RETURN TO OAKCHIA
by Ann Harwell Gay
Note: Oakchia is private property and permission to visit is necessary. This article
first appeared in The Choctaw Advocate, Butler, AL June 4, 2004
“Last night I dreamt of Manderlay”. So begins the romantic novel Rebecca by Daphne DuMaurier.
But last night I dreamt of Oakchia, Choctaw County’s 1838 plantation house which still today echoes its stories of romance, love and laughter and also deep tragedy. I returned to Oakchia recently with Evington descendants, one the Mayor of her town of East New Market, Maryland and another with her daughter from Prattville. The cousins said their grandmother always spoke lovingly of the grace, beauty and hospitality of the place when she lived there in the long, long ago.
This article is mostly about the second Caroline, affectionately called “Miss Priss”, who presided over Oakchia. Her married name was Caroline Evington. But this background may be helpful.
FIRST OWNERS, GREEN BERRY AND CAROLINE CHANEY
The old white two story frame house still sits triumphant in its isolated setting amid tall green pines and oaks near the Tombigbee River in North East Choctaw County.
Built by plantation owner Green Berry Chaney, his wife Caroline was the first to preside over the place. They produced 13 children, many of them dying at early ages. Chaney owned nearly 20,000 acres of land and 200 or more slaves and was probably the richest man in Choctaw County in 1850. In January of 1853, he died in Selma.
Miss Priss, one of the Chaney daughters, was born in 1846. Her older brothers and sisters were sent away from home for their education. Emanuel, the black sheep of the family who was later tried for a Mobile murder, had studied medicine in Philadelphia. One sister Virginia was taken to school in Kentucky by her father. A brother Bailey died at age 19 while in school in Nashville, TN. But Miss Priss and the younger siblings of this large family were schooled nearer to home, at the highly regarded Academy at Mount Sterling.
Miss Priss at an early age learned the sorrows of life Only seven years old when her father died, she was 20 when her mother died. Her oldest brother Emanuel died in October 1853, only eight months after their father. That brought on a long series of lawsuits and counter suits by Emanuel’s widow. Miss Priss’s sister, one of the twins, Octavia Chaney Denson, wife of only one year of F. S. Denson, died in 1855. Brothers Bailey and Albert B. died in 1857 and 1859. Another brother Percy died in infancy.
After Green Berry Chaney died (1853) his family, ruled over wisely by his widow Caroline, continued to live at Oakchia. Much happened as the years after 1838 went by including the creation of Choctaw County, which took Oakchia from Sumter County in 1847, and the worst war in our nation’s history (1861-1865) which destroyed most of the wealth of the South, but not its will to survive and recover. Miss Priss’s brother William P. Chaney, who served in the C.S.A.’s dashing cavalry escort company The Ruffin Dragoons from Choctaw County, came home to find his family’s fortune in slaves gone and the Confederate Bonds they had invested in worthless. But they still had the house and the land.
WILLIAM H. AND CAROLINE CHANEY EVINGTON
How William H. Evington, born in Missouri, came on the scene is a mystery, but in Sumter County there was a group of men from Missouri who had fought for the Confederacy. They chose to remain in the area after the war and were known as the Missouri soldiers. An 1864 Sumter County newspaper reported that Capt. W. H. Evington was Choctaw County’s Enrolling Officer for the Conscripting Office in Montgomery, with his office in Butler. One day tall, blue eyed, handsome Evington came to call at Oakchia and the minute that Miss Priss came out on the steps to greet him, sparks flew between them. The wedding was on August 25, 1865, probably at Oakchia.
Sometime after the war was over, the widowed mother Caroline Chaney, who had married W. J. Alston in Marengo County, decided to go to Brazil where slavery was still legal and purchase a plantation there. Taking some of the family and ex-slaves, they got as far a Mexico before Caroline died and was buried there. The family returned home and her will was filed for probate in Choctaw County June 18, 1866. Mother Caroline was smart enough to leave a will (unlike her husband Green Berry and oldest son Emanuel). In it she provided for Mr. Alston to be given enought money to live comfortably the rest of his life. Her will also stated that since the older children had inherited land and slaves from their uncle Peyton Chaney and their father Green Berry, and had been given good educations, the youngest children were to inherit Oakchia and all her land holdings. This did not please Mr. Alston, who filed suit to have control of the estate and to sell his wife’s property. The Court named mother Caroline’s son-in-law William J. Gilmore Administrator instead of Alston, and more lawsuits followed.
