Thursday, February 9, 2017

The Howe-Winslow Letters, Part 2: Dust-up Over the Ghent Ferry

Roughly half of my packet of letters between John J. Howe of Carrollton, Kentucky, and his uncle Henry M. Winslow of Harriman, Tennessee, are about Henry's trials and tribulations as owner of riverfront land and a ferryboat landing at Ghent, Kentucky. I found the letters fascinating and a bit surprising. After reading them, I think both Henry and his nephew may have been disorganized and easily distracted in their business practices and a bit inept in money management. In this post, I will tell you why I think so.

On Jan. 1, 1923, Henry wrote to Paul M. Williams of Lexington, inviting him to buy Henry's riverfront property in Ghent. "I have been paying no attention to this matter [the land and related ferry business] for many years past as I had too much on my hands here and have just let this matter rock along at the insignificant sum of $35 per month . . .  This is a perpetual ferry franchise, tho I conveyed the right to the land in front of the town of Ghent for wharfage purposes exclusively reserving all of the ferry rights some years ago." The Graham Ferry Company, which by the 1920s had been transporting people and goods across the Ohio River between Ghent, Kentucky, and Vevay, Indiana, for a century, paid Henry $35 per month to dock at the Ghent wharf.

Ferry (the Eva Everett, I believe) at the Ghent Riverfront
Throughout the packet are letters from John (Henry's agent for business conducted in Carrollton and Ghent) to Martha A. Graham, acknowledging receipt of the monthly rent payments from the ferry company. Also there are a few letters asking about a missed payment. These inquiries were sent months after the fact, and John's words included phrases such as "I have no record" and "am unable to account for." Was he just softening the demand for a late payment, or was he admitting he could have misplaced the rent checks?

Letters from the rest of 1923 include information about both men getting loans of $500 and $1000 from multiple banks; both men receiving notices of late re-payments on those loans; and notes related to John's campaign for U.S. Senate. My impression is that the campaign was soaking up much of the borrowed funds.

On Feb. 8, 1924,  J. L. Graham writes to John Howe about a problem with the Ghent ferry landing:
Dear Sir:
As manager of the Vevay & Ghent Ferry Co. I wish to draw your attention to the attitude of the Ghent Authorities in regard to the road leading from the bank at the top of ferry grade to the state pike, "about one square." They stopped all tobacco trucks (during the recent thaw) coming from the ferry.
The tobacco pool officer proposed to put metal on the street & then continue to haul but they [the town of Ghent] would not permit them to do so.
I have put from $25 to $100 of metal on the ferry grade each year for the past several years, have had to do so to keep road somewhere near on a level as we have deep deposits of soil on each side of the road every year, as a result of this new metal & constant washing to remove the mud. I have a good hard road [is he referring to the ferry grade on the Indiana side of the river?], but the town of Ghent has only put about 5 yards of gravel on the grade in the past 5 years. I was just wondering if they could be persuaded to repair same so as not to stop our business, it seems there was an agreement between Mr. Winslow and the Town of Ghent whereby the town was to keep the street & grade in repair (to the foot of the bank) in exchange for the Ferry landing proper just one square farther upstream, the idea being that the large str [steamboat] could not use the lower landing during low water.
I have had to move the ferry dock up to the upper landing for the past several summers & the City authorities have had the [writing illegible] notify me to not use their landing.
I wish you would kindly investigate this matter right away.
Yours very [truly?],
J. L. Graham

In a letter dated March 24, 1924, a man named Leon Ash asked John to find out the lowest price Henry would accept for the Ghent ferry. (I assume that means the land and ferry rights.) John wrote to Henry:
Ash is now living in Vevay and is more or less familiar with the trouble Graham has been having about the road, but nevertheless is interested and, as I have thought for some time, is the best prospective purchaser around here.
Henry responded while on vacation in Florida:
On Sept. 16 – six months after Mr. Ash first expresses interest in buying the land – John invites Ash to his office to discuss the matter, saying that he and Henry had not given this matter consideration recently but would be pleased to hear from Ash if he was still interested. Were John and Henry so busy with other matters (or so disorganized) that they forgot about this possible offer? Or was this gamesmanship on their part?

John and Mr. Ash did meet, and on Sept. 19 John wrote to Henry. Apologies for the low-quality image, which is a photo of a carbon copy:

In response, Henry balked at $5,000 and favored a $7,000 minimum. He also expressed a desire to sell the "circus" lot (see note below under "Two Other Bits of Interest . . .") for $300-$375 and, in a later note, proposed selling his lots on Second Street to Dave Miller for a good price – and offered to finance the purchase. Obviously, Henry is selling off assets to raise cash – either for John's campaign (to which he contributed $10,000) or for other reasons.

