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A Brief Shofner Family History

 -- contributed by Jim Shofner   jim.shofner79@gmail.com

"But from everlasting to everlasting
the Lord's love is with those who fear him,
and his righteousness with their children's
children; with those who keep his covenant
and remember to obey his precepts."
Psalm 103:17,18

The earliest records of any of my ancestors trace back to William Hunt who was born in England in 1599. He came to America in the 1620's aboard one of the many small ships that brought hundreds of immigrants to Virginia to help settle the area around Jamestown. Land deeds show that he owned several hundred acres of land on the James Rivers and was a neighbor of the Christian family. Other family names of this time period related by marriage, living in this general vicinity, and mentioned in various records are: Walter and Mary Leak, Thomas and Mary Sheppy, Edward and Martha Stratton, Edward and Martha Walton as well as various members of the Christian family.
The branch of the Shofner family from which I am descended can be traced back four generations from my father. Genealogist Louis Koenig of San Antonio, Texas, traced the family to my great, great, great grandfather Jacob who was born about 1760, place unknown. Jacob died about 1824, and his wife Elizabeth died about 1839. Both were living in Wilkinson County, Georgia, at the time of their death. A son, Henry, was born about 1794 in South Carolina, and died May 10, 1859, in Muscogee County, Georgia. His wife, Millie, was born in 1790, and died in Muscogee County, Georgia, on September 7, 1865. Their son, Martin Shofner, was born September 4, 1825, and died April 18, 1908.
Martin's first wife, Amanda Elizabeth Christian, died at the age of twenty, after having two children. Martin then married Willie Jane Glover, Amanda's first cousin, who was the daughter of Martha Malinda Christian and William Glover. Before Willie Jane died at the age of twenty-nine, they had four children, the second of whom was my grandfather, James Martin. Martin married the third time at the age of forty-three, and had two more children.
Martin Shofner was a tall, slender man with a white beard. He dressed nice at all times and wore a belt made of solid gold coins. He carried his favorite "tonic" and was known to pour it over a dish of ice cream. My Aunt Billie remembered that after his third wife died, he fell in love with a young lady named Mary, who was a visitor in town. After writing a poem to her, it fell into the hands of Billie's brother, Jim, who read it with great amusement. When Grandfather Shofner learned of this, he became so angry at Jim, that he tried to smother him with a pillow. The poem, "How loathe I am to leave this place, where Mary shows her shining face," was never forgotten by his grandchildren. When he died of pneumonia in the home of one of his daughters at age eighty-three, he was singing a hymn. In all, Martin had at least eight children and forty grandchildren.
The records of the Christian family are more extensive than those of the Shofner family. As the two families connect several times in genealogical records, it seems appropriate for me to include some of the information about them.
The following is a portion of a letter to my grandfather, the Reverend J. M. Shofner, from Mrs. S. J. Jones of Albany, Georgia, dated January 23, 1917:


The early history of the Christian family in America
is very interesting, and much valuable information
can be found concerning them in the many volumes of
the William and Mary catalog, and other Virginia family
histories. The first members of the Christian family
to come to America settled in Virginia in the
late Seventeenth or early Eighteenth century. They,
along with others from Iceland, Denmark, and Norway,
known as the Norse people, settled in the Isle of
Man towards the close of the Ninth Century. One of
the most tragic incidents in the history of the Isle
of Man was the public execution of Receiver General
William Christian for his leadership of the Roundheads
against the Earl of Derby. Today he is revered as
one of the most patriotic Manxmen who ever lived.
William Christian's sons claimed redress for the foul
murder of their father, and the Privy Council declared
the Act of Indemnity in favor of his heirs, and their
estates were restored to them. Sir Walter Scott's
"Perils of the Weak" is based upon this incident in
the Manx history.


