The history of
The Russ House
Jackson County, Florida
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Once upon a time....
If you go into the Marianna Chamber of Commerce and ask about the history of the Russ House, you're likely to be told, as was a friend of mine recently, that it was owned by "some old lady." Period. You won't find the home's history at the Chamber; they have shown little interest in that. But at least now it is on record here for anyone who may be interested, and that is why I am telling the story of the five generations of the Russ/Dickerson/Dekle families that lived in the house that we called "the Big House". You cannot tell the story of a house without telling the stories of those who lived there, and so I'd like to introduce you to "that old lady" and tell you a little about her. She was my grandmother, Frances Russ Dickerson, or as we called her "Big Mama," and it is to her that this site is dedicated.
The Russ House was built in 1892-5 by my great grandfather, Joseph Washington Russ, Jr., as a residence for himself and his mother, Mary Beman Russ, in her later years. It's original architectural style was characterized as Queen Anne Victorian, and was almost unrecognizable from the structure as it exists today. The home's current appearance was arrived at around 1910 when it's facade was remodeled in the Neoclassical style.
The Russ family had arrived in the area some time during the Territorial Period of the1820s; it was during this same time that Jackson County, and it's county seat, Marianna, were created.
Joseph Washington Russ, Sr. had been born in North Carolina, but his family had moved to Florida when he was a small child. In adulthood he became a planter, and later a merchant; and in 1848, he married Mary Williams Beman. They had two daughters; Anna (b.1849), who later married Moses Guyton III, and Caroline (b. 1852), who later married John Milton, Jr., the son of Florida Governor, John Milton. In 1866, Joseph Washington Russ, Jr. was born.
The parcel of land on which the Russ House now stands, was originally part of a much larger tract that encompassed many acres on both sides of Lafayette. On this property, the Russ children all eventually built homes, forming a sort of family compound. The original Russ homestead was located somewhere west of the current house, and the two daughters built homes on the tract as well, at the times of their marriages. The Guyton home was directly across the street from the Russ House, and the Milton home still stands today directly west of the home, still owned by the Milton family.
Joseph Russ, Sr., along with his partner Alexander Merritt, had formed a mercantile business, and his son continued to run this business after his father's death in 1883. During this time of Marianna's first boom of prosperity, the business flourished, and this success along with the vast land holdings the family had accumulated, allowed the Russ family to lead a privileged life. Mary Beman Russ died in 1897, only two years after her son had built the home for her, and in 1899, JW, Jr. married Bettie Erwin Philips . Their only child, Frances Philips Russ, was born to them the following year.
Joseph Washington Russ Jr
1866 - 1930
Joseph Washington Russ, Jr., built
Bettie Philips Russ holding
I have always heard that it was Bettie (Philips) Russ,
It was around 1910 that the home was remodeled in the Neoclassical architectural style. The changes consisted of mostly additions, rather than alterations, to the existing structure and the original 1892-5 fabric and design remained intact. As described in the nomination form from the National Register of Historic Places from 1983:
"The original rounded entrance tower was altered to remove the door and to create a set of bay windows to match those already in place on the parlor facade. The old dormered turret was replaced with a round, shingled, window-studded area and the shaft was topped with a pointed, shingled roof ending in a metal finial. The tower roof has a wide, bracketed overhang and decorated cornice to match those of the porch area below."
This two-story round tower, capped with the newly designed cupola, became the pivot point from which the majestic new porch would fan out:
"The overwhelming feature of the alteration was the monumental, semicircular, two-story porch which wraps itself around the east and southeast of the house. Its fanlike nature is emphasized by the floor and ceiling laths. These were milled so that the portion of each long, unjointed piece is narrow at the point where it meets the house and gradually widens towards the porch edge. The effect is striking, and the work is in tact today. The porch is supported by huge columns, constructed of fluted and tapered wood and topped with masonry Corinthian capitals. Balustrades surround the porch on both levels."
In addition, a one story porte-cochere was added to the eastern approach to the home. It was a one story carport like feature supported by two sets of double Corinthian columns with roof balustrades that tied in with those of the upper porch to form a deck. The bay window of the living room that faced Lafayette St. was replaced with a tripartite window on the now squared-off facade, and capped with a leaded glass fan window. The roof of the structure became a hipped rather than a gabled roof, with the bracketed eaves and decorated cornice. On the west end of the home, a two story, and latticed enclosed porch with was added with pantries on the first floor, and a large bedroom with a private entrance on the second. In keeping with popular Edwardian fashions of the day, the home was painted a pale, pearl gray, and the roof shingles, latticework, and shutters were stained teal blue.
