Tuesday, May 15, 2012

My Grandfather's (Sort Of) Secret Past - Part 4

This post concludes, for now, anyway, my research into the sort of secret past of my grandfather, George Johnson King (1864 - 1923). As much as I might have been apprehensive about uncovering some evidence of dysfunctional family drama, no extraordinary discoveries or dark and sinister revelations were forthcoming. Therefore, this post will not be titled, The Sins Of My Grandfather!  Neither is there conclusive evidence to reveal the nature of my father's relationship with his father. Nevertheless, I think I can make an educated guess to explain some events in their lives that have puzzled me. Specifically,  why did my father leave his home and his parents in Yalaha, Florida, move in with his sister Nellie and her family in Lakeland, Florida, and attend high school in Lakeland?  And why did my sister and I have the impression  that our father was 12 years old when his father passed away when, in fact, he was 18?  Was our father hiding something from us?  Was there some secret about George Johnson King he didn't want us to know?

                                                    DARK THEORIES ARISE

 I confess, as much as I tried to keep an open mind about what might be the answers to these questions, I had a few dark assumptions lingering in the back of my mind. First was my suspicion that my grandfather might have been an alcoholic, and as such would have made the lives of other family members uncomfortable at best and perhaps even physically threatening to his wife and my father. Part of my thinking in this scenario grew from the fact that my father strictly banned the use of  alcohol in our home. My father was a declared teetotaler. He abstained from alcohol completely.  There was no alcohol served in our home. There was no alcohol stored in our home save for some cooking wine my mother kept in the pantry. As a child when I inquired about this strict prohibition in our house I was told that my parents, specifically my father,  "just didn't like the way people acted when they drank."  I guess I've always thought that my father's aversion to alcohol originated from his career as a clergyman observing and dealing with families in his church struggling with alcohol problems. Add to that the fact that my father was reared a Southern Baptist, where alcohol in the home was forbidden, and I had a pretty logical theory drawn up in my mind as to why my father was such a strong advocate against alcohol use. So when the puzzle of our father leaving home at around the age of 15 coupled with the discovery that his father died when his son was 18 years old, not 12, an unexplained gap of our father's history, my suspicions grew that perhaps George Johnson King was an alcoholic and Charles George King relocated 80 miles away to a sibling's home simply to escape from a family made dysfunctional by alcohol abuse.  And at the same time I thought,  who knows, maybe that was why our father reversed his first and middle names...to disassociate himself from sharing the same name as an alcoholic father?

                                           DARK  THEORIES SHOT DOWN

There is evidence suggesting that alcohol was not an issue for George Johnson King. His death certificate lists the cause of death as "acute enteritis."  Although alcohol might aggravate enteritis it is unlikely to have been the cause of my grandfather's acquiring the affliction. Enteritis is an inflammation of the small intestine. Its cause is normally eating or drinking substances that are contaminated with bacteria or viruses.
If George Johnson King was drinking bath tub gin then I suppose an argument could be made that alcohol might have been a causative factor but I think it would really be a stretch to make that conclusion. I'm thinking it's more likely that he might have consumed a fair amount of citrus juices since he owned and managed a citrus grove. Because the typical small citrus grove business would have focused on fruit growing, gathering, packing, and distributing,  I don't see any reason why there would have been any extraordinary measures taken in the1920's to filter or process juice for local consumption.  Why would they? If you can pick an orange or a guava off a tree in your back yard there's not much effort required to cut the fruit open, squeeze some fresh juice into a glass, and consume a refreshing beverage! Seems to me that would have been a real easy way for bacteria to get into your system. And who knows how clean the glass was before juice was added?  Along with juice purification it should be added that water supplies in Yalaha were from wells. Who's to say a poorly located outhouse couldn't contaminate anyone's well water? Thus, there were plenty of ways for bacteria to have caused his enteritis. But another possibility is that my grandfather may have had an autoimmune condition such as Crohn's disease. I mention this because there is a history of Crohn's disease in at least one of George King's descendants.  It is much more likely that one or more of these factors caused him to suffer from enteritis, much more so than an abuse of alcohol.  Moreover, the doctor listing the cause of death indicated the duration of his patient's struggle with inflammation of his lower intestine was only 12 days. I say "only" because if alcohol had been involved I presume there would have been years of abuse involved rather than days. Unfortunately, for George Johnson King, "only" suffering for 12 days was probably like an agonizing eternity. There were few remedies of real value in 1923 and no antibiotics to cure his condition or even to ease his suffering. One last comment about alcohol I want to mention is that there were no probate records on George Johnson King in the Records Division of Lake County. So if he went on a drunken joy ride in some body's horseless carriage or if he ended up in the clinks in Tavares or Leesburg for public intoxication, he must have gotten away with it because there are no records of his being cited for any problems with the law. Nor were any articles observed in my review of copies of the local newspaper, The Leesburg Commercial, to indicate George violated any laws or disturbed anybody's peace in Yalaha. That said, the paper seemed to concentrate on "good news" and social doings of the local citizenry more than anything else (excepting Negroe crimes) and without names and categories being indexed, my review of the paper was simply a hurried scrolling review of microfilm.

