The Family of Oran and Katie Merritt
29 Nov 1859 – 1 Aug 1944
Born in Pulaski County, Kentucky along the bank of Pitman Creek in the same year oil is discovered in America, Oran was one of 14 children. His parents were George M. Merrick and Martha Ann Bishop. Martha’s parents were Thomas Bishop and Sarah Jane Crow. Oran’s birth name was Martin Owens Merrick. He was by all accounts of those who personally knew him one of the kindest, most generous men who ever lived. He is also the progenitor of one of the Merritt lines in Pensacola.
According to Paul Merritt III who made notes on the subject while talking to Paul Senior, Oran’s son, Oran got taken in by a photography scam when he was a young man. Apparently he bought on credit some photo enlargement equipment that was guaranteed to make him a fortune in the new and upcoming field of picture taking. Oran, however, could never get the equipment to work right since it was defective. When the scammers began to demand their money things got out of hand somehow and Oran fled Kentucky and headed south until he hit the Gulf Coast. Other evidence seems to indicate another reason for Martin’s departure from Kentucky but all of the research into that reason isn’t finished yet.
Martin Merrick on left in Kentucky with another boy who is most probably his brother Benjamin Thomas Merrick.
He found a job at Southern States Lumber Company about 1880 and while employed there was sent to Mary Esther, Florida to assess some timber. By now Oran was going by the name he would use the rest of his life - Oran Martin Merritt. There in Mary Ester Oran met the dark-haired Katie Finney. He was 19 - she was 16. They were married in Baldwin County, Alabama at the home of Dennis and Edna Mashburn on 11 May 1881 and settled into the sawmill town of Muscogee, Florida. By 1885 Oran was working for Southern States Lumber as a teamster driving a pair of oxen to move logs from the forest to the railheads.
Oran suffered from asthma all of his life but was, nevertheless, one of the hardest workers in the county. It was reported he worked seven days a week in the beginning cutting timber and readying it for transport to the mill. You could hear him wheezing all over the hillside as he worked. But the hard work paid off. He and Kate soon had a nicely furnished company house that sat on a hill just above the Perdido River.
By 1900 they had eight children and everything was going well until the 6th of April that year. Just as spring was in full bloom, the children wandered down to the river and the second oldest child, Myrtle Katie, drowned. She was only 16. Myrtle was buried on the hilltop cemetery across the road from the house and just above the river that took her life. I have read several of Myrt’s letters and she wrote with perfect spelling, penmanship and diction. The last letter I read was written only a month before her death and it was to her sister Minnie. She closes by saying that “Papa wants to use the pencil.” That puts the circumstances of Muscogee living into perspective.
As time passed, Oran and Katie took in others less fortunate. A nine year old orphan boy, Eddie Petty, lived with them in 1910, as did old Bill Ostman a seaman from Sweden. Oran and Bill Ostman were good friends from past years and when Bill died Oran had a special seaman’s tombstone cut for Bill and erected a wrought iron fence around his grave. A few years after Bill’s death Oran's mother had moved down from Indiana and was living with them. Things were good again.
Martha Ann Bishop Merrick
Circa 1920 Muscogee, FL
Then one day at the mill Oran was working under one of the elevated rail tracks as a load of timber rolled to a stop. The jostling of the cars as they bumped into each other broke the supporting beams that held the stacked lumber in place and the entire load fell on Oran. It shattered his leg and broke numerous other bones throughout his body. Katie nursed him back to reasonable health over the next few years but then came down with stomach cancer herself in 1922. Within three months she was dead.
Oran never did fully recover from the rail accident or losing his wife. I have spoken to numerous people who knew him and all of them said that he ate aspirin by the handful -- twenty at one time -- to dull the pain. SS Lumber had paid Oran a thousand dollars for his injuries and allowed him to run a small kiosk at their logging sites – moving the kiosk for him as the logging progressed. It benefited SS Lumber and Oran as well as the loggers. Finally, unable to work the kiosk, Oran joined up with Lemuel Applegate and tried making candy for a living. They opened a candy business on the top floor of a brick building down on Government Street in Pensacola. Fuzzy Merritt, his grandson, remembers gathering the trimmings of the candy trays and stuffing his pockets. He always had more candy than he could ever eat and was therefore quite popular with the other kids.
The candy business went on for several years but due to his injuries age crept up on Oran more quickly than on others. He lived his final years with his son, Paul, in a garage fixed up to accommodate him. He smoked his pipe and slowly went blind. Always ready with nickels or commissary chits when he worked at the mill, Oran would fumble in his pockets in his latter years and come up with a coin or a button and tell the kids to use it to go buy themselves a soda pop.
Finally, on 1 August 1944 -- on the same day Anne Frank made the final entry in her famous diary -- Oran died. He was buried on the same hilltop cemetery in Muscogee as his wife, his daughter, and his good friend Bill Ostman.
Catherine (Kate) Florence Finney Merritt
26 Nov 1863 - 21 Sep 1922
If there is such a thing as a guardian angel this woman is mine. First I discovered that she died on my birthday. Later I found her birthday was the same as my wife Jennie's. Still later I discovered that Kate had a daughter named Jennie Merritt – the same as my wife. And both Jennie Merritts have the same birthday as Kate.
