Friday, February 17, 2017

Louis Ernest LaMont -- 1892-1957

Chapter Seven — Louis Ernest “Lep” LaMont

Louis Ernest LaMont was born at his grandparents’ home in Montgomery, Alabama, on Feb. 17, 1892.

An only child, his mother was 37 when he was born. His mother’s family had deep roots in the South and his father was a relative newcomer from the North.

Montgomery was the capitol of the state, a major river shipping point for  crops from the Black Belt region and at the time proud to have been “The First Capitol of the Confederacy.” 

The South in this era was caught between memories of the Civil War, which most of the adults in the family had lived through, and the worst of Jim Crow years that followed. The 1890s were relatively prosperous, and peaceful. 

Ernest was christened in the Methodist Church where his grandfather was a lay leader. He wore a long white dress made by his mother from a
pattern she found in a popular magazine.

Their lifestyle was “old fashioned” even a bit Victorian.  Men worked in trades in town. Entertainment centered around socials and theatrical and musical performances, often at church or in the home.

The men in Ernest’s extended family were printers and union supporters. Ernest’s grandfather had been a foreman at the Montgomery Advertiser since before the Civil War, and his uncles had worked there or at the Paragon Press, a local printing company. His  parents, Roswell DeEstra LaMont and Mary “Mollie” Barry LaMont, had met when Ernest’s father (known as R.D.) was working as a printer with his grandfather.

The home Ernest was born in was built before the Civil War. It was a log cabin that had been added to over the years  until it had a shaded porch on the front and planked outside. It looked like a frame house, facing Whitman Street, rather than a cabin.  A garden was planted out front, and they had a milk cow in a shed. The home was located on a hill above downtown Montgomery, what was then the edge of town. It is now called the Cottage Hill historical district.

Ernest’ parents had lived briefly in Birmingham, where his father was working for the Birmingham News, but returned to the Barry home in Montgomery for the birth.

His father Roswell had moved south from Michigan in the 1880s. Ernest’ mother Mollie was a native of Lowndes County southwest of Montgomery, where her grandparents and cousins (named Pruitt) still lived.

Ernest at about six years old

Ernest at the time of high school graduation

Ernest always considered Montgomery his home even though the family moved away briefly. When he was eight years old they lived in Geneva, Alabama  long enough for him to take part in a Sunday School pageant. But Ernest attended public schools in Montgomery and lived in the Barry family home for most of his childhood. 

The Barry family was reasonably prosperous. They lived in town, owned their own house and acquired some symbols of success: a large piano, custom-built furniture, a library of classic books, oil paintings and needlepoint on the wall and a Tiffany lamp in the parlor. They traveled to the Gulf Coast for fishing trips and vacations, and owned some land outside Montgomery at a place called Mountain Creek.

No LaMont relatives lived nearby, having remained up North.

Ernest was raised in town. Social life centered on the family, church and school. He was an only child, born relatively late in his parents’ lives, and was surrounded by Barry family members. His three aunts remained single and at home. He had numerous Barry cousins his age nearby to play with.

Early photos of him show thin hair, a narrow face, a prominent nose, and
stiff formal collar.

His life began in the oil lamp and horse and buggy era, but evolved to include  radio, electricity, telephones and automobiles.

People moved around by walking or riding horse-drawn streetcars. Cotton bales were brought to the market in the heart of town by black men, many the sons of former slaves, in mule-draw wagons.

As a teenager he saw  the first automobiles drive through town,
and watched his first airplane fly overhead. 

At about 18 years old Ernest and a friend built a crystal receiver radio set and were able to listen to radio signals for the first time. The event was written up as news in the local newspaper.

While he was a child his parents and grandparents rebuilt the family home. The original log home sat facing Whitman. They built a new Victorian-style house on the same lot but facing 508 Clayton Street. Builders incorporated the original log building into the back of the new house. The old log house served as the kitchen of the home.

Family photo albums include pictures of what his mother called “the old home place” and the new home built around 1905. (She sold that home in the 1930s. The current owner discovered the old cabin section and stripped away the interior walls that hid the logs in the kitchen to reveal the history of the home.)

