Jacob Robillard Edwards was born in Yancey County, NC in 1865. He went by the name "Billard" or "Bill" and as a result many people (including some of his own children) thought his given name was William. By 1900 he was a 35-year-old farmer with a wife and five kids between six and fifteen. That year, for reasons he never explained, he left his family and traveled north into Tennessee, working as a logger. There he met Nancy Jane Thomas who he married (probably bigamously), and they proceeded farther north to the logging region outside Charleston, WV. There, J.R. and Nancy had four children, including Pearl (my grandmother), Fannie, Gary and Roe. In 1909, he got a neighbor girl pregnant, and was evidently in more trouble than that, because he and the girl ran and didn't stop until they got to Bellingham, Washington, seemingly as far as they could get from West Virginia without leaving the country. Back in West Virginia, Nancy Jane scratched out a living by taking in laundry, but she died in 1914, leaving the four children without parents. They were taken in by a friend, Mrs. Georgia Gillam, but the children had trouble with Mr. Gillam.
Except for Fannie, the children never forgave J.R. Edwards for leaving them high and dry. Seventy years after he left, my grandmother wouldn't speak the man's name. In the 1930s he wrote them all, but only Fannie answered the letters. The rest of the story is best filled in by the letters themselves.
Unfortunately, these letters are unsatisfying. At this stage in his life, J.R. Edwards was wallowing in regret. He says he had reasons for doing these things that led to such regret, but frustratingly, never tells what the reasons were. But at least he wrote something, and more importantly, Aunt Fannie saved them, so he now lives while others of his time are gone like leaves in November.
These letters are in chronological order as closely as I could determine it. These are all addressed to Mrs. Fannie Henson, Macbeth, W.Va. You won't find Macbeth on Google Maps, but it was adjacent to Hutchinson, Logan County, WV.
The first letter is just a fragment...
Dear little Fannie I received your letter today, was more than glad to hear from you and know you are all well. I got rheumatics bad in my left hip. I am not working now. They had a strike in the mill here. [He was working for the Schafer Brothers Lumber Company near Elma, Washington.] They cut them down to $1.50 a day and they had to pay $2.50 to get them to go back.
You ask me what kind of work there is here. It is lumbering and farming lots of railroad work will be when they start the company I work for has 9 locomotives and 23 donkeys [a donkey is a steam-powered winch used to move logs] and over 100 miles of steel [track], three sawmills and two shingle mills. There is lots of work here Frank [Fannie's husband, Frank Henson] could do. He could do no farm work here unless...
and since it was so short I'll add the next one
Elma, Wash, Friday night.
Well, little Fannie, this leaves me awful tired. Wishing you all well.
You asked me about your mother's [Nancy Jane's] people. Don't ask me too much. They was at Green Springs, Virginia when I left there. Her sister's name was Bet[t]y Mays. Don't write to them; they are not worth a stamp. I will tell you all when I see you, and I hope that will be soon. [He never did.] You asked me about Robert Edwards: he was my father. He died in Lexington, Kentucky. My folks is all in North Carolina. [meaning his first family] I have not heard from them in 20 years. They think I am dead and I would be better off if I was, I think. I got nothing to live for, only to slave as long as I am able to work, then go to the county Farm, which I will have to do if times don't get better so I can get you and Frank out here so we can make a little stake.
I wish you was here now. You said you wrote Gary and Roe. [His sons. They had moved to Winchester, Indiana.] If they got work, tell them to stay to it till we see how times get. You know I want to see [you] all. If I could, I would be willing to die. God bless [you] all, you don't know how much I want to see [you] all.
Well, it is quite rainy here yet, more rain than ever was known in one winter. The days is long here now; you can read a paper from four in the morning till nine at night. Long days, from
half after three till nine at night. Grass is a foot high along the roads here now and [there is] lots of snow on the mountains. I hope you get here before the salmon run. You can see a ton at a time. I have seen them so thick I could take a pitchfork and load a wagon in one hour. I want you to see them so you won't think I lie to you. Some of them weigh over fifty pounds. If times get so there is work for everybody, then have the boys [Gary and Roe] to come if they will. I wish they would write me [they never did]; it would do me so much good to get a letter from them. I guess I would faint. Well, I guess you are tired [of] reading junk. God bless you all; write me long letters. I will send you some more stamps. J.R.E.