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Saturday, February 4, 2012

William George Houston

Will Houston, 1885

     William George Houston was the younger brother of my great grandmother, Elizabeth Houston Row. Like his older brother Finley (whose remarkable life story can be read here), Will lived a long life of hard work and service to his church and his community in Rockbridge County, Virginia. He was called "Willie" by his family and friends but always signed his letters "Will." I recently had the good fortune to meet his granddaughter who generously shared with me a large number of photographs, a number of which are seen here today in a public format for the first time.
     Will Houston was born at Mount Pleasant farm in Rockbridge County on October 31, 1864. Mount Pleasant was the ancestral home of his mother's family, the Willsons. The original house at Mount Pleasant was built in 1756 by his mother's great grandfather James Willson. The property on which Mount Pleasant stood was on the site of a school that later moved to Lexington and is known today as Washington and Lee University. Coincidentally, Will's father George Washington Houston was an 1840 graduate of Washington College. Before Will's birth Mount Pleasant had been bought by his father (whose biography can be read here) and would remain in the Houston family for another 100 years.

Will Houston

Will Houston with Rushie Lambert

     Many of the studio portraits of the Houstons were done by well known photographer Michael Miley, who is best known for the pictures taken of Robert E. Lee during his tenure as president of Washington College. Miley was also an early experimenter in colorized photography, an example of which is Will's baby picture above (the old custom of dressing infant boys in girl's clothing and letting their hair grow to girlish length is one that I am glad has fallen by the wayside). Rushie Willson Lambert was one of his mother's cousins.

Will Houston, early 1880s

Will Houston, early 1880s

     During the Civil War Will's Houston and Willson uncles served in the Confederate army, several of them in Company H of the Fourteenth Virginia Cavalry. My great great uncle Dr. Elhanon Winchester Row was regimental surgeon for the Fourteenth Cavalry. At the battle of Cedar Creek in 1864 Will's uncle William Howard Houston was killed and Matthew Doak Willson was shot, received a saber gash to the head and was captured for the second time during the war. Will's father was forty one years old at the outbreak of the war and did not serve in the military but supported the Confederacy with supplies and was a justice of the peace as well.
     Will's family and Mount Pleasant survived the war, escaping the outrages and wanton destruction visited upon so many other households in the Shenandoah Valley. With the emancipation of their slaves a new and economically diminished way of life became the lot of the Houstons and their neighbors. George W. Houston borrowed heavily to maintain a certain level of comfort for his family. His daughters attended the Ann Smith Academy in Lexington and Will was sent to the Augusta Military Academy for his schooling.
     When Will's father died in February 1882, the family began to feel the consequences almost at once. Will left school to return home to be of help to his mother at Mount Pleasant. George W. Houston died leaving no will and a long list of creditors, some of whom would wait twenty years for the settlement from his estate.
     In the wake of the heartache and turmoil that came with the death of the head of the household there was yet another source of stress for the Houstons in 1882. George Houston had earlier sold land to the Valley Railroad for the construction of the section of track that ran at the rear of his property. An additional one acre was condemned in order to build the depot for the Fairfield stop. The railroad hired contractors Hardin & Young for this work. Not long after George Houston's death it became obvious that Hardin & Young intended to make timely progress without regard for the safety of the Houstons. Dynamite was used to blast away earth and stone to prepare the rail bed. On more than one occasion large rocks came whistling through the orchard and struck the house. One such missile even crashed through a window, narrowly missing one of the servants.
     Will's brother Finley came to Mount Pleasant to speak with a representative of Hardin & Young, seeking a swift and amicable resolution. Instead, Finley was rudely told to take his grievances to the railroad company. In response Finley took his grievances to court, seeking an injunction against the dangerous practices of the contractors and recovery of costs. The Houstons prevailed. A few of the court papers related to the case are shown below, including a sketch of the property.

     Winning this case, however, did nothing to help with the larger problem confronting the family. The Houston estate owed much more money than it could raise from the sale of personal property. Finley hit upon the idea of subdividing the land and selling the lots. There were no buyers, unfortunately, and so there was no ready solution to their money woes at hand. Meanwhile Will continued to farm the land and make do.
     Like his father and grandfather before him, Will Houston was a devout Presbyterian and served as deacon at New Providence Church for fifty years. He was also an elder there and an important force in the construction of the Sunday school building in the 1920s.

