We don’t know exactly when Emma Parkes Watts began this account, or how long she intended it to be. However, as these excerpts show, the Watts and Parkes families were deeply rooted in Madison County, Ky. With a keen eye, dry wit, and lively gift for storytelling, Miss Emma recalls their lives, marriages, rivalries and foibles during the 1800s, when the children of gentlemen farmers rode horseback or walked miles to one room schoolhouses. We hope you enjoy this window into her world.

 

Coming to Madison County

Though I have placed first in the title the name of the home that they loved, this is really a record of my father and my mother. In future years, young relatives or the children of old friends may wish to know something of the life of William Walker Watts who built this house and whose three W’s are cut in the stone of the balcony, or that of Mary Parkes, his wife, who had the site changed from the architect’s chosen spot in order to save five beautiful elms.

In the time of our grandparents and great-grandparents, Madison County must have been very beautiful. It is still lovely, with its rolling green country, its views of the blue Cumberland foothills, and its rich growth of trees, that is, where they have been permitted to remain.

In the 1780s, William Walker came from Buckingham County, Virginia, to make his home in Madison. Excellent farming land was available, but the acres that he bought were of comparatively poor quality. The place had splendid trees and springs, good hunting, and, best of all, a “romantic view.” There he stayed, reading the poems of Burns, playing the violin, satisfying his soul with his surroundings. Such dreamers always choose an executive, and William Walker’s marriage was a perfect balance of temperaments. Red-haired Jane Bates, also a Virginian, managed the farm and brought up the family in a thoroughly competent manner. I have a first hand description of this forceful lady from one of her granddaughters, Katherine Walker. Jane was small, very slim, and even in old age as light in her step and active as a girl.

Cousin Kate was rather critical of her grandfather, censuring him severely for buying poor land when he might have had the best, and thus enriched his children; but he was held in great respect and admiration by them, and the love of nature, poetry, and music outlasts both lands and wealth. It is an inheritance that he gave to many of his descendants.

I have William Walker’s chair, a black rocker made by the Shakers, with “W. W.” carved on the arm. In summer, it is placed on the porch just off the dining room; in winter, by the dining room fire. I value it for the association with my great-grandfather, but even more for the sake of another William, my father, who sat in it for hours, reading and looking over the garden and the fields. And now I sit there with my book, and pause at intervals to admire my own “romantic view.”

 

Emma’s grandparents

Between James, the eldest, and my grandmother, Elizabeth, third from the youngest, there was a difference of eleven years. She was born in 1808. In those days, girls married early. When in 1835, “Betsy,” as she was always known, announced her engagement, there was an outcry of derision from the sisters and the youngest brother. For years they had thought of her as an old maid. She had begun to count back her birthdays, and when her brother Jason threatened to reveal all of the twenty-seven years shown in the family Bible, Betsy shed angry tears and tore out the betraying leaves, throwing them into the fire and destroying records that might have been of some interest later. At that time, such conduct was considered almost sacrilegious, and it has been bitterly lamented in the family ever since, with the exception of a great nephew who said that he always preferred the tradition of “a gal of spirit” to dry accounts of births, marriages, and deaths. And so do I, for it gives vivid life to an otherwise shadowy figure. The marriage of Charles “Sinclair” Watts and Elizabeth Walker took place shortly afterward. Uncle Jason’s gift to his sister adorns the mantelpiece in our drawing room. It is a quaint old miniature of one of Titian’s portraits, a girl in a golden dress, holding a dish of fruit above her head.

My grandfather was seven years older than his wife, and of a calm and steady disposition, not easily disturbed by trifles. He was born in Baltimore on the 22nd of February, 1801. When quite young, he had come to Kentucky, then a new state where land could be acquired at a low price. I must speak of the absorbing passion for the land and its development that runs through all the generations. Sinclair Watts had bought a farm on Duncan Lane, about five miles from Richmond, a fine body of land, beautiful, well wooded, and almost level. It is now considered the best tobacco raising tract in Madison County, though my grandfather preferred cattle and the crops that feed them. I have his methodical accounts, and the little drop-leaf cherry table in which he kept them is by my side as I write. Just so the big desk in the sitting room held my father’s ledgers and now contains mine. [On this land] more than a hundred years ago, my grandfather built the house to which my grandmother went as a bride. It faces south, overlooking the fields rather than the lane, and is in the style of many Kentucky homes of the period, square and two storied, the entrance a brick-pillared portico paved with stones similar to those of the foundation. The woodwork is of walnut, made of trees cut from the pastures. The whole effect is one of strength and simplicity.

My father was born in that house on the 16th of September, 1836. In the mind of his mother, there was no question of the name of her eldest son. She called him William Walker, and looked hopefully for the traits of her beloved, though unworldly parent.

