Memories of Yankeetown: The Colorful Mr. Callaway

A. Frank Knotts

I owe a "thank you" to Dix Stephens who in his book, "Withlacoochee Notes", published a certain transcript. Had he not done so I would never have thought to write anything about E. E. Callaway who, at most, was a very small kink in the thread of Yankeetown history. I refer to a letter which Callaway wrote to my father in October, 1935. Stephens, you may note if you look in his book, presents the text of the letter without explanation or context, and that may have left a lot of people rather puzzled. If you are one of the puzzled, read on for clarification. If not puzzled, read on for an interesting episode in the soap opera of life. I happened to be in on what happened that summer of '35.

(Thanks again to Stephens, I have a photocopy of the original and include it here. It adds to the reality of the situation to see the letter as Callaway hunt-and-pecked it on his typewriter since he lacked a "stenographer" at the time. Have a look.)

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Callaway practiced law in Lakeland. He also was a member of an endangered species in Florida: The Republican Party. Those were the days of the "Solid South" with a big part of "solid" meaning "Democratic," or "Not the Party of Lincoln." That was before Lyndon Johnson drove most of the white democrats out of the party with his civil rights legislation, and Ronald Reagan welcomed them as Republicans after the Dixiecrats folded.

Uncle A. F. met Callaway in the late twenties while involved in a political race. A. F. had thrown himself into a patently impossible task: He ran, as a Republican, for nomination to run for U. S. Senator from the "Great State of Florida" and Callaway supported him. One would wonder why an intelligent man who had to know he had zero chance of winning would pour any effort or cash into that campaign. Well, you'd have to know A. F. He had ego. He had determination. If someone hadn't beaten him to it he would have coined the phrase: "Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!" He probably saw the senate race as a chance to put himself in front of the public, to make speeches, and to let everyone know how things really ought to be. He was committed to becoming a full Floridian and wanted his name and face out there. After all, he intended to get a canal across the state.

Callaway had skill at attaching himself to coattails, and from what a nosy kid observed, that is what he did with Uncle A. F. (For example, notice in the letter that Callaway called Uncle A. F. "Judge." No one else referred called him that so I asked Mom why. She frankly stated that Uncle A. F. had once been a city judge in Hammond, Indiana, and "Mr. Callaway likes to butter him up."

From time to time the Callaway family, (dad, mom, and son) would come calling. Then, in 1935 they came calling in a whole new way. I guess the Lakeland law practice had withered and Uncle A. F. and Grandma (Edith McGrath) took them in. Callaway, in return for hospitality, had some grand scheme to help Uncle A. F. turn things around with his remaining land. Never mind the Great Depression, Callaway to the rescue! Maybe Uncle A. F. believed in the scheme at first, or maybe he just wanted to help out a supposed friend. Who knows?

The twenty-something son was pretty interesting in his own right. He had never left the nest, and from what I saw, I suspect he stayed in that nest until the tree blew down. Freeman had some curious quirks, and we kids referred to him as "Nutto" behind his back. He was quite indulged by his parents as you can detect in reading the last paragraph of the letter where Callaway tells of Freeman's having a "worse cold." Would you guess from the father's writing that Freeman was at least twenty-five years old?

Anyhow, there they were, five adults in one house, very much together all day. Freeman went out many evenings, returning in the wee hours a little the worse for wear, disturbing the hosts. Since Grandma detested alcohol, this did not go over at all well. A. F. and Grandma were providing everything to the Callaway family including three meals per day. I, with nothing better to do, often wandered over to Grandma's house to eavesdrop as my after-dinner entertainment. During Callaway's visit we really had entertainment! He usually placed himself in the lead role for the evening's conversation. With a flair for putting himself in the center of things, he talked almost constantly. A real ham, he had a lot of dramatic gestures and vocal inflection to hold people's interest as he talked mainly about himself. On one evening that really sticks in my memory, he pulled two small bottles from his vest pocket (he always wore his brown three-piece suit sporting a gold watch and chain in another vest pocket). He held them up and expounded at length on the relative merits of calomel versus Carter's Little Liver Pills. Then, believe it or not, he forecast the relative transit times of the two remedies. I had so much trouble keeping a straight face that I don't even recall which pill he finally took. Unfortunately, I had no way to follow up on the accuracy of his forecast. We'll never know that bit of history.

Another time, out of the blue, he boasted that his grandfather had owned Cab Calloway's grandfather. Later I began to wonder about the different spellings of the surname.

I can't recall how long A. F. and Grandma endured this living arrangement but am sure that it lasted for at least a few weeks with Grandma often seeking refuge at the Lodge. In the end Uncle A. F. gave Callaway the boot. I happened to be there on my new blue bicycle one morning when Uncle A. F. came down the stairs from his little office over the garage. Looking pale and wrung out, he untypicallly did not want to talk. Grandma explained that he'd just had a meeting with Mr. Callaway. The Callaway family left within an hour. I never saw them again.

A few days later, Dad got this letter. He laughed. My guess is that he kept the letter so that he could reread it from time to time just for kicks. Dad liked few things better than a good chuckle. If you want to take the time you might take a good close look at the letter itself and ponder these points:

  1. Why write to Gene, not A. F., if you have big ideas about how to run A. F.'s affairs? A. F. was in no way incompetent at the time. Worried? Yes. Depressed? I think so. Incompetent? No.
  2. Why complain about office space to Gene? A. F. provided the office space (plus meals and lodging.
  3. Mrs. McGrath's car had a flat tire! Heavens! By the way, A. F. had a car too, a sporty blue '33 Ford coupe, the first V8 that Ford produced.
  4. Why do you suppose he offered to help Gene and Edith to take over A. F.'s affairs? Pique? Saving face? Both?
  5. Doesn't it seem a bit odd to call Gene "Lodge"? And to address Gene in the third person? No one else ever called my dad "Lodge."

I believe that Callaway had suffered a big bruise to his ego in the confrontation with A. F. and had to save face. In grandiose terms. Dad never took that letter seriously, but it doesn't surprise me that he kept it. He loved a good laugh.

I guess that Dix Stephens somehow came into possession of my Dad's "Nut File" and didn't realize what he had. But I do appreciate the reminder of Mr. Callaway's visit. Like my dad, I like a chuckle.

Mr. Knotts may be contacted at knotts@yankeetown.com

March 2009

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