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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.

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Jeanette Wells Berry (right) and her sister Louise 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 for an old-fashioned dinner on the grounds — lately 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

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Holmes County Advertiser, May 11, 1967

 

A NEW LIBRARIAN arrived with the beginning of the sixth grade. Dianne Smith took over from longtime librarian Miss Louisa Hutchinson, who had — horrors! — gotten married very late in life and retired.

The new librarian was brimming with ideas, including a reading contest for sixth graders. For months we had to choose books from a reading list and then be quizzed by Mrs. Smith. When it was all over, the smartest girl in our class had been bested by Danny Henderson, who would soon move with his family to Esto.

A picture of the winners appeared in the weekly Holmes County Advertiser — a high honor in itself — with a story that explained: “The purpose of the reading contest was to acquaint the students with the best books in the library in the hopes they would discover the pleasure of reading and would be encouraged to do more reading on their own.”

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“I’D NEVER EATEN in a restaurant,” remembers Esto’s Joe Bob Clark. “When I started dating in Bonifay, in my junior and senior year, I’d never eaten in a restaurant. I’d seen somebody order coffee and a Boston cream pie. Every time I got a date, I carried her to the old City Cafe and we ordered Boston cream pie.”

“It was just an innocent time. We didn’t know any better. We were poor and didn’t know it. Still happy.”

4H

A PHONE CALL tonight from Esto reminds me to wish a Happy Father’s Day to U.T. Kirkland, who was a father figure to many of us Esto boys. That’s T, as we knew him, in the middle with (from left) Wesley Brockway, Stevie and David Godwin, Charles Crutchfield, Dean Newman and Ray Reynolds.

judge

Esto native E.W. Carswell wrote a respected history of Holmes County.

Dear Mrs. Tison,

I was sorry to read in your column in the April 12 Advertiser that you’re without a copy of Holmesteading, my pal and fellow Esto native E.W. Carswell’s history of Holmes County we published in 1986. So I’m sending you one of my two copies of the second printing in 2003. I hear a third printing may be in the works, and I hope it happens.

Judge would be pleased his book is still being read and discussed — especially by one of his kinfolks in Noma, Bill Tom Gavin, who cited it to you. The book was the culmination of his lifetime of listening and learning about the county’s history from people who were there when it happened. As we said on the dust jacket of the first edition: “It captures both the facts and the feeling of life in Holmes County. Few places as small and rural as Holmes County are fortunate enough to have a native son like E.W. Carswell to bring their history alive and record it for present and future generations.”

We typeset and pasted-up that first edition after hours in the backshop of the Advertiser. Judge’s wife Catherine — who taught me to type — was our ace proofreader and indexer. The Advertiser helped us spread the word about the book, which got rave reviews and soon sold out.

Even after Judge died in 2001, his book was still in demand. When the county library got down to a single copy — “People would check them out, but they wouldn’t bring them back,” library director Susan Harris said — a second printing was arranged. Esto’s own Joe Bob Clark raised the money and made it happen as head of the library board. (Joe Bob always laughed that nobody in Bonifay thought people from Esto could read and write well enough to publish a book, much less set up a library — and then he spearheaded the project to create a library annex and got it named for another of Esto’s finest, A.J. Dixon, the county’s first rural mail carrier.)

Holmesteading was our last project before I moved temporarily to California 30 years ago. I keep my autographed copy near a picture of Judge at his Royal typewriter. He wrote a beautiful inscription recalling our “publication adventures” that concludes: “And it has been fun. My best wishes go with you always.”

And they have. He still smiles down on me every day. I hope the library is able to arrange a third printing of his book.

VIMEO | E.W. Carswell talks about Holmesteading, his history of Holmes County, in an interview with Florida Public Radio.

Inez

Inez and her chicken and dumplings.

INEZ WAS ONE of Esto’s Wells sisters. “She always wanted to give,” remembers her sister Jeanette. “She had a big heart.”

I remember her big heart and big hug, which usually came with a big smile and a raucous laugh. But not the day she came to see my mother lying in the intensive care ward. Only family members were allowed to visit, which didn’t concern Nez. “I’m family,” she said, and walked right in with me.

Mother had been there a few days by then. She’d had an aneurysm in her brain and was showing no signs of recovery. The doctors acknowledged she sometimes moved her arms and legs, but said it was involuntary. As Nez and I stood by her bedside, she seemed to grab at the arm of my sweater.

Nez was absolutely certain the doctors were wrong and assured me: “She knows who you are.”

Mother died before the end of the week. But I never saw or thought of Nez again without remembering that reassuring moment in the intensive care ward. I always hoped to see her when I came home to Esto. One visit she’d heard I was in town and stopped by early in the morning to say hello. My sister-in-law told her I was still asleep.

“Well, wake him up,” said Nez. I’m glad she did.