Wakefield Story

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Chapter 1 Wakefield

"Tis something akin to the immortals that makes us long not to be altogether unworthy of the fame of our ancestors."

E. Burson

The story of our family in the twentieth century must begin with Wakefield. For years my grandfather, a country doctor in rural Wilcox County, Alabama, would get up and go out on the front porch of his house to look up the hill at the Steamboat Gothic plantation house across the road. The "Laura Gulley" place, otherwise known as Wakefield, had been moved piece by piece into "town" from the plantation several miles away down the Farmersville Road. The move across the road and his subsequent ownership of the plantation became a symbol of a change in status for the family that came to America as Quakers a part of the William Penn exodus from England. The ancestors of Elizabeth Knight whom Dr. Elkanah George Burson eventually married were also a part of that movement and came in the first wave of immigration to settle also in Pennsylvania and make their way South, as did the Burson family.

Elkanah Burson (1832-1915) Elafare Barge Burson (1848-1930)

 

Elkanah Burson, father of Dr. Elkanah George Burson was a veteran of the Civil War who later became a state legislator. Called to defend his home against Northern aggression, he was wounded three times and those bullets, along with his sword and the bullets from his uniform, remain in the possession of his grandson and great grandson both named Elkanah.

His daughter, Mary Elizabeth, was the family historian at that time. She wrote: "Please be sure to keep a record of this information concerning the Honorable Elkanah Burson, Furman, Alabama."

 

"May 6, 1864 fought at Wilderness where he was wounded. September 29, 1864 fought at Fort Gilmer, September at Fort Harrison, and on October 7, at Darby Town. Near Darby Town on October 13, 1864, he participated in the race for the flat. Elkanah Burson enlisted at Montgomery in Company C, the 44th Alabama. Age 30 years. Enlisted the year before at Pensacola and was sworn in formally in Furman at the Methodist Church. Organized into regiment at Ceoma, Company C. He was at Pensacola-Warrington, 6 miles below Pensacola-12 months with the 1st Alabama. Then he went to Virginia, "Seven Pines," 44th Alabama. He was in the 44th Alabama Regiment, Law's Brigade, Hood's Division, Longstreet's Corps, Army of Northern Virginia, commanded by General Robert E. Lee. He met northern courier and carried note demanding surrender from Grant to Lee."

 

 

Elkanah Burson built a home on Old Barge Mill Road (the mill owned and run by the father of his wife, Elafare Barge) which remained in the family until the property which had been given by his son, Dr. Elkanah George Burson, Sr., to his granddaughter, Eliece Burson Williams Tucker, was sold by her son, Claude Williams.

Religion remained important to the Wilcox County Bursons. Joseph Jackson Burson and his son, Elkanah, helped build the Furman Methodist Church. Joseph Burson, son of the Quaker immigrants had moved to South Carolina and became a Methodist minister. Descendants Joseph Jefferson Burson, Joseph Jackson Burson, Elkanah Burson, and Dr. Elkanah George Burson remained in that new land in the Black Belt of Alabama that Joseph Jefferson first pioneered. Joseph Jefferson Burson was buried behind the log cabin that he built and in which he raised his family. Those early Bursons were dirt farmers who never owned slaves. From those humble beginnings, Wakefield represented quite a climb.

 

 

In addition to daughter, Mary Elizabeth, who transcribed her father’s Civil War history, Elkanah Burson had another daughter, Ella Clare, who was a member of the board of trustees of her church and chairman of the board of Stewards; as well as president of the Women's Society for Christian Service. On the occasion of her retirement after 37 years as postmistress of the post office at Burnsville, the Selma Times wrote: "Reared in a community --Furman, Wilcox County--which had high regard for the Methodist denomination, she has never flagged in her devotion to her church. The last year she attended the fiftieth anniversary of her class at Huntingdon College, Montgomery, her graduation having been from the old college at Tuskeegee."

