With first cousin Paul Hughes in our backyard in Esto on my 8th birthday.

DR. J. PAUL HUGHES had a head start on life by being born to parents who lived in Esto, an idyllic little town on the Alabama-Florida line. They lived on the south side of the railroad tracks, near the Wellses and some of the Kirklands. Motor and Humpy Pitts also lived nearby, a little farther back into the woods.

Paul’s grandparents, Ethel and Cullen Hughes, lived a couple of blocks away, if we’d had blocks back then in Esto. So did his father’s sister, known in the family as Doll, who was my mother. Paul and I were close in age — I’m two years older — and we were playmates as far back as I can remember.

What I recall most fondly about Paul’s early years is when Uncle Leonard and Aunt Sarah bought him a swimming pool — just a little above-ground tin-sided round pool that held about two feet of water, but it seemed rich in a time and place where swimming was done in Ten Mile Creek. Paul and I spent hours in that pool, which sat out in their yard beside a big stinky gardenia bush. Our favorite game was to hold our noses and dive underwater, looking to be the first to find the bottle cap one of us had thrown backwards over our shoulder.

As we got a little older, our hobbies grew more sophisticated. We began collecting and identifying rocks we found on nearby dirt roads. We used our crayons to draw flags from countries around the world. Eventually we took up stamp collecting. We claimed a corner of Mama and Papa’s junk house and set up the H&R Hobby Shop. Why his name came first I can’t imagine, although it’s true he always was a little smarter.

Wells Grocery Store sat just beside Mama’s house. One day Mr. Wells decided to put in a coin laundry. The washers and dryers came in huge cardboard boxes, and we had weeks of fun playing in those big boxes.

Perhaps inevitably, Esto became too small for Paul. He and his parents moved across the state line to Hartford, Alabama, about 10 miles north. We thought they were puttin’ on airs by moving to town, but off they went, and into a new brick house, no less. Our play days were over.

But we remained friends. Years later, after he’d finished college and medical school, he came to live with me in Chicago for a few months while he interned at Cook County Hospital. By then our hobbies and interests were considerably more refined. I especially remember dollar pitchers of beer at Streeter’s Tavern on Thursday nights.

He became a brilliant physician, an astute investor and a talented musician who played many instruments and recorded quite a few albums. But he never lost his taste for beer. It did him in, at only 61, three days before Christmas. He will be buried this morning back near home in the Hartford cemetery.

OBITUARY | Dr. J. Paul Hughes (1957-2018)




FOR MANY YEARS, “going to the store” in Esto meant going to Wells Grocery. It was the heart of our little town. Nearly everybody would stop by before noon to pick up the mail. No day was complete without a cold drink and a visit with proprietor Jeanette Wells.

The charge accounts in her general store called the roll of our little town. Some were never paid. But no one went hungry or without love when Jeanette was with us. She was laid to rest in the Esto cemetery this afternoon. If she didn’t get to heaven, no one will.


Most business at Wells Grocery was done on credit.


The Esto School offered instruction in grades one through nine until it was closed in 1949.


The saddest day in Esto’s history may have been September 9, 1949 — the day the community’s school was closed.

“It was the equivalent of experiencing a death in the family,” one former student observed. The community had never appeared more lifeless than it did in the weeks following the closure of Esto Junior High School, where instruction had been offered from grade one through grade nine.

Local townspeople were met with ghostly silence from a horseshoe-shaped one-story frame school building on a hillside just north of Esto Baptist Church on the western side of Highway 79. Absent were the voices of children, who for years had gathered at the school on weekday mornings to begin classes. After the school closed, they started boarding buses a little earlier instead, heading for schools in Bonifay, the Poplar Springs community or Hartford, Alabama. Lumber from the former school was used in the construction of several houses in the community.

Some Esto residents more than 40 years later seemed still unreconciled to the loss of their local school. Those sentiments promoted a feeling of uncommon closeness among those who attended the school. It was not unexpected, then, for former students to suggest that a school homecoming be added to Esto’s annual Two-Toed Tom Festival in 1991.

Betty George, who had attended the school, organized the homecoming, which became a regular part of the festival for a few years. In an interview for Florida Public Radio in 1993, she recalled fond memories the school, and marveled at how many former students showed up for the reunion.


She came from notoriety in Chicago to a farm just south of Esto, briefly.

AN EMAIL ARRIVED:I’m writing a book about a woman named Linda Taylor, who was known as the ‘welfare queen’ in Chicago in the 1970s,” wrote Josh Levin, editorial director of the online magazine Slate. Ronald Reagan helped make her infamous in his campaign speeches when he was running for president, vilifying her as a con artist who picked up multiple welfare checks and food stamps in her Cadillac. Although Reagan exaggerated, it turns out there really was such a person.

Then Mr. Levin dropped the bomb that she once lived in Esto:

After her period of infamy, she moved to Florida and changed her identity, going by the name Linda Lynch. She lived in Esto (or just outside Esto) around 1985 — it was at the intersection of Hwy. 79 and Hwy. 2, and I’ve seen it described as the ‘old Pelham Farm.’

The property Linda Lynch bought was foreclosed on in October 1985, which means she was probably there for about six months. She was mixed race, and she had two older black people living there with her.

I’m wondering if any of this rings a bell for you or if you might know someone (or some people) who remember her.

Well. Here was a piece of unlikely Esto history I’d never heard — and wouldn’t have believed, if he hadn’t attached evidence.

Mr. Levin has now talked to at least two local residents who knew the woman during the brief time she lived near Miller’s Crossroads. We eagerly await his book.

Meanwhile, here’s an extensive article he wrote about her earlier exploits in Chicago.


AZALEAS ARE BOUNTIFUL every spring, and so are wisteria vines. But this year what’s most striking are fields and fields of Indian cane. It’s a weed that shows up before the fields are plowed and planted. We used to pull it up and chew it when we were kids, although it didn’t offer much taste or kick.

A drive around the dirt roads near Esto offers signs that spring is upon us.









A TRIP HOME to Esto almost always includes a visit with my mother and grandmother in the Esto cemetery, along with so many other good people I have known and loved. The history of our town is told in those headstones.

This trip brought a special treat: After church on Sunday, we all adjourned to the fellowship hall for fried chicken, peas, creamed corn, fried okra and other delicious Southern delicacies. Naturally we gathered around the piano afterward to sing hymns.


Jeanette Wells Berry (right) and her sister Louise Wells McGowan with a 16-layer chocolate cake at John Clark Park in Esto.

GROWING UP IN ESTO, we always had plenty of good food. Some of the best was served up when the neighbors got together for a fish fry, or after church at an old-fashioned dinner on the grounds — lately served in the air-conditioned fellowship hall.

The ladies in Esto were always especially good at baking cakes. I remember Lane cakes and fruitcakes at Christmas, coconut cakes stacked high, red velvet cakes white on the outside and bright red on the inside, lemon cheese cakes — none of them better than a simple pound cake with a raw streak. Best of all for really special occasions was a towering chocolate cake made of many thin layers, with fudgy crystalized chocolate frosting between every layer and all over the outside. It had more frosting than cake.

So it was a happy surprise to turn to the food section of The New York Times, no less, and find a feature on Southern cakes — dateline Hartford, Alabama, just seven miles north of Esto — celebrating what they called the “Chocolate Little Layer Cake” as a specialty of our corner of the country. That it is.

MORE: “Stacked Up Southern Style