Last week, in a column on Marilu Munford, I mentioned her grandfather, Charles Henry Smith, who as “Bill Arp” wrote a weekly column for the Atlanta Constitution from 1878 to 1903.
Bill Arp was extremely popular. In fact, it’s possible that for a few years in the 1880s he was the most widely-read writer in the South. His column was syndicated to hundreds of newspapers, and folks from Texas to Florida to Maryland knew his name.
The people in a small Texas community loved Bill Arp so much that they named their town after him, as did the folks in a Douglas County, Georgia, community. Arp, Texas (zip code 75750), and Bill Arp, Georgia, are still on the maps.
Bill Arp was the most famous columnist from Cartersville, but he was not the only one. To the list we must add Sam Jones, Corra Harris, and Rebecca Felton. From time to time this year, I want to tell readers of this column about Cartersville’s other great columnists of the past. We’ll begin with Rebecca Felton.
In 1899, the publisher of the Atlanta Journal decided to add a new feature to the paper’s rural edition (called the Semi-Weekly Journal): a column by Rebecca Latimer Felton, probably the best-known woman in the state at that time. Her brief stint as a U.S. Senator was still over twenty years away, but she had served as her husband’s campaign manager (William was twice elected to the U.S. Congress) and was a frequent contributor to newspapers and magazines.
Introducing the new columnist to the paper’s readers, the publisher noted that rural Georgians needed “an enlargement of social pleasure and opportunities.” Rebecca Felton, who had lived much of her life on a farm, could “be the means of brightening home life in the country.” The publisher added that the new column, addressed “largely to an audience of farmers’ wives and daughters,” would “do a lot of good.”
Rebecca Felton’s “The Country Home” was an eclectic column. She shared her mother’s recipes, told how to make the home more comfortable, and gave advice on clothing and teaching manners to children. She told readers how to remove mildew, bedbugs, warts, and sick room odors. She warned parents to watch their children carefully; she advised young women on the dangers of dancing; and she urged young men to avoid cigarettes, gambling, swearing, and Coca-Cola. One historian referred to the Felton’s columns as “a cross between a modern-day ‘Dear Abby’ and ‘Hints from Heloise.’” What an interesting paradox: the first woman in the U.S. Senate writing an advice column for farm wives!
But Rebecca Felton was determined to make “The Country Home” into something more. Before too long, she was using the column to discuss religious topics, for example. She criticized Roman Catholicism, Mormonism, and evolution, and she praised the old-time revivalism of Sam Jones and Billy Sunday. She argued for prohibition, convict lease reform, and women’s rights. She wrote on the virtues of crop diversification. She discussed international affairs, often beginning columns with rhetorical questions (“What’s wrong with Russia?” “What’s wrong with Japan?”). She promoted American isolationism, especially against President Woodrow Wilson’s more internationalist foreign policy. She wrote on Confederate reunions, sectional politics, and the South’s racial policies. Looking today at the quarter century of the column’s run, it seems that she wrote on almost everything. As each column was published, Rebecca carefully cut it out and pasted it in a scrapbook.
It’s interesting to note that about half of her “Country Home” columns were written after she left the country home where she and her husband had lived for over half a century (the old Felton homeplace, off Highway 411, which burned two years ago this week). After William died in 1909, she moved from the farm to a house in Cartersville, on the corner of South Avenue and Leake Street, where she carried on one of her last campaigns, against the City’s desire to pave the streets.
Unfortunately, only a few scattered issues of the Semi-Weekly Journal have survived. Anyone who wants to read all of Rebecca Felton’s columns will have to go to the Hargrett Library at the University of Georgia, where the family’s private papers (including Rebecca’s 42 scrapbooks) are located.