Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Robert Quillen - An Independent Spirit

One of the most interesting men that I never met, and who just happens to be related to me (first cousin three times removed!), is Robert Quillen. And, in my opinion, as a free-thinker he meets the qualifications as an "Independent Spirit" which is the topic for the upcoming Carnival of Genealogy. Have any of my readers ever heard of him?

A contemporary of Will Rogers, Robert became known as "the Sage of Fountain Inn" and was nationally known as a paragrapher, humorist writer, newspaper columnist, and newspaper editor during the first half of the 20th century.

Born as Verni Robert Quillen on March 25, 1887 near Syracuse in Hamilton County, Kansas (near the Colorado border) he was the son of James Downey "J. D." and Mandella Joslin Quillen. His mother was the sister of my 2nd great-grandmother, Malissa Mariah Joslin Brubaker Bower, and they were two of the fifteen children of Lysander and Lydia Robison Joslin.

Robert's father was born in Missouri, his mother in Indiana. They married in Barton County, Kansas then moved to Syracuse in western Kansas, where J. D. published the weekly Syracuse Independent. In a few years the family moved back again to eastern Kansas, to the small town of Overbrook, where J. D. began publishing the Overbrook Citizen. Here Robert learned the printing trade, setting type and running the presses.

Early in 1904 J.D. decided to move his family to Washington state. But that March, just before his 17th birthday, Robert enlisted in the army, (without the consent of his parents and swearing he was twenty-one) as William Stewart. It was reportedly an attempt to heal a broken heart. In actuality it was probably rebellion against the sternness of his father. Robert was assigned to the 13th Cavalry Regiment and sent to the Philippine Islands. In June 1905, after deciding that military life was not his cup of tea and with some help from his father, Robert was discharged from active duty.

After his release from the Army, Robert traveled for a time, and ended up in Fountain Inn, Greenville County, South Carolina. He had some experience as a printer, gained from working with his father, so he launched the "Fountain Inn Journal" but that enterprise didn't last long. He met and fell in love with Donnie Cox, an "older" southern girl, five years his senior. As can be imagined, her family didn't approve of the young westerner but Donnie was in love with Robert too. Robert moved to Americus, Georgia taking a job as a print shop foreman. Robert pursued his romantic interest in Donnie and when her father finally relented to her wishes, they were married September 2, 1906, reportedly in Atlanta. They lived for a short time at Americus and then Ashburn, Georgia before joining his parents and siblings in Anacortes, Skagit County, Washington where his father was publisher of "The Citizen".

The Quillen family moved closer to Seattle where Robert and his father established the "Port Orchard Independent". In December of 1910, Robert and Donnie returned to Fountain Inn, South Carolina. The following February, Robert published the first issue of the "Fountain Inn Tribune" which he would continue to publish until his death. His parents and sisters joined Robert in Fountain Inn. A brother, LeRoy, had died in 1917. His father died in Fountain Inn on June 6, 1919. His mother passed away February 7, 1943 at the home of her daughter, Della Lucille Quillen Agnew, in Hartsville Township, Darlington County, South Carolina.

It was about 1920 that Robert's writing started getting noticed by prominent publishers and several articles were accepted by the Saturday Evening Post and the Baltimore Evening Sun. His special pages and editorials ran in those publications for several years. In 1922, Robert's wife, Donnie, passed away. By the end of the year he was married again, to Marcelle Babb. No children were born to either marriage, but Robert and Donnie had adopted a daughter, Louise, who became the inspiration for his columns "Letters from a Bald-Headed Dad to His Red-Headed Daughter" that were published in book form in 1933.

In addition to being a writer, editor, and publisher, Robert was also a humanitarian. It was said that if a child in the county woke up Christmas morning with an empty stocking, it was because he didn't know about it.

