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Russ House Ghost Tour

Dim lit rooms and creaky floors were the scene for the Ghost tour of the Russ House this past Saturday. The one hour tours were reserved in advance with 6PM – 9PM seats available. The 7 PM tour began with a historical talk by Tamarah Rasmussen of the Jackson County Tourist Development Council. Tamara gave a lively history of the family who called this beautiful house their home as well as the hardships they encountered.

Following the history, a live paranormal investigation took place upstairs with the Emerald Coast Paranormal Concepts team leading the way. Digital voice recorders, infrared cameras and spirit boxes were strategically placed throughout the room to aid in the communication. The ghost presence in the Russ House has been named "Virgil" by the team and is quite a character with a great sense of humor. He answered some questions and otherwise toyed with the team as they attempted to engage in games and other activities.

On sale at the event were Russ House T-Shirts and Christmas ornaments to support the Save the Russ House project.

The team will review the details of the investigation and post them on their Facebook page and website. For more information visit their website at http://www.emeraldcoastparanormalconcepts.com

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Price Reduced To Keep Russ House Open To The Public

The Russ House, Beauty or Beast?

This week the TIMES visited with the Jackson County Chamber of Commerce President/CEO, Jeff Massey, to find out more about the possible sale of the Russ house. Mr. Massey stated that the house has now been on the market for a year. The Chamber has already been to the Tourist Development Council on one occasion with an offer to sell, but the Board of County Commissioners didn't accept that initial proposal to sell the Russ house to the Tourist Development council for $235,000. The primary motivation to find a solution to sell the Russ house to the Tourist Development Council is to respect the desire to keep the Russ house open to the public because it is a Jackson County historical icon. The Chamber has now decided to lower the price even more, trying to stimulate that interest of keeping it open to the community.

Massey stated that his main objective in his new role as CEO of the Chamber is to increase the level of services that the Chamber is providing its members. "We want to become the voice for business in Jackson County, working to enhance the success of all economic activity in our area," Massey explained. "I am eager to get the issue with the Russ House behind us so we can look more to the future role of the Chamber."

The Chambers Board has approved to take a new sales offer to the Tourist Development Council at their next board meeting. The meeting will be held Wednesday September 18th at 10:00 am. It is hoped that this new offer from the Chamber will result in the Russ house being sold to the Tourist Development Council. The new asking price for the Russ House is $195,000, and five years of free rent.

If the Tourist Development Council Board were to accept this offer, it would then have to be approved by the Board of County Commissioners, because the Tourist Development Councils funds are controlled by the County Commission. Those monies are made available for use through the Board of County Commissioners from the 4% bed tax funds collected by all inns, motels, and campgrounds in the county. If the TDC Board approves the purchase, the proposal would then move to the agenda for the Board of County Commissioners for final approval and release of funds.

Mr. Massey said that when the house was first put on the market it was at a high price. Then the Chamber Board has set the price for private sale at $265,000. The reason they decided to lower the price is because they felt that they had priced themselves out of the range of what people would be interested in. Even though it is less money now, the Chamber is exercising its right to see what will happen with the Tourist Development Council before again approaching a private sale. Their desire is to keep the Russ house in public hands. The Chamber certainly hopes things work out with the Tourist Development Council so that they can become the new owners. If this happens, it would insure that visitors would continue to enjoy access to this beautiful home when they visit our county.

No other offers will be considered while the Tourist Development Council is evaluating this new offer. Even though it is for sale on the public market, the Chamber is offering the Tourist Development Council the first right of refusal. If that doesn't happen they would then seriously consider any other offers.

Unfortunately the Chamber is not funded in a way which will enable it to afford continuing care of the Russ house in the way that the house needs to be kept up. The Chamber gets its revenue through membership dues and donations.

If the Chamber could turn the Russ house ownership over to the Tourist Development Council it would then no longer be the Chambers house. The Chamber might end up being a tenant in the new arrangement, or they might not. The Chamber might physically stay in the house, or move next door into the Brown house next door to the Russ House, or even move off site. The sale to the Tourist Development Council would relieve the Chamber of the burden of maintenance of the Russ House and place that responsibility with an organization that can better afford it.

Stay tuned for further developments!

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The Russ House Story

Joseph Russ built The Russ House in 1892-1895 for him and his mother as his father had died in 1883. Sadly, she only lived two years after the house was completed. In the next 100 years, FIVE generations of the Russ Family would live in the house!

Joseph Russ’s father was a very successful planter and merchant who had come to the area in the 1820’s as the county was being settled. His store, in the center of the block across from the gazebo in Confederate Memorial Park, bears his name on the top of the building today, just as it did in the 1800’s.

