John Madison Henderson, the seventh child and second son of William Lee and Eleanor Ann Selina Shelby Henderson, was born on July 10, 1855, near the village of Heiberger in Perry County, Alabama. He joined a large and growing family. There were five older sisters—Mary Amanda, Martha Elizabeth, Margaret Isabelle, Harriet Caroline, and Sarah Jane—in addition to his older brother, Joseph Asmon. John was named for his paternal grandfather, John Lee Henderson I, and for his mother’s brother, James Madison Shelby.
John was a baby, nine and a half months old, when Mary Amanda married John F. McGahey. John was 2 and a half when the next baby, William Daniel, arrived in the Henderson family, and not quite 5 when his mother gave birth to Franklin Smith Henderson, the last of the family’s nine daughters and sons. He was only 5 when the Civil War began and the Alabama of his childhood was riddled with war and the aftermath of a country divided.
Every evidence—both in what has been passed down orally in family lore and in the written records that survive—indicates that John did not fit well into the rugged lifestyle often required of individuals in the late 1800s. He was small for his age and from childhood suffered with recurring bouts of malaria, so prevalent in those days. He was a sensitive person, more given to reading and writing than to hunting and fishing. While he was a hard worker who never shirked his share of the grueling farm chores, he was more at home with a pen and paper planning the crops than in planting, cultivating, and harvesting them.
Deeply religious, John would doubtless have gone into the ministry if educational conditions in his youth had not prevented advanced schooling. He attended Sunday School and church regularly, not only in his own Bethesda Presbyterian church near present-day Heiberger and later in the Bethesda Presbyterian church he helped to build in Lindale, but in Methodist, Baptist, and other denominational churches—anywhere he thought he might hear a good sermon. He was self-taught on two instruments—the harmonica and the violin. He loved to sing, and as soon as he was old enough to venture away from home on his own, he would ride horseback for miles to study in a singing school or to attend a singing.
There is no way of knowing how much schooling John actually had, but learn he did. He was a reader. He had a unique style of storytelling, and his written records show that he was a person who valued education. Though there are grammatical errors and misspelled words in the records he kept, these are mostly a matter of vernacular.
John was 24 years old and a bachelor, just beginning to socialize with the “young ladies,” one of whom he doubtless intended to eventually ask to become his wife, when his parents decided to move from Perry County, Alabama, to Smith County, Texas. John was not happy to leave the home of his birth and rearing.
We know this because he left a rare and precious document—a journal he kept for 25 years.
And it was almost lost.
Beginning on January 1, 1879, and for the next 25 years, John kept the journal. He wrote in it almost every day. Those days he skipped—and they were precious few—he would pick up later. If he went on a trip, became ill, or had a serious illness in the family, he might skip two or three days, but he always picked up right where he had left off. The journals are replete, first with the weather. Because he was a farmer and all other family members were farmers, the weather figured prominently in their daily lives. When it was too wet to plow, or when the rains did not fall and the crops dried up, or when the snows fell or the ice covered the earth and the doctor could not come to attend sick family members, it was a matter of grave concern, even unto death.
And so it was that every day began with a weather report. There are other commissions and omissions in his journals that, for today’s readers, seem strange. He usually failed to write about the most intimate situations. When he married, when the children were born, when great triumph or great tragedy was happening, he tended to omit details or to capsule the situations at a later writing. So it is that we learn, by reading his journals, the names and weights of the mules he bought, but not until several days later, the gender, name—and never the weight—of his son and daughter.
We do know almost every plank that went into the building of Bethesda Presbyterian Church, its value in time and energy to haul it from the sawmill, how much it cost, and where it went into the building of the sanctuary. We know about crops planted and harvested, about singing schools and socials—but rarely the names of the individuals who were married in the weddings he attended. We know about deaths; most are documented, and in the first of several journals he wrote, the death dates are circled in black. Most of the time, John noted that he helped dig the grave for the deceased and often he made a trip into Tyler to buy the casket. For family members, he was often in charge of buying the marker for the grave.
