In the countryside about 30 miles outside of Thomasville stands an empty one-story white wooden building beside the narrow, gravel road. It is falling down now, the ravages of time and weather allowing nature to reclaim what had once been a small country store in front and home for a family in the back. Serving the local farmers in the surrounding community, the store was known as Chapman’s Store, named for the family that stood behind the counter and pumped the gas out front. The family there consisted of a mom, dad and one daughter named Betty Jean Chapman. She died in 2001 and with no living descendants, the home and store were abandoned after being emptied of anything of value. In the end all that was left was some battered furniture and a mix of papers and photos scattered in what was probably one of the bedrooms down the hall.
The building sat empty and unused from that point forward until our visit in 2018. Noticing the papers and photos we asked the present owners if we could recover them and see if perhaps some far-flung family could be found to send them to or if that wasn’t possible, then to allow us to capture the memory of this family and their story.
Finally, in August, 2019, we were given permission to take the dust-covered items home and begin patching together the amazing life these people led stretching from the turn of the 20th century to the early years of the 1960’s as they bestrode the world of Sinatra, the Atom bomb and had the confidence that the future was open-ended and immense. I refer to them as the Gods and Goddesses of the time, and once you see the pictures you will understand why.
Betty Jean, the epitome of the post-war bride, bold & beautiful. She graduated from Moultrie High School in 1947 and married Billie Jackson Phelps after his return from the Navy in 1949. Among the pictures below is the first page of her high school autograph book signed by her future husband Bill.
This photo gallery will grow as we learn more about his remarkable life. Some of what we know so far tells of a man leaving the Navy in 1946 after serving in World War II. We know he traveled in Central America collecting wildlife for Ross Allen's attraction in Florida and during these travels found an island off the shores of Belize where he purchased a beach where he wished to live in retirement.
If there is one thing we have learned from out time researching his life it is this, whatever you do, Don't Feed Marshmallows to the Alligators During Lectures.
During January of 1963, Bill Phelps helped a New York advertising agency called Filmex create an ad for a new cigar being marketed by El Roi-Tan. The cigar was called "The Falcon" and featured Jim Montgomery from Pompano Beach as the model and Andy Sweet directed the work. The pictures of Jim and the raptor are perfect examples of the manly aura of the late 50's and early 60's American male and fit with the jingle of the cigar company which was, "Man-to-man, smoke a Roi-tan".
Sometime in 1963, Bill & Betty purchased a new American Motors Rambler Station Wagon. He was still working with Ross Allen & The Masterpiece attraction at this time and during one of his forays in South Florida to capture birds, a photo shoot was done of them both camping in a tent. The six photos were taken during this trip, five of which appeared in an article for the dealership trade journal called American Motor News Illustrated. Based on the type and size of the original photos, I surmise that the principal photographer utilized at Ross Allen's attraction in Silver Springs accompanied Bill & Betty on this trip. Copies of these photos appear on the Florida Memory site as well as our own here.
We only know a small amount about the store owned by Betty Jean's parents. It served a community of about 75 individuals and when founded it provided fuel and small grocery items to them. The parents who operated the store were Arthur Norris Chapman and his wife Hazel Lewis Chapman. The store and attached home were abandoned after the death of their daughter Betty Jean Chapman Phelps in 2001 and the the property sold off to the surrounding farm families. The gallery below shows pictures of the store & the extended Chapman family.
Part of Bill & Betty's world was their broad group of friends and co-workers. Below we will begin bringing this group back to life so you can appreciate how incredible the other people around them as well.
Born in 1908 and founder of the Florida Attraction called The Reptile Institute in 1929.
The picture above is of Zale Parry and Bill Phelps at the Birds of Prey attraction.
Another person who deserves a book written about them. John Hamlet was an entomologist, established an institute in South Carolina where he worked with the primates used in Jonas Salks research and was a falconer on the side
Beatrice is a nearly forgotten circus performer from the mid-century. She traveled with the Ringling Brothers and other circuses with her cast of performing chimpanzees.
One of the most manly pictures in the trove we are working on. This gentleman turned out to be John Calvert, actor, magician, stunt double, pilot, sailor just to name a few things he did before breakfast.
Many of the models from the Silver Springs area visited Ross Allen's Reptile World for a one-of-a-kind photo. Arilla Jones above is one of them.
Betty Jean's maternal grandparents were Robert J. Lewis and his wife Ocie who operated a small grocery store near Bay, GA.
This project to return the pictures to their proper home is an ongoing one. This section is dedicated to the various images we haven't been able to identify to date. Take a look at the pictures below and if you believe you know who they may be please reach out to us by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
One of the things we were able to do when going through the photos was to see that many belonged together and had originally been from the same roll of film. The set below is one such set. It appears to cover family pictures from Georgia and a visit to the "Chapman House" in Washington D.C. as well as the zoo there. There is a lot written on the back of most of the photos and where that the case it will be transcribed below each picture in the gallery below.