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Monday, January 28, 2013

The Used Cow Salesman

Horace Row

     Just to be clear, I do not for a moment believe any of this was the cow's fault.
     In fact, in all likelihood it was probably one of those misunderstandings that can arise during a transaction between parties acting in good faith. I would like to believe that there was no conscious intent to defraud or hoodoo a neighbor and fellow dairy farmer.
     That said, this whole affair could have been handled with a little more tact and subtlety by Mr. Row, about whom I had more to say here. And in that case the rupture in whatever friendly relations that existed beforehand could have been avoided.

M.W. Thorburn, 1890s. Photo courtesy of Rich Morrison

     In my last two posts I introduced Mungo William Thorburn, pictured above with a woman who was likely Mary Douglas, his second wife. Born in Scotland, Thorburn arrived in Spotsylvania by 1900 with two daughters and having lost a son and his first two wives. In 1904 he married Abbie Morrison and with her had three sons. Everything that I have read about M.W. Thorburn leaves the impression that he was a highly capable man of sterling character--hard working, pious and civic minded. He was noted for having spent fifteen years reclaiming boggy land on his farm and adding that acreage to his crop rotation. He served on the board of public roads in Spotsylvania and was a crucial player in the long term success of the Fredericksburg & Wilderness Telephone Company. Thorburn was a devoted supporter of Tabernacle Methodist Church. He was highly regarded by those who knew him.
     Because I know more about him, the portrait of my grandfather Horace Row is a bit more complicated. He was born in 1882 on Sunshine farm, the section of old Greenfield plantation that has remained in my family since 1795. Horace lived at Sunshine his entire life. His father died when Horace was nine months old, and he became the man of the house at age seventeen when his older brother Houston died in 1899. Horace Row was a successful farmer, an astute manager of his money and the father of five children.
     He also had a prickly personality and had an unfortunate talent for alienating people. And he was an undisguised foe of Prohibition.

M.W. Thorburn's first note to Horace Row

     In the summer of 1927 Mungo Thorburn wrote a note to Horace, expressing an interest in buying one of his milk cows. The tone of the letter hints at a friendly, if somewhat formal acquaintance: Mr. Rowe--Dear Friend--I will be up to look at the cows as soon as I can. I'm filling my silos today and part of tomorrow. Yours truly, M.W. Thorburn.
     By October 3 it is apparent that things have not gone according to Mr. Thorburn's expectations. Since we were not present when the cow changed hands, it is not possible to know what was said by my grandfather that day. But the letter that M.W. Thorburn next wrote to Horace leaves no doubt that he feels that he was not dealt with fairly.

M.W. Thorburn's letter to Horace Row

M.W. Thorburn's letter to Horace Row, p. 1

M.W. Thorburn's letter to Horace Row p. 2

 Mr. Rowe--
Dear Sir, 

     I am writing you about this cow. I explained to you that I wanted her for fall milk. As a honorable gentleman I trusted on you, now the cow has not proved as you said. Then you want me to hold the bag. I would not have that brand on me for the best cow I have got. I have talked with some of the best men, and they said they would not have believed that on you. Now if you love the dollar more than your honor, it is up to you?
                                                                                         M.W. Thorburn

    Horace's reply, preserved in a draft of a letter intended for Thorburn, makes his point with a minimum of neighborly diplomacy. I am sorry to say that this is the only example of my grandfather's writing as an adult that survives in the known record. And I certainly wish it depicted him in a more flattering light:

     In reply to your letter of yesterday will say that you bought the cow on your own judgment and your three sons and son in law. You all felt her good and milked her, looked her over three times. When I did not care to sell I told you the date I took her away on and by her look and actions looked for her to run in Aug., but I did not have ex ray eye of corse and you said of corse not. I have seen some good men about it and they were surprised at you not expecting such a good offer as I made you and the offer is still open beside I have bought a lot of cows and calf & horses in my life and I found that they some times do not turn out as I expected them to but I was man enough not to squeal but to take my medisson. If you will please show this letter to the men you talked to they will see that I am strait in my dealings as any man.
=you doing the exchanging 
     You deliver her to me in good shape and take the other on back at your expense.