                                                  WHAT'S IN A NAME

As for our father's name change wherein he reversed the order of his first and middle names to create Charles George King as his official name instead of George Charles King, I still don't know if any steps were taken to legally change his name. If so I would guess it might have been coordinated by his oldest sister, Carol, who worked in a law office in Orlando for many years. It could just as easily have been the case that there were no official steps taken and he just started considering himself a Charles rather than a George. His parents obviously named him George Charles King. He was recorded on the 1910 and 1920 Federal Census records in Yalaha as "Geo C. (King)." Since George Johnson King was the census enumerator for both of those years I have always assumed he thought of his son as George. But that doesn't mean he called his son George. I suspect from the time he was a boy, my father was tagged by family members and friends as "Charles." Every photograph taken of my father in Florida from 1905 to 1928 and when someone was kind enough to identify the subjects (I believe his sister, Nellie, was the identifier on most) refers to him as Charles. And the final proof that everyone called my father Charles comes from his cousin, Elgie, who was a bit of a historian about Yalaha wherein she cited an article in The Leesburg Commercial dated 1927 where my father's participation in a flag raising program at his school recorded him as "Charles King."  He was twelve years old at the time.
Elgie's research - Nov 1953
 If the October 26, 1917 edition of The Leesburg Commercial was on that microfilm roll I scrolled through a week or so ago I sure missed it. But even second hand transcription is good enough for me. I think my father was always referred to as Charles. Whether or not he ever officially changed his name I just don't know. Elgie Henry who wrote this article about the school house in Yalaha apparently wrote this history in 1953 according to the hand written notes at the bottom of the page. Born in Michigan in 1883, Elgie moved to Yalaha somewhere around the time that her cousin, Charles King, moved out. In 1920 she was listed as residing in the Yalaha home of her mother, Elizabeth, who had inherited the home of her father, William Sweet, my father's paternal grandfather (and George Johnson King's father in law/business partner in The Sweet King "Three Pines" Grove.)  So my ancestors had a pretty good lock on ruling old Yalaha. Elgie stayed and died in Yalaha in 1970 at the age of 86.                                      

                                             SOLVING THE PUZZLE (Sort Of)

The only question still up in the air is when did my father leave Yalaha? My guess is that it was in 1920. I base that first on the Orlando 1920 Federal Census that listed him residing with his oldest sister, Carol, and her husband, Stephen White. And second, I have Lakeland High School yearbook evidence that he attended school there for his sophomore through senior year and graduated in 1924. I'm missing documentation of where he might have attended school for his high school freshman year, school year 1920 - 1921 but I don't think he stayed in Yalaha.  If he had remained there and attended high school he would have gone to Leesburg High School. Thinking it more likely he went to Lakeland High I sent a request to Polk County School Records with a formal request for Charles King's student records, including a copy of my birth certificate per their instructions. But recently the county called me to advise they also need my father's death certificate before they can release any info. So that inquiry is still in the works. If I can verify his whereabouts for his freshman year of high school in either Orlando or Lakeland I think I can pin down his departure from Yalaha. If Orlando, he would have been living in the home of his sister Carol. If Lakeland, he would have been living with his other sister, Nellie.  Until further evidence comes in, I'm guessing Lakeland. Thanks to Elgie's research contributing the fact that the Yalaha school house only taught students through the 8th grade, we can be pretty sure he would have moved on to a high school somewhere.Regardless of when our father left Yalaha, it probably doesn't contribute in any significant way as to why. And in a word, I think the answer to our father's departure from Yalaha was...

                                                           ECONOMICS !

