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Sunday, July 3, 2016

Josephine's Youngest Sister, The Lovely Willie Cowan Jelks

     If ever a young lady had a bright future it was the lovely Willie Cowan Jelks.  She was the youngest child of Dr. William Cowan and Anna Pugh Cowan.  Her sister, Josephine was already 19 years old when she was born in 1857. Josephine would have taken on the role in aiding her mother, Anna, with child rearing.  Maldonetta, the oldest, was already married by this time and no longer living in the Cowan home. This left Josephine as the oldest and would bare a lot more responsibilities, at least for a while.  The following year, in 1858, Josephine would marry Dr. Robert Fleming, her Father's intern, who was working under Dr. Cowan.  Soon, Robert would also move into the Cowan family home and live there for a few years. Then in 1859, Dr. Cowan passed away at the age of 52.  This would leave a young 2-year-old Willie without her Father.  

     Robert and Josephine continued to live in the Cowan family home in Eufaula.  Josephine would also help out with the other Cowan siblings and assist her with other duties of the home. Sometime in the spring of 1862 Josephine would learn she was pregnant and this would have been a jubilant time in the home, but for the fact that the Civil War that was raging all around Eufaula.  The town was fortified with many soldiers from the Confederate Army.  There was a Confederate hospital located inside the borders of this occupied town. Eufaula was built along the Chattahoochee River so it would have been an excellent place to transport injured soldiers and bring in much-needed supplies.  There is no evidence that Dr. Fleming would have assisted with the wounded soldiers or not.  The Confederacy had its own doctors, so it's unlikely he would have been involved with that.  

     Later that summer Dr. Fleming, while sleepwalking, fell from the second-floor balcony to the porch below.  The accident left him paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life.  He and Josephine would later move to Union Springs.  Dr. Fleming took a position in county government as a Register in Chancery and was a well-respected businessman. 

     Around 1868, Josephine's Mother, and youngest sister, Willie, who was about 11 years old, would come to live with Robert and Josephine.  This would be wonderful news to Robert and Josephine's only child, Lola who was 5 years younger than her Aunt Willie.  These two would become more like sisters than aunt and niece.

     Josephine would care for her ailing Mother, Anna until she passed away in 1869. Now, the 12-year-old Willie was orphaned. Naturally, Robert and Josephine would continue raising her as their own.  Willie and Lola were very close and almost inseparable.   

     From my research, I believe that Josephine played piano and that she taught both Willie and Lola to play.  It is also believed that both girls were educated beyond high school.  Willie may have been a very gifted pianist as well as accomplished vocalist.  She was also quite beautiful and as I have read in my research, there are many descriptions of her loveliness. Willie continued to live with Robert and Josephine Fleming until she was 26 years old.  She had caught the eye of a young man from Union Springs by the name of Robert C. Jelks.  

     Robert Jelks, born in 1851, was 6 years older than Willie.  He was established and had much to offer the young Willie Cowan.  The Cowan sisters were never much on big weddings. So far, as I have learned, all the Cowan daughters had very small ceremonies. They were humble and meek women and saw no reason to turn their weddings into an exhibition for flaunting their style or wealth. Each of the young Cowan daughters did not seek attention or to be written up in the social columns either. Therefore, in a small ceremony at the Fleming home, 26-year-old Willie Cowan married the 32-year-old Attorney, Robert Jelks on January 18th, 1883.  The newly wedded couple would soon move into a posh home at 311 Peachtree Street, Atlanta, Georgia.

In the graphic below I Googled that address and found it. Today, the house is gone and has been replaced with swanky apartments. Today, this area is known as Midtown, just a little south of Buckhead, but still, a very nice area to live in. Around 1883 this area was the Buckhead of its time and you could say it was the preferred subdivision on the edge of town where anybody who was anybody lived

Now, here's what Peachtree Street looked like around 1883 when Robert and Willie lived there. 

Here's another view around 1885:

This is a home that would have been similar the one Robert and Willie lived in on Peachtree Street in 1883.

     Robert Jelks was already a partner at a prestigious law firm in Atlanta, Georgia. England, Jelks, & Tappin was the name of the firm.  So, when Robert would head off to work this was the scene on Peachtree Street, where the firm was also located in downtown, Atlanta. 

Below: Peachtree Street in Downtown Atlanta around 1885.
Note the horse-drawn trolley. 

     If you're from Alabama and are somewhat a history buff, You may have noticed that the name Jelks sounds awfully familiar.  You'd be right.  That's because Robert Jelks had a younger brother, by the name of William Dorsey Jelks who would later, in 1901 be elected Governor of Alabama. He lived in Union Spring off and on at different times in his life. He received his early education in Union Springs or somewhere in Bullock County.

Below: We know that the Jelks brothers were certainly living in Union Springs around the time the Josephine Hotel was completed. The hotel officially opened in September of 1880. This is a copy of the 1880 census showing both Robert Jelks and brother William Jelks were there.

     After Governor Jelks had successfully served two terms in office, he moved to Birmingham and founded Protective Life Insurance Company. When he decided to retire from Protective Life, he acquired a substantial interest in The Union Springs Herald and moved to Eufaula where he bought the Eufaula Times from his family who had owned it for years. He remained Editor of the paper until his death at age 76 in 1933.  He is buried in Eufaula, Alabama.

