Dear Vance: My parents told me about a local church that years ago built something called a “Sunset Home” for aged couples. Do you know where that home was located? Is it still standing? — J.T., Memphis.
Dear J.T.: At first I assumed you meant the Sunshine Home, which was a retirement home for elderly gentlemen, located close to Poplar and Highland. But the Sunset Home was a different place entirely, a neat little cottage constructed expressly for a Christian married couple “in the sunset years of their lives.”
The church responsible for this noble endeavor was Eudora Baptist Church, until recently a landmark at the corner of Poplar and Perkins. But a newspaper editor named Ralph Millett deserves credit for the original idea. It seems that one day, back in the mid-1940s, Millett received a letter from an elderly couple who, for reasons I can’t remember, had lost their home and, on their limited income, were unable to find another. Their only option, it seemed, was for them to move into various “old folks” homes around the city, which back then didn’t allow men and women to live together, even if they were married. Millett, moved by their plight, wrote an article in the Memphis Press-Scimitar about “the tragedy of elderly couples having to live apart,” perhaps moving into separate homes like the Sunshine Home for Aged Men or the Mary Galloway Home for Aged Women (yes, that’s what they were called). One of the readers of that article was the Rev. William O. Beaty at Eudora, who decided to do something about it.
Beaty met with Millett, and the Press-Scimitar started a public fund to construct a home — just one house, at first — to be called the Sunset Home. Contributions came pouring in, and within a few months, the fund had acquired thousands of dollars, more than enough to build a small but comfortable home in those days.
Local business leaders contributed their services. Architect Charles Peete drew up the plans, and other firms donated lumber, concrete, shingles, appliances, and even landscaping.
The groundbreaking took place March 20, 1946, with the Rev. Beaty joined by a 3-year-old member of his congregation, a little girl named Senter Crook, who turned a spadeful of dirt with a little toy shovel.
On September 29th, the builders turned over the keys to the home to Mr. and Mrs. Frank Ward. I’m not sure how that particular couple had been selected, but they certainly needed a place to stay. “My wife is ill, and we were burned out of our last home,” Ward told reporters that day, as church members gathered to welcome them to their new home. “All the time we have been going from place to place trying to stay together. I have prayed, and I have put my trust in God. He has given us this beautiful home.”
The humble four-room cottage was constructed on Betty Brooks Lane, a tiny road that stretched south of Poplar near present-day Grove Park Road. The Wards lived together in the house for almost ten years, but then something happened that I don’t understand. The Press-Scimitar ran a photo under the headline “Goodbye to Sunset Home,” which shows Frank Ward handing over the house keys to Rev. Beaty. The caption didn’t explain why he was moving out. Is it possible that the wife died, and since the home was for married couples, Ward had to leave? Well, that’s just sad. But you might expect that Eudora would then search for another couple to occupy the little house. Instead, they decided to shut it down.
In the University of Memphis Special Collections Department, I turned up a “Statement of Agreement,” dated November 20, 1956, regarding “the enterprise known as the Sunset Home of Eudora Baptist Church.” The agreement reaffirmed the original purpose of the home — “to make it possible for a married couple of Baptist faith, in their declining years, to reside together in their own household as citizens of their community in a normal way.” And then there was this, without any details: “But it is no longer feasible to operate the Sunset Home on Betty Brooks Lane according to the original plan.”
The church decided that the home and land should be sold. For a few years after that, the city directories listed that address as “vacant” and then it disappeared entirely from the phone books, suggesting it was torn down. There’s no trace of the little home today, but if you drive down Poplar, just as you reach Grove Park, look carefully at the paved drive leading between the Exxon station and the office building next door, winding back to Oak Court Mall. That’s what remains of Betty Brooks Lane.
PHOTOS — COURTESY SPECIAL COLLECTIONS, UNIVERSITY OF MEMPHIS LIBRARIES
Dear Vance: Tucked away in an old trunk, I found an old program for something called a “womanless wedding” to be conducted by a local church. What in the world are they talking about? — G.R., Memphis.
Dear G.R.: It wasn’t a same-sex marriage, if that’s what you’re thinking, and in fact it wasn’t even a real wedding at all. In the early 1900s, civic and fraternal groups — and in this case, even Schoolfield Methodist Church in Memphis — put on mock weddings, with every member of the wedding party, from the bride and groom down to the little flower girls, portrayed by prominent male members of the community. Now this is something that would most likely be frowned upon today, but back then it was considered hilarious entertainment.
According to the program, this particular “wedding” was a full-scale affair, involving more than 30 participants. I was amused by the colorful names given to the members of the wedding party: The groom was “Archibald Hercules Headlight” and he was betrothed to “Miss Rosebud Delicatessen.” The maid of honor was “Miss Caroline Bittersweet” and the flower girls were “Little Miss Tiny Tittermouse” and “Little Miss Cutie Weebit.” The ring bearer was “Little Tommy Towner.” Although I’m not sure how they fit into the wedding party, others on the program included “Mr. and Mrs. Percy Cute,” “Twins, Pete and Repeat,” and even “Miss Mary Stuckup.”
I presume the wedding was a success, and the “married” couple lived happily ever after.
There’s no date on the program, but based on the businesses that advertised in it, I’d say the event took place sometime in the 1930s, if not earlier. Some of these firms listed the old-time five-digit telephone numbers, but most of them didn’t list a number at all.
And what about the church itself? Schoolfield opened in 1926 in a handsome brick building on Dellwood across from Frayser Elementary School. It was an offshoot of an older, non-denominational sanctuary called Point Chapel, and the new name recognized trustee J.S. Schoolfield, who was head of the building committee. The church expanded over the years, and partly because of a 1957 fire that heavily damaged the old sanctuary, Schoolfield moved into an ultra-modern complex in 1959. An old fire station next door was acquired and converted into a youth center. The church went through many changes over the years. Though the main buildings are still standing, and looking as nice as ever, they are now home to Mt. Zion Baptist Church.