The Strange Story of Cousin Tom Jett and the Dare stones

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Wall Street Journal, Friday January 22, 2016

“You see I had to shoot the man I lived with last year, so I was in the McDonough jail when old Doctor Pearce and old lady Pearce asked me to identify it. They showed it to met through the bars. I was in no humor to mess with any stone.” Cousin Tom Jett talking about Professor Pearce and his attempts to verify one of the Dare stones.

Jetts do seem to have a knack for earning odd places in American history. (Tom is released from jail. He acted in self defense.)

A story below the fold on the front page of Friday’s WSJ catches my attention, “A Small College Dares to Reopen a Stone Cold Case.”

Brenau University in Gainesville Georgia is the care taker to 46 inscribed stones documenting events that occur to the colonists of Roanoke Island after they vacate the island. These pet rocks, as a university publication names them, have a jaded past.

The first stone, and according to experts possibly the only one that actually might be authentic, is presumably found near Edenton in 1937 by a traveling produce salesman from California. He lugs the heavy but manageable stone to his car and several months later shows it to a professor at Emory University in Atlanta. While most of his colleagues are skeptical, history Professor Haywood Pearce Jr takes an interest in the stone and persuades his father, President of nearby Brenau University, to buy it. The two men follow many leads to authenticate the stone including producing a booklet and offering rewards for more stones. Both arouse public interest and as a result stones turn up in North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia.

In that time period Paul Green is working on his play The Lost Colony to premier on Roanoke Island in 1937. Long interested in the area and the fate of the colonists, he is penning the drama at the request of town officials wanting to beef up their local pageant with a grand celebration the year of Virginia Dare’s 350th birthday. Prior to that, celebrating Virginia Dare’s birthday is an annual local event in Manteo dating back to the late 1800’s. Mabel Evans Jones even produces and stars in a silent movie on the subject in 1921 which gets national attention.

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Original Eleanor Dare stone

There is also a plan for a coastal highway from Maine to Miami and one backer wants to create interest in the rich history of the area by seeding Roanoke Island with fake artifacts. He tries to convince state senator Bradford Fearing, champion to the Outer Banks fishing industry struggling with a flat economy, that this will turn the tide when the finds turn up in the fishing nets. Fearing sends him packing. Too, if you talk to the right Manteo folks they’ll affirm the story that in 1937 a man with a suitcase size stone tries to interest the locals in what he calls the Virginia Dare stone.

So many ways for these stones to be fake yet they refuse to roll over and gather moss. In 1979 Leonard Nimoy’s In Search of: The Lost Colony of Roanoke includes a segment on the stones. The History Channel airs a piece on the stones this past October.

And just where does cousin Tom Jett fit into all of this? The Jett family of Henry County in Georgia runs a mill there for years. Tom remembers as a boy being intrigued by a stone on the floor of the mill everyone calls the Indian stone because it has strange writing on it. His memory, of course, would far predate the flurry of Dare stones (the Jett stones being among them) that later surface. When the mill goes defunct, the stone is tossed in a ditch. Then when the search for the Dare stones is in high gear, one even being found in the vicinity, someone remembers the mill stone and goes looking for it. After much search it is found. There’s a second Jett stone with odd Indian markings, allegedly broken in two forty years earlier by Tom’s father, one piece being used for a barn support, the other tossed about from town to town in a tool box for years. Yet when the two are finally located and brought back together they fit perfectly. Almost too perfectly.

Will the story of the Dare stones ever reach a conclusion? Maybe this time they will. Meanwhile we Jetts are famous for that phrase, not original with us but we do get a lot of mileage out of it, of never letting a good story get in the way of the truth.

 

 

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