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[The Wickham brothers circa 1923]

The Wickham brothers circa 1923: Parker (right), Henry (center) and John

James Parker Wickham (1906-1930)

At age 23, volunteer fireman James Parker Wickham lost his life in the line of duty. He left behind a young wife and two small children, ages 18 months and 3 months.
James Parker Wickham, who went by his middle name, was born on June 30, 1906 in Cutchogue, New York to Cora Prudence Billard and James Wickham. His father, a prosperous farmer and businessman on the North Fork of eastern Long Island, had married his much younger wife in 1904. The wealthy 42-year-old bachelor, named after an uncle murdered by an ax, was not a subtle romantic type and famously wooed his 20-year-old bride by telling her that he needed someone to help spend his money. This sounded pretty good to Cora, but after they got married, she was flabbergasted to discover that he was much too frugal to actually loosen the purse strings. For the next 10 years she pined for an opportunity to spend the money that she had been promised, while he declined even to pay for house maintenance. Years later, she would lament how in the winter when the wind blew it would raise the rugs right up off the floor. James' version of events was not passed down to posterity, but they were hardly estranged and their marriage soon produced three sons, including Parker, their eldest. Then in May 1914, James stepped on a nail and abruptly died of tetanus, the same disease that killed his father, William Wickham, in 1881. Suddenly Cora was a widow at age 30 with the keys to the castle, but also the difficult task of raising three young boys on her own.

Cora, who outlived her husband by 62 years, marked the turn of events by buying herself a fancy new motorcar. Vacations to exotic locales like Cuba, Egypt and Alaska followed, but Cora always saw it as her duty to safeguard the family farm for the next generation. This was a daunting objective, given that her oldest son was only eight. She had been raised as a city girl with virtually no knowledge of farming, so she hired a farm manager to look after the property, but it soon experienced a gradual but inexorable financial decline. As the family finances became more straitened, Cora downshifted from Cadillacs to Buicks, but eventually Parker neared adulthood. It was decided that he would enroll in the Agricultural College at Cornell University so that he could properly run the farm. The two younger brothers, John and Henry, were expected to find other vocations since the farm was big enough to support only one family, so they went to Cornell to study civil and chemical engineering, respectively. (The family connection to Cornell became so deep that Cora was remarried to Professor Robert Pelton Sibley, Assistant Dean at Cornell, in 1934.)

Parker married local gal Margaret "Miki" Lane in October 1927 and had two children, James Parker "Jimmy" Wickham Jr. and Stephen Lane "Stevie" Wickham, but he had to drop out of Cornell in 1928 due to the farm's financial troubles. Parker began tending the livestock and working the fields himself, inspiring his younger brother John with his work ethic, who noted later that "He was the best man to work with that I ever knew. Nothing was too much. He was always taking more than his share of the load - always." On August 3, 1928, Parker also became member #61 of the newly formed volunteer Cutchogue Fire Department, joining its only company, United Fire Company No. 1. His family had a long tradition of public service that included his ancestor and namesake Parker Wickham, a nine-term Supervisor of Southold Town. By the spring of 1930, the future seemed pretty bright for Parker. He had a growing family, was admired for his intrepid spirit, and had saved the family farm from imminent demise. Then, on Saturday, April 5, 1930, a blaring fire siren shrieked through the mid-day air, alerting residents that there was a fire somewhere in the community and help was needed. It was Parker's last call.

Parker was working with his brother John, also a fire department member, in a barn on the farm when the fire alarm sounded shortly before noon. Parker asked John to drive, so he took the wheel, and the pair drove in John's 1927 LaSalle Roadster behind the fire truck towards a brush fire near the Tony Drisko farm (see a 1927 LaSalle Roadster). As the fire truck raced down the Main Road, it approached a stalled car, driven by Parker's farm worker Florentino "Flip" De Jesus, who was also a firefighter responding to the blaze, but had run out of gas. The fire truck pulled into the opposite lane to pass and John followed suit. The fire truck safely returned to the right lane, but an oncoming car in the opposite lane blocked John's path. John swerved and slammed on the brakes, causing the car to skid and flip over on its roof. Parker was thrown from the vehicle and died instantly from a broken neck.

The car careened down the road on its roof for another 100 feet with John pinned inside, shearing away the windshield, radiator and steering wheel. Rescuers heard his voice under the wreckage and rolled the vehicle off him, amazed that he had survived with just a small cut to the head and a torn jacket. His brother, laying motionless in the road, looked fine except for a small bump on his forehead, but efforts to revive him were all in vain. The funeral was one of the biggest that Cutchogue had ever seen (see grave marker). The fire did not amount to much, but Parker did not know that when the alarm sounded.

Parker's widow Miki would remarry to Lewis Breaker, but it was just the beginning of several automotive tragedies that afflicted Parker's family. His son Stevie was struck and killed by a car in 1936 when he was returning home from school on the first day of first grade. The school later established a crossing guard to prevent such tragedies in the future. Parker's other son Jimmy grew into a bright and energetic man who studied agricultural economics at Cornell University, then moved to Montana State University in Bozeman. During the summer of 1958, he was returning home late at night from a bridge tournament in Wyoming, when he lost control of his 1956 Ford and rolled it down a steep slope, crushing in the roof. For many weeks, he lay near death at a hospital in Billings, Montana, while his anguished mother, who had already lost two family members to auto accidents, maintained a bedside vigil. His health slowly improved and he was flown back to Long Island, where it was hoped he would make a full recovery, but that never happened. Head trauma had caused adverse changes to his personality and he was never able to hold a job or get married. He lived the rest of his life in a creekside cottage next to the family farm until his death in 1996.

Although Parker's line went extinct, his youthful dream of saving the family farm did not die with him. His brother John, who never expected to have a career in agriculture, stepped forward to take the place of Parker, the fallen farmer. Together with his wife, Anne Craven Lupton, John repositioned the farm as a fruit retailer, working with pomologists from Cornell to develop a terroir of peaches, apples, nectarines, and grapes specifically bred for the North Fork's microclimate. His most celebrated achievement was the Suffolk Red grape, which spawned Long Island's wine industry. Over the next 60 years, John also expanded the farm's acreage by acquiring the Fleet farm to the east and the Tuthill farm to the south-west.

When Parker died in 1930, no streets or parks were named after him. The young fire department had no established traditions and the country was mired in the Great Depression. More than 80 years later though, he was still the only Cutchogue firefighter to ever fall in the line of duty. His sacrifice seemed more exceptional than ever, and Cutchogue fire officials Peter Zwerlein and Arthur Brewer decided it was wrong that no public recognition was ever given. They worked diligently to better commemorate him, and in November 2012, Parker was honored when Southold Town included him in a group of seven local men whose names were etched into stone pillars arranged in a circle around the 9/11 memorial at Jean W. Cochran Park in Peconic. And on October 8, 2013, Parker's name was added to the wall of the Fallen Firefighters Memorial at the state capital in Albany, New York (see memorial).



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