The photo was buried way at the back of an end table drawer at The Parental Units’ house. Had I not been scouring every nook and cranny trying to help my mother locate a misplaced item, it probably would have stayed in there for several more years. It appears to have been taken around 1920 on the steps of the newly completed Barrow County Courthouse in Downtown Winder.
In the photo is a rather distinguished looking group posed in three rows: ten seated in front, ten standing behind, and the last five standing on the bottom step of the new county building. Despite the formality of their suit coats and hats, the weather must have been warm as evidenced by the straw skimmers resting on crossed legs. The windows and double front doors were opened wide to allow cross ventilation to cool the offices inside. One onlooker in suit and bowler hat lounges against a window sill while a second perches in the adjacent opening in what was at that time the county Ordinary’s office.
From the ages represented among this assembly, I would hazard a guess that these men were the living veterans of the War of Northern Aggression some half-century before. Most of these gentlemen look to be in their late seventies or early eighties with shocks of white hair and snowy beards of varying descriptions. As typical of photographic subjects back in the early twentieth century, dignity is portrayed with stern faces. On these faces, though, reside the character lines defined by years of hard work pioneering a new community, healing a country, and remembering the worst conflict that can happen when brother is pitted against brother as beliefs are defended and ideologies clash.
What are the stories behind the faces in this photo? Where had they been? What kind of lives had they lived? One of them I do know something about. He’s probably only about 65, a mere babe among his elders. He is my great-grandfather James Knox Polk Arnold of Statham. At the time he rode his horse to Jefferson in 1861 to join the Army of the Confederate States of America, James K. P. Arnold was a mere 16 years old. He returned home in 1865 at the end of the conflict having lived far beyond his 21 years. Barrow County was not yet born nor, for that matter, was Statham where the home in which my great-grandfather died still stands across Broad Street from the Statham United Methodist Church.
“Mr. Jim Polk”, as my great-grandfather was known, married Sallie Booth and fathered seven children. She died when the youngest, my great-Aunt Viola, was only nine days old. Three years later, he married my great-grandmother Frances Billingsley Chambers, a widow with four almost-grown children. By the time Aunt Viola was five, my grandfather Kemp Chambers Arnold was born followed two years later by my great-Aunt Helen, a true “Yours-Mine-and-Ours” family.
As if that weren’t convoluted enough with all those kids, it gets weirder.
When Grandpa and Grandma Arnold married, they had teenaged children from their first marriages who later married each other. They weren’t related by blood, so there was nothing wrong with lifelong friends getting married. The complicating factor was that my grandfather was a half-sibling to both parties of the two couples. So when they had children, their children became my father’s double-half first cousins.
Fortunately for us, Aunt Viola wrote out the family story from the perspective of a young child living in the midst of it all. Her stories explain the tangled vine we call a family tree. I breathe easier knowing the ol’ family tree forks.
Finding the photo of Grandpa Arnold and the Confederate veterans has added another dimension not only to our family history, but to the histories of the other men who represent other families in the photo now sitting on my mantle. It will be great fun to research, even more fun to find something about the men in the photo.
A few years ago, my brother Steve handed me a piece of notebook paper and asked me to sketch out the family tree. How far back did he want me to go? He said he wanted to go back to Grandpa and Grandma Arnold with the yours-mine-and-ours. I told him I was gonna need a whole lot bigger piece of paper.
Helen Person is a columnist for the Barrow Journal. E-mail comments about this column to firstname.lastname@example.org.