Thomas Johnston Henderson (1883-1959)




Thomas Johnston Henderson
Photograph Courtesy Estate of Walter Sanders
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  • Born 1883 Caswell County
  • Journalist and Author
  • Self-Described "Scribbler"
  • Editor The Sentinel
  • Yanceyville Postmaster 1923-1933
  • Died 1959


Biographical Sketch

Thomas Johnston Henderson was born June 4, 1883, to Archibald Erskine ("Baldy") Henderson (1843-1918) and Alice Finley Johnston (1852-1932), daughter of Thomas Donoho Johnston and Adaline Williamson. He had one brother, William Farrar Henderson, and one sister, Rebecca Lea Henderson.

At the age of thirteen, Tom Henderson began a small newspaper in Yanceyville, North Carolina. It was called The Little News. He charged a penny a line for advertising and fifty cents for a year's subscription. At least three volumes of this diminutive newspaper were published between 1896 and 1898, the last year of circulation. The earliest known edition is dated January 4, 1896, with the last known edition dated June 11, 1898.

In 1908, Tom Henderson launched The Sentinental, a weekly newspaper that was published in Yanceyville and covered Caswell County. The following is from William Powell's Caswell County History (1777-1977) at 405:

Thomas J. Henderson, now 25 years old and with three years at Chapel Hill behind him, established The Sentinel in Yanceyville with an initial issue on April 20, 1908. The masthead described the new weekly as a Democratic paper "Devoted to the Upbuilding of the People of Caswell County." Henderson remained as editor for at least two years, but in 1911 John A. Massey was editor. When Henderson was married in October, 1912, he was once again identified as the editor of the Sentinel, and an issue for May 3, 1916, contains his name in that capacity. When the Sentinel ceased to be published is not known, but it was not listed in a national newspaper directory of 1921.

Tom went on to be a writer of some local fame, publishing a series of small booklets or pamphlets in the 1940s:

  • Judge Cooke: Reminiscences of the Homely Humor and Merciful Judging of North Carolina's Grand Old Jurist

  • Plain Tales from the Country: Homespun from the Warps, Woofs and Weaves of Life's Rustic Loom

  • Homespun Yarns: Weavings from Life's Humorous Threads, Based on Facts, but Infringing on Truth, in that Some are not "All Wool and a Yard Wide"

  • Honeysuckles and Bramblebriars: Wherein a Freelance Scribbler Wanders into Life's Rustic Flower Garden and Seeks to Cull the Thorns from the Blooms . . . . . .

  • Ann of the Ku Klux Klan: A Partly Fictional Story of the Old South, Centered Around the Kirke-Holden War and the Murder of John Walter Stephens

  • Warps, Woofs and Weaves (Dedicated to Caswell's Revolutionary War Patriot, Dr. Launcelot Johnston)
He had articles published in The State magazine, The Greensboro Daily News, The Leaksville News, and, of course, in The Caswell Messenger.

For many years Tom Henderson was a member of the Yanceyville Rotary Club, which published Wheel Tracks (styled as a service publication). A feature of Wheel Tracks was "Diminutive Biographical Sketches" of Rotary Club members, and Tom Henderson apparently wrote several (or all) of them.

His philosophy of writing was summed up in the following from Plain Tales from the Country Book One (1942) at 1:

I make no claim for my writings other than their naturalness and fidelity to native wit and homely interest. I deal in personalisms, but I do not indulge in scandal, slander or abuse, and I have no wish to wound the sensibilities of even a suckling babe. I deal in slang, but it is not intended to be indecent, offensive or irreverant. I love those things that are beautiful and good, and I revere that which is sacred and holy.

. . . .

I am by no stretch of the imagination either prudish or self-righteous. I am neither overly chaste nor impeccable in my language, habits or morals, but I do appreciate a high sense of taste in the chastity and decorum of an anecdote. I strive for some basis of truth and some hisorical background for my stories, and sometimes seek a moral atmosphere in the fields of philosophies, theologies and creeds. I mix metaphors, split infinitives, and otherwise desecrate immaculate English, but I strive to make my scribblings readable and interesting.

While Tom was not above laughing at someone in good fun, he most enjoyed laughing with them (and even at himself). His prose and selection of words probably accurately reflected where he lived, how he grew up, and what he had heard. Today, some of his word choices are troublesome, even hurtful. However, notwithstanding the language of the segregated rural South in the 1940s, his stories are for the most part entertaining. They certainly paint a picture of Caswell County that is most colorful.

