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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces a chapter of
One Man's Fight
for a Better Navy

Holden A. Evans
[Former Naval Constructor, U. S. N.]

published by
Dodd, Mead & Company
New York

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Part I
Chapter 2
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

Part I

 p3  Chapter I

A Boy of the Reconstruction

Modern fiction writers seem to assume that there were only two classes of people in the old South, the planters or gentlemen and the poor white trash. My father belonged to neither class, but he was a gentleman and also a scholar who knew his Latin and Greek as well as any college professor. In fact, he taught school before he went into business. His business was running sawmills.

Evans, Tate and Company owned a string of mills along the railway between Mobile and Montgomery. The Governor of Alabama was the junior member of the firm. Father, the directing head, lifted in Greenville, Ala., handy to his sawmills. During the Civil War he produced lumber exclusively for the Confederate Army. The millhands were mainly slaves. It is a fact that Father bought slaves for his mill after Gettysburg and a year after Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

After the war Father quickly made adjustments to the changed conditions and, though the South was prostrate, made money. Greenville considered him a rich man. My mother was of the planter class, gentle and refined. A daguerreotype of her, taken when he was sixteen, shows her to have been pretty but more mature and serious in expression than are sixteen-year‑old girls today. A few weeks after this portrait was made, my mother married my father, who was twice her age. Today she is ninety-five. Her mind is still keen and her memory excellent.

In 1870 Father built a new home in Greenville. I was born in it on December 6, 1871. The house stood on a hill, and Father, being fond of magnolias, planted several in the front yard. The  p4 wiseacres told him that magnolias would never do well there. Not long ago I had an impulse to see my birthplace. I remembered nothing about it or about Greenville either, but I had no trouble finding it. I told the taxi driver to take me to the house with the magnolias. He knew. The place is now called "Magnolia Heights" and is almost hidden behind giant magnolia trees a hundred feet tall and more. During blossom time the great trees are one of the sights of Greenville.

I remember nothing about Greenville because, soon after I was born, new vistas opened to my father. Yellow pine timber was becoming an important export product. In West Florida were virgin stands of long-leaf yellow pine, with Pensacola the export center. Father sold his Alabama interests, including the Greenville home, and went to Florida. He built a mill and a house at Bluffsprings on the Escambia River; but because Bluffsprings was so remote in the piney woods, for his family he bought a place at Oakfields, a suburb of Pensacola. My remembrance of life starts at Oakfields.

That remembrance is still vivid, even of things that happened before I was five years old. I have always had a remarkable memory. In my later business career, when I was directing an immense and intricate industrial enterprise, I never carried a notebook, but my late associates will vouch for the deadly accuracy of my memory.

For instance, I well remember the day Judge and Mrs. Campbell returned from the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876. At that time a journey from Pensacola to Philadelphia was something to talk about. Judge Campbell, the leading attorney of Pensacola, was our neighbor. There was no railroad station at Oakfields, but on this special occasion the train was to make a stop.

I can still see the wood-burning locomotive, with its pot‑bellied smokestack, come around the curve — the long string of freight  p5 cars, then the baggage-and‑mail car, and finally the lone passenger coach. I can hear the sharp blast of the whistle and see the brakemen running over the car setting the hand brakes. I can see Judge Campbell, portly and bald, descend the steps, then carefully help Mrs. Campbell down. That was an event.

And the day my young sister, playing in the grounds, was struck by a ground rattlesnake. It was no simple thing then of phoning for a doctor in Pensacola, six miles away, and having him out in as many minutes. I can see my uncle pick up the baby and run to the house with her. I can see Mother and Uncle binding her leg, giving her brandy, cutting open small chickens alive, one after another, and placing the warm flesh on the wound to draw the poison. This home treatment saved her life, but even now, sixty years later, the old wound occasionally troubles her.

I remember well the Hayes-Tilden presidential campaign in 1876, before my fifth birthday. The hopes and prayers of the abused South were with Tilden, who was to end the carpet‑bag rule and Negro domination of the whites. What joy there was in our family when the returns showed Tilden elected — joy that soon changed to horror and despair when the election was stolen and given to Hayes! Judge Campbell predicted that the Republicans would go to any lengths to retain the carpet-baggers in power.