 

When was Aunt Jane really born?

My mother’s half-brother, Mr. Samuel Parkes, said that at the age of two, he was shown his baby sister, and that he remembered everything perfectly. Although he was a person of painful accuracy, taking issue with anyone over the difference of a day, a word, an hour or a minute, this seemed to me quite a stretch of the imagination. On Aunt Jane’s eightieth birthday, he called to offer his congratulations with a correction: the day was the 21st of August, not the 20th. He was there and he knew. His sister disputed it hotly, supported by her father’s Bible and the hitherto unchallenged custom of a lifetime. To her, the testimony of a child of two was ridiculous and unreliable. And why had he waited so long? Others present joined in a spirited family argument.

My father’s first memory was of the death of his grandfather. During a visit of her parents to their daughter, Betsy, William Walker was stricken with paralysis and lived only a short time. On the still summer evening that he died, Father, his little sister, and his brother George were shut into their nursery under the watchful eyes of Aunt Sophy, their nurse, but the windows were open, and the heavy breathing of the old man echoed through the quiet house, making a lasting impression upon the mind of a child. This was on the 28th of August, 1841. And Father was five in September.

My father was not given to reminiscences. He lived happily in the present and the future. Once in speaking of an old acquaintance, he said, “Charlie Breck is getting so tiresome. He has reached the point where he can’t remember less than fifty years back.”

However, Grandmother Watts spent the last five years of her life with my parents, and told my mother much. When relatives and old friends visited in our home, there would be long conversations in which the past was lived over and members of the family discussed. I asked many questions, which Father answered to the best of his ability, though he preferred to talk about my concerns. Usually it was: “How did your horse go this morning?” or: “What about the tennis game?” Later: “Did you have a nice time at the party? Who danced with you, and did you like your dress?”

But often I used to say: “Father, tell me about what you did when you were little, or when you first saw Mother, or when you went to Texas.” And then he gave a clear, unvarnished account with none of the dressing up in roseate colors which deck the past for many middle-aged people. He was not harsh in judgment or pessimistic in outlook, only very frank and direct, and not inclined to gloss things over.

 

Our landowning and farming creed

My [paternal] grandfather’s very soul was in the farm. From all accounts he tried to keep it like a garden. Even acid Cousin Puss said that it was a model of neatness and system, showing years of painstaking care. Clipped hedges divided the pastures; there were always young plantings to replace the old trees, weeds were cut regularly in the fields and on the roadsides, and the animals were of good stock, sleek and well fed. As time passed, Sinclair Watts showed little interest in anything beyond his own land. He rarely went to town, though he seldom missed a Sunday at Mount Zion, the country church. Dr. James Walker (Uncle Jason’s son) who often visited The Cedars, [my grandfather’s home], told me that my grandfather was a very quiet, even tempered person whom the children liked because he never took the trouble to correct them. “We used to think that he had such a sweet nature,” said Cousin James, “but now I believe it was a complete indifference.”

Father had the childhood of country boys of that period and locality. He was well suited to it by temperament, for he loved the farm and everything out of doors. I do not believe that he was ever studious, though he liked to read. During those impressionable years, he had absorbed, possibly without realizing it, his father’s methods, and in later years he put them into practice. They have become customs and traditions. To this day I reset elms, walnuts, and locusts that spring up in the grounds, keeping a young planting or making shade in the pastures for stock. If the stables were not well whitewashed, the weeds cut, and drives neat, the dead wood trimmed and the fences mended, I could not rest. I want no scrubby ill kept stock. They must be purebred, well fed, and kindly treated. Above all, the place should, as far as it is possible, produce the food for every person and animal on it, and for everything taken from the soil, the same and more must be put back. This is our landowning and farming creed, having been observed through three generations to my knowledge. I suppose it came from the dales and fells of Cumberland. There is no need to have it written out and tacked up in the harness room, for it has been thoroughly drilled into every man on the place.

 

Uncle Owen and Uncle Jason

Uncle Owen was an invalid, easily disturbed, irritable, and impatient. He was the founder of Walker and Company, a private bank, where double-entry bookkeeping was first used in Madison County, a mathematical genius, an expert accountant, and a martinet alike in business and his household. His amiable wife yielded to every whim. All noise was hushed at his approach, even necessary repairs in the house being postponed because of his intense nervousness. Father stayed there occasionally, for though he much preferred the ease and freedom of Uncle Jason’s home, he was fond of Aunt Callie. To the end of his life, Father wondered why Aunt Callie married Uncle Owen.