EVINGTONS OF OAKCHIA
Caroline Chaney Alstons’ bequests went to these younger children: Green Berry Chaney (Jr.) who married Lucy Watters, Caroline Chaney Evington, and Isabella Chaney Gilmore. Caroline/Miss Priss and her husband William Evington bought out the other siblings’ interests, and became master and mistress of Oakchia according to deeds dated May 3, 1870.
Times were hard and money was scarce in the 1870’s but the Evingtons lived there
amidst their lovely antiques from England and somehow managed to survive. In later years when the house stood vacant the antiques disappeared, either given away or stolen.
The Evingtons had ten children, with three sons to die at an early age.
1. Stella, who was Stella Blanche Plattor and served as Post Master at Oakchia in 1898, but by the time her mother’s will was probated in 1900, she was married to Ed Kelly and lived at Mount Sterling. 2. Eugenia A.; 3. Minnie T., who died at age 28; 4. Nettie Mohr, who married Charles A. Batton and was Postmaster at Oakchia in 1901; 5. Marvin, who was mentally handicapped; 6. Green Berry Chaney Evington, who married Lillie Bell Lindsey; 7. Carrie H.; 8. W.H. Evington, Jr. who lived a year and three months; 9. W. H. Evington, 2nd, who lived three years and 10. John Kendall Evington, who lived only seven months,
After his two daughters, William H. Evington served as Postmaster from 1901 through 1913. His son Green B.C. Evington held that job from 1917 until 1928. when the mail was re-routed to Edna. The old wooden store/post office building still stands behind the house at Oakchia, which was built to face the river. W. H. Evington served in the Alabama State Senate representing that area from 1884 to 1887.
THIRD GENERATION OWNERS OF OAKCHIA
Green Berry Chaney Evington and Lillie Lindsey Evington’s daughters Coralie Bell and Kathleen grew up in the isolated area of Oakchia. Times were changing and young people craved excitment and companionship, not isolation Coralie married Robert Seale Eddins and Kathleen married A. B. Stutts. After inheriting Oakchia, the Stutts sold the house and built a modern brick home in York, notable for its decorative wrought iron grill work. The old home had stayed in the family for four generations.
Resting in peace in the small family cemetery a few hundred yards from the house are Caroline and William H. Evington, the three youngest sons, daughter Minnie T. Evington and her sisters Eugenia and Carrie and brother Marvin, the last three with no grave markers. Probably other family members and slaves lie there also without headstones. There is an Oakchia African-American cemetery “deep in the woods” in a different place, land purchased in 1898.
OAKCHIA CHANGES HANDS
The four large rooms facing the river are much as they were in 1838. The ceiling rosettes and the hand-made glass in the windows and center doors are still there. Bathrooms and a kitchen/dining hall have been added, but they do not diminish the charm of the original structure. An old hand-made brick building stands in the back, with the initials GBE carved into the concrete under the doors. It is thought that it served as the kitchen, but G.B. Evington had not been born when the house was built in 1838. So this might have been a second kitchen, possibly replacing a wooden one.
The stately old house, no longer ringing with the sounds of children’s laughter, of violin, piano or banjo music, the gaity of weddings and the mourning of funerals, passed through different owners over the years. The land was divided among heirs or sold off.
Some in Marengo County is still owned by Chaney/Evington heirs. Allied Paper Company bought 4 to 5,000 acres. In the 1920’s Allison Lumber and a Shamburger owned most of the land. American Can Company bought some of the land for its large pulp and paper processing plant which began operating at Naheola in 1958. The Frank Boykin family at one time owned the house and some of the land, then Choctaw’s State Senator Pat Lindsey’s hunting and fishing club The Oakchia Land and Timber Company, then Judge Emmett Hildreth of Eutaw, who sold it to the Delaney brothers of Mobile, owners of Springdale Mall. The Springdale Stores, Inc. and Springdale Plaza gave a long term lease to Stevedoring Services of America in Mobile. This company invested thousands of dollars in repairing the place with a new roof, floors, porches, shoring up the foundations, painting and furnishing the place for use as a hunting lodge. Now Oakchia rings with the sound of gunfire when hunting seasons open, and the English language spoken with strange accents by hunters from such faraway places as Japan and South America.