Charles Christian, who died in 1784, is the father of the Christian family that we trace. Charles, and his wife Mary, had eleven children. Their first son, William, married Anna Henry, who was the sister of Patrick Henry. Their third son, George, born in 1762, served in "Rice's Company of Foot" in a "Regiment of Guards" during the Revolutionary War. George married Martha Walton on August 27, 1782. They had nine children. Martha died on February 14, 1811, one year to the day after their last child, Martha Malinda, was born. George then married Sallie Allen on November 12, 1811. They had four children before she died on July 30, 1818. On September 29th of the same year, George married Lucy Patterson Moore. They had six children. George and Martha Christian's fifth son, George Asbury Christian, married Elizabeth Applewhite Jordan. Their daughter, Amanda Elizabeth Christian, was Martin Shofner's first wife.
At Williamsburg, Virginia, Patrick Henry's pew can be seen in the old church. Just outside the front door of the church are some of the graves of members of the Christian family. I mention the record of the Christian family, not only because of their connection to the Shofner family, but also because my Aunt Billie Shofner Bergman, as well as others, used these records when applying for membership in "The National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution."
Jacob, Henry, and Martin Shofner had many other children who formed other branches of the Shofner family. Their descendants are not followed here. No records can be found for Shofners born before Jacob.
The first record of the beliefs of my forefathers was found in an obituary of Nelson Mixon, father of my grandmother Eliza Jane Mixon. A portion of the article is quoted below:


Nelson Mixon was born in Monroe County Alabama, April
24, 1819, and departed this life on November 6, 1893,
at Commerce, Alabama. He professed religion and joined
the church in 1832. . . . He loved the church and
her ordinances and served her faithfully for thirty
years as a steward and class-leader . . . At intervals
he would go out among his neighbors and hold prayer
meetings and exhort sinners to Christ. . . . He
manifested a deep interest in the salvation of his
dear children . . . requested prayer for them, and
would often say, "I believe God will answer my prayers
and save my children." May God grant, in his own
time, the answer to his many prayers in behalf of
his children and family. May they all be saved in
heaven. D. J. Wright, 1893.


Nelson Mixon and his wife, Eliza McCall Mixon, were pioneers who followed "the covered wagon trail" from South Carolina to the "piney woods" of South Alabama. They were leaders in the development of that section of the state, agriculturally, educationally, and spiritually.
My grandfather, James Martin Shofner, son of Martin and Willie Jane Glover Shofner, was born on June 3, 1863, in Rehoboth, Alabama, and died on his birthday in 1926. His mother died when he was five years old. His father was a mechanic (in today's terminology: a wood craftsman), and they were a poor family. When quite a small boy, he assisted his father in the shop, often turned by hand the big wheel that ran the lathe, and helped make chairs, bedsteads, buggies, and wagons. The following is a quote from an article of appreciation of him by Dr. C. A. Rush of Andalusia, Alabama:


James M. Shofner was born of humble, God-fearing
parents in a log cabin on one of the hills of Conecuh
County, Alabama, . . . He learned to read and write
at about the age of seven when he attended two
three-month schools. When about seventeen years
of age in life he was converted and felt the call
to preach, but realized that a call to preach was
a call to get ready to preach. At the age of 20
he began to fit himself for his life work. He got
$40 from his brother, walked 35 miles to Greenville,
Alabama, and purchased a small trunk for his
belongings. He then walked 15 miles to Fort Deposit
to enter boarding school. God raised up friends (to
support him financially) and he was able to get two
years in school. In December 1887 he was admitted
on trial as a traveling preacher in the Alabama Annual
Conference, M. E. Church, South. In his words, "I
went to my circuit afoot. I carried my property in
my little trunk on my shoulder as I walked the circuit,
which was 60 miles long and had 10 churches. It was
a pleasure to me because of the presence of my Lord.
Revival fires began to break out all over the circuit."
He was paid $177.00 for the year of service . . .
As a preacher he was clear, strong and forceful, always
bringing a message of the Christ who saves from sin.


James Martin Shofner married Eliza Jane Mixon on April 24, l888, and their bridal trip consisted of a sixty-five mile trip in a new buggy through pine woods to their boarding house.
Eliza Jane was born on March 12, l861, in Conecuh County near Evergreen, Alabama, and died on May 27, l945, in Lakeland, Florida. She and my grandfather are buried at Ft. Crawford cemetery in Brewton, Alabama. Their children were Eva Inez (married J. M. Murray), Beulah Elizabeth, James Elsbury (Jim), Clyde Mixon, Willie Mae (Billie, who married Ted Bergman), and Frank Nelson, my father.