He was a bit of an eccentric, not only in his writings, but in his actions. Twice he sold his newspaper, only to buy it back again both times. In 1925, he erected a statue to Eve on the lawn of his home, which horrified the townspeople. It was simply an obelisk with the inscription "In Memory of Eve, the First Woman" and carved beneath was an apple with a twig and one leaf. In an editorial in his newspaper, he said: "Eve was a distant relative of mine, on my mother's side. The family has always been proud of her. She was the first lady of the land and the reigning beauty of her time."

Robert Quillen made his living as a commentator on American society. His columns covered virtually every aspect of life in America in the early-to-mid 1900s. Many of his columns were thinly veiled descriptions of the local citizens. One Fountain Inn man warned a new preacher, "Don't get mad at anything Mr. Quillen says. We're used to him and just overlook his queerness."

His opinions were not always widely accepted, in fact, they were often controversial, but his work was published in more than 300 newspapers in the United States and Canada when he died at the age of 61 on December 9, 1948 at Hendersonville, North Carolina. His syndicated features included "Aunt Het" and "Willie Willis," both humorous cartoons, as well as editorials, "Quillen's Quips" and other articles.

He once wrote his own obituary and printed it in the Fountain Inn Tribune, the weekly newspaper he published. He described the service and the last rites at the cemetery. Then he wrote, "When the last clod had fallen, workmen covered the grave with a granite slab bearing the inscription, 'Submitted to the Publisher by Robert Quillen'." The Greenville News added "There will be no copyright. The original work could hardly be reproduced."

A depiction of "Aunt Het", Robert Quillen, Robert with his adopted daughter Louise. Pictures on display in his study in Fountain Inn. Photo taken by Becky Wiseman on March 12, 2004.

The infamous statue "In Memory of Eve, The First Woman." Photo taken by Becky Wiseman on March 12, 2004.

Sadly, there isn't much to be found on the Internet about Robert Quillen. This article was compiled from numerous newspaper clippings about him that I received from the Greenville County Library, Greenville, South Carolina as well as an article in The South Carolina Historical Magazine (Vol 102 No 2, April 2001 pages 110-134 "The Wit and Wisdom of Robert Quillen, 1887-1948" by Marvin L. Cann). After receiving a copy of that article in September 2002 I was able to contact Mr. Cann. Most of the resources and photographs he used in the article were housed at the University of South Carolina. I contacted them and obtained several pictures of Robert and his family. However, I can't post them here since I don't have their permission to do so.

A recent search of the 'net brought up a new book published last year, "The Voice of Small-Town America : Selected Writings of Robert Quillen, 1920–1948" edited by John Hammond Moore. An article on Wikipedia appears to be excerpts from the Moore book.

A few of Robert's one-liners:

  • Acting is not being emotional, but being able to express emotion.
  • As we grow older, our bodies get shorter and our anecdotes longer.
  • Discussion is an exchange of knowledge; an argument an exchange of ignorance.
  • Great art is never produced for its own sake. It is too difficult to be worth the effort.
  • If we wish to make a new world we have the material ready. The first one, too, was made out of chaos.
  • There are glimpses of heaven to us in every act, or thought, or word, that raises us above ourselves.


Janet Iles said...

Robert sounds like a very interesting person. I like how he ended his own obituary.

Anonymous said...

How interesting to read this! Thanks for your time spent giving me, a lifelong resident of Ft. Inn, a more in-depth glimpse into the life of one whom our Fountain Inn Garden Club remembers with dignigty and respect every Christmas season as we decorate the robert Quillen Library in the tradidtons of his time. The obit is priceless! I wonder if the FT. Inn Libaray has this book about him? Sheila M.

Becky Wiseman said...

Sheila, thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. It is heartening to know that the Garden Club remembers Robert. When I stopped by the library to ask about him, no one there knew anything. Kind of sad, really since he was quite a character in the town during his lifetime.

Unknown said...

a little update to the what happened with the family of Robert Quillen. about a year ago Louise the red headed step daughter passed away. she was almost a hundred. Louises daughter joy carries On. she is now placing many of Roberts writings in the museum at Fountain Inn. We are looking for information on Ms Donnie's parents Robert Q.first wife.