On October 9, 1878, Tom Watson married his “Sister Spirit on earth” Georgia Durham, the adopted daughter of prominent Thomson physician George Washington Durham. Patient, calm and dainty, Georgia Watson was a beloved local schoolteacher and perhaps an unlikely match for a man whose tempestuous nature was already legendary. Nevertheless, Watson’s devotion to her was sincere and time honored. Her name graces dedication pages of his books, and more than a few essays and poems were devoted to their lifelong love affair. Watson would later recall, “Did ever the bright stars look down upon a happier man than I the night she said she loved me – me the moneyless village lawyer who had barely a good coat to his back?”
The Watsons had three children: John Durham (1880), Agnes Pearce (1882) and Louise (1885). Louise, frail and sickly, died at age four. Her death moved Watson deeply, and his expressions of melancholy dot his numerous essays written throughout his life:
The tracks that were all about the yard, on the dreadful day when sickness seized her, were still there when you came back from the funeral,--the tracks of a child at play: and while the merciful wind and rain and the passing of other feet, soon hid these tiny footprints, the tracks that she would now make if she could leave the borders of Dreamland, would still find the little shoes that are laid away.
You sometimes hear her voice, some time when the day is done, and the Spirit of Silence has locked a slumbering world; and the voice is that which you head when she climbed upon your knee, and laid one hand to one cheek, saying, “This side Mama’s,” lending the other to your kiss.
No, they do not grow up, along with the surviving children--no indeed! Carved upon memory by the stern hand of Grief, their little figures are immortally young, as the marble children following the motionless procession upon a Grecian frieze.
In 1900, Watson purchased a nearby home and its surrounding acreage from Captain James Wilson and began an expansive renovation. In 1904, Watson and his family moved to Hickory Hill, a relatively modest southern home he transformed into a substantial Greek revival mansion.
Hickory Hill presented a fabulous combination of aesthetics both antebellum and modern. Amid the ionic capitals, marble mantels, parquet floors, heavy drapes and bold wallpapers, Watson installed telephones and indoor plumbing. A power plant provided electric lighting for the house and also pumped water to the indoor plumbing. In time, corncrib, pigeon cote, smokehouse, schoolhouse, and peacock run would support life in the big house in a harmony that made Hickory Hill almost completely self-sufficient. Fanciful luxuries such as bicycles and automobiles would run errands from Hickory Hill in tandem with horse and carriage, presumably without disrupting the bucolic backdrop of cotton and southern magnolia.
When Watson threw open his doors to guests, few visitors came away without commenting on the graciousness of manner and hospitality abundant in the house. Food was elegant, talk civilized, and music and dancing were enjoyed by every member of the family. In the spring, Hickory Hill was the preferred venue for young Easter egg hunters. The Watsons occasionally hosted parties for their two young grandchildren under the lanterned canopy of trees.
These neighborly expressions were not without expectation of etiquette and social grace. If anything, life at Hickory Hill was orderly, dignified and disciplined. Uncorsetted secretaries were scolded, rambunctious grandchildren bribed for their silence, roaming dogs encouraged on their way with an occasional blast from Watson’s shotgun. Children sat silent at the dinner table while the head lectured on history and world affairs. Only the young itinerate servants were sympathetically allowed to roam the house barefooted.
Paradoxically, Watson showed a careless affinity for things natural, and he allowed wildlife to have the run of the place. Woodpeckers were allowed to punch holes in eave and column, and squirrels were encouraged to take refuge—and their meals--on Watson’s office windowsill. Servants constructed brush piles and concrete birdbaths for songbird habitat. Watson ordered trees and shrubs by the hundreds from nearby Fruitland Nursery, planted them with precision and nursed them through the extreme seasons with maternal tenderness. Hickory Hill provided Watson with quiet solitude he found elusive in the political arena. Watson’s daily walks and horseback rides through its fields and woods inspired quiet reflection that ultimately gelled in a published collection of essays, Prose Miscellanies.
Its idyllic setting notwithstanding, life at Hickory Hill was not without tragedy. In 1917, Watson’s daughter Agnes died, barely one week after his periodicals were banned from distribution. Her death hit Watson like “the crash of an avalanche.” In declining health himself, Watson repaired to his Hobe Sound, Florida, vacation home to recover and mourn. While visiting months later, Watson’s son John Durham underwent an operation for a hernia. Following the procedure, he died in his father’s arms. “This ends it all!” wrote Watson in despair.
Already active grandparents, the Watsons now were saddled with even more responsibilities for the two grandchildren, Georgia Watson Lee and Georgia Doremus Watson. Behind Hickory Hill Watson built a one room schoolhouse where the girls were taught. He also built a small swimming pool for his granddaughters. The girls frequently joined their grandfather during his peaceful, often fun loving romps and horseback rides through the grounds of Hickory Hill. These moments of companionship reflected a warmth and calmness seldom seen in Watson’s public life. Georgia Doremus Watson recalled, “Whenever I sensed peace and harmony in him… it was when he was nearest the earth.”
When Watson was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1919, he brought his granddaughters to Washington and enrolled them in the National Cathedral School. The girls’ education in Washington was highlighted by occasional visits with their grandfather at the Senate cafeteria and routine pilgrimages to historical sites throughout Washington. Their experience was short lived. Watson’s death in 1922 forced the girls and their grandmother to return to Thomson.