Gilbert Family Homeplace | Jackson County, FL | c. 1880s
Today, it might be difficult to see past the tattered facade of this old Florida home, but within these walls are the stories of one family and the community they helped to build. The tales of 3 generations of children who went on to live great stories here. They became people of great substance, who cared for their neighbors and served their community. And because the home that they left behind is quickly disappearing, I decided to spend some time researching the people who called this home so that we wouldn’t lose them too.
Thomas Lafayette Lampkin Gilbert
In 1883, Thomas Lafayette Lampkin Gilbert married Florida Syfrett in Washington County, Florida and shortly after, they started a family there. But as the number of Gilberts grew, Thomas and Florida wanted the chance to own their own farmland and Thomas set out to find suitable land. In his early years, he was a circuit-riding preacher and it is believed that this is how he came to find the land in neighboring Jackson County that the family eventually settled. According to family and census records, the young family had relocated by 1887 with 5 children who had been born in Washington County, and 3 more that were born here. In the first year on their new land, the family lived in a modest cabin while Thomas worked to build a larger home for his growing brood. Over the following months, he cut timber from the property and constructed this two-story house that would become the center of the Gilbert Family over the next 3 generations. Their kids would call this, “The New House.”
In 1895, their land patent for 80 acres in Jackson County was confirmed for Thomas, who was a successful farmer by then. While he established a farm, he also helped to found a church nearby, First United Methodist of Kynesville. Thomas passed away in 1910 and his wife Florida in 1937. Their youngest son, Otto, who was born in this home in 1900, would carry on the Gilbert Family story here over the next 100 years.
In 1920, Otto married Mary ‘Lucille’ Ray and the next chapter began here in “The New House.” While they raised 5 children of their own here, Otto also made quite a name for himself in the greater community as a beloved businessman, freemason, devout Christian, cook, and generous neighbor. As I interviewed people for this piece, more and more stories emerged about the various ways that Otto contributed to his community. I tried to consolidate them and then realized that each of these memories was an important part of the story so I’ll be including each of them with you here.
Otto Gilbert: Businessman, Chief Cook, and Bottle Washer
The most common memories shared with me about him were about his famous Otto’s Diner in Marianna, Florida, which was inside a converted train car. According to a newspaper article about the diner, Otto had initially rented a small restaurant space in town until he heard about someone having success with a streetcar diner in Alabama. He drove to see it for himself and hauled a streetcar back from Tuskeegee, AL to Marianna, FL. He served breakfast, lunch, and dinner 6 days a week and would show up each day at 3 am to take deliveries and would stay until 8pm each night- with a break at 12pm sharp for ‘Dinner’ with the family. During the Depression and well into its early operation, he sold burgers for a dime and soda and coffee for a nickel.
It would take me days to go through all of the comments and remarks, but the most common theme was that his burgers were the best that most locals have EVER had. Otto attributed this to one thing: “quality.” He said he had his “meat custom ground at Ivey’s Store each day and that he never added anything special, he just never skimped on quality.”
Many teenagers throughout the years had their first jobs here as dishwashers and waitresses. Otto was eager to share his unique brand of hospitality with guests and with his employees. Waitresses at his streetcar diner weren’t allowed to write down orders because Otto believed that they should care enough about their patron’s orders to be able to remember them. Even as the owner, Otto described himself as the ‘Chief Cook and Bottle Washer’ and he said he would never turn a hungry man away if he couldn’t pay.
On Fridays, local youth would pick up burgers here to bring next door to the Ritz theatre for matinees on date night. One of them shared: “I remember the Ritz theatre always smelling like Otto burgers and french fries on date night. We would go by Otto’s to get the burgers and fries and take them into the movie and would buy our sodas once we got there.”
Otto Gilbert: Benevolent Neighbor
Because of his popular local diner and kind gestures, both big and small, around the community, it made sense when his granddaughter, Janet Parish, explained that everyone knew Otto wherever he went, and he knew who they were, too. The stories he left behind paint a picture of a man with a kind heart who sincerely cared about others. Especially when times were at their lowest and the community was struggling, Otto made sure to lend a hand to his neighbors. While researching this piece, I got in touch with a woman who shared the story of how Otto saved her grandmother. In the depth of the Depression years, Mrs. S. had just lost her husband to cancer and she had 11 children to raise on her own. Their cow had died and the family was starving. Otto overheard this conversation at church and immediately offered to take them in. He let them move into an old farmhouse on his property where Mrs. S. could plant her own garden to feed her children. In exchange, the kids helped out on the farm and even today, they credit Otto Gilbert with getting their family through the hardest years.
One person I spoke with described him as a humble man who believed in a hard day’s work. This was echoed by his granddaughter, Janet, who told me that he often said: “Lazy men don’t eat.” Otto was obviously a man of principle and he chose to live his life in an exemplary fashion. He was an active member of more than one area church and is remembered for his daily bible study. He believed that Sunday was the Lord’s day of rest and as such, he wouldn’t spend a dollar on Sundays.
Otto Gilbert: Freemason
In 1948, Otto joined his local Mason Lodge, Harmony Lodge No. 3. He was a member for the rest of his life and was well remembered there for his encouragement of younger members to join. In sharing his memories of Otto, a fellow lodge member said: “He had a wonderful sense of humor and was very sharp for his age. He used to joke that he was so old that he had played in the sandbox with King Solomon. He was very concerned with raising a good generation of citizens and when he was approached with an offer to sell his land to a casino, he promptly declined out of concern for what harm it might do to the young citizens of the county.”
His wife, Lucille, was no less impressive than Otto. When I spoke with their granddaughter, Janet Parish, she had a list of accolades that explains what a wonderful match they were.
“She cooked lunch and dinner every day and each day at 12pm sharp, she would have a meal on the table so granddaddy could eat on his break from work. While everyone sat at the table, she insisted that the Gene Reagan Farm Show be on TV. She quilted, hand embroidered, and when I was 8, she taught me embroidery, too. I still have the hoop she gave me. She tended her garden and canned her own food. She loved cats and could never turn away a stray. Her favorite soap opera was ‘As The World Turns.’ She was always in charge of communion service at church.”
“Whenever I’d get into trouble, I’d have to sit in a chair in the kitchen in timeout, and I would watch her cook. Thinking about it now, I reckon time out wasn’t that bad. We called her ‘Mommie’ and I still cook as she did.”
Lucille and Otto spent the rest of their days in this house, which got a new tin roof to replace the old wooden shingles in the 1950s. In 1968, the Gilbert’s got indoor plumbing. Prior to that, the only shower was on the back porch.
In 1977, Lucille passed away, leaving Otto behind in their home where he stayed until he moved into a nursing home in the 1990s. In 2000, Otto was proud to have made it to his 100th birthday and would happily explain that he had seen three centuries since he was born at the end of the 19th, lived all of the 20th, and made it into the 21st. He passed away in 2001.
The home passed to a descendant but it hasn’t been lived in ever since. Even on my first visit in 2015, the home was in a deteriorated state, and on each visit, it grew worse. So when Hurricane Michael tore through this area in 2018, I was certain the house wouldn’t make it. I made a special trip in early 2019 to check on it and was shocked to find it still standing, albeit with new scars and missing parts. While whole forests and new buildings were leveled completely by this hurricane, this old home withstood the heavy winds and rain. A true testament to the skill, methods, and supplies of its builders.