     After just two years of marriage, Robert and Willie had a large circle of friends. One can only imagine the lovely parties given by Willie at her home on Peachtree Street.  After a sumptuous dinner with friends in the glorious dining room, you could just see her in a lovely gown like the one below that would have been popular to wear while entertaining at a social gathering in 1885.  

Now imagine, if you will, Robert and Willie's friends urging her to play the beautiful music she was known to play on the piano.  "Come on, Willie. Please play something for us.  We'd love to hear you play."  Of course, the humbleness of this young woman would show and she graciously says, "No, you don't want to be bored with that."  But after some encouragement from her husband Robert, she was compelled to sit down at the piano and begins to play so beautifully that the music fills the room to the top of its 14-foot ceiling while its sweeping sound softly echoes throughout the home. With each key being played so delicately, each enchanting note casting a near hypnotic spell over its listeners. The gifted pianist completes the entire piece, leaving nearly everyone in the room in a virtual trance. It is no wonder she was loved and adored by so many.

     Sadly, it was on Christmas day that the lovely young, 28 years old,  Willie, died after a very short illness.  The news traveled fast throughout her social circle of close friends. The next day it was in the newspaper in Atlanta, Georgia. 
Here is what the Atlanta Constitution wrote on December 26, 1885:

Mrs. R. C. Jelks died after a brief illness yesterday morning at her home on Peachtree Street.  The body was sent to Eufaula, Alabama last night for interment. Mrs. Jelks was a popular lady and greatly liked in Atlanta.  Her death will cause a feeling of deep regret throughout her circle of friends.

Then this is what the Atlanta Constitution wrote the next day on December 27, 1885:

Her death occurs in Atlanta and her remains are interred in Eufaula. 
In the death of Mrs. Willie C. Jelks, a most estimable woman was called away from a large circle of warm friends, who had become attached to her because of her lovely character and many virtues.  The sad event occurred at 311 Peachtree Street, December 25th, at 4:30 am. This most estimable lady was Miss Cowan of Eufaula, Alabama.  January 18th, 1883 she married Mr. R. C. Jelks, of Atlanta, at her home.  She was buried in the family burying ground in Eufaula.  The deceased leaves three sisters and one brother to mourn her untimely death.  Her sisters are Mrs. R.A. Fleming of Union Springs. W.H. Denson, of Gadsden, and Mrs. J.M. Buford of Atlanta, and her brother, Mr. J.G. Cowan, of Abbyville, Alabama.  The deceased passed away at the age of 28.  She was also the Niece of Senator James L. Pugh, also of Alabama.

On January 6, 1886 The Union Springs Herald wrote this:

          Another white soul has gone to join the radiant hand above.  Mrs. Robert C. Jelks, formerly Miss Willie Cowan, of Union Springs, died at her home. Her remains where carried to Eufaula, Alabama and interred by the side of her honored Father, the late Dr. William Cowan.  There are many friends who knew this gifted and lovable lady and mourn her untimely death.  The tenderest sympathy is felt for her stricken husband.

     Such a sad ending for a young woman filled with so much talent, but more for the enormous void left in the lives of her friends and family, who by just being in her presence, knew they were all made to feel special and loved by this delightful lady.

     I cannot begin to imagine how the news of Willie's death must have impacted the Fleming family. To start with, there's Dr. Robert Fleming, who was not just Willie's brother-in-law but was more like a father throughout most of her life. Josephine Fleming would have been more like a mother than a sister. The impact of losing Willie most likely caused Josephine to grieve as if she had lost her own child. Lastly, there was Lola.  Only five years separated their ages and their bond was that of a close sister. Lola was an only child and to her, Willie was an aunt, sister, best friend, confidant, and someone she looked up to.  All gone. Just like that. 

     Willie's grief-stricken husband never re-married. I couldn't find any evidence that he did.  Nor did he have any children. At some point, he moved to Birmingham, Alabama and lived there until his death in 1922.  He was 71 years old at the time of his death. 
     As I conclude writing this post, I decided as I was finishing up that I didn't want to leave this on a sad note at all. I mean, this was tragic and sad. I know in life we all, at some time are going to die. It seems there could be a moral to this story, right?  Well, there is, but it may not be what you think. Some folks may say, "Hey life is short, live it up." or "Live your life to the fullest." But living life up or to the fullest, what does that mean, really? Do everything you can? Live without rules? Just have fun, nothing else matters? I don't think there is anything wrong with fun or following your dreams.  But the lesson here comes from Willie, Josephine, Lola, or for that matter, Dr. Robert Fleming. They had money and things, but they don't have it now. They could buy things, but they don't have them now. What they all have now and can't ever be taken away is their good name. People won't remember what kind of cars you drove throughout your life, but they will remember you, your character, and your heart. 
It reminds me of a fitting verse from Proverbs 22: A good name is rather to be chosen than great riches and loving favor rather than silver and gold.  
I believe I want to be remembered most for what was good in me. How I treated people and how I made them feel. I want to be the friend you count on and the shoulder you'll cry on. I want people to see me, not for what I have, but for who I have in me.  As a Christian, that's what I am supposed to do.  Can you imagine if everyone did this? How great would the world be?  If only we tried a little harder to make our little piece of the world a little better, it can be better for all.
Thank you, Willie, for helping me see things just a little more clearly.