Ernest attended an all-male school called Boys High School. The curriculum included Latin and Greek and every student was trained in formal penmanship and studied classic literature.

In a school play he acted the part of a leopard, and was given the nickname “Lep.” His friends called him that for the rest of his life.

Around 1910 Ernest briefly attended college at Auburn University. 

Around that time he and several friends plotted to get rich by going to Central
America, then known as the Banana Republics, to make their fortunes.
He claimed they saved enough money for passage, but spent it all when
they got to New Orleans and never got on the boat. They were forced to come
home and go to work.

Ernest worked at a variety of jobs in Montgomery. He worked at a local
florist shop, loaded gold and silver coins at the Fourth National Bank,
and became an accounting clerk.

When World War One began he was a florist, and then joined the Alabama National Guard. He then worked as a civilian for the Adjutant General of the State of Alabama as disbursing officer for the state’s military department, responsible for delivering supplies and troops being moved to training posts and to ports bound for Europe. He was paid $4 a day.

He then went to work for the state draft board office while waiting to go on active duty in the Army.

Ernest formally enlisted in the Army on July 4, 1917, and was assigned as a PFC in the Quartermaster Corps. But he was not called up for duty until December. While waiting he ran the state’s draft board office, replacing his boss, an Army officer who had been reassigned.

Late in 1917 the Army sent him to train with the Quartermaster Corps at Camp Joseph E. Johnson in Jacksonville, Florida. He was paid $30 a month.

In early 1918 Ernest was on a troop train heading for the port at Newport News, Virginia, to sail on a troop ship to Europe.  The railroad  tracks were blocked by a derailment and his unit was pulled off the train and put to work cleaning up the mess left behind. 

By the time his unit was ready to go new orders caught up with him ordering him home.

The Army was told by state officials — including his old boss — that he was “irreplaceable” at the draft office in Montgomery, and he was released from the Signal Corps and sent back to Montgomery and formally appointed  Adjutant General of the state.

He returned a few days before his birthday in 1918 and took over as executive of the draft board He was in charge of the military draft for the entire state, with the Army rank of Major. 

L.E. LaMont, chief executive of the draft board in WW 1

That summer the Butler Alabama Choctaw Weekly Banner weekly newspaper blasted him in an editorial, “A Call to Americanism!!”and attacked “this Frenchman Monsieur LaMont  ” for sending American boys off to war.
The newspaper did not know his Scottish ancestors had fought in the Revolution, he had enlisted and served in the Army and was a native of Alabama. He found the fiery editorial amusing, and kept a clipping in his papers.

That summer a severe flu epidemic swept the nation, killing thousands, and threatening every city. A photograph of Montgomery’s Fourth of July celebration shows crowds of people wearing protective face masks to avoid spreading infection. He stayed healthy. 

Ernest remained at the Draft Board job until Spring of 1919, closing out the office after the end of the war. His mementoes of the Army were commendations from the state and the Army, a Colt 38 Special revolver which had been his sidearm in the service, and photos from the training camp in Jacksonville.

When the Roaring 20s began he was a 27 year-old bachelor from an “acceptable” local family and knew everybody in what was then a small but prosperous town. He was a 32nd degree Mason and joined the American Legion. One of his classmates became Montgomery mayor. Another became a U.S. Senator. Another a judge. His best friend owned a jewelry store downtown.

He kept several photo albums from that time filled with pictures of social
events, summer camping outings at Mountain Creek and fishing trips with his family to Perdido Bay and Pensacola, Florida.  

He kept a notebook of poetry, some copied from things he liked and some apparently that he wrote. He shared poems with friends, and joined book clubs and began to build a library including Dickens and the complete works of O. Henry.

Ernest was a charter member of Montgomery’s Beauvoir Country Club. Though he never cared much for golf, he enjoyed the social life. He attended, as did his family, the local Methodist church on Court Street that his grandfather Barry had helped establish in the 1800s.

He was arrested once during Prohibition for drinking from a flask at an Auburn Football game. He laughed about it when he told the story later.