Tom Henderson obviously had an inquisitive mind, seemed to know every person in Caswell and surrounding counties, and had an engaging way with the English language. He could be called the "Will Rogers of Caswell County."

His principal occupation, apart from his publications, was as a life insurance "solicitor." He also was the Yanceyville Postmaster for almost ten years (June 11, 1923 to May 8, 1933), which may explain in part why he knew so much about the "goings-on" in the community.

In October 1912 Tom married Alice Cleveland ("Clevie") Slade (1884-1928), and they had three children: Florine Erskine Henderson (born 1913); Lady Alice Henderson (born 1915); and Archibald Erskine ("Little Baldy") Henderson (1916-1919). At least four grandchildren were born to the two daughters: Ann Henderson Stokes; Alice Lindsay Stokes; Lady Barbara Wilkerson; and Thomas Farrar Wilkerson. Little Baldy Henderson apparently died as a young child as he was not listed with his sisters in the 1920 census for Yanceyville Township . After his first wife died in 1928, Tom Henderson married Annie Chandler (1895-1970) in 1929.

Thomas Johnston Henderson died January 31, 1959, and is buried in the Yanceyville Presbyterian Church cemetery between his two wives. Nearby is buried his only son, Little Baldy. Tom Henderson was born and lived almost his entire life in the family home in Yanceyville (Wall Street), and here are his thoughts published 1942 in Plain Tales from the Country:

Reminiscentially I oftentimes travel the paths of long ago, resurrect incidents that are faded pictures on the walls of memory, and see again in imagination the faces of characters I knew and loved along the way. This is perhaps easier for me than for some other, because I yet live in the house where I was born, catch the first beams of the dawning sun from the same window, hear the musical notes from the old crepe myrtle of the mockingbirds that are kith and kin to those which sang to me in babyhood, and daily view scenery but little changed from long, long ago.

People mentioned in Plain Tales from the Country (Book One) (1942): Old Bill Payne; old Rebel by the name of Tucker; Jacob A. ("Jake") Long; J. Elmer Long; Aunt Betsy Dunn and Uncle Bill Dunn; Captain Junius Parker; Solicitor Porter Graves; Lawyer Charles Obadiah McMichael; Zeke Smith; Tom Florance (dry goods store); old man John Weadons; Arch Thomas (of Milton and Semora); Dr. Charles R. Wharton (Ruffin); Mrs. Alexander H. Motz, a sister of Congressman-Judge John Hosea Kerr; Pierce and Sary Ann Sharpe; Jack Saunders (Wentworth); Roscoe Chandley (Greensboro); Oliver H. Allen (Goldsboro); Sheriff Tab Donoho (Caswell County); Red Oliver (Yanceyville); Judge Henry P. Lane (Rockingham County); Harry Z. Tucker (Madison); Robert L. Harrison son of Squire Thomas S. Harrison of Dan River; Buck Irvine (Milton); J. Benton Stacy (State Senator for Ruffin); Gee Gunn; Lawyer Fred Upchurch; Judge William G. Bramham (Durham); Loften Lambeth (Stoney Creek Township); G. Norman Saunders; J. Broughton Underwood (Reidsville); Dr. Henry H. Simpson (Altamahaw); Judge James E. Boyd; Dr. John Bonaparte Ray; Dr. Stephen A. Malloy; Barney Walker (Leaksville-Spray lawyer); Jesse James (outlaw); John Walter Stephens; Major Bill Watlington; Col. Robert Watt (Caswell County lawyer); Col. Benton Withers (Caswell County lawyer); Col. Baldy Henderson (Caswell County lawyer); Uncle Si McKinney (Rockingham County); John Watlington (Bank of Reidsville); Mrs Hays Barker (Leaksville); D. Frank King (Leaksville); Rev. R. J. Bateman (Leaksville Baptist minister); Powell W. Glidewell (Reidsville lawyer); Leon Worsham (Rockingham County sheriff); Floyd Osborne (Reidsville); Sue Carter Worsham (Ruffin postmistress); Tommie Littlejohn; "Colonel" George Anderson (Yanceyville); Bud Pegram (store owner); Bill Smith; Allan D. Ivie (Leaksville); Allen H. Gwyn; Dr. Crow (eye doctor); John Massey (Yanceyville merchant and mail carrier); Charles K. Carter; Jeff Penn (Chinqua-Penn Farms); Glenn Settle; Charlie Wall (correspondent, The Madison Messenger); Russ Spear; Rufus Patterson Ray (Spray Mercantile Company); Dan Fields (Leaksville minister).


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