Alfred Owen Blackmar II

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Columbus was created through the hard work and dedication of its founding families. This issue, we’re taking a closer look at one of those families, the Blackmars, and one of its most notable patriarchs: Alfred Owen II. From starting Columbus’ first fire insurance business to serving in education, Columbus would certainly be a very different city without his influence and contributions.

By Jack Schley

There have been six A. O. Blackmars to call Columbus, Georgia home. For a period of over one hundred years, all branches of this family could be found here in town, and many of their descendants continue to reside in Columbus to this day. The roots of the Blackmar family tree sprouted in America in the colony of Rhode Island in 1629. It was two hundred years later that the first Alfred Owen Blackmar, as well as his son carrying his namesake, arrived in Columbus.

The first Alfred O. Blackmar was living in Savannah, Georgia, when his wife Betsy Arnold gave birth to their son, A. O. II, on July 14, 1830. Five years later the family was living in Augusta. Betsy had passed away after the birth of her second son, and Alfred remarried to Susan Adeline Daly. Alfred worked as a cotton merchant.

With farm land opening up in the western part of the state, Alfred decided to move his family deep into future cotton country. A horse drawn stagecoach brought the family across the state in April of 1835 when they arrived to the small frontier town of Columbus, Georgia.

Later in life, Alfred II could recall the day he arrived to Columbus as a young boy at the age of five. He described the town as consisting of more people than there were structures to house them, and a large portion of the population was Indians.

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The Native Americans lived across the river in Alabama, but could often be seen in the business district of downtown. Young A. O. II could recall one day when a Native American man patted him on top of his head as he walked with his father to the family store on Broad Street, near where the main CB&T building is presently situated. That particular man was called Jim Henry, and it was he who led the main force of hostile Indians in the Creek War of 1836. A rumor reached town one night during the conflict that Jim Henry and his raiders were going to attack Columbus. In response, the men in town armed themselves and were posted along the river and throughout the town.

 Each night, while the men kept watch, the women and children of Columbus, including A. O. II, were quartered together in an incomplete hotel in downtown, surrounded by guards.

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Columbus, and the neighboring town of Girard (now Phenix City), had a rough and tumble frontier reputation at that time. The same Alfred Blackmar recounted that when he was a boy the two towns were often referred to as Sodom and Gomorrah for the Biblical towns that were destroyed by fire from heaven for their heathenistic customs.

There were many Indians who were also friendly and quite prominent amongst the social circles of Columbus. One such man was named Paddy Carr. He owned a large farm near Fort Mitchell, Alabama and was well known and respected by the businessmen of the frontier days in Columbus. The woman that cared for the Blackmar family children once took young A. O. II to visit Paddy Carr and his family at their townhouse across the river. Alfred could recall later in life seeing Paddy Carr standing in his doorway smoking a pipe as they approached. The man held the young Blackmar boy, bounced him on his knee, and gave him beads and other trinkets to take home with him.

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Carr had served as an Interpreter for General Andrew Jackson during the Indian War of 1813-1814. He also fought on behalf of the State of Georgia during the Creek War of 1836 to help defend Columbus from Jim Henry’s militant forces. Carr and his family were relocated to Oklahoma when the Creek Nation was forcibly removed from the area by the Federal Government following the war.

When Alfred II grew up he remained in Columbus and became very involved in the civic development of the town. He was one of the earliest volunteer fire fighters here, and started his business, Blackmar Company Realtors, a fire insurance firm, in 1846. He served many administrative duties on City Council, and as Mayor Pro-tem, as well as in local educational capacities for many years throughout his professional career.

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He was known as the “Father of the High School,” after making the resolution that created Columbus High School in 1890 while serving as a member of the Board of Trustees for Columbus Public Schools. A. O. II was financially minded as well, serving as City Treasurer and in administrative roles at the earliest leading banks in town. Known to some as Captain Blackmar, he was also a licensed steam boat captain on the Chattahoochee River. He participated in passing steam ships through the Federal blockade during the War Between the States to bring supplies to and from Columbus by way of the river.

