My great-grandfather Virgil is second from the left. His brother Charles, whose grave we visited in 2000 (below) is second from the right.
The theme of this Sunday’s sermon is Temperance.
If you’re one of the two people who’ve been closely following this earth-shattering series of posts on my lineage, so far we’ve covered big hunks of American history from Plymouth Rock through the Civil War. As we move to the next generation, we start to come tantalizingly close to stuff we know much more about personally.
Casting our gaze backwards at our family histories (at least in mine) it feels like the grey fuzzy horizon between the known and the purely imagined is our great grandparents, whom we’ve heard a lot about from older family members but will always remain frustratingly just out of reach, for in most cases they have already passed from the scene before we’re born or when we’re still very young. In my case, the ones I know about the best, as it happens, are my father’s paternal grandparents, Virgil and Lusilla (“Silla”) Stewart. (Silla died when I was 9 months old, my only great grandparent whose life overlapped with mine),
I thought this would be a little, if illustrative post about how families can rise and fall within the span of two generations, but it turns out to have a juicy story, an actual news item embedded within it, so this turned out to be a rewarding period to explore (and I’ll be examining these years some more from another angle, which we’ll get to).
Virgil A. Stewart was born in Lincoln County, Tennessee in 1875. One question that springs immediately to mind: is there any sort of relationship with the (once) famous Virgil A. Stewart who foiled a band of river pirates and slave insurrectionists led by one John Murrell and wrote a popular pamphlet about it? These events, which happened 40 years before my great grandfather’s birth were extremely well known in the the region. Mark Twain refers to them in both Tom Sawyer and Life on the Mississippi. My multi-part question is: is my Virgil named after the previous Virgil? And, if so, was he related to him? After all, 40 years is a long time. Was the name still well known unless one was related to him? And Virgil’s grandparents, we know, were illiterate, through I don’t know if his parents were. (Ironically, my patrilineal line prior to 1800 remains one of the major mysteries of my exploration. I’ve followed hundreds of other back hundreds of years but this one remains a welter of competing, unproven theories.)
Moonshining operation in Virginia (not the Patricks)
At any rate, Virgil was raised on his father James’s small farm. Then, when he was 13 years old, his father died. Though he had two older teenage brothers, and some older brothers-in-law, he was adopted by his mother’s family, the Patricks. And this is where the story heats up. According to family lore related to me by my father, these Patricks were a wild, ornery, feuding bunch — and moonshiners. I had spent a good bit of time trying to find any corroboration on that — and then finally found it. One story, anyway.
In 1892, when Virgil was about 17, two of his cousins, Thomas Eliphas “Lifus” Patrick and Andrew Jackson Patrick, and two of their employees (James Norris Epps and Morgan Petty), were involved in an ambush of, and shoot-out, with federal revenuers at the headwaters of Stewart Creek, a melee in which Lifus, and some of the revenuers were killed. The Patricks were farmers and they also ran a legal destillery. (Whiskey making remains big in the area. Jack Daniels is made in nearby Lynchburg). But in addition to their legal still, they apparently ran an illegal one on the side. This was reported to the authorities and thus the confrontation. Andrew and his two cohorts were given a highly publicized trial in Nashville. The judge at their trial was none other than future President of the United States William Howard Taft.
Please, Your Honor! Surely there is goodness and mercy in that large, large heart of yours?
In spite of their obvious guilt, they were acquitted.
The reason why seems plain enough to me. It has to do with another aspect of the period that we’ll deal with another post: Reconstruction, and local opposition to it. The defeated southerners HATED the federal government. As a consequence, there was almost an ideological component to making and selling illegal booze, not unlike the revolutionary cast some have given to the distribution of illegal drugs since the 1960s. There is no question that the Patricks were such people. One of his brothers was named after James Buchanan, the Southern-sympathizing democrat president who preceded Lincoln. Another of their brothers was named “General Forrest“, after General Nathan Bedford Forrest, the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan (although he was named this in 1862, several years prior to the Klan’s formation). Anyway, you can see why this serious topic will require its own post. Suffice it to say that in their time and in their context, criminals like the Patricks were considered dashing heroes by some people.
