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Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Finley Houston

Finley Houston

     Finley Willson Houston was the older brother of my great grandmother, Lizzie Houston Row. Born September 10, 1852 at Mount Pleasant Farm in Rockbridge County, he was the oldest child of George Houston and Annette Willson. Mount Pleasant was the ancestral home of the Willsons and would become the property of the Houstons after the death of Thomas Willson.
     Finley attended school in the nearby village of Fairfield and then was sent to Dr. Pinkerton's Classical School for Boys. He was bright and capable and like his father was accepted for enrollment at Washington and Lee College. Shortly before beginning his studies there, however, Finley was kicked in the head by a horse. His injury was severe enough that he was debilitated for a year. He lost the sight of one eye. Finley never resumed his formal education.

Finley Houston, 1870s

     As a young man Finley served at various times as deputy sheriff, deputy treasurer and notary public for Rockbridge County. On October 26, 1875 he married Grace Alexander of nearby Red House farm. Finley and Grace moved in with her mother Ann Eliza Gibson Alexander (Grace's father Dr. John McCluer Alexander had died in 1867). During this time Finley also transferred his church membership from New Providence to Lexington Presbyterian Church.

Red House, the Alexander home

     Finley and Grace's four daughters were born at Red House: Anna Bruce (1877), Annette Willson (1878), Grace Agnes (1880) and Mary Alexander (1882). Young Grace died in 1882, apparently from being given "the wrong food."

Bruce Houston

Annette and Mary Houston

     During these years, in addition to his work with the county, Finley was also in business with his father George Houston. They served as agents for the Aultman and Taylor line of steam and horse powered farm equipment. One of their envelopes was used by Finley's sister Lizzie to keep the flowers from her wedding.

Aultman-Taylor envelope

Aultman-Taylor envelope (reverse)

     Shortly before his death in 1882 George Houston sold fifteen acres from Mount Pleasant to the Valley Railroad for the construction of the section that ran behind the house. Another one acre was condemned for the building of the Fairfield depot. By 1882 the line was being laid in earnest by railroad contractors Hardin & Young. Serious problems arose when demolition commenced near the house behind the orchard when the contractors began dynamiting the right of way for the track to be laid. On a couple of occasions rocks and other debris whistled through the trees and crashed into the house. Once a rock actually crashed through a window, narrowly missing one of the Houstons' servants. Finley came to Mount Pleasant to meet with a representative of Hardin & Young and demanded that they exercise greater care in their blasting. The contractor rudely told Finley to take up his complaints with the railroad company. Instead, Finley filed a lawsuit on behalf of the Houstons against Hardin & Young. He won.

From Finley's lawsuit

From Finley's lawsuit

Sketch of Mount Pleasant, from Finley's lawsuit

     Finley was appointed Quartermaster of VMI on January 1, 1885. His responsibilities included maintenance and renovation of the school's buildings and provisioning the mess hall. Finley worked in this capacity for seventeen years. He and his family were provided living quarters on campus.

Lexington Gazette 29 June 1898

     Grace Houston's health became increasingly frail over the years. She suffered from rheumatism and never fully recovered from the birth of Annette. Finley assumed much of the responsibility for raising his daughters. He taught them how to ride, hunt, fish and shoot. Mary became an avid amateur photographer. Although he would never have sons, his girls could provide a boyish level of mischievousness all by themselves. In one episode Annette hatched a conspiracy while visiting Red House with her sisters. She climbed a tree by the house in order to gain access to the room where their grandmother's beautiful old wedding clothes were stored. The girls purloined these clothes and after putting them on engaged in some very unladylike play. They wound up sitting astride the fence, pretending that they were riding horses.


     In 1897 Finley and Grace purchased Clifton near Lexington. The house was built in the early 1800s by Grace's Alexander ancestors. Finley raised livestock and also grew cress. The house was located on the North River (now called the Maury). While he was president of Washington College, Robert E. Lee would come here to sit on the porch in order to watch the boat races of his students. A spur of the Valley Railroad ran in front of the house, making it convenient for Finley to ship his produce to market.

North River, House Mountain and Clifton (right)


Finley Houston's cress ponds

     In 1902 Finley retired as Quartermaster for VMI and became president of Gazette Publishing, which produced the Lexington Gazette. Not unexpectedly, there frequently appeared in the society column of the newspaper items describing the activities of the Houstons.

The Houstons at Clifton, 1905

     All three of Finley's daughters married graduates of Washington and Lee and all three weddings were held at Clifton. The photo above was taken during Annette's wedding on September 7, 1905. Standing behind Finley and Grace are Bruce Houston and her husband William Emrys Davis, Mary Houston, and Ben Harlow and Annette.