The home that Uncle Jason built was on a farm, bounded by the streets of Richmond on one side and including the present golf course on the other. My father saw that house through a golden haze of youth and memory. It was practically his home when in town and he spent much time there. For him it was the scene of delightful parties and pleasant family gatherings. The double parlors were often thrown open for dancing, making a ballroom forty feet in length. In the dining room, two heavy mahogany sideboards held bountiful refreshments, and several of the old fashioned drop leaf tables had to be put together to accommodate the large family and their guests. After all the years, Jason Walker’s lavish hospitality is still spoken of in Richmond.

Owen and Jason Walker were so unlike that no one would have imagined that they were related. In fact they were quite antagonistic, and did not speak. The younger brother was a very gay and genial person, meeting his children’s friends, with whom he was immensely popular on terms of perfect equality. I have seen his portrait. One turns away feeling that whatever may have been Jason Walker’s faults, he was never a fool or a bore, and that an hour in his lively company could have been spent with much enjoyment. The grey eyes have a wicked twinkle.
Aunt Sallie’s portrait hangs beside that of Uncle Jason. Like Aunt Callie, she lived only for others. Looking much older than Uncle Jason, as she sits for her picture, she wears a dove colored dress with fine lace at the neck and wrists, a gorgeous pearl brooch, and heavy pearl bracelet. In her delicate hands she holds a small book and a lace handkerchief. Only her deep blue eyes are beautiful, but the thin face is all quiet goodness, and the slim figure graceful and charming.

Uncle Jason was a keen sportsman and kept a fine pack of hounds. There was also a good deal of cock fighting at Uncle Jason’s, a form of sport for which Father had no enthusiasm, as he loved fine birds and animals. This mode of life, rural and for the most part wholesome, had its uglier side. Liquor was served in great quantity, and to very young boys. No party was without the array of decanters on the sideboard. And youths of fourteen or fifteen were expected to take their toddy or mint julep with the older men. For some this meant ruin; others, though never teetotalers, were not born with the appetite for hard and continuous drinking. Father was naturally temperate both in food and drink. Mint juleps were passed regularly at our house, but he stopped with one.

 

Miss Emma’s portrait of her father

I feel that I know how my father must have looked in his youth, for strongly marked features change little in a lifetime. Early daguerreotypes, photographs in middle age, and his portrait at the age of seventy show the high cheek bones and aquiline nose that were an inheritance from Betsy Walker. The eyes grey-green, flecked with hazel are set rather slanting, again like his mother’s. They have, even in the young pictures, a clear steadiness of look that is the most noticeable characteristic of his face, transcending every feature. It is this expression that I see as plainly now as if twenty-five years had not passed since his death. Father’s hair was black, his skin a light olive with healthy color. I regret that the portrait does not show his fine hands. The long, slim fingers were beautifully tapered. Father was tall, five feet eleven, and even in age, kept his good figure. As a family, we are too fond of exercise to grow fat.

Clothes were always a matter of interest. My memory brings back the invariable grey suit, dark in winter, lighter in summer, the white shirt and black tie, the gold-rimmed onyx cuff buttons. As a young man, Father was more resplendent. He used to tell me of his first evening suit, when in his teens, a dark blue coat, worn with white trousers and flowered waistcoat in the fashion of the time. It was a bitter experience when a friend borrowed this costume, got very drunk, and was found lying in the street the morning after a wild party. “And my suit never fit to wear again,” said Father.

Occasionally when in Richmond, he saw a country neighbor, Mrs. Parkes, driving through the streets on shopping errands or to make calls. Her little daughters looked eagerly out of the big old-fashioned carriage, as a trip to town was an event in their quiet lives. They were friends of his parents, but a grown young man paid no attention to children, and when Father was eighteen, Mary Parkes [Emma’s mother] was only six.

 

Miss Emma’s mother

My mother, the second daughter and fourth child of John and Elizabeth Calloway Buford Parkes, was born in Madison County on the 14th of October, 1848. I love to think that she came into the world on just such a still, bright autumn day as we often celebrated afterwards, red and yellow leaves everywhere, and blue haze in the distance. She used to say that the fall sunshine had a different look.

Great-aunt Mary presented a coral necklace to her infant niece, fifteen strands of tiny square beads. It has been enlarged, and I wear it now on nine strands. I also have a set of furniture that she gave to my grandmother, a four post bed, the mahogany bureau, and twelve black painted dining room chairs, with rounds scarred by the feet of Parkes children and children and grandchildren. In great-great grandfather’s prayer book, printed in London in 1768, “Mary” is written on many margins in a round, childish hand. The independent, athletic little girl’s alert, vivid personality and darting movements drew the nickname of “the Bird” from [her godfather] Uncle Bill. That indulgent gentlemen, ever a spoiler of children, bestowed many gifts upon his favorite, five-dollar gold pieces, candy, new dresses, etc. She tried to show her appreciation in various ways. When Uncle Bill rode into the yard, the Bird would fly to meet him and lead him into the office, where she would throw sticks on the fire and light his pipe with long paper splits that she had made.

