Author of best-selling novel had connection to pioneer city

The wheels may have fallen off of the 2016 version of the movie “Ben-Hur,” but the latest adaptation of Lew Wallace’s 19th century bestseller has refreshed the link between its author and several Brownwood residents.

Critics haven’t been kind since the movie’s Aug. 19 release, and instead of being a summer blockbuster, the $100 million extravaganza is well on its way to becoming a financial flop in three dimensions.

Even so, when the Regal Heartland Stadium 8 started showing “Ben-Hur” last month, the film triggered memories of how the Wallace family and the Weakley-Watson family were connected almost a century-and-a-half ago.

Mike Blagg’s grandfather’s grandfather — Joseph C. Weakley — founded Weakley-Watson Hardware in Brownwood in 1876. So Blagg watched the movie last month with special interest. The memoirs of W. Lee Watson, Blagg’s grandfather, document the connection between the Wallace family and Weakley, who was Watson’s grandfather.

Blagg with his brothers Bill and John Lee are fifth-generation co-owners of Weakley-Watson True Value Hardware, upholding a 140-year-old tradition.

“J.C. Weakley lived in Indianapolis before he came to Texas, and he was a neighbor of the family of Gen. Lew Wallace, who wrote ‘Ben-Hur’,” Blagg said.

Blagg also recalled that the Brown County Museum of History has in its collection an autographed copy of an 1880 edition of Wallace’s epic novel, whose full title is “Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ.”

The book, frwamed in a shadow book with the autographed page open for viewing, wasn’t on exhibit at the time, but Museum Director Wanda Furgason knew exactly where it was stored. However, information with the book left some unanswered questions.

Blagg knew the book had a connection to Weakley-Watson, because of the link the two families had from Indiana. But the book was addressed to a man named Marshall Smith, and it was donated to the museum by Mrs. Ross Churchill.

Exactly how that book found its way to Brownwood prompted the rediscovery of information that may have been common knowledge here more than a century ago, but the details have faded with passing years. Fortunately, files available at the Brownwood Public Library’s Local History and Genealogy Research Branch on the courthouse square helped fill in some gaps and confirm recollections.

Volunteers with the Pecan Valley Genealogical Society at the library researched the individuals named, and found that Mrs. Churchill — who donated the book to the museum — was the daughter of Smith, a Brownwood postmaster around the turn of the 20th century. Mrs. Churchill died in Crosbyton, Texas, in 1986, according to records the museum researchers found.

Providing additional direction were files in the genealogical library containing copies of letters from Lew Wallace to Brownwood Postmaster Marshall Smith written in 1899, and an excerpt from Tevis Clyde Smith’s book “Memories of Men” (1954). Smith was a local historian and author.

In 1899, 19 years after “Ben-Hur” was published, Lew Wallace wrote a letter to Marshall Smith, Brownwood’s postmaster from 1897 to 1914, asking his assistance in having his brother’s body moved from a Brownwood cemetery to his family’s cemetery plot in Indiana. Smith made the arrangements, and Wallace sent Smith the autographed copy of his best-selling book in appreciation.

The letter asking for assistance is dated June 12, 1899, and Lew Wallace wrote a second letter on July 1, 1899, notifying Smith that his brother’s body had been received. The letter also refers to the return of a portion of the money Wallace had sent the postmaster to handle arrangements — money that was in excess of the actual expense.

The autograph in the book is dated Nov. 18, 1899.

An afternoon of research by volunteers at the Brownwood Public Library’s Genealogical and Research Library on the courthouse square confirmed that one of Lew Wallace’s three brothers had lived in Brownwood for 11 years before his death on Dec. 30, 1885. He was buried, based on a description in a letter, in Greenleaf Cemetery though it was not named. Confirmation from cemetery records was not immediately available.

However, a notice of Capt. Edward Wallace’s death in Brownwood was published in the New York Times on Jan. 1, 1886, two days after his death Dec. 30, 1885. His passing was notable nationally because of the literary success of his brother, Lew, who had been a general for the Union during the Civil War. Also, the brothers’ father, David Wallace, had been governor of Indiana from 1837 to 1840.

Brownwood historian Tevis Clyde Smith apparently was given the name of the wrong Wallace brother when writing his book, “Memories of Men.” The Brownwood author said the brother who died in Brownwood was Civil War Colonel William Wallace, not Edward, a Civil War captain.

Tombstones and other cemetery records in Indiana posted online indicate that William Wallace died in Indiana in 1891.

Those records also show that Capt. Edward Test Wallace, a tinsmith by trade, was born in Indiana in 1831, and died from pneumonia in “Brownsville, Texas,” another apparent error, in 1885. Those records indicate that Edward wasn’t buried in his family’s cemetery in Indiana until 1899. Further confirmation is found in the 1880 U.S. Census, where Indiana native Edward Wallace, 48, is listed as a resident of Brownwood.

In his handwritten message in the “Ben-Hur” book sent to the postmaster who arranged transfer of the body, Lew Wallace referred to Brownwood as Brownsville. The letter, however, must have been properly addressed.

Watson’s writings, which are dated Oct. 11, 1942, document that his grandfather, J.C. Weakley, was born in Indianapolis in April 1839, the same year Edward Wallace was born, and his family was a neighbor of the Wallace family.

“In Indianapolis, (Weakley’s) family lived as neighbors to the family of General Lew Wallace, Civil War soldier and author of ‘Ben-Hur.’ After the war, General Wallace decided to travel to the west and Granddad decided to go with him. They traveled to St. Joseph, Missouri, which at that time was the end of the railroad to the west.

“While waiting for a wagon train or other means of transportation west, Granddad gave up the idea and headed south,” Watson’s memoir continued.

Weakley took a boat down the Mississippi River to New Orleans, and moved on to Galveston to work in a sheet metal shop and mastered his trade as a roofer. That’s where he met his first wife — Helen Colmar Miller. They moved to Waco, where Watson’s mother was born on April 4, 1874. He moved to Comanche to open a metal shop, and that’s where a second daughter, Alyce, was born Sept. 26, 1875.

Weakley accepted a contract to roof a new building on Brown County’s courthouse square in 1876, and moved his business to Brownwood on July 4, 1876. Based on the timeline of Edward Wallace’s life as detailed in his published obituary, he had already been living in Brownwood for two years when Weakley arrived.

Given their family connections from Indiana, Weakley must have felt comfortable giving longtime family acquaintance Edward Wallace a job in his new enterprise.

As far as the current movie is concerned, Brownwood residents have reason to watch with this unique historic perspective. Shows continue this week at the cinema in Heartland Mall, in both standard and 3D versions.

They can also judge the merits of the new movie for themselves, perhaps comparing this version to the one in 1959 starring Charlton Heston that captured 11 Academy Awards awards.