The seven years (one course per semester) I spent in the M.A. program at the University of North Florida can be counted among the best years of my life.
One of the courses I was privileged to take was Local History. We studied a number of ways to compile research on local events or families: manuscripts, Spanish land grants, newspapers, censuses, claims and probate records.
We were also required to do a semester project.
I chose the Winston Stephens family of Welaka, Florida.
The James Bryant family came to Florida from Massachusetts in the 1850’s. He bought a house 18 miles south of Palatka, named it Welaka, and built White Cottage.
As with many families of that period, the Civil War divided their loyalties. James remained true to the Union, but his two older sons, William and Davis, became Confederate soldiers.
His daughter Octavia approved of their choice. But these divisions did not affect the love the family had for each other.
Bryant also agreed to allow his daughter Octavia to marry Winston Stephens, who also joined the Confederate army.
During the course of the war, William and Davis, Octavia, and Winston kept journals and diaries and all corresponded with each other.
Their writings include family matters, general social and economic conditions, the progress of the war outside Florida, as well as their foreseeing the eventual defeat of the Confederacy.
Winston was killed by a sniper’s bullet in 1864. Davis was by his side. He brought home Winston’s equipment and personal effects.
After the war Octavia returned to Welaka from Thomasville where she had lived during the final months of the war. She rebuilt a life for herself and her two children, Rosa and Winston, Jr.
The whole story, contained in these letters and journals, Octavia safely kept and guarded.
Eventually, the Stephens family donated the entire collection to the P.K. Yonge Library of Florida History at the University of Florida.
There I found it and marveled at the papers and photos Octavia had so carefully preserved. Among the pages were such treasures as pressed flowers and old recipes marked, “good.”
In addition to that, I journeyed to Welaka and found the cemetery where Octavia and her family are buried, and also located Winston’s grave in Palatka.
While in Palatka, I also found Stephens’ files in the courthouse. In one of the folders I found a letter from another Winston Stephens, descendant of the original. The letter contained a phone number.
I called. He answered. I explained I was researching his family for a graduate project in history.
He said he was going to be in Jacksonville soon. Would I like to meet?
We met for supper and he brought photos not donated to the library. When I discovered he was going to be in town for a few days, I invited him to attend my local history class and meet my professor, Dr. Daniel Schafer, who was a “big fan of your family.”
Winston agreed, met me at UNF, and in we walked to the classroom, where I introduced him to Dr. Schafer, whose eyes literally beamed.
It was a sublime moment, when I felt like a real, honest-to-goodness scholar.