Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Finley Willson Houston

Finley Houston at the Virginia Military Institute, 1918

     He was the oldest son of one of Rockbridge County's most respected citizens. His father was an 1840 graduate of Washington College, and by the early 1870s Finley seemed destined to follow that same path. Fate would intervene, however, and young Finley would have to succeed in life on his own terms.

Finley Houston, 1870s

     Finley Willson Houston was born at Mount Pleasant farm, near Fairfield, on September 10, 1852. He was the second son of George Washington Houston and Annette Louise Willson, and their first child to survive infancy. Like his brother and his sisters, Finley grew up in a loving, but devoutly Presbyterian household. His father was an elder at New Providence Church, and Finley remained a part of its congregation until he was a young adult, when he transferred his membership to Lexington Presbyterian Church.

Finley Houston, about 1880
     Finley was a bright child, and his father doubtless saw in his son the potential of a career in a profession such as law or medicine. George Houston enrolled his son in Dr. Pinkerton's Classical School for Boys as preparation for entry into Washington College in nearby Lexington. But it was not to be. The summer before he was to begin his college courses, Finley was kicked by a horse. His injury was serious, and he was laid up for almost a year. He lost the sight of one eye. Finley never continued his formal education, and began to pursue a career in business instead.

Grace Ann Alexander (Courtesy of Elizabeth H. Robinson)

     By the early 1870s, Finley had taken a romantic interest in Grace Ann Alexander, who lived at nearby "Red House," the beautiful home called "Veranda" by the Alexanders.

Red House

     Born on February 1, 1851, Grace was the oldest child of Dr. John McCluer Alexander and Ann Eliza Gibson. After her father died in 1867, Grace was sent to St. Charles, Missouri, where she lived for a time with her uncle, William Archibald Alexander, a prominent lawyer and mayor of the city. While there, she attended the Lindenwood College for Women.

Grace Ann Alexander (Courtesy of Elizabeth H. Robinson)

     Grace then returned to Virginia, and by the early 1870s was once again living at Red House. In 1875, the same year in which his sister, Lizzie, would marry George Washington Estes Row, Finley asked Grace to marry him. Their wedding took place at Red House on October 26, 1875. The wedding was officiated by Reverend Horatio Davenport Thompson, minister at Timber Ridge Presbyterian Church.

From the Bible of Finley Houston (Courtesy of Elizabeth H. Robinson)
     During the first ten years of their marriage, Finley and Grace would spend time both at Red House and Mount Pleasant. All four of their daughters were born at Red House: Anna Bruce (born in 1877), Annette Willson (born in 1878), Grace Agnes (born in 1880, died in 1881 "after being given the wrong food") and Mary Alexander (born in 1882).

Anna Bruce Houston

Annette Willson Houston

Mary Alexander Houston
     Until 1885, Finley's primary occupation was that of farming. During the 1870s, he and his father worked as authorized agents of the Aultman & Taylor Company, and introduced the steam thresher to Rockbridge County.

Aultman & Taylor envelope, "Geo. W. Houston & Son, Fairfield, Va."

     The year 1882 brought many changes to Finley's life. His father died of pneumonia in February. Finley became deputy sheriff of Rockbridge County, and later would serve as deputy treasurer. Late in the year, he had a dramatic confrontation with the Valley Railroad, which was laying track behind the house at Mount Pleasant. It was during that troubled time that his youngest daughter, Mary, was born.

Major Finley Houston, Virginia Military Institute

     On January 1, 1885, Finley began his long tenure as quartermaster at the Virginia Military Institute. During his years there, he and his family lived on campus in quarters where Crozet Hall is now located. This was the first time the Houstons had a home all to themselves. Because of Grace's frail health, servants were hired to assist the family with the domestic chores.
     While at VMI, Major Houston had responsibility for ordering and keeping inventory for all supplies for the mess hall and barracks. He also saw to the maintenance and renovation of the Institute's buildings. Finley oversaw the construction of Jackson Memorial Hall 1893-1896.
     Finley and Grace never had sons, so Finley taught his daughters the same skills he would have shared with his boys. The girls were taught to handle a team of horses, and Bruce and Mary also learned to ride side-saddle (Annette, being anemic, did not have the strength or endurance for horse riding). Finley taught his daughters how to fish and shoot, and Mary often went hunting with him. In winter, the Houston sisters would skate on the North River (now named the Maury), and in summer they would go boating.
     Jennie Letcher, a daughter of John Letcher--governor of Virginia during the Civil War--ran a private school for girls at her home in Lexington. The Houston girls began their education there. Bruce, Annette and Mary then spent two years at the Ann Smith Academy, where Finley's mother and sisters had once been students. Annette and Mary finished their formal education at Lexington High School, while Bruce would go on to graduate from the State Female Normal School (modern Longwood University) in Farmville in 1900.