 

Son Elkanah George Burson (1882-1970) studied medicine at Alabama College in Mobile and interned in New York at Bellevue Hospital, the College of Physicians and Surgeons. He practiced medicine in Furman until his death in April 1970. He was a handsome man who dressed dapperly until the day he died. His son, also a doctor who moved to Houston County after World War II, remembered the many nights someone would come knocking on the door needing a doctor to come make a call on a sick patient. He’d saddle up the horse, put on the Mackintosh to protect him from the rain, and ride out into the night. Cars like the one he drove in the picture couldn’t make it down the rain slicked dirt roads.

 

 

Elkanah George Burson married Elizabeth Jane Knight (1883-1969).

 

 

 

"I told Ellie ya'll were coming," Nanny would say as she greeted each of us with a hug. Her sky blue eyes warmed with love and pride for her only son and his family. The long black dress and lace up shoes lent a quiet dignity to the tall lady who was my father's mother standing at the top of a steep hill of stairs. The cameo that held her lace fichu in place scratched my cheek when I reached up to hug her.

Mother had predicted those words as we drove down the rutted road and through the gate above which hung a sign grandly pronouncing "Wakefield." "How much longer?" my sister, brother, and I would ask every five minutes after leaving the bus stop in Greenville and our breakfast of greasy hamburgers and French fries. We'd fight for the crack in the window to get a breath of fresh air and relief from the speeding cloud of smoke in which we rode. The white picket fence that curved along the front lawn of the Hawthorne House in Pine Apple alerted us that shortly down that winding road upon our left we'd spot the "Big House" up on the hill.

 

Gravel splattered as my father spun into the driveway in that year's model Cadillac. And sure enough as Mother said, there stood Nanny waiting on the back porch at the top of the high brick stairs.

The double doors opened and Pawpaw would emerge with Eliece close behind. "Somehow your mother knew you were coming," he’d say, stiffly embracing Daddy. Daddy had to lean down to hug his father and have the wet kiss planted

upon his cheek. Doctors both, they wore the suit and tie uniform of a professional of that time. It was only when leukemia weakened Pawpaw and I saw him last in University Hospital in Birmingham dying of leukemia, that I ever saw my grandfather in anything but a suit.

 

 

Eliece, my father's older sister, welcomed us as well, though the smile on her lips never reached her eyes. You could almost see the sparks when she greeted my mother. Following behind, like the loyal hunting dogs he raised, came her second husband, pipe in hand, gravelly voice urging, "Come on in, the gas is on and the cold air is coming in."

We all trooped down the echoing hall of ebony stained wood floors, past the eleven foot hall mirror and antique vases into my grandmother's bedroom sitting room. There Sylvia and I climbed the stairs to the tester bed with the bold burgundy canopy, crawled over the Sunday funnies, and collapsed with the headache that long ride with mother and daddy smoking always produced.

 

A cluster of rocking chairs was gathered at the foot of the bed in front of the fireplace and TV set. Nanny's chair had gold velvet cushions. To Nanny's displeasure, everyone smoked, but the ceilings were so high and the air so cold, that the air in that room remained refreshing. Listening to the adults talk land, timber and cows, and watching the columns of smoke parry and thrust as they rose to the 14-foot ceiling, we’d doze off and the headaches eased.

Soon the women headed to the kitchen where Nanny supervised Dorothy and the preparation for the feast in the formal dining room. Someone set the huge mahogany table with white gold rimmed china, silver (two forks, soup and tea spoons in addition to a knife and place spoon), linen napkins and fragile etched crystal (tea and water glasses). The heavy brocade curtains and huge oaks blocked the sunlight and the room was always dark. Dinner began with Nanny's soup made from chicken stock with noodles and tomatoes and progressed to stuffed chicken and roast beef, cranberry sauce, thick gravy, dumplings, turnips that Nanny had picked from her garden early that morning, buttermilk corn bread, and tea sweet as syrup. By the time the cake came from the pie safe in the breakfast room to top it off, there was little room left, but no one let that stop them.

 

On warm days we'd head out to the wide first floor verandah. Green painted lattice framed the balcony above. Sitting in the wooden rockers, we'd drink cold Coca Cola out of the little bottles they had stocked up on at Friday’s trip to Selma. The men would then head outside to inspect tires and cars.

