“Fred Oakes Memoir”
Frederick Franklin Oakes (1903-78)
Written and Copyrighted by Melvin Oakes, 2012
Charlie and Sophie Oakes Family, Issaquena County
L. to R.: Fred, Laura, Charlie, Sophie, Grantham and Chris. ca. 1912
The atmosphere was humid and hot, normal in the Mississippi Delta in May. Fortunately, there was little high water in ’03, so the birth could take place at home rather than in some barn or abandoned shack that often provided refuge from the flooding that threatened with seasonal regularity. This was the second child for Sophie and Charlie Oakes, and he was much anticipated. Cotton futures suggested record prices and a second son would ultimately provide much needed help with the farm chores. Milton, age 2, was upset by the labor cries of his mother, easily heard throughout the thin-walled house, but he was comforted by his father, half-uncles Warren and Gernie Hyman, and his grandparents, Chris and Josephine Dose. Chris, in particular, was excited by this birth since a name, Frederick Franklin Oakes, with deep roots in his native Germany had been chosen. In fact, Friedrich was one of his long abandoned names following his arrival in his adopted country. There was little he could do about the English surname.
Another new “American” was added to the Yazoo River a few weeks earlier; its cries would have interrupted the sleep of the new infant. On May 2 the 190-ton new sternwheeler piloted by Captain S. H. Parisot of the P-Line steamed into the Yazoo. This “gem” of a boat measured 158 ft. long and 27.6 ft. in breadth. The rhythmic hissing noise from the cylinders’ exhaust, the puffing of the chimneys, the whistle to warn approaching boats and the loud bell that signaled arrival at the Leist Landing would have roused Milton and Fredrick as well as advertised for their parents an opportunity to see the new addition to the river commerce. Just six months before Fred’s birth, the Yazoo Canal had been diverted providing access of Vicksburg to the river. The city had been essentially isolated since the oxbow Centennial cut-off occurred in 1876.
The newest Oakes and the steamboat were not to end their days along this river. Fredrick remained for 19 years while the American lasted only three before joining the larger and more lucrative Mississippi River service. Gasoline powered boats had made their debut on the Yazoo and Sunflower rivers in 1902 and, along with the railroads, ended in 1934 the 100-year reign of these elegant, proud steamboats that had contributed so much to the Delta economy. Fredrick would get to view and participate in the transition and profit from the old and new technology.
The new son was never to know his Oakes grandparents, Elliot and Huldah Jane. They had come to Attala County, MS, from North Carolina and both had died before the turn of the century. On April 18, 1870, Elliot H. Oakes, fifty-four at the time and a widower, had married the eighteen-year-old Huldah Louisa Jane Lineberry in Bruce, Guilford County, North Carolina. John C. Love, a tobacco farmer who lived near Elliot’s farm, performed the service. Elliot’s brother Issac lived nearby and likely attended.
Elliot and Huldah’s first child, John Elliot, was born a year after their marriage. A second son, John Sowell, arrived in 1874 and Fred’s father, Charles Franklin, made his entry February 13, 1881. Sometime after Charlie’s birth, the family decided to follow other Oakes relatives and move to Attala County, MS and buy a farm. For Elliot, who was 65 when his son Charlie was born, the move must have been a difficult decision. Maybe the opportunity to buy a farm near some close relatives was worth the risk. He certainly was aware that he would eventually leave a young widow with small children.
In 1885, Elliot died and Jane married Joseph Hyman, a widower with two boys, Jackson and Wordney. Jane and Joseph had their own two boys, Warren and Gernie; however soon after Gernie’s birth, his father died, and Jackson and Wordney were sent to Arkansas to live with Hyman relatives. Jane died before the turn of the century, and Charlie Oakes, though not twenty yet, became the guardian of his half-brothers. It was not long after his mother’s death that Charlie met the seventeen-year-old Sophie Dose.
The Charlie and Sophie’s joy of a new son in May was to be shattered in August by the sudden illness of Milton from food poisoning, “a bad Irish potato.” Severe diarrhea led to dehydration and he died far from any competent medical care. The German barber, G. W. Vliet, a friend of Grandpa Dose, who lived and worked with the Oakes family, tried several remedies but was of little help with serious illnesses.
Freddie, as his playmates called him, delighted in his exotic grandfather, David Christian Dose. All of the Oakes boys were tall like their mother and grandfather. They bore little resemblance to their quite-short father. Grandpa Dose loved to talk in his native German language. There were other neighbors from the “old country,” with whom he chatted and who provided him the occasional German newspaper that he read thoroughly. During the 20 years following Chris’ arrival in Issaquena County, he would have found it easy to get access to national and international news. The steady stream of steamboats from New Orleans to Vicksburg and the Yazoo River system would bring both verbal and printed news. Given the immigrant population, foreign newspaper would have been a popular and profitable item. World War I, however, would have removed any German periodicals and suppressed the German language being spoken. In 1920, Chris, along with many other immigrants, reported to the U. S. Census takers that he was born in Mississippi.
Another of Chris’ German neighbors was August Elsass, a fisherman, born in 1835. August had immigrated in 1862. Widowed and elderly, he was cared for by two young black laborers, Washington Bailey and George Talla, who lived on his land. Freed from eavesdropping, Chris, Vliet and Elsass enjoyed heated discussions about the old country and their adopted home. Freddie would long remember confusing words from his grandfather, e.g. “Deutsch,” which he heard as “Dutch.” Chris Dose would regale the grandchildren with his days back in Kielerkamp, Prussia, and his years as a seaman on ships between Bremen and New York. He had been born to a farming family in Kielerkamp, Schleswig-Holstein, a “suburb” of Kiel, on the 30th of July in 1844.
Chris told of the exceptional hard work as a coal tender on ships that combined steam and sails. His career as an Atlantic seaman was delayed by the Austro-Prussian War (1866), and the larger Franco-Prussian War. The latter, Bismarck provoked between 1870-71. His purpose was to unify the Prussian states and reduce the influence of France, goals he achieved. A report in “The Illustrated London News,” August 27, 1870 describes the conditions in Bremen and Bremerhaven during the war. (Chris would have encountered these post-war conditions when he began his voyages from Bremerhaven.)
“Along the side of the Weser (river) there is a fine quay planted with trees; before this, the steamers and river craft lie to discharge their cargoes into the innumerable large and magnificent warehouses with which Bremen abounds. This city of Bremen has, at present in it, more than 18,000 troops who are quartered in all the hotels and many private houses.'
"Sixty miles below Bremen, at the point where the Weser enters the German Ocean, are the seaports of Bremerhaven and Geestemünde, forming one port of great importance, well provided with good docks, quays, and warehouses. It has rather a desolate look at present, as it is crowded with ships of all sizes laid up on account of the war. Conspicuous amongst these is the fine fleet of Trans-Atlantic screw-steamers of the largest size, belonging to the North German Lloyd's. There are about twenty-five in the fleet, but not more than twelve are laid up here. The whole fleet is, however, in safety, none of them now being at sea. These are all Clyde-built ships, very large, and fitted in the most complete and efficient manner. In a dock near this is another melancholy instance of the waste of war, the dock being nearly full of the mast yards, spars, and gear that have been taken out of the ships that have been sunk in the channel of the Weser to block its navigation. I am sorry to say that the only shipments that I saw taking place in this usually busy place was a cargo of torpedoes to be laid in the ship tracks at the entrance of the rivers along the coast. A large, strong, old whaler was also being prepared ready for sinking; this was the last of a line of vessels that would effectively block the navigation of this important shipway.”
