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.
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.
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“
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.”
“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. I didn’t even know what it was. But every time I got a date, I carried her to the old City Cafe and we ordered Boston cream pie.”
“It was an innocent time. We didn’t know any better. We were poor and didn’t know it. Still happy.”
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.