Thurston Miles, born a slave, built a land legacy for his descendants
This photo illustration shows the area to the east of Fulton Avenue in 1899.
MARY LOU MONTGOMERY
Surely, nobody ever told Thurston Miles that life would be easy. Presumably born into slavery in Gallatin County, Ky., circa 1850, and brought to Northeast Missouri sometime before slaves were given their freedom following the conclusion of the Civil War, Thurston Miles worked hard all of his life. He stumbled along the way, but kept getting back up.
Through the sweat of his brow, he died a landowner. The land he bought and worked throughout his adult life was in an unlikely spot for a man of color: Atop the river bluff just to the east of Fulton Avenue, roughly in the area that now hosts the old and new South Side water towers.
Thurston Miles purchased lot 2, block 10, in Townes Addition to Hannibal, from Joseph N. Peyton and wife in April 1899. He paid $50 for the property. He and his sons cleared that land, purchased adjacent lots, lived on and worked that land, and ultimately, that land became his legacy. For more than 100 years, that first plot of ground that he purchased, plus additional lots, would pass from generation to generation, until finally sold in 2001 to Katherine S. Lane. Included in the land transfer in October 2001 were lots 1, 2, 3 and 4, in Block Ten, Towne’s Addition.
Family loses everything
Prior to the purchase of his hilltop land, Thurston Miles and his family were living on the hillside above Guernsey Street, which is parallel to Fulton Avenue to the east. The house was a little more than a shack according to an April 1893 article in the Quincy Daily Journal. During a terrible storm that swept through the town, the house was literally blown down, with Thurston Miles, his wife, Minerva, and six of their children inside asleep. “They were hurled from their beds to the floor, or rather to the ceiling, for the house was turned bottom side up,” the newspaper reported.
The impact knocked Thurston Miles unconscious for a time. Soon, a coal oil lamp that was burning inside the house set fire to the structure. Miles, regaining consciousness, and his wife scrambled to save their children. Two children were trapped in the timbers, and heroic efforts by their parents were credited for saving the young ones’ lives. In the process, both Mr. and Mrs. Miles received burns to their hands and arms.
“The wind was blowing a terrible gale and in a very short time the house and contents were completely destroyed,” The Quincy Daily Journal reported. The family lost nearly all of their possessions.
Born to Harvey and Betty King Gaskin of New London, Ray Gaskin was employed as a porter in Hannibal in 1909, and also worked at several taverns in town. He married Thurston Miles’ daughter, Addeline, circa 1910.
On May 20, 1912, Thurston Miles returned to his home located on Oak Street only to discover a ghastly scene. The Quincy Daily Whig of May 21, 1912, reported that upon entering the house, he found his daughter and her husband lying on the floor of the bedroom, dead. “Gaskin had a hole through the left side of the his chest, while the woman’s throat was cut almost from ear to ear.”
Indications were that Gaskin was responsible for cutting his wife’s throat, then shot himself through the heart with a double-barreled shotgun.
The murder/suicide shocked those who knew the young couple. The newspaper reported: “One former employer said this afternoon that Gaskin was one of the best men who ever worked for him and that he always attended strictly to his own business. When questioned about Gaskin’s apparent mental trouble, the employer said that he never acted in a demented manner.”
Gaskin was buried at New London, and his wife was buried at the Old Baptist Cemetery in Hannibal.
For much of his work career, Mr. Miles was employed by the Hannibal Lime Company, working sometimes as a quarryman and other times as a fireman. The plant was located on Collier Street, at the southeast corner of Seventh Street. City directories of the era also list Mr. Miles as a farmer and a laborer.
He married Minerva Miles in 1875. According to the 1900 census, she gave birth to 13 children, eight of whom were living in 1900.
The six children living at home in 1900 were: Francis Miles, born July 1875; Addeline Miles, born July 1879; Henry Miles, born 1880; Laura Miles, born 1883; John Miles, born 1884; and Millie Miles, born December 1887.
John Miles served as informant when his father died in April 1928. The death certificate indicates that Thurston Miles’ parents were unknown. Thurston was buried at Robinson Cemetery.
John Miles’ wife, Fannie, was informant when his mother, Minerva Jane Miles died Oct. 8, 1920. Her death certificate indicates that her parents were unknown. She was buried in the Old Baptist Cemetery.
The Quincy Daily Journal reported that the Miles house that blew down in that terrible store was located behind Kleine’s Brewery, which was located at 1053 Fulton Ave. After address changes at the turn of the 20th Century, that address corresponds to 1200 Fulton Avenue.
Beginning in the 1880, Henry C. Kleine, who operated a grocery store in the 400 block of Broadway in 1871, established a brewery at the corner of Fulton Avenue and Spring Street.
The Miles house that blew away in a storm was located to the east of the brewery, north of Guernsey Street.
According to TavernTrove.com, H.C. Kleine operated the brewery from 1880-1891. Herl & Rendlen Brewing Co., doing business as South Side Brewery, operated it from 1895-1896. The brewery closed in 1896.
This file photo illustrates how burials dot the landscape of the historic Robinson Cemetery. Thurston Miles is among the hundreds of people of color buried in this cemetery. MARY LOU MONTGOMERY
Talks are under way regarding the future of the old South Side water tower, located on Oak Street. Thursday Miles and his descendants owned land in this area for more than 100 years, beginning in 1899.