Being of sound body and mind, Chris would have been conscripted for both wars, as service was compulsory for all men of military age. Since the German navy was quite small, the French were able to blockade northern German ports, however, powerful German coastal artillery kept the French ships from coming ashore. It is more likely that Chris would have served in the very large army that Bismarck mobilized. As is characteristic of many military veterans, he seems to have volunteered little to his family about this period of his life.
Following the German victory, immigration to U. S. and Canada returned to prewar numbers and higher. Chris was able to secure employment on ships carrying immigrants to New York. Hired soon after the war he could have made as many as 10 trips due to the advent of the combination steam and sailing ships that reduced the crossing time to several weeks instead of months.
His last trip across began on April 29, 1873 when he was 29. Surprisingly, he was not married, unusual for people in farming communities. Military service and economic hardship likely prevented him from taking a wife. As he mustered for this trip in Bremen, he was filled with second thoughts about leaving his six surviving sisters and one brother. Family lore was that he was orphaned and raised by aunts. However, his youngest sister, Anna, was born in 1860 when he was sixteen, an age that would have bestowed manhood, not orphan status. The story, in light of recently discovered family records in Germany, has little credibility.
Economic conditions in Kielerkamp were difficult; a widowed aunt and her son were in the poorhouse. The constant military action and the lack of opportunity helped Chris to make up his mind to seek his fortune in the namesake of the very ship he was on, the Amerika. The iron built vessel with a clipper stem, one funnel and three masts could do 11 knots and averaged 11 days and 13 hours for the Bremen to New York run. The steam engines on the Amerika required eight seamen to shovel the coal needed to fire them round the clock.
As Chris walked among the 737 passengers on the football field-length vessel, he had to suppress the nervousness prompted by his decision to desert in New York. Two of his eight fellow coal tenders, Johann Seiffert, three years younger than Chris and Mael Hertel, age 20, had also decided to desert. Johann had applied for emigration permission in 1867, and had likely been denied because of the recent war with Austria and impending war with France. Chris, Johann and Mael discussed often their desertion plans but were careful not to be overheard by the fifteen other crew members or Captain Bufsins. Imprisonment was the punishment for desertion.
Many on board the ship feared the consequence of the case of smallpox that required quarantine of a passenger. Chris would have been very familiar with smallpox and not among those in fear. During his service, the death rate would have been between 500-700 per 100,000 in the Prussian Army. Of those that contracted smallpox, approximately 30% died in the second week. Fortunately, Prussia imposed mandatory vaccination for its citizens in 1874. The effect of the impending law had already dramatically reduced the death rates by 1873 to less than 10 per 100,000. The army had required some vaccination since 1834, but enforcement was lax in the un-unified army until the law in 1874. Vaccination among the population also reduced the army’s exposure among the citizen population. Austria failed to require vaccination until nearly the end of the century and suffered much higher death rates. Fortunately, there were no deaths or further smallpox incidents on the ship, a testament to the compulsory vaccination.
Steerage passengers sometimes fell overboard, upsetting the largely immigrant population on board. The steerage passengers had to prepare their food which was of very poor quality leading to much sickness. The poorly ventilated allotted space was very small and occupied by many suffering from seasickness. The smell, reported in many diaries, was unbearable for passengers and crew. Charitable captains would let the steerage passengers visit the deck for short periods. Hard captains, however, permitted only cabin passengers such access. Since the Amerika was sailing with about one-third its capacity of passengers, more freedom was probably permitted for those in steerage. Conditions for the crew were better since it was necessary that they remain healthy. Evidence of the superior treatment of the crew and cabin passengers can be gleaned from Cook Otto Stephani’s, higher pay, 67 Marks for the trip. The “obersteward” earned 100 Marks.
Chris had been frugal with his pay from his previous voyages, 40 marks for this trip, about $10 US. Steerage passenger would have paid around 80 marks or $20. The Amerika, owned by the North German Lloyd Company, was to make six trips in 1873; her capacity was 320 cabin passengers and 1657 in steerage. Chris hoped his earnings would provide the “stake” he would need to purchase land in America. Prussia’s financial success following the defeat of France in the Franco-Prussian war was now beginning to show signs of weakness. Chris believed this was a good time to emigrate to avoid further threat of military service. During the trip, which took a little over two weeks, the Vienna Stock Exchange crashed, triggering the Panic of 1873. The ensuing “Long Depression” which spread to the United States would limit Chris’ opportunities in his new homeland.
Immigrants arriving in New York in 1873 would have been processed through Castle Gardens. It was a chaotic place with unscrupulous men preying on these very vulnerable families. Chris, by deserting, would have avoided their direct confrontation. He was still at risk since he could be imprisoned for desertion. He and his fellow deserters could have landed in one of the many boarding houses in New York that catered to seaman. Private agents, called “crimpers,” frequented these houses. For a bounty, they attempted to get seamen to change ships promising higher pay. They even promised a deserter that, by threatening legal action against the Captain of the deserter’s ship, they could recover his forfeited wages. Seaman were usually paid after completing their obligation, however, some companies might have provided them an advance for purchasing clothing, shoes and other necessary items. Unscrupulous captains were not above arranging “lost at sea” for a sailor owed large back wages. This could be done by assigning them a dangerous task in foul weather or enlisting the aid of a co-conspirator. The captain was permitted to keep their pay.
Having made a number of trips to New York, Chris and his “conspirators” more than likely had a contact they could stay with, at least temporarily. Possibly, another sailor or maybe an immigrant family member or friend helped them. As the European financial crisis extended to the U. S., Chris probably sought employment again as a seaman. Given his deserter status it is highly unlikely he would have again risked crossing the Atlantic. More likely, he signed on to one of the New York to New Orleans lines. New Orleans would have been an exciting place for the bachelor, and it was there that he likely learned of the availability of cheap land in Mississippi.
Vicksburg’s river trade had rebounded following the Civil War, and there were over 100,000 bales of cotton shipped annually out of the Yazoo and its tributaries to New Orleans. Large Mississippi River steamboats brought the cotton down and returned with supplies for plantations and landings. The Parisot Steamboat Line dominated the Yazoo River trade and made trips from Vicksburg to Yazoo City three times a week. You could leave Vicksburg late afternoon and be at Leist Landing near the Dose farm by morning. Vicksburg, whose population was only 11,800 in 1880, benefited from the Delta cotton which was gathered from the banks of the Yazoo, Sunflower, Steele’s Bayou, Yalobusha and Tallahatchie rivers in the fall and early winter and transferred to larger river boats capable of carrying as many as 5,000 to 10,000 bales. Cottonseed and cottonseed oil were also part of the cargo and increased the fire risk on these vessels. Chris could have worked on one of the boats or simply gone exploring in 1878-79. The large cotton crops would have enticed him to return to farming.
