A Love Story
This is a watch fob from 1908. Behind it lies a story.
Its original owner was a man named J. W. Farmer (1880-1918), known as Will to some and Professor Farmer to many others. For a short time it belonged to a girl named Ruth, my great-aunt. Then it belonged to a bureau drawer for many, many decades. And now it belongs to me.
I first heard about Will Farmer from my aunt, who passed on to me this watch fob. As you can see, “Harvard University” appears on one side. On the other, he had scratched the initials “JWF” and the year “08.” The story that goes along with the watch fob is that Will gave it to my great-aunt Ruth. She had been a student of his at Louisville Academy, and after she graduated, Will began to court her. My great-grandfather disapproved, or maybe it was just that Ruth was not interested, or both. At any rate, before she was sent off to Agnes Scott, Will gave her his watch fob.
It ended up in the above-named drawer and came to me 80 years later, at at time when I myself was a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
I was intrigued. I learned also that he had taught three of my grandparents, and that among the subjects he taught was Latin, which readers know that I taught at Agnes Scott College and other schools over a period of three decades. I was also told that he boarded for a time with Molly Ponder Sinquefield, the widow of F. A. Sinquefield, my great-great-grandfather.
A graduate of Louisville Academy who became a teacher of Latin and studied at Harvard: here was a man whose life had many points of contact with my own. I was interested enough to visit Widener Library at Harvard to check into his academic record there; dig through the archives and special collections at Emory, Will’s alma mater; spend several days at the state archives in Atlanta; pore over old copies of the Augusta Chronicle, the Louisville Post, and the News & Farmer; check the minutes of the Jefferson County and Richmond County boards of education; look through legal documents at the Jefferson County courthouse; locate his father’s farm out on the Magruder Road; and talk to the late Mike Cox, city manager of Louisville, and others about stories they had heard concerning Will Farmer.
I did all that and discovered that Will Farmer was a remarkable person. One of the most gifted teachers his community has ever seen. A man who educated a generation of men and women who helped to make of Louisville something more than just another small town in rural America. A person of strong faith who could drop a phrase like “the autograph of God in the song of birds.” A racist by anyone’s definition and a staunch Southern patriot who nonetheless, however inconsistently, was capable of eloquent objection to prejudice and the rule of might over right. A boy who lost his mother when he was five years old and for the rest of his life sensed death close at hand. A person who grew up in modest circumstances and yet as an adult struck people as cultured and refined. A complex person, both self-made and shaped by his environment, someone whom I think anyone of us would feel privileged to know.
Where to begin? Let’s begin at the end. Will Farmer died on Friday, November 15, 1918, of influenza. His obituary in the Augusta Chronicle states that
The entire community will be shocked and distressed to learn of the death of J. W. Farmer, principal of the Houghton School . . . He was a graduate of Emory College of the class of 1901. After completing a postgraduate course at Harvard he was for ten years principal of the Louisville Academy. In the fall of 1912 he came to Augusta to accept a position in the Richmond Academy as instructor in Latin and History, where he has taught ever since until he resigned to accept the position of principal of the Houghton School this fall. While at the Academy, Mr. Farmer was not only considered a highly efficient teacher but was one of the most popular instructors with both the student body and the faculty that has ever taught there. During the six years he has taught there he has become well known in educational circles throughout Georgia and was considered one of the best informed and most capable educators in the state.
Even if we discount some of the praise that is lavished on Will Farmer in this obituary, we get a glimpse of the skilled teacher and devoted educator that he was.
We have an expression in the profession: a teacher’s teacher. That was Will. He was resourceful, demanding, authoritative rather than authoritarian, devoted to his students, knowledgeable, professional, possessed of a flair for the dramatic flourish, and imbued with a spirit of adventure.
Will’s success as a teacher was due in large part to his belief in its importance. He was a great admirer of Thomas Jefferson, the “Sage of Monticello.” As a believer in what he called simple, honest Jeffersonian democracy, Will like others of his day was committed to an ideology of progress, the belief that knowledge and reason, combined with hard work, will produce the economic and technological advancement that is not only a hallmark of Western civilization, but necessary to support the rights to life, liberty, and property. Will’s view was that in working hard to educate his students, he was making American democracy work.
In the fall of 1903, at Louisville Academy, Will was hired to be the principal, replacing a Professor Dodd who had not shown up for work. The trustees of the school announced his hire with words describing him as a “good scholar” and as possessing the requisite qualifications to be a good teacher.
