Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The Story Behind the Story

As the newspaper article unfolded the story of Jean Martin’s prized antique pieces, the 1967 publication allowed me a glimpse into my grand-aunt’s family history as well. It made me thankful that this mystery relative took a moment to send a “brag piece” in a letter to her brother and sister-in-law so many years ago. I certainly wasn’t having much success finding out about Mabel Eugenie Davis Hines Martin on any other accounts.

The clipping from the September 13, 1967, edition of The Erwin Record was most likely set aside by my grandmother when she received it—not entirely sure what to do with it, but not wanting to toss it. Yet.

Upon her passing, along with several other personal effects, the article—now sans letter—was passed to my aunt. She, likewise, set it aside, not entirely sure what to do with it, but not wanting to toss it. Yet.

Upon her passing, along with several other personal effects…

Well, you get the idea. The only difference with this last iteration is: I already know what I want to do with it!

If it weren’t for the fact that the article was passed down to me via close family members, I would have some concern that the subject of the article was named Jean Martin, rather than Mabel. With some caveats about her name—which I’ll delve into more deeply in a future post—I can dismiss those concerns based on several details mentioned in the article:

  • Right away, she is identified as Mrs. H. L. Martin
  • Her address is given as Second Street
  • Her maiden name is given as Davis
  • She was listed as a native of Erwin, Tennessee
  • She was listed as daughter of Mr. and Mrs. William Davis

Of course, the point could be raised that there were likely several William Davises in the area in that time period. I don’t dispute that. In fact, one such William Davis may even have been a cousin of the other William Davis. That’s where those helpful middle initials come in handy.

The article does go on to mention that Mrs. William Davis, mother of Mabel/Jean, was known to all in Erwin as “Aunt Cassie” and that her home was located at the corner of Main and First streets. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that tale about my great-grandmother—there’s enough detail in that family story to merit a post of its own, though admittedly a morbid one.

Thanks to that newspaper narrative provided by Mrs. Bede Webb, I found out that my grand-aunt moved back to her home town six years prior to the date of the article, pinpointing her return to some time in 1961. The event prompting her return was listed as the passing of her husband—although Horace L. Martin actually died in 1959.

According to the article, “the genial Jean Martin has been a career woman.” My ears perked up at this detail, and I was rewarded for my attention. Remember that single thirty-something woman in the boarding home in Detroit in 1920? How does this little fact line up:
…having been with the merchandising departments of Shillottos, Cincinnati, Ohio, and the J. L. Hudson Department Store in Detroit, Mich.”
Some little dress shop that must have been.

Evidently, Mabel leveraged her position from that post in Detroit to snag an appointment with “the chain department store empire of the May Company” as a buyer. According to the Record article, her company’s headquarters were in Baltimore and New York City.

How nicely those align with census details found so far—even the one I was doubting.


  1. "Career woman" -- is this why Stella stayed with Dad? Was Mabel more ambitious than maternal?

    1. Wendy, there has got to be a significant story behind that decision--but not, I suspect, the one I was told as a girl.

  2. http://departmentstoremuseum.blogspot.com/2010/06/shillitos-cincinnati-ohio.html has some nice photos of the store and floor layout. What a big place!

    In 1998 they demo'ed the Hudson store. http://www.controlled-demolition.com/jl-hudson-department-store. http://departmentstoremuseum.blogspot.com/2010/05/j-l-hudson-co-detroit-michigan.html has some awesome photos.

    The second half of this http://departmentstoremuseum.blogspot.com/2010/06/hecht-co-baltimore-maryland.html page details the history of the May Co. Your aunt worked for some pretty impressive places!

    1. A fascinating history of three giants in bygone years of retail history. Thanks so much for finding those sites, Iggy!

  3. Interesting! You have come a long way with your research! :)

    1. Sometimes, with family history, all you can do is look for the "fingerprints" of where they have been. Even if nothing else has been left to explain what family members were like, following their tracks can give a bit of an idea. This certainly has been a productive side trip!


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