His first documented presence in Mississippi is his December 10, 1879 marriage to Josephine Bellinger Smith, a 21-year-old widow. Josephine had married Eugene Smith in Yazoo County only twenty-one months earlier. It is assumed that Smith died suddenly or they were divorced. In 1872, Josephine’s sister had married Sam Leist, who owned a plantation conveniently situated between the Yazoo and the Little Sunflower rivers. Josephine’s family had moved to Vicksburg from Herkimer County, New York around 1853. They were part of the Palatine Germans that first emigrated to England and were ultimately lured to America by promise of land. Ten English ships transported 4000 to New York where they dispersed and settled. Brother-in-law Sam encouraged Chris to consider land near his and Adeline’s home.
To court Josephine would require opportunity and time; at least a year would be an acceptable waiting time following the death or unlikely divorce from Smith. This would put Chris in Vicksburg around the latter part of 1878 or very early 1879. His German language would not have offered any problem for Josephine.
Chris would have found Vicksburg awash in land agents. They would be pushing land in the Delta owned by people who could no longer farm without slave labor. Freedmen would be available, however, they would require a more just financial arrangement and were reluctant to work for their past owners. Bottomland was more expensive than the upland. In 1884, upland with timber would run $4-$10/acre, bottomland as high as $40/acre. However, Chris was looking for something far cheaper, which would mean he would be willing to accept the occasional flood and more sweat equity to clear it.
A little over six months after his marriage, Chris purchased 260 acres in Issaquena County for $73.29, only 30 cents/acre. There were three lots located on the south side of a sharp bend in the Yazoo River. The land was a few miles south of the Leist plantation. The Delta land, once cleared, would be fertile and suitable for farming. Two bales of cotton or 40 bushels of corn per acre were considered possible. Hogs could forage in the forest, and grass could support a cow. The sale of the better timber for construction purposes and the poorer quality trees for steamboat firewood would provide income as he worked to clear the land. As the steamboats grew in size, they had a voracious appetite for wood; a 300-ton steamer required 24 cords of wood for a days run. Of course most of the Yazoo packet line boats were smaller. The price was $3-4 per cord for willow.
We learn something of the conditions Chris faced by reading the information contained in a document submitted for the New Orleans Exposition Commission, 1884, on Yazoo County, MS. “Two bales of cotton or 40 bushels of corn are easily produced per acre under good conditions. Hogs can forage in woods without extra food. Cattle only require feeding in the winter. Average value of production per acre is $12.21, compare with Midwest values of $7 to $8. Land cost averages $17.79/acre, well under that in the Midwest. Upland land can be purchase for $4 to $10/acre if containing timber. Bottomland is more expensive, bringing as much as $40/acre. Death rate of 12.89/thousand is lower than in the east, however, sickness rate is higher.” Yazoo City has about 3000 inhabitants in 1884. The pamphlet says very little large game is in the county, most driven out by farming. “A few straggling deer are seen. Turkey available in some areas, however raccoon, ducks, rabbits, squirrels and partridges are in abundant supply. Fish are plentiful everywhere. One-sixth of land is in cultivation, much lies vacant for lack of labor. County produces 50,000 bales of cotton per year. Field labor was $12/month with food rations. Flooding over the past three years (1880-83) has been higher than previous 30-40 years, however the water recedes in time to plant crops. Freshwater in the bottomland comes from cisterns and wells 40 to 50 ft deep in iron pipe. (Fred Oakes maintained that they drank water directly from the Yazoo River.) Only half of educable white children (1548 of 3300) are in school. Fewer black children attend, 3800 of 10,000 attend. An oil mill and a few sawmills are the only manufacturing in the county. Lumber was $35 to $80 per 1000 board feet, depending on the kind and quality.”
In 1901, a bale of ginned cotton per acre (weighing 500 lbs) was common and worth $30-$40 dollars. Black to white population in Issaquena county was about 15 to 1.
Chris’ immediate task, however, would be to use his timber to build a house on his new place. A nearby sawmill at Harworth or one of the sawmill steamboats could have turned his logs into lumber. Neighbors and hired laborers from black families in the area would assist in the construction. The backbreaking work and limited resources might have encouraged delaying the start of a family, however, more likely it was a fertility issue. It would be two and a half years before Chris and Josephine would have their first children. Twins, Jacob Christian and Mary Sophie, were born April 25, 1882. Two of Chris’ younger sisters from back in Germany, Marie Christina Dorothea and Margretha Sophie, were namesakes for the combined name for his daughter, Mary Sophie. Margretha Sophie had died in Germany before the age of ten. Clearly, Chris held her in great affection. Jacob received Christian’s name.
Two and a half months before Sophie’s and Jacob’s births, John L. Sullivan had defeated Paddy Ryan in Mississippi City near Ship Island along the Gulf Coast. Sullivan was the last bare knuckle champion. The Mississippi legislature attempted to outlaw the fight but coastal business interest blocked their efforts. The lead up to the fight was well covered by the Mississippi press and was followed closely by its citizens, even in this remote rural area.
Sam Leist, Chris’ brother-in-law, was a longtime resident of the area. His parents and their six children had emigrated from Switzerland to Ohio in 1846. Eventually, Sam moved to Issaquena County and bought a plantation. His knowledge of timber was legendary, and he advised Chris on clearing and selling the timber. The firewood would be stacked along the banks of the Yazoo for the steam-driven boats to purchase. Lumber would have been loaded on these boats for shipment to cities as far away as New Orleans. Farming was interrupted from time to time by flooding which required moving to temporary shelter in the eastern hills. Chris would later honor Sam by naming a son for him.
In 1886, a daughter, Carrie Mae, was born to Chris and Josephine. This appeared to be the last of the family and certainly a disappointment since large families were necessary to sustain a farm. In 1894, eight years later, they were surprised by the birth of another set of twins, William and Walter Samuel. Tragedy struck in 1898 when “Willie” died suddenly, maybe as a result of yellow fever. Sophie, now 16, was of marriageable age and was at risk of being lost to the family labor pool. The previous year had been especially difficult for farmers as reported in the Frederick, Maryland paper, “The News”:
“Memphis, April 22, 1897 -- The sixth break in the Mississippi Delta levee system occurred at 10 o'clock yesterday at a point a few miles south of Lake Providence, La., on the Mississippi side of the river. The break is a large one, and a great volume of water is rushing into Issaquena County, Miss. This county, with the adjacent counties of Sharkey and Yazoo, have already been partly inundated from the earlier breaks, and yesterday's crevasse, it is believed, will not materially affect the situation in that vicinity. The water is gradually spreading over Madison parish from the Biggs crevasse, and it will be several weeks before it subsides.”
This flood influenced the Oakes family for years to come. During the flood, a Seventh Day Adventist Mission Boat, the Morning Star, owned by Edson White, son of Ellen G. White, a founder of this sect, would regularly tie-up near the Dose homes. After reading what his mother had written about the needy people of the South, Edson White had been filled with a longing to help them, especially the blacks, and the best way, he felt, was by a mission boat. So with his wife Emma and several other helpers, Edson White had made the Morning Star into a floating schoolroom-dispensary-chapel and home, and had sailed down the Mississippi and up the Yazoo to a place opposite the cabin where Chris Dose sat and glared at the large new boat. The coming of the flood brought danger to people like Chris Dose, but the danger meant opportunity for the Morning Star company. Now they could prove that they had really come to help the black and white people of the South. Many objected to his work with black families.
