Yesterday's News

Yesterday's News: Man clears name of debt -- after 55-year wait

By FRANK BOYETT, Gleaner staff
January 9, 2005

It's never too late to do the right thing.

You've got to admit, though, that 55 years is a long time to wait to pay a debt. W.C. McAbee was 82 years old in 1955, however, and preparing to meet his Maker, which probably caused his conscience to pinch him harder than it otherwise would have.

I like this story. It says something about the character of the East End, which is an almost mythical area of Henderson in that everybody knows where it is but no one can quite define its boundaries.

In early 1955 County Judge Richard Staples received a letter from McAbee, who at that time was a resident of Simpsonville, S.C. It had been addressed to "the Probate Judge of Henderson," and contained a $1 bill. Here is how it started:

"In the year 1900 I lived in Henderson. I was the clothroom foreman at the cotton mill. I moved back to Carolina in the late fall of that year owing a man four or five dollars. I've always wanted to pay it, but kept neglecting it. I am more than anxious to pay it and am ready to get it cleared up.

"I am not absolutely sure that I remember his name. Mrs. McAbee thinks his name was Williams. He owned and ran a store there near the cotton mill in the community called Audubon, or something that sounds like that. I lived over the store. I don't remember whether this debt was for rent or for merchandise, but regardless I want to pay it."

McAbee conceded his creditor may no longer be among the living, but "if you can figure out a family for me to get this cleared up I will mail you a check, and thank you very, very much indeed.

"So I am sending you a dollar to pay your way down to this place to locate someone who is entitled to the five dollars. I think it was around five dollars."

The county judge never spent the $1 that McAbee had sent for car fare to the East End. Instead, he telephoned Hugh Edward Sandefur at The Gleaner and read the letter to him. Sandefur called his parents, who had long been residents of the East End, and they knew exactly who McAbee was talking about.

They concluded it was Warner E. Williams, who had built a two-story brick grocery store at Helm and Mill streets just before 1900. That building had two apartments upstairs.

Unfortunately, Williams had died at the end of 1931, so McAbee couldn't pay him. But his widow still survived, as well as two sons. One of the sons, John Reeves Williams, operated a downtown jewelry store in 1955.

When Sandefur called him up to tell him about the debt, the first words out of his mouth were: "Did he leave me any money?" The jeweler wasn't too disappointed when he learned only $5 was forthcoming. It was, after all, the right thing to do.

Warner Williams later went on to become a dentist, and then operated a filling station at Powell and Atkinson. His grocery store at Helm and Mill is still standing, by the way.

The building is currently owned by Jerry Benson, who told me: "Before I owned it it was a bakery, a barber shop, and ladies' dress apparel. Since I've owned it there have been two churches in there and an Alcoholics Anonymous clubhouse," as well as dog grooming shop, a slot car track, a beauty salon, and a music recording studio. The current tenant is Slingin' Ink, which offers tattoos and body piercing.

Sandefur's father related a personal twist to this story that brings it full circle. Reuben E. "Birdie" Sandefur noted that when Williams' building was under construction in 1897, back when Sandefur was 20 years old, he had hauled sand from the riverfront to the building site so mortar could be mixed for laying the bricks.

140 years ago

The Henderson Reporter noted Henderson experienced "considerable shooting" but nobody was hurt the evening of Jan. 8, 1865, after a force of Confederate guerrillas entered the town's outskirts and clashed with discharged Union soldiers who had organized to protect the town.

"During the shooting one ball entered the house of Mr. David Hart, passed through a picture of the Lord's Supper and lodged in the wall, and another ball passed through the smoke-house of Dan Fisher, a free man of color."

120 years ago

The Home Mission of Henderson, which had been organized in October 1880 to provide relief to destitute children and old people, appointed a committee to oversee erecting a sanitarium, according to an 1885 article in the Reporter.

75 years ago

Newly elected city and county officials warned that slot machines would no longer be tolerated, according to a 1930 article in The Gleaner. City Commissioner H.E. Jones and Sheriff R.C. Soaper said owners of slot machines must remove them immediately or face confiscation and prosecution.

"According to officials there is a large number of such machines being operated over the city and the county."

Slot machines had been largely eradicated after Sheriff Frances Hall was elected in 1925, but it sounds like they started creeping back toward the end of her term. They certainly stayed around for another two decades.

25 years ago

Although work had begun in late December, a ground-breaking ceremony for the long-awaited Second Street overpass occurred Jan. 11, 1980, according to an article in The Gleaner.

The project had first been proposed 12 years earlier after trains had long snarled traffic on the street. The overpass was completed Dec. 18, 1981.


Contributed by Netta Mullin, HCH&GS
Copyright 2005 HCH&GS