     Near Lexington, on the opposite bank of the Maury River, stands Clifton, a house built about 1815 that once belonged to the Alexander family, who were among Grace's ancestors. Soon after he became president of Washington College in 1865, Robert E. Lee persuaded William Preston Johnston to take a teaching position there. Johnston was a son of General Albert Sidney Johnston, who had been killed during the battle of Shiloh. During the war, the younger Johnston served as aide-de-camp to Jefferson Davis, and was captured with him in Irwinville, Georgia. After accepting Lee's offer of a professorship at Washington College, Johnston bought Clifton, where he and his family lived until the mid-1870s. Lee and Johnston used to sit on the porch at Clifton and watch the boat races of the college rowing teams.
     After the Johnstons left Lexington, Clifton changed hands several times. Then, on April 17, 1897, Finley and Grace Houston bought it and its accompanying 17 acres for $2,600. The Houston family moved to Clifton from their quarters at VMI. Clifton would remain in the Houston family for the next 80 years. The photo below shows the Houston sisters at Clifton in the late 1890s.

Mary, Annette and Bruce Houston at Clifton

     Major Finley Houston retired as quartermaster of VMI on January 1, 1902, having served 17 years at his post. He then assumed new and varied roles and would stay active for many years. Chief among his pursuits was farming. He raised award-winning hogs and grew water cress on Colliers and Buffalo creeks.

Finley Houston cress pond, early 1900s

Advertisement for Clifton Stock Farm

Feed bag tag, printed in New Mexico by Finley's son-in-law, Ben Harlow

     When the railroad came to Lexington in the early 1880s, a spur line was built in front of Clifton. In the photograph below, Clifton can be seen at right. House Mountain looms ahead and Lexington lies around the bend of the North River.

     Finley also had business interests in town. He was president of the Gazette Publishing Company, which published The Lexington Gazette. He served on the Tax Revision Board and the County Electoral Board. He was also a deeply committed Mason. He served as Master of the Mountain City Lodge No. 67, was Past High Priest of Royal Arch Chapter No. 44, and was a member of Moomaw Commandery No. 27, Knights Templar. He was also a Shriner. In the two photographs below, Finley poses in his Masonic uniform at Clifton:

     Although Finley and Grace's daughters had been tomboys when younger, by the turn of the century they had become lovely young women, and they attracted the attention of many young men attending Washington & Lee University and VMI. The sisters' names frequently appeared in the society pages of The Lexington Gazette as they attended dances, weddings and a variety of chaperoned events. Most evenings, a steady stream of young men would come calling on the girls at Clifton. The last would be expected to leave by 11 p. m. That was the hour Finley retired. Standing six feet and weighing 200 pounds, he made quite an impression on these lads as they arrived at his home. Upon retiring each night, Finley set his boots outside his bedroom door so that they could be polished by a servant by morning. If the last caller had not taken the hint that it was time to leave, Finley would drop the boots with an emphatic thud, which signaled that the evening had come to an end.
     Each of the Houston sisters married a graduate of Washington & Lee. Their weddings were held at Clifton. Bruce married William Emrys Davis in 1902. Annette married Benjamin Franklin Harlow, Jr., in 1905. And Mary married Americus Frederic White in 1914. The photograph below, taken on September 7, 1905, depicts the wedding day of Annette and Ben, who stand at far right. Mary stands at center, and Annette and William stand at left. Finley and Grace are seated. The newlyweds gaze into the camera; the others look off  to the side.

Wedding day of Annette Houston and Ben Harlow

     Always in delicate health, Grace Houston continued to decline during her years at Clifton. She suffered with rheumatism, among other things, but bore her misfortunes with fortitude and "sweetness of disposition."

Grace Alexander Houston

     Grace died on August 6, 1907. She was 56 years old. Her funeral was held at Clifton and was conducted by Reverend Dr. Charles Manley. She is buried in the Stonewall Jackson Memorial Cemetery in Lexington.