Most of all, we know that John Madison Henderson was a hard worker, and an intelligent one. He wrote not only about what and when he planted, but also about new, untried agricultural fruits, grains, vegetables, and flowers he cultivated in the sandy loam of East Texas.
He was a loving family man. Often he noted that his wife was ill, and that he did the cooking, laundry, and caring for the children. Sometimes he took a day off from the farm work to frame a flower bed and to cultivate it for his wife. He was vitally concerned that his children get a good education, and he saw that his daughter was trained in music. When she completed all the schooling offered in his small community, he took her in the wagon late every Sunday afternoon or early Monday morning into Lindale where she boarded—probably with his sister—for the five school days. On Friday afternoon he fetched her home to spend the weekend with him, her mother, and her brother.
He sent both his son and his daughter to college. He was sometimes the surrogate father to his nephews and nieces, especially the sons and daughters of his widowed sisters. When his sister Martha Elizabeth died while her youngest daughter was still single, he and his wife took Eleanor Lee McGahey into their home.
He was an astute business man. He bought and sold land, livestock, hogs, and chickens. Not only did he sow and reap his crops, but he bought and sold churns, and slaughtered and processed meat and sausage, selling them door-to-door for extra income. He kept hens and sold eggs. He peddled milk and butter. He rigged up a syrup-making apparatus and, year after year, catalogued the numbers of gallons of syrup he made for family and friends. Once, he bought a cotton gin and operated it for two or three years until he learned it was too time-consuming for his other endeavors. Then he sold it.
He was a versatile person. When one endeavor failed to meet his expectations, he reached out for something else to increase his income and expand his horizons.
He was a good neighbor, He sat up with the sick and dying, helped neighbors with their crops, helped roof barns, and sought lost livestock. He was especially sensitive to the needs of his two widowed sisters, cutting wood for them, building a kitchen, roofing a shed, digging a well, overseeing the heavy work of harvesting their crops, and taking their cotton to the gin.
He was a good citizen. Often he went to Tyler in the wagon, even in freezing weather, to serve on a jury. He always voted. Even though he wrote that he studied the issues and the candidates, he admitted that sometimes he may have made a wrong decision when he cast his ballot. He took a day off from his personal work now and then to help other family members, friends, and neighbors work the roads.
John’s journals provide a rich lore of family history, preserved through the interest and generosity of Jan Bailey. Retired from Dallas, Jan and her husband moved to Palestine, Texas, bought wooded farmland, and opened a bed-and-breakfast establishment. While seeking furnishings and accessories for the bed-and-breakfast that would be authentic to East Texas, Jan bought an old trunk at a garage sale in Palestine. It was full of junk. She took it home and painstakingly went through it. At the very bottom she found five ledgers. Fragile, but intact and well preserved, they were the journals of one John M. Henderson. She began to read and was intrigued. She turned the journals over to a nephew who was a historian. He kept them for several years and returned them to her in 1991. “I reread them and found them simply fascinating. I had to find out about Mr. John M. Henderson,” Jan explained.
Jan’s search took her to Lindale and the Bethesda Cemetery where she found his grave and those of other family members mentioned in the journals. She took pictures. She searched census records and church records and obituaries. Eventually, her search led her to James Robert (Jim Bob) Parker in Elkhart, Texas. When she called and asked if he were the great-grandson of John M. Henderson, he said he thought so. He, a descendant of Cynthia Ann Parker, said that he knew a great deal about his father’s family, but nothing about his mother’s Henderson branch.
Jan turned the journals over to Jim Bob who shared them with other family members. Quinton Anderson, a great nephew, painstakingly reproduced the more than 700 pages of odd-sized-and-shaped paper. Time damaged some of the pages, but they are still mostly legible.
John, third from the youngest of the Henderson children, died in 1939, and many of his nieces and nephews still living remember him.