Joseph had two sisters and they all three lived with their families on the property nearby. Joseph took over management of the businesses and property at his father’s death.

At this point in time there were many acres of the Russ property adjoining the house location. From Russ Street to Daniel Street and all the way to Kelson Avenue, and some land lay on the south side of Lafayette Street. It was a very large piece of city property.

There were all sorts of out-buildings and houses for those who worked in the home and on the property. Mr. Russ had a taxi service, and Mrs. Lou Alice Clark tells of living on the property during the 1920’s as her husband drove one of the taxis and she helped care for the Russ grandchildren. There were gardens on the property and a gazebo covered with wisteria vines, lots of flowers and trees and wonderful landscaping.

Around 1910 the house was remodeled in the neo classical style we see today. The house was painted pearl gray, with a teal roof, shutters and trim. The house also had a porte cochere (portico) about where the east steps and driveway are now. It had railings around the roof and was used an an extension to the second floor porch. This was not returned when the house was restored in 2000. The front porch was an important part of the house. The porch was furnished just like a room in the house. With no air-conditioning, this was often the coolest place at the house in the summertime.

The house became in great disrepair over the years and appeared that it was unpainted for many years before 1995. During those years, one would have had a difficult time convincing school children and some locals that the house was not haunted. Some who have worked there during the night in recent years might agree that “it could be.”

About 1990, the fifth generation of the family made the Russ House his home as Merritt Dekle, great-grandson of Joseph Russ, came to Marianna. He was living there during the negotiations with the City and State grant people. He and his sister, Maggie Lang, are direct descendants of the Russ family.

Thanks particularly to the efforts of Robert and Kaye Trammell, the State grant was given for the purchase of the house in 1995 and the restoration was completed in 2000. At the same time, there were some Department of Transportation (DOT) funds which could be used to restore contaminated gas station sites, as the east most corner of the property, which had been sold by another owner, was a Junior Food type store with gas pumps which had greatly contaminated the soil in the area over the years. Under the beautiful Russ House Commons is a very complicated decontaminating process which ran constantly from 2000 until May 2011 when it was determined that the process could be discontinued. Approximately $2,000,000 of State funds were spent to get the house and the park as we see it today.
Merritt Dekle best tells the story of the house: “My great grandfather, Joseph Washington Russ, Jr. built the Russ House for his mother, Mary (Beman) Russ. His father Joseph W. Russ, Sr. died in 1883. The Russ Family owned a large parcel of land on Lafayette Street, and the home of several family members were built within this area, forming a compound of sorts.

Mary Beman Russ died in 1897, and in 1899, he married Bettie Erwin Philips. Their only child, Frances Philips Russ, was born to them the following year.

I grew up hearing the stories of the golden years at the Russ House, or, as we called it, “the Big House”. As an only child, my grandmother, Frances Dickerson, whom we called “Big Mama”, had the childhood of a little princess. Marianna was a quiet bucolic town at the turn of the century, and the people there were close-knit and caring; everybody knew everybody, it seemed. The Big House, and the other old homes that lined Lafayette Street at the time, made wonderful playgrounds, and though Marianna was a sleepy town, there were plenty of things to do.

When she was in her late teens, Big Mama had a beau named Mercer Treadwell, and when he asked for her hand in marriage, she was heartbroken when her parents withheld their permission, stating that he was not “good enough for their little princess.” This event held an ironic twist some ten years later. A couple of years later, she married a young Texan named George Dickerson. Dickerson was a professional baseball player for a major team, the Cleveland Americans, and a strikingly handsome man. His career as a ballplayer, however, came to an end when he was drafted for service in WW I. Like many soldiers who served in that war, he was exposed to mustard gas, and the effects of that exposure plagued him throughout his life. They married upon his release from the service, and moved into the Big House with her parents. There were plans to build their own home on the land directly west of the Russ House, but these plans never came to fruition.

The wedding of Frances Phillips Russ and George Dickerson took place in St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, as had most of the marriages in the family before and since. The wedding was held at ten o’clock on a warm July evening to escape the sweltering heat of summer, and the wedding reception was held afterwards on the grounds of the family home. I have heard memories of the reception recalled by the older members of Marianna ever since. The main vision that had lingered in their mind’s eye for all of these years was that of the illuminated Japanese lanterns that were festooned from the branches of the oak trees, creating the illusion of an oriental garden.