Edson White was not idle during the flood. He used his small skiff, his barge, and a small launch, the Mayflower, which belonged to a friend, in rescue operations. In these smaller boats he could sail right across what used to be cotton plantations and save stranded cattle and their owners. People started lining the water's edge, pleading for rescue for themselves and their livestock. So Edson White lashed his barge to the front of the large boat. In this way he could handle both the barge and the Star from his pilot-house. After loading the barge with animals, he would sail downstream toward Vicksburg and unload near a place called Indian Mound, the only high ground in that area. He charged the owners just enough to cover expenses. Some of the farmers who were too poor to pay cash helped him pile wood high with tree branches, later to serve as fuel for the boat. Others even took his one horse lumber wagon to pieces and lashed all the parts securely in the treetops. Dose watched all this activity from the porch of his shaky house. When he heard that the Whites had opened their little 20 by 40 foot chapel in Vicksburg, to thirty-six refugees who had brought their sewing machines, beds, and other household goods with them, he began to think, "Maybe I’ll be needing that kind of help myself one of these days," and his heart softened a little. He knew that by this time the river people almost worshiped the Morning Star. When they heard its whistle, they shouted, "Here comes our boat!" They knew that it was almost impossible for Edson and Emma White to say no to any appeal for help. There were dangers in this type of rescue work. Hidden snags could easily rip out the bottom of a boat.
When the river people realized that the Whites were willing to work day and night to help them, they became interested in the gospel story. One in particular was Chris Dose’ s daughter Sophie. She became an Adventist, and her conversion is reflected in many Adventists to be found in later generations of the Oakes and Dose families.
Chris Dose realized that he had lost his private battle against the Morning Star and its workers. And before the flood subsided, he lost another battle. One day when his cabin began to rock and tilt on its flimsy foundations, Dose signaled the Morning Star and asked for help. The Mayflower came at once, but before he stepped into the launch, old Chris Dose had the grace to apologize for his bad feeling. From then on he became well-known as a close friend and defender of Adventists and the work they were doing for his kind of people up and down the Yazoo River Valley. (Portions of this account appeared in Adventist publication and much of the information was taken from the book, “Mission to Black America, The True Story of James Edson White and the Riverboat Morning Star” by Ronald D. Graybill. Pacific Press Publishing Association Copyright 1971.)
Sometime during this turbulent period, Charlie Oakes arrived in Vicksburg. His mother, Huldah Jane Lineberry Oakes Hyman, likely had succumbed to yellow fever during the epidemic of 1898 that devastated the lower Mississippi Valley. Sophie, while visiting members of her mother’s family in Vicksburg, met Charlie and in January of 1900 they were married. Chris offered to provide the young couple a place to build a home on his property. Charlie had two half-brothers to care for, Warren (age 12) and Gernie (or Gearney(sp) (age 5) Hyman. Gernie is shown at right with Freddie Oakes at right. Charlie, Chris and Sophie’s bachelor brother, Jacob, (he would not marry for 12 more years) built a four-room, wood-shingled home mounted on 3 ft. log posts (pictured at beginning of this memoir). This provided some protection against low level flooding; however, the construction exposed the house to heat loss from every surface and made for very cold conditions during the winter. A brick fireplace and a ready supply of firewood helped dull the edges of the bitter cold they often encountered during the frigid winter days and nights. As the family expanded, an addition was added at the rear of the house. Charlie repaired shoes for neighbors to augment his farming income.
Freddie Oakes was a cheerful and talkative boy, filled with curiosity. He had a memory that impressed all and served him well to the end of his days. He was a delight to his grandfather Dose and was fascinated by the Leist family. Sam’s son Albert played the fiddle and would often entertain area kids by playing so they could dance. Freddie wore the road out between their places, often walking the three miles back in the pitch dark. The year that Freddie was born, his “Auntie” Carrie Mae married John Henry “Bud” Hopkins. Their older daughters, Josephine and Pearl, and Sam Leist’s grandchildren, Maggie and Charlie, were playmates for Freddie and his siblings, Christian and Laura. As he did for daughter, Sophie, Chris Dose again provided land for his second daughter and Bud to build a home. Sadly, it burned and they moved to Vicksburg in 1914.
The Sam Leist family provided a building for a one-room schoolhouse, and Albert Leist boarded the teacher, Miss Jessye Collum, in their home. Jessye was from Phoenix, MS, a rural community in the eastern hills about 15 miles away. She was only a few years older than the oldest children in the school. Girls who finished 8th grade were prime candidates for teachers in rural America. Jessye was both teacher and friend to her students. The older ones enjoyed fishing together in the Sunflower River. Life was difficult for all the families and even the children were expected to contribute time and resources. School had to be “fitted in.” Freddie claimed he only finished the third grade; however, there is evidence from his recorded stories of additional years attendance. He thrived in school and especially enjoyed reading, something he continued to do every night for the remainder of his life. Jessye, not surprisingly, married William Carroll Leist, Sam and Adeline’s grandson.
In addition to the house and field work done by everyone, the boys were expected to fish, hunt and trap fur-bearing animals for sale to the river vendors. “The Corn Doctor,” B. B. Beemer, was such a fur buyer. His other hats were “Toe Doctor” and “Photographer.” Despite having only one arm, he and his wife performed medical procedures for many along the river whose painful feet were ravaged by poorly fitting shoes. Corns were calluses that could penetrate deep enough to irritate a nerve and cause pain. Treatment for severe cases in those days was to cut it off.
The pelts provided the little spending money available to the boys. In 1915, raccoon skins would bring at auction $2.75, mink and fox more. Even opossum and rabbit could be sold since fur clothing from their pelts was often falsely marketed as beaver and ermine, respectively. Of course, the prices offered by Dr. Beemer would have been far, far lower, but it was something. Freddie and his brothers developed a love of hunting and fishing which stuck with them throughout their lives. Freddie was an excellent shot, recognized for his accuracy in wing shooting. Many a duck found its way to Freddie’s dinner table.
The area abounded with edible small game, ducks, geese, quail, and rabbit. For those with a more provincial taste, there were squirrels and raccoons. Red, gray and black squirrels, fat on acorns, were especially prized when prepared with dumplings. Raccoons were hunted at night with carbide headlamps. Their glowing eyes reflected eerily from high in the trees, giving away their location. The families feasted on raccoon baked with sweet potatoes. The rivers and nearby lakes were stopovers for migrating ducks and geese. Every boy prided himself in his ability to fashion a wooden duck call and mimic the feeding call. Because of the cultivation of most of the land and the heavy hunting, white tail deer were not in large supply. As people abandoned the area and the forest returned, deer hunting became a popular sport in the area again.
Fish were a valuable source of protein for everyone. Catfish, channel, flathead and blue varieties were plentiful. Other names for flatheads were Mississippi bullhead, Mississippi cat, yellow cat, and mud cat. An inexpensive fishing method used was the trotline. The boys would run the lines in the morning collecting the night feeding catfish. Other fish sought were spoonbill catfish (actually paddlefish), gaspergoo, bass, crappie and bream. Gar and carp were too bony to eat except in hard times.
Flooding constantly put the family at financial and physical risk. The river was not to be trifled with. Freddie’s great-aunt Adeline Leist slipped on the Yazoo River bank and drowned one night while waiting for her husband, Sam. She was fully dressed which prevented her from swimming out.