     In October 1939 Horace and my uncle George drove the farm truck to an orchard in Sperryville. That day my grandfather died of a heart attack while picking apples. In the weeks to come my grandmother received dozens of letters of condolence from friends, relatives, schools and churches. It will probably surprise no one that there was not one from M.W. Thorburn.
     My grandmother pasted her husband's obituary in the old family Bible. Whether or not she chose this page intentionally I cannot say. It could be just coincidence and not a subtle jab from her.
     But sometimes I wonder.

Obituary of Horace Row


Monday, January 21, 2013

The Fredericksburg & Wilderness Telephone Company

The Fredericksburg & Wilderness Telephone Company, 1959

     The story of the Fredericksburg & Wilderness Telephone Company began 105 years ago in Spotsylvania with a country doctor and a Scottish immigrant.
     Dr. William Armistead Gordon lived at "Greenwood," his family's home in the Wilderness section of the county. In a desire to better serve his patients, Dr. Gordon made known his wish to have a direct emergency telephone line from his house to Fredericksburg.
     That stated desire set into motion a series of events that created the F&W, an enterprise that survived as an independent telephone company for fifty eight years. In 1908 there assembled at the law office of Judge A.T. Embrey a group of capable men to sign articles of incorporation creating the F&W. They were: Thomas Fell Morrison, G.J. Fletcher, R.A. Jennings, H.F. Etches, J.Y. Downman and Mungo William Thorburn.

M.W. Thorburn, about 1880

     Born in Scotland, M.W. Thorburn arrived in Spotsylvania by the late 1890s. I introduced him in my previous post. Thorburn lost little time in getting underway with establishing the company's  infrastructure. On September 8, 1908 he published in  The Free Lance a request for bids for the delivery of telephone poles. These poles were to be set on the roadside at regular intervals from Fredericksburg to the Wilderness. The line went first to Thorburn's house and he was the first to have a phone installed. From there the line continued to Dr. William A. Gordon.

The Free Lance 8 September 1908
     In 1910 a switchboard was installed in the home of Arthur Lynn Johnson, who lived across Catharpin Road from the Thorburn farm. Johnson's daughter Hazel began work as the switchboard operator while in her teens and continued to do so until the system was converted to dial service in 1950.

House of Arthur Lynn Johnson

Telephone lines coming into the Johnson house

Hazel Johnson Tiffany

Bill Pemberton working on the switchboard
     In 1915 a toll trunk line was established to Fredericksburg. Calls to town were ten cents each. As time went on, lines were installed down several roads in the vicinity; each road had a single line to the switchboard. Customers on each road shared the same party line, some lines having as many as twenty five parties.
     Thomas Fell Morrison served as the first president of the F&W 1908-1916, then Dr. William Armistead Gordon 1917-1924 and M.W. Thorburn 1925-1941. Thomas E. Thorburn was elected president after the death of his father and served with distinction until the company was sold in 1966.

Tom Thorburn (standing) with state auditors

Tom and Marion Thorburn

Tom Thorburn, at head of table, with Spotsylvania Board of Supervisors

     Alonzo Pemberton, Sr. became the manager of the F&W in 1911 and served in that capacity until 1945. He was then succeeded by his son Alonzo Pemberton, Jr. (known to everyone as "Bill" Pemberton). Bill was a cousin to Tom Thorburn. Bill worked as manager of the F&W for the remaining years of its existence, and then for the Continental Telephone Company.

Tom Thorburn (left) and Bill Pemberton

Bill Pemberton

Bill Pemberton (center) with Roosevelt Porter and Jake King

     Things went well for the company for many years, but in 1947 the F&W found itself unable for the first time to pay dividends to its stockholders. The F&W unsuccessfully offered itself for sale to a couple of larger local telephone companies. Bankruptcy began to look like a real possibility.
     Just when the F&W's prospects looked the bleakest, the government announced a new program that seemed tailor made to help the struggling company survive. The Rural Electrification Administration, created during the Depression to help get electrical power to farmers, was soon to be offering loans at two percent interest to local telephone companies wishing to convert to dial service.
     Even before the government could print the loan forms, F&W submitted its application for funding. According to an article written by Patricia Kent in the 9 May 2001 edition of The Free Lance-Star, "Tom Thorburn recalled that, at one point, he rode a milk truck to Washington to get REA officials to sign a document. Meeting the customary stall, he said he would sit on their office's front steps until they signed it." Thorburn got his form signed.

