Thursday, November 3, 2016

Day Three: The Keys That Open The Door To Life

Day 3: Imagine your ancestor getting the keys to his first house or car. Write a journal entry from his point of view that describes the car/place and his feelings about it.

1927. Thoughts from John Dean Isbell, Greenville, South Carolina

I am neither a writer nor a journal keeper. Basically the only writing I like to do is filling out a contract or endorsing a check. I am interested in just the basics and only what I need to do to keep things running. It is my belief that life should be lived, not written about... and lived mostly outdoors... hunting, fishing, and raising dogs do it for me. I don't require much more than that, but sometimes life requires more of me...

We've called 441 Hampton Avenue "home" for the past few years. Nannie Elizabeth Ragsdale, known to all as "Elizabeth," became my bride on 12 December 1922, right in the living room of this very house. It is a shame Elizabeth's father didn't live long enough to see her married. I know she was the apple of his eye, and it would have been his great delight to walk her down the aisle...even if there wasn't an aisle per se for walking purposes. 

We have lived with Mrs. Ragsdale in the ensuing years, and I think it's been good for her to have a man around the house. It's been an equal blessing to us as well, for it has allowed me to save the money to buy a house for my growing family and Betty, who was born on our first anniversary, has had a wonderful time being in the midst of a loving and caring extended family. As good as all of that has been, it is now time for us to move on. (And heaven knows that Little Miss Betty, the three and half year old darling of all, has become enough of a handful that she probably needs to "remove" to her own residence and delight some new neighbors...) 

I'm writing all of this down, because today was a big day for me...for all of us...and I want to remember it. I signed the papers and now have the keys to the new house. I am a homeowner! That's really something, isn't it? Thinking back on the past few months, I realize that it was quite a process to determine where we were going to live, and that these keys..these simple keys to a simple lock on a very simple front door... tell a story that is anything but simple.

Greenville News
August 26, 1928
Being a cotton broker has been quite lucrative and next year I plan to open my own business. I was ready to invest in a beautiful brick Colonial Revival on Crescent Avenue, the perfect house to my way of thinking. A very good size for our growing family, the house was quite impressive. Crescent Avenue and McDaniel Avenue are the two most beautiful streets in Greenville, so I thought there would be no better place to reside as life took us onward and upward. But Elizabeth, for some reason I still don't understand, says she wants to live a simpler life. A quieter life. A smaller life. She doesn't want a big house or any fancy trappings. Why? I really can't figure it out. She grew up in a beautiful, big house. Why wouldn't she want that or something even better? I don't get it, but I suppose it doesn't really matter. All I know...and all that that I want her to be happy in the home she makes for our family. So off to 26 Mills Avenue we go! (I must say, it is a charming street, with some wonderful Greenville families. Who can argue about living next to the Mills and Ashemores?)

And who knows? Maybe starting off small will be a blessing in the long run. The cotton and textile business is going great guns these days. Life in 1927 is pretty sweet. I've been successful all my young adult life, and don't know why that shouldn't continue. But, you never know what might happen. The textile/cotton industry can explode with business in the fall, winter and spring and be as dry as a desert in summer. I'd rather have little to no debt and be snug in a smaller house until I see what life will bring my way. I've always loved my creature comforts and I don't want to have to give them up to pour money into a house. I usually buy a new car every couple of years and now that we are striking out on our own, I also plan to employ a cook, a maid and a baby nurse to help Elizabeth with the children. All of that costs money. I certainly want enough money to be "free" enough to comfortably maintain my lifestyle. Hmmm...maybe Elizabeth is on to something with this house. It sounds like real freedom to me. 

Freedom! How well I remember buying my first car and cradling those keys in my hand. What a sense of accomplishment...and a real sense of freedom  too. And now...look at these keys, sitting right here on my desk! They are mine. This house is mine. No...that's not right. This house is ours. Mine and Elizabeth's. Betty will grow up here and so will Carolyn, our new baby. A third daughter will come along and we will name her Frances. She will grow up here, too...and our girls' children will visit here as they grow up. Who knows what memories will be formed here? 

If I could look into the future, I would see that I lived on Mills Avenue until I died in 1977, and Elizabeth lived there until 1988, when she would move back to the house in which she grew up. 441 Hampton Avenue by then was called 321 Hampton Avenue...but it was the same house in which we lived as newlyweds. She and her sister would live at Ragsdale House until the end of their days...Helen in 1999 (age 105) and Elizabeth in 2000 (age 100).

Continuing my glimpse into the future, I see that life was very, very good for our family in our snug little house. It was warm and cozy and its light burned bright. Our girls grew up with lots of friends and our living room, which ran horizontally across the front of the house, was such a gathering place for their crew that the boys who came there would be given a special nickname. They were called "The Sitters," for that is what they did. They came to Mills Avenue, they sat and they visited. If the girls weren't there, the boys would sit and talk with me...for hours on end (waiting for the girls to get home). Frank and Bubby and Nat and countless others, many of whom came from the houses on Crescent and McDaniel and other beautiful avenues. The girls' friends were all "at home" when they were with us. Could anyone ask any more than that of a house? 

The keys that open the door to that kind of life are precious keys, indeed.

Additional pictures:

Frances with Betty...the youngest sister and the eldest
Betty, Frances and Carolyn (1961)

Liz and cousin George, in front of 26 Mills Avenue (1970)
Cousins at 321 Hampton Avenue, the Ragsdale House,
after Elizabeth Ragsdale Isbell's funeral in 2000.

Click to enlarge for optimal reading

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