“Afternoon, Miss Elsie. What are you working on?” Carroll Thompson had drifted into the dining room and spotted Elsie writing a note to her granddaughter. Without an invitation, he took a chair and tried to read her handwriting upside down.
Elsie had managed to acquire a “suitor” at the Villas. At first it had seemed amusing. It still was to Mattie, observing the two from the hallway.
“My granddaughter has just started taking piano lessons and I’m trying to encourage her to practice.” Elsie kept on writing.
“Great idea, that. About finished? Thought maybe you’d like a walk about. Just going out myself, could do with a bit of company.”
“I’m sorry, Carroll, I’m going into town in a few minutes to put this in the mail and shop for a few things. Another time, perhaps.”
“Yes indeed, well, the climate hereabouts is grand for walks and such.” Climbing up from his chair, Carroll cheerfully took his leave, and Elsie quickly gathered up her writing materials and went to join her friend.
Mattie refrained from teasing Elsie about her “man friend,” and the two walked briskly to the parking lot. The conversation turned to the topic of Kate’s phone call about the old receipt book.
“They always had one, the plantation wives, you know,” Mattie said. “They kept everything in it, from the cost of piece goods to instructions on how to cure meat and build cradles. I don’t know why I never knew about that little book, though. I guess since Whit never paid much attention to his father’s old books, I didn’t either. That book would be a collector’s item these days.”
“What puzzles me is the McNeill names in the old Bible. You don’t imagine Kate and Jim were distantly related, do you? That would be really interesting, wouldn’t it.”
“You know, Elsie, Kate was an orphan when she and Jim met. Both her parents died when she was a small child, at least her father did. Her mother passed away when Kate was in her early teens, I believe. She was raised by godparents, and they’ve been dead now for years. But it does make you think, doesn’t it.”
They were on their way to visit the County and State Archives, a second floor wing of the library containing maps, county records and historical magazines. Perhaps early records would fill in some gaps about the little cemetery. It was one way to spend an afternoon at least, whether they learned anything or not.
The library was a stately red brick building surrounded by pecan trees and azalea bushes. The main entrance was on a side street just a block off the main north-south thoroughfare, a few blocks from the courthouse. Large broad stone steps led to an ornamental front door that was never used any more, with a ground floor doorway to the left of it. The small parking lot was lined with dogwoods.
Mattie pulled into a parking spot at the far end of the lot, and as usual admired the old building. It was a historical gem, and she was glad the local library board had seen fit to modernize and preserve it at the same time.
“Could we see the reference librarian, please?” Mattie and Elsie greeted the young clerk, a newcomer to the library.
“I’ll get him for you, back in a sec,” she whispered and almost skipped across to one of the stacks.
“Am I getting older, Elsie, or do they seem to be getting younger every day,” Mattie laughed softly.
“Hello, ladies, how are you? I haven’t seen either one of you in a while. Are you staying well?” The pleasant, low pitched southern drawl contained a smile as Jack Houston approached.
“Hello, Jack, it’s nice to see you. How is your family?”
The chief reference librarian for many years, no-one called Stephen Houston by his real name. “Jack” it had been for as long as anyone could remember, and the nickname seemed to suit him. He was a sandy-haired, spectacled gentleman in his mid 50’s, average height but a little on the thin side. Never married, Jack had spent much of his adult life looking after his parents, but he’d not given up hope of finding the right mate.
By nature humorous and courteous, he lightly flirted with young and old ladies alike. All the single ladies tried to “fatten” him up at Christmas with cookies and pies.
“They’re just fine, Miss Mattie, Miss Elsie. Ever since they moved to Florida, they’ve perked up like you wouldn’t believe! It’s amazing what being in close proximity to several grandchildren has done for their health,” he added with a chuckle. “What can I help you with?”
“We have some questions about county history, Jack. Could you let us in to the Archive room? And if you have a few minutes, maybe point us in the right direction?”
“Sure, be glad to.” He moved to his desk behind the reference counter and collected the key ring from the middle drawer. Both elevator and Archive room were usually kept locked.
The elevator door opened into the hallway just outside the Archives on the second floor. As Jack unlocked the door, a dry, musty odor greeted them. “Nobody’s been up here recently, as you can probably tell. What did you want to see?”
Pulling chairs out for Mattie and Elsie, Jack sat across from them at the long oak table occupying the center of the room. Mattie launched into their story. She and Elsie had agreed that Jack was almost the most trustworthy person they knew. Now they took him into their confidence about the grave site. He was an attentive listener.
“So you see, we need more information, Jack. There has to be something in the records of this area about a site that important. It’s actually more historic than most other places in our region, if we’re right. We feel it should be located and preserved, and given the proper recognition. Don’t you agree?”
Jack was holding his chin in the palm of his right hand, supporting the elbow with his left hand. History had been his major in college, and here it was, come to life in his own home town. The land ownership could prove to be troublesome, and that would have to be addressed sooner or later. First things first, though. Find the parcel of land, prove the grave is still there, and that it holds the remains of a revolutionary soldier. He pushed himself up and turned toward a counter top holding long card files.
“Yes, I agree. There are a good many family records in this room, and histories of creeks, churches, whatever had any kind of event attached that was considered important. Let’s take the family names first.”
He sifted through several index boxes, pulled half a dozen cards out to start with, and the three began browsing through the shelves for the volumes of family histories they represented.
These volumes couldn’t be removed from the library, and only a few had any sort of index, which meant turning page after page, searching for clues. Mattie soon realized that this could turn out to be a lengthy process, unless they had a streak of good luck.