A good friend in the 1920s chided him in a letter for a lack of ambition, encouraging him to “do great things.” Ernest always worked in the years following the war, but never seemed ambitious. People who knew him in the 1920s and 1930s remembered him as a man with “perfect manners,” honest, a charming companion and good friend. He was “dapper” in a way that people understood in the 1920s and 1930s.
My mother said that that during the Roaring 20s he “knew everybody” in Montgomery and Atlanta. He was acquainted with people like Zelda Sayre, whose family lived nearby. Zelda later married F. Scott Fitzgerald, a frequent Montgomery visitor during the war. There is a photo in his papers of Zelda, about age 16, along with young adults all in their 20s, at a creek-side swimming party with Ernest’s friends.

Social life in that time and place included a lot of social drinking-- he preferred Four Roses blended whiskey -- and at least two of his close friends died alcoholics. Social events called for cocktails, but drunkenness was considered unfortunate or bad manners.

Photos show him to be neat and precise in appearance and dress, and unmarked by age. He was 5 foot 7 inches tall, and was thin his entire life. Photographs of him from that era resemble photos of the dancer Fred Astaire.
Letters to his mother indicate he enjoyed being single, traveling and working at different places throughout the South. 

By 1927 he lived in Charlotte, N.C., and worked for an insurance company traveling the South. He wrote his mother regularly and visited Montgomery in a brand new 1927 Chevrolet Coupe which he bought for $540.

He left Charlotte when his father had a heart attack in Miami. When his father died that Spring, Ernest corresponded the details of the burial and the small estate to his mother and then visited her by train before returning to Charlotte. He liked the climate and surroundings in the Miami area. He never forgot that lure of South Florida.

Around 1930 he moved to Atlanta, Georgia, to live and work. Three of his best friends from a Montgomery family lived there -- Richard, Ed and Sanders Hickey.  Ernest had been particularly close to Sanders, who died young, and he eventually named his son for him. He became good friends with Richard during the early 1930s, the last years of prohibition. (Richard later became my godfather.)

Ernest shared an apartment during Prohibition with Richard, who was an attorney, in the Cox-Carlton Hotel , near the corner of Ponce DeLeon and Peachtree streets. Friends stored kegs of illegal whiskey in their big cedar closet in their apartment, a service they were willing to render for a small “evaporation tax.”

Ernest traveled the South for insurance companies, auditing claims and payments from firms, including the coal industry.  A pattern of work was established that was followed for 25 years: traveling constantly by automobile throughout the South; staying in business-oriented hotels, and always keeping his roots in Montgomery. (When I was a child I thought my father knew every hotel manager and desk clerk in five states.)

Ernest was 40 and living a happy bachelor life in booming Atlanta when he met Dorothy Strickland, a 20-year-old nurse from North Georgia. They met through a mutual friend who had a detective agency and whose girl friend ran
the women’s boarding house where Dorothy and her sister Elizabeth lived, not
far off Peachtree Street. 

Dorothy described Ernest, whom she always called “Lep,” as “charming and good looking” an  said he had almost courtly good manners.

They went back to the Barry home on Clayton in Montgomery for the wedding on April 8, 1933, the height of the Great Depression. Times were difficult all over the country but they survived reasonably well. Dorothy always had work at local hospitals.
Ernest changed jobs several times in the 1930s, but was able to work despite the Depression. He continued to travel.

They moved several times. They rented an apartment on Peachtree Street,
and then moved to a rented house in Decatur in the late 1930s.

Money was an issue for Dorothy, but the lack of it never seemed to bother Ernest. He once wrote a letter to his mother that he would come to visit here when he could raise enough money for a $5 train ticket.

During the late 30s they dealt with big changes in their new lives together. 
In February 1937 their first child, Mary Elizabeth LaMont, was born in Atlanta. 

In Atlanta, 1937, the birth of his first child

Then Dorothy’s much-admired older brother was killed while training pilots at the Atlanta Air Field south of town. Her father had an severe heart attack after hearing the news, and ended up living with them during his recovery. He died within a year.

Shortly after that Ernest’s mother Mollie, in her 80s, sold her Montgomery home and moved in briefly with Ernest and Dorothy in Atlanta. She died in their home.

That year Ernest bought a Plymouth Coupe for business and family. That car stayed in the family through the war years and beyond and he called it “Old Betsy.”