Tennessee Women’s Christian Temperance Movement members and gents from a local sheriff’s department show off a confiscated still. 1920s. From this excellent exhibition
Interestingly, though, I don’t think Virgil Stewart was one of those people. By all accounts, Virgil was a complete, utter teetotaling Baptist. There is a lot of context for this. The radical temperance movement that would eventually lead to national Prohibition was gathering steam during the Progressive Era in the late 19th century. It was largely religious in character. In fact, Tennessee had passed the first Temperance law in the nation in 1838, making the sale of liquor punishable by fine, though it was poorly enforced and replaced with a more permissive law in 1846 that made the sale legal again, with restrictions. But the Temperance movement grew apace. The Tennessee Temperance Alliance was formed in 1885. By 1907, most counties had banned alcohol. By 1909, almost a decade before national Prohibition, the ban was statewide.
So, this was going on. To what extent Virgil had a personal motivation in wanting to distance himself from his criminal family can only be surmised. But it wasn’t just self interest. Virgil wasn’t just allied with a movement. In practice, he never drank, smoke nor swore, and he strongly disapproved of those that did those things. And the reality of his influence remains palpable. A decade ago I visited Huntsville and met many of his descendants. In contrast with my father (who drank, smoke and swore in profusion), his cousins, uncles and aunts came across as extremely clean-living people — people who lived, breathed and practiced what they preached (except they didn’t preach). My grandmother, though of rougher stock, was also like that. My grandfather (Virgil’s son) was less so — we’ll return to him shortly.
Some time prior to 1900, Virgil, all or most of his adult siblings, and his mother, all moved to the next county south, Madison County, Alabama, near Huntsville. The story my dad told was that an uncle set Virgil up in life: gave him a handful of needful items with which to establish himself (an ax, a rifle, a mule, a wagon, some seed? something like that). And Virgil went on to prosper, graduating from farming to real estate.
I’d need to do more research to learn to what extent he dealt in land. Did he make that a business? or did he just sell off valuable farmland during boom times? I have a picture book of the history of Huntsville and, man, the early twentieth century in Huntsville was an era of giddy growth: textile factories, hotels, office buildings, newspapers, banks, all being established. Every year for several decades something new and impressive went up. If you already owned land, you probably wouldn’t need to do much to make a killing. Virgil moved the entire (large) family off the farm to a big house in Huntsville full of modern conveniences. He owned one of the first automobiles in town. In the 1920s, he went to a spa in Arizona to treat his rheumatism. It is said that his younger children “wanted for nothing”, knew nothing of farming (as opposed to the older kids), and enjoyed rich kid things like bicycles (still a luxury item in those years). His wife Silla had a maid, and a piano she played at family gatherings.
This is me with the youngest of Virgil’s kids, Margie, circa 2000. Margie was one of a set of twins; I also met her twin sister Mabel. The grave contains Virgil’s brother Charles Stewart. I got a kid by that name. See how that works?
And then Virgil set his large brood of children up in businesses of their own or in excellent positions. Several went into the family business of real estate. The most successful of this generation Florence “Sis” Stewart (who never married) managed a chain of Kress department stores (in addition to doing well in real estate). Others in the family had stores of their own, with initial backing from their father. The black sheep in the family seems to have been my grandfather’s younger brother Earl. He married a a divorcee named Bessie and they scandalized the family by doing things like drinking beer. They ended up moving to New Mexico — I’m assuming to get away from everyone else. Did they lead me grandfather astray? That’s a romantic theory. Everyone worshipped Virgil and Silla — my grandfather no less. But as I wrote about in this earlier post, my grandfaher, who had a good job at the Alabama Power Company (in the height of the depression) was discharged for drinking whiskey on the job.
I’m not sure if this happened before or after Virgil died. (He died of pneumonia in 1938. It is said that he caught it while supervising the digging of the grave of his father-in-law Green Hale). At any rate, there was clearly no sympathy from the family for my grandfather. He was thrown into abject poverty, becoming a tenant farmer (a sharecropper), raising cotton under starvation conditions. Living with his brood (including my father) in a leaky shack. (Read more about that here).
I find the tale instructive, and as I said at the top of this post, illustrative. As I’ve sifted through hundreds of lives, scores of generations, it’s a common thing to find quite wealthy and powerful people, even aristocracy…followed only a couple of generations later by ignorant, illiterate peasants who don’t even know where they came from. There are many ways that can happen. This is one of them. My text for today.