Search for work brought Wilsons back to Vicksburg

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, July 23, 2008

July 23, 2008

I was 4 years old when the stock market failed and banks began to collapse. I felt the full impact of it during the next 11 years. From 1928 through 1931, I lived in Paducah, Ky., moving with my family as we followed the shrinking job market in the railroad industry. Then, when a senior boilermaker “rolled” my father for his job in the ICRR roundhouse at Paducah, we moved back home to Vicksburg.

Perhaps this would be a good place to introduce myself. I doubt if anyone in Vicksburg other than my Penley cousins and friends made during my adult years would remember me. As a child and young teen, I specialized in remaining invisible. If I might skip ahead and reference my flying P-40 and P-47 aircraft during World War II, that experience cured me of feelings of inadequacy, as did racking up good grades during my college years.

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My mother was Inez Penley, the oldest child of Charles Henry Penley and Anna Burns.

My father was Edwin Hilton Wilson, the son of Charles Newton Wilson and Lula Hilton.

I was born in a duplex that had a small grocery store on the other side of the dividing wall. It stood where East Grove Street emptied into Jackson Road, across from Flanagan’s store. Later, we lived near the bottom of the hill on Speed Street.

I had two brothers, Charles Edwin, who fought with the 5th Marines on Iwo Jima, and Earl Harvey, who was killed in the line of duty flying P-38s off Attu Island in the Aleutian chain. A sister, Gloria, and two more brothers, Robert and Jerry, followed later.

My Wilson, Burns, and Hilton ancestors took up land in Mississippi early on, but my Penley line dated back only to Ephriam Crockett Penley, who moved south after service with the 1st Maine Volunteers at Bull Run during what I call the “Uncivil War.”

I started school at Culkin Academy, where they skipped me from the second to the fourth grade, then put me back because I was physically so much smaller than the kids who were a year to 18 months older. I had great teachers, but some painful memories, partly from the compulsory shots and vaccinations we kids had to endure during the early ’30s. We lined up inside the gymnasium, circling the wall, watching and hearing the tension and pain being inflicted on the far side. You can understand how this could make the most stoic 6-year-old hysterical.

Coping with school attendance soon became more complicated for me and my older brothers. My family had driven over to Lake Village, Ark., which in those days required crossing the river at Vicksburg and making our way north on gravel or dirt roads, often dotted with deep mudholes. We three boys contracted malaria from the mosquitoes which were so abundant in that swampy area. The promise of (I believe) 60 acres of free land for every adult male had lured my grandfather and three of his sons to leave tenant farming in Tallulah and take up the challenge of clearing and “proving” their land. They held on to it until the younger generation began to move away.

Not until I matured could I appreciate the desperation that must have gripped my Wilson people, to entice them into that wet, deeply forested wilderness, which was one of the last pieces of land in the USA opened for homesteading. Their plight was typical of many small farmers who migrated into Copiah and Claiborne counties during the first quarter of the 19th century. They were doing pretty well as small farmers until the moneyed interests in the Southeast and the major plantation owners in Mississippi and other Southern states, decided to secede from the Union. The tragic war and the terribly vindictive attitude of Northern legislators that followed wrecked the economy of the South, along with the lives of hundreds of thousands of families. What perverse impulse motivated the North to call it “Reconstruction”? Then the market for cotton collapsed, and the boll weevil nearly finished off cotton growing. One after another, crisis piled on crisis, then the Great Depression came.

Jim Wilson, an honorary Master Gardener in eight states, was a presenter for 10 years on PBS’s “Victory Garden” and is the author of 10 gardening books. He now lives in Missouri and in this series remembers his youth in Vicksburg. Mail reaches him at 4200 E. Richland Road, Columbia, MO. 65201 and e-mail reaches him at