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The Forgotten Adventures of Richard Halliburton, The A High-Flying Life from Tennessee to Timbuktu by R. Scott Williams Book

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The Forgotten Adventures of Richard Halliburton, The A High-Flying Life from Tennessee to Timbuktu by R. Scott Williams Read Book Online And Download

Overview: Richard Halliburton ran away from his hometown in Memphis at the age of nineteen to lead an extraordinary and dramatic life of adventure. Against the backdrop of the Golden Age, the Roaring Twenties and the Great Depression, Halliburton’s exploits around the globe made him an internationally known celebrity and the most famous travel writer of his time. From climbing Mount Olympus in Greece to swimming the Panama Canal and literally flying all the way to Timbuktu, Halliburton experienced and wrote about adventures that others never even believed possible. His youthful spirit and bohemian lifestyle won the hearts of millions. Author R. Scott Williams details the spectacular exploits of a true adventurer.

The Forgotten Adventures of Richard Halliburton, The A High-Flying Life from Tennessee to Timbuktu by R. Scott Williams Book
The Forgotten Adventures of Richard Halliburton, The A High-Flying Life from Tennessee to Timbuktu by R. Scott Williams Book

The Forgotten Adventures of Richard Halliburton, The A High-Flying Life from Tennessee to Timbuktu by R. Scott Williams Book Read Online Chapter One

In the Beginning, Brownsville

October 13, 1935

Hanging onto a runaway horse by one foot for more than a mile when he was only five years old was the start of a life full of adventures for Richard Halliburton, Memphis writer and world traveler. He will speak at the Auditorium Wednesday night under the auspices of the Memphis Art Association.

—Commercial Appeal

Located in Haywood County, in the heart of the West Tennessee Delta, just sixty miles east of Memphis, is Brownsville, Tennessee. Officially founded in 1823, it had previously been the hunting grounds for Cherokee and Chickasaw Indian tribes. The soil was made especially fertile by Haywood County’s proximity to the Hatchie River, so it made the perfect land on which to grow cotton and other crops, creating a strong, growing economy until the Civil War. Like other areas of the South, most of the settlers of West Tennessee were slave owners, and as they migrated to Haywood County, they brought their slaves with them to clear the area and create acre after acre of fertile farmland. In the aftermath of the Civil War, the cotton economy rebounded; however, the size of most farms was greatly reduced, and many of the “great, old Southern families” struggled to recover.

Richard Halliburton was a descendant of one of those great southern families. His grandparents John Wesley and Juliet Halliburton were distant cousins, both descendants of David Halliburton, who emigrated from Edinburgh, Scotland, to Philadelphia in the early 1700s. Eventually, a branch of the family settled down in Haywood County and began farming hundreds of acres of land. They became wealthy enough that Richard Halliburton’s grandfather John Halliburton was able to attend the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill at a time when education for most of their Haywood County neighbors amounted to a few years in a one-room schoolhouse, if that.


Richard Halliburton’s paternal grandfather, John Wesley Halliburton, before 1872. Courtesy of the Rhodes College Archives and Special Collections, Memphis, Tennessee.

While in college, John sent Juliet, who was his fiancé at the time, many romantic letters. In one, he wrote:

Darling please write at least once a week. I can’t bear disappointment now. I have expected a letter from you every week. Don’t disappoint me now my darling. Father never writes—I can’t hear from home—then darling not to hear from you (equal to all the world) will be too bad. As long as you write to me I can bear up under all of Fortune’s freaks. When you write all is joy and love—when you write I feel indipendent [sic] of all the world. When you write Chapel Hill is bearable—be silent and the reverse is my doom.4

In another letter, John described a “pro-Union” speech that he gave at a secessionist rally. He wrote, “I was taken up by some boys and rode around on their shoulders and they carried me to the ladies who gave me a Boquett [sic], but it was a secession boquett [sic] and could not sail under the ‘Star Spangled Banner’ pinned to my heart.”5

Although he opposed secession, John Halliburton’s loyalty to his family and community was greater, and he eventually enlisted in the Confederate army. He was visiting his fiancé in her hometown of Little Rock, Arkansas, when, following a brief gunboat battle below the Memphis bluffs on June 6, 1862, the Union army overtook the city and turned Memphis into a supply depot and staging area. John Halliburton enlisted with a Confederate regiment in Arkansas and eventually was captured and spent time in a Union prisoner of war camp. After the war, John and Juliet Halliburton married, and he began farming his family’s land near the Forked Dear River in Haywood County. The couple had six children, with three sons living to adulthood: Garland Garrison, John Holloway and Richard Halliburton’s father, Wesley.