Her younger sister often spoke wistfully of the way in which Mary had been showered from infancy with gifts and attentions, particularly by older people. I think it must have been her bright responsiveness that called them forth, a quality she never lost.

Mother and her brother James fought hard and often. He was a lively, mischievous boy, two years older than she. Where Uncle John’s seniority and sweet, easy-going nature made him very gentle with the younger children, Uncle Jim loved to tease. One Christmas morning when the family got up early to examine their stockings, he dared Mother to jump out of the window into the snow. She did, and then he held the sash down, so that she had to run around the house with bare feet and in her nightgown. That she did not take pneumonia, or even a cold, was a tribute to her sturdy health. Grandma, whose favorite he was, would always say, “Don’t cross your brother.”

“When she was out of sight, I crossed him,” said Mother, “I whacked him with anything that came handy, and I hit him hard.”

My grandparents lived on a farm near Kingston. The house, built in 1817, stands on a hill, above the winding creek and the road that divides the green meadows. It is Georgian in style with square, many-paned windows, a tiny portico, and stone steps curving at each end to hold urns in which Grandma kept century plants. Years after her death, the furniture remained in the same positions in which Grandma had placed it, and the rooms were so filled with her presence that one almost expected to come upon her suddenly, an erect little figure seated by the fire in winter or on the porch in summer. Her children could not bear to change anything, though in youth they were occasionally rebellious because she clung so tenaciously to the outmost possessions given to her by her parents and Aunt Mary.

In the yard, althea bushes separated the front from the back, snowballs were grouped at the stile, and lilacs around the office. This is the typical Kentucky planting of that day, and all who remember the old places will recognize it. In the spring, the grass was full of jonquils growing under the huge locusts from which the farm took its name. Bufords have [always] loved locust trees. There are many here at Elmwood. On spring nights I open the windows to their heavy perfume, and in the mornings I like to walk under the drooping branches. Their bloom and fragrance give the same joy to me that they did to the earlier generations.

 

Mary Parkes vs. the Schoolteacher

Mother started to school very early. She said herself that it was probably to get her out of the way. Grandma also felt that Mary should be occupied with something useful instead of running wild about the place. Ready always for a new experience, Mother went off happily, clinging to Uncle John’s hand. They walked across the fields, and he lifted the little girl over any rough places or stones.

“The best and dearest brother in the world,” she would say, years later.

The first day was interesting enough, but the second paled. The hours were long, the teacher, old Mr. John Snoddy, tiresome, and the whole thing thoroughly unpleasant. Finally Mother held up her hand, attracted Mr. Snoddy’s attention, and complained of a wretched toothache. Uncle John was ordered to escort her home, and she felt that she had scored a triumph.

At the same hour next day, she was bored again, and once more signaling Mr. Snoddy, mentioned the aching tooth. This time he looked at her doubtfully. She buried her face in her hands, and kept the pose. Mr. Snoddy yielded, but with a good round oath. “God blast it,” said he, “take her home, John.”

When they were halfway through the field, Mother’s spirits were high. She skipped along so gaily that her brother’s suspicions were aroused. “Mary,” he said, “does your tooth ache now?”

“Not a bit of it, John,” said Mother, “I was just tired of that old school.”

“Then you are going straight back.” When they arrived, Uncle John said only that Mary was much better and felt that she could return to her studies. Later she made friends with the other children, took an active part in the games, and really liked it.

[A later teacher] Miss Fanny was a cross old maid, a born nagger, cordially disliked by most of the children. Once Mother had left her book at home and asked to borrow one in order to prepare her work. Miss Fanny refused permission, [so] when the hour for the class arrived, Mother said that she did not know the answers.

“And why not?” demanded the teacher unreasonably.

“Because you haven’t given me a chance to study,” said Mother.

“Then learn your lesson.” And Miss Fanny threw the book at the little girl.

Mother’s reaction was instant. She was halfway across the room, and as the book came toward her, met it with a good, hard kick that sent it flying back, narrowly missing the teacher.

“I won’t learn it at all,” she said. Grandfather came out strongly for his daughter. He considered her actions entirely suitable, the only thing she could have done. No one should throw a book at her. His Mary had character and her behavior had been perfect in a trying situation. There was nothing about her that he would change.

[The original, unedited version of this account is the EKU Archives, with many other photographs and artifacts of Elmwood.]

« Previous | Next »