by Claude Kenneson, At-Large Board Member
In 1824 Tallahassee was selected as the capital of Florida. In 1825 it was incorporated. And, in 1828, the David C. Wilson Sr. family arrived to make it their home and to seek prosperity. They were not disappointed. The Wilson family was to be instrumental in changing the developing village into the modern city it would later become.
The father, David C. Wilson, Sr. , was born in 1804 in Jefferson County, Virginia. He married Elizabeth Shirley, also a Virginian and from this union were born three children who lived to adulthood: David C. Wilson, Jr., Florida Wilson and W.R. Wilson.
Almost immediately after his arrival, David Sr. began to manifest his entrepreneurial skills. In the pages of the Tallahassee Florida Advocate (April 4, 1828) appears the advertisement for the opening of Wilson’s blacksmith shop. In 1833 he expanded the business by including carriage and wagon making. In 1857 he went into partnership with H.B. Fitts and in 1859 the partnership was dissolved. During the Civil War the shop manufactured bayonets for the Confederate troops.
In 1837 Wilson included a grocery store, which under his able management expanded and prospered. He was also active in real estate transactions and other lines of commercial activity. The Wilson store was to become Florida’s first department store with continuous operation by family members until its closure after 134 years in 1971. As far as I can determine, no other business in Tallahassee has yet matched its longevity. (The closest is the Capital City Bank, established in 1895, with 124 years of existence.) It apparently was located on the west side of Monroe St. and destroyed in the May 1843 fire. Wilson was able to remove part of his provisions to a wooden structure on Adams Street near Bartlett’s Corner. (Source: Antebellum Tallahassee by Bertram H. Groene, pp. 63, 173) By early 1844 he had moved back to Monroe St. but this time in a brick building. (Source: Tallahassee Star of Florida, January 23, 1844)
Everything was sold in early Wilson’s. Invoices show mantillas from Spain, shawls from Scotland, linens from Ireland, woolens from England, rum from the West Indies, hardware, farm implements from the North, nails, salt, and even mullet were all obtainable. In 1844 he and Joseph W. Brown opened a branch store in New Port to supply the ships coming in and out of the St. Marks port. Wilson was also agent of D.C. Ritter & Co., which made tombstones available to the capital city. (I myself have seen this inscription on a few Old City Cemetery tombstones.) Wilson’s was also a big factor in the cotton trade. Cotton was often delivered to Wilson’s and shipped to the port at St. Marks by the owner. On other occasions wagon trains with cotton from Georgia enroute to St. Marks would, on the return trip, buy supplies for their plantations from Wilson. (Source: “During Plantation Days Fineries From Afar Sold here in 1837,” by Hallie Boyles in the Tallahassee Democrat, June 29, 1958, page 9.)
When David C. Wilson, Sr. died in 1871, he left behind a thriving business and a son, William Richard Wilson (1838-1907) to see the store carry on successfully through Reconstruction. Another son, David C. Wilson, Jr. (unknown-1906), who previously had opened a rival store, was a failure. William Richard’s son, Phelps Warden Wilson (1863-1927) was next to inherit the store. One of David C. Wilson, Sr.’s great grandsons, Phelps Wilson Long (1891-1952), ran the store through the 100th year anniversary of the store in 1934. Phelps decreed in his will that his widow, Frances Shirley Long, take over the store. She was at the helm when the store, due to a decline in customers and other reasons, closed its doors in 1971. (Source: For birth and death dates: Find a Grave) Many Tallahasseans hated to see it go.