Will’s advertisement in the local News & Farmer newspaper on September 17, 1903, speaks volumes about him: “Bring your children to school on September 21,” he wrote, “and assure us of your united support. The school is at a point in its history where it needs and must have this; and we believe with this condition met, we will have a school of which we will all be proud. Rally to our support, and cooperate with us in making the coming session the best in the history of this institution.”
And soon here came Bess Roberts, Eunice Hudson, Della Brown, Ethel Harris, Gus Little, Ruth and Wright Abbot, Julia Warren, Screven Farmer, Morgan Roberts, Nora Adams, Marguerite Gamble, Eloise Hardeman, and many, many others over Will’s decade-long tenure at Louisville Academy.
Those children were in for a treat. We are fortunate to have two pieces from the News & Farmer about Will, one by a relative of mine named Virginia Polhill Saxon, the other an interview with her. She was not actually one of Will’s students; he left Louisville Academy before she reached the higher grades, the ones that he himself taught, but she gives a good sense of the hold he had over his students. She describes the electricity that would go through the school on those Fridays when Professor Farmer would cancel afternoon classes and summon all the students – first through tenth grades – to assembly, where he would read to them from Shakespeare. Or perhaps from Poe or Dickens. Whatever he read, he held them all enthralled.
At Louisville Academy, he taught English, Latin, Greek, French, algebra, geometry, trigonometry, history, science, and rhetoric. He taught them all. He played the piano in chapel when the pianist could not. He planted vines that he brought from Mount Vernon and spent his own money to beautify the school. He directed plays, taught his students speeches to recite, arranged for guest speakers to visit, and on and on.
By the time he reached Richmond Academy in 1912, he was at the height of his powers as a teacher. He was extraordinarily popular there. After his death, the class of 1919 erected a memorial inscription to Will, and the remarks of the senior class president speak to the special regard that the entire school had for him. (Some of his fellow teachers, notwithstanding his recent tragic death, could barely contain their envy.)
I suspect that some of Will’s formidable skill as a teacher derived from his association at Emory with Andrew Sledd, professor of Latin. Sledd came to Emory when he was only 28. He had done postgraduate work at Harvard and taught at Vanderbilt. He was fearless, tough as nails, honest, of singular integrity, and ambitious. Not long after his arrival in Georgia, he married into the powerful Candler family of Atlanta, started a classical club, began intramural football and intercollegiate track, and in all that he did communicated a complete lack of patience with incompetence and dishonesty from anyone: student, faculty member, or administrator. He says of his first year at Emory, “I found myself almost wholly without either intellectual sympathy or intellectual stimulation, but I was beset by the enthusiasm of my years, and I assailed the problem with vigor and also assailed the entrenched complacency and incompetent condition of the institution.”
Sledd taught Will Latin and English. I have little doubt that, although they were different in many respects, Will took from Sledd his intolerance of complacency and incompetence, and I like to think, when Sledd was dismissed from Emory a year after Will’s graduation and burned in effigy in Covington and elsewhere, because he had published an article in the Atlantic Monthly titled “The Negro: Another View,” that Will was one of the students who wrote to Sledd in support of his former professor and his views. Those views were hardly liberal or enlightened, but did express harsh condemnation of lynching and argued that white Southerners responsible for the epidemic of violence perpetrated against blacks at that time be treated as the criminals they were.
Will was a teacher’s teacher, then. He also brought to his teaching a strong faith in and love of God. The Farmers were Methodists. In fact, I believe that Robert Levin Farmer, Will’s father, may have donated the plot of land on which the Louisville United Methodist Church now stands, unless that was his younger brother Louis Russell Farmer. Will’s mother’s family, the Arringtons, were Baptists.
Sherod Arrington was Will’s maternal grandfather. When he was more than 80 years old, he had to have his eyes removed. A friend visited, expecting to find Mr. Arrington in poor spirits. Quite the opposite: “Jesus has been with me all the time,” he said, and within a month he was back in his pew at the Louisville Baptist Church, which he had helped to found.
Will never knew this grandfather, but he clearly inherited some of his capacity for faith and piety. At Emory, Will was preparing for the ministry, and on Sundays he rode his bicycle out the dusty roads around Oxford, Georgia, to teach Sunday school in country churches. Later, his chapel services at Louisville Academy – first thing in the morning, 7:30 to 8:30 a.m. – were serious affairs, with Will decked out in his black college robes and mortar board.