 

At the time, I didn't understand the import of sitting there on that front porch looking through the planks of the white picket fence at the top of the hill to the house across the street. It was just a small country house with front porch. I thought we were just watching for those cars that we could hear coming half a mile away. I did not realize that for my grandparents we were measuring a life journey that could not be measured in miles.

Money was scarce. Those were Depression years, a time when doctors had been paid frequently in produce and in land. His children took biscuits with molasses and cold ham to school. Nanny picked pecans for extra money and carried water from a stream behind the house. But, when Miss Laura Gulley agreed to sell the Big House Pawpaw was ready to buy. He and Nanny went to St. Louis, Montgomery, New Orleans and Savannah to select a rare collection of furnishings from the antique shops that only later came to be appreciated.

This must have been a busy time of life for my grandmother. My father got homesick at the University of Alabama and almost before my grandmother could get home from taking him to school, he'd show up again on the doorstep. Finally she went to stay with him and give him time to acclimate to college life. But, when she came home, he followed. He got a job driving a truck. It only took one hot Saturday unloading tin to make him decide maybe college really was for him.

 

The one room schoolhouse had prepared him well and he did not have to take any remedial courses. Only German gave him trouble. When my father asked the German professor for a reference to medical school, he was wise enough to read the document before sending it on. "Mr. Burson is by no means an excellent student," he read. That reference was disposed of quickly. The University of Alabama Medical School rejected him, but he was accepted at Tulane and graduated medical school there.

 

Eliece attended the University of Alabama only long enough to go through Rush and elope with Claude Williams, a traveling salesman. This tumultuous relationship produced many weekend parties, one son and ended in divorce.

Because of Eliece's elopement Elizabeth was not allowed to go to the University of Alabama. She had to attend Montevallo, where she was one of their beauties. My grandfather would not let her study medicine, but insisted she become a teacher. She took a business curriculum, but became a secretary, her form of rebellion. A short marriage to Dudley Hart ended in divorce. She stayed away from these family get togethers as much as possible. The

strain was not worth the trip.

My sister, brother and I were children of our grandparent’s later life. My father had finished medical school and served in the Army in the Pacific before he met my mother at Walter Reed Medical Hospital in Augusta, Georgia. The green-eyed Army nurse from Brewton, Alabama, captivated the Wilcox County country boy with the distinctive Southern drawl known by his fraternity brothers at Sigma Chi as "Dude."

Dr. Elkanah George Burson, Sr. and Dr. Elkanah George Burson, Jr.

Sharman and Sylvia behind Wakefield

By two o'clock on Sunday afternoon, anticipation of the long ride back to Dothan before dark brought us to our feet and the goodbyes overflowed onto the driveway as we packed into the car. As we headed back through the gate and down the road I would look back to see Nanny standing on the porch where we’d first seen her, watching us round the bend until we could be seen no more. Now looking back, I realize she lingered for the last sight of her only son. In those moments she probably relived the time when that son had clung to her and was reluctant to leave home, a time when she'd had to break that unnatural dependency so that her son could be a man. The bond was never really broken. When she died I watched my father cry for the first time.

 

The house sat empty for years after my grandparents died. Elizabeth lived there briefly. Then it was decided to sell. We said goodbye to the house and its memories. But the house remained in our hearts along with the memories of those we’d loved so dearly.

Years passed. Sylvia went on to become a doctor like her father and grandfather. Once again the house came up for sale. My sister had inherited the house across the street from "The Big House" from Aunt Elizabeth. Her grandfather had stood upon that same porch looking across the street and up the hill. She determined the house had been out of the family long enough. Sylvia now stands on that back porch and greets us with "I told Tom ya’ll were coming." We remember and cherish the memories while making new ones.

 

 

Copyright 1996  These are my own working genealogy files that I share with you.  The errors are my own.  But, perhaps they will give you a starting point.  All original writing is copyrighted.  Webmaster