In 1872, John Halliburton died, and Juliet moved back to her hometown of Dewitt, Arkansas, with Wesley and his two older brothers. She married William Stillwell, and they created a nice life for her three young boys. Years later, Wesley Halliburton referred to his childhood as “a wild, free, and open life, galloping over the prairies on my Texas mustang pony.”6 An article he wrote for a Memphis newspaper offers another small glimpse of his life in Dewitt:

I helped sing, with considerable zeal, at the once-a-month church services over in the…log church house, in Arkansas County. My mother would hold a song service at home on Saturday, to practice the hymns we would sing the next day. She didn’t care too much for lining out the words or too long meter. This was one time I enjoyed going to church, and on account of my fondness for harmony, I would sing more bass to the bar than the script called for.7

At thirteen years old, Wesley Halliburton attended boarding school in Covington, Tennessee, and was there when he received word that his mother was ill. On October 11, 1883, before he could get home to say goodbye, his mother passed away. Fortunately, he had a strong extended family and remained close to his older brothers and his maternal grandfather, Colonel William H. Halliburton.


Richard Halliburton’s paternal grandmother, Juliet Halliburton. Courtesy of the Rhodes College Archives and Special Collections, Memphis, Tennessee.

Colonel Halliburton, an attorney, had been born on November 4, 1816, to Thomas and Lucinda Halliburton, who were from Tennessee by way of North Carolina. While living in Benton County, Tennessee, William Halliburton was elected colonel of the 113th Regiment of the Tennessee Militia. He moved first to Memphis and then to his final home in Dewitt, Arkansas, where he simultaneously held the positions of deputy clerk and deputy sheriff. When the Civil War began, Colonel Halliburton was appointed chief collector of the war tax for the state of Arkansas. After the war, President Andrew Johnson pardoned Colonel Halliburton so he could continue practicing law in the federal courts. Wesley Halliburton had fond memories of his grandfather, and he wrote:

Colonel Halliburton was a man of dignified bearing, nearly six feet tall, but weighing less than 200 pounds. He wore a Confederate grey Prince Albert suit and a medium white hat. In the summertime he pulled off his heavy coat, but had a long alpaca coat instead, as he would never be seen in shirtsleeves. He had blue eyes and medium dark hair. He belonged to the Baptist Church and was a man who practiced the tenants of the Bible in his daily life. 8

Colonel Halliburton compiled a history of Arkansas County and instilled in his grandson a love of reading, writing and history, which Wesley Halliburton would pass along to his own son, Richard.

After his mother’s death, Wesley Halliburton was sent to a prep school in Fayetteville, Tennessee, and later attended Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, where in 1891 he received a civil engineering degree with honors. Afterward, he attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston and then spent some time working as an engineer for several firms in the area. He quickly grew tired of sitting behind a desk all day and returned to Haywood County to try his hand at farming the five hundred acres he had inherited from his father. He farmed the land with such success that he was asked to take over the management of several other troubled farms, which he also turned around.

Soon after moving back to Haywood County, and after a failed engagement to a local girl, Wesley met Nelle Nance, a young woman who had come to teach at the Brownsville Female College. She had been born in Paris, Tennessee, on March 9, 1869, to John and Amanda Blythe Nance. Nance had also experienced a childhood of loss. Her father died when she was three and her mother when she was thirteen. Relatives sent the young orphan to study piano at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, and after graduation in 1892, she became the head of the music department of the Athens Female College in Athens, Tennessee. Later, she accepted a similar position at the Brownsville Female College.

Nelle and Wesley Halliburton were married on a cold, rainy night at the Brownsville Methodist Church on January 19, 1898. The church was decorated with large amounts of mistletoe, and an article in the Commercial Appeal called their wedding “the handsomest affair of the kind ever witnessed.” Afterward, a reception was held at the college. The young couple was well thought of in the Brownsville community, as indicated in the article about their wedding:


Nelle Nance at sixteen. Courtesy of the Rhodes College Archives and Special Collections, Memphis, Tennessee.

