JEFF MEADORS: Legendary figures populate Newton's past

If filmmakers, moviegoers, and students knew Newton’s rich history their focus may turn to profiles in courage, figures of fortitude and an occasional character of ignominy.

From land lotteries and surveys to extensive tables on cotton production and the Covington telephone exchange there is math and critical reading galore — plus the added value of connecting to our past.

The importance of learning our history has been lauded by the likes of Cicero, Churchill and Hugo. Rudyard Kipling argued, “If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.”

I became interested in local stories through my late great aunt, Beverly Heard Perry. I called her Aunt Debby. She worked for Snapping Shoals from 1938 to 1976. In 1995 she and I unsuccessfully searched the old Josiah Perry place at Pony Express for family headstones. She blamed our failed adventure on decades of cattle hooves.

Aunt Debby believed these were stories I needed to know. We walked cemeteries together as she narrated the lives of locals long gone. At the time I spent summers flying to Europe and the south Pacific studying foreign history. That angered her.

Suspicious of planes and more suspect of other countries she derided my desire to fly. “As Mama used to say,” she scoffed, “I like to keep my feet on terra firma. The more firma the less terra!”

Her references to her “Mama” — Maud Barnette Perry — were legendary.

What amused me in those days grew into an inveterate search for stories of the past — the iconic Mama who died before I was 2, my introspective and poetic grandmother Rebekah, my elusive grandfather Johnny who I never met, the inebriating Chess pie baked by a larger-than-life figure who I called Tea. I tracked Tea down on Church Street after 30 years of separation.

Similar figures appear in everyone’s past.

Infamous characters sprout from Newton’s annals through transcribed testimony of Clyde Manning in the 1921 trial of John S. Williams — a thriller more foreboding than the fangs of any 21st century vampire.

Riveting stories march forth like heroic Sadie Grant of the High Point School fire of 1922 where students Albert Steele and George Batchelor perished. The boys sought refuge in a closet which became their crematorium.

Around the same time an exodus to Detroit took place led by James H. Greer in his quest for employment in Detroit’s emerging auto industry as he escaped the six-millimeter boll weevil. From the letters of Seaborn Clack we know that Newton supplied Liverpool, England with cotton.

Stephen Heard, 12th governor of Georgia, was my relative. Captured by the Tories and awaiting execution he escaped with the aid of Mammy Kate, Daddy Jack and a big basket.

My great aunt, like Kipling, was correct. I needed to know these stories. After all, I haven’t even gotten to the hidden pony of Mount Pleasant, the cross examination of Lemuel Grant, or the true meaning of “sold to the Yankees” — all stories not easily forgotten.

Columnist Jeff Meadors may be reached at pjeffreymeadors@gmail.com