Chasing Ghosts: David Madison Dickson, Jr.

[This post is the 10th in the series, Chasing Ghosts. I recommend reading the first post to get acquainted with the series.]

I’ve been looking forward to writing about David Madison Dickson, Jr. ever since I really started digging into my family history. My paternal great-great-grandfather – the father of James Davis Dickson, Sr. – has an interesting story to tell. Unlike my two great-grandfathers, who seemed to be steady, hard-working, respectable members of middle class society, David M. Dickson, Jr. seems like he was a little wacky.

Born in July 1850 in Troup County, Georgia, David M. Dickson, Jr. was the third child – second son – of David M. Dickson, Sr. and Mary Ann (Goss) Dickson. When he was a small child, about three years old, his parents moved the family west to the small community of Pine Level in southern Montgomery County, Alabama. According to one source describing his father’s move to Alabama:

The Dicksons settled near what is now Pine Level. David Madison [Sr.] bought his first land, a few miles from the village from Allen Fraser who had reached Montgomery County about 1843 or 1845. The first Dickson home on this land was probably a log cabin. Soon the Dicksons acquired land in Pine Level and built the homestead so happily remembered by their descendants. This home was unpretentious but large and comfortable. An unusual feature was the two, wide, open hallways instead of the single “dogtrot” that was customary. There were the usual orchards, smoke houses, slave quarters, and a cotton gin. 

By the time his parents were done, David M. Dickson, Jr. was the third of nine children. They joined the Baptist church in Pine Level, which had already been built when they got there. Another feature of the small community was that the local tavern was also a stagecoach stop.

David M. Dickson, Jr. was about eleven years old when the Civil War broke out, which would have been major for the family, since they owned slaves who worked on their homestead. (I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a plantation, because that evokes images of it being larger than it was. Their house no longer exists.) The pre-teen boy was too young to have participated in any effort related to the war.

The family was recorded incorrectly by the 1860 census-taker, misspelling their name as “Dixon” and nearest post office as “Ramah,” which is hilarious to me because that’s probably how the locals pronounced the community’s real name: Ramer. My great-great-grandfather’s older siblings, Martha and Jesse, are 15 and 13, respectively, and his younger siblings Caroline (incorrectly named “EP”), Virginia and John are 7, 4 and 1. (His older Jesse would have been named for Mary Ann Goss’s father, Jesse Hamilton Goss, who I’ll get to later.) Three more children would come later: my great-grandfather James Davis Dickson in 1862, Charles William Dickson in 1867, and Thomas Aubrey Dickson in 1870.

The family must have had some severe struggles down in Pine Level. Among the children: John Gibbs Dickson died at age 3, only living from 1859 until 1862. Caroline Posey Dickson died in January 1865 at age 12, and the next youngest Virginia Goss Dickson died the following May at age 9. Years later, one of the youngest siblings, Charles William Dickson, got married to a woman named Hattie Stough in 1872, and both of them and their infant child all died the following year in 1873 (but in different months).

David Dickson, Jr. married Blandeanah Eubank in 1871. In the 1880 census, the couple — who would have been 29 and 30 at this time – are living in Pine Level, with his occupation as farmer. Their three children at that time were: Lee, age 4; Viola, age 3; and Bernice, age 1. (My great-grandfather JD Dickson would come along later.) The toddler Viola is my aunt, who later married Herbert Coleman, the man that my grandfather was named for.

According to the big, red, leather-bound Dickson genealogy book at the Alabama Department of Archives & History:

David and Blandie remained in Pine Level until 1886. The matriarch of the family Mary Ann Goss whose strong will, wise council and heavy thumb had done much to keep things solvent [after her husbands death in 1877] and was now 63 years old.

David Dickson, Jr. must have already shown signs of being unreliable by this time. That same big red book describes how Blandie’s father David Bryant Eubank had given the couple some land and a “fine painted house. To be sure that his daughter and her children would continue to have a place to live,” her father stipulated that it could not be sold at all until Blandie’s oldest child was 21 years old.

Their next move was to Athens in northern Alabama. Records state that they took Blandie’s mother Matilda Shaver Eubank with them. Athens is where my great-grandfather JD Dickson was born. Apparently, David Dickson, Jr. was hoping to cash in on an economic boom in that region.

By 1900, David M. Dickson, Jr. has moved his family to Montgomery where he is an insurance agent and Blandie runs a boarding house, called Clifton House, which was located downtown in the spot now occupied by the Renaissance Hotel’s parking deck. Several of their nine children were living there in 1900, including my great-grandfather James D. Dickson who was 11. Also there are numerous boarders, all men in their 20s and 30s, and a 21-year-old daughter-in-law named Ruby Dickson; within a year she would be both David Bernard Dickson’s widow and the mother of his child.

The big red genealogy book elaborates some information about Clifton House and its unruly proprietor:

In the city directories the Clifton House was advertised as being next door to the opera house and catering to the theatrical trade. In addition to the hotel David was also a State agent for the Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. For some reason (probably because it interfered with his his drinking habits) David was not able to make an overwhelming success of these ventures. As may have been expected management of the hotel fell upon Blandie’s shoulders and she was not a Mary Ann Goss.

The 1910 census lists DM Dickson as a fertilizer salesmen in Birmingham, Alabama. Given the description above, Clifton House clearly didn’t work out. Two of his daughters – Sammie Nella, age 38 and Bernice, age 30 – are living with he and Blandie, who were by then 58 an 57. By the 1920 census, the last one in which David M. Dickson, Jr. would appear, the elderly couple are nearing 70, living by themselves, with my great-great-grandfather still listed as a fertilizer salesman. According to the excerpt in the big red book, he “became a success” in his final occupation.

David M. Dickson, Jr. died in May 1922, and Blandie passed away five years later, in 1927. They are buried together in Montgomery’s Oakwood Cemetery.

Though I don’t have any pictures of my great-great-grandfather, I do have this description of him, and then of his wife:

David always conducted himself with much decorum when sober and with a measure of pompousness when stimulated by a few drinks. He was immaculate in his dress, wore a well barbered beard, and was a little on the ostentatious side with his large diamond tie pen and finger ring, gold headed cane, gold handled umbrella, silver cigar case, and silver match box. A somewhat irresponsible, not too lovable but unforgettable character known to his grandchildren as ‘Foxy Grand Pa.’

Blandie was somewhat a bland personality. Kindly, never ruffled, lovable, a baby spoiler of grandchildren. She was a staunch Methodist (David was never known to go to church), a follower of Wm. Jennings Bryan, a strict moralist, and an ardent prohibitionist.

My great-great-grandparents must’ve been quite pair: he, a drunken dandy and she, a goody two shoes.

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