While the two women pored over several books, Jack considered how else to help. Maybe the library map collection would help. A tall, angular oak frame stood against the wall. County and regional maps hung from wooden slats, each removable from the frame for study. These maps were cumbersome to handle, but they were in chronological order. The earliest maps were regional, for Dalton County had been a recent creation in the life of the state.
The print on the old maps was faded in spots, and the names of places had been changed over the years, but the direction of the rivers hadn’t changed. Nor the creeks. He squinted as he read the fine print.
“Miss Mattie, look at this.” He had located Jenson’s Branch, Elliott’s Crossing and Sims Mill. The branch curled and twisted, and curved back upon itself in a familiar pattern. This was today’s Jensen’s Creek, all right.
Jack lifted the map down and laid it lengthwise across the long oak table. They measured from the marked roads in their minds, and took notes.
Mattie jotted down place names all around that area, many of them names of landowners or other prominent personages. Perhaps they would find references to these in the bookshelves. Some one of them might have mentioned the soldier, and perhaps the place of his burial. It was a lot of perhaps, but they had to start somewhere.
Reluctantly Jack left the ladies to their task and returned to his own duties downstairs. He had found their determination contagious.
Mattie carefully recorded the names of each book as they went, and the stack of dusty volumes grew. No success so far. Glancing at her watch, Elsie reminded Mattie of the hour. With a sigh, Mattie straightened up and stretched. “We’ve got to come back next week, Elsie. There’s bound to be something in here, somewhere.”
They left the stack of books where it lay and pushed the elevator button. Back on the ground floor, they quietly crossed to the reference desk to thank Jack for his help. Excitedly, he tugged at Mattie’s arm and whispered, “Look what I found.” Pointing into the stacks, he motioned for them to follow him to the shelf containing United States History, Geography and other related subjects, including the Revolutionary War. An entire section was devoted to that war and its relationship to their state. Jack had pulled out one slender, faded volume for them to look at.
“See this?” He slipped the small book from its place and opened the front pages. “It’s about Jensen’s Creek and the bridge that used to be out there, and it’s got some material about John Elliott too,” Jack said softly. He was holding a diary, a family history compiled from stories told by someone who had lived through the latter part of the Revolutionary War. Privately published in the mid 1800’s, the author was Francis Marion Sims, son of Martha Katharine Elliott and Jonathan Sims.
“This was misfiled down here. It’s supposed to be kept upstairs because it’s one of a kind. I don’t know what made me look over here, but if you knew how many things get put in the wrong place… This might be just what you need!” Jack was trying to keep his voice down low.
“Jack, do you have time for us to look at this now?” Mattie sure wanted the chance to examine the diary today.
“Y’all take it over to my desk while I take care of closing up, and we’ll look it over tonight. We can copy the whole thing, for that matter, if you’re not in any hurry.”
Mattie and Elsie were in no hurry at all. The little diary wasn’t much bigger than a Reader’s Digest, and the small print on the browning paper made it hard to read. Mattie spread the pages carefully and they huddled together so both could read.
It was an account of a lifetime. The volume began with the call-up of the backcountry farmer-soldiers to help fight the invaders of the state. The reluctance of these fiercely independent farmers to leave their families and farms was plainly stated, yet their love of the land was stressed in the flowery language. The author used third person in some places, was more personal in others, as he related the life of his grandmother and her family after his grandfather, Lt. John Elliott died.
They read the abbreviated accounts of hardships after the war. Disease. Horrendous storms, washing away the crops. Famine and drought, forcing families off their land and out of the state, migrating west in search of a better future. That is why he and his siblings were born in Alabama, not in South Carolina. But family roots went deep, and Francis Marion Sims and his parents had returned to a land he’d never seen when his grandmother had fallen ill.
Over the weeks before her death, she retold stories of her youth, her marriage, and the war. And Lt. Elliott’s return from the war, and their all too brief reunion. She was desperate for someone to know how precious that life had been, not just to her, but to the future of this state, to this union.
So young Francis, the one with the most education, had painstakingly written it out for her, asking questions when she had strength to answer, and recorded their family history, page after painful page.
Elsie’s eyes grew bright with tears as she read. “It’s so sad,” she murmured.
“And so noble,” Mattie added. “Just think what it took to do all this, Elsie. Printing didn’t come cheap in those days. They wanted this pretty bad to go to such expense, this record, I mean.”
Mattie was remembering stories her husband had recounted when they were dating, all those years ago. She wished she could remember more of what he had told her. She turned a page, and began reading the account of Sarah Elliott’s final days, her death, and her burial.
“Elsie, this is it, this is it.” Mattie pointed to the paragraph. The burial site was described in some detail, the plot of land that had been a memorial for John Elliott, where Sarah Elliott was laid to rest beside her husband. There was the description of the plantings that surrounded it, the stones that made up a fence around the two graves, the distance from the creek bank, and the fact that it was centered laterally in the plantation.
That phrase gave them the most important distinction of all. All they would need now was the plat of the original Elliott plantation. Once they found the center, they could locate the grave site.
Jack finally locked the last door behind the departing library staff and then began making photocopies of the vital pages from the Elliott diary.
When the last page was done, he slipped the little book into an old manila envelope and placed it in the locked bottom drawer of his desk.
As he walked them to their car, he quietly explained what he had been thinking. The diary, the grave site and the Revolutionary War — historical site, Elliott Pointe, and money. Big money for Dalton, and the potential loss of that money. He pointed out that many battles had been fought over far less than was at stake here.
“Thanks, Jack. I knew you were the right person to come to.” Mattie slowly got behind the wheel. As Elsie climbed into the passenger seat, Mattie turned again to Jack.
“We need to discuss this with Kate, Jack. I mean all of us, including you. We have to decide how to approach this situation… and we can’t wait too long…”