Miss Hessie, A Vintage Vignette

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Miss Hessie
A Vintage Vignette by John P. Rankin

April 13, 2007

1934 photo of Miss Hessie

Nancy Hesseltine Gillespie was born in Tennessee in 1866, just after the Civil War. She became well-known as Madison’s most beloved school teacher. Her family moved to Morgan County, Alabama in 1870, then to the Madison area in 1879. “Hessie” had one sister and six brothers, two of whom became physicians. Hessie graduated with honors from the Huntsville Female Seminary in 1888 and became a teacher. She married Joseph Bruce Farley in 1892, living in Madison. The couple had a daughter, Frances Lorinda Farley in 1893, but Bruce died of malaria in 1894 at the age of 28. Hessie never remarried. After Bruce’s death, she went into partnership with her brother William Gillespie to run the Farley & Gillespie Drug Store in Madison. The store offered groceries, stationery, and hardware as well as medicines. The store was sold, and Hessie accepted a teaching job in Tuscumbia. In 1907 her mother Narcissa Lorinda Clarke Gillespie died, and in 1910 her father Campbell Milton Gillespie (a Confederate veteran) passed away. That left Hessie’s sister, Narcissa Elizabeth (“Nora”) Gillespie, who never married, alone on the family farm, so Hessie returned to Madison in 1911. She had a unique house constructed for herself, her daughter, and her sister at 313 Church Street, while the family farm was rented to a nephew, Clark Patton Gillespie. Hessie began to teach again in Madison and became affectionately known as “Miss Hessie” to her first grade pupils.

Hessie’s daughter Lorinda married Herbert Lafayette Thornton in 1920, and in 1935 Herbert became a charter member of Alabama’s new Highway Patrol. It took quite a while for Madison residents to become accustomed to seeing a highway patrol car regularly parked on Church Street. Even though Miss Hessie was a life-long Presbyterian, she taught Sunday School in the Baptist Church, attending whenever services were held. She was active in a number of organizations, including the United Daughters of the Confederacy, the Daughters of the American Revolution (her grandfather William Cowan Gillespie served as a Lieutenant), the Eastern Star, the Home Demonstration Club, the Entre Nous Federated Women’s Club (which she helped to found in Madison), and the P.T.A., the N.E.A., and the A.E.A. educational associations.

After a teaching career that spanned over 50 years, Miss Hessie dreaded the prospect of leaving the classroom to retire. However, that was not necessary, as she passed away in her home of a stroke during the Christmas break from school, dying on January 1, 1939, at the age of 72. It was a major shock to her young students, who lost their favorite teacher without warning. Mrs. Howard Hughes became her replacement, and Mrs. Hughes taught the class until her retirement in 1976. Accordingly, Madison’s first grade had two teachers that covered more than a 65-year span.

Miss Hessie is buried beside her husband Bruce Farley in the Farley – Crutcher Cemetery south of Miller Plaza. Howard H. Hughes and his wife Lorene Howard Hughes are buried in the City Cemetery’s new section, on the north side of Mill Road near the Hughes Road intersection. Miss Hessie’s character was unique and impressive, as is her house which still stands on Church Street. Her legacy lives on, in the lives of Madison’s students that she taught and inspired for several generations. May Madison’s teachers always live up to her standards of care for her charges.

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