Tales From Local History: An Old-Fashioned Love Story

Editors's Note: Former Dade County English teacher Linda Wilson has become one of the county's preeminent local history writers and has graciously consented to share her tales with The Dade Planet. She begins this one by apologizing that it is set not in Dade proper but in neighboring DeKalb and Jackson counties in Alabama. The Planet is pleased to inform her, and the reader, that that area is what is meant by "the Rising Fawn Metro Area."

It has been a while since I contributed to this column on Dade County History, and I’ve had a few ideas floating around in my head. I have two stories in mind that I would like to tell, but I feel like I am cheating a bit. Neither of these stories happened precisely in Dade County, although one of them may have veered into it. One of the main characters did actually live in Dade County after the events of the story had taken place. Dade County is not an island and many of us have kin and connections in neighboring DeKalb and Jackson Counties in Alabama, Marion and Hamilton Counties in Tennessee, and Walker County, Georgia, which Dade County was carved out of.

What these two stories have in common is that they are both about my daddy’s great-aunts, members of the Hawkins family. So we – the Hawkins family – live in Dade County and these stories are about our family, so doesn’t that make this Dade County history? I’ve convinced myself. Anyway, I think they are good stories, but I have to give credit to my sources. My main source is one of the greatest storytellers I ever knew, my daddy, Brody Hawkins. He is the source of both narratives, and I will fill in supporting details from some actual historical documents and newspaper articles.

Tragedy Strikes

The first story might be called a great love story. Actually, it may or may not have started out as a love story, but it surely ended as one.

Stephen Woodfork Brown who was born in 1856 in DeKalb County, Ala., lived in Ider, Ala., and married a woman named Missouri Zulia Berton Hamrick in 1877. They had five children, but in 1896, just a few months after the birth of her fifth child, Zulia died. By this time, Brown’s oldest child, daughter Gazzie Brown, was about 18 years old and surely had to take over as housekeeper and surrogate mother to her younger siblings.

But three years later, in 1899, four major events took place in Steve Brown’s family. In April, his daughter Gazzie married Jim Gifford and moved to Valley Head. Jim Gifford happened to be my mother’s uncle and she has very fond memories of her Aunt Gazzie.

Then, in May, a double tragedy struck the family. On May 2, son Roy, only about 7 years old, died. On May 16, Brown lost a second son, 17-year-old Harold Artemis Brown. I don’t know what these two died of, but it must have been a severe blow to the Brown family. Steve was left with his oldest son, Arthur A. Brown, and Eula, a daughter only about 4 years old.

Enter Mary Hawkins, age 39. On July 23 of 1899, Mary Hawkins, a spinster, married widower Stephen Woodfork Brown in DeKalb Co., Ala.. Was this a love match or did Steve Brown just really need someone to run his household and take care of his young daughter? I can’t answer that question, but I would not be surprised if that was the case.

Family Visits

My daddy didn’t have a lot of contact with his Aunt Mary Brown. The distance between Ider and Rising Fawn wasn’t covered as easily in the 1930s when he was a boy and the Browns were in old age. He said that his grandpa, Mary’s brother, who lived with daddy’s family, would sometimes go visit sister Mary, as he called her, by riding a horse out to her house. As he got older, my grandfather would take him in their Model A Ford.

Daddy really only had two stories about his Aunt Mary and the first involved a very minor incident, but it stuck with him so vividly that he told the story many times over the years. They were visiting his Aunt Mary and Uncle Steve and having a meal with them. This would have been in the 1930s, maybe only a short time before Steve Brown’s death and he would have been in his late 70s or early 80s.

Steve Brown suffered from what Daddy referred to as the palsy, uncontrollable shaking and tremors in his limbs. As they were having their meal, Uncle Steve reached over and stuck his fork in a pickled peach and proceeded to bring it to his plate. However, because of his trembling, before he reached his plate with the peach, his shaking caused it to fall to the table. He speared it again and made another attempt; again, he failed to make it to the plate. To hear Daddy tell it, I imagined everyone at the table frozen, just watching this old man try over and over, unsuccessfully, to get a pickled peach to his plate. I’m not sure how many times he tried; it certainly seemed like many, many attempts to the young Brody Hawkins. Finally, his exasperated wife grabbed his arm to stop him and picked up the peach herself and put it on his plate. Daddy said it seemed like she had lost all patience with him.

The second Aunt Mary and Uncle Steve story is much more dramatic. Daddy’s grandpa got word that his sister Mary had died. So, of course, they had to go to her home at Ider. I’m not sure if all the family went or not. It was a well- accepted fact in the family that Daddy was his Grandpa’s favorite, so he may have gone along because of that. Mary had died on June 12, 1939. Daddy was 12 years old at the time. I’m not sure if they went out there the day she died or the next day, but according to Daddy, his Uncle Steve Brown was in a terrible state. He was very agitated and Daddy said he just walked around in circles saying, “I can’t live without Mary. I can’t live without Mary.” And evidently he couldn’t, because before they could bury Aunt Mary Brown, Steve Brown died as well.

“We’ve Got to Get Her in the Ground!”

I found this to be a fascinating story when I was young, but as I got older, I began to wonder if it really happened as the 12-year-old Brody remembered. By this time, I was working on my family history, so finding out when Aunt Mary Brown died was something I would have done anyway. I began trying to learn where she was buried. At first, I just knew it was somewhere on Sand Mountain. Finally, with some help from lifelong Ider resident Bill Emmett, a man who knows his way around many a cemetery, I found the Browns buried at Smith’s Chapel Cemetery. Stephen Woodfork Brown is buried there along with his first wife and his second, Mary Hawkins Brown. Their tombstones documented daddy’s story: Mary died June 12, 1939; Steve died two days later, on June 14, 1939. He just couldn’t live without Mary.

That isn’t quite the end of the story. Perhaps because of the issues with Steve Brown, Mary was not buried as quickly as usual. Remember, it was summer in the South. Daddy said that at the graveside service, it became apparent that something unexpected was going on. Strange creaks and pops began to emanate from Mary’s coffin. No, I don’t think we’re talking about an Edgar Allan Poe story where someone was buried alive. We’re talking about a large woman, dead two days, not embalmed, in the summer. Suddenly, someone stops the service and says, “We’ve got to get her in the ground!” and they quickly proceeded to do so. As I remember it, Daddy said they used the “check lines” or reins from a horse and wagon to lower the coffin into the grave. And that was the end of their love story.

Additional historical note added by my mother: Eula Brown, youngest daughter of Steve Brown, raised by her stepmother, Mary Brown, married Thomas Elborn Blevins and their son Donald L. Blevins was a well-known Chattanooga businessman. He merged his grocery story with Red Food Stores in 1966 and was the president and CEO of Red Food until 1980.

Next time: The truly tragic story of the life of my daddy’s great-aunt Josephine Hawkins Parrish.

#LindaWilson #DadeCountyhistory

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