Marion Thorburn holding REA check

     On April 11, 1950 the Fredericksburg and Wilderness Telephone Company received a check from the REA for $55,000. Thanks to the efforts of Tom Thorburn and others, it was the first telephone company in the United States to receive a check from the REA for this new program. At the time there were 165 subscribers to the F&W when the change was made to dial service and soon the company would add 130 more. The first resident in the county to get the new dial service was Eugene Dickinson.

Eugene Dickinson

     September 20, 1950 was declared "REA Telephone Day" at the Fredericksburg Agricultural Fair. The Marine Corps Band arrived to play, speeches were given and President Truman called Mr. and Mrs. Eugene Dickinson to congratulate them.

Eugene Dickinson (just kicked by a cow) and wife

Marine Corps band at Fredericksburg Fair 1950

Crowd gathered at Fredericksburg Fair 1950

     Party lines continued to exist for many years after the four digit dial service replaced the old wall mounted crank telephones, but the number of customers on each line continued to decrease. While this was undoubtedly a boon for all (the ten cent toll charge for calls into town became a thing of the past), some people missed listening in on their friends' conversations, or being listened to. One housewife said she could tell who was listening in by the sound of the clocks in her friends' kitchens. After the removal of the old wall phones some homeowners were confronted with vivid patches of wallpaper that had not seen the light of day for forty years.
     In 1952 the F&W installed an experimental system developed by General Electric which made possible the transmission of phone calls by radio waves. The Alsop community in Spotsylvania was deemed too distant for the F&W to build lines to, so those people were the beneficiaries of this program. A special building equipped with a radio receiver was built at Five Mile Fork to receive calls.

F&W building and radio tower

     The four digit telephone numbers were later upgraded with the Sterling (prefix 786) and Hunter (prefix 489) exchanges. My sister still has the Sterling telephone number assigned to our parents fifty two years ago.
     By 1965 the F&W, which in the 1940s could not attract a buyer, found itself in the enviable position of being courted by the Continental Telephone Company. When the F&W sold out to Continental in 1966 it had 1,168 subscribers.

     Late on a Saturday morning in 1965, a twelve year old boy in Spotsylvania took his single shot .22 rifle down from the rack, shoved a handful of bullets into his pocket and headed out the door. The widow who lived on the farm across the road paid this boy a dollar to come over when he could and discourage blue jays, starlings and other poachers from helping themselves to the cherries in her orchard. It had not taken these crafty birds long to avoid the orchard when the boy was there and often it was not necessary for him to dig out a single bullet from his jeans pocket. This particular Saturday morning I (yes, gentle reader, I need not dissemble further--this intrepid hunter was none other than myself) was in a certain mood to plink at least one bird and after a couple of frustrating hours drowsing against the trunk of a cherry tree I sullenly began to trudge home. Then, on the telephone line above me running along Old Plank Road I spotted a bird arrogantly perched on the line above an aluminum junction box. I slipped a round into my rifle and slowly brought up the barrel, the end of which could not have been more than six feet from my intended prey. I gently squeezed off a shot. Unharmed, the startled bird flew off. It had not been a good day so far. It was about to get worse.
     When I came into the kitchen my mother had a baffled look on her face, holding the phone, repeating "Hello, hello." She had been talking to her sister Nancy and the line had suddenly gone dead. In an instant a host of emotions strove for mastery within my breast as I at once realized what I had done. With an understandable concern for the consequences, I confessed to my parents that I believed I knew what happened
     Mom called Bill Pemberton, who in due course arrived with his truck and worked for a time on the insides of the aluminum junction box. It must be admitted here that I managed to take out phone service to the county west of our house. When finished, Bill came up to the house and handed my mother the flattened .22 slug (in the kindest manner possible, given the circumstances). Mom kept that souvenir for the rest of her life as a symbolic relic of my marksmanship.

The photo of M.W. Thorburn is courtesy of Rich Morrison. All other photos are from the Colvin Collection.


