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The Russ House Story

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Russ House 1890s|1990 Russ House behind Gas Station|Russ House after 2000 Renovations Russ House 1890s|1990 Russ House behind Gas Station|Russ House after 2000 Renovations Merritt Dekle||

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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Last modified onWednesday, 01 January 2014 04:53
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