With special thanks to Reverend Dr. Wilson Felix Haynes, Jr., today’s guest writer
As for today, I
choose to savor each moment
of cold weekend warmth
starting with Dad’s post-
guest writer extraordinaire-
feet propped, sipping tea
Kim Haynes Johnson
I have been an avid book collector, sometimes seller and horse-trader for many years. This is an avocation like panning for gold to find choice book nuggets. The seller and horse-trader part of this enthralling pursuit has supported my habit for decades. This is a “delightful disease” for which there is no known cure. The quest to find books goes beyond the enjoyment of an Easter-egg hunt. You can find the jewels in a lot of different places: thrift stores, estate sales, library sales, flea markets and yard sales, anywhere and everywhere. You never know when you might hit a vein of gold! How this happens is an art. And sometimes you locate a “masterpiece sale.” Such was the case on August 5, 2000 in Palatka, Florida.
Somewhere, Miriam found an ad for an Estate sale in Palatka, FL. for the late Paul and Frances Frank Brown. Paul was a personal friend of President Harry S. Truman. The Browns had developed a nature haven on multiple acres along the St. John’s River. They named this preserve Tanglewylde. Upon the death of Frances Brown Frank in the late 1900s, the estate went to the State of Florida as a Park and Nature reserve.
Frances was at least 30 years younger than Paul. Among our treasures from the Palatka sale comes a personal sympathy letter to Frances from President Harry S. Truman which indicates that Paul died in 1960. Subsequently, Frances married a Boston physician named Stan Frank. They traveled extensively, exploring places of nature interest, enjoying fine restaurants, cooking gourmet meals, book scouting and reading to each other as they traveled.
Incidentally, all the forthcoming information comes from “diaries,” letters, newspaper articles and note cards from speeches. This resource came from the ephemera we purchased in that August sale.
Miriam suggested that we make provision to go early on that Friday for the Saturday sale, a weekend enjoyment occasion. We borrowed a 15-passenger van (we left the seats in the garage) and with all the excitement of a “pickers’-journey” started early on that Friday meandering our way toward Palatka with optimism. Stops on the journey were fun and productive. We checked into the motel mid- afternoon, rambled around, and enjoyed a nice dinner at a restaurant near the river.
The sale was to begin at 9:30 AM with a preview beginning at 8 AM. We arrived at the auction site early. Our auction card was number 1. The front part of the auction house was loaded with unusual furniture, small collectibles of all kinds, items of Truman memorabilia, and as all ads say, much more! The books mentioned in the ads were on the front table and not of very much interest, which was a disappointment – nevertheless, we continued to explore. I was interested in the Truman letters. Oh well, we figured, we could make it an interesting day and always learn something.
We moved toward the junky part of the back of the auction warehouse, where there were disorganized piles of stuff – and my interest accelerated! There were shelves of newspapers, magazines, boxes of random items where the house had been cleaned out – the “bottom of the barrel.” I knew a lot about those box deals from previous auctions: there is gold in “them thar hills.” I spent the last part of the preview time making notes and wondering how they would auction these “untagged lots.”
The most interesting parts of this back room were the boxes of books, many unopened, and the lines of books on the floor, some titles turned up and others in stacks. My disappointment shifted to anticipation. I had no idea about how these lots could be sold. I judged a thousand to fifteen hundred books in varying condition. Probably, the moving of this massive estate did not allow much time to examine old books with any detail. I saw enough to realize that we had real interest.
The auction started promptly at 10:00 with, I guessed, around 100 -125 people in attendance. I would have predicted a larger turnout. Of course, people come and go at auctions. Things moved along swiftly. The Harry Truman letters came up for bid at around noon. The photos went for fair prices. I bought 4 letters at a bargain price and was pleased with the purchase. We purchased a few more items, each different and unique. The prize among these small items was what I learned later was a rare inkwell. I sold it to a collector in California a few hours after listing it on E-Bay at a profitable markup. Horse-trading supports the habit!
At 2:00, the auction moved to the back part with the auctioneer using a hand- held mic. It took an hour to sell the chairs, tables, ”junque”- etc. The iron beds seemed to be the last remaining items of interest. After they sold the beds, the crowd became slimmer and the “leftover dregs” were going cheap. It was soon time for the books and magazines. I bought two boxes of magazines I had previously marked as a possibility of interest. These were Fortune magazines at five bucks a box.