Miss Nance has lived here for several years, having charge of the musical department of the Brownsville Female College, and is loved and esteemed by all. Mr. Halliburton, upon whom Dame Fortune has showered with so many blessings, is one of Haywood County’s most prominent and prosperous young farmers and capitalists. Many prominent people from this and adjoining states were present.9

After their marriage, they boarded in the home of Richard and Mary McLemore Thomas at 719 Key Corner in Brownsville. Originally, the red brick house had been a log cabin built around 1870 by Mary’s father, Sugars McLemore, one of Brownsville’s original settlers. Mary Thomas and her husband copied the style of a house they liked in St. Louis and remodeled the log cabin into one of Brownsville’s most stylish homes at the time. It was in this historic house that Richard Halliburton was born on January 9, 1900. Richard and Nelle Halliburton searched for a name for their firstborn, finally settling on “Richard” to honor the first settler of Brownsville, Colonel Richard Nixon. Years later, Richard Halliburton humorously prefaced a story in his book New Worlds to Conquer with a mention of his Brownsville namesake. He wrote, “I was called Richard after the town’s patriarch whose life had been so distinguished for wisdom and prudence…it was hoped that I in receiving his name might also receive his virtues. Considering the story I am about to relate, it is clear that this hope was not fulfilled.”10

Shortly after Halliburton was born, the family moved to 207 North Garland in Memphis, Tennessee, and Wesley Halliburton began working in the farm real estate and timber business. On May 31, 1902, Wesley Jr. was born, and the young family thrived both socially and economically. Halliburton’s business was doing very well, and he quickly made many important business connections in Memphis. The family had a housekeeper, were members of civic clubs and could afford to take time off from work for long vacations and trips abroad. Although Memphis was a growing urban community around the turn of the century, its female residents were expected to stay home and stay quiet. It would be twenty more years before Tennessee became the thirty-sixth state to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment, clearing the way for its official adoption eight days later, thus allowing Nelle Halliburton and other women to vote. Memphis journalist Robert Talley described the period shortly before the Halliburtons arrived in Memphis from Brownsville. He wrote, “Bewhiskered ‘Pappy’ Hadden was Mayor of the little city of Memphis and toured the cobblestoned streets in a buggy drawn by Hulda his white mule…‘Fiddlin’ Bob Taylor was Governor of Tennessee…Benjamin Harrison was President of the United States…and, quite definitely in the opinion of most people, [the] woman’s place was in the home.”11

Memphis may have been a traditional town, but Nelle Halliburton would never be a traditional turn-of-the-century housewife—and all indications are that her many interests and activities outside the home were appreciated and encouraged by her husband.

Their youngest son, Wesley Halliburton Jr., excelled at sports and became an active, popular little boy, while his older brother Richard preferred to spend time writing, drawing or riding Roxy, the family’s pony. Years later, when introducing Richard Halliburton at an event in Memphis, his father reminisced, “While he was a virile boy, he never quite entered the billy-goat period of boyhood nor cared to become one of the gang. Fire engines and locomotives did not excite him very much, and a fat policeman was not his idea of a hero; he rather leaned towards Odysseus and King Arthur and Marco Polo…and his father.”12


The Brownsville, Tennessee house where Richard Halliburton was born on January 9, 1900. Author’s collection.


Richard, Nelle and Wesley Halliburton Jr. Courtesy of the Rhodes College Archives and Special Collections, Memphis, Tennessee.

Halliburton’s earliest schooling began at home from his mother’s friend Mary Hutchison, and later he and Wesley Jr. were both sent to Memphis University School, which was attended by boys from some of the most well-connected families in Memphis. The hot, humid summers of West Tennessee were spent golfing with friends, visiting family back home in Brownsville or fishing at the family cabin in Tate Springs, Arkansas.

For the Halliburtons, the turn of the century had brought happiness, success and prosperity. Nothing could have prepared them for both the thrilling triumphs and heartbreaking tragedies that were right around the corner.

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