Malaria was a common occurrence requiring regular doses of Grove’s “Tasteless” Chill Tonic, which consisted of bitter quinine suspended in sugar syrup, lemon flavoring and maybe a small amount of alcohol. E. W. Grove became very wealthy and in 1913, built the Grove Park Inn, a popular resort in Ashville, NC. Fifty cents a bottle was a small price to pay for protection (coffee was 15 cents a pound). Two tablespoonful morning and evening were recommended during malaria season as a preventive— three times a day if ill. Every child who took the tonic challenged the “tasteless” adjective, since “awful” would have been a more common reaction. Every bed would have had a mosquito “bar,” sheer netting draped on a frame above. It was necessary to avoid coming in contact during the night with the bar as the bloodthirsty predators were all too ready to feast through the netting.
As the spring floodwaters rose, snakes and vermin would seek shelter in the homes and barns. Poisonous moccasins posed a serious threat, especially to young children. During very high water, the families would have to move out and seek higher ground in the hills. A relative’s home or barn, or even an abandoned shack was a welcomed step up from camping out. Livestock and chickens would have to be taken out in a barge and pastured in a rented or charitable space. Cotton was moved downriver in the fall and the low water in the summer prevented large boats access to many areas along the Yazoo and its tributaries. Hence, small riverboats were hungry for work and readily available in the spring for transporting goods during these emergencies. Sometimes, it was simpler to sell or slaughter livestock rather than pay to move them.
Yellow fever, influenza, malaria, diphtheria, tetanus & lockjaw, and appendicitis were dreaded. Even simple illnesses, remote from medical care, could be deadly. When death did occur, burial would take place nearby. On the Leist plantation were a number of Native American mounds. These provided an elevated space for interment that could survive the effects of flooding. In March of 1906, Josephine Bellinger Dose contracted pneumonia and though she was only 48 she succumbed and is reportedly buried in one of the mounds. Their dominance of the landscape was a constant reminder of the fragile nature of life on the river. It is likely that family members constructed her casket from the boards cut from the vast quantities of old growth, tight grain cypress that lined lakes and rivers in the area.
Five months following Josephine’s death, Charlie and Sophie welcomed a son, John Christian Oakes, again choosing a name that honored Sophie’s father. Chris was born at home on the river. No high-speed trips to the hospital accompanied any births along the river. It was just as well since the City of Jackson had set automobile speed limits that year at 12 mph for straight-away and 7 mph for turning. Sophie apparently was unable to nurse Chris as evidenced by regular purchases of canned milk from the Leist store that started two days after his birth.
The death of Josephine ending a twenty-seven year marriage with Chris would have been very painful. They shared so much history and common German heritage. The river would have been a lonely place for him and his twelve-year-old son Walter. Circumstances were similar for a Mollie E. Ransome living in Vicksburg on National Cemetery Road. She had just lost her husband, Coleman M. Ransom, a farmer, and had three of her five children living at home. Chris and Mollie’s marriage in January of 1907 might have shocked the family for its timing, but would have made life easier for the new combined family. Mollie and her children moved in with Chris up on the river.
A few years after their marriage, about 1909, Chris and Mollie decided to hire a cook for their combined families and their workers on their farm. Moyzelle Tindol Plake’s husband, Wilfrod, had disappeared following the birth of their first child. His return to his home in Indiana was not discovered for decades. Moyzelle now needed employment to support her and her son, John. She obtained employment as a cook on Chris Dose’s farm. She and Chris’ son, Jacob, were married a few years later.
Fred and Chris’ sister, Laura Annis, and prohibition arrived in 1909. Robert Grantham Oakes was born amidst the devastating flood of the Mississippi Valley that occurred in 1912. Two hundred people were killed and $45 million was incurred in damages.
Sophie’s last delivery was November 1, 1917, the year that Mississippi ratified Woodrow Wilson’s declaration of war against Germany. The son, christened William Warren Oakes, was named for his father’s half-brother, Warren Hyman. Ironically, Warren Oakes, who served in the Pacific with honor in WWII, chose the medical corps and made it clear he would not carry a gun or kill anyone. He had adopted the Seventh Day Adventist faith of his mother.
The following year Sophie’s youngest brother, Walter, was drafted and shipped to France. He served in the Red Diamond Gun Division, Company A, 11th Infantry 5th Division. He was gassed in Frapelle. While some gassings resulted in a fatality, many soldiers recovered enough to return to duty in a few days. However, for the rest of their lives they were plagued with chronic lung infection, even tuberculosis. Fred Oakes said after the war, Walter exchanged dog tags with another soldier and went into Germany. It is ironic that Walter would choose to leave Issaquena County for Chris’ Germany. The family was told he was killed in action, which was painful for his parents. One can only speculate that he sought to find his Dose roots. Apparently he got sick in Germany and had to enter a military hospital where his true identity was discovered. He was shipped to a hospital in Chickamauga, GA and then to Colorado Springs, CO. In late 1924 or 1925, he became homesick and returned home for a visit. Fred rode around with him. He died in February during that visit. His dad died in November. Walter never married. He is buried in the National Cemetery in Vicksburg.
The Oakes and Dose families would have observed from the riverbank the little packet boat, the C. R. Hull. It worked the Mississippi, the Ohio, the Yazoo and their tributaries moving cotton and other freight. It regularly brought goods to the Leist store. They were not likely to imagine that someday Cody Hull, son of the owner, would marry Laura Annis, Fred’s sister.
In 1908, Philadelphian archeologist Clarence Bloomfield Moore pulled his steamboat, “The Gopher,” up to Leist Landing to explore the Indian mounds on the Leist plantation. He did some excavating in the mounds and found Native American pottery shards. However, only modern burials were found. His activities would have provided welcomed entertainment for the children along the river.
In the 19th century, boats were paddle-wheelers driven by steam. Initially, side-wheelers were dominant. However, as the problem of “hog-backing” caused by the weight of the stern wheel was alleviated by front to back chains over the boiler house, the side-wheelers gave way to the sternwheelers. As the 20th century arrived, propellers replaced wheels. Steam gave way to the safer and more convenient inboard internal combustion engines. This was a result of the rapid developments in the automobile industry. The outboard motor came into its own as Fred Oakes entered school. These boat engines were immediately embraced by all along the river. At last, one could travel upriver without waiting for a scheduled riverboat. Fred and his brother, Chris, took every opportunity to learn how these engines worked, and they acquired impressive mechanics skills that foreshadowed their life vocations. No repair was denied them despite the rather primitive tools at their disposal.
The Oakes boys were small-time entrepreneurs. The small town of Harworth that contained a general store and a post office was located across the Yazoo River from the Dose and Oakes places. Pedestrian traffic would come down the west side of the Yazoo River from the Leist, Sunflower and Spanish Fort plantations. Their destinations were Harworth and the many towns and plantations with colorful names like “No Mistake Plantation, Seven Gum, Mechanicsburg and Phoenix. The boys operated a “foot ferry” to transport customers across the river.
The Harworth Post Office was originally established as Lapanto in Yazoo County on Sep. 17, 1904, the name being changed to Harworth on November 21, 1904, and moved to Sharkey County. It was discontinued on Oct. 18, 1924, with mail service to Satartia. It was re-opened on October 20, 1924, and closed for the final time on July 1, 1927, with mail service to Satartia. James A Barret was the first postmaster. A “7 Miles to Satartia” sign appears in the movie “O’Brother Where Art Thou” as the principals are escaping prison. Fred Oakes lived about 7 miles from Satartia.