The moment came for the auction of the lines of books. My heart pumped. Miriam stood by with the notes. The auctioneer suggested selling them by the line. Forget the notes. I got the bid on line one. He announced, “How many lines would you like?” Somehow, I had missed the part that you could buy the other lines at the same price. I quickly said, “All 5!” 1500 books and boxes of ephemera. All this for under 250 dollars.
I cannot fathom how Florida book dealers missed this sale. I guess they did not wander into the back room, or perhaps chose another sale. The auction crowd had become too tired to hang in there – and I got the deal of a lifetime! I would later learn that each box was like panning for gold- containing even far more valuable books.
We remained there for 3 additional hours to pack and stuff this cache of books into the van. This also involved some degree of cherry picking. We left several hundred to be picked up by Goodwill. To say the least, we were bone tired at the end of this worthwhile day.
As to the contents of these books, we carefully examined them over the coming days, and discovered a veritable “treasure island” story for a book collector. The ephemera items alone were a research project. Paul Brown saved everything. The political items held historical value: Jefferson Day dinner brochures, letters to and from the White House, including some hidden in boxes with letters from both Bess Truman and Harry. Every year, Paul sent boxes of Florida fruit to Washington dignitaries and received thank you notes from well-known politicians of that day. The photos and newspaper articles are a study in history.
One book in those stacks had a collectible worth more than all we spent at that auction. One book! Almost all of Marjorie K. Rawlings’ books were in the collection, including Jacob’s Ladder and Golden Apples with a nice dust jacket. Florida history and other local history items surfaced as we dug deeper. Old Fortune Magazines held mesmerizing interests in the best of graphic arts and advertisements. One more tidbit: I sold online a book about snakes to a dealer in Canada who replied with joy in finding a copy of the rare title. You never know what jewels emerge in a “used” book hunt.
I could describe a myriad of details about the contents of the finds at this sale. Book collectors may experience a rapid heartbeat at the rest of that story. Serious collectors understand serendipitous situations in the journey of book scouting. I would enjoy telling the entire story of this Palatka experience to arouse joy and envy in the book collector’s world.
However, this story is not about the books or contents of the discoveries. The real treasure is far greater than the auction or value of anything purchased. The real prize is what I have learned about Frances and Stan Frank and their love story. This saga is profoundly poignant and has quotes and experiences that warm the heart. The details of their journey would make anyone want to capture and savor every single moment of life.
I have never met Frances Brown, Paul Brown, or Stan Frank. But I have come to know much about them through the extensive purchase I made of the books and memorabilia at the estate sale in Palatka, Florida.
PAUL BROWN was a widower who evidently married Frances Griffin while he was in his mid-fifties and she in her mid-twenties. Paul was a prominent political figure in Florida and held a wide influence. He became the chairman of the Florida Democratic party and a strong force in the election of Harry S. Truman as President of the United States. Whatever his vocation may have been, he was also quite affluent. He owned a large parcel of land along the St. John’s River, which evolved into a nature reserve called Tanglewylde. After he married Frances, she accompanied him to national functions in Washington and endeared herself to Harry and Bess Truman. The Browns became well-known in Washington circles.
The ephemera materials I procured in the estate sale reveal Paul’s extensive involvement in numerous civic and State organizations. Over 100 membership cards surfaced in the estate materials. Certificates of honor and newspaper articles speak of men with powerful and positive influence. Interestingly, Greyhound bus passes indicated he could catch the bus anytime for easy travel in the forties and fifties. Also, the first credit card ever issued by Standard Oil Co. (in paper) was among the items in the estate collection. Paul also picked his successor as chairman of the Florida Democratic party. An index card speech for nomination of his successor is also present within the collection. The six letters of Truman (all signed) sent to Paul at various times hold interesting historical information. One of the letters has a line to Paul from Truman saying, “it is getting very dark in the war situation.” We know the rest of that story.
Paul sent Florida fruit to many Washington notables each year. The return “thank you” letters reveal the extensive links Paul held in Washington. The Paul Brown story within the collected estate legacy is one of a man behind the scenes in the political world who held impactful influence.
