Wineka column: Letters from a stranded WWI soldier

Published 12:00 am Friday, May 18, 2012

SALISBURY — Barbara Harris Richmond and her husband, David, found the letters in an old metal box more than 40 years ago, after they undertook the restoration of the corner house at 229 Maupin Ave.
Mother’s Day recently reminded Barbara of it. The box they had discovered originally contained one pound of Artstyle Chocolates, and it was dedicated by poem to “Mother.”
But over the years the house’s first owner, W.T.R. Jenkins — or maybe his wife or one of their children — had converted it into a repository for letters, tax and utility receipts, notes for loans and the official 1923 Building Code and Builders Directory for the city of Salisbury.
In fact, everything in the box looked to be from 1918 into the 1920s.
But what fascinated Richmond and prompted her to keep the box all these years, through many different homes and moves, were letters and cards sent to Jenkins from a grateful World War I soldier.
They tell a story of kindness, a random act of kindness that the soldier would not forget.
N.H. Giesse, the soldier in this story, somehow was left behind in Salisbury, stranded by the transport train that was taking him and others to an Army base in Newport News, Va.
Jenkins, living then at 200 N. Long St., befriended the surely forlorn and penniless Giesse and gave him train fare in hopes the soldier could return to his base in time and not be considered AWOL.
Before the next train out, Jenkins also took Giesse to his house and refreshed him with a cup of coffee and slice of apple pie.
The men exchanged addresses. Giesse’s Army address and his home address in Newark, N.J., were written on the back of an American Red Cross canteen card still in the box.
Giesse made it back successfully to Camp Alexander, Va. At his return, he dashed off his first letter to Jenkins. Dated Feb. 1, 1919, it was in longhand:
“Dear friends, I arrived at camp 20 minutes after the other boys. Had free passage from Danville to New Port News. I am being transferred to a camp somewhere unknown in Norfolk. I will write to you and send you the little item I owe you, and I thank you very heartily for what you have done for me, being a total stranger to you. … With best wishes to all. N.H. Giesse.”
True to his word, Sgt. Giesse wrote back Feb. 28, 1919 — this time from Company E, Army Supply Base, Norfolk, Va. He typed this letter and enclosed the amount of money he owed to Jenkins, though no mention is made of the amount.
“I have been advanced since you heard from me last. I am top sergeant of this company and sure have my hands full.”
Jenkins would not hear from Giesse again until Nov. 26, 1920. Giesse was out of the Army by then and back home on Holland Street in Newark. He was operating N.H. Giesse Auto Express, and here’s part of that letter, written on company papers:
“I sure do thank you from the bottom of my heart and will always think of you. I have started up the express and general trucking business since I was discharged and sure am doing fine. I have a very nice large truck, everything new and up to date and a very nice business too.
“… You may not remember me anymore. I am the soldier you paid the train fare for when I was stranded in your hometown.”
Giesse expressed a dab of concern that he had not heard from Jenkins and, therefore, may not have received the money order he had sent in 1919.
“I sure do not ever want anyone to think I have or have tried to cheat them after being so good to me as you were.”
New year’s postcard
On Dec. 29, 1922, the Jenkins family received a postcard from Giesse wishing them a prosperous new year.
On Nov. 26, 1923, Giesse sent a three-page letter, acknowledging his appreciative receipt of a card from Jenkins. At times, Giesse wrote, he had a “homesick feeling” for the South and wanted to just drop everything and head down for a month.
“My business is such that I cannot give up or leave it, as I do a great deal of hauling of freight from the railroad stations in Newark to store trade that hasn’t got their own delivery service.
“Business with me is very good. … I have the same truck I had three years ago, and it looks as good as new. I also have a pleasure car, a closed model called a moon sedan, which I bought in December last and you would think the car only came out of the showroom three months ago.
“I take great pride in anything I own and using judgment in regard to keeping down the expense of it.”
Three more things came from Giesse before his correspondence stopped: holiday cards in 1923 and 1924 and a Thanksgiving card, also in 1924.
Barbara Richmond wishes she knew more about the life of N.H. Giesse from there.
Here’s some of what we know about W.T.R. Jenkins, thanks to research done by historian Betty Dan Spencer.
A Gold Hill native, Jenkins lived from 1857 to 1930, when he died from “the shock of a 15-foot fall,” the newspaper said. He is buried in the Gold Hill Methodist Church cemetery.
He had married Margaret Ann Sparnell in 1879, and they had six children: Lillie Mae, Sade, Virginia, R. Theodore, Margie and James William (“Hookie”).
“I remember Mrs. Jenkins, Sadie and Virginia, or ‘Miss Virgie,’ as she was affectionately known,” Spencer says.
W.T.R. stood for William Thomas Rufus. Jenkins and his wife moved to Salisbury from Gold Hill between 1900 and 1907. He had been a merchant in Gold Hill. The 1910 Census in Salisbury listed Spencer as a carpenter.
By the 1920 Census, he had been elevated to a building contractor.
The house at 229 Maupin was built in 1925 for $5,000. Richmond says she and her late husband, David, “bought it for a song” in 1971 because it had fallen into such bad shape and was close to being condemned.
They lived in the house only 10 months before David’s job with Hoechst Celanese took him to Darlington, S.C., and the building of a plant there.
Returning to Salisbury
After many years in South Carolina and an equal amount of time in Spruce Pine and on the coast, the Richmonds returned to Salisbury in 2005, but David died not long after the move.
Richmond notes that W.T.R. Jenkins had a son in World War I — probably “Hookie” — who had been in the air service. During their restoration long ago, the couple also found a leather helmet and goggles that must have belonged to Hookie.
An Englishman and former member of the Royal Air Force, David contributed the items to the Air Force museum in Myrtle Beach (where he was an honorary member).
There’s so much more, of course, to the stories of the Jenkins family and Barbara Harris Richmond.
“Miss Virgie” Jenkins taught shorthand and typing one summer to Spencer and her good friend, Elizabeth “Liddy” Hanford Dole. They had lessons every day.
The senior Fred Stanbacks and the Hanfords never entertained without Miss Virgie’s being there, Spencer says.
“She was always a chaperone at the parties at their cabins, ‘Frog Hollow’ and ‘Fair Forest Lodge,’ ” she adds. “To this day, I make chili sauce for hamburgers and hot dogs the way Miss Virgie taught me to concoct it.”
Richmond, now 82, remains the only woman from Salisbury to have been Miss North Carolina, a crown she captured in 1952.
Now living on Camelot Drive, the former teacher remains as vibrant as ever, swimming three days a week, painting, singing and looking after a spacious home filled with books and history.
Richmond declares that at 5 feet, 2 inches, she was the shortest Miss North Carolina ever chosen.
In June, Richmond will be joining other Miss North Carolinas of the past for a special gathering at the Governor’s Mansion.
She shrugs, as if a World War I soldier’s story is way more interesting.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or mwineka@