Nightly entertainment for families usually consisted of cards, simple board games, and storytelling by oil lamps. Charlie Oakes would not have been the storyteller that Fred Oakes emulated during his life. Charlie was very quiet and rarely volunteered stories or comment. It is likely that Chris Dose and Sam Leist were Fred’s unwitting mentors. His sense of humor developed early, and he delighted in practical jokes. His children were the beneficiaries of this valuable talent. His keen observation of detail and his understanding of narrative combined to hold the attention of his children, relatives, friends, and customers. Embellishments, always present in his stories, were expected by his listeners. They were willing to suspend credibility if that was the price of a good story.
On rare occasions, a paddle-wheeler showboat would tie up at one of the nearby landings. There would be a vaudeville-type show. Charlie, Sophie, and the older children would go. The acts were rather tame, otherwise Sophie would have been reluctant to attend.
Year after year the Oakes family faced the uncertainty and disappointment associated with subsistence farming. The cycle of loans, deeds of trust, debt, floods, and the arrival of the boll weevil stretched everyone’s patience. Boll weevils first entered the U.S. around 1892 near Brownsville, Texas. By 1907, the weevils had traveled an impressive distance and were damaging cotton grown in the Natchez area. By 1914, the weevil was present in northeast Mississippi, and by 1922, it had spread throughout the eastern cotton-growing states, all the way to Virginia. According to Fred Oakes, the weevil arrived in their cotton patch on August 13, 1922. This was devastating since the spring floods had resulted in many financial losses.
An important asset was their livestock. They were especially proud of the thoroughbred hogs that they had obtained from Bud and Carrie Hopkins who had moved to Vicksburg. With the help of Harry Barton, a tall, strong, black man, eleven years Fred’s senior, Fred and his brother Chris worked hard to move the hogs, goats, mules and cows to the Smith farm in Satartia. Joe and Kittie Smith were an elderly black couple who owned their own farm.
Fred, Chris and Harry had fashioned a barge using “Choctaw” logs. These are old dried tupelo gum or oak logs that had fallen into a stream, were covered with silt and their grain structure became honeycombed. Years later, during high water, they would pop up. Because of their extreme buoyancy they were spiked together to make barges, rafts, low water bridges and docks. Their barge was powered by an early 6 hp Gray engine. Sample of a Choctaw log shown at right provided by Rebecca DeArmond-Huskey.
The rest of the family and most of the relatives had already evacuated. Fred and Chris slept in their 16 ft. elevated barn that had been built for such emergencies. During this crisis Fred developed a high fever, and he credits Barton with saving his life by wrapping him in blankets soaked in cool river water. While Fred attributed the illness to smallpox it could have been a bad case of chicken pox. He had reason to fear smallpox, as there were over 100,000 cases in the U.S. during the previous year. However, the early 20th Century smallpox that moved through the U.S. was a mild form of the disease resulting in far fewer deaths than the 19th Century classic form that was so deadly. Following recovery, they were forced to move to a houseboat after water entered the barn.
Harry Barton was the son of James and Rachel Barton who farmed their own place in nearby Phoenix. James was mulatto, Rachel was black, leading to Harry being designated as mulatto. Both James (b. 1849) and Rachel (b. 1856) had been slaves and married in 1869, four years after emancipation. James took his name from his owner. James could read and Harry could read and write, signing his WWI registration form in 1917 under the eyes of Charles Franklin Oakes, the Registrar. While James and Rachel had been married for 34 years in 1910, Harry never married. He worked for Chris Dose for many years as a farm hand. By 1942, Harry had moved to Magnolia, Arkansas and was working for a Harry Cleaver. He listed his birthplace as Satartia, rather than Harworth as reported on the WWI registration card. The signature on both registration cards are identical, flowing and confident.
For Fred Oakes, age 19, the time had come to seek a better life. The decision by his father to release their pigs and goats into the cocklebur infested woodland near the farm, resulting in the poisoning of all of them, was the last straw. Cocklebur seedlings, flourishing after the floods, were especially toxic. Chris Dose offered to provide him a stake which he took. He packed his bag and despite the tearful pleas of his mother, Sophie, he caught the CR Hull packet boat to Vicksburg. He hoped to stay temporarily with Leist or Hopkins relatives who had left the river previously.
(Above is a colorized picture of the waterfront at Vicksburg in 1910)
Click on the above photo to pan this a high resolutoin version.
He stepped ashore in Vicksburg, near where he would eventually own a shop. He walked through the flood wall and surveyed the crowd of workers along Levee Street. He moved through the busy throng looking for someone approachable. He asked several men if they knew where he might find work. As luck would have it, one of the men told him he might try the foundry owned by James Dutton. Dutton offered him a low-paying job but encouraged him to continue south along Levee Street for eight or ten blocks to the Yazoo & Mississippi Valley Railroad (Y & MV) machine shop where they were hiring and paid more. He went directly to the shop; however, he was not hired. Walking out on the rail yard, he ran into Charlie Roberts, a storekeeper for the railroad. Charlie suggested he go to the car department. A Mr. Munger asked him his age, he lied and said, “21.” Apparently, workers were on strik,e and they needed help. He was hired and told he would need some tools. He left, purchased tools and some clothes. Returning he encountered strikers. He denied working at the railroad and was allowed to proceed along the river. Once inside the shop, he was given a locker, a place to sleep and meals. These benefits ended when the strike was settled. He rented a place at the Harrell family boarding house on Fairground Street. There were about 30 men boarding there. A small baby in the house cried often and disturbed Fred’s sleep. He said the child was Henry Harrell, who became a popular wrestler in Vicksburg during the 1950. Seeking a quieter environment, Fred next boarded with Sam and Daisy Cockrell.
Fred kept his tools in a temporary box. One of the carpenters in the coach shop, Frank Vichiarella, offered to help him build his own box. Vichiarella, age 47, had immigrated from Italy in 1884 and operated a grocery store with his mother Carmella. He continued to run the store with the help of his sister, Mamie, after joining the Y & MV railroad. The oak used in the tool box was milled by Robert and Troy Barnes, brothers who worked in the carpenter shop. The Barneses later opened a successful planing mill on Openwood Street. Frank’s sister, Mamie, married the son of another grocer, Mastronardi. His nephew and namesake, Frank Mastronardi, was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for saving a number of his fellow crew members aboard a B17 bomber shot down over France in WWII. He spent the remainder of the war in Stalag 1 until liberated by the Russians.
At the railroad, it became clear that Fred was mechanically very talented. He asked to be assigned to the Machine Shop. He described to the shop foreman the various engine repairs he had done, both outboard and inboard. He detailed the many engines he had rebuilt. When he mentioned that he had poured babbitt bearings, the job was his. Such a repair with the primitive tools available on the river would have impressed any machinist.
In the beginning, he was assigned as a helper for the machinist and mechanics in the bustling shop. It soon became clear that here was a young man with an ingenious talent for problem solving and improvising. The manager assigned him to the air brakes shop. George Westinghouse in 1872, revolutionized the braking of trains. The previous system required the many brakeman to move from car to car and manually rotate a wheel to brake the car. This was a very inefficient method requiring much strength. In addition, there was real danger associated with the brakemen jumping between catwalks atop the cars.
