Jane Phillips: Meet Alfred Cheney, a Kinston legend
In the summer of 2000, Cindy Brochure and myself met and interviewed 88-year-old Gwen Cheney White, who was living in Kinston at Spring Arbor Assisted Living facility. As we got to know her, we grew to love her.
Ms. Gwen was a small lady with a gentle bearing but you could sense the inner strength that had sustained her during her life’s journey.
On July 29, 1912, she was born Gwendolyn Cheney in a house at 300 East Caswell Street in Kinston, the youngest of six children. Ms. Gwen was the last of her family still living except for several nieces and nephews who all lived in other towns. As she began to tell us the story of her family, we became captivated. This is only a part of her story and it’s about her father.
Alfred Cheney III, Ms. Gwen’s father, was born in 1865 to a prominent family in Brooklyn, N.Y., where the Cheney Family owned a piano company. Cheney’s mother had been born into the Emerson family of Massachusetts and she was related to the noted and famous poet Ralph Waldo Emerson and distantly related to President Grover Cleveland.
Alfred was educated in the schools of Brooklyn and then attended and graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The well-educated young man got a job with the U.S. Consular Service and traveled to India and later, Africa. While there he also engaged in the ivory trade for the family’s piano company back home.
Being a civil engineer, Alfred got a job in Africa working for a construction company building a railroad from Cairo, Egypt to Cape Town, South Africa. It was in Africa Alfred met and became friends with Lord William Baden-Powell, an English military officer and later founder of the Boy Scouts. His time in Africa presented him with many adventures and narrow escapes during the Second Boar’s War.
It was after he returned to America, Alfred got a job with the Army Corp of Engineers and was sent to North Carolina to survey the coastal waterways. The surveying crew stayed at a boarding house in Swansboro.
It was there he met 18-year-old Harriet Francks, who was visiting in Swansboro at the time. She was from a prominent Jones County family. Harriet must have felt her heart flutter the first time she saw the dashing and handsome Alfred Cheney. They fell in love and eventually married.
Alfred took his southern bride to Sharon, Mass., where his mother’s affluent family lived and a very good job waited for him. His future was assured with his new job and brilliance to guide him.
Harriet was experiencing cultural shock with the New England surroundings and life style. She was missing North Carolina, her family and she was homesick for the southern culture she loved dearly.
As time passed, Alfred could no longer stand to see his wife unhappy. According to Ms. Gwen, her father was the kind of man that could adjust easily and adapt anywhere. He wanted his wife to be happy, so after a time, he brought her back home to Trenton, N.C., to live.
For the rest of her life Mrs. Cheney would often cook Alfred New England-style dinners and always made those meals special occasions. It was the least she could do to bring New England to him.
He got a job in nearby New Bern where they soon moved. He became friends with Celeb Bradham, the man who made Pepsi-Cola. There was a contest to write a jingle for Pepsi, so just for fun Alfred entered the jingle he wrote and won.
His daughter, in her old age, would excitedly sing the fast-paced jingle for Cindy and I. It was the same jingle I had heard when I was growing up. Gwen said she didn’t think he ever got anything for it but some Pepsi.
Alfred got a job in Kinston in 1910 so the Cheney family moved there. He worked many years for the city as its civil engineer and supervisor of streets. It was here Ms. Gwen was born in 1912. After a few years, the family moved in with a cousin living in the Peebles House on King Street. The house had once belonged to her great aunt Harriet Peebles for whom she was named.
That house today is known as Harmony Hall and is the oldest house in Kinston. They lived there until 1921 when her cousin sold the house and moved to Massachusetts.
In Kinston, Cheney began to hear of the Boy Scouts of America and recalled his friend William Baden-Powell he had known in Africa and his ideas of scouting. In 1916, Alfred started the first Boy Scout troop in Kinston. He served as its first scoutmaster for a number of years.
He was known for the adventurous stories of his days in Africa and India and would hold the boys spellbound with his tales of hair-raising adventures. He was a great storyteller and people of all ages loved to listen to his stories.
He was often seen walking about town and was involved in many community activities. Alfred earned a sterling reputation in the community and was known as a man of noble character.
Cheney was often sought after for public speaking. His topics ranged from the religions in India to raising poultry. He was extremely knowledgeable on many subjects. He taught Sunday School at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church and was involved with the Salvation Army.
In 1915 when the county held its first 10-county fair, it was Alfred who surveyed for the building of a racetrack at the new fairground out on Vernon Avenue. Today, that area of the city is called Fairfield. Because of his expertise and knowledge in the raising and caring for chickens, he was instrumental in organizing and setting up numerous poultry exhibits at the fair and did this for many years.
Ms. Gwen recalled as a young child seeing her father walking home from work, she would run to him and he would laughingly stoop to pick her up in his arms. She said she would grab his long mustache and hold it while she kissed him. Ms. Gwen said, “My daddy was such a good man”, and at this memory of him a smile lit up her face.
The years passed and in 1946, he retired. Within the year his loving wife Harriett died; he was at a loss without her. Ms. Gwen told us he would sit on the porch with a faraway look in his eyes. A few months later, Alfred died suddenly. Ms. Gwen looked at us with tears in her eyes and said, “Daddy loved mama and I think he missed her so much he grieved himself to death.”
Alfred and Harriet are buried in Maplewood Cemetery.
Alfred Cheney, III, who once walked the streets of Kinston left behind a legacy of Boy Scouting and a good part of the town he laid out and planned. He was a good and honorable man, loved and respected by many. This intelligent and brilliant man could have become very successful and rich if he had only stayed in New England but love and happiness meant more to him.
Not long after meeting Ms. Gwen she died. We were sad at her passing for we had come to love her, but glad we had met this beautiful, gentle soul who had shared the story of her life with us. I have only told you about her loving father but Ms. Gwen lived an interesting life but that’s another story. She had only one request of us and that was to use the spelling GWEN for her name.
Interview with Gwen Cheney White in 2000
Jerry Cross, State historian, Report on the History of Harmony Hall
Kinston Daily Free Press articles