Essie Jones Childs
May 12, 1911 - 1993
THE MAKING OF A HISTORIAN
And the work is play for mortal stakes
Is the work ever really done
For Heaven and the future' s sake
Unlike scholarship in some academic disciplines, publications in history are often judged upon their merit more than upon whether the author earned a doctorate from the Ivy League school. In my own historical research, I have found that genealogists are among the most meticulous researchers, and I owe some of my best "finds" to them. So also, it seems with They Tarried in Taylor, a compilation of census records, wills, deeds, and marriages in Taylor County that has helped many genealogists.
It was my privilege to know Essie Childs as her neice to be often in her company and, as I went on to college, graduate school, and into the publish or perish world of academia, our bond of familial love was enriched by your shared passion for research; however, I must note that not all of her scholarly genes passed down to me. Like my mother Jessie, I am more extroverted, less disciplined and focused and too often have responded to the lash of deadlines or to the necessity to publish so as not to perish. I miss her compaionship and years after her death, I still find myself saying, "I need to call Aunt Essie; I know she'll know that."
Many, many others have found answers in her book and in her encyclopaedic memory. Essie Jones Childs of Butler, Taylor County, Georgia, focused her already well disciplined and well educated mind to historical and genealogical research in the early 1960s. Her husband Bussey Childs had died, leaving the office of Probate Judge vacant, and she succeeded him in office, winning her first of four terms in the election of 1964. Queries from genealogists to her office, spurred her interest in genealogicy and in the history of Taylor County, and the rest is, indeed, history.
Since so few women of her age became elected officials and well known genealogists, it seems appropriate to reflect upon how the various elements of her personality and experience translated out into her success with history and genealogy.
Born in Colquitt, Country, Georgia, on May 12, 1911, she was the sixth child and fifth daughter of James Tapley Jones and his wife Nancy Jane Worsham Jones. Both her parents were literate, especially her mother and maternal grandfather, and she early became a voracious reader like her siblings Jessie, Iva, Truman, Eloise, and Addison. Her grandfather in his last years would make his sons read Tarzan and Zane Gray novels to him, and at exciting moments he would pound his walking stick on the floor and exclaim, "Dad GUM it!!" Her father sold his farm and bought another in Mitchell County at Hopeful between Bainbridge and Camilla because a high school was being built there and he wanted a good educaton for his children. Her sister Iva Adams went on to publish a popular cookbook Good Food and Plenty of It, Cooking for Fifty, and a personal memoir My Love Affair with the Boy Scouts, her brothers Truman and Addison both held patents on electical devices, her sister Jessie earned a master's degree and was a successful teacher, while youngest sister Eloise devoted herself to the fine and practiced art of mother and homemaker.
The family's great tragedy befell them when Essie's mother suffered a long decline with cancer and died at age 41, when Essie was 12. She and her older sister Jessie undertook many responsibilities of running the household and their father's country store and caring for their younger siblings. In time, her mother's childless aunt Louisa Karen Hobbs Barfield of Ideal, Macon County, Georgia, asked Essie and older sister Jessie to live with her and her husband Booker, a prosperous farmer.
Essie and Jessie found their aunt a hard taskmistress, and both learned the most meticulous kind of needlework--blind stitching flour sacks for wash cloths--churning, gardening, baking, and helping out at hog killing. They did not cook on Sunday, they could not sing popular songs on Sunday, and they lived by standards of behavior that would rival the Laws of the Sabbath. No doubt this experience accounted for Essie's being the most conscientious, perfectionist of her family--characteristics that stood her in good stead as a genealogist.
The sisters also attended school in Ideal where they had the usual rigorous highschool course of that day: history, grammar (diagraming and parsing), four years' Latin, physics, chemistry, plane and solid geometry and trigonometry. Essie was neat, discipined, and meticulous in all her work--while her sister Jessie was such an ardent gardner and nature lover that she always said she was "hardly housebroken. My mother Jessie explained to me that, lacking a mother at home, they learned much about home making and motherhood from books, and the younger siblings always had stories of their coming home from college to assure they knelt to pray each night, that they thoroughly chewed their food (26 times was probably an exaggeration), and eat a balanced diet. Both had an unwavering sense of right and wrong and great moral courage, in these days of plagerism among historians, all too rare--and, in time, all these virtues were passed on to their children.
Even in the 1950s, their Aunt Louisa's farm was like a time warp to the previous century. Soap was cut from a pot with her father's Civil War sword; a spinning wheel still sat in the hall. Louisa's parents Joseph Hobbs and his wife Nancy Jane Boddie Hobbs had come into the area around Ideal in 1832 from Edgefield, South Carolina. Born in 1861, Aunt Louisa had many stories to tell of Civil War and Reconstruction. Her father had just bought a new farm when he was called to serve as a guard at Andersonville. After three of his six children died of typhoid fever, he was given leave to come home and dig a well. Later, he fell ill with typhoid and his wife Jane and oldest son Alsa went by oxcart on a two-day, two-night roundtrip from Ideal to Andersonville.
