The play “The Deacon” was presented in Baldwyn’s “Opera House” on December 20, 1907. The Opera House at that time was the second floor of a new brick school building, just completed in 1904. Local author Louis Cochran offered a description of the venue in his 1955 book “Hallelujah, Mississippi.”
“The second floor was one big room with a rostrum, or stage, and rows of wooden benches and cane-bottom chairs for the school exercises and church plays. The grown folks referred to it as the “Opera House,” and packed its walls to the gills for such affairs or when it was used for a week’s run [by] an occasional stock company from Memphis or New Orleans.”
It was quite a place, very worthy of the Horace C. Dale comedic-drama to be performed there by fourteen Baldwyn students that December Friday night in 1907.
Today, on the western wall of Agnew’s Restaurant in the Pratt community, just to the left of the cash register, a framed hand bill promoting this particular production of “The Deacon” still hangs, its theatrical run completed some 105 years ago. As Agnew’s owner Debbie Moore and I recently discussed this enigmatic, yellowing scrap of paper, Debbie rhetorically asked, “Who ARE these people?” Now that was a puzzle worth pursuing, I thought, to discover something more about these young men and women who walked Baldwyn’s Main Street over a century ago.
Last week we took a look at the first seven cast members. This week, we’ll look at the final seven. “Who are these people?”
Nick Latimer portrayed “an officer.” Nicholas Stubbs Latimer, born in 1894, was the 5th son of farmer Robert Latimer and Sarah Walker Latimer. Both his grandfathers were doctors – Dr. Benjamin Latimer in South Carolina and Dr. Sam Walker in Baldwyn – and his baby sister, by 5 years, was Mary Hortense, an educator in Baldwyn schools that many remember as “Miss Hortense.” Latimer Park and Latimer Street in Baldwyn are named for this family. Nick and wife Kathleen lived in Birmingham where he worked as an electrician.
Lottie Belle Lewellen portrayed Mrs. Thornton. Lottie Belle was born in 1892 to William and Sarah Mauldin Lewellen. Beginning in the 1930’s, her brother Will Ellis operated the Outlaw-Lewellen Gin on the east side of the railroad tracks in Baldwyn with Claude and Elbert Outlaw. Lottie Belle’s first cousin was Tom Mauldin, who began Tom’s Drug Store and operated it for decades. Lottie Belle never married. She died in 1977.
Lula Caldwell portrayed Helen Thornton. Lula Caldwell is the one cast member whose identification remains a mystery. There is clearly a “Lula Caldwell” listed in the 1907-1908 catalogue of Baldwyn High School students, but I have found no clear information elsewhere. “Lula” Caldwell may be Annie L. Caldwell, a niece of Ben Caldwell, who was the owner of Baldwyn’s first GM dealership, but that determination is too uncertain to make based on information I have.
Emma Smythe portrayed Daisy Dean. Emma’s grandfather was Dr. Anson Gorden Smythe, a doctor in old Carrollville and later in Baldwyn. He was a founding member of the Medical Board of Mississippi. Emma never married and lived on North 2nd Street her entire life. She worked as a cashier and salesperson on Main Street for H.L. Spivey in his Ben Franklin store. Emma died in 1973.
Kate Newman portrayed Mrs. Darrah. Katie Belle Newman was born in 1891, the daughter of local newspaper editor, Charley Newman, and the great granddaughter of original Carrollville settler Samuel Rowan. Sometime after 1910, Katie journeyed to Mokpo, Korea, where she married missionary doctor William Painter Gilmer at the American Consulate on June 3, 1924. Katie gave birth to their only child Kathryn Newman Gilmer on May 11, 1926. Tragically, Katie died eleven days after giving birth. Dr. Gilmer and the infant Kathryn returned to the U.S. to stay a year later in June of 1927. William had by that time married Katie’s younger sister Helen, the previous February, a practice not uncommon for a young widower with a newborn in that era.
Edith Sloan portrayed Nellie Darrah. Edith was the youngest cast member, only 11 years old in 1907. Her character Nellie Darrah was a child of the character played by Errett Moore in the show. Edith was the daughter of Baldwyn merchant George Sloan, the owner of George Sloan General Merchandise. His store was located on Main Street in the spot that later became Kirk Hardware. In 1914, Edith Sloan graduated high school with Frank Agnew, the original owner of the Pratt store where the playbill now hangs.
Mabel Milton portrayed Miss Amelia Faucett. Mabel, born in 1891, was a younger sister of Clarence Milton, who played the title role of Deacon Thornton. Mabel became a teacher, teaching in Baldwyn, Moorhead and Hattiesburg. At Moorhead, she worked for J. Sloan Vandiver, and boarded with Vandiver and his wife Blanche. J.S. Vandiver was himself a Baldwyn graduate. He started the very first junior college in the South, Sunflower Junior College, in Moorhead and later became State Superintendent of Education. Mabel eventually left teaching and worked as a stenographer for a law office in Clarksdale, where she lived with her sister Hazel. She died at only 53 years old in 1945.
Obviously, there’s still a lot we don’t know about this group. Surely, each of them had eventful lives that included their share of tragedy and triumph. What we do know for certain is that fourteen talented students lived and laughed and put on a show, upstairs in the new brick schoolhouse, just south of Main Street. All of them, eight boys and six girls, were real, flesh-and-blood Baldwyn kids, who could never have imagined, when they put on their costumes and peeked from behind the curtain just before Christmas break in 1907, that their performance would make news more than a century later.
But it did.