In 1851, Alfred married Mary Ann Blood in Columbus and together they had five children. They both lived to their one hundredth birthdays, and celebrated their seventy-fifth wedding anniversary in 1926, when they were locally claimed as “…models of marital grace and felicity…” All five of their children were born when the family moved to the family home that once stood at 1418 Fourth Avenue (now Veterans Parkway) in downtown. The elegant home was almost half a century old when the Blackmar family became the new owners in 1879. They called the homeplace “Opossum Ridge.”

Alfred and Mary Ann Blackmar’s son John went into the Fire Insurance business with his father. He married Susie Wellborn in January 1884 and ten months later their first son, Alfred Owen Blackmar III was born. A. O. III also joined his father and grandfather in the fire insurance business.

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Alfred O. Blackmar III further developed the family name in the real estate sector by becoming President of the Columbus Real Estate Board. He was also appointed Chairman of the Government Appraisal Board, which was charged with the purchasing of private land for the Federal Government to establish Fort Benning outside of Columbus. The third A. O. Blackmar was a passionate horticulturalist. He enjoyed flower propagation and landscaping, which led him to be a charter member of the Columbus Country Club, and to provide a natural landscape for urban residents of the town. He married Mary Elizabeth Gordon in 1910. They had two children: Alfred O. IV and Margaret Blackmar Howard.

The family name of Blackmar continues on today in Columbus with a sixth Alfred Owen Blackmar, and a seventh generation of this pioneering Columbus family. They are one of just a handful of families whose surname can be traced through the Columbus history books, uninterrupted, back to the beginning days of settlement here by the river. The talents of each generation of the Blackmar family have contributed to the progress and development of Columbus. Due to this, our town continues to operate today as a testament to the founding families that gave their careers to the building of our modern city. SVM

Thomas Wiggins Bethune

By Jack Schley

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This man carried many names during his life time, including Thomas Greene Wiggins and Thomas Wiggins Bethune, however, he remains internationally remembered today as “Blind Tom.” During his life and even a hundred years after his death, his name was followed by titles proclaiming him as the most famous person Columbus has ever produced, and the most gifted musician to ever perform on a public stage.


    Thomas, or Tom, was born into the most unassuming circumstances that could never be imagined for a man whom would become an internationally celebrated “musical genius.” At a young age, it became clear that the world would expect very little from him. Thomas was born blind, never to see the world in color or form. In short time, it became further apparent that the blind infant was further incapacitated with a mental condition that has been identified today, over a century and a half later, as Autism. As if blind and “idiotic,” as the medical examiners of his time declared, were not limiting enough, Tom was born into slavery in rural Georgia in 1849.
  

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 Due to the increased interest that Thomas’ life generated after his death, his story is told in many varying accounts. The most commonly accepted story of this man is that he was the twenty-first child of Mingo and Charity Wiggins, farm laborers owned as human property by Mr. Wiley Jones, a bankrupted cotton planter from Harris County. Shortly after Thomas’ birth, his parents were sold at auction and Thomas was “thrown in” to the sale to encourage bidders. The winning bid that day in 1850 was made by General James Neill Bethune of Columbus, Georgia.


    General Bethune was a lawyer and newspaper publisher in Columbus who received his military title in the Indian Wars of the 1830s. He lived on a small, rural homestead outside of Columbus called “Solitude” along Lindsay Creek with his wife, Mrs. Frances Gunby Bethune, and their seven children: John, Susan, Cherry Elizabeth, Joseph, James, Rachel, and Mary Barbara. Thomas and his parents were taken to Solitude where Charity washed laundry for the Bethune family and Mingo worked as a laborer. Once Thomas began to walk he formed the habit of wandering off. Charity began placing a large wooden crate under a tree next to the Bethune home and would put Tom inside to prevent him from getting hurt while she did her day’s work.