     After Grace's death, Finley and Mary continued to live at Clifton. The Harlows were living in Roswell, New Mexico and the Davises were living in Jellico, Tennessee. As Finley's health declined, Mary assumed responsibility for many things at Clifton, such as preparing the rooms in the outbuildings that would be rented to college students. This would sometimes require doing some painting, which Mary would take care of.
     After Mary and Fred White were married in 1914, they moved to Donora, Pennsylvania, where Fred worked in the management of a steel mill. Finley now lived alone at Clifton with one or two servants.

Finley Houston, 1916

     Life took a dramatic and tragic turn for the worse for the Houstons in 1916. During the birth of her first child, Finley's granddaughter, Mary, suffered complications. Her husband, Fred, kept Finley informed of Mary's condition in a series of handwritten notes mailed from Donora. All that modern medicine could do at the time for Mary proved unavailing, and she died on December 8, 1916. Her body was brought back to Lexington, where she was buried near her mother and sister Grace Agnes.

Finley's letter to his sister, Lizzie, February 1917

     The news of Mary's death had a devastating effect on Finley. He suffered a heart attack, but survived. Two months later, Finley wrote to his sister, Lizzie Row: "I have been so crushed over Mary's sudden & to me entirely unexpected death that I have not been able to talk or write about it...The funeral was one of the largest I ever saw. Mary had so many friends in all parts of the country & the flowers nearly filled the parlor..."
     Immediately upon hearing of her sister's death, Bruce Davis sped to her father's side to comfort him and help him with his correspondence, as he was having problems with his one good eye. Soon thereafter, Annette and her son Houston arrived at Clifton from Roswell, New Mexico. Fred had worried how he would be able to take care of his daughter, whom he named for Mary, and keep up with his responsibilities at the steel mill. Annette offered to take young Mary and raise her as her own. Fred decided he had become too attached to his baby to give her up, and he made do until he remarried in 1921.
     Finley convinced Annette and Ben to sell their interest in the printing business in Roswell and come home to Clifton. Ben took over at the Gazette Publishing Company and published The Lexington Gazette until 1946, and his son assumed control until 1962. In the photograph below, Finley sits with his grandson, Houston. Ben Harlow is at right, with Annette behind him. The woman behind Finley is not identified.

 Lizzie Houston Row traveled from Spotsylvania to Rockbridge to be with her brothers after the death of her niece. Finley, Will and Lizzie posed for this photograph, the only one of all three of them together known to exist:

     By 1925, Finley's heart problems had worsened to the point where he was bedridden most of the time. After visiting Clifton in December that year, Will Houston wrote to Lizzie: "I saw Finley twice last week. He is not in good shape at all. He is going around his room but Hunter [Dr. Oscar Hunter McClung, Finley and Will's cousin] is afraid of a stroke or apoplexy and we are all very anxious for him."
     In March 1926, an unfortunate incident added to Finley's woes, when his two dogs chased rabbits on the farm of a neighbor. Annette gave Will the details in a letter she wrote on the 12th: "Father has been in bed a week, had a right severe heart attack Thursday night of last week and has been in bed ever since. Monday a week ago Neil Wormledorf killed both of our dogs and Father got so worked up over the injustice of it that he has been sick ever since. I haven't said much about Father's being sick because he has so many bad spells and lately he hasn't felt able to do much talking without it being too much for him."
     Finley Willson Houston died at home at 2:15 a. m. on Christmas eve, 1926. His funeral was held at Lexington Presbyterian Church and was conducted by Reverend J. J. Murray, and with full Masonic honors. His death was front page news in The Lexington Gazette. He is buried with his wife and daughters in the Stonewall Jackson Memorial Cemetery.

(Photo by Carl Weaver, Findagrave)

     Two weeks after Finley's death, Annette wrote this to her Aunt Lizzie: "I didn't want him to linger bedridden and helpless because it was such a punishment to him. It really made my heart ache to see how patient he was and had been for a year. Because he loved to go to town & meet his friends in the street to chat...For a man who loved people, who loved to be in the midst of things to have to spend his time between his room & the front porch, reading & feeding his pet squirrels, was very pathetic...He never once complained. Just accepted it."



Strout, Shirley Kreason. "Journey To Virginia." Themis, Winter 1957.


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