In November 1940 I was born while the family was living in a small house just off the golf course near East Lake Country Club on the outskirts of Atlanta.

As World War Two began to reshape the country Ernest and Dorothy moved the family to Mobile, Alabama in 1942. He continued to work and travel for Bituminous Casualty Company, but in a different territory. Dorothy took a job working as a nurse in the county welfare clinic.

The family lived in an area known as Spring Hill in a development built to handle the crowds of war workers that flooded the town. The rented house was small, wood-framed, in a hilly area covered by pine trees. Most neighbors were young couples who had come to town to work for war industries. Single men lived in dormitories near war plants, or rented rooms in crowded homes downtown. Mobile at that time was one of the fastest growing towns in the country. 

The housing area the family lived in provided outdoor movies on summer
nights, sitting on blankets under the pine trees swatting mosquitoes.

Entertainment included going down to the shipyards for the launching of
Liberty Ships. Mardi Gras, a weeks-long festival more family oriented
than in neighboring New Orleans, was a major annual entertainment.

In 1944 the family moved closer into town, to a downstairs duplex  carved from a large home on the main street of town. They lived at 1214 Government street, the east-west thoroughfare which also served as U.S. Highway 90. The big pale yellow house had a large front porch, giant oak trees, azaleas in the front yard and pecan trees and collapsed servant quarters in the back. Rent was $40 a month.

Ernest traveled constantly, and was seldom at home. Money seemed to be an constant issue between husband and wife.

One day in 1948 my father came by my elementary school to tell me that he and mother were getting   divorce and he would not be living with us anymore. He was full of reassurances, but was clearly unhappy. The marriage was over, and a new lonesome chapter in my father’s life began.

 Neither Ernest or Dorothy ever explained exactly what happened, if they understood it. The legal reasons for the divorce were “irreconcilable differences.” She acknowledged later that she had expectations he could not meet. He never talked about it.

He also never changed his lifestyle much. He still was traveling, living in hotels and eating in restaurants. He was caring, kind and loving, but we did not expect him to show up for scout outings, formal dances at school, swimming lessons or baseball games. We got encouraging letters and brief visits instead.

In 1948 Ernest moved his few personal belongings, including an Army trunk
filled with family papers and photo albums, to the basement of his cousin John Barry’s house on Cherry Street in Montgomery 200 miles away. That remained his base for travel and work for the next few years.

He visited Mobile frequently and wrote letters constantly, making sure my sister and I knew of his attention and affection. He and Dorothy were cordial but distant. Both insisted that my sister and I respect and obey the other parent. He never spoke an ill word about my mother.

The next few years were difficult for him, because of declining health and finances, but he always worked hard to remain in close touch with my sister and me. 

He wrote at least one letter every week to both of us children for almost a decade. He would often tell funny stories or relate small events from his life. He reported on a trip to the race track, where he lost on a two dollar bet, and he wrote us about fishing in the Florida Keys. He made up bedtime stories for us, in which we played starring roles, all typed meticulously onto hotel stationary on his Royal portable he used for business. He planned trips we could make together to interesting places. He monitored our progress in school. Sometimes he wrote lonely letters asking us to write more often, wanting to know what were we doing and why we didn’t let him know what was going on. Once in a while his frustration would show and he would threaten, gently, to withhold our $1 allowance until he heard from us.
(We were both poor letter writers.)

During the first few years after the divorce Ernest would travel often to Mobile
and stay at the Battle House Hotel, and we children would visit or stay with him there. He insisted on being filled in on details of my sister’s increasingly active social life, and approved of most of her boyfriends and all of her school activities. Once when he did not approve of a boyfriend he wrote her a long thoughtful letter acknowledging her right to choose her friends but firmly stating his reasons for concern.

He taught Mary how to drive, and showed me how to to shoot his Army
pistol. He bought me a shotgun for hunting and taught me how to use it
safely. He rented a small boat so we could go fishing.

In the summers my sister and I took turns spending several weeks with
him while he worked, and we got to see a lot of the South from his un-air-
conditioned car. We would travel with him, piling up in the back seat of the car with comic books and a candy bar. We waited in the car outside the offices of coal mines near Birmingham, and plants in Tennessee and Georgia, while he did audits inside.

