Hamp’s Birthday – 129 Years Ago

My grandfather, Zedic Hamilton Willis, was born 129 years ago today in Fayette County, Alabama the fifth of six children born to James Franklin and Mary Jane Buckner Willis. Although I apparently met my grandfather at least once, he died before I was two and I have no memories of him at all; unfortunately, my daddy never spoke about his parents so I have no stories to personalize him.

Most of what we know about Zed Hamp we learned from Uncle Johnnie’s wife, Rubye, the censuses or inferences from the data. We know his father was ordained as a Baptist preacher in 1888 and, though he continued to work as a farmer, he also pastored churches in Fayette County at least until 1910, which means Hamp was reared in an actively Christian home. A quote from the Baptist Association states about his father, “His pastorates were confined, for the most part, to the churches of the Harmony Grove and Goodwater Association.  In the powers of deduction and deep-thinking in Scriptural quotations, he was rarely excelled in his day.”

Hamp was listed as still living with his father at the time of the 1900 census, his mother having died sometime between the birth of his brother in 1883 and the 1900 census [the 1890 census was destroyed in a fire and we’ve been unable to find any information on his mother, Mary Jane].

Hamp married Mellie Jane Welch, a barely 21-year-old Fayette County girl, on November 15, 1900 shortly before he turned 20.  Census information for 1910, 1920 and 1930 all list Hamp as a farmer, generally on land he owned.

While they were living in Fayette County, Hamp and Mellie had a daughter, Mary Eunice, in 1903 who died sometime in 1904. Their first son, William Franklin [presumably named for Hamp and Mellie’s fathers – although Hamp’s grandfather was also named William], was also born in 1903. Later in 1904, their second son and my daddy, James Thomas [picking up their fathers’ other names] was born.

Hamp and Mellie moved from Fayette County sometime between October 1904 [the birth of my daddy] and March 1906 [the birth of Johnnie] to Itawamba County, Mississippi. They had three more children in addition to Johnnie while they lived in Mississippi: Ernest Bell in 1907, Ruth [one census lists her as Exie, so perhaps a first name] in March 1909 and Rufus Rex in 1910. Leroy was born in May 1913 in Fayette County, so apparently they had moved back to Alabama sometime between 1910 and 1913. They had one more child, a daughter named Rachel, who was born and died around 1914.

Alabama is a place known for what is called Sacred Harp [shaped note] all day singings – folks gather at different churches, take picnic lunches [or perhaps pot luck] and sing. YouTube has a trailer for a movie called “Awake My Soul: The story of the Sacred Harp,” which has a little explanation of how it came to be as well as some musical sounds from a singing – helpful for those of us unfamiliar with it . Apparently this is something Hamp and Mellie did. Aunt Rubye gave me a picture of Hamp and Mellie with their picnic basket in hand ready to go to an all day singing; at this time, they are clearly older providing an indication it was something they did from their youth to their old age.

The 1920 census lists them as living in Smithville, Monroe County, Mississippi and still farming their own land. My daddy told me he ran away from home around the time he was 15 and had been on his own since that time, which would have been about the time of the 1920 census. Aunt Rubye indicated Hamp’s at least occasional abusive behavior to Mellie and the farm animals was a factor in daddy’s choice to leave; she didn’t mention that Hamp had been abusive to the kids as well, though I gather he was at least what we might call controlling in today’s language.

By 1925 they were living in Purcell, Oklahoma and by1929 they were in Lexington, Oklahoma. Their sons, Franklin and Johnnie, both married in 1928 and had sons in 1929 [Ralph and Harold Thomas]. We have a photo of Hamp and Mellie holding their first two grandchildren. For me as one of their grandchildren who never knew them, I find it comforting to imagine they would have held and loved me as well had they lived a little longer.

In 1929, Ernest married a Noble girl, Lorene, and they had a daughter, Rita Jo, in 1930. When Hamp and Mellie moved to Texas, Ernest, Franklin and Johnnie all stayed in Oklahoma with their new families.

The 1930 census shows them living in Smyer, Texas, with Ruth, Rex and Leroy, as well as Tommy who must have been staying with them for a brief time after he left the Merchant Maries. Ruth, Rex and Leroy all married people they met during those years in Texas; Ruth and Rex married cousins, Lowell and Madge Howard, and Leroy married a neighbor girl, Vileta McCullough. Although Ruth and Leroyand their spouses moved to Oklahoma, Rex and his wife remained in the Lubbock area.

The only photo I remember seeing as I grew up was a family photo taken in 1935 presumably on a trip Ernest and Lorene had made to Smyer.

Back: Lowell & Ruth Howard, Leroy & Vileta, Tommy; Rex & Madge with Charles, Lorene & Ernest with Carolyn; Hamp, Mellie & Rita Jo

By 1936, they returned to Noble, Oklahoma where they were living when Mellie died in 1938. Zed Hamp died on May 27, 1942. He was buried next to his wife in the Noble IOOF Cemetery. They had 7 children who survived to adulthood, 19 grandchildren [the last seven after Mellie died – the last three after Hamp died], and many great-grandchildren.