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FOR MANY YEARS, “going to the store” in Esto meant going to Wells Grocery. It was the heart of 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.

store-chargebooks

Most business at Wells Grocery was done on credit.

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school

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

By E. W. CARSWELL

The saddest day in Esto’s history may have been September 6, 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.

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.

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.