 

The Dream and The Dreamer

In 1904 after serving in the pastorate for seventeen years, the Shofner family moved to Brewton, Alabama, where my grandfather began to build a school for under-privileged girls. He conceived the idea for the school because, as he writes in a short autobiography:


In Tallassee I met scores of young men and young
women who could neither read nor write. They came
from homes where Fortune has not smiled, where Father
and Mother do not seem to care, where the neglected
young life scarcely dares to hope yet conceals the
deep yearnings of a noble soul. There are those whose
peculiar conditions are as such as to debar them from
appropriating any education. I do not believe that
compulsory education should be necessary, but it seems
that it must be if some children ever get a chance.
In another place he discusses the question of an industrial
school for girls:
But why for girls? For several reasons we give girls
the preference over boys. They are at a greater
disadvantage when it comes to a point of self reliance.
Also, you will find that where there are educated
mothers the children will be educated though the
fathers be illiterate; hence the problem of education
rests largely upon the women. It is also true that
women give a tone to the character that men cannot,
therefore, the need of educated, intelligent, and
spotless womanhood. Bishop Keyes says, "there is
no creature more helpless and imperiled than an
uneducated girl."
Woman is the greatest complement of God to man,
and her presence is his inspiration and elevation.
Her gentle touch and soothing words are his strength,
her sympathy his refuge, and her love his heaven.
She is the central figure of the home. Love is her
light and power, and her ministrations range from
the tiny little scratch on baby's finger to the day
of death and deepest sorrow. This ideal woman we
seek to develop from the homes of the humble and
neglected. I feel like saying over and over, "God
bless our homes!"


"Give the children a chance" would become his plea. For the next twenty years, all of the money that he could raise or borrow went into the building and maintenance of the school which eventually became known as the Downing-Shofner Institute.
The Downing Industrial School for Girls opened its doors on September 24, 1906, with three teachers, and nine pupils. Each pupil was required to work one-half hour a day in the kitchen and dining room and was not allowed to return home during school months except in a time of absolute necessity; all incoming and outgoing mail was read, and no visitors of the opposite sex were allowed except relatives. The atmosphere of the school was essentially religious, and courses in the Bible were taught as well as sewing, needlework, cooking, and dairying in addition to the academic subjects. Within two years the school began to grow rapidly. Tuition and board for one girl for the eight months term totaled $60.
The task of continued operation of the school was not easy. As Reverend Shofner writes further in his autobiography:


I have been many nights tossing from pillow to post
trying to rest when the sweet angel of sleep had ceased
to caress me into slumber. I have lived many a day
when there was no sunshine in my soul, gone many a
path where no flower bloomed, passed through many
experiences with never a song to chase away the gloom.
There have been times when my nerves seemed so many
batteries charged with electricity beyond their capacity
and each seemed a pathway for every lightning flash of
thought, and the storms have grown terrible at times.
Once when La Grippe had such a hold on me, my very
constitution seemed to be undermined, so much so I
strongly contemplated giving up the work entirely.
My experience has been a very varied one. Wild
anxiety, like the internal fires of a volcano, swept
me into various altitudes, so that at times there
were deep depressions of mind, and my nervous tension
would distress me like a nightmare. At other times
the vision would be all glorious and optimism has
made every one a philanthropist.
Sometimes rejoicing, sometimes weeping; now with a
towering faith, and again doubting; sometimes
succeeding and then failing; sometimes encouraged
and at others ready to give up, sometimes victorious,
at others miserably defeated.


Before it closed, the school grew to include three dormitories, an administration building, the president's home, two farm houses, an enrollment of 173 pupils, and a faculty of fourteen.
"The students loved and respected my Dad. One day he happened to appear in the dining room while they were all at dinner. The whole student body rose to salute him and began singing his favorite song, 'The Old Rugged Cross.' He said he had tears in his eyes." Billie Bergman, August, 1994.
A booklet entitled "The Story of a Dream" was written by a benefactor of the school. This, along with much other material about the school and the Reverend Shofner, is available in the archives of Escambia County Historical Society of Brewton, Alabama.