Upon his death in 1923, George Johnson King, "General Dealer" of the SWEET KING "THREE PINES' GROVE left his heirs a bank account with a balance of $14.27.  I'm not qualified to judge the competency of my grandfather's business acumen. But for whatever reasons, I don't think the citrus grove with his name and his wife's maiden name on it was a very prosperous enterprise. Not in the last few years of his life, anyway. He and his wife could read and write according to the census records but I don't know the extent of their educations. Regardless, their family appears to have had a vested interest in their children's educations with Carol becoming a stenographer in a law office and Nellie attending business college in Jacksonville and working as a secretary for various firms in Lakeland. Eventually the sisters' young brother Charles graduated from high school and college in Lakeland and continued his studies at the graduate level at Yale Divinity. It appears to me there was a healthy desire for education in George Johnson King's home. But I don't believe his father could have funded Charles' education from citrus grove earnings.  I do think he was assisted, if not fully supported in his education expenses by his sister Nellie's husband.  In 1915 Nellie had married Alonzo "Lonnie" Wright who had started a career at 16 years of age as a bicycle delivery boy for a Lakeland grocery store. In 1913 when he was 22 years old Lonnie was made manager of the grocery store and in 1920 he took over ownership. I think Charles King must have shown some promise as a student early on in his life and recognizing this, his family encouraged his moving to his sister's home where the economic situation made pursuing his education a whole lot more doable. I know he was not idle in Lakeland for he was expected to contribute to Nellie's family by baby sitting her three children as well as working in Lonnie's store. Charles King always spoke highly of our "Uncle Lonnie" and I'm sure his admiration of his brother in law was not only respect for his business success but also gratitude for his generosity.

Charles King (in center, wearing glasses) in Lonnie's grocery store
                                                    NO SECRET AFTER ALL
My conclusion is that George Johnson King's (Sort Of) secret past was really no secret at all. My curiosity and suspicions were probably just my imagination trying to fill the informational blank spaces that are unavoidable when researching events that took place a hundred years ago. Assuming he was like the rest of us, stumbling along as best we can in this world,  he very well may have had a secret or two that he chose not to share. Or if he did share secrets with someone, he chose that someone wisely because it appears any secrets he may have had have remained under wraps for posterity. I've uncovered some interesting information on George Johnson King (interesting to me, anyway) in my search of his sort of secret past and if I came up short on finding anything scandalous or intriguing then so be it. I've enjoyed looking back on small bits and pieces of his life and my father's life. My research has made it obvious to me that despite any secrets or shortcomings of any kind that George Johnson King may have had, he did one thing right...he raised three industrious and compassionate children including one heck of a great son. That's something anyone should be proud of and I just hope in the short span of his 59 years of life he understood what a good job he had done.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

My Grandfather's (Sort Of) Secret Past - Part 3

The Sort Of Secret Past theme revolves around unanswered questions about when and why my father left his home in Yalaha, Florida somewhere around 1920 to live with a sister in Lakeland. My sister and I had the impression that our father's father, George Johnson King, had passed away when our father was around twelve years of age. Long after our father's death in 1971, however, we became aware that George Johnson King had passed away when his son was eighteen years old.  Moreover, our father had lived away from his parents and his birth town of Yalaha (originally called Bloomfield) for at least three years prior to his father's death and possibly longer. I realize this is an earth shattering news breaking mystery suitable for NBC's DATELINE, especially when combined with our impression that our father just didn't tell us much about George Johnson King, almost as if there were secrets about his father he didn't want revealed. So all together, the information we do have combined with the information we don't have has created an intriguing puzzle. I've been working on solving this puzzle for some time now but haven't come up with any definite conclusions.

                                                        ROAD TRIP
Last week my wife and I had the opportunity to get away from the house for a day so we travelled up to Florida's Lake County to revisit Yalaha and use some of that county's historical resources to help solve the puzzle. Lake County has a records division in the county seat, the city of Tavares. They have records dating from 1887 on microfilm including land deeds, probate records, and tons of other documents, enough to make a genealogist, albeit an amateur genealogist like me drool!  With the assistance of a very cordial and helpful staff we were able to gather and photocopy 15 pages of documents pertaining to George Johnson King; specifically his will and all of the correspondence and notarized documents required for his widow, Agnes Ellen (Sweet) King to be legally established as the executrix of her late husband's estate. Agnes was "assisted" in all this by her oldest daughter, Carol Elizabeth (King) White, who had developed a thorough knowledge of legal matters in her employment in a lawyer's office in Orlando. She also served as a Florida Notary Public so was able to assist her mother in that regard as well on the numerous documents requiring notarization.


