Great-grandmother’s candlestick, my most treasured possession

My great-grandmother lived during a time of great injustice. Slavery was practiced in the South; child labor was rampant in Northern factories. As the daughter of slave owners, she was too young at the time of the Civil War to comprehend all the issues. But she knew that men and women were not possessions. She lived through one of the greatest upheavals in American society. This is her story.

Mary Ethel Wynne Helvenston tintype photo. #Mary Ethel Wynne #Mary Ethel Wynne Helvenston

My great-grandmother, Mary Ethel Wynne Helvenston.

In 1864, My great-grandmother fled her home with her parents and slaves. Their homes were in flames behind them. Union General W.T. Sherman had begun his March to the Sea. Everything was set afire, all the animals killed. The slaves’ homes were blazing and all the crops, livestock, and food sources for free and slave alike were destroyed. The squeals of dying pigs as they were slaughtered would haunt everyone’s memories.They made it to the railway in Atlanta and jumped on a flatcar before the railroad was destroyed by Union troops. Mary Ethel Wynne had managed to grab only one thing: her candlestick. Huddled with her mother and her beloved best friend June, a slave, they headed for safety, eventually making it to the northern panhandle of Florida.

Everyone claimed to have reasons for their atrocious behavior. General Sherman burned about forty percent of Atlanta to be sure that once the Union army had left town, the Southern rebels would not be able to recover. In the heat of battle he had evidently forgotten that freed slaves need food and shelter, too.

My great-grandmother never believed that the Union army had an ounce of good in any of them. And with Lincoln she was even more furious. She felt that he had done right in freeing the slaves, but not in making their lives miserable. And her memory of his inability to keep his promises could start her on a crying jag. “What did he think he was doing?” my grandmother recalled her saying over and over. “Didn’t he have any idea what those poor people were going to do if he destroyed everything they needed to live?”

General W.T. Sherman's men destroy the railroad in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1864. #Civil War #Georgia #Military action #railroads #Georgia

General W.T. Sherman’s men destroy the railroad in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1864.
Courtesy totallyfreeimages.com

And then she would get even madder. “Where did their forty acres and a mule go? Didn’t he care about anybody?” She never forgave President Lincoln, not in her 90-plus years. She never factored in that the poor man didn’t live long enough to oversee the carrying out of his great plan.
In Florida, Mary Ethel fell in love with another Civil War refugee, George Nowlan Helvenston, a descendant of the original Georgia colony’s Helfenstein family. They married, and she even managed to earn a bachelor’s degree from the University of Florida. But it was not home, and they set out to find a place that was. They ended up in East Texas, where they bought land and built a small home. The candlestick that had lit her passage on the flatcar was placed on the mantel as a reminder that times had been harder.

George Nowlan Helvenston, portrait in tintype. #tintypes #Helvenston #George Nowlan Helvenston

George Nowlan Helvenston, 1860s tintype. This is an unretouched scan of the original tintype.

One morning a ragged wagon pulled by a staggering mule made its way to the little wooden house. It took only a split second for Mary Ethel to recognize June and her husband, Andrew. The two women flew to one another, hugging and crying. The men rearranged the furniture in the little house as the women talked and wept until they all fell asleep, exhausted.
June had been through pure hell. Floridians were sick and tired of this influx of refugees from other states. There had been lynchings, and June and her family lived in fear. At last they had bought a wagon and two mules and set out to find Mary Ethel and George. One of the mules had died on the way, and the other barely recovered from exhaustion after it reached East Texas. George and Andrew divvied up the property and started farming.
But that place wasn’t home either. George finally found a beautiful little town by a creek further east, and soon he and Mary Ethel were packing up the candlestick and their other belongings and heading for their last home: a large, two-story wooden house in a small town in the East Texas woods. There they had fourteen children, burying some of them in infancy. My beloved grandmother was the baby of their family.
Life was full for my great-grandmother, between her children and substituting for the small town’s doctor when he was away. Poetry and writing were her pastimes, and she passed a love of literature on to her children. In her spare time she wrote a novel, hiding the manuscript every time she finished working on it.

George also flourished, becoming a judge and buying a funeral parlor. They had love and respect, but they also had memories of terrible times. The little candlestick and the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer were always beside Mary Ethel’s bedside – memories of the past and prayers of hope for the future.

Frederick Helveston at his office desk. #Helvenston family #Frederick Helveston

Great-uncle Frederick Helveston at his office desk.
Farmer family collection.

In 1936, she heard rumors of a new book that was coming out. Being a voracious reader, she was interested in anything new in print. But this book was different from all the others: it was Gone With the Wind.
Great Uncle Fred, one of her sons who had become a deputy sheriff, hopped into his car and drove to Dallas to get her a copy. It was late at night when he came home, but she was up. Waiting. Ready to detest the depiction of what she had lived through. Fred found her in the chair the next morning, the book in her lap, finished. “She got the bad part right,” she said. There were tears in her eyes.
Down through the years, she and June got together any time they could. Their descendants became friends, and the later generations visited back and forth until everyone had moved away. When my parents went back home, my mother always looked up June’s granddaughter and they met for the afternoon. But one day everyone’s wires got crossed, and someone – we’ll never know who – went to the wrong restaurant. My mother panicked, but we were scheduled to leave that afternoon and despite her frantic phone calls, no one could straighten it out in time.
We came home saddened, and I remember my mother looking at that candle holder, now on the end table in her living room. She just shook her head with tears in her eyes. We never did know what had gone wrong. It was the first break in the family since the Georgia house had gone up in flames.

It’s been over 150 years now since Sherman burned Atlanta, and the candlestick has been passed down to me. It is a testament to how badly awry the best hopes and plans of man can go. I have learned that the best of men can be cut down by vengeful fools, and that their trusted successors can just toss aside their obligations. No one got forty acres. I doubt many got mules. Special Field Order Number 15 that had promised property to freedmen was overturned by President Andrew Johnson in 1865.

Today my great-grandmother’s candle holder is my most treasured possession. In its old age it is too fragile to survive much handling, so it resides in the cedar chest and I dare not disturb it to photograph it. That small mass of thin, base metal has a round base, a small cylinder to hold the candle, and a ring for the forefinger to fit through. It’s the most basic thing you’ve ever seen, yet it reminds me that every moment is precious. It tells me of a time when men tried – and failed – to right a great wrong.

The day that the last slave is freed, that mankind stops using others in a quest for wealth, leisure or convenience – that day I will remove its carefully wrapped, fragile remains for the last time and proudly put in a brand new candle. It will carry a flame once again. It will have been without light for over 150 years.


This is a true story, the story of my family. There has been much revisionist history and several inaccurate best-selling novels lately, and I felt this was important to tell. But we were just one family, and doubtless others would find my family’s story very different from theirs. As I cannot find June and Andrew’s descendants, I have changed their names. But they too are family. May we all meet again someday.

Text copyright ©Jill Teresa Farmer

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