Kate was born around or in Walton County, Florida during the time Abraham Lincoln was President. From at least age six she lived with her grandmother, Harriet B. Finney. Harriet’s parents were Solomon Jones and Elizabeth Woodson. Katie attended school in the Euchee Anna Valley area. By 1880 Kate, her grandmother, and her younger sister Hattie lived on Conecuh Street in Milton, Florida. Kate’s, grandmother, an educated woman for her time, (Her brother William B. Jones was a State Representative and a Judge) worked as a laundress to keep the small family together.
Kate and Hattie stayed together until Kate's marriage to Oran Merritt on the 11th of May 1881 at “Aunt” Edna Mashburn's house in Bay Minette, Alabama. Edna’s husband Dennis put up the $200.00 marriage bond.
There is clearly a connection between the Bay Minette Mashburns and the Finneys. Kate’s son, Arthur Merritt, referred to Edna as Aunt Edna. But so did everyone else. Kate Finney and her sister Hattie lived with Aunt Edna just before Kate married. Arthur also said that Kate and Oran had met in Mary Esther, Florida. In 1880 Kate’s Aunt Irena Finney Huson and her son Jasper Finney were also living with Aunt Edna. No one today, however, knows of a family connection.
By 1885 Kate and Oran were settled into Muscogee, Florida and had two daughters. Shortly after Kate married Oran, Hattie married a cooper named Henry Brown and moved to Muscogee also.
By 1900 Kate had given birth to eight children but had lost Myrtle Katie to a drowning accident. Her children were: Minnie Harriet Irene, Myrtle Katie, Arthur Oran, Mable Claire, Paul Benjamin, Virginia “Jennie” Pauline, Fred Bernard, and Charles Brooks.
Left to right are Brooks, Jennie, Mabel, Arthur and Paul.
Katie and Oran were doing well by 1900. They had numerous photos made of their children during a time when a photo was a not so insignificant expense. She also had nice furnishings in her home though the house itself belonged to the sawmill. In the summer Kate wore white and in the winter, black. And she worked hard.
Kate was raised when times were tough and knew, therefore, the value of getting things done by whatever means were at hand. Oran was often away logging when planting time came and, as they had no mule, Kate would hitch Arthur to the plow and till up the garden plot to get the planting done on time. Arthur’s wife was upset when she learned of this years later but it seems not to have harmed Arthur any - he lived to be 92.
Edie Bowman Avant, Kate’s granddaughter, remembers visiting and sitting at the supper table in the Merritt house. Kate presided at the head of the table with Oran next to her and the children and other assorted visitors and guests along the length of the table. “Uncle” Bill Ostman sat at the opposite end.
Bill Ostman is a puzzle. He lived with Kate and Oran from 1901 until his death in 1916. I have never discovered what his connection to the family was. He was a seaman, some say a sea captain, earlier in life. On one trip back to Sweden he brought all of Kate’s girls and granddaughters brooch watches. Edie Bowman Avant still had hers 90 years later.
In 1922 Kate took a trip with Oran and her grandson, Herman Merritt, up to Atmore to visit her daughter Minnie. Sixty years later Herman would write a humorous short story called Two Way Trip about this journey. Before the year was out Kate began experiencing stomach problems. In August she was diagnosed with stomach cancer by Dr. V.R. Nobles in Pensacola. Her daughter, Jennie, cared for her through her illness. Kate stayed in Pensacola with her sister Hattie Brown during the final days. There was no attempt to operate. Kate just grew weaker until she finally died at 11 AM on a September morning. All of the children and grandchildren had gathered and kept a watch throughout the previous night.
Kate’s funeral service was held at graveside. Her daughter, Jennie, was overcome with grief. Jennie cried so hard and hugged her mother’s body for so long that when the coffin lid was finally closed Kate was buried with her daughter’s tears covering her face as though she had been out in the rain. She was buried up on the hill in Muscogee next to “Uncle” Bill and her daughter Myrtle Katie who had been interred there 22 years earlier. Another 22 years would pass before Oran joined them. Jennie died suddenly several years after while changing her newborn daughter’s clothes and was buried in St. Johns Cemetery in Pensacola. Jennie’s baby died six months later.
Jennie Merritt Applegate
Kate’s sister, Hattie Brown, would live on until the evening of 9 December 1931. On that cold, dark night the dogs began barking out back and Henry Brown, then in his seventies, grabbed his 12 gauge automatic shotgun to go out and see what the ruckus was about. As he passed Hattie in the kitchen, the shotgun barrel brushed across her chest and the gun discharged. Her heart blown out, Hattie stumbled across the kitchen and out into the parlor where her son Hoyt stood watching in horror as she sank to the floor and died. Hattie was buried in St. Johns Cemetery.
And so the lives of these two sisters who were orphaned, raised by their grandmother in the pine barrens of the West Florida panhandle and who endured to become mothers and wives and grandmothers came to a close.