I have an advantage over some of my new-found genealogy friends, I live in the same area as the family I am researching. I can stroll down their sidewalks, visit their houses and lay flowers on their graves. This past weekend, I did all three.
My last two posts have focused on John Paul Jones’s early life in Massachusetts and New York. There are many more treasures I’ve found from these years and I look forward to sharing them with you, but today I am going to shift forward in time and focus on his life in Nashville.
Between 1930 and 1935, JPJ moved from Union Springs, New York (pop. 794) to Music City, USA. Nashville was booming in the 1930’s, with a reported population of 153,866 at the beginning of the decade. I wonder if 20-year-old John was as overwhelmed as I was when, at the age of 13, I moved from a very small village in Norfolk, England to the substantial Southern metropolis of Raleigh, N.C. When my family emerged from the chilly cocoon of RDU’s baggage claim, struggling with two uncooperative wheely-suitcases a piece, the humidity hit us like a sopping wet dishcloth to the face. When JPJ stepped off the train at Union Station in downtown Nashville, was he also rocked back on his heels by the sticky heat?
An artifact from his suitcase provided my first piece of evidence of the move. Tucked inside an envelope postmarked 1938, is a letter to JPJ from his mother. The return address is Decatur, GA, so he wasn’t the sole member of the Jones family to leave New York state after 1930.
In February of 1938, JPJ lived in an area of north Nashville called Buena Vista Heights. Almost a year to the day the above letter was mailed, he married Juanita Pipkin on February 23rd, 1939.
The marriage was officiated by John’s father, John Kelty Jones.
Since I had a letter addressed to John at 2112 23rd Ave N in 1938, I was surprised to find a record in the 1940 Census, listing his residence as just a block away at 2115 24th Ave N. The column that lists a person’s 1935 residence is marked “same house” for JPJ. I suppose it could have been easier to answer the census taker’s question this way, or maybe the head of the household, 73-year-old Lenora, just got the facts wrong.
The 1940 census tells us a lot of useful information about John, including his occupation and salary. He held a full-time job as a clerk at a publishing company, drawing an annual salary of $800. The average yearly income in the US in 1940 was $1,900. JPJ was barely above the minimum wage mark, which was $0.30/hr. The job at the publishing house brought in a little over $15 a week for the newly-weds. Even when gas was only $0.18 a gallon, bread could be bought for $0.08 and a gallon of milk would run you $0.34, his salary would still be considered a very low wage.
Reading past the facts and figures, the discovery that intrigues me the most is his living situation. He is the sole (and dare I say hen-pecked?) male in a house of three generations of women.
Lenora, a 73-year-old widow, is listed as the head of household. Although 21-year-old Juanita is listed as her daughter on the census, I don’t believe this to be the case. Most likely is that Irene (age 43) is Lenora’s daughter and Juanita’s mother. John had a full house of in-laws, including June, his sister in law. My heart goes out to him.
His mother-in-law, Irene, is also listed as working in a publishing house, but as a binder earning $500/year. Is this how he and Juanita met? Did Irene pick him out at work and introduce the young, handsome clerk to her daughter?
The pieces came together when I started to trace his family’s activity in the Seventh Day Adventist Church. The SDAC has an extensive online archive in which I was able to find Lenora’s obituary, as well as many other records of John and his biological family.
Lenora’s obituary was published in the April ’53 edition of the SDAC publication Southern Tidings. While her obituary may be short, there’s a rich story hidden between the lines. She was parted from her husband of 56 years the same year that Juanita and John wed. I can’t find an obituary for Thomas, so I don’t know whether he attended his daughter’s wedding, or whether he passed just before. Lenora also lost three children during her 87 years. While I have filed many of these notes away for later exploration, this short text does tell us that it’s likely John worked with his mother-in-law at the Southern Publishing Association, a Seventh Day Adventist organization.
Fall weather in Nashville is a series of flukes – you could be shivering your way around the neighborhood, hurrying along the dogs in 36-degree weather on one morning and the next day, find yourself basking in the sunshine on your back porch. Last weekend sat between the two extremes, yet had its own quirks – bright, warm sunshine that made you strip off your jacket only to struggle back into it again when you stepped into the shade. After two solid days of nastycold rain, the sky had cleared, so I took a ride over to John’s old neighborhood.