We would ride down the highways with the windows wide open, summer heat blasting through, loudly singing songs he had known from his youth. When we would approach a town he would suggest we quiet down a bit so we would not shock the local residents.

My father made travel fun. We got to see Rock City, Ruby Falls, Civil War battlefields, Silver Springs, Seminole villages and large public swimming pools all over the South. He showed us a Confederate flag his aunts had sewn for
the burial casket for Jefferson Davis in a museum. If there was a beach nearby, we would detour for a quick visit.

He introduced us to his friends along the way, people he had known from decades of travel, or family friends from Montgomery and Atlanta.

He was lonely outside the summers, and his health grew steadily worse. Even in the South the wet cold winters were brutal on his arthritis. Doctors kept trying different treatments and medicines that did not ease the increasing pain. One doctor told my father the source of his pain was his teeth, and so he had all of his teeth pulled. He got no relief. He tried numerous strong medications, some of which made him ill.

In 1952 he announced to us in a letter that his “prayers had been answered”
and he had been able to find a job in Miami, Florida, where it was warm, he
had friends and little travel would be required.

My father with me 1952 at Miami Beach

His health had not been good for a decade. He smoked Camel cigarettes constantly, and the years of constant travel were wearing on him. He was in pain much of the time. He had rheumatoid arthritis, was underweight and he was almost completely bald.

But he wrote hopeful cheerful letters about finding an apartment in Coral Gables that was near his work, close to fun things to do when we visited and not too expensive. The Florida job provided a regular salary, with a company car and benefits.  The winters were mild, he had good friends who lived nearby, and he had a place to call home after living out of hotels for years.

During the years he lived in South Florida my sister and I spent summers with him and would see him on some holidays during the school year. He could not see us often because of the distance and expense. But he kept up the steady stream of letters reporting on his life and asking about ours. Long distance telephone phone calls were used only in emergencies in the early 1950s, and travel by airplane was a luxury affordable to few.

During Christmas breaks my father would drive 800 miles to see us, or we would take an overnight train trip to Miami via Jacksonville for a quick visit.

Letters were our primary connection, and my father was faithful and consistent. Every week brought a personal letter, often detailed. Every accomplishment or concern brought a quick response, by mail. My sister and I were not good letter writers despite encouragement from our mother, but our father never stopped writing to us no matter where he was. I have more than 200 letters from those years.

Summers together in Florida were fun for us and for him. The beaches were not far away. We explored the Everglades and the Florida Keys, places my father had been with his father in the 1920s, and much of the rest of Florida. He knew how to catch fish.

He took us to the Methodist Church near the University of Miami on
Sundays. He read a Bible chapter aloud to us every night at bedtime, and marked each chapter off with a Number Two yellow pencil. He had read through the entire book several times, and the marks were adding up.

He took us to every big tourist attraction in the state: Silver Springs, Monkey Jungle, Gatorland and his favorite, Ross Allen’s Reptile Institute where we watched “explorers” milk rattlesnakes for venom. Every Fourth of July we vacationed at inexpensive motels on the north end of Miami Beach, where the rooms were affordable, and we spent the long weekend in beach-front bliss. 

My sister and I were able to help my father with household tasks during the summers, but his health continued to fail.

In the Spring of 1955, while we were back in school in Mobile, my father wrote asking for help. His health was getting worse, and he could barely work part-time. His arthritis was crippling him to the point it was very painful to dress or shave or bathe.

My sister, Mary, a senior in high school, decided that she should attend college at the University of Miami and help our father manage. 

I spent that summer in Florida with my father, and then my sister arrived and enrolled as a college freshman at the beginning of Fall semester.
By the time Mary moved to Florida to help, our father’s health was so poor he was no longer able to work much. He had little or no savings. She became his caregiver and a full time student.

I joined them in Florida in January of 1956, transferring to Coral Gables
High School for the second semester that year. The three of us got along

Late that Spring my father decided he wanted to move back to Montgomery. 
He was 64 years old, unemployed, emaciated, crippled to the point he could no longer type or put a shirt on by himself. He needed medical care and felt he could get it easier at the Veterans’ Administration Hospital in Montgomery. 

