What’s in a surname?
I grew up with a surname I hated. It was unpleasant to the ears, hard to spell, and easy for school children to mock. I was eager to get married in life if for no reason more than I wanted to change my last name.
I think I was about 14 the first time I realized in talking to my Great Grandmother that it was only a twist of fate that gave me that much disliked name and that biologically I had zero connection to it. In a different world, under better circumstances, I would have been born with the last name Baker. The countless hours I wasted in my life spelling my maiden name could have all been saved if not for that one adoption.
A Dark Page in Family History
My Great Grandmother, Lillie Weatherspoon, was in her early teens when she married her first husband. His name was Willie Baker and they had one child together, my grandfather Jay Dee. In the tale shared with me by my Great Grandmother her first husband was a mean tempered man who liked to drink a lot and become physically abusive. According to the story shared with me while sitting on the front porch of her house on Niagra Street in Flint, Michigan some 60 years later the last night she spent living with Willie was around the year 1930 and they lived near Paragould, Arkansas. My Grandfather was just a baby at the time. Willie had gone out for a typical night of drinking. Lillie said she had reached her breaking point and resolved to not be beaten when he returned home and spent hours wandering the house armed with a knife before finally going to sleep. She said by some miracle he never came home that night.
Willie did return the next morning. While sitting at the breakfast table he spilled hot coffee on the baby. That was the final straw and Lillie laid him out with a cast iron pan to the head, grabbed the baby and started running. She didn’t stop until she reached Iowa.
The next decade of my Great Grandmother’s life was a dark period that she didn’t like to discuss. Somehow over that time she managed to make it from Iowa to Michigan and meet and marry the man I would know as my Great Grandfather. Moman Harold Fulkerson was a childless widower several years older than Lillie who adopted my Grandfather and raised him as his own child, including changing his last name from Baker.
Digging Up Old Skeletons
Willie and the surname Baker became a closed chapter that was more or less forgotten. Growing up I never realized my Great Grandfather wasn’t truly my Great Grandfather. It was only by chance that I sat down with my Great Grandmother that one afternoon and started prying into her past. When I talked to my Father about it I was surprised to learn that he too was aware of the family history but beyond that the topic was laid to rest again.
It would take another 20 years before I would research information about the mysterious Willie Baker. All my great Grandparents, my grandparents, even my Father were deceased before I decided to dig into the forgotten biological Baker branch. Relying on hazy memories of that afternoon so long ago I decided to see what I could find out about him.
The Puzzle Pieces
A marriage license from September 24, 1926 in Lake City, Arkansas was my first hit. Lillie Weatherspoon married W.D. Baker. I had confirmation that the name I recalled was likely correct. It was time to hunt up more. I found the 1930 census for Greene County, Arkansas with William Baker, wife Lillie, and son J.D. living on a farm. Their divorce was recorded Greene County, Arkansas in 1938. The 1940 census finds a divorced William Baker still living in Greene County, Arkansas as a lodger and working as a timber cutter. The last record for Willie Baker is a simple tombstone in the New Friendship Cemetery in Greene County, Arkansas with a death date of 1950. He never remarried and fathered no other children.
I have managed to find a few details about Willie’s family but nothing extensive so far. His parents, James Baker and Viola Morgan, were both from Crockett County, Tennessee and brought their small family to Greene County, Arkansas sometime between 1901 and 1908. Tragedy struck the family and both James and Viola died within months of each other, James in October of 1915, Viola in February of 1916. I haven’t found a cause of death yet but both pneumonia and malaria was prevalent in the area at the time, Viola received several doctor’s visits in the last couple days of her life.
James and Viola left 5 orphaned children when they died. The children were split up and boarded out to various different people. A receipt included in Viola’s estate documents show George Ferguson of Greene County, Arkansas receiving payment for the boarding of Willie; likely the same George Ferguson that is present in the 1930 household of Willie, Lillie, and their son. Willie would have been about 16 when his parents passed away. By the time of the 1920 census he had moved on from the Ferguson farm, I’m currently unsure where he was located at that time although records indicate he probably wasn’t far from the area he spent his entire life in.
In all my research so far I haven’t located much that would reveal the character of that mysterious Great Grandfather that never was. I can only wonder if the tragedies that befell his early life with the death of his parents and the subsequent experience of being an orphan in rough region led him to become the person my Great Grandmother described. I haven’t located any indication that Willie Baker ever had any legal troubles during his life. There was no indication he ever harassed my Great Grandmother after she left him so perhaps Willie recovered from his drinking problem after the loss of his family. He appears to have lived an uneventful life.