“Mr. History”: DeSoto Loses Beloved Historian
by Carol Mahler
This “tribute” was published in the June 23, 2016, issue of the Arcadian newspaper
and reprinted in the DeSoto County Historical Society’s July 2016 newsletter.
Whenever I used to telephone Howard Melton, after saying hello and identifying myself, he always responded, “Yes, Carol.” I will always cherish his kind, soft-spoken, Southern accent affirmative.
I first met him in 1994 when Luke Wilson invited me to a meeting of the DeSoto County Historical Society. I was teaching creative writing, so Luke asked me to talk to the members about writing a book about local history. Howard envisioned a book with chapters written by different members. (That project wasn’t accomplished until the Society started publishing their Recollection books--but that’s another story.)
Between 1984 and 2001, Howard researched and wrote articles about local history for the Arcadian, DeSoto County Times, and DeSoto Sun-Herald newspapers. He said he was inspired to write because the printing process of the 1930s and 1940s often resulted in an article published in the weekly newspaper and the accompanying photograph in the next issue. Howard felt true satisfaction to “marry” the story and image in his articles.
He finally compiled and edited (with the help of friend Dr. William E. McCumber) a bulk of those articles into two books Footprints and Landmarks: Arcadia and DeSoto County, Florida and More Footprints and Landmarks: Arcadia and DeSoto County, Florida (self-published in 2002 and 2004, respectively)
He was born in 1920 in Georgia and moved with his family in 1924 to Manatee County. They lived in a “company house” as his father worked for a sawmill, and Howard and his siblings attended Manatee Elementary School.
His family moved to Arcadia in 1929. He worked as a “soda jerk” at Koch’s Drugstore and first discovered his love of photographs. Having served as “art editor” for the DeSoto County High School annual, he graduated in 1939.
He once thought he could use his artistic talent to support himself, so he drove to Lakeland and offered to sketch the first person he saw. The gentleman liked the portrait but refused to pay for it, so Howard kept it and kept working at the drugstore. Over the years, he portrayed many people and included his artwork in his books.
He married Velma Louise Keene on Dec. 29, 1940. She was his helpmate in every sense of that word, and they had 3 children: Patricia Cooper, Dale Melton, and Sue Rich.
During World War II (1941-1943), Howard fueled aircraft at Arcadia’s Dorr Field--operated by Riddle Aeronautical Institute to train pilots for the U.S. Army Air Service. He won $5.00 for a caricature he drew of John Paul Riddle that was printed in the Dec. 11, 1942, issue of Dorr’s newsletter The Fly Paper.
Then Howard served in the U.S. Merchant Marine (1943-1946), training on the old Joseph Conrad--a full-rigged sailing ship. He wrote about meeting some “Arcadia boys” in the South Pacific. I remember how proud and grateful he was when the