Stories From the Past

Conway Lea, and her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Wash Lea, were photographed in 1932 in front of their home once located just outside the city limits toward Alpine.

by Gypsy Girl

(Emily Sells)

Miss Conway Lea

One of Livingston’s historic homes, located on East Cedar Street in Livingston, was originally built and owned by Alexander Gaston Keisling, State Representative for this district for the 1919-1920 term.

That same home once belonged to a lady named Miss Conway Lea, the only child of George Washington Lea and wife Isabell Walker Lea. Miss Conway’s father, one of 15 children, was known as Wash Lea, and her mother, referred to as Bell, came from a family of 14 children.

Prior to moving to the home on East Cedar Street, the Lea family lived just outside of Livingston city limits on the Alpine highway. Their house stood near a cave everyone even today refers to as the Wash Lea Cave.

Miss Conway attended the Fredonia Methodist Church as a child, and went to a school that stood where Good Hope Cemetery is now located.

The late Mrs. Flora Lea Collins grew up as a close friend of Miss Conway and the Lea family. Mr. and Mrs. Lea treated Mrs. Collins as special as if she were their grandchild. She spent many nights in their home before they moved to East Cedar Street, and had lots of fond memories of times spent with them. In fact, that’s where her middle name came from. One of the things Mrs. Collins learned from the Leas were good table manners, something they believed were very important for youngsters to be well versed in.

The Lea family moved to the large white, two story house on East Cedar Street after Miss Conway was grown. She is described as of a petite build, and in her adult years, she always dressed in what could only be called an old fashioned manner, wearing dark colored dresses with an apron. A bonnet and shawl sometimes completed her attire. In cold weather, her Sunday best consisted of a black fur coat that came down to her ankles, a hat, and she always had this on when she walked to town in the winter months.

Across the front porch of Miss Conway’s home, foot prints could be seen where, right after the porch floor was painted, her father walked before the paint was good and dry. The foot prints were left there long after her father had died, and were always painted around. Miss Conway eventually painted the foot prints with a coat of black paint.

Although the Conway house was wired for electricity, Miss Conway had the power disconnected after her parents died. The screens on the doors and windows were painted dark green, making it impossible to see through. Inside the home was an old pump organ Miss Conway played most every Sunday afternoon. She owned an early model black Chevrolet automobile that was seldom driven. She eventually sold the car to Jasper Poston. The car, parts of it still wrapped in paper, left the garage in nearly the same condition as the day it was sold as a brand new vehicle.

Bantam chickens were considered very special family members by Miss Conway. They could be found not only in the yard, but also inside the house, and were permitted to roost on the back porch of the home, or anywhere else they might choose. Sometimes this included the fireplace mantel in Miss Conway’s bedroom. Baby chicks often had a home in an old shoe box.

A story was told about a time when Miss Conway was approached concerning the possibility of her selling the lot that adjoined her property, however she declined to sell the property. When asked why she wouldn’t sell, her answer was that one of her bantam chickens was buried there, and she would not sell the property for that reason. The lot remained in her possession until after her death.

Along with being an educated and well read person, Miss Conway was a talented artist. There are those today who possess paintings she did, some of which were painted not only on canvas, but on cardboard, or on window shades, and also on old crocks and pottery jugs.

Miss Conway’s life would probably have taken a different course entirely had the man she was engaged to not died before their wedding day. It is said that her life ended in some ways too with the passing of this man. His name was Lee Keisling, and that he at some point in their courtship asked her to never change.

From the time of his death, her life seemed to stand still in time, and in her mind, she remained in the period of the days when he was alive and they had plans to marry. It seems she took his words literally and kept many things in her home covered with newspapers, trying in that way to prevent those objects also from moving past the time he was still alive. At her request, letters he had written to her during their courtship were placed in her casket.

Miss Conway was very fond of her neighbors, Sam Coward, Sr. and wife Marie Coward who lived just across the street from her. Mr. Coward had a great love for politics and was quite involved in the growth and development of Livingston and Overton County during the last years he lived here. His name was well-known and respected in state government, and he had many friends who held high positions in the political field. At the time of Mr. Coward’s death, he was chairman of the State Election Commission.

On one of Miss Conway’s visits to check on Mr. Coward after he became ill with cancer, she learned that former Governor Frank Clement was expected at the Coward home later that day to visit with his friend, Sam. Miss Conway was very protective of the neighborhood, especially around fair time, and if someone made the mistake of trying to park near her house to walk on up to the fairgrounds, she would not allow them to do so.

On this particular occasion of checking on her neighbor, and just shortly after Miss Conway had returned to her house, a long black limousine drove up and stopped near her home, but before the passengers could get out, she approached the driver and told him he would have to move on, that a former governor of Tennessee was expected at her neighbor’s home to visit Mr. Sam Coward. Much to her surprise, Governor Clement stepped out and introduced himself to her and told her he would appreciate it if they could be allowed to park there while he visited with Sam.

Mr. Coward passed away not long after that visit with Governor Clement. Many dignitaries and government officials were in attendance at his funeral, including former Governor Frank Clement, Buford Ellington, who was governor of Tennessee at the time of Mr. Coward’s death, and many fellow cabinet members of the Election Commission committee.

There was once an occasion when Miss Conway was somehow swindled out of quite a large sum of money by a fellow who eventually wound up in prison because of his schemes. The man was not a local person, and although by the false misrepresentations he made to Miss Conway about some phony oil stocks to get his hands on her money, she absolutely refused to prosecute him. He ended up in prison because someone else he had hoodwinked was not as forgiving as Miss Conway. The entire time this man was imprisoned, Miss Conway wrote to him encouraging him to repent and to ask forgiveness for the wrongs he had done to others.

Miss Conway was still living at the time her little neighbor girl, Jane Davis, grew up, got married, and became Jane Jolley. From that point on, Miss Conway laughingly referred to her as “Jolley Jane”. Jane told me how Miss Conway always teased her about being “Jolley Jane” until one Saturday when Jane was visiting with her mother, Blanche, and Miss Conway knocked at the door.

The purpose of her visit that day was to ask Jane if she had ever offended her by calling her that nickname. Jane said she did her best to assure her that was never the case, to which Miss Conway replied that the reason she needed to know this was because she “was getting ready to die” and she didn’t want to do so without apologizing if she had ever offended her. Jane assured her she had never minded in the least being called “Jolley Jane”, and that she (Miss Conway) was not going to die, that she would be around forever.

On Monday morning following Miss Conway’s visit on Saturday, she was found dead in her home. The story is told that before she died, she tied a scarf around her head so that when death did come, her mouth would remain closed. She then proceeded to lay down on her bed with her arms crossed over her chest, and passed on from this world.

Miss Conway and both her parents are buried in the Good Hope Cemetery in Livingston. She was born September 17, 1883, and died July 17, 1967, at the age of 84 years. These words, which evidently were written by Miss Conway, are inscribed on her tombstone - “Though unto dust our bodies turneth, from this, a body God will prepare. In likeness to Christ’s glorious body, when we meet him in the air. Conway”