Saturday, April 16, 2011

Early Recollections of My Hometown (Chipley, Florida)

Chipley is located in northwest Florida at the intersection of US Highway 90 and Florida Route 77 which runs northward from Panama City toward Dothan, Alabama. US Highway 90 is the Old Spanish Trail. As the years go by I often return, in memories, to the town as it was when I first knew it, in the early Forties.

It was a beautiful little town. Large old trees lined most of the streets, and modest middle class homes reflected the quaint architectural styles of the period. Here and there, screened by a stand of stately old oaks, stood an old rambling, two-story home of mansion proportions, complete with Georgian columns in front and one or two out-buildings in the rear. In many of those old homes the kitchen was separated from the main house, and connected to it by an airway which in some cases served as the breakfast dining area.

These homes represented old money; most had been built before or near the turn of the century by the pioneer families of the town. There were the Wells, Daniels, MacRae, Coleman, Richardson, Alford and Benson homes that I recognized, and several others that I never did identify. By the early Fifties, many of the old homes had passed to descendents of the original families, but most were still beautifully maintained.

The town was about evenly divided by the L & N (Louisville & Nashville) Railroad which ran east and west through the town, and by Sixth Street (State Road 77) which ran north and south. Generally speaking, Sixth Street, and all the streets to the west of it, comprised the "white" section of town. All of the streets to the east of Sixth Street comprised what was known as the "quarters" or colored section of town.

The "quarters" population included two or three moderately well-to-do black families who, through personal enterprise, had achieved a financial status equal to that of the white middle class. They had become leaders in the black community, and were well respected by the white community. The most notable of these was Lester Rhynes who for many years operated a grocery store and wood yard.

The city park was located then, as it is now, near the south end of Fifth Street. It occupied a one-block by two-block area, and included tennis courts, a covered bandstand, and large grassed areas dotted with huge oaks and tall pine trees. Colored people were not allowed in this park. I do not recall whether they had a park of their own.

The city cemetery was located on a hill to the northwest of town, some distance from the outer residential areas. It was a large cemetery, containing many beautiful tombstones and monuments, and heavily populated with cedar trees. The lower west slope contained the "potter's field", where were buried the poor and those persons not claimed by relatives. As far as I know, only white people were buried in this cemetery. The cemetery, park and streets were kept immaculately groomed by the city caretaker, hired apart from other city employees expressly for that purpose.

The Woman's Club of Chipley was housed in a lovely little building located on a spacious lot on the east side of North Fifth Street. That was the same street that went by our house, but just north of the Woman’s Club it jogged as it crossed the street that ran westward out of town toward the cemetery.

The post office occupied a corner of a large building on the northwest corner of the intersection of Sixth Street and the east-west street on the north side of the railroad. The post office part of the building had been remodeled in front, with a Georgian corner column and marble facing added, resulting in an appearance appropriate to an ediface sponsored by the federal government.

The fashionable churches were the First Baptist, located on the northeast corner of Fifth Street and US Highway 90, the Methodist, located a short distance to the west, atop the large hill and on the south side of US Highway 90, and the Presbyterian, located on Fifth Street three or four blocks north of the railroad. These churches dated from the early 1900's, with membership comprised mostly of the founding families of Chipley.

The depot, as the railroad station was called, was a single-story wooden structure with a wide roof overhang to shelter passengers and freight from the sun and rain. It was designed to an architectural style prevalent in the South at that time for such facilities, its double-faced corners and stout roof support columns reflecting a most substantial appearance.

The station master served also as the telegraph operator. Most of the time he sat on a bench outside, on the station platform but back against the window of the telegraph office so that he could decipher the endless stream of messages running through the telegraph instrument. If my memory serves me correctly, each of the operators along the line heard all of the messages, and picked out those that were intended for him.

                An interesting fact about telegraph operators is that each had a
                unique "signature" touch - the characteristic pattern in which he
                tapped the code. Thus, a practiced listener could tell, without
                benefit of further identification, who was sending the message.

At the east end of the depot was a large raised platform, constructed of 4 x 6 timbers, on which were stored various items of heavy freight, but mainly huge barrels of pine resin, waiting to be shipped as soon as scheduled boxcars and flatbeds arrived.

In those days Chipley was served with two passenger trains daily, one going east and another west. Along with parcels and packages, the passenger trains also carried the mail, under contract with what then was the United States Post Office Department. The trains would stop in Chipley if there were passengers or parcels to be picked up or discharged; otherwise, they would merely slow to a speed such that a mail car attendant could toss the incoming mail pouch onto a baggage wagon while the conductor, using a pole and hook designed for the purpose, retrieved the outgoing mail pouch from a hangar attached to a post beside the track.

The evening passenger train came through at six o'clock. I can still recall the sound, on a late Saturday evening, of the two short blasts of the whistle announcing the imminent departure of a train that had stopped. For some reason the Saturday evening whistle projected a romanticism that did not come through on other days.

Several freight trains came through every day. Most of these, and some of the passenger trains as well, stopped to take on water, for we were still in the era of the steam locomotive.