New Providence Presbyterian Church

     In the early 1890s Lizzie Row sent her daughter Mabel (my great aunt) to live with her brother and mother at Mount Pleasant. Mabel attended a private school organized at New Providence. Will kept an accounting of monies spent on clothing, books and tuition. In the page shown below is mentioned the name of T.M. Smiley, the school's superintendent. "G.A.W." refers to George A. Willson who was pastor at New Providence as well as one of Mabel's tutors. Mabel went on to attend college in Richmond and taught school in Spotsylvania for several years before marrying.

Mabel Row's account with Will Houston

     Things began to look up for Will and the Houstons in 1894 when he married his distant cousin, Mary Frances "Fannie" Ervine. Will and Fannie proposed to assume the debts of his father's estate in return for the other siblings--Finley Houston, Annie Houston McNutt, and Lizzie Row Houston--signing over their shares in Mount Pleasant. This plan succeeded and by 1902 George W. Houston's estate was settled and the creditors paid.

Fannie Ervine Houston

Invitation to Ervine-Houston wedding

     Will and Fannie's first child, Francis, was born in March 1898. In a letter Fannie wrote to Lizzie Row in November of that year she mentions that Francis had given them a scare during a bout with croup and pneumonia, but "He is quite well again and so sweet and bright. I so often wish you could see him now. He has a good many tricks and we think he can say kitty quite plainly." In the photo below Fannie is seen holding Francis and Lizzie is seated to her right and Annie McNutt is seated far right. Finley's daughter Mary is seated far left and her sister Annette is standing beside her. A distant Willson cousin stands at the rear.

In that same letter Fannie refers to the precarious health of Will's sixty nine year old mother, Annette Louise Houston. From her description of Annette's symptoms it seems she has already suffered a mild stroke.

Will Houston, 1898

     In addition to the birth of his son, the year 1898 also saw Will elected as a school trustee, a position he would hold for many years. He would be instrumental in the construction of Fairfield High School. An amusing (to me) sidebar to the beginning of his tenure on the school board was the affidavit he was required to sign. This oath, signed in December 1898, contained the usual pledge to support the constitutions of the United States and Virginia and so on. The second and somewhat longer paragraph required Will to affirm that he had never "fought a duel with a deadly weapon, or sent or accepted a challenge to fight a duel with a deadly weapon." Given the current level of discourse in our politics, such an affidavit might be a good thing to reinstate as a prerequisite for holding office.

Will Houston's oath, 1898

     A double tragedy was visited upon the Houstons in June 1899. During dinner at Mount Pleasant on the evening of June 2 Will's mother was beset with a severe stroke. Will called Finley who came to help. While there Finley wrote two letters to Lizzie telling her the particulars and letting her know the end was near. Other family members were summoned and a vigil was kept all night. Annette Louise Houston died just before dawn on June 3.
     Lizzie Row took the train to Rockbridge to attend her mother's funeral at New Providence. She intended to stay several days with her brothers to grieve (her sister Annie was living in Texas at the time) and to make plans for the future. Lizzie's oldest son Houston, not quite twenty two years old, was left in charge of Sunshine Farm in Spotsylvania. My great grandmother received an entirely unexpected message urging her to return home at once. Houston had fallen ill with pneumonia and his condition appeared to be dire. She hurried home to Sunshine where Houston Row died on June 12, 1899.
     Finley was unable to get away from his duties as quartermaster at VMI and so Will traveled alone to Spotsylvania to attend his nephew's funeral. Will had been unwell for several days, but Fannie urged him to go, hiding from him the fact that their son Francis was also more sick than he appeared. By the time Will returned home to Rockbridge Francis had improved and Will was none the wiser.
     Will's daughter Louise was born in 1901. She attended the State Normal School in Harrisonburg, later known as Madison College, my alma mater. Katherine, called Kitty by the family, was born in 1904. She graduated from Agnes Scott College in Georgia in 1927. Francis, like his father, attended the Augusta Military Academy.