I previously had obtained records of land purchases made by George Johnson King as well as his father in law, William Sweet, father of our grandmother, Agnes (Sweet) King. A few of the land purchases by William Sweet were subsequently resold to his two daughters, Elizabeth (Sweet) Henry and my grandmother,  Agnes King for $1, even after Agnes had married George (they married in 1890). I can't think of why that would be unless possibly William didn't like his son in law?  Who knows? Maybe I'm reaching too far for conspiracy-type answers to the puzzle but it does seem kind of strange. Then again, maybe it was some kind of legal thing or family tradition. William and George must have gotten along with each other at least a little because George became the manager of The Sweet King "Three Pines" Grove with the title of General Dealer on their letter head stationary. Together, William and George had purchased well over 100 acres of land in Bloomfield between 1888 and 1915 with small portions utilized for homes while the remainder  (I assume) was the grove where "Guavas a Specialty" were grown.

This photocopy appears to be an order form
I don't know when the Sweet King Grove enterprise started up but estimate around the early 1900's. One of my father's sisters, Nellie (King) Wright had indicated that her father had opened a general store in Bloomfield but after an unspecified period of time the business failed because George Johnson King "extended credit too freely." George's first recorded land purchases in Bloomfield were in 1905 even though he arrived in Bloomfield in 1885.  William Sweet, on the other hand (and who, by the way, had operated a successful general store business in Michigan) came to Bloomfield in 1888 and started purchasing land right away. William is listed as a "farmer" on the 1900 and 1910 Federal Census records while George is listed in 1900 with the occupation of "mail carrier" and in 1910 as "general farmer." In 1920 George listed his occupation as "farmer" on a fruit farm and listed himself as the "employer" of the business (as opposed to worker or working on account). William Sweet died in 1918 so if indeed, The Sweet King Grove was a joint venture, George appears to have assumed the position of head cheese, on paper at least.  But five years following his father in law's death, George Johnson King died.  I can only guess at his business acumen in the fruit farm realm but as his daughter Carol noted in her letter to a Lake County judge handling George King's estate, "my father left no cash on hand to speak of."  Actually, that was not true. George Johnson King left a cash account in the First National Bank of Leesburg, Fl with funds totaling $14.27. So I guess I'd have to agree with my Aunt Carol's assessment of "no cash to speak of."  In a will drawn up in 1920 George left his estate to his widow. In addition to the bank funds, the estate consisted of land that Agnes King subsequently sold off in the 1920's mostly to large citrus grove conglomerates. So after his death, The Sweet King "Three Pines" Groves offering "Choice Florida Fruits" and where "Guavas (were) A Specialty" was pretty much swallowed up by the big growers. Our search at the Lake County Records Division included a search for any probate records. I had assumed any legal matters with the business would have been there but there was nothing listed under the names of George, William, Agnes, or the citrus farm names, Sweet King and Three Pines Groves.

Right after our search in Tavares my wife and I headed over to the public library in Leesburg, about 10 miles West of the Records Division office. We had been told by more than one source that of the twenty or so libraries in Lake County, the Leesburg and Clermont branches had the best genealogy sections. Leesburg was closest so that's where we went. I concentrated my search on the microfilm files of the local newspaper, the Leesburg Commercial. They only had one roll of film covering editions from the 1880's up to 1927. From thereon out the microfilm collection was extensive but too late for the time period of my search; from the time George Johnson King arrived in Bloomfield, 1885, to his death in 1923. The one roll I was able to view was pretty spotty with some years including only a few editions and other years nothing at all.  I started targeting dates of death for George Johnson King and William Sweet but there were no copies of editions published those days. I was able to pull up pages a few weeks to a month from their death dates but no mentioning of either came up. The newspaper did not appear to have a general obituary section.  Rather, the only death notices I observed were either for prominent state or national citizens or, locally, victims of crimes. Frequently I saw articles about "Negro" crimes and punishments. These served as a reminder to me that up until the 1960's and 1970's, Florida and Lake County in particular were hot beds of extreme racial hatred and violence perpetuated by Jim Crow tactics to keep "Negroes and other undesirables" in their place.  It makes me wonder if my ancestors might have been more than casual bystanders in racial hatred.  I sure hope not. But somebody had to pick the choice Florida fruits off the citrus trees in my grandfather's citrus groves and more than likely it was cheap black labor. Anyway, another theme I noticed in the Leesburg Commercial was frequent articles on agriculture education, especially pertaining to citrus. Articles describing agriculture diseases and remedies and techniques for productive fruit farming were sometimes even the headlines and front page news. And as predominant as the articles were, advertisements by vendors who could provide the fertilizers and tools necessary to operate a successful farming business were posted on almost every page of the Leesburg Commercial. Agriculture was big news and of big importance in Lake County, Florida.   But, again, I found nothing directly mentioning my grandfather nor his father in law. Except this:

The Leesburg Commercial, Friday March 13, 1896
This poor quality edition published in 1896 seems to be a complimentary description of George J. King and is largely illegible but I was able to find it in a section of the paper listing short blurbs about local businesses. As best as I can decipher it says,

"Geo J. King, one of Bloomfield's stirring and progressive citizens, - - - - - on business Tuesday."
That's the best I can make of it and I'm not sure of the accuracy. The rectangular dark spots appear to be scotch tape type repairs to torn newsprint that might have been a good idea at the time but were not compatible with microfilming.