 

The Preachers Kids

My father, Frank Nelson, was born on August 2, 1900, at Tallassee, Alabama. Growing up, Frank was a fun loving, but hard working young man according to his sister, Billie, who is the only one of the family living at the time of this writing. In his own words Frank wrote:


"During the years from 1908 until 1919, I helped my father in any way I could. From childish duties of running errands to operating the small light and water plant owned by the school and the only source of light and water for many years. During the first few years, hand pumps furnished the water for every need, and kerosene lamps were used to study by. Later we had a deep well with a tower tank to furnish water. Finally we installed the big gasoline engine and generator for electric lights. I also assisted the office force in carding and filing of gifts to the school."


This story about my Dad was given to me by my Aunt Billie:


When the Downing-Shofner Industrial School (for
girls) was in its prime, my Dad purchased land
in Hadley, Alabama, and started a boys school
patterned like the girls school. Frank went
over there to help clear the land and acted as
the co-contractor of the first building. It
was a combination dormitory, administration
building, and dining room. Frank worked hard
driving nails, and literally helped to build
it. This was hard work. They needed funds to
keep going so he decided they would put on a
show for the public. There were very few
registered students at that stage, so he had
to include himself in the cast. He was the
comedian. Of course, I was there for it and could
not relax. I wondered how he could be a laborer
all day, and without resting be a comedian in
the show. It was a success.


After he finished high school, my Dad enrolled at Birmingham Southern College in Birmingham, Alabama. His student days there were short lived as, near the end of this first year, he and about twenty other boys were expelled because of a late return to the dormitory one night. Even though it was later determined that this punishment was too harsh, and the head of the school was fired for it, Dad never returned to college.
Nick-names given to each other were carried by the Shofner kids all of their lives. Jim was "Reverend," Billie was "Jug," Elizabeth was "Mutt," Inez was "Sis," and my dad was "Rover."
(Elizabeth later was called, "Libbus," because, as small children, my sister and I could not pronounce "Elizabeth"). Clyde, Frank, and Jim were the source of much "devilment" around the home, teasing the girls, pulling pranks, and generally living up to the label of "preachers kids."
Jim had a rare sense of humor which he kept all of his life. It is demonstrated in the following "Ten Commandments of the Dormitory" which he wrote for the school paper:


 1. Thou shalt not put biscuit nor sausage in the milk
bucket. (Jim got up very early to milk the cows, and
one of the girls had made this error.)
 2. Thou shalt not sumpathize with any "Po thing" whatever.
 3. Thou shalt not say "Hit's er raining" even if hit is.
 4. Thou shalt not use slang, snuff, nor tobacco.
 5. Thou shalt not swipe, falsify, testify, nor tattlefy.
 6. Thou shalt avoid demerits, lectures, and wrath of the matron.
 7. Thou shalt obey the teachers with dignity and pride.
 8. Thou shalt not cheat nor chew gum on examinations.
 9. Thou shalt not leave the lot gate open, for the reason
that Gus, Mike, Mary Jane, Coed, Pete and Monk (calves)
will stray afar and never be found again.
10. Thou shalt not break any of these commandments for verily
I say unto thee that thou shalt repent as the years
draw nigh and the President shall say unto thee, "Pack
thy trunk and go the way of all the world."


My grandfather and grandmother Shofner were devoted to God, and faithful in taking their concerns to Him in prayer. When, as a young girl, Inez became gravely ill with diphtheria, it was only natural that they began to pray for her. When the doctor, whom they had called earlier to come and care for her, left her room and said to them, "She is gone," they rushed to her side, knelt beside her bed, and prayed for her recovery. Kneeling at the sides of her bed, with tears in their eyes, they prayed, and promised God that, if He would give life back to her, they would dedicate Inez to him. Their prayers were heard and answered. Inez recovered and was a faithful servant to God throughout her life.
During her lifetime, Inez became the most educated member of her family. She graduated from Alabama Conference Female College at Tuskegee in 1909 at the age of nineteen. This was possible because the high schools only went through the tenth grade. She also graduated from Huntingdon College in Montgomery in 1936, and later from Columbia University in New York City. She taught home economics at Miller High School in Macon,
Georgia, for 24 years, was a nutrition director at Mercer College, and a nationally known home economics educator.
However, tragedy was not unknown to the Shofner family. In mid-summer of 1915 the six brothers and sisters became five when, after an appendectomy, brother Clyde died at the age of 19. The day Clyde became sick, his father was away for a week of preaching, Inez was in California, and Elizabeth was in Tennessee at college. Clyde was home from college, and had just bought some new clothes for school when he became violently ill. The regular family doctor was out of town, and a substitute was called. Surgery was performed, but Clyde died a few hours later. Clyde was a handsome young man, admired by his family, and poised to follow in his fathers footsteps. His parents were disconsolate over his death and it seems that the family never recovered.