Francis and Will Houston

Louise Houston 1918

Katherine Houston 1926

     By 1911 the farmhouse built at Mount Pleasant by James Willson in 1756 had aged to the point that the decision was made to pull down the old structure and rebuild. During the summer this took place Will and Francis slept in the yard. Part of the demolition included razing the massive stone chimney and fireplace. The Houstons engaged a man who specialized in taking down old chimneys. He told Fannie that it was the largest and most difficult chimney he had ever demolished. A photograph was taken of seven year old Katherine standing in front of the colonial era fireplace.

Katherine Houston and chimney 1911

     Like the old house, the new place was a T-shaped affair and included a front porch that wrapped around two sides of the house. In the photographs below we are reminded that Mount Pleasant was a working farm and that Will and his family spent many happy years here.

Mount Pleasant, 1936

Mount Pleasant

     Both Francis and Louise married in 1924. Louise moved to Red House, the old Alexander place, where her husband James Alexander ran the Veranda Fruit Farm. After Francis married Mary Eileen Lawrence they moved to Akron, Ohio where they worked in a factory. They were out there just a short time before returning to Mount Pleasant. Katherine came home after graduating from Agnes Scott in 1927 and taught school in Rockbridge before moving to Hampton, Virginia to accept a teaching position there. She met and married George Sheild and lived in Hampton for most of the rest of her life.
     But as it was so often for these ancestors bad news had a way of insinuating itself into the lives of the happy, prosperous people. Will and Fannie's first grandchild, Ann Eliza Alexander, was tragically blinded during her delivery in 1925. Will shared his grief in a number of letters sent to his sister Lizzie. Over time the family accommodated itself to this sad turn of events. As for herself, Ann Eliza was a beautiful, healthy girl who could navigate so effortlessly in many situations that Will even thought she must be able to see a little. The Alexanders sent Ann Eliza to New York to be educated at the Lighthouse School for the Blind. She continued to live in the city for years afterwards. When Louise came to visit her Ann Eliza cautioned her mother to hold her arm so that Louise would not get lost.
     As the years passed Will continued life as a farmer and public servant. In addition to his work in the church and on the school board he was also elected county supervisor. He was a member of the building committee that oversaw construction of the county courthouse built 100 years ago. His name appears on the cornerstone of that building. Will was influential in the establishment of the Bank of Fairfield and served on its board of directors. Like his brother Finley Will was an active Mason. He was also a member of the Rockbridge Historical Society and he and Fannie were acknowledged for their contributions to "A History of Rockbridge County" by Oren Morton.
     Willie is reputed to have owned the first automobile in Rockbridge County.
     Fannie died in February 1936. Despite this loss and the fact that he was now seventy two years old Will continued running the dairy at Mount Pleasant as well as raising pure bred Jersey cattle and Poland-China hogs. He also continued to write letters to his sister Lizzie in Spotsylvania, including this one dated December 8, 1927. He wrote: "I wish we could enjoy looking in on you and your lively bunch of grandchildren and hear them talk about what each wanted Santa to bring them." Will was fated never to see Lizzie again. She died three weeks later on January 2, 1928.

Will Houston to Lizzie Row 8 December 1927

     Inevitably Will's energy flagged and he was no longer able to do the heavy work at Mount Pleasant. He moved in with his daughter Louise, now a widow, who continued to operate the Veranda Fruit Farm. The last of Will's letters to the Rows of Spotsylvania was written to my mother in May 1946. She had invited him to attend her high school graduation. "I wish so much I could be present on this eventful occasion," he wrote with regret, "but feel it would be too much of a drive for me by myself...I congratulate you on your successful attainment, and earnestly hope this only the beginning of your achievements, also that you will find this just the beginning of a wonderful life."

Will Houston to Judy Row May 1946

Will Houston to Judy Row May 1946

     Will Houston's own wonderful life came to an end just three months later on October 20, 1946 at the age of eighty two. He is buried next to his beloved Fannie at New Providence, the church he had dedicated his life to.

Obituary of William G. Houston

At rest at New Providence

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