BENA KENNISON WAS “THE McNESS MAN” IN CHARLTON
By Jack R. Mays, Charlton County, Ga. Historian
The engine of the Model A Ford clucked easily as Bena Wainsor Kennison rounded a gentle curve in the deep sand ruts and headed his black sedan into the front yard of a run-down farmhouse in the Homeland area. It was 1932.
Four poorly dressed youngsters ran out of the house to meet him as the slightly-built Kennison untangled himself from the front seat of his Ford. They knew Kennison would have some chewing gum for each of them as he always did when he came to the home.
On the doors of Kennison’s Model A were bright red and gold decals of F.W. McNess’ Sanitary Products Company. To the people of Charlton County Bena Kennison was “The McNess Man”. Six days a week he would make his rounds throughout the county peddling liniment, fly spray, brooms and other household products.
These were the agonizing days of the great depression. Many of the people of the county were mired in poverty. Kennison himself had given up trying to raise cotton on the family farm and turned to his McNess route.
But the unique grin of the door-to-door salesman masked any symptom of the personal agony he was going through, trying to raise the ten-dollar-a-month house payments to keep from losing his home. Kennison’s life paralleled rural America’s struggle for survival.
Kennison’s father, John Berry Kennison, had died in 1915 at 65, leaving a widow, Sarah Allen Kennison and three boys and six girls. One of the girls was named Ada, another was Kate. Ada was to play an important role in Bena’s future. Bena bought 307 acres of his father’s estate with a $450.00 loan from the Citizens Bank on May 2, 1916.
Bena’s sister Ada married a young New Yorker named Andrew Pritchard who had left his home in 1915 on Long Island to find adventure in Florida. Tiring of Florida he left there on a train and stopped in the first town in Georgia, Folkston. Later he met and married Bena’s sister, Ada Kennison, and moved into the Homeland colony settlement.
Andrew Pritchard had a relative, Mamie Willey, the daughter of a well-to-do lawyer for the Pennsylvania Railroad, Thomas H. Willey, and his wife Emma. The Willey family lived in Ozone Park, Long Island and Mamie was enrolled in prestigious Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York.
Mamie was preparing herself to become a lawyer, quite an undertaking when women were not even allowed to vote at the time. She graduated from the then women’s college. But then her whole world collapsed.
Her father, who had sold off most of his real estate, preparing for retirement, had banked the considerable wealth in a Long Island bank and the bank failed. Mamie’s parents lost everything.
Mamie had visited with Andrew Pritchard and his wife Ada in Homeland several times after 1912. On these visits she had met and fallen in love with Ada’s brother, Bena. In 1920 Mamie and her father and mother loaded their belongings onto a railroad car and made their way to what was to become their new home, Homeland, Georgia.
Bena and Mamie had talked marriage on and off for two years. It was now July 11, 1920. Bena had bought the marriage license on June 23 from Ordinary J.J. Stokes and given the document to Mamie to put in her handbag until they could decide on a marriage date.
They were riding in Bena’s horse and buggy Sunday afternoon around the streets of Homeland. They passed the old stone church in Homeland and Bena commented that it was the pastor’s last Sunday there. He was Rev. J.A. Thompson, and related to Bena.
“Let’s get married when he gets home tonight, Kid, - have you still got the license?” he asked Mamie. She assured him the document was in her handbag although by now becoming rather wrinkled. The two agreed to get married at the minister’s home that evening.
Bena and Mamie drove the buggy back into Folkston and ate supper at Bank’s Café. Then they returned to Rev. Thompson’s home. They got there after dark, a few minutes before the minister and his wife returned home from the church, and waited in the buggy.
When Rev. Thompson and his wife walked up to the buggy, the minister said, “Hello, Bena, what can I do for you?” Bena told him of their wedding plans – but then Bena refused to go into the minister’s home for the ceremony.
The enterprising preacher solved the problem easily. He sent his wife into the home for the kerosene lamp so that he could read from his Bible which he carried under his arm. With Mamie and Bena sitting on the buggy seat, and the preacher’s wife holding the kerosene lamp, the minister performed the wedding ceremony. The week was a one to remember for the Kennisons. Four nights after their wedding, on July 15, 1920, the Homeland Post Office and store of Postmaster L.S. Waughtel, burned to the ground.
Bena and Mamie, who had no children, worked together on the farm, trying desperately to raise cotton for over ten years. With each passing month, they got deeper in debt. In 1932 Bena could go no further. He answered a McNess Company ad in the paper for a local route. Thus began a long association between Bena Kennison and the Freeport, Illinois house ware company.
In the midst of the depression years, Kennison sold his wares door to door, often taking farm products for his merchandise. He got so many chickens, he had to start selling the fouls to get his money back in order to pay McNess for his supplies.
In 1949, the depression had subsided. World War Two had ended and people were able to afford and get automobiles. Home products sales such as McNess, Watkins and Jewel Tea began to fade. Bena and Mamie left Homeland for twelve years, until 1961. They ran a B. Lloyd’s Pecan Station in Sylvania, Georgia.
In 1961 Bena turned to his wife, whom he called “Kid”. “Let’s go back home, Kid.” She agreed and the two returned to Homeland.
Bena’s health failed and on Saturday May 2, 1964 he died. He was 71. Rev. Charles Culbreth of the Folkston United Methodist Church performed the graveside funeral services in the Homeland Cemetery. He was buried beside Mamie’s parents, Thomas and Emma Willey. Mrs. Kennison died in December 1989, at age 94, and was also buried in Homeland.
Mamie and Bena Kennison and his McNess Route were a colorful part of the passing parade and history of Charlton County, Georgia.