Buena Vista Heights is only a 15-minute drive from my house, but it feels like a world away from my snug neighborhood that sits on the edge of Vanderbilt University. Buena Vista Heights is half empty lots, half broken down houses. A couple of houses seem to be fighting for survival, some wilted flowers in a raised bed here, a new paint job there, but the majority of the houses are unfriendly and sagging. There are a series of photographs in the suitcase of a house that’s covered in white siding. One of the photographs in this series has the house number 2112 in the frame.
I turned onto 23rd Ave, passing the broken windows at a crawl, and rolled to a stop outside No. 2112. The siding is gone, but the front porch looks the same, although the numbers are posted on the other side. As I turned the corner, a young dog jumped at the fence, barking and snapping. Just past the dog run, I could see the back porch, pictured below in a photo from the suitcase.
The same crazy paving on the side and the long first step onto the grass. While I was squinting back and forth between the photograph and the house, the dog had worked itself into a frenzy. I moved on without pausing to take a new photo, and his barks followed me down the block.
I drove a couple of circles around the neighborhood, not sure what to do next. I had naively pictured myself walking up to the front door, perhaps leaving a note if no-one was home. Instead, I had driven away, scared by the dog and the neighborhood. I’ve returned to a couple of my old haunts before, visited houses I used to live in. My heart always broke a little bit when I saw how things quickly things had changed or decayed. I imagine that John’s heart would have sunk a little had he seen that young pup throwing himself at the chainlink fence and pacing around the small run that was installed in the same yard where his own dog once ran free.
There was one other house I wanted to visit, the home John lived in with his wife, her sister, his mother-in-law and grandmother-in-law. Although only a couple of city blocks away, 24th Ave North had bigger lots and green open spaces. Dominating the crossroad of Simpkins St. and 24th was the House of Estrogen: No. 2115.
I pulled into the large driveway and surveyed the scene. There were a couple of people picking through broken furniture on the front lawn. The front door was open, and there was a contractor’s van parked behind the house. A gentleman wearing paint-splattered jeans was talking into his cell phone. I decided to make a move.
Daryl has been restoring houses for over 20 years. He recently purchased No. 2115 and plans to live there while he restores the house to her former glory. Over an embarrassed shrug, Daryl told me he “fell in love with her”. We were standing next to the trash heap on the front lawn, and he nudged an empty beer bottle with his foot, waiting for me to call him crazy.
My house was built in 1898 and there’s not a floor that’s level or a door that doesn’t stick. I love the glass doorknobs, even though they rattle in my hand when I shut the doors. I love her creaks and mysterious groans, her tall ceilings and her dusty corners that even my long-handled feather duster can’t reach. I avoid going down to the basement as much as possible, but when I do, I always touch the faded pink rose wallpaper that hides at the back of the shelves above the stairs. She’s an old girl, but she’s got character. We fell in love with her from the street. My Gentleman Caller had lived in the neighborhood for 3 years and we passed her every day when we walked the dogs. The moment we saw the ‘Coming Soon’ sign in the front yard, we knew we were in trouble. Two years later, she still as charming as ever.
I told Daryl that I have my own old biddy of a house. His eyes sparked and he laughed. “You know what I’m talking about then”.
Looking up at 2115 I said,”I think she’s lovely”. Both of us stood, hands on hips, acknowledging our shared slushiness with slow nods.
I told him about the suitcase and about the young man that used to live here in the 40’s with his family. I asked I could take a picture.
He said, “Sure! Hell, do you wanna take a tour?”
The inside of the house is in rough shape, but the original hardwoods remain and the sun coming through the tall windows paints the walls and lights up the empty rooms. I can see why he fell in love. Like all old houses, she has a floorplan that keeps going and going, disguising the almost 2000 sq. ft interior from the street. The first space is the foyer, and from there you can either enter the living room with attached dining room, go left into a downstairs bedroom or up the stairs to the second floor.