Aunt Louisa was careful to tell Essie and Jessie that her mother was from a fine family in South Carolina; butter cups brought from South Carolina by her mother still bloom on the old place. They were told, and told their children, that they were descendants of Nathan Boddie a signer of the Mecklenburg Convention, likened to the Declaration of Independence. Stories of their family history in an antique setting was a kind of ongoing living history to Aunt Louisa's neices. Little wonder the past and genealogy had such a lure for them.
When Jessie graduated Ideal Highschool in 1927, Louisa and her husband sent both sisters to Americus Normal College (now Georgia Southwestern State University), Jessie to the freshman class and Essie to junior level in the high school boarding school. Two years' boarding school followed by two years' college gave Essie an education far more demanding than now offered in most schools. While Jessie was the more extroverted sister, Essie took all the more difficult courses: chemistry, physics, math, French, botany, along with a full curriculum of the humanities--still finding time to win the women's golf tournament one year. Both took home economics and became hyper conscientious about well balanced meals--a legacy their children and grandchildren still benefit from.
Teaching in Taylor County, Georgia, followed college, where she lived for a time with her sister Jessie and her husband Mack Turner. She is remembered as a very conscientious teacher who dotted every i and crossed every t. In 1933 she married her brother-in-law Mack's best friend Preston Bussey Childs, the youngest child of John and Leona Daniel Childs and brother to Dr. Robert Childs, attorney James Childs, Warren Childs, and teachers Atholine Childs Saylor and Aurelia Childs Brown. There can be little doubt that marrying into a well educated family helped to further Essie's intellectual opportunities as well as setting a high standard for her and her children to maintain.
As one example of her passing down an interest in history, her sister Jessie's husband was principal at Andersonville when their children were small. They took care to tell of their great grandfather's Civil War service, pointed out all the monuments in the national cemetery, and had them drink from Providence Spring. They also took them to nearby Americus to see where they had been to college.
The child who read became the mother who read to her children Preston, Nancy, and John--who became voracious readers themselves. Whether Essie was cooking, baking a special cake (her burnt caromel cake remains a classic which, after years, her daughter Nancy has finally mastered), gardening, or as wife and mother, she spared no effort to do everything just right, dispensing justice with an even hand to her own and whatever neices and nephews she apprehended. At the same time she was the gentelest, most loving and soft spoken of people.
Marriage and motherhood were her vocation. Music lessons were always in the budget, as was an orthodontist, and such events as assembling the neighborhood children to watch a solar eclipse. Their reading was not haphazzard, but all the childrens' classics were read to them and they were then introduced to books they could read. Her sister Jessie kept up with the Newberry Awards books for children and their Childs aunts and uncles saw to it that they had books along with various board games and records of classical music. It is a tribute to her steadfastness that all three of her children have earned master's degrees, and each has been been blessed with lasting and happy marriages.
As with her mother, who could have predicted that her husband would die at a relatively young age, and that her life would take an entirely different course? As a widow, she fashioned a new a very varied life for herself and continued to grow intellectually. She and her sister Iva traveled to Europe and she visited her daughter Nancy wherever her doctor husband was sent in his years of medical training and Army service and was a regular at John's home in Dallas, Texas.
In her role as Probate Judge, she brought to the job the same virtues and values she had espoused her entire life: meticulous attention to detail in maintaining county records, impartiality in meteing out justice, kind and loving service in issuing marriage licenses, birth certificates, and in performing wedding ceremonies.
Requests from genealogists about Taylor County families served to formalize her interest in history. She brought to the task some primary characteristics of the historian: a meticulous care for doing things thoroughly and well, a healthy measure of obsessive compulsiveness or tenacity and made her search until she found the answer, and an impartiality that gave her the appropriate distance from her material. It goes without saying that she brought to the task a very fine mind able to collate census, wills, marriages--many, many thousands of data-- before computers help us do that effortlessly. Indeed, Aristotle observed that "genius is the ability to see relationships." Most of all she brought integrity to her work. My dissertation advisor told me that doing scholarship is not a matter of intelligence but of character. "Scholars," he said, "are made at their mother's knee." Essie Childs brought a full measure of those scholarly characteristics to her work.
Burial was at Butler Bethel Cemetery. Anglican Order of Service to commemorate a scholar
I called upon God, and the spirit of wisdom came to me.
Maxine Thompson Turner, PhD
Professor Emerita, Literature and Communication