Thursday, January 17, 2013

The School House on the Corner

Check for taxes paid to X.X. Chartters by Lizzie Row

     Xanthus Xuthus Chartters (1844-1893) was arguably the most exotically named man in nineteenth century Spotsylvania. For reasons that should be self evident, he was generally referred to as X.X. Chartters. He was a grandson of George Edwards Chancellor, who built the imposing house on the Orange Turnpike known to history as Chancellorsville. During the Civil War X.X. served in the Thirtieth Virginia Infantry, at times on detached duty with the quartermaster department. His war record shows that he was usually counted as present, except for his confinement to the hospital for bronchitis from December 1863 to March 1864. Together with the bedraggled remnants of the Army of Northern Virginia, X.X. was surrendered by General Lee at Appomattox in April 1865. (Each of the images in my blog can be clicked for enlarged viewing.)

Virginia Herald, 26 April 1875

     Four months after the surrender, X.X. Chartters married Evelyn Montague of Essex County. They ultimately settled on a farm in Spotsylvania located at the intersection of Old Plank and Catharpin Roads. X.X. earned his keep as a farmer and as deputy treasurer for the county. He is probably best remembered, however, for his leadership roles in the Grange, the advocacy organization representing the interests of farmers. By the mid 1870s he had organized a local chapter of the Grange in Spotsylvania, which included his friend--and my great grandfather--George Washington Estes Row. Meetings were held in a building X.X. erected near the corner of Old Plank and Catharpin. By the time X.X. Chartters died of tuberculosis in 1893, he was traveling widely as the leader of the national Grange movement. 

Mungo William Thorburn

     By 1900 the Chartters farm had been purchased by Mungo William Thorburn (1858-1940), a Scottish immigrant and widower with two young daughters. He quickly earned the friendship and respect of his new neighbors because of his industriousness and his devotion to his community and his church (specifically, Tabernacle Methodist Church, where I attended as a youngster). Thorburn served on the Spotsylvania board of public roads. In 1904 he married Abbie Morrison, with whom he had three sons--James, Thomas and George.

The Grange School

     Before the consolidation of the county school system, many local families held school in their homes or some other convenient building. Mungo Thorburn utilized the old Grange meeting place for that purpose. Lillian Eastburn, the teacher in the 1908 picture shown above, was a niece of Abbie Morrison Thorburn. The Thorburn sisters Catherine and Isabella tower over their three year old half brother James. The Johnson children lived across Catharpin Road on the property still referred to by locals as Johnson's corner. Ralph Johnson became the owner of a grocery in Fredericksburg at 1400 Princess Anne Street. His son was Sheriff Ralph Johnson. Also seen in this photo is Hazel Johnson, who for thirty five years worked as the telephone operator for the Fredericksburg & Wilderness Telephone Company. 
     The same year this picture was taken, this very spot became the birthplace of the independent local telephone company that served the Chancellorsville area for more than fifty years. Its story will be the subject of our next episode.


Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Erasing History

Orange Plank Road, 1954

For those of you who would prefer not to watch an old man cry virtual tears, now might be a good time to avert your eyes.

     In a piece I wrote last October  I broke with tradition and wrote about my own history instead of that of my ancestors. While acknowledging the inevitability of change, I allowed myself the indulgence of mourning the disappearance of the landscape of my boyhood, together with the history attached to it, and its replacement by the current reality in Spotsylvania. Forty years of relentless commercial development has annihilated that ancient landscape and the historical memory that informed it.
     Let the record show that I am not one who would chain himself to a tree or an old farm house in an effort to thwart the tide of progress. I am a firm believer in property rights and the free enterprise system.
     That said, what has happened to Spotsylvania during the course of my lifetieme is not altogether a cause for celebration and thanksgiving.
     For my readers who have never visited Spotsylvania, or have come there after these changes have taken place, the images I am presenting today will probably not mean much.
     To those of you who, like me, grew up there and whose families have lived there for generations these photographs will have special significance.
     These pictures were taken in the early 1950s as part of an effort to document the Fredericksburg & Wilderness Telephone Company's upgrading to dial service. All of today's images are courtesy of the Colvin Collection. Click on each photo to see the enlarged image.
     Once history is erased, can we ever get it back?

Brock Road with Goshen Church in the distance

Spotsylvania, 1950

Spotsylvania, 1950

Rt. 3 looking east, Jackson Monument in the distance

Brock Road near the intersection with Orange Plank Road

Rt. 3 at Five Mile Fork, looking east

Fredericksburg & Wilderness building at Five Mile Fork

Old Plank Road looking east toward McLaws Drive