Finley in his Mason's uniform

Finley at VMI

     Bruce and her husband moved to Kentucky. Annette and Ben Harlow moved to Roswell, New Mexico where Ben was in the publishing business. Mary remained at home with her parents. Grace Houston died August 6, 1907. Mary continued to live with her father for another eight years until she married Americus Frederic White in 1914. They moved to Donora, Pennsylvania where Fred worked in the steel business.

Finley to Lizzie Row 5 February 1917

     In December 1916 Mary died from complications arising from the birth of her daughter, whom Fred named Mary in her memory. Finley suffered a heart attack and had to give up his work as publisher. He convinced Annette and Ben to return to Lexington and live with him at Clifton. Ben assumed Finley's duties at Gazette Publishing and Annette tended to her father for the rest of his life. He never recovered from his heart ailment or from the death of Mary. In a letter written to my great grandmother in February 1917 he said: "I have been so crushed over Mary's sudden and to me entirely unexpected death I have not been able to talk or write about it."

Finley to Mary Houston White 1920

Finley to Mary Houston White 1920

Finley to Mary Houston White 1920

     While his health prevented him from actively engaged in business Finley continued to run his cress farm and served on the Tax Review Board. In 1920 he wrote to his granddaughter Mary in Donora: "You do not know how much we miss you at 'Clifton.' I would just like to pick you up this morning and give you a good hug, then steal a kiss.''
     Finley Houston died on Christmas eve 1926. He is buried at Lexington Presbyterian Church.

Obituary of Finley Houston

Thursday, August 18, 2011

George Houston

George W. Houston

     George Washington Houston was my great great grandfather, and the father of Lizzie Houston Row. He was born on June 22, 1820 at Level Loop, the house built by his father on Hays Creek near Brownsburg in Rockbridge County, Virginia. George's father, William Houston, was a cousin of  Samuel Houston, who was well known for the roles he played in the history of Tennessee and Texas. Elizabeth Finley was the first wife of William Houston and the mother of George. Elizabeth's brother John Finley moved to Indiana, where he was a successful politician and writer. He is often credited for the first published use of the term "Hoosier" to describe a citizen of Indiana. Elizabeth died in 1823 and William married Susan Weir in 1826 and had several more children by her.

William Houston

Level Loop, Rockbridge County

     William Houston was a devout Presbyterian and an elder at New Providence Church. George received his early education from Reverend James Morrison, who was pastor there from 1819-1857. This provided a solid foundation for George. He enrolled in Washington College in Lexington and graduated in 1840.

New Providence Presbyterian Church

From catalog of Washington College alumni

     George Houston married Annette Louise Willson in 1848. The Willsons owned Mount Pleasant farm near the village of Fairfield in Rockbridge. George moved to Mount Pleasant after marrying Annette and acquired title to it after the death of Annette's father Thomas Willson in 1857. Mount Pleasant would remain in the Houston family for almost one hundred years.

Mount Pleasant today

Mount Pleasant

Mount Pleasant

     George and Annette Houston had four children: Finley Willson (born in 1852), Mary Elizabeth, my great grandmother (1854), William George (1864) and Ann Eliza (1866). The 1860 census shows that in addition to the Houstons, there also were living at Mount Pleasant Annette's sister Mary Elizabeth, her brothers Thomas and Matthew and her uncle James.
     Like his father, George Houston was a farmer, slave owner (he owned ten black slaves in 1860) and elder at New Providence Church. At the outbreak of the Civil War George was forty one years old. He did not serve in the Confederate army, but provided supplies to the cause. He was also a justice of the peace during the last year of the war.
     In the years after the war George Houston struggled financially. As time passed he fell deeper into debt. I do not know if he made money in this venture, but in the 1870s he and his son Finley acted as agents for the Aultman-Taylor Company, introducing steam powered farm equipment to Rockbridge. This envelope was used by my great grandmother to keep the flowers she and George Washington Estes Row wore during their wedding.

Aultman-Taylor envelope

     George W.E. Row began courting Lizzie Houston in 1874 and pursued her with a single minded determination. He was competing for her affections with the young men of Rockbridge County and Washington College (he was eleven years older than her). After months of seeking a commitment from Lizzie she at last accepted his proposal of marriage. In September 1875 George Row mailed a letter to Mr. Houston, asking for his daughter's hand. George Houston's reply indicates only a minor misgiving but he was sufficiently impressed by my great grandfather to give his heartfelt approval.

