27 May 2013

A Little Book of Living Local History

Calling me any sort of historian is an incredible stretch. Saying that I’m interested in history, particularly the history of West Virginia and this part of West Virginia is right on.

For years, I have gathered books and some odd source documents, especially about the early Bar of Marion County and surrounding areas. And what started as a simple historical Bar list is slowly evolving into a slim volume on the history of this Bar and context of the times.

Now and then, I search what is available on eBay and bookfinder.com to find old books that I don’t have.

A few days ago, I saw a reference in the Times-West Virginian to a privately published book by a long-passed Fairmont lawyer, Allison Sweeney Fleming. The book is entitled Memories of Fairmont, West Virginia: My Own Home Town, and was published in 1950.   The newspaper article had some sort of irrelevant quotation, but I still looked for and found a single copy available on bookfinder.com and forked over $44 for the 50 page tome.

I got my $44 back in the first 10 minutes.

A. S. Fleming was a descendant of a prominent and prolific Marion County family. Somehow, they were involved in the founding of the Fleming Memorial Presbyterian Church, and the author hints of some romantic drama in that genesis. No doubt, Fleming Avenue, which is in that neighborhood, is named for someone in the family.

These kinds of sources give us a living link to our past. Years ago, Arthur C. Clarke said that 30 ghosts stand behind each one of us. (That was in the prologue to 2001: A Space Odyssey.)  That’s how many humans have lived for every person alive today. (I suspect that the number is higher, but we’ll let that go for now.)

Each of them had a life.  I know A. S. Fleming only as a name on an old bar list with no other information. The same goes for lots of others. He knew many of them, and his book, this little book, brings him and them a little bit to life. Each of them had a childhood, an education and a family. A. S. Fleming himself was offered a pro baseball contract but turned it down to pursue his education. (That was around 1900, when a pro baseball contract wasn’t worth nearly what it is today.) He describes Tusca Morris is a fierce pitcher. Later, he was a fierce trial lawyer and faced Sen. M. M. Neely in 1952 in the Luella Mundel versus Thelma Loudin, Fairmont State College McCarthy-era slander trial.  That trial was on the front pages of national newspapers for a week.

Fleming knew Justice John W Mason, Justice H. H. Rose (whose granddaughter is a good friend and a great lawyer).  He knew my respected elder friend Judge J. Harper Meredith before he assume the Bench.  He knew Carter Jones when he was still a young blade driving a Cord automobile. He had talked with the older lawyers who recounted how Fontaine Smith always wore a stovepipe hat and long, black frock coat.  More than the guesses and interpretations of modern historians, these first-person accounts live for me.

This little book also had a personal connection. On the cover was a little printed return address label, “Mrs. William P. Lehman, 708 Mt. Vernon Ave., Fairmont, W. Va.”  On the flyleaf was stamped, “William P. Lehman, attorney-at-law.”

When I first hung out a shingle in 1978, my office was in the Security Bank, on the 7th floor. On the 4th floor, Bill Lehman still had an office, although due to advanced age he had quit coming in to work.  I passed his door now and then and wondered who he was and what he was like.

At the time, I was active in the county rescue company, the Marion County Rescue Squad. One day, we had a call to Mount Vernon Avenue.   The patient was Bill Lehman.  He was sick but alert.   I told him who I was and we talked on the way to the hospital and for a good while at the hospital. I made a new friend and a contact with the past. I think Bill died a couple of months later.

So I know the volume I’m reading again today is the same one that was in the hands of Bill Lehman, who knew the older-still lawyers. This is a connection and a little window into the true story of people whose actions and decisions affect what I do today.

That’s special.

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