Exploring Laurel Hill, population 500, and meeting its residents would be my way to experience the area where my father, Daniel Webster Henderson, was born in 1893 and raised in his early years.
He was the second child of Thomas and Eliza Garrett Henderson, and I wanted to know all I could about them, too.
Experiencing the area was also a way to personalize the narrative that I was writing to accompany 100 years of family photos I was placing in albums by decades.
It gave me — the youngest of nine children; born when my father was 54 — answers to questions about grandparents I never met, and my father who died 40 years earlier.
Driving west from Jacksonville across the Florida Panhandle, I saw topography from stories Pop would tell while rocking in an aluminum chair on the front porch of our West 90th Street home. We lived in what became known as South Central Los Angeles. Our two-bedroom home was a kitchen for Mom, a roof over the heads of five boys and four girls, and a learning center to understand how to survive in the world.
My hope was also to find out all I could about Pop’s stay in an orphanage when he was young. Rocking on the porch after a good meal Mom cooked, Pop would remind his children, “In an orphanage, I had to fight with the rats for food.”
My initial research to find my Pop started with a visit to www.laurelhillnow.com. I sent an e-mail to the web editor, who suggested I go to the Baker Block Museum and then to the Laurel Hill Grill.
“What am I doing here?” I thought, as I looked outside the Laurel Hill Grill in the early evening the first day of my trip. “What am I going to ask the people inside?”
Fear of not finding my cousins, or the information I hoped to find, kept me from entering.
The next morning, I was at the Baker Block Museum. The wonderful volunteers and individuals who were looking up their family histories were extremely helpful in pointing me in the right direction and researching my Pop’s genealogy.
My apprehension eased with each offering of suggestions on where to look, how to connect, and what to ask.
After 3 p.m., I was starving when I finally entered the Laurel Hill Grill — and saw that I was the only customer. Jessica, a waitress, kept on saying "ma'am" at the end of each sentence, and I knew that I wasn’t in Manhattan, where I lived!
We talked about the reason for my trip and her school and career aspirations. She then suggested that I return the next morning, when the regulars and other long-time residents would come in for eggs, grits, biscuits and gravy.
Miss Bessie, in her early 80s, was the first elder that I met. She, an oracle of information, sat at the head of the table and talked about doing piece work to earn some money, traveling to Europe with her military husband and raising her children.
Today, downtown Laurel Hill has one restaurant and one gas station. It wasn’t always that way. Miss Bessie told me about the MacDonald Campbell feed and seed stores, the ferrier that once was across the street from the restaurant (originally a gas station), The Creamatorium (an ice cream store), and banks that disappeared with periodic collapses of the local economy.
Former Laurel Hill School Principal Morris Rogers and his wife, Martha, shared resources and suggested places that I should visit.
Meeting with Laurel Hill Grill regulars, I saw faces whose skin reminded me of Pop’s smooth cheeks, heard sentences that were punctuated the way he spoke, and understood why he brought his children up in ways that I never understood.
As I drove along the tree-lined roads leaving Laurel Hill, I could even see Pop as a young boy walking in the grass or riding in a horse-drawn buggy.
Finding Aunt Callie Mae
I set out to follow leads I had gotten at the Baker Block Museum.
My first stop was the DeFuniak Springs court house. I found my Grandmother Eliza's Feb. 8 obituary in the 1958 volume of The DeFuniak Herald Breeze. Survivors included my Aunt Elizabeth, who I knew from childhood; Pop; and a name I had never heard: Callie Mae Hammond of Freeport. Grandma was buried in Hatcher Cemetery in Freeport, and I proceeded to pay my respects at her tombstone.
At first, I couldn’t find where Grandma was buried; there were a lot of Garretts in the cemetery. I wandered until a cemetery trustee asked if I needed help. She, too, was challenged to find the tombstone, and even drove home to find a file that indicated Grandma's location.
Grandma had a small tombstone; near hers was one for my Aunt Callie Mae, along with others in a small plot. It was a moving time: seeing my relatives' names and feeling the connection.
Photos raise questions
In my New York office, when sorting through Henderson photographs, I came across three pictures of handsome, probably teen-age boys. But I didn't recognize the names listed on the photos' backsides.
However, in less than a minute I turned the pictures over again and read aloud the names that were written in ink script: Scat Hammond, Vester Hammond and Emory Hammond.
Were these Aunt Callie Mae's children?
Would I finally be able to find and speak with a cousin?
On the Internet, I found Scott (Scat's) obituary, viewed a picture of Vester in The Florida Future Farmer 1960, and saw that Emory had a DeFuniak Springs business.
I wrote a letter to Emory and enclosed some family pictures to let him know I was related to him through a mutual grandmother.
It seemed he called me as soon as he got my letter.
Emory and his older sister, Nellie Mae, answered many questions for me and provided new information.
I found out that Nellie Mae and my sister Alice were pen pals, and thought that exchanging correspondence was probably how the school pictures of her three brothers got into my family’s collection.
According to Laurel Hill's 1900 census, my Grandpa Thomas was deceased. Except, my new cousins told me Grandpa took his three children — Elizabeth, Dan and John — and left Eliza for another woman in 1901. Two weeks later, Eliza gave birth to Callie Mae. The unnamed woman didn't go with Grandpa but he left his children at a Catholic orphanage in Louisiana. For the first time in Florida, he saw Callie Mae at 15 years old.
I wanted to find where Pop had been placed so I started with St. Mary’s Academy; it was a name that Nellie Mae had heard. The school referred me to the archives of the Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New Orleans.
Sister Durenda Dupont found the asylum's actual records and read the information. Pop and his brother John were placed in St. Mary’s Orphan Boys Asylum on Aug. 5, 1901. Dan was 6 and his brother 4, according to the records.
Durenda also saw in the original record that ‘June 8’ was written in pencil above the space for age. June 8 is my Pop’s birthday. The person who placed the boys there wasn’t their father but “Pastor, Shreveport”; no name was given. Both boys were indicated as ‘Baptised' (it’s unknown if that was before or when they were in the asylum). The ‘Full or Half Orphan’ column was filled in with ‘Parents Living' — not atypical at a time when providing for children was hard.
My Uncle John, taken to "C. Hospital" in November 1902, died in the asylum on Sept. 11, 1906. Pop was discharged to an unnamed "friend" on March 29, 1910. I thought it was Aunt Elizabeth; Durenda thought it could have been an older boy who was friends with Pop in the asylum, someone who came back to get him out since he might have a job for him.
Durenda could not find Aunt Elizabeth’s record. There was no female orphan asylum, but there was an industrial school where girls could learn a trade.
However, there was no record of Elizabeth. Durenda gave me a list of five Catholic orphanages and I began to make more calls to find where Elizabeth was placed and when she was discharged but have not been successful — yet.
The orphanage was torn down years ago. However, the next time I go to New Orleans, I will try to find, if not the exact location, then the street and the area where the asylum was located.
Although I won’t see the actual asylum, I now know where Pop spent his early years, thanks to the many people who took the time to help me.
Thank you, everyone, for helping during my quest of Finding Pop in Laurel Hill.
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