George Row to George Houston

George Houston to George Row

George Houston to George Row

     George and Lizzie Row went home to Sunshine, George's farm in Spotsylvania, after their wedding on December 14, 1875. They had four children together: George Houston (born 1877), Nancy Mabel (1879), Robert Alexander (1881) and Horace (1882). Robert did not survive his first year, dying in October 1881 at eight months. George Houston was pained by this devastating loss of his grandson. On October 27, 1881 he sent to Lizzie this poem "A Child in Heaven" which he notes was "copied from Cousin Eliza's M.S. by her request."

"A Child in Heaven"

"A Child in Heaven"

     Four months later George Houston would pass from this life, dying of pneumonia on February 18, 1882. In spite of the advertised sale of his estate, nothing could obscure the fact that George died heavily in debt and his obligations far outweighed his assets. His widow and adult children would spend many years devising a successful plan to keep Mount Pleasant in the family. George Houston is buried at New Providence Church (the date of his birth on his headstone is not correct).

Lexington Gazette, February 1882

Broadside announcing estate sale

Headstone of George Washington Houston

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

"I will do no act hostile to the union of the states"

Kent house, 1940s

     Today I wish to begin by acknowledging my indebtedness to two persons whose decades of family history research and preservation of a vast archive of photographs are true marvels. Virtually everything I have learned about the Kent side of my family is due to the generosity of my cousins and fellow researchers, Kathleen and Donald Colvin of Spotsylvania. Their encyclopedic knowledge of their extended family, including the Kents, is an important part of the fabric of Spotsylvania history. Much of the narrative below comes from the stories told to Kathleen by her beloved grandfather, William Lee "Willie" Kent (1862-1949).

Anvil of Warner Kent

     Warner David Kent, my great great grandfather (and grandfather of Fannie Kent) was born on June 5, 1811 in Fluvanna County, Virginia. His early years were spent working as a blacksmith, apprenticing at the foundry of Warner Baltimore, for whom he was named. On February 20, 1834 Warner married Susan Anderson Jordan of Louisa County. Their first three children died in infancy. Next were born John Wesley (1840), Samuel Rice (1841) and Susan Jane (1847). By 1852 Warner had developed a persistent cough from working in the foundry and was looking for a new opportunity when he saw a notice in a newspaper advertising a farm available to rent in Spotsylvania. So Warner and Susan loaded up their wagons and with their young children and their worldly goods, including pear seedlings and flowers brought by Susan, moved to Spotsylvania. Their next child, William Franklin Kent (Fannie Kent's father) was born in Spotsylvania the same year they moved. Another child was stillborn in 1854 and was the first to be buried in the Kent family cemetery. Their youngest son, Columbus, was born in 1857.
     Warner rented the 300 acre farm, situated adjacent to Hazel Hill near Shady Grove Church, for nine years. When it became available for purchase he bought it in November 1861. Unlike many of his neighbors, Warner was not an enthusiastic owner of slaves. The 1850 Federal Slave Census shows him owning only two and by 1860 he is not shown in the records as owning any at all.
     Before the Civil War Warner's son John Wesley was the schoolmaster at the neighborhood school organized at Hazel Hill. He was also a member of the Fredericksburg Militia. He married Martha Catherine Hicks in 1861 and their son William Lee Kent was born the following year. At the outbreak of hostilities he and his brother Samuel enrolled in the 55th infantry. Samuel contracted measles and pneumonia while in Fredericksburg and word was sent to Warner that his son was desperately ill. Warner hitched up his team and drove his wagon into town and brought Samuel home, but by then there was little that could be done. Private Samuel Rice Kent died on May 5, 1862 and was buried in the family graveyard.
     On May 8, 1864 Warner Kent was arrested by Federal forces while he was plowing in his field. That same day the Union army also apprehended three other civilians in the area in an attempt to prevent southern sympathizers from communicating their troop movements to the Confederates. Warner was not allowed to tell his family that he was being taken away. He unhitched his horse from the plow, mounted him and was led away by his captors. Warner's wife and young children had no idea what had happened to him. or for that matter whether he was dead or alive.
     Now that there were no adult males on the Kent farm, its inhabitants and its property were vulnerable to the predations of the Northern troops swarming in that area for the next several days. On one such occasion Susan Kent was being interrogated downstairs by a Union lieutenant while one of his subordinates went rummaging around the house. Susan's daughter Jane found him upstairs placing upon a counterpane a number of the family's possessions he had taken a fancy to. He gathered up his booty and began to make his way out of the room when he was confronted by seventeen year old Jane, a tiny girl not five feet tall. A struggle ensued whereby Jane grasped the counterpane and the two tugged at the bundled Kent possessions. Jane managed to maneuver the soldier to the head of the stairs and at the opportune moment let go of her end of the blanket. The thief went tumbling down the stairs and landed in a heap at the feet of the lieutenant, who sent him outside without his loot.