He was stooped, frail, and tired. He looked 20 years older than he was.
He told us frankly that he wanted to go back to Montgomery “to die at home.”

His ex-wife who had divorced him almost a decade earlier and had since remarried, then offered to do whatever was necessary to help.

My sister Mary gave up college and started looking for work in Montgomery.

Our father -- we always called him Daddy -- accepted what he could not change and looked forward to getting back to his home town.

Mother drove to Coral Gables and picked us all up in May, and drove us the 900 miles to Montgomery. My father and sister moved into an apartment a few blocks from where he had been born. She went to work.

My father’s health never improved. Every two or three months his doctor would put him into the Veteran’s hospital. The staff would build up his strength and send him home.

By December 1956 he had been in the hospital multiple times, but was unable to regain his health. It was painful to walk. He was sick most of the time,
and his weight dropped to 100 pounds, sometimes less. He would gain a
few pounds in the hospital, then lose it immediately when he came home. 

He was no longer able to drive. Lost his appetite. He stayed inside the apartment most of the time, and was unable physically to reconnect with the friends from his youth.

My sister had a job, kept house, and did what she could to make him

He went into the hospital for the last time on Christmas Eve 1956.

By then his ex-wife had moved close to Montgomery to help the family, and I was newly enrolled in a military school not far away. We spent a
cold wet holiday in an old house rented at Mount Miegs, not far from the VA 

January was spent waiting. I visited every weekend. He did not
get better.

In late January 1957 he wrote a list of items he needed on the back of an
envelope, and reminded himself of questions to ask my sister: “When I
am going to get out of here?” was at the top of the list.

He died during the early morning hours February 25, one week after his
65th birthday.

The cause of death on the death certificate was listed as “general
debility.” He had developed tuberculosis and his weight was about 
80 pounds.

He didn’t leave a lot of material possessions. Most of the things he owned were contained in one small suitcase-- he called it his “ditty bag.” He also left behind a few items of furniture that remained from the Barry home, and a life insurance policy that eventually helped pay my way through college. 

He was buried at Montgomery’s old Oakwood Cemetery in the Barry-LaMont family plot.  A Methodist minister was assisted by a military honor guard and representatives of the local Masonic Lodge. Pall bearers were Barry relatives and old school friends, included his boyhood friend the mayor. The small crowd was mostly made up of Barry cousins, and a few old friends from the early days in Montgomery.

Within a hundred yards of his grave is a hillside covered with graves of
unknown federal soldiers from the Civil War, some who died in a prison his grandfather had helped guard.  Across the railroad tracks on the
next hill is the popular grave of country music star Hank Williams.
In later years his daughter and ex-wife died and were also buried in the family plot.

Louis Ernest LaMont’s 65-year life included a comfortable childhood in a secure family; a strong sense of home; an exciting era of change;  a good education; a love for books and poetry and music; a strong Christian faith; a sense of optimism; a wide circle of friends; traveling and developing business skills and contacts throughout his native region; marriage and children, and living in a warm and comfortable place he loved. 

There were challenging times as well: World War One and
the Great Depression; the uncertainties of World War Two and the postwar
recession; constant travel; the challenge of having a young family as
an older man; ill health for the last 30 years of his life; divorce;
maintaining his role as a father from great distance and economic

He was an honest man. 
His work was meticulous, even when he was more interested in doing other things. 
He served his country well. 
His entire family -- grandparents, parents, numerous cousins and his children -- loved and respected him and enjoyed his company. 
He did what he felt was his duty, without complaint. 
He was never hesitant to express affection and gratitude and respect to the people around him. 
He had very good manners.
And he spent his last days in home town he loved.


S.M. Geiger said...

I read your tribute to Martin Caidin and it brought back so many memories of my short time living in Cocoa Beach in 1965. I knew Martin and a few of his friends, but their names escape me. They all flew planes and were high rollers. I recall that Martin had a girlfriend by the name of Dee Dee, I think. Your description of Martin was spot-on. Larger than life, but kind of heart, he was one of a kind. Thanks for the memory.

Sue Mayfield Geiger

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