Elvira Ford remembers that Uncle John was always dressed up when he went out anywhere. He wore a suit, white shirt, and bow tie. He was among the first to arrive at church on any occasion, whether it was Sunday school, a singing, a sermon, or a funeral. He usually stayed to help clear up and clean up after the event. He was sometimes asked to deliver a prayer. “We kids hated that because he prayed and prayed and prayed. We would fidget and our mothers would jab us with their elbows. Sometimes we’d get a giggling fit and then we really caught it! Finally, someone asked him, ‘John, why do you say such long prayers?’ and he said, ‘Because the Bible says to pray without ceasing.’ ”
John was, doubtless, lonely. It took him several years after the family moved to Texas to get over being homesick for Alabama, and he continued to mention in his journal that he longed to go back home until shortly before he married Martha Jane “Mollie” Vining Chilcoat on February 3, 1884. From Athens in Henderson County, Mollie had been previously married to a young man who lived only two months after they were wed. John likely met her when he went to Athens to conduct a singing school.
He revealed nothing of his courtship and did not divulge to his journal that he was about to be married until the wedding had already taken place and he was home again. He was equally reticent about the births of their two children. In both instances, he informs us that “a little stranger” has joined the family. It is some days later that the reader learns the little stranger is a baby and still later before he mentions the gender. Eventually, we learn that the first child is a boy and has been named Albert Sidney. The second baby is a girl and is named Lena Mae.
Even so, it is clear that John is a devoted, sometimes indulgent, father. Elvira remembers that Lena Mae was the community beauty, musically talented and well educated. “All of us little girls wanted to be like her.” One Christmas her parents gave Lena Mae a piano, and Elvira remembers helping her decorate the house for the holidays. “I wanted to put a holly branch on the piano and Lena Mae smiled and said that it was a lovely idea, but we should put the holly somewhere else because it might scratch her new treasure.”
John sent both of his children to college. Even though he had sometimes complained that his son and daughter and their young friends were too noisy and disturbed his rest, he was devastated when they left home, and in September 1906, wrote:
“I have been called on to go through quite a trial for me . . . that was to give up my children to leave wife and I alone. Sidney is at Sherman going to Austin College. Lena at Milford attending the Texas Presbyterian College for Young Ladies. It surely did hurt me but I am already glad that I have had to do it, for now I know more than I did . . . Mine are both in fine places for which I am truly grateful.”
On October 10, 1910, Sidney married Alta Mae Taft, unrelated to him but his father’s step- niece. (When John’s brother Joseph died, his widow married Julius Taft; Alta was her daughter by this second marriage.) In 1912 Lena Mae married George Wallace Nash.
Sidney and Alta had four children. Their first child, a son, died at birth. Their three surviving children were Dorothy Jane, Jack Nash, and Ruby Anne. Lena Mae and George had one son, Henderson Edward Nash.
For a time after Sidney and Alta left Lindale, John and Mollie moved to Palestine, Texas, to be near them. It was there that Mollie died on August 11, 1913. John eventually went “home” to Lindale where he lived for a time with his sister Hattie and sometimes “batched.”
He bought a car and could be seen almost every day driving it to one or another of the homes of family members and friends. Quinton Anderson could not have been more than three when he was invited to go for a drive in the country with Uncle John. The tiny car was packed with nieces and nephews, and Quinton wound up in the rumble seat. Now, as a man older than Uncle John was on the day he took the kids for a ride, Quinton still remembers that when he was not being almost overcome with gas fumes, he was choking on the dust stirred up as the car bumped along the country roads.
As Uncle John aged, it became something of a family joke that he could be counted on to arrive at the home of a sister, brother, niece, or nephew just as a meal was being served.
John Madison Henderson died in Lindale on January 27, 1939. His funeral services were held in Bethesda Presbyterian, the church he helped to plan and build. He is buried in Bethesda Cemetery beside his wife. He had been the first president of the Bethesda Cemetery Association when it was formed.
Sadly, he never went back for a visit to Alabama.
John Madison Henderson (1855–1939)