Westinghouse’s invention used compressed air to apply the brake shoes and coordinate their application to all the cars. The system was complicated and required regular maintenance. Fred asked to take the operation manual home with him to study. He would have become very familiar with the 1920 diagram shown here.
Night after night, he pored over the manual and the diagrams, becoming an expert on this brake system and, in addition, learning basic hydraulics. Recognizing his skills, the supervisor promoted him. He would save a portion of his pay each week, since an idea began to form in his mind of opening his own automobile repair shop.
While working at the shop, he became friends with Louis C. Terrell. Mr. Terrell acted as a mentor. The payroll office at the shop told Mr. Terrell that he needed to check with the federal tax office about paying income tax. Fred accompanied him to the tax office. During the interview the clerk asked, “ What is your name?” Mr. Terrell was always slow in responding and after a pause said, “Louis C. Terrell.” “What is your occupation?” said the clerk. Again, after a long silence, “ Car knocker (another word for mechanic),” came the answer. “You have any dependents?” “Two wives and ten children.” This got the attention of others in the waiting room. The clerk admonished Mr. Terrell, “This is a serious interview, and I expect you to treat it as such. Mr. Terrell said, “ Do I look like a man that would do otherwise, I pay alimony to one wife and eight kids in Phoenix, and I have a wife and two kids in Vicksburg.” The clerk asked, “ Do any of them work?” Mr. Terrell responded, “ I don’t know, but I do know they don’t make enough to cover their asses.” The clerk then asked how much he made during the year? “Thirteen hundred dollars,” Terrell replied. The clerk folded up the form he was completing and said, “ Mr. Terrell, unless you discover oil on your land, I never wish to see you in this office again.” Mr. Terrell’s son, Conrad, became a family friend and later worked and lived with Fred Oakes’ family in the 1940s. Conrad served in WWII and was present at the liberation of Paris. He earned a Bronze Star.
Fred’s improving financial situation enabled him to rent his own place on North Cherry Street. This improvement is further evidenced by his purchase, in March of 1923, of an insurance policy on his life with Life & Casualty Ins. Co. of Tennessee. He mades his mother, Mary Oakes, the beneficiary of the $216 award. He was 19 and the payments were 10 cents a week.
As his anger toward his father subsided, it was replaced by concern for his parents’ welfare. He was alert to any opportunity for them, and he did not have to look very far. He was told by one of his fellow workers that they were going to hire some carpenters for boxcar repairs. Fred sought out the supervisor in the carpenter shop and arranged an interview for his father. Contacting his father by mail would have been too slow; he likely sent a telegram or used someone’s telephone to pass a message urging him to come as soon as possible. Charlie agreed that it was time to give up on the river and its hardships. This was the break they needed. They arranged to come, and he was hired as a carpenter. The family with all the children moved in with Fred. The farm was later lost due to failure to pay taxes.
Fred’s homesickness would have been much relieved by the arrival in Vicksburg, on March 10, 1923, of Albert and Ella Leist, two of his favorite people. They moved into 1615 Openwood, only a few blocks from where he would eventually open his first shop. He would have been a regular at their dinner table. His childhood playmate and great friend, Maggie Leist, married Robert Hackler in the same year and also was now living in Vicksburg.
At the Y & MV shop, Fred worked with two brothers, Sam and Victor Wadford. Since they were all single, they would have enjoyed socializing together. Sam and Victor were grandsons of John and Elizabeth Dora Hartley Wadford. John had died, but Dora had remarried and lived in the Vicksburg area. Dora had a niece who lived in Flora, MS, in Madison County. Though only sixteen at the time, Margie Louise Hartley attracted the attention of Fred. Theirs was a brief courtship, and they were married in Clinton on October 28, 1923, two days before her seventeenth birthday. Sam Wadford and Fred’s 14 year-old sister, Laura Annis, were witnesses at the ceremony.
Margie's decision to leave school would have been a difficult one. She was an outstanding student at the school in Tinnin. The Jackson Clarion-Ledger contains many entries noting her academic accomplishments. Here is a summary: On April 2, 1922 preliminary winners of the writing contests for Hinds County schools was announced. Margie Oakes was among three winners for eighth grade English and eighth grade arithmetic. How she did in the finals is not known. She was regularly on the Tinnin School honor roll. On March 31, 1923, the Clarion-Ledger announced the results of the preliminary exams, Margie Oakes qualified for the finals in tenth grade algebra and ninth grade composition. On April 6, 1923, it is reported that she was first place in the ninth grade written literary composition competition. For the remainder of her life, Margie enjoyed writing, she had a beautiful handwriting and was a prolific letter writer. She had anumber of letters posted in the local newspaper in Vicksburg.
The newlyweds now needed a place of their own and were fortunate to find a house at 2529 Pearl Street, within easy walking distance of Fred’s work at the Y & MV. To earn extra money, Fred now became a “shade tree” mechanic. He bought his tools from Walter Samuel Bliss who was working for the Powell Motor Company, the local Ford dealer. Walter had served in the Navy and wished to return to duty. Fred also bought a Model T that needed major engine work from him. He successfully rebuilt the car for their use. Within a year, they had moved “uptown,” away from the river area to 1313 First North Street. By 1926, his primary profession was mechanic. His father has also left the railroad and taken a position as an engineer with E. J. Platte fisheries. Charlie and Sophie now lived in a large house at 700 Locust Street.
In July of 1927, after nearly four years of marriage, Fred and Margie had their first child, a son, Frederick Charles Oakes. Margie’s pregnancy would have been accompanied by one of the worst floods in the history of the Mississippi River and of Vicksburg. Since millions of acres of the Delta were flooded, crops were ruined or never planted. Refugee camps were organized by the Federal Government to house the thousand of families and livestock that were displaced. Much of Vicksburg heavy commerce was along the waterfront, so every effort was made to shore up the seawall and levees. Black men worked day and night filling sand bags and laying them. Fred Oakes spoke of his and other white men contributing their labor as the water continued to threaten. During that same year, Fred opened his own six-car repair shop at 1105 Openwood, and they moved in with his parents at 700 Adams Street. Next door to the Openwood shop was John Ellis Gossen’s grocery store (his actual name was Hanna Elas Ghosn). He and his mother had immigrated from Syria in 1912. In 1933, John married Vivian Dose, Fred’s first cousin.
Evidence of the growing depression’s impact were the housing arrangements in 1930. Not only were Fred’s parents and two younger brothers living with them, but the house also had Stanton Weaver’s family living there. Stanton and Eunice’s daughter, Josie, married Jack Letney, father of Fred’s brother’s wife, Georgia. Chris had married Georgia in June of that year, one month before Charles was born. They also lived in the Adams Street house. Fred had found his brother a job as an air-brake mechanic with the Y & MV.