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Being close to the house, Thomas could hear the Bethune children practice and play the piano the family kept in their front parlor. One night, when Thomas was three years old, the Bethune family sat at their dining room table for their evening meal. As they ate, the sound of the piano from down the hall interrupted the family’s mealtime conversation. With all children present at the table, the eldest daughter Mary got up to see who could be making the noise. Seated at the piano and tapping away at the keys was the blind, slave child Tom. After that night, Mary Bethune began teaching Tom how to play the piano.

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It was quickly recognized that Tom had an abnormally strong memory. He could repeat full conversations that he heard between the family earlier in the day. After he learned the keys on a piano, he could hear a song played by someone else and play it back perfectly. He also was possessed of a keen sense of hearing. Sounds captivated him. He would wonder into the woods at night following the sounds of birds or the wind through the trees. Tom could be drawn back to the house by the sound of one of the Bethune sons simply playing his flute in the yard. All the sounds that he heard he would remember. There was a powerful thunderstorm one night at the Bethune farm and the next day Tom recreated the sounds from the storm on the piano. This later became one of his own compositions titled, “The Rain Storm.” When he would play pieces unfamiliar to the Bethune children they would ask where he had learned it, Tom would reply, “The birds and the wind taught it to me.” He was said to be very energetic and playful all of his life, but when the music started Tom would become focused, claim, and fully absorbed in the sound.

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Tom had been born mentally and physically lacking but that absence was made up for by an incredible increase in his sense for hearing and his capacity for memory. General Bethune recognized this and made sure that Tom had access to the family piano. The General once tried to hire a musician from Columbus to give Tom lessons. Upon hearing Tom play, the musician refused, reasoning that Tom knew more about music, in his young age, than anyone could ever teach him. The man believed that reducing music to rules and procedure would interfere with Tom’s innate ability. The musician recommended that Tom should simply hear great music played by professional musicians.


With that advice, General Bethune would take Tom into town to hear traveling musicians perform or would hire the performers to play with Tom in private. At the age of eight, Tom performed publically for the first time at a hotel in downtown Columbus. To the white antebellum audience members, seeing a blind, dumb, slave child play classical music on a piano was extraordinary. Following that first successful performance, General Bethune took Tom on a tour of the country where Tom performed in packed theaters in all the major cities. In 1860, at the age of ten, Tom became the first black artist to perform at the White House for President James Buchanan. He later performed for royalty in Europe.

 

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In concert, audience members would call out the names of any musical piece and Tom would play it perfectly on cue. Theater patrons would even approach the stage, play a composition on Tom’s piano of their own creation, and Tom would play it back perfectly. One evening, an audience member sat at Tom’s piano on stage and began to play. His chosen composition was intricate and involved him moving his hands apart down the length of the piano. When he reached the ends, the player threw his head down and struck a key with his nose. As Tom resumed his position to play back what he had just heard, the audience members held their breath. Tom played up to the note that was struck by the man’s nose two of three times, obviously confused, but on the final play with Tom’s hands stretched to the ends of the piano Tom dropped his head and hit the correct key with his nose. A witness reported that he thought the roof of the building would collapse due to the roar of the audience’s response to Tom having called the trick. In another performance, Tom played one song with his left hand, another with his right, and sang a third all at the same time and all in different pitches. He was known to jump up from his bench after his own performances and lead the audience in their applause, applauding himself. At the height of Tom’s career, his repertoire of performance music was said to consist of seven thousand compositions, including a few of his own.   

 
The Bethune family left Columbus and moved to Virginia following the War Between the States. It was there at the new family farm that Tom spent many of the summers off from his concert tour. Tom did return to Columbus and once performed at the Springer Opera House. General Bethune was appointed as Tom’s legal guardian after Emancipation and his son John Bethune later became Tom’s manager. John was caught up in a messy divorce with a woman named Eliza who was already married when she was wed to John. Following the divorce, Eliza sued General Bethune for custody of Tom. She won the suit and Tom lived out the last fifteen years of his life with her and her third husband, Mr. Albert Lerche, at their home in Hoboken, New Jersey. He was never allowed to see the Bethunes or his mother, whom remained in Columbus, ever again.

