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The Darker Side of Papa Neely

Updated: Jun 18

My father's maternal grandfather was John Wesley Neely, known to his grandchildren as "Papa Neely." As I wrote in Volume I of my genealogy e-book, Papa Neely had a hardscrabble childhood in Brevard, Transylvania County, North Carolina. He was born in 1870, after the Civil War had done its damage in the South.

He wanted an education, which was unusual at the time, and attended a business college in Andersonville, South Carolina as a nineteen-year-old. Shortly after, he moved to Asheville, North Carolina, where he began working at a men's clothing store. He married Julia Rebekah Nelson in 1894. (Her father had been the rotating Baptist minister who had preached at his family's Brevard church when both John and Julia -- born the same year -- were children.) They had a total of eight children -- six girls (my grandmother Helen Neely (married to Walter Watts St., was the oldest child) and two boys.

Papa Neely was quite successful in business, and eventually opened up his own haberdashery stores (J.W. Neely and Company), first on Broadway Street in Asheville and later on Patton Avenue. (He regularly went on shopping trips to New York City -- he often took a child with him -- and saw plays on Broadway. He pushed the city council to rename North Main Street as Broadway -- which they did! He also was on the committee that added electric lights to the street, which he called the "great white way,")

He was active in seemingly every community club, church, fraternal, sports, and merchants associations that existed in Asheville, and was at times the president of many of them. He was often recognized as attending 100% of that particular association's meetings. He was written up many, many times in the Asheville Citizen-Times, almost always putting him in a good light. The newspaper had stories about him when he celebrated major birthday milestones. He was also an enthusiastic bowler (his best game was 276) and enjoyed going to baseball games

But I found a few newspaper clippings that showed a darker side of Papa Neely. It involved the minor league Asheville Baseball Association in 1904. I'm going to transcribe the Asheville Citizen-Times article that appeared on August 27, 1904.

Baseball Association Did Not Authorize Search Warrants

Committee Regrets Action and Consensus of Opinion is that Apology is Due the Ball Players -- Mr. Neely Makes Statement of His Actions.

At a called meeting of the Asheville Baseball association yesterday morning the members went on record to show that as an association it had nothing whatever to do with the search warrants served on Messrs. Holt and Johnson, looking to the recovery of a baseball mitt. Every member of the association regrets the affair, and all are of an opinion that an apology is due Messrs. Holt and Johnson.

Committee's Statement

The committee selected at the meeting drew up the following statement:

"We as a committee, desire to state that the searching of Holt's and Johnson's baggage at the Southern railroad depot Thursday afternoon, as published in Friday morning's Citizen, was not authorized by the Asheville Baseball association. In justice to Mr. Neely, a member of the association, his statement of the case is published below.

D.L. Jackson, Chairman.

J.T. Sevier

Edward E. Short

Mr. Neely's Explanation

Mr. Neely was called before the meeting and made the following statement for publication:

"I desire to state, in justice to myself, that I called to see the president of the association, and as he was not in, I as a member of the association, told Mr. Badger that it was not a personal matter, bur for the best interest of the league. It was not for the value of the mitt, but for the principle. I told Mr. Holt that we had the best lot of baseball players I ever saw, and that the public in general was of the same opinion. Mr. Holt informed me that Mr. Johnson had the mitt about half an hour before the train was due to leave. Mr. Coggins was with me, and we thought it best to take this course, as both Messrs. Holt and Johnson would leave on the very next train. I regret very much that the matter became public.


J.W. Neely

Papa Neely, during a visit to see the head of the baseball association (who was not available at the time), somehow discovered that a catcher's mitt was missing and wanted to take action -- which spectacularly backfired. Here's an article that ran the day before in the Asheville paper:

Baseball Players Baggage Searched by Deputy Sheriffs

On the suggestive charge that they had "unlawfully taken and carried away" one catcher's mitt of the value of $6 the baggage of Earl Holt and Frank Johnson, two members of Asheville's baseball team, was searched by deputy sheriffs at the depot yesterday afternoon.

In case the mitt was found in the baggage there was in the officers' custody to be served a legal writ bearing an ugly name. As the glove was not found this paper was returned unserved.

The cause of this (sic) proceedings was the disappearance of a catcher's mitt belong to the Asheville Association. The circumstances of its disappearance were such as to lead John W. Neely, a careful business man who is a league official, to swear out a search warrant and accompanying writ. Deputy Sheriffs Well and Jarvis served it shortly before the afternoon train took the two players east.

Mr. Holt was first baseman and captain of the team which Johnson was one of the pitchers. Holt said it was pretty rough to be treated in such a way after he had given the league good service.

Apparently Papa Neely was mortified, but seemed most upset because his actions had been made public. At first I thought maybe the baseball players were Black, but then I realized that that would not have been possible in 1904. To further make amends, Papa Neely helped defray the Asheville Baseball Association's 1904 season's debts of $162.94 in December 1904. A letter to the editor of the Asheville Citizen-Times by the baseball club said the following, presumably to help rehabilitate Papa Neely's image in the eyes of newspaper readers.:

Voice of the People

Baseball Bills Paid

Editor of The Citizen: At the close of the season four months ago, the Asheville Baseball Association had a total indebtedness on its hands of $152.94 with nothing in sight with which to liquidate. Nevertheless, Mr. John W. Neely and myself informed all creditors of the Association that all bills would be paid. I now have the pleasure of announcing to the public that all bills have been paid, and that I hold the receipts for the same in full.

