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The Kellys of Wilmington, North Carolina

I spent this evening in Wilmington, NC, a place where I lived for many years prior to my interest in the history of axes. I was able to visit Wilmington’s axe throwing spot, Axes and Allies, which I can’t suggest enough as a spot to go hang out if you happen to be in the area. The atmosphere was relaxed, the selection of beer plentiful, and the attitude of the folks running the show was excellent. As I was there, tossing a number of older hatchets at the wooden walls, I couldn’t help but think of Wilmington’s connections to the Kelly Family, especially as my Woodslasher Hatchet found its bullseye.

Wilmington, NC, sits on the coastline of the southeast, jutting out from the coastal plain on spit of land left by the sedimentary action of the Cape Fear River. Though not as directly related to axe production as cities like Lewiston, Pennsylvania, Oakland, Maine, or Charleston, West Virginia, the city has seen it’s share of axes and axe related persona. Lying just 35 miles due east of Lake Waccamaw, the city is the closest main population center to Council Tools, who have been in business since 1886, though not for axe making. Council was initially started as a business for producing turpentine related tools, as the Naval Stores industry was the primary economic influencer of the area from as early as the late 1700s. Along with helping Council Tools get its start on becoming one of the longest running and still producing axe manufacturers left in the United States, the Naval Stores/Turpentine industry was also the lure that attracted members of the Kelly family to Wilmington, though in a round-about way. As no axe enthusiast who enjoys American made axes is unfamiliar with the Kelly Works of True Temper, it’s well worth tracing how these Kelly family members came to live on the coast of North Carolina. The Kelly family had been involved in axe manufacturing as far back as 1873, and axe distribution as early as 1835. Their first axe factory had been built in the mid-1870s in Portland, Kentucky, a suburb of Louisville. The main investor for that first factory was William Kelly, and the first President of the company was his son, William C. Kelly. His youngest son, James. P Kelly would eventually be manager of the same firm, and both his sons-in-law, Robert C. Thompson and William B Lockett, would also play heavy leadership roles in the company. Robert C. Thompson would marry William’s oldest daughter, Zerilda A. Kelly, in 1872, right around the time the family moved to the Louisville area. Zerilda would go by the nick name “Lily” or “Lillie” for most of her life, even on her government documentation. Robert C. and Lily would have 4 children there in Louisville, one son and 3 daughters. Louisville Axe and Tool Company fans may recognize the name William K. Thompson, who was the first-born son of his parent in 1874. The Thompsons had 5 daughters as well, two of whom were Mildred G. Thompson, named after her grandmother and born in 1876, and Blanche K. Thompson, named after her aunt and born in 1887. Both aforementioned daughters were born in Louisville, but moved to Alexandria, Indiana in 1893 when the axe factory that their family ran moved to that location. As each “came of age” in that location, both were known as women “of Alexandria”, rather than Louisville. It was while she was residing in Alexandria that Mildred G. Thompson would meet George L. Morton, Jr. Morton was a native of North Carolina, born and raised in Onslow County near the modern city of Jacksonville. His first successful business venture was the George L. Morton Company of Wilmington, North Carolina, a turpentine distilling company that produced and transported naval stores for that industry. The company had its offices at 615 Nutt Street, and its main distilling plant on Eagle Island. Along with his own company, he was the Southern Manager of the Galena Signal Oil Company in 1910, and eventually became Vice President of that company in 1918. On top of taking an active part in these businesses he also served as the Postmaster of Wilmington, North Carolina, from 1894 to 1898, and served seven terms in the North Carolina House of Representatives and Senate. While on a business trip, he met Mildred, and they later married on December 11th, 1906, at which point she moved to their home at 720 North 4th Street, Wilmington, NC. Mildred lived the life of a southern Senator’s wife, traveling the state for ladies’ parties with other influential wives, and entertaining the same ladies in her home in Wilmington. Her mother, Lily, and her sister, Blanche, visited her often in the Port City. Around 1910, George and Mildred Morton left Wilmington and moved to Atlanta, Georgia, where George would concentrate on his work for the Galena Signal Oil Company. Mildred would stay there after his death in 1930, but her body, like his, would be buried in his family plot in Bellevue Cemetery in Wilmington after her death.

George L Morton The Morton Family Plot

The final resting place of Mildred Gracey Thompson,

niece of W.C. Kelly and granddaughter to William Kelly

During one on Blanche’s visits, along with her mother, Lily, to Mildred’s home in Wilmington, she was introduced to Mr. Clarence Dudley Maffitt. Clarence was the son of Commodore John Newland Maffitt of the Confederate Navy. Born in Harnett Township, which is now called Ogden, he had taken to the ocean much like his father. Most references of Mr. Maffitt in his younger years describe him as a playboy bachelor, often noted as taking local and visiting ladies for cruises in the local harbors and bays. Multiple accounts of him running a client’s boats aground on shoals locally and in the Caribbean have been noted, though he’s also noted as saving a number of ships by guiding them safely home in stormy seas. On November 15th of 1911, Clarence and Blanche were married in Charleston, West Virginia. After returning to Wilmington, they lived at the Carolina Apartments before moving into a home at 219 South 5th Street. After the death of Blanche’s father, Robert C. Thompson, her mother, Lily, came and lived with the couple until her death in 1947. Though her body was taken back to be buried at her family plot in Louisville, Kentucky, both Clarence and Blanche Maffitt are buried in Oakdale Cemetery in Wilmington, less than a mile from her sister.

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