 

Leaving the Nest

Inez went to college first, and Elizabeth decided to follow. In about 1917, while the World War I was in progress, Jim joined the Army. He was the first son, and his mother could hardly bear for him to leave home. He was stationed in Georgia, not too far from their home, so his mother would load up the family in a car, and drive to visit him on week-ends. Just before the war ended he was sent to Germany. Able to play a clarinet, he became a member of the Army band, and was not in danger of combat. After the war ended he remained in Germany for about two years.
In 1924, the Methodist church removed my grandfather from the office of President of the Downing-Shofner School. He was on a fund-raising trip in Chicago when he received word from them that he had been made President Emeritus, and another man had taken his position. He and his family were extremely shocked and upset by this turn of events, and the rejection of all his work.
As a result of this situation, the family was forced to move out of the president's home at the school. They moved to Mobile where my grandfather's health began to deteriorate.
He died in Mobile on his birthday in 1926.

 

The Move to Florida

In 1924 some of the family began to migrate to Florida. Jim moved first and got a job at the Central State bank in Lakeland. Elizabeth and Billie followed soon after. By 1924 Frank had moved to Mobile, taking an automobile he built while still in Brewton.
At that time, some of the roads were little more than two unpaved ruts that followed trails previously traveled by wagon. There were no motels, however "boarding houses" were available to travelers. The major highways were paved, but the back roads could be troublesome. They became muddy after a rain, and crossed rivers by wooden bridge. Many large rivers were crossed by ferry boat which was pulled across by horses harnessed to a cable attached to the boat.
Knowing about the roads, Frank took another route to Florida. He boarded a boat in Mobile, took his automobile aboard, and sailed to Tampa. From there, he drove on to Lakeland, and got a job at the bank with Jim and Elizabeth.
In the meantime, Billie moved to Lakeland to live with the C.W. Palmore family. Later she moved to "Ma Baker's Boarding House" which was located where the "Lime Plaza" building is today. She worked in the office of the "Star Telegram" newspaper, and in 1928, while living at Ma Baker's, met Ted Bergman whom she later married.
My mother, Leila Moragne Harris, was born in Spring Garden, Alabama, on February 15, 1904. She had one sister, Mabelle, and two brothers, Alphonso Baird, Jr., and Herbert Edwin. Leila and Herbert moved to Florida with their parents, Alphonso Baird (called Pop) and Stella Stewart (Mama) in about 1924. Leila got a job at the bank and Herbert attended high school. They lived at 601 South Florida Avenue.
My Mother and Dad met while they were working at the bank and were married May 2, 1927, in a small ceremony in her parents' home at 831 South Pennsylvania Avenue, Lakeland. They spent their wedding night at the new ten-story hotel in Haines City before going on to Vero Beach for the remainder of their honeymoon. Their first home in Lakeland was in a frame apartment building at 201 Ariana Street.
My Dad continued to work at the Central State Bank on Main Street in downtown Lakeland when, in the fall of 1929, about ten months after I was born, the stock market crashed and banks began to close. My dad, Jim, and Elizabeth were working in the bank when it closed. Herbert Hoover was president and The Great Depression was beginning. Jim moved to Tampa to work for Gulf Fertilizer, Elizabeth stayed with her mother who moved to Lakeland when my grandfather Shofner died in 1926. Daddy went to work as a bookkeeper with a citrus packing company.