With some people, religion is like a nice jacket: a pleasure to slip on, but easy to slip off. I don’t think that Will’s piety was mere affectation.
In the summer of 1905, Will and W. P. Lowry took a train trip out West. Will later penned a series of articles for Norman Ramsey’s paper, the Louisville Post, in which he described and reflected upon what they had seen on their trip. He describes a sunset in San Francisco at the Golden Gate Strait this way:
As these waters, blue and green, meet in dashing spray, 10,000 diamonds are reflected in the sunlight and make a picture indescribably beautiful. Standing upon a lofty height, as the last rays of the evening sun hide themselves in the bosom of the waters through this pass, we see them not as a great ball of fire gradually dying away, but rather as a company of the heavenly hosts crying ‘Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty.’ And as I looked through this pass, I thought of that other Golden Gate, and a silent prayer went up from my heart that I would be ready. ‘For soon the time will come, for each of us, to enter that beautiful, golden gate.’
Does this strike you as religiosity and insincere piety? I think that Will combined a belief in the importance and power of education with the conviction that in teaching he was doing God’s work. His obituary in the News & Farmer mentions that he “overcame all the prejudice incident to that hard profession.” If he did so, I think it was because of his unwavering belief in its efficacy and its importance.
I have also said that Will was a man who loved the South with a passion and held views on race that were altogether and sadly typical of whites in his day. He believed in what he called “Anglo-Saxon supremacy,” as the following anecdote makes clear.
Again on that tour of the West, he and his friend Lowry got off the train in Pocotello, Idaho. They had lunch in the station, and two “negroes” came in and sat by them at the lunch counter. One asked that they pass the sugar. They did so, but they also got up and left. Will described the incident as “repulsive to our keen Southern sensibilities” but added that “when we are in Rome, we must do as Rome does.”
He nonetheless wrote in his journal that “when we stand before the great tribunal of God, we will be judged according as we have treated our fellow beings, His children on earth.” And he was moved by the sad plight of the Native Americans whom he saw on his trip. “We have a great and good country,” he wrote, “one upon which a kind Father has lavishly poured out his blessings, and I am proud of my American inheritance; but when we look honestly and unprejudicially at our treatment of these North American Indians, our national conscience ought to pain us with its remorse. We must remember that as with individuals, so with nations. Might is not always right.”
Now, Will’s father was a Civil War veteran. He and Samuel M. Clark, William A. Denny, Rhesa E. Farmer, John J. Polhill, George W. Quinny, John J. Whigham, Robert L. Whigham, and others were soldiers in Company B, 27th Georgia Infantry Battalion. They fought with Joe Johnston’s Army of the Tennessee in the Carolina Campaign, which included the Battle of Bentonville, North Carolina, the last battle in which Confederate troops were able to mount a tactical offensive. Probably they will have been present for Johnston’s surrender to Sherman at Durham Station, North Carolina, in April, 1865.
Will’s uncles William, Sidney, and James Farmer fought in the Battey Guards, part of the 38th Regiment in the Lawton-Gordon-Evans Brigade, which was assigned to Stonewall Jackson’s Second Division of the Army of Virginia. William died at Fredericksburg, Sidney at Spotsylvania Courthouse, and James spent a year in prison at Fort Delaware.
The 38th and three other regiments were thrown into the breach at Fredericksburg, and it was their charge that reputedly caused Robert E. Lee to say, “It is well war is so terrible; otherwise we would grow too fond of it.” The charge of their brigade at Gettysburg rolled up the right flank of the Union line, and was later described by an observer as “like a silver wave across a field of gold.”
My point in all this is that, obviously, after the war many did grow too fond of it, to paraphrase Bobby Lee. Will Farmer was too fond of it, certainly. How could he talk about Anglo-Saxon supremacy out of one side of his mouth and about Christian responsibility to all human beings out of the other side? This inconsistency can be explained, in part, by Will’s understandable but misguided sense of loyalty to the myth of the Lost Cause.