My grandparents had two children over the next six years, my mother Bettie Russ Dickerson, and her brother, George Clark Dickerson, Jr. It was at this time, in 1920, that the nursery was added to the house to accommodate the children. All was happy in the Big House during these years and for a time, this new generation of children enjoyed the same idyllic childhood as my grandmother had experienced. But this generation had but a brief glimpse of that glory; events to come brought a dark veil over the following years.

In 1925, Bettie Russ was diagnosed with a malignancy and her husband took her to hospitals in New Orleans, Birmingham and Atlanta in a desperate attempt to save her life. These attempts were all in vain however, and six months later the household faced the unspeakable grief of her death. Big Mama always said that her father never really recovered from the loss of his beloved wife, and his interest in his business and his properties waned in his bereavement.

Four years later, Big Mama’s own grief turned to anger when her father decided to marry the aunt of her old sweetheart, Mercer Treadwell. The Treadwell name that her father deemed unsuitable for her was apparently suitable enough for him, and he married Wilma Treadwell and brought her into the home.

About the same time, the family fortune that had enabled the Russ family to build an impressive home was lost during the financial aftermath of the Crash of 1929; my grandfather’s despondency led him to take his own life.

The impact of her father’s suicide plagued my grandmother for the rest of her life. Such an act is never rational, but I cannot imagine that Joseph Russ could have ever foreseen the impact his act of depression would leave on his cherished daughter. Big Mama and her step-mother were co-executrices of the estate. With no liquid assets to pay off the accumulating debts and taxes they were helpless to fend off the deluge of debtors with which they were faced.

During the late 1920’s, property owners had been required to pay for the paving of the streets that bordered their properties. This expenditure had been daunting enough at the time, but under the current circumstances it was overwhelming. The City of Marianna placed a lien against the property for settlement of the paving costs and eventually foreclosed on the lien. The property, which originally extended from Russ Street to Daniels Street, all the way back to Kelson Avenue was subdivided into separate parcels and sold at auction to satisfy the debt. Only the greatly diminished lot on which the Russ House stood was salvaged. The once vast land holdings of the Russ Family were auctioned of piece by piece on the steps of the Courthouse for the next few years.

At the age of 29, my grandmother found herself an orphan, broke and saddled with the horrific debts from her father’s estate; in addition, she now faced the possibility of being homeless as well. Big Mama managed to take on yet another debt and get a mortgage to buy her half of the home from Miss Willie, a mortgage she spent the next two decades paying off.

The years that followed were difficult ones; her already fragile marriage to Dickerson had unraveled completely in the last few years and as she faced the dilemma of how to support her family. His health had been unpredictable since his years in the service. She knew she could not depend on him for any support in the dilemma she faced, and so at this point they separated, and Dickerson returned to Texas. The divorce was not finalized until 1937 however, just three months before his death from tuberculosis as a result of his exposure to the toxic gas.
My grandmother had to find a way to support herself and her children, but she had never worked and in taking inventory of what she had to offer, she found only one thing: she still had a beautiful home and many beautiful things (or at least one-half of them). She decided she would act as a professional hostess of sorts, providing her home and serving ware for private and public occasions. Unfortunately, it soon became clear that this would not supply the kind of money she needed to meet her needs. In the early 1930’s, a family friend helped her secure a position with the Welfare Office, where she worked for the next 35 years.

Throughout the years to come, my grandmother struggled to support her children alone. At this point, Nan and Poll Bryant, her beloved nannies, had moved from their own home on the now much reduced estate and lived inside the household where they oversaw the care of the children while Big Mama was at work. Nan and Poll had come to work for the Russ family at the time of my grandmother’s birth and remained with them until their deaths in the 1940’s.

The years of World War II, a time of both hardship and vitality for all the country, seemed to be particularly vibrant in the memories of the family. My grandmother housed several officers from the local base in her home, and my mother was involved with the Officer’s Club, where she sang with the band. The activity of these years subsided, however, when her children left home to attend college. Big Mama repeatedly mortgaged the home to finance this expense, but she was determined for the children not to struggle as she’d had to for these many years. Neither of her children returned to Marianna following college; the town just did not provide enough opportunity in those years after the war so they sought their futures elsewhere.” (Used with permission of Merritt Dekle.)

The Jackson County Chamber of Commerce took ownership of the Russ House in 2000 and it has truly become a “County Icon”. It is used for many social and business occasions and as a visitor center for hundreds of guests and visitors to the Jackson County area. It is very difficult to round the Russ Street corner and not feel a sense of pride to see the beautiful old home sitting on its point, looking majestic and inviting, ready to please and to serve Jackson County folks and their guests for many years to come!

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