I loved the story in Friday’s Enterprise-Recorder about the history of the Prince house in Greenville (Old Prince House to Relocate). In the story, one of the five daughters of William and Claudia Prince resonated with me – Patty Prince Marker; she was a special friend to me.
Patty was the middle daughter, born in 1925 I think. Raised a Southern Baptist, she joined the Episcopal Church late in life. When she moved from Tallahassee to Madison, she joined St. Mary’s which is where I got to know her. She would sit on the Epistle side in the second row and was always turned out; she had an elegant sense of style and color.
I liked Miss Patty a lot and frequently visited her, especially in the last year of her life when she was struggling with her infirmities. We talked about her early years growing up in Greenville and I learned a lot about the old mill town.
Shortly after the turn of the last century, a railroad was constructed from the bays in Taylor County northward to tie into existing rail lines in South Georgia. The primary purpose of the railroad was to haul big logs from old growth timber to sawmills for the lumber used to construct homes and businesses. The unpaved roads and limited trucking then could not support the heavy weight of these massive pine, gum and cypress logs.
The railroad was constructed through Greenville and sawmills were constructed there to fashion lumber, plywood and pallets. Patty’s grandfather established the Union Manufacturing Company coincident with the railroad. In Patty’s own words, “People lived in Madison but they worked in Greenville.” When Patty was an infant, her father changed the name and focus of the mill to Prince Lumber and Manufacturing.
At the start of World War II, Patty was a teenager in high school. The word spread that there was a young black kid playing music on the piano at a juke joint known as the Red Wing Café. The teenagers were curious, so one Friday night, they ventured south into the Jelly Roll section of town to see if the rumors were true. This was the height of segregation and the teens knew better than to venture inside, so they hung around outside to listen … and no doubt danced to this exciting sound.
Inside was young Ray Robinson, maybe 12 years old. His music was unlike anything anyone had heard before. Not long after that, he was enrolled at the school for the blind in St. Augustine and left Greenville. Later as a professional, when his name became confused with a boxer, he dropped his surname and went with his first and middle name, Ray Charles.
Patty and her friends were right; this was an exciting and entirely new sound … and the history of music changed. I suppose the lesson here is that art can bridge racial separation … for all of us.
A year later when Patty graduated from Greenville High, she matriculated to Florida State (then a women’s college) but her education was cut short when her mother contracted cancer and suddenly died. There were still two younger sisters at home to be raised and the job fell to Patty. Taking care of two younger sisters, keeping house and cooking, Patty grew up quickly.
She also worked at her father’s mill doing accounting work. She explained to me how health insurance worked in the late 1940s. “We paid all of our people in cash every Friday. I would take a dime out of each pay envelope and set it aside to give to Dr. King (Larry’s father and the town doctor). When anyone who worked at the Prince Mill got sick, they called Dr. King and he would pack up his black kit and make a house call.” Oh, if healthcare were only so simple today.
Miss Patty lived a long and fruitful life. I was honored to minister to her and when the time came in the spring of 2013, I conducted her funeral. I worked closely with her children and grandchildren to honor her memory. It was a labor of love.
Patty was a treasure and I loved her dearly. At the St. Mary’s Memorial Garden is a plaque honoring her fellowship and service to our congregation. Speaking of St. Mary’s, today is the beginning of Lent which the church will recognize with an Ash Wednesday service at 5:30 p.m. The community is invited.