FRANCES GRIFFIN BROWN must have been close to thirty when she married Paul. I am aware from her dairy notes that she came from humble beginnings and was orphaned early. The photographs within the collection picture a very attractive woman. She presented herself well at the various functions: Washington events, local civic events, and Florida nature occasions. She was highly revered for her work in environmental, wildlife, and Garden club activities. Prolific magazines and newspaper articles are annotated and underlined. She loved the world of nature and regarded Tanglewylde as “the garden of Eden.” The world of butterflies, spiders, snakes, and birds was sacred territory. After Paul’s death, she married Dr. Stan Frank of Boston. She met him somewhere in the Washington social network. From reading their notes, I believe that this was a match made in Heaven.
FRANCES AND STAN FRANK traveled widely, enjoyed meals, and bought unique and interesting books, which I now own. These books are annotated with “diary notes.” They often contained the menu of the restaurant where they ate, the place where the book was purchased, and comments about the book. They read to each other as they traveled -even in the place of lodging. These annotations tell a story of deep love and affection. Some of the entries will appear in this post below, with careful attention not to invade their privacy. The locations of their travel range along the Atlantic coast from Massachusetts to Miami.
The matter of physical challenge becomes evident in many entries. Stan was losing his eyesight. This explains why Frances would often read to Stan. The entry of March 30, 1964 provides a clue written in the flyleaf of Fabre’s LIFE OF A SPIDER. The handwriting is beautiful cursive words. It reads:
This “precious find” is sent as a pale breath of the past out of love and death…and hope! As I write to you the long night is at my elbow.
Your responding other self,
(His complete blindness was imminent and his days of life dwindling)
An underlined sentence in the book reads, “Let us dig our heels into the fields of the commonplace” (the world of entomology-insects).
He writes also, “J.H. Fabre’s contribution to the world around us amazes one in a new dimension of observation…” and he quotes Fabre: “what matters in learning is not to be taught but to wake up.” What a word for anyone, especially a preacher.
We can see God in a rose or a daisy -but may miss him in a bee. We are overwhelmed when we gaze at galaxies or the vastness of the ocean. The telescope opens a picture. But so does the microscope. Do we see the amazing touch of our Creator in a spider? Fabre awakens one to the mystery of the Amazing Designer of a spider!
Stan’s message about this “precious book” compelled me to ponder the pages of a book that would not normally interest me. Yet it did. Imagine this being one of the final books he could read for himself. God IS truly everywhere, and Stan saw love and hope in a nature book.
Concerning Fran’s reading to Stan, she writes on the flyleaf of LADDIE by Gene Stratton Porter in her beautiful handwriting: “This book brightened my childhood.” The story line of this book speaks volumes about the power of books to shape one’s life!
She adds on the next blank page: “We finished reading this delightful book Nov. 4, 1967 in Daleville, Alabama (Fort Rucker). We explored the Ozarks on a lovely cool day. We walked, sunbathed and bought some turnip greens. Then we had a scrumptious lunch of rye rolls, mellow-bloom cheese, turnip greens, oranges, etc. (Fran).
These kinds of annotations abound in various books and elegant expressions of their love for each other. They lived in a world of books, good food, and travels and shared ideas with each other in a profound manner. They sought to invest themselves in the best ways to serve their world and community. The diaries in books, notes, cards and letters tells a story or two people who loved deeply and seized every moment as a sacred gift.
The story of Frances Brown is more than can be told in a brief sketch. As I have plundered through the books and articles, I developed a deep admiration especially for Frances. She gave inspiration and motivation to two great men. I am sure she impacted many lives. I would love to know more. But I am grateful for her example and brilliant marginal comments.
I think one of the last books she may have read was entitled Mary Christmas (a real name) by Mary Ellen Chase. Frances writes in the front of the book words that speak so deeply and poignantly about her life—a beautiful epitaph: “I began this book in early April 1990 when planning Tanglewylde’s first Earth Day. I finished it on April 29 on a lovely Sunday morning. How I wish I had read this to Stan. He would have loved it as much as I do.
Mary Christmas is a living, breathing person with such integrity so rare…She loves, suffers, and expresses emotions in such a way that her spirit lives on in those she touched in such a profound and loving way.
There is an affinity between Mary Ellen Chase and me. She –a learned College Prof-. and I an orphan unloved and unwanted. Still-she speaks to me as if she were my mother.
How fortunate I am to care so deeply for land (Mother Earth).
This unwanted and discarded book is a treasure I’ve been privileged to find among our salvaging.
All’ everybody I ever belonged to died. I live alone. But with such fabulous, loving, haunting memories.”
Frances Brown Frank 29 April 90.
Enough said. Frances is a treasure beyond the great Estate sale. I wish I could discover even more about her.