Across the tracks from the station was a huge elevated water tank, made of wood, and mounted on sturdy wooden piles. Its position along the track was chosen so that water could be taken on while the passengers boarded or disembarked, and parcels and freight were loaded or unloaded

Whenever a train was to take on water it would slow to almost a crawl, and the fireman would hop up on top of the engine and give hand signals to the engineer so that he could stop the engine at exactly the right spot. He would then throw back the lid of the water compartment inlet, reach up and grab a large halter line attached to the huge spout of the water tank, and pull the spout down and place its curved nozzle in the water compartment inlet. Then, standing on top of the spout, he would reach up and pull on a rope attached to the tank, and thus open a valve which let the water run into the engine's water compartment. My recollection is that it sometimes required twenty or thirty minutes to take on the necessary water.

Hotel accommodations were provided by the Shivers Hotel, located on U.S. 90 atop the big hill just west of Fifth Street. It was owned by Olin Shivers who was for many years the State senator for the district in which Chipley is located. This hotel was somewhat of a landmark among travelers, and flourished on through the Fifties.

The bus station was located at the restaurant adjacent to the west side of the hotel. A partitioned section of the restaurant served as the white waiting room, and whites purchased their tickets at one end of the restaurant counter. The colored waiting area was a small lean-to shelter outside the restaurant. They purchased their tickets through a window in the restaurant wall. Bus service was provided by the Greyhound and Trailways bus lines. Greyhound served the passengers going east and west. Trailways served those going north and south.

We were still in that era in which the ultimate in home entertainment was the floor console model radio, with programs and music punctuated on the hour by the three-note tone signal that was the radio signature of the National Broadcasting Company.

World news was reported nightly by Lowell Thomas.

Arturo Toscanni conducted the NBC symphony orchestra in its weekly radio concert, having been engaged especially for that purpose by the president of the Radio Corporation of America, General David Sarnoff.

The evening paper was delivered by a clean-cut youngster on a bicycle who threw the paper upon the front porch with such skill that it landed always in the same spot and skidded to a stop directly in front of the door.

Empty milk bottles were set outside the front door at night, to be replaced before dawn the next morning with fresh bottles of milk capped with two inches of cream on the top.

The top advertisement for an automobile was that it had radio and heater.

At the grocery store the housewife handed her order to the owner who personally collected and bagged or boxed the items. She did not take the order with her; it was brought to her home later by a delivery boy on a bicycle with a small front wheel over which was mounted a large sturdy basket made for the purpose. If she had neglected to mention at the store some item that she customarily ordered, it was sent along with the delivery. Should she not be at home when the delivery boy came, he would simply enter by the kitchen door, set the order on the counter, place in the refrigirator those items that went there, and close the door on his way out.

For the boys and girls in town the social feature of the week was the Friday night or Sunday night movie. Saturday was reserved for westerns out of deference to the country folk. Movie tickets cost ten cents. Inside the theater the white people occupied the ground floor seats, while the colored folk sat in the balcony seats in front of and on each side of the projection room.

Every year, sometime during the week of Christmas, all the under-priviledged children in town, white and colored alike, were invited to the school gymnasium inside of which was the largest Christmas tree in town, with the most and the brightest decorations, and hundreds of presents under it, each with the name of a particular child on it. At the end of a little party which lasted an hour or so, Santa would take his seat near the tree and some of the ladies would begin to pass the presents forward. Upon receiving each present he would call out the name of the child for whom it was intended, and, holding it up for all to see, would offer some conjecture as to what it might be while the youngster came forth to receive it.

I recall being taken to one of those parties, and receiving a present, though I can't remember whether it was in 1940 or 1941.

In those days great emphasis was placed on teaching children to show proper respect to older persons, be they white or colored, and any youngster, including teenagers, out and about town was automatically deemed to be in the custody of such older person as happened to be near, and such person was expected to watch out for the youngster, and to discipline him or her if need be, in the same manner that the parents would.

The one or two doctors and lawyers in town performed many services for which no payment was ever received or expected.

School teachers were their pupils' second parents, and a youngster who happened to be so unlucky would mope around for days in total remorse of having committed some act at which the teacher might be unable to conceal her disappointment.

There was only one town policeman, the Chief. Should he catch some youngster in an act of mischief, he would first ask what the youngster's mother and father would think if they knew what he was up to, adding that the Lord certainly would have misgivings, and that he himself would never have thought it of the youngster. But be that as it may, no one need ever know about it if it would never ever happen again.

A colored man or boy, upon meeting or passing a white person, always removed his hat. White men were addressed as Cap'n. White women were addressed as Miss So-and-so, for example, Miss Mary, or Miss Lillian, or whatever their first name happened to be, whether they were married or not.

It was perfectly safe for anyone to walk alone, anywhere, day or night. Doors to most homes were never locked, except possibly during an extended visit out of town. During the summer a family going out of town for the day would leave the windows open, serenely confident that should it begin to rain a neighbor would dash over and close them.

We could not then know it, but we were living out the last days of that era of blissful innocence. World War II was fast approaching, and when it was over a genteel way of life that generations had taken for granted would be, as in an earlier time, gone with the wind.

Copyright April, 2011 James Vernon Lewis


  1. Wonderful stroll through your childhood hometown! Thanks for taking us there so beautifully! Sad that all those traditions and customs didn't survive the transition to the modern world...

  2. The Lester Rhynes you mention is my great Uncle.