My father, Philo Castle Dix, was very much a man of his times -- l878-l96l
-- sharing in the idealism, the intellectual ferment, the upward mobility,
and the disillusionments of the period. He was also very much a product
of his upbringing, both in his deep religious convictions and in his rebellion
against the way religion as interpreted and employed by his parents. As
I try to explore my knowledge and memories of my father I am always
led back to his origins, and come at once to that other vigorous, strong-minded
man, who was his father, Alexander Franklin Dix (1831-1921).
Alexander was not really a man of his times, but a fiercely independent,
individualistic Baptist who struck out against mainstream of his generation,
and then was swept by the Civil War and its aftermath into a life at great
disparity with others of his generation.
His wife, my grandmother, was also a strong-minded and very devout
woman, who left her home and family to follow her husband in the way
he had chosen. She was Helen Louise Beach, known as Nellie, born and raised
in the northwestern corner of New York state, as was Alexander. When they
were married, January 2, 1861, at Cheektowaga, just east of Buffalo, they
said farewell to family and went south to live for the rest of their lives.
How did such a move happen to take place?
What sort of newly weds would make such an improbable choice?
The Civil War had not yet begun but secession had, and Alexander and Nellie
made a deliberate decision to leave the North for the South. Both of them
came from families with roots in New England. The Dix family traces its
ancestors to settlers who arrived in Massachusetts Bay in 1630 in the fleet
with Governor Winthrop. After a few years in Watertown, Mass, they joined
the Rev. Thomas Hooker and his colleagues in moving west to the Connecticut
River, to found the new colony of Connecticut. There the Dixes seem to
have lived, in Wethersfield, for some generations, until about 1770.
When the threat of Indian attack on frontier settlements was
reduced by the Peace of Paris in l763, at the end of the French and
Indian War, there was movement of colonists all along the frontier.
The Dixes and a band of others moved north to the Deerfield River,
then up that river to present day Wilmington, Vermont, where the
Deerfield intersects the road from Brattleboro to Bennington. There
they acquired farms and built houses, and undoubtedly a church.
I feel confident that this band of people from Wethersfield were
held together by religious practices. If they were Baptists, as
the Dixes were in the early 19th century, they would have been an
unpopular minority in Wethersfield or any other Congregational town,
limited in many ways in what they could do. In a frontier settlement
they could achieve an independence they had not known in Connecticut.
With the coming of the Revolutionary War, the young men of southern
Vermont formed the Green Mountain Boys under Ethan Allen's, leadership.
Among their exploits were the capture of Fort Ticonderoga in 1775 and the
defeat of Burgoyneís men at the battle of Bennington in 1777. Ozias Dix,
who had been born in Wethersfield in 1750, was a member of the militia
from Wilmington, and like other Revolutionary War soldiers he was paid
for his war service by a land grant in western New York state. The party
of settlers who left Vermont for the west about 1800 included Ozias and
his son Daniel, who had been born in 1796, who was my great-grandfather.
Ozias and his wife Lucy are both buried in the old town cemetery
in Wilmington, Vermont, so he obviously returned to his old home.
The very old pre-Revolutionary house on the hill just east of
Wilmington is still standing and occupied by Dorothy Turner, whose
family bought it from the last Dix owner in the 1920' s.
As for Daniel, he grew up in New York state and became a farmer
in the little town of Wilson, on the shores of Lake Ontario. His
first wife, Dyanthia Butterfield, bore him three daughters and a
son, my grandfather, Alexander Franklin Dix. She died in l833, after
which Daniel remarried and produced five more daughters and two
sons, both of whom died in infancy. Both of the wives are buried in the
cemetery in Olcott, N.Y., as well as the infant boys. But Daniel
himself died and is buried far away, in Gilbert, Iowa, where he was
living when he died in 1892.
Alexander Franklin, born in.183l in Wilson, was named for two of
his motherís Butterfield brothers. On reaching manhood, he trained
to be a teacher by attending the State Normal College in Albany, N.Y.
In 1853-54 he taught the school at Barrytown, N.Y., located on the Hudson
River near Red Hook. Two letters he wrote to his sister Angelina Reynolds
at that time have survived and give a glimpse of what his work was like
as well as of his impressions and reactions to the community in which he
lived. The "Frank" referred to in these
letters is his sister, Frances, who was also attending The Albany
Normal College. It was she who later married her first cousin, Philo
Castle, for whom my father was named.
In l855 Alexander was teaching in Williamsville, just east of Buffalo,
as We know from two letters of that time addressed to Angelina's
husband, James Reynolds. The final letter of that time extant is
also written to his brother-in-law, from the University of Rochester
in 1857. Gloomy in tone, enigmatic in its content, that letter suggests
a young man in considerable inner strife. Though he was a student,
was also unemployed, and could find no job.
