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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 — 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.

sibyl
HOLMES COUNTY 4-H’s most seasoned member — longtime Esto resident Sybil Miller Taylor, 91 — showed an apron she made to 4-H agent Niki Crawson at the Holmes County 4-H Extravaganza at the Ag Center. She learned how to sew in 4-H and made the apron out of a flour sack in the 1930s when she was 10 years old.

James Omer and Lizzie Pearl Wells

Esto’s Lizzie Pearl Watford Wells and James Omer Wells on their 50th wedding anniversary

THEY SOLD THE FAMILY HOME after their mother died at age 87, only a few years after they’d lost their father, also at 87. And the nine children in Esto’s Wells family always regretted it.

“Well, we all had houses,” said Frances Wells Kirkland. “We did the wrong thing — we sold it. Then we wanted it back as soon as we sold it.”

“Even after we sold it, we just couldn’t let it go,” said Jeanette Wells Berry.

They watched the house waste away, in recent years sitting empty and silent, without the life and laughter of their big happy family or any other. By then the two Wells sisters lived together next door in a modern brick home. When the opportunity to buy back the house unexpectedly came along last year, they did not hesitate.

Their brother Billy, now 79 and the baby boy of the family, stopped by one morning, as he usually does, and announced the family home was for sale.

“So me and Frances high-tailed it down to Bonifay and bought it,” said Jeanette. The listing price on the home was $10,000, but they got it for $9,000. And then they faced the daunting task of what to do with it. “It was filled with trash from the front to the back,” said Jeanette.

A neighbor got to work and made restoring the house his pet project, refusing pay. Their sister Louise Wells McGowan, 80, volunteered her son, a skilled carpenter, to help out. Jeanette, 84, cleaned up the outside. Frances, 76, and a nearby neighbor did much of the inside painting.

“This was my retirement project,” says Frances. “We had to put in new everything. And we had a good time doing it.”

Other neighbors chipped in. Some donated furniture. Their preacher and his wife gave some things. Another sister, Martha Sue Wells Register, 86, persuaded her son to bring over a piano he’d bought for his daughter.

“We never ate by ourselves when we were growing up,” said Jeanette. “Everybody came by.”

And now they do again. Although there’s still work to be done, and no one actually lives there, the family home is once again a gathering place. On Tuesday nights the ladies from Esto Baptist Church get together there. The sisters also host game nights, with the card game they call 3/13 a favorite. The extended family will come for Thanksgiving and Christmas.

When a neighbor stopped by on a recent Saturday night, she gravitated toward the piano and sat down to play the old hymn, “What a Day That Will Be.” Jeanette and Frances sang along. “That’s the song y’all sang at mother’s funeral,” the neighbor remembered.

“It’s like being at home again,” said Frances.

“Life has been so good for our family,” said Jeanette. “You may remember: We had a good mama and daddy.”