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Three weeks before his death in 1908, Tom suffered from a stroke that partially paralyzed his hands. On the night that he died, Eliza Lerche could hear Tom trying to play the piano but becoming frustrated by his paralysis. Through his sobs, Eliza heard him say “I’m done, all gone, Missus” followed by a thunderous thud of his body collapsing on the floor. Without music, his joy in life and will to live was “all gone.”     

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One of the many mysteries that remains about Thomas today is where he is currently buried. Following his funeral, he was buried at Evergreen Cemetery in New York. In the mid 1900s, a great-grandchild of General Bethune planned to have Tom exhumed and reinterned in Columbus. There are those who believe this plan was carried out and that Blind Tom is currently buried in Midland, Georgia, just a few miles from where he was born. Evergreen Cemetery, however, maintains that their burial records show Tom was buried there in 1908 and no evidence exists that he was ever moved. Even this claim has its doubters, as witnesses at Tom’s funeral claimed that the body in the casket was a tall, gray haired man. Tom was only five foot eight inches tall and had dark hair all of his life.


General and Mrs. Bethune were buried in Linwood Cemetery in Columbus. The land of their old farm, where Tom grew up, is currently occupied by the Hardaway High School and Columbus State University campuses, the family home having burned over a century ago. Currently, descendants of the Bethune family and Mingo and Charity Wiggins continue to call Columbus their home. And around the world, Thomas Wiggins’ music from a life and career that began in Columbus, Georgia, is still studied and performed. A few of his compositions, performed by notable musicians, can be found online through YouTube.

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-Special thanks to Mrs. Patti Andrews for contributing her research for the writing of this article. 

CARL FREDERICK SCHOMBURG

The Schomburg family was a pioneer in the jewelry business in Columbus. Cark Frederick Schomburg has been constantly engaged in business in Columbus for fifty six years and therefore is considered one of Columbus’ oldest business men.

He was born in Hanover, Germany on May 25th, 1852, the son of Heinrich Ludwig Schomburg and Amala Schmidt. His father was born on March 1st, 1799, and mother May 1822. His father was of an old farmer generation, the old homestead being in the Deister Mountains, near Rinteln southwest of the city of Hanover, Germany.

At the age of nineteen Mr. Schomburg came to the United States after having served as a watchmaking and jewelry trades apprentice, and he remained for about a year in New York City. Successively he moved to Columbus and established himself in the watchmaking and jewelry business here. His success can be credited to the conscientious application to work and his austere honesty, as it was well known that he would rather not indulge in a business transaction than misrepresent anything in the slightest degree.

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    Mr. Schomburg was married on September 15th, 1875 in Columbus, Georgia to Wilhelmina Emma Reich daughter of Frederick Reich and Maria Cresentia (Keinbach) Reich. The ceremony was conducted by the Reverend Dr. Nall of First Presbyterian Church. They are the parents of six children: four boys; Carl Ludwig, Frederick Herman, Herbert Heinrich and Otto Meinhardt Schomburg, and two girls: Minnie, now Mrs. W. F. Newman and Gertrude, now Mrs. Alma Gertrude Ingle both residing in Jacksonville, Florida.

    Mr. Schomburg has always been actively associated with all progressive movements working for the betterment of the community, and while a young man, was very much intererested in thef romation and functioning of the volunteer Fire Departments, Atheletetic Scocieteis, Singing Socitieties and being naturally of a studious nature himself was on of the pioneers in building up of a Municiipal Library and has been a director and vice-president of the Columbus Public Library, charter member of the Historical Society and Columbus Board of Trade and for 25 years a member of Columbus Gun Club. He was truly an active member of the community.

    He represents the American trunk of the Schomburg family tree from now on, sharing the honor with his good wife, Wilhemina Emma Reich daughter of Mr. Fererick Reich and Mrs. Maria Cresentia Reich.