Alexander's letters reflect a lively mind and strong opinions,
but give no real explanation for why he should have decided to go
South. They show that he was uncompromising in matters of religious
belief, and proud of it. He was determined to teach well and be
well paid ...only the best...but he was not sure that teaching
should be his career. Yet in 1857 he was 26 years old, and probably
eager to be married, and was without a job. Perhaps he found a
promising job in the South and it was that which set his course.
He was not the only northerner who sympathized with the South
on the subject of states' rights, of course. The Copperheads, mostly
Democrats, were politically and socially of real importance both
before and during the Civil War. Like Alexander, I think, they
regarded the slavery issue as a red herring to divert attention from
the real attacks by Republicans on the rights of the states.
A third thread in leading to his decision must have been his
religious beliefs. He was a Baptist, he was not tolerant nor
broadminded about other religious ideas, and he must have found
the Baptists to be the backbone of the South.
Whatever his motivation, he made a big move in 1859: he went
first to Union Springs, Alabama, where he taught at the Woodlawn
Seminary, and then to nearby Midway, Alabama, Where he continued teaching.
At the end of 1860 he went north again, and on January 2, 1861, was married
to Nellie Beach. The two of them then returned to Alabama for good.
After the war, there was an effort to renew ties between the
family members in north and south. Alexander and his family went to
New York state for a visit, but, so my father reported, they were so
offended by the attitudes of the northerners that they left in dismay.
When Nellie and Alexander reached Midway in early 1861,
Alexander resumed his teaching, but when the war began later in
the spring he volunteered as a private and went off to fight. He
served throughout the war, for a time in Kentucky under General
Bragg, later with the Army of Northern Virginia under Lee. He
was present at the Battle of the Crater, and at Appomattox. He
was reluctant to discuss his soldiering experiences, according to
my father, and the children knew little of what he had done. He
apparently served as a clerk (not many southern soldiers Were so
literate), and if he had promotions, demotions, wounds or anything
special we have no record of it.
He acquired two children during the war. The oldest, Albert
Sidney, was born in 1863, and the second, William Beach,
Was born in March, 1865. From then until 1880, Nellie gave birth
to a child about every two years so that there were finally ten
children in all, of whom my father was the ninth.
Alexander resumed teaching in Midway, and became a preacher also
after he was ordained in 1869 in the Baptist Church. From 1871-1880,
the family lived in Winchester, Tennessee (in the southeast corner of the
state) where Alexander taught at Mary Sharp College. (In the collections
of the Library of Congress is a delightful, large print from the 1870's
showing the front of Mary Sharp College, with bevys of crinolined young
ladies wandering about under tiny parasols.)
From 1880-1883 he taught at Stevenson, Alabama, and then they went back
to Union Springs, where he taught until 1887. That year the family bought
a farm in Pine Grove, Alabama (just outside Midway),
and Alexander gave up teaching, although he continued preaching for
By 1897 Alexander and Nellie had grown and prosperous children
who could and did give them financial support. So they retired to
Montgomery to live. Nellie died of a heart attack in 1909, but
Alexander lived another 12 years, dividing his time among his various
childrenís homes. He died in Decatur in 1921, at the age of ninety,
in the home of Paul and Vernon Dix. Mary Vernon, who was then seven,
recalls him as the "Downstairs Grandpa", more stern and reserved than the
"Upstairs Grandpa" who was her mother's father.
I have a glimmering of memory of Alexander also. He spent a
month or so with us in Louisville a year or so before he died, probably
in the summer of 1919. His appearance has been recalled to me by
photographs, and I still recall my distaste, and even embarrassment
his snowy beard, which was very much out of fashion in post-war
Kentucky. I also remember one incident: the old gentleman bullied
my father into going into a drugstore to buy a bottle of spirits of some
sort (I've always assumed it was whiskey) over my fatherís strenuous
objections. The way my memory runs, We were all setting forth in our
Ford touring car (Model T, of course) for the trip to Camp Daniel
Boone, a distance of less than a hundred miles, but a major excursion
for that era of poor roads, flat tires, and inexperience. The furor
attendant on our departure was heightened by my grandfatherís request
(which was never explained to us), but finally the car stopped outside
a drugstore. I believe at the corner of Third and Broadway,
where our road turned from south to east; my father, looking furious
and embarrassed, slunk inside and came out with a bottle which he
handed to the old man. Apparently., Daddy was most afraid that some
one who knew him would see him in the act. Poor Grandpa, he could not have
had a very happy visit with us, and I never saw him again.