The microfilm records of the newspaper are not indexed in any way so unless you have a specific date in mind when you're searching and if the paper was kind enough to write about your object of interest, the only thing you can do is scroll through and hope your eyes catch something. The only other thing I found of interest was a 1913 section on Bloomfield that listed two items of interest.

The Leesburg Commercial, August 8, 1913

Much more legible, these stated:

"Miss Carol E. King of legal fame, of Orlando, is home on a vacation."


"Mrs Geo. King and daughter, visited the merchants of Leesburg Wednesday."

I'm not sure what the "legal fame" comment is about on Carol King but I have no doubt it pertains to George and Agnes King's oldest daughter, Carol Elizabeth King, born in 1891 in Bloomfield. Her sister, Nellie Irene King, born in 1894 wrote an autobiography that included the statement, "In July of 1911 I came to Lakeland, Florida, where my sister, Carol Elizabeth King had preceded me by several months."  Nellie ended up living the remainder of her life in Lakeland and raised a family there. Carol ended up living in Orlando with her husband, perhaps as early as 1913 the year of the article but at least by her 1920 listing on the Federal Census. On both the 1920 and 1930 Federal Census records Carol's occupation is listed as "stenographer in law office" so I guess that's why the newspaper cited her for possessing "legal fame."  Nellie married in 1915 and Carol married in 1917. So the daughter who "visited the merchants of Leesburg" with her mother in 1913 could have been either one of two girls.

No road trip to a records office and a genealogy section of the library would be complete without looking at the land our ancestors walked on. From Leesburg we drove South on US 27 and cut over the short distance to Yalaha. We drove up and down a few times on Bloomfield Avenue which was the main drag through town when my ancestors lived there and now one of three main drags running North and South through the area. Most of the East and West connecting roads that linked Bloomfield Ave to the other two, Yalaha Road and Guava Street,  have disappeared into wild vegetation and farm land. My Aunt Nellie, the younger of my father's two sisters has been my inspiration to get involved with genealogy. In 1973 she wrote her autobiography in about a 7 page outline of her parent's ancestors and her husband's as well. And she left the awesome gift of a hand drawn map and narrative of her memories of the houses in Bloomfield.

The "start/end" dotted lines and numbers are my description of searches I have made in the past on separate occasions with my wife, my son, and my daughter. Aunt Nellie had written in 1973 that the home of William Sweet was still standing but not livable. Highlighted in yellow (by me) on Nellie's map, we have never been able to find any remnants of William Sweet's home nor any other structures that would have belonged to my ancestors. There are some homes along Bloomfield Avenue but all probably built in the last 50 or 60 years or later. Behind most of the Bloomfield Avenue homes, roughly within the rectangle designated by points 1, 2, 6, and 4 there is dense vegetation and older trees which I have been advised is prime territory for rattlesnakes. I have not and will not be strolling anytime soon through this territory, no matter how strong the urge to walk where my ancestors walked.
Our last stop of the day before heading home was at the Yalaha Bloomfield Cemetery located on Guava Street, two blocks East of Bloomfield Avenue. To check the condition of the cemetery grounds and pay our respects to my grandparents, George and Agnes King, my great grandparents, William and Agnes Sweet, and my grand aunt Elizabeth (Sweet) Henry. Also buried in the same plot are Elizabeth's daughter Elgie and Elgie's daughter in law, Ruby. Elizabeth, Elgie, and Ruby all had the same luck in their marriages, as in not much luck at all so their ex-husbands are buried elsewhere in parts unknown. So basically William Sweet and his wife, Agnes (Montgomery) Sweet are buried with their two daughters and extended family.

I anticipate wrapping up this saga of my grandfather's sort of secret past in my next posting, which will be the same title, Part 4. My search goes on but I need to draw some conclusions about the "secret" and get on with it. I will never be able to conclusively prove anything resembling a skeleton in my grandfather's or my father's closets but I am beginning to formulate a picture in my mind of what transpired when my father left home to attend school away from his father. My search always goes on but I'll try to recap my conclusions on the matter in Part 4. Soon, I hope.