Each week, genealogist Amy Johnson Crow provides a prompt designed to get us thinking about our family trees in different ways. Her #52Ancestors in 52 Weeks Challenge is also a reminder that we must share our personal stories, along with preserving what we learn while doing family history research, or the knowledge could potentially be lost forever.
This week’s prompt is PROSPERITY. When I saw it, I thought of two things: Wealth and “Of Thee I Sing.” The latter is a 1931 political musical-comedy written by George and Ira Gershwin, George Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind. I was in the chorus (and had one spoken line) when I was in college. One of the songs is called “Prosperity is Just Around the Corner” and I can still remember the tune (vaguely – it was 35 years ago) that accompanied those words.
Around the time that show was opening on Broadway, my grandparents were getting their start in the world. Prosperity wasn’t just around the corner for them at that point, but they were working towards it. Dewey Hoyt Cook and Willie Aline Stevens were both teachers in Escambia County, Florida. Hoyt’s first assignment was at a one-room school house in Dry Springs. Willie was working in Beulah, with a principal and three other teachers.
Except for her first year of marriage, and the year following each of her children’s births, Willie always taught in Escambia County. She didn’t choose to take those years off, by the way, those were the rules for female teachers back then. Hoyt sometimes left teaching for other jobs, and certainly he filled his summers off with other work. He did construction for DuPont and helped build Sherman Field – now the home of the Blue Angels – at the Pensacola Navy Base. One year, he blasted stumps for 75 cents a day, and I’m told he would toss a blasting cap in the river on the way home and collect the fish for dinner.
At one point, he and my grandmother ran a curb market on North Palafox Street. He’d take a truck to Georgia for peaches or South Florida for strawberries, or he’d bring a truckload of his own watermelons from Walnut Hill. He’d buy more than enough and sell the extra to other markets, like Bailey’s, which is still in business in Pensacola. Bailey’s returned the favor and sold him their extras of other produce.
For many years, the Cooks lived on Palafox, about a mile south of Brentwood School, where they both spent many of their teaching years. They bought enough property for Hoyt to build shotgun houses that they could rent out. One lot he fenced off to raise hogs that he sold for butchering. He got a job hauling trash from the base cafeteria, and he used the food waste to feed the hogs. They always kept a cow and chickens for family use, and Hoyt always had a garden, right up to when he died in 1997.
When Willie wasn’t able to teach in Escambia County, she sometimes crossed the state line and taught in Alabama, where they needed teachers too badly to make them take time off. They didn’t have cash to pay the teachers – the nation was still recovering from the depression – so they paid in “scrip.” It was essentially an IOU that banks would cash for a fee, perhaps 10% of the total. Willie didn’t cash hers at the time. Hoyt was making money, and they had plenty to eat, so she held the scrip until she could redeem it with the school district at full face value.
Hoyt also hunted and fished, and while he enjoyed the pastime, they ate what he killed. If there was more meat than they could use, they gave the extra to family and friends. Growing up, I remember Pap-pa going out to the garage and pulling out packages of frozen fish or deer meat for friends who dropped by.
Hoyt and Willie came from hard-working families, and they worked hard themselves for many years. During their working lives, they were hardly what I’d call prosperous, but they had what they needed. Later, of course, the hard work and investments paid off. They collected their pensions and social security. They gradually sold most of the properties in Escambia County. The ones they kept generated rental income. They bought a trailer and later a motor home, and they traveled. Pap-pa had a bass boat that he’d launch from his own boat ramp behind their retirement home on East Bay, and he worked that garden, growing far more than they needed, just because he enjoyed it.
Then, in their golden years, some would call them wealthy. I’d say they were comfortable. They certainly always seemed happy. They lived their lives exactly the way they wanted, which seems a pretty good definition of prosperity to me.