The money was raised from the membership of the Association in small amounts, and from the Asheville Electric Co. Mr. Neely deserves great credit for the interest he has taken in this matter and for the time he has given to it. His assistance has been invaluable to me. I have no hesitancy in saying that had it not been for his constant help and encouragement these bills would still be unpaid at this time.

I will say further that I believe Asheville would not have had any baseball the past season had it not been for the efforts of Jr. John Neely (be it to his credit or not) . . . .

Crazily enough, a day after he sought a search warrant for the baseball players (August 27, 1904) there was a warrant sworn out against Papa Neely totally unrelated to the baseball kerfuffle:

J.W. Neely and J.C. Gentry Have Fistic Encounter

Latter, it is Alleged, Charged Former and the Jury With Robbing the Taxpayers.

J.W. Neely and J.C. Gentry met at the intersection of Starnes avenue and Flint street, where an argument arose over the assessment of the property of the latter by the former. The lie (?) was passed or something to that effect, and Neely assaulted Gentry. A warrant was sworn out against Neely charging assault and he submitted in the court of Magistrate Summey. Later a warrant charging Mr. Gentry with the same offense took that gentleman to the court of Magistrate Waddell, where he also submitted and his fine was $1 and costs.

The affair created considerable comment from the fact that both men are well known. Mr. Neely had been a tax assessor, which caused Mr. Gentry to charge him with having placed too high an assessment on his property. When the men met it is charged that the property owner declared that the entire jury of assessors were robbers. Mr. Neely then "led with a right to [illegible]. Gentry ducked, and securing a half Nelson (ha!) landed on his opponent's [illegible]. A Mr. Montague who witnessed the [illegible] then called time.

(In high school I dated a guy whose last name was Gentry, but fortunately this Mr. Gentry was not related to him!)

There are a couple more "new-to-me" newspaper clippings about Papa Neely that I found interesting. In 1912, when there were few laws relating to automobiles, Papa Neely called the police to report that G.W. Ledbetter was speeding on Flint Street and "testified that his child had narrowly escaped being run down by a car on a former occasion." Ledbetter was charged, found guilty and fined $20.00 by Judge Adams. Papa Neely apologized, saying " he hated very much to cause the punishment of the automobile drivers and owners." This seems like a foreshadowing of the death of Papa's youngest son, Harry, who died ten years later at the age of twelve after being hit by a car and a few days later being struck in the head by a baseball while playing a baseball game, developing a hematoma that killed him.

Another kind of bizarre but fun newspaper article, published in the Asheville Citizen-Times on June 24, 1948. It involved the younger two children of John Thomas Neely's four, the only surviving Neely son, who were visiting Papa and Mama Neely:

Neely Children Perform Unusual Memory Feats

Two former Asheville children recently performed difficult memory feats in a demonstration conducted by Sigmund Blomberg, of Asheville, memory expert in Columbus, Ohio.

They are Nancy Neely, 8, and Richard Neely, 13, children of Mr. and Mrs. J.T. Neely, formerly of Asheville, now residing in Columbus, and the grandchildren of Mr. and Mrs. John W. Neely of 175 Flint street.

In the brief time of just half an hour, Nancy and Richland learned their Ten Commandments so that they could recite them backward or forward or recite them by the number called.

In a session of brief coaching, Mr. Blomberg taught Nancy and Richard how to enumerate the presidents of the United States. On being quizzed as to who was the 15th president in order, the answer came quickly from Nancy that he was James Buchanan. Then, in rapid fire fashion, Richard recited them backwards.

Mr. Blomberg also taught Nancy and Richard how to remember the contents of an entire current magazine.

Later, after only brief coaching, either Nancy or Richard could recite high lights [sic] of any page called for. "On page 11," Nancy said, "is a whole page advertisement showing a lot of sports garments and the advertisement is sponsored by B.V.D.

"Amazing, indeed, was the quickness with which Nancy and Richard acquired the rudiments of a memory system," Mr. Blomberg said, "applying to the retention of names, faces, facts, figures, spelling, medical terms, studies, etc."

Natives of Asheville, the two Neely children moved to Columbus, Ohio, about three years ago. Their father is connected with the clothing department of Lazarus Brothers there.

Of course these were Dad's first cousins. Nancy Neely (she was likely named for her great-grandmother, Nancy "Nannie" McQueen) attended Catholic schools in Columbus and became a nun in 1958. (Her mother was Ella Zindel, a Catholic from Asheville, and J.T. converted at their 1926 wedding, to the chagrin of the Neely clan.) The following is from the Catholic Times:

She later left the convent and married. She died a few years ago. I was in contact with her briefly when I began working on my genealogy, but never met her. When she died, her husband sent death notices to everybody in her email contact list. I'm sure the Neelys were scandalized to have a Catholic nun in the family!

I would add that Sigmond Blomberg was the son of Lewis Blomberg and a brother of Asheville car dealer Harry Blomberg. The family knew Papa Neely because they were merchants with a store on the square named the Racket Store. Sigmond had a great voice, and was cantor of the Jewish synagogue in Asheville. He also sang in a minstrel group with Emmett Davis, husband of Papa Neely's fourth daughter, Dorothy "Jack" Neely Davis. He participated in many community theater shows. I have no idea how he ended up as a "memory expert." The newspaper article said he was from Asheville, which he was, but also that he was from Columbus, Ohio, which he wasn't.

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