whose lives simultaneously shaped this community.

For example, the story of the building on the northeast corner of 3rd and Main, now Mary Jane Rackley & Co., was more than the simple sentence, “This building was once Jessie Archer’s Hat Shop in the early 1900s.”  The story was and is that Jessie Archer, the person, was a talented writer who wrote a famous poem regarding a Chickasaw Indian legend called “Nemo-Akin” that is cited often as an important work of the period; that she never married but had a lifelong love, a travelling salesman from Tennessee, with whom she would dine upon his arrival by train at the “Our Home” Hotel on Water Street, that as a girl her father would not allow her and her sisters to read the comic pages in the Sunday papers until Monday, in strict and somber observance of the Sabbath.

Similarly, the story of the building on East Main newly occupied by Paden Stone’s The Barber Chair is not merely the basic statement “This building was once a general merchandise store owned by Ed Cochran.”  More importantly, Ed Cochran’s son, Louis Wilder Cochran, wrote an only-slightly-fictionalized account of the Baldwyn he knew as a boy, just after the turn of the 20th century, called “Hallelujah, Mississippi.”  And with this novel he became a New York Times best-selling author.

Baldwyn has had at least two Speakers of the House in the state legislature, one of whom was murdered on Front Street while he still served in the position; one U.S. congressman in Private John Allen; a governor who lived here in pre-Baldwyn Carrollville for at least a short while in the 1800’s; several men who were hung, some justified and some not; a founding member of the Medical Board of Mississippi, now buried in thick, almost unreachable woods near Brice’s Crossroads; and the first Miss Congeniality ever chosen in the Miss America contest.  The stories go on and on.

The Historic Walk and the building plaques represent an important and exciting new endeavor in our community.  It is a project I whole-heartedly endorse, and I will continue to work diligently to aid in its success.  But as an addendum to that effort, each week in The Baldwyn News, a new column entitled “Talk of the Town” will appear.  I will expand the story of the buildings in the Historic District and the people who have animated them, until the stories run out or I wear out.

I am hopeful that this effort would have pleased both my friend and inspiration Simon “Buddy” Spight and his mentor, local author and historian Claude Gentry.  And I’m hopeful that you will enjoy “Talk of the Town.”

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