Documenting the American South Logo
oral histories of the American South
Excerpt from Oral History Interview with George Esser, June-August 1990. Interview L-0035. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Esser's family history

Esser describes his family history, from his German ancestors' immigration into the U.S. around 1800, to his parents' marriage in 1920, to the economic hardship of the Great Depression, to his relationship to Thomas Jefferson. Researchers interested in more details on Esser's family history can continue listening past the end of this passage.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with George Esser, June-August 1990. Interview L-0035. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

FRANCES WEAVER:
Well, George, I think we better go back and take a look at who you are, where you were born. Let's go back to the beginning and reflect on, as you tell me some of these things, what it was in your life that shaped some of the attitudes you have now, as you went acquiring these attitudes. So you were born in?
GEORGE ESSER:
I was born in Norton, virginia, which is in wise County, Virginia, almost out to the western tip of the state of Virginia.
FRANCES WEAVER:
Is that coal county?
GEORGE ESSER:
It's coal county. My grandfather, let's see, the Essers were German. The first one immigrated to this county about 1800 from Germany. The family, there's not much information on this, but the family myth is that he was fleeing from the Bonapartists or the Bonaparte Revolution. But anyway, he settled, or the Essers settled, in the anthracite area of Pennsylvania, north of Bethlehem, in a town that is now known as Jim Thorpe, but it's actual name is Scotch-Irish, Mauch Chunk. Actually there were several white wealthy families that initiated there that I have run into since. But my grandfather's father, my great-grandfather, died when my grandfather was about ten, and he went to work when he was quite young during the Civil war, and went with the Stonego Coal Company. Well, I don't know what it was known as in Pennsylvania. But anyhow, he came to virginia in 1896 to open up a coal mine in southwestern virginia on land then owned by the Stonego Coal Company.
FRANCES WEAVER:
What was his name?
GEORGE ESSER:
His name was John Alfred Esser. He was my grandfather, and I remember him pretty well. He died when I was eleven years old. He was married to Esther Hyndman.
FRANCES WEAVER:
That's your middle name.
GEORGE ESSER:
She was from a Scotch-Irish family in Mauch Chunk, and I don't remember—she died when I was eighteen months old. But her sister, who was unmarried, lived with us, the old extended family, until she died the first year I was in college.
FRANCES WEAVER:
George, we've got this light. I'm going to flip this over. [END OF TAPE 2, SIDE A] [TAPE 2, SIDE B] [START OF TAPE 2, SIDE B]
FRANCES WEAVER:
George, we were talking about your grandfather, John Alfred Esser. And your father, his son, was?
GEORGE ESSER:
George Hyndman Esser, and he was born in 1880. So he was sixteen when his father moved to virginia. His father asked some of his business associates in southwestern Virginia where he should send his son to college. Among the people he asked was C. Bascombe Slemp, who later began Congressman and then was Calvin Coolidge's private secretary, Eugene Hyatt, both of whom had graduated from VMI. So they urged him to send my father to VMI. So my father ended, before he had even seen southwestern Virginia, he ended up traveling from Pennsylvania to Lexington, Virginia and entering VMI, which was something of a shock to him.
FRANCES WEAVER:
Shock [Laughter] , I guess. In 1896, it would have been a shock.
GEORGE ESSER:
At that time, you know, they had no Christmas vacation. I think one year his mother came up and spent Christmas in Lexington to be close to him. So it was something of a shock. That was 1896, and he stayed there until—incidentally, I think it's interesting, too, that in the same county in Pennsylvania that my father had entered from there was another young man, who my father knew at VMI if he didn't know him in Pennsylvania, named George Cattin Marshall [General of the Army, World War II, Secretary of State, Marshall Plan].
FRANCES WEAVER:
Really?
GEORGE ESSER:
He was a year behind my father at VMI.
FRANCES WEAVER:
I didn't know that, George.
GEORGE ESSER:
From the same county in Pennsylvania.
FRANCES WEAVER:
That's amazing.
GEORGE ESSER:
But in the fall of 1900, my father was the class of, the fall of 1899, I guess it was, there was an epidemic. I believe it was meningitis, and the school was sent home. Was closed in October, and the cadets were sent home. This was my father's senior, or first class, year. And by the time they came back in January, he was working, I think, at—my grandfather was then superintendent of the mine at Dorchester, Virginia, which is near Norton—and I think my father was working for him. Anyhow, my father did not go back and so never graduated.
FRANCES WEAVER:
Never quite finished.
GEORGE ESSER:
Never quite finished. He was sorry in later years that he didn't, but at that time there weren't nearly as many people getting college degrees, and it was not as critical. So for the next twenty years, my father worked in the coal business, sometimes with his father, who had a great talent for making a mint and then losing it. When he went into bankruptcy for the third time in 1928, that was it. I know that he went out on his own first, I think, in 1904, 1905, and the Depression of 1907 wiped him out. Anyhow, when he did not have a big operation going, my father would be working for somebody else. And actually, for several years before and about the middle of world War I, my father was superintendent of a mine near Charleston, Virginia, but still not married.
FRANCES WEAVER:
When did he marry?
GEORGE ESSER:
He met in 1919 and in 1920 married my mother.
FRANCES WEAVER:
And her name is?
GEORGE ESSER:
And I will pick her up in just a minute. But I would say that—let me see if I can characterize that area—southwestern Virginia at that time was very much into coal mining, logging, exploiting resources. There's a very good, it's not a great book, but a very good book called Miners, Mill Hands and Mountaineers, written by a professor, I believe, at Appalachian. But it describes what happened between 1880 and 1930 in the area from Charleston south to Birmingham. And those mountains were taken over by out-of-state coal and lumber companies who came in, and that's what I grew up with. I grew up with the coal mining business. When I was born, my grandfather owned a large mine at Esserville, which was four miles from Norton. My father worked very closely with him. At that time, which was just after I was born in 1921, we had money. I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth, I guess. Grandfather had built a large house, and right next to it my father and mother built a large bugalow-style home. We had everything we wanted. But by 1926 when I was six, the bottom had dropped out of the coal business, which it historically has done before every major depression, and by 1928…. My grandfather had invested in a new tipple, a new processing of coal, and he couldn't pay off the loan. So they went bankrupt in 1928, and we lost our homes by 1930. So I remember the Depression very vividly.
FRANCES WEAVER:
So the Depression, there was no recovery during that period?
GEORGE ESSER:
Oh no. Then my mother was from an old Virginia background. I think you know and I think I'm proud of, but as my mother said, it's something you live up to rather than live on, one of my great-great-great-great-grandfathers was Thomas Jefferson. My great-grandfather, who married Jefferson's great-granddaughter, was also a farmer in the Charlottesville area. He invested all his money during the Civil War in Confederate bonds, and so when the boys came home from the war, there was nothing. That was the Taylor branch.