Will grew up in a town where veterans of Cobb’s Legion, the Jefferson Guards, the Jeff Greys, the Battey Guards, the Jefferson Volunteers, and other Confederate units populated the town and county. I think he felt secure in the knowledge that his father and uncles had done their part and more for the South. When Will was a boy, Louisville was represented in the Georgia legislature by Captain J. H. Polhill, and people in the county were known to name their children after Colonel F. A. Sinquefield. Status in the postwar South depended to some degree on service in the Confederate Army. Will knew that, and I think that is partly why he embraced his family’s history of loyalty and sacrifice.
But it was not only a matter of status and prestige for Will. Martyrdom has a powerful effect upon the mind of a true believer. In Will’s case, he had the shining example of his uncles’ martyrdom, but he lacked the actual experience of warfare. Phrases such as “heroes and martyrs for the Cause” must have sounded hollow to many Confederate veterans who had been maimed, physically and otherwise, by the war. Will himself almost certainly did not think about the many Southern “heroes” who had deserted at the first sign of hardship, or allowed themselves to be captured, or fought for just about any reason except Southern honor and independence. No, if Will had a failing, it was his earnestness, and what he took from the war was the belief that selfless devotion to a worthy cause is a preeminent good – more than that, an inescapable duty. That belief not only contributed to his opinions on race and politics in the postwar South, but also animated his life and contributed to his success as a teacher.
Enough about the Civil War. Finally, it is important to note that young Will was marked for life by his mother Willie’s death. He was five at the time. Already, his grandparents were dead. All of his maternal aunts and uncles were dead. His father’s siblings, for the most part, were either dead or had moved away. And then, after his father’s remarriage to Savannah Beal, Will had a half-sister Carrie. His father gave up farming and went on the road for a Savannah fertilizer company.
The fact that Will undoubtedly spent a lot of time alone as a child created in him a self-reliance that served him well later in life. But it also lent him a certain melancholy that shows up here and there in the sources for his life.
The late Mike Cox told me that his friend Bob Robert Martin at the Georgia Railroad Bank in Augusta was a student at Richmond Academy when Will taught there. Bob Robert idolized his teacher, so much so that for years after Will died, he would ask Mike again and again what he could tell him about Will Farmer’s life. For his part, Bob Robert had his own story to share about Will. He said that he was with his teacher one day when the two of them witnessed a sad scene. The dead bodies of some World War I soldiers were being transported to an army base in Augusta. The soldiers were victims of the great flu pandemic of that time. Will reputedly turned to Bob Robert and said, “Something tells me that I will be a victim of that.” He died of the flu not long afterward.
It is evident that Will Farmer was not an altogether happy man. He suffered from nightmares. Little Julia Stone, who would be my grandmother, had to be warned by her own grandmother Miss Molly, when she spent the night at the boarding house, not to be alarmed if she heard Prof. Farmer cry out at night.
Here was a man who could look out of a window at the old Louisville Academy and see the graves of his parents. The love he might have lavished on them – or for that matter, on a wife and children – he lavished instead on his students. Just three years into his tenure at Louisville Academy, he concluded his series of ten articles for the Louisville Post with these words:
And now, finally, as a token of abiding love and esteem, I wish to affectionately dedicate these letters to my dear boys and girls of the Louisville Academy, who have been so kind and thoughtful of me during the past three years.
Which brings me to an end. It was a family story about Ruth and Will Farmer that started me on all this. As I learned more about Will, I kept thinking that Ruth’s parents were fools for not encouraging her to marry him. He certainly made every effort to convince his potential in-laws that he was worthy. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least, for example, if Will bought R. L. Bostick’s lot in 1905, the lot diagonally across the street from Ruth’s family’s home on Mulberry Street, because he was already thinking that his wife Ruth would want to live near her family. I can well imagine, too, the efforts that Will made at a Valentine party that he and Ruth attended in February 1906. And again the next week at a party at her home, “one of the most charming social affairs of the season,” as the newspaper reported.
In the end, though, my great-grandparents decided (it seems, unless it was Ruth herself) that she was not meant for Will. Then again, there may be another explanation of what happened. After all, the bond between a good and dedicated teacher and an attentive, willing student can be very close. It may be, that is, that young Will Farmer confused his love of Ruth as a student with love of her as a young woman. And maybe in some way, Ruth and her parents sensed this. Perhaps they sensed that this was a young man whose first love would always be his school.
So, what was so special about Will Farmer? If only we could ask that question of my grandparents Wright Abbot, Julia Stone, and Norla Hardeman, or any of his many other students. I doubt that any of them would find it very hard to answer.