In 1920, the upper porch was enclosed with casement windows to form a nursery in anticipation of the birth of my grandmother's first child, and it was with this addition that the home achieved the look that was familiar to onlookers for the next 75 years.
At that time, the home stood on a large parcel of land, that tapered off to that familiar point at the intersection of Russ Street and Lafayette Street. Also on the property was a smokehouse, a springhouse, stables and a barn for livestock, and several small cabins for the workers who ran the estate and worked inside the home. There were also grape arbors, a vegetable patch, and to the west of the residence, a large rose garden. All in all, it was a self-sufficient estate as was typical of such homes of that era.
Perhaps the sight that is most fondly remembered from that time is that of the "summerhouse," which stood halfway between the home and the point of the land on the Russ Street side. It was what is commonly called a gazebo, but what made it's appearance so appealing was the fact that it had become entwined with the same wisteria vines that adorned the great oaks of the property, giving it the appearance of a floral nest. It was a favorite playspot for the neighborhood children, and a striking complement to the home and it's grounds. Unfortunately, there are no pictures of this structure.
As an only child and a child of privilege, my grandmother had the childhood of a little princess. Marianna was a quiet, bucolic town at the turn of the century, and the people there were closeknit and caring; everybody knew everybody, it seemed. The Big House, and the other old homes that lined Lafayette Street at the time, made wonderful playgrounds, and though Marianna was a sleepy town, there were plenty of things to do. From my grandmother's accounts, these were very happy times, and these fond memories continued throughout her childhood and her marriage, and on through the early childhood's of her own children; but those golden times came to an abrupt and tragic end, and were never to be seen again. Russ Family Genealogy
After the Crash of 1929, the family fortune that had enabled the Russ family to build such a magnificent home was lost. From this point on, the struggle to keep and maintain the home began. Although my grandmother could no longer afford the home and, indeed, it was more home than she needed for just herself and her two children, it was the home she was born in and she was determined to keep it.
Among the assets lost were almost all of the land holdings, including the property that formed the front yard of the home. This parcel was sold off at auction and I believe it was sometime in the 1940s that a residence was constructed there. When the Department of Transportation widened Highway 90 in the early 60s, the new path of the road came so close to this house that they had to remove it's porch in order to proceed. Around this time, the area was rezoned commercial, and the property was sold to a gas company. From that point on, the Big House would loom over a series of unsightly businesses.
The widening of the highway proved to be a major turning point in Marianna's history and set in place the future events that would be the undoing of Marianna's once graceful ambiance. Stripped of the magnificent canopy of oaks that had previously lined it, and, in many cases, stripped of their front yards as well, the owners of Marianna's grand old homes found themselves in a real dilemma. The road was now busier and more intrusive, and created a much more abrasive living experience. Many families were forced to sell their old homesteads, and the grand old homes on what was once called "Silk Stocking Row" began to disappear one by one; in most cases replaced by businesses.
Though now the home's beauty had faded and it's once panoramic setting was now greatly compromised by it's unsightly neighbors, the Big House still beguiled almost everyone who beheld it. Hidden by a veil of overgrowth, and guarded by barbed wire vines, it perhaps held more allure now than it ever did; for nothing is as intriguing as a relic from another time. It loomed over the garish gas station like a stately, old temple in ruins, and it's faded elegance seduced the imaginations of many. By now, Big Mama was an old woman. Most of her spacious home was left unused; the upstairs had been virtually abandoned for the last forty years of her life. The Ghost of Times Past But her love for the house never faded, and she adapted to her new surroundings as she always had. She'd learned to ignore the constant noise from the highway and the gas station, and, in fact, came to rather enjoy it. Sitting in one of the old rocking chairs on her still grand front porch, she could watch the busy world race by. The Grounds
The Big House continued to intrigue people, and though most locals would not intrude out of respect, traveler's passing by on Highway 90 were not so demure. Not a day passed by that someone didn't knock on the door, wanting to know the home's story or, bolder yet, wanting to see the inside. Big Mama had developed a pat answer for that; she would always say "I'm sorry.....there's sickness in the family." Marianna had changed over the last several decades; it was no longer the town where everyone knew everyone. And so familiarity with the family and it's history was lost as the city expanded it's boundaries and it's population, and it became a house of mystery. Many stories circulated about the house; many thought it was haunted. I suppose, in a way, it was; haunted by the memories, held within it's walls, of all who had dwelled there over so many, many years.
In 1996, the home was deeded to the Marianna Chamber of Commerce, contingent upon their receipt of a grant from the State of Florida for the purpose of it's rehabilitation for use as their headquarters. Unfortunately this did not turn out to be the "happily ever after" ending that the family had intended.
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Web Pages by
Betty James Smith
11 July 2000
Web Pages Revised by
James L. Edenfield
16 Jun 2001