The Campbell family and ours were intimate, employing jointly a well-educated English woman, Mrs. Steele, to teach my older sisters and the Campbell girls. Mrs. Steele gave me my first experience with the English language as spoken in England. I thought it very peculiar. She was fond of sirup but pronounced it sear‑rup. It was my first inkling that all the world might not be like the piney woods.

When I first remember my father he was in his middle forties. He was a stern, silent man. I never heard my mother  p6 address him other than as Mr. Evans. This was the elegant form of conjugal address in the middle years of the last century. As for us children, like Sweet Alice in the presence of Ben Bolt, we wept with delight at the smile on his face and trembled with fear at his frown. Yet he was a just man and a considerate father. For me he had a great ambition — the University of Virginia and then Harvard Law School. He wanted me to be a lawyer like Judge Campbell. I would never have thought of questioning his plans for me. The law became my ambition, too.

There seemed to be nothing then to prevent my realizing it. We had a fine home in Oakfields, money, cultured neighbors. Pensacola, a thriving city, was only six miles away. It was a happy life for the Evans family. Father spent most of his time at the mill in Bluffsprings, thirty miles north, but returned to us week-ends. He had installed Grandmother in the big Bluffsprings place, and she made a second home for him there. Sometimes Father took me with him to spend a happy week with Grandmother.

When I was seven years old, Father made a very enterprising and bold move. He began the construction of a big sawmill at Pine Barren in the heart of the yellow-pine forest south of Bluffsprings. There was no rail transportation. The mill was located on a creek, a western tributary of the Escambia River. The operation included the construction of a canal sixteen miles to the Escambia. At the mill Father dammed the creek to make a big storage pond for logs, and above this he ran a long canal through the woods in order to float the timber down.

This big undertaking extended him financially. Costs were higher than anticipated. It also began to demand all his time; he could no longer spend even his Sundays at Oakfields. Consequently he sold our Oakfields home and moved us up to Bluffsprings.

 p7  Much as we regretted leaving our friends for our lonesome oasis far back in the pine woods, we were by no means unhappy at Bluffsprings. The house was large and comfortable. Orchards, gardens, and fertile fields surrounded it. We had plenty of servants in the house and outside. My oldest sister was away at college. The rest of us children had an excellent governess, Miss Alice Hunt, of Mobile. From her I was learning my three R's. We seldom went outside our grounds, except for a daily walk with Mother or Miss Alice, living much as country children do in England today. Father gave me a plot of ground, and the gardener taught me how to grow vegetables. I became very good at it.

The Pine Barren enterprise was swallowing all Father's capital, and still the mill was not ready to operate. He took in a wealthy man of Pensacola as partner and, to hold up his end, borrowed heavily from this associate, giving his demand notes. The prospects for the Pine Barren mill were very bright. It would have its own cheap water transportation from the felled trees to the ships in Pensacola. It promised to be one of the most profitable timbering operations in Florida.

Then one memorable day — a blistering summer afternoon — there was a commotion of men coming into our grounds at Bluffsprings, and Father was carried into the house, unconscious. While supervising work on the canal he had suffered a sunstroke. The telegraph brought out a special train from Pensacola carrying Dr. Whiting, the leading physician of West Florida, Judge Campbell, and Father's business associate.

Dr. Whiting brought Father through apparently to complete recovery; but, as we were to know later, it was not complete. He was never the same man again. The stroke was fateful for all of us. Except for it, I would never have been an officer of the Navy, would never have contended with the Sea Lords in Washington, would never have become an independent shipbuilder  p8 afterwards. In all probability I would today be a lawyer practicing in Pensacola.

In a few weeks Father was back at Pine Barren, driving the work as hard as ever. At last the canals were finished, and the big mill's whistle blew for the first day's work. Soon it was running to capacity. All my father's calculations were verified. The profits were huge. It seemed certain that Father would soon clear off his indebtedness and become a magnate of the yellow-pine lumber industry.

Father's notes were called and, of course, he could not pay. The property was sold under the hammer for the amount of indebtedness. It was financial ruin. Even the first mill, at Bluffsprings, was now gone. Nothing remained except the Bluffsprings home and its spacious grounds. Penniless, Father sold this for a fraction of its real value. All he retained from the wreck of his fortunes was the concession that his family might occupy temporarily a cottage on the Bluffsprings estate.

At the age of fifty my father found himself what he had not been since he was a young man — an employee.

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Page updated: 6 Feb 15