As we walked through the house, Daryl told me his plan for each room, pausing to touch the door frames and run his hand along the walls. He showed me a series of awkward built-in shelves that were lodged in random corners, one of my favorite features of old houses.
As we wound through the house, I felt relieved for JPJ. At least he wasn’t crammed into a tiny house with 4 other females, they had room to stretch out a bit.
Climbing to the second floor, I wondered how many times had JPJ walked up and down these same stairs. Did he instinctively reach out for the banister post as I did? There were nail holes in the wall that accompanied the stairs up to the second floor. Were family portraits hung along the stairs in a classic manner? Did he pause and look at them, or did they fade into the background as he passed?
The upper floor had been made into a second apartment, accessible from the backyard from a rickety wooden staircase built in a boxy spiral. Touching the walls again, Daryl said: “I can’t decide whether to rent the top floor out, or keep it to myself”. He fiddled with an old-fashioned rope pulley that was laid into the window frame. A look in his eyes told me he had already decided, this lady would be his alone.
After the tour, we walked around the exterior of the house, stepping around the trash and broken bottles. In the back, there are three huge trees, a decayed rope swing was attached to a sturdy branch. Daryl patted the trunk and said, “I bet this old tree has some stories to tell”.
I bet, indeed. Don’t we all? Doesn’t everything?
We shook hands by the front door and I wished him luck on his restoration. “I’m glad you found her, treat her well”. Daryl smiled and said, “I’m planning on it. Good luck with your project”.
As I drove back to the main road, I thought about the first house I visited and wondered about my reaction. One house scared me and the other, sitting a couple of blocks away, was charming…that seemed worth pondering. I made a U-turn in a Save-A-Lot parking lot and turned back around. At 2112, the dog leaped up from a doze and resumed his shouting.
I had looked up the area before I visited, and I was aware of the stats. Buena Vista Heights is not a safe area, the crime statistics are well above the national average. Upon arrival, it didn’t surprise me that I was intimidated by the neighborhood and didn’t want to spend much time there, yet I had just spent 20 minutes touring one of its houses.
I feel close to John and his family, increasingly so since I have been to their house and visited their graves. I’ve started to understand them as living, breathing people, not just grainy faces in candid snapshots. Although they are decidedly alive to me, they are all very much preserved…and that makes me considerably more comfortable. The artifacts in the suitcase were protected; the most delicate of notes written 77 years ago were still intact, like the petals of a pressed flower in a book. The negatives, while damaged and faded in some cases, kept their scenes intact, waiting for someone to hold them up to the light. Even the house John and his gals lived in 70 years ago remained for me to explore, stripped of all signs of modern life, like a full-sized doll’s house from a time capsule. That’s all very nice and neat and safe, isn’t it?
No. 2112 wasn’t preserved in a scrapbook. It was still breathing. It had been re-sided, re-painted and was sheltering another family. A family with their own stories of celebrations, arguments, and grief. That’s considerably more messy to think about. I suppose behind all this confused huffing and puffing of mine is a fear of change, and hiding behind that little goblin is the most universal fear: the fear of death. The end of our bodies, yes…but even more jarring to me is the decomposition of our stories.
When I first began researching John Paul Jones, I was concerned that what I was doing was wrong. Specifically, that it was voyeuristic and exploitative. What gave me the right to publish this blog? I’m not related to these people and these aren’t my things. After a couple of weeks of debate, I gave myself permission to press on for one simple reason: The suitcase had ended up in my possession. This meant whoever cleared out Juanita’s house after she died in 2004 either didn’t care enough to keep it, or they didn’t know what they were tossing out. Either way, I believe the act of publishing this man’s story is permissible. If no one objected to discarding his memories 11 years ago, then no one should have a problem with me dusting them off and taping them back together. If the abandonment of the suitcase was a mistake, then I hope my research will eventually lead to a living relative or a friend of the family that would care for these objects as much as I do.
I’ve dug enough to know that John and Juanita didn’t have any children. There are hints in the records of a niece and I’m tracking down those leads. Until I reach the end, I’m going to continue telling John’s story, which in time, will become a part of my own.
“Stories have to be told or they die, and when they die, we can’t remember who we are or why we’re here.”
-Sue Monk Kidd,