Despite the Stock Market Crash of 1929 and the resulting Great Depression, Fred’s business was doing well enough that he purchased some property near the National Cemetery, north of the city in the community of Waltersville. The street address, at that time, was 26 Connecting Avenue. He continued to do business at his Openwood shop. About 1931, he moved his business to the north Vicksburg property. The address was West Side National Cemetery Rd, 1 South Mint Springs Bayou. He expanded his business to include five employees: his brother Chris (on fender), brothers-in-law, Marvin (running board with wrench) and James Hartley (driver), Arnold “Popeye” Graham (hood), James C. Deason (standing) and William M. Reed (running board). Along with Fred ( clean boss), all are shown in the 1931 photo below. Times were very hard, and they worked long into the night, seven days a week, and all received greatly reduced pay, just enough to feed their families.
Left to Right: John Christian Oakes (on fender), Arnold “Popeye” Graham (hood), Marvin Hartley (running board with wrench), William M. Reed, James Hartley (driver), James C. Deason (standing) and Fred Oakes, March 31, 1934-35. Fred Oakes’ Shop was on Highway 61 near U.S. Military Cemetery, address was Route 1, Box 54. The wrecker was called the “Mae West”.
James Hartley had married Katherine Huff in 1929, and they, along with Marvin, lived next door in a rooming house run by Albert and Ada Conrad Graham. Popeye Graham was Albert and Ada’s son and Ada was the sister of Rufus Conrad, husband of Margie’s sister, Leil,a and also the sister of Ninnie Conrad, the wife of Margie’s brother, Edward Lee “TB” Hartley. Popeye (sitting on the hood, above) entered his car one night. Hidden in the back seat was an armed, jealous girlfriend who shot him through the neck. Fortunately, he survived but wore a neck brace for the reminder of his life. His nephew, Durwood Graham, remembers lacing it up for him daily.
Near the repair shop was a general store owned and operated by Fred’s half-uncle and his wife, Warren and Ella Hyman. Ella ran the store, and Warren was a commercial fisherman. Warren maintained contact with his half-brothers in Arkansas all his life, exchanging visits on occasion. He and Ella adopted a boy, Joseph Freddie. He was born in 1927. It might not be too speculative to suggest they got him at birth and gave him the name Joseph after Warren’s father. Freddie might have referred to Fred Oakes, who admired Warren greatly.
In August of 1933, stewardship of the Vicksburg National Cemetery was transferred from the War Department to the National Park Service. The Park Service decided to provide improved access to the National Cemetery and exercised eminent domain on Fred’s place. This made it necessary for the family and the business to move. So in 1938, Fred and Margie purchased property located at 1224 Mulberry. It was at the foot of Clay Street, on the northwest corner. He purchased it from Frank R. Melsheimer Jr. for $1100. The wooden top floor was specifically excluded from the purchased and removed. He moved his operation into the existing building that he had modified with approval of the city. The building had a number of bays for car repair. Both were accessed from Clay Street. The lower one was not covered. Customers entered the shop from Mulberry Street onto an elevated wooden floor. Over a long shelf of parts to their left, they could see the machine shop and repair area about four feet below. The bookkeeper’s desk was to the right of the entrance, down a few steps. As was common in those days, the shop employed the very old overhead power system to drive the machinery. Such systems went back to the first steam-driven machines of the early 19th century. Wide belts looped over various pulleys on the overhead rotating shafts and dropped down to the machines below. It made for a very noisy environment when several machines were running. Motor oil and transmission fluid regularly covered the floor, such that when one walked in the shop there was a suction sound every time you picked up your foot. They would often spread sawdust to soak up the oil and then sweep and dispose of it. There were a number of storage areas. A very dark basement provided storage for crankshafts, blocks and rear end assemblies. Since there was no air circulation, the smell was overpowering.
Fred’s brother, Chris, moved with him to the “downtown” shop. Chris was a quiet and introverted person, seldom showing much emotion. His skill as a machinist was prized and he was assigned the more difficult jobs. He later worked as an engineer on the Mississippi towboats owned by Melvin “Dolly” King. He died while a guest on one of these boats in Carouthersville, MO in 1962, a year after retiring. At the time, he was living with his sister Laura.
Margie tried to act as the bookkeeper, however, as the family now included Charles, Melvin (b. 1936) and Floyd (b. 1937), it was necessary to hire someone. Nora Inez Beard, single and age 28, was added to the staff. Nora had worked as a stenographer and as a waitress at the Elite Café. She lived on Openwood Street near Fred’s shop. Young and attractive, Nora was very popular with employees and customers, but not their wives, Margie included. Some years later, Nora married Tom William Curran (1902-62). He was a mechanic, and they lived in Meridian and later Jackson. She later married more likely John W. Findley (1907-96) (Though I can’t rule out the husband being William H. Findley (1917-90).) Nora died in Louisville, MS, January 7, 1998. She is buried in Lakewood Memorial Park cemetery in Jackson, MS.
The Mulberry shop was diagonally across from the Blue Room. Founder Tom Wince, Jr., born at Oak Ridge, was the son of white plantation owner, Tom Harris and Rosie Brown, an African-American who lived on the plantation. When Rosie married Tom Wince, Sr., her son became known as Tom Wince, Jr. The Winces sharecropped until the 1920s, when they moved to Vicksburg. Tom, Jr., opened the Blue Room after working as a bellhop and a waiter at Vicksburg’s old National Park Hotel. He began with an investment of $16: $6 for rent and $10 for merchandise. The original club, consisting of the Blue Room and the Jitterbug Room, was on the first floor of an apartment building. It was 1945 when Wince added the big ballroom, “The Skyline,” to the top of his place and began booking big name bands from New York, California, and Indiana. Many of them had never played in the South before. Ray Charles, Fats Domino, B. B. King, Dinah Washington, Louis Armstrong, and Little Milton were among the many stars that played there. In the 1940s and '50s, Wince, known as “Fancy Tom,” was the most important blues promoter in Mississippi, booking bands through a network of nightclubs and halls across the state and in Louisiana. Even when segregation was in force, whites attended when certain acts, especially Louis Armstrong, were booked there. They were forced to sit in a “separate” area. Vicksburg's Red Tops were a regular attraction. Tom had seven wives and fourteen children, most of them worked at the Blue Room.
Employees of Oakes Auto Parts would often go over to the Blue Room to purchase soft drinks. The sound system was truly impressive. You could hear the music blocks away from the building when the door was open. Directly across the street from the Blue Room and Oakes Auto Parts was a house of prostitution that operated during the 1940s and 1950s. The Blue Room was in operation from 1937 to 1972, falling victim to urban renewal, a fate it shared with Fred Oakes’ Mulberry shop, which, at the time, he was renting to a cardboard and paper recycler.
In September 1939, son, Donald Oakes arrived. Fred purchased property at Kings, a few mile north of Vicksburg that would provide storage for the junk cars from which he salvaged parts. He and Margie decided to build a home on the property. They contracted with a carpenter, George Ashley. They had temporarily moved to South Washington Street to await completion. Early the following year, 1940, they moved to Route 4 in Kings, north of Vicksburg. Two years later, their long-sought-for daughter, Eleanor Dean, was born. There were to be no more children or moves in the lives of Fred and Margie. They had at last found the fertile ground that would grow their family and their business.
Acknowledgement: Special thanks to brothers, Floyd and Donald Oakes, for their many contributions and to my wife, Pat Oakes, for advice, proofing and encouragement. Thanks also to the many family members who generously relayed their stories. Great friend, Loiis Mallory, kindly proofed the memoir in great detail.