Kent pie safe. Photo courtesy John Cummings

     Not long after this episode the Federals returned, although this time it was presumably to ensure the safety of Susan and her children as there was still considerable violence occurring in the vicinity. The Union officer commanding this squadron saw to it that the house, the barn, the corn crib and the meat house were nailed shut and water and forage were provided for the Kent's livestock. The Kents were then led off to the Hurkamp place where they stayed for several days.
     When they returned home, they discovered that the house and the outbuildings had been broken into. All the family's stores of food had been stolen. The house had been ransacked and the top of the pie safe had been chopped open in the frenzied search for food and valuables. The livestock which had not been stolen had been run off into the woods. Susan Kent found some corn meal on the ground from one of the torn sacks. She was able to sift most of the dirt out of it and make some corn pone from it. Susan scraped the dirt from the earthen floor of the meat house and put it into boiling water in order to reclaim whatever salt might be present. To provide meat for her children Susan was reduced to throwing rocks at squirrels and rabbits.

Records of the Old Capitol Prison

     Meanwhile, Warner Kent was still a prisoner of the Union army as his captors made their way around Spotsylvania. Along with the other men who were captured the same day as himself (Joseph Hall, Thomas Manuel and W.W. Jones), Warner was sent to Aquia Landing and ultimately was jailed at the Old Capitol Prison in Washington City. In the prison log Warner Kent is identified as a "suspicious character."

Letter to Edwin Stanton 13 June 1864

Letter to Edwin Stanton 13 June 1864

     The brother in law of one of Warner's fellow prisoners began to advocate for his release and it finally dawned on the Federal authorities that they had no real cause to hold them. Letters and petitions were sent to Secretary of War Stanton, including the one above written by Judge Advocate L.C. Turner. Warner was offered his freedom in exchange for signing an oath of allegiance. Warner objected, saying that doing so would put both his reputation and his physical safety in jeopardy once he was freed. He was allowed to sign a document in which he promised not to give assistance to the Confederacy in the future. The portions of that paper which would have obligated him to pledge loyalty to the Union were stricken out. He promised "that I will do no act hostile or injurious to the union of the States; that I will give no aid, comfort, or assistance to the enemies of the government, either foreign or domestic..." An order for Warner's release was signed on July 15, 1864.

Oath of Warner Kent

     Warner Kent was finally free to return home, but he would have to do so without his horse. The 53 year old was obliged to walk all the way from Washington to his home in Spotsylvania. Warner would later say that he was treated relatively well as a prisoner, but he remained angry over the fact that he was not allowed to tell his family that he was being arrested and that they would have to fend for themselves, not knowing his fate.
     The final Kent casualty of the war occurred almost a year later when Warner's son John Wesley Kent was captured at Harper's farm during the battle of Sayler's Creek on April 6, 1865. Had he not been captured that day and had been able to accompany Lee's army to Appomattox, John's fate would have likely been quite different. However, John and the other Confederate prisoners of that engagement were marched off to captivity. John was imprisoned at Point Lookout, Maryland. There he fell victim to one of the many diseases rampant in such prisons. He never fully recovered. He was finally released on June 8, 1865 and soon thereafter came back home to Spotsylvania, "broken in body and spirit." John Wesley Kent died New Year's Day 1867 and was buried in the Kent cemetery. He was followed two years later by his brother Columbus, who died of cholera in 1869.

William Lee "Willie" Kent

William Franklin "Billy" Kent

     In the years that followed, the Kent farm, called "The Oaks", was divided between Warner's son Billy Kent and his grandson Willie Kent. Billy Kent built a new house for himself, while Willie took the part of the farm that included Warner's house and all the outbuildings. As Warner grew older, he took up residence in the room over the carriage house. Willie wished for him to have a stove for his comfort, but his grandfather preferred the open fireplace he was accustomed to. Even though he was by now in his nineties, Warner still insisted on tending to his fire despite the fact that he was now too infirm to do so safely. One day while tending his fire he lost his balance and fell into the fireplace. Willie was burned pulling his grandfather from the flames, but he recovered. Warner did not, and died on November 9, 1906.

Fredericksburg Free Lance 13 November 1906

Plaque at the Kent family cemetery