Several letters sent by both John and Henry during 1924 include comments about lack of funds – not just for the campaign but for meeting general obligations. The year 1925 began with Henry alerting John that he had received no ferry rental checks for the past 14 months – a total of $490. The Grahams routinely sent the monthly rent checks to John, who would send them on to his uncle. Why had Henry received no checks for 14 months? Was John so busy with his campaign and with his work as commonwealth's attorney that he didn't get around to sending them? Did John (I hate to think it) apply the money to his campaign with intentions of making good sometime down the road? Why did it take Henry 14 months to notice he hadn't been receiving his money? More hints at disorganization and careless business practices on both sides.

Then Henry got into a bit of tax trouble. Judge Matthews of Carroll County notified Henry (through John) that the Ghent School District expects Henry to pay school taxes on his ferry property. Henry offered several reasons why the school board had no right to tax the property. Judge Matthews held steady, warning that the school district could proceed to sell the ferry franchise to recoup the unpaid taxes. In a letter dated June 19, 1924, John postulated that by hiring someone to monitor the ferry business for a month, they had brought unwanted attention to themselves. He also reported that the judge had made some unflattering remarks about the ferryboat owners.
It seems that our having those receipts checked for a month has revived this old ambition on the part of the Ghent folks to gouge you for taxes. Judge Matthews was anything but complimentary concerning the Grahams, saying that they were lacking in enterprise, and most difficult to get along with, and that that was the reason why it would be impossible for you to sell the ferry at anything like a reasonable price as long as the Grahams would have to be contended with.
On July 2, 1925, Mr. Albertson, apparently the manager of Henry M. Winslow's law office in Harriman, Tennessee, reported to John that Winslow wanted to pay the taxes to avoid interest or penalties, but that the firm's bank account was "somewhat low" and would not cover the cost. Mr. Albertson wrote:
If the Ghent folks make demand for the payment of this $160 before Mr. Winslow sends it to you, just give them your check for it and then draw a sight draft on Mr. Winslow thru the First National Bank of this city to cover same. And I will of course take care of the draft when presented for payment.
I googled "sight check." I'm not a banker or an attorney, but writing such a check against an almost empty bank account sounds suspect. Maybe John thought so, too, because the tax was apparently still unpaid on Aug. 29, 1925, when John notified Henry that the trustees of Ghent had hired an attorney, J. Wirt Turner of Newcastle, Ky., to collect the tax payment. 

On Sept. 12, John sent Henry the school district officers' receipt for $160. It appears that Henry Winslow lost the battle and paid the tax.

I'll have to do more research to determine if Henry ever sold the various parcels of land, if he got the prices he wanted, and if either man ever managed to solve their cash-flow issues. 

Two Other Bits of Interest From the Letters

On March 9, 1923, John notified Henry that Joe Miller offered to pay $10 per month to rent Henry's "circus lot" to cultivate corn. I think this lot was close to Henry's riverfront land, because I came across a picture of elephants boarding the Robert T. Graham ferryboat. Assuming that elephants were not permanent residents of Carroll County, I'm guessing the circus was in town.

On Nov. 30, 1923, John wrote to his uncle about his busy days in court and refers to his hope to win a seat in the U.S. Senate. Notice the second paragraph in this excerpt. He mentions that the court in Carroll County had, for the first time, women serving on the jury. Momentous event!

Within an hour of publishing this post, I found this small document, which apparently had slipped unnoticed from the stack of letters Howe-Winslow letters. It appears to be a Kentucky State Bank deposit receipt showing that John J. Howe deposited a $650 check from J.L. Graham on Jan. 15, 1937. What was Graham paying for? Henry Winslow died in 1931. Was John his executor? Was Graham buying ferry rights from Winslow's estate? Was he paying a previous debt to Henry or John? Was this a payment toward buying the land at which the ferry docked?

The mysteries continue. Maybe it's time I made another trip to the Carroll County courthouse.

More information and images of Ghent ferryboats and related topics:
Switzerland County (Indiana) Historical Society
Kenton County (Kentucky) Public Library
 Kentucky Kinfolk
Juanita Graham – First woman in the district to get a river pilot's license (1900)
News of a fatal accident involving the ferry
More photos and history of ferryboats
"Brief History of Switzerland County, Indiana"
"19th Century Overview of Vevay, Indiana"

Photo Credit: The ferry image in this post appears on the website Original source: Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County

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