A native of Hanover, Germany, Carl Frederick Schomburg (right) came to this country at the age of nineteen. He served a year of apprenticeship as a watchmaker and jeweler in New York before coming to Columbus where in 1972, he began what is now Columbus’ oldest jewelry store. He was succeeded in the business by his son, Frederick Herman Schomburg, Sr., (left) and by his grandson Frederick Herman Schomburg Jr. Two great-grandsons, Charles Frederick Powell and Frederick Collins Schomburg are also associated with this 113-year-old business that now has its store on Auburn Avenue. Photograph courtesy of the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer newspapers.

It was custom for Mr. Carl Schomburg to the ring the bell each day at 11 a.m. in order that clocks and watches throughout the city could be checked for their accuracy. Later he would maintain the city clock in the First Presbyterian Church after 1891, passing the duty down to his son, Fred. Photograph courtesy of the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer newspapers.

In 1891 fire damaged the First Presbyterian Church at the corner of First Avenue and Eleventh Street. As its main tower was being rebuilt, jewelry and church member Carl Schomburg proposed that the city of Columbus purchase a $500 clock for the tower, agreeing to install the clock and maintain it free of cost to the city during his lifetime. Purchased was one by the noted American clock manufacturer, Seth Thomas, with four dials that required winding each week. Schomburg kept his part of the bargain until he retired in 1930. At that time, his son, Fred H. Schomburg, Sr., took on the chores of the city clock maintenance until it was electrified after World War II. Photograph from the collection of F. Clason Kyle.

Nearly three peaceful decades in Columbus brought with it the birth of a number of business institutions that became landmarks of commerce for nearly a century. Names like Kirven’s, Rosenberg’s, David Rothschild Company, Schomburg’s, Chancellor’s, Harvey Lumber Company, W.C. Bradley Company, the Southern Railway System, and the Fourth National Bank had their beginnings during this period.

Schomburg lived to age ninety-three, still active in the business that his father, a native of Germany, founded here in 1872. In this 1970 photograph, Schomburg is seen with the Seth Thomas clock that his father installed in front of the Broadway store in 1906. Photograph courtesy of the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer newspapers.

Georgia’s Oldest Fifth Generation Jeweler – from website: Frederick Carl Schomburg was born May 25, 1852 in Hanover, Germany. The son of Heinrick Ludwig Schomburg and Amalia Sophia Schmidt, both residents of Hanover, Germany. Carl served an apprenticeship as watchmaker under Heinrick Oelmann in Burdorf and worked for about a year under a celebrated watchmaker in the city of Cells. He immigrated to America arriving in New York September 1871 and moved to Columbus, Georgia in May 1872. On the 15th day of September 1875, Carl was married to Miss Wilhelmina (Minnie) Emma Reich. Carl and Minnie were blessed by the birth of ten children, four of whom died when infants. Schomburg's Jewelers, one of Georgia oldest manufacturers of jewelry, designs our jewelry in solid 14kt, 18kt and platinum.

 Frederick Carl Schomburg was born May 25, 1852 in Hanover, Germany. The son of Heinrick Ludwig Schomburg and Amalia Sophia Schmidt, both residents of Hanover, Germany. Carl served an apprenticeship as watchmaker under Heinrick Oelmann in Burdorf and worked for about a year under a celebrated watchmaker in the city of Cells. He immigrated to America arriving in New York September 1871 and moved to Columbus, Georgia in May 1872. On the 15th day of September 1875, Carl was married to Miss Wilhelmina (Minnie) Emma Reich. Carl and Minnie were blessed by the birth of ten children, four of whom died when infants.

Laid off the property were walkways lied with evergreen trees and circles of shrubbery with tables and chairs. In the circle, his favorite spot, a beer garden. Carl’s love of the property stemmed from his fondness of music. On his property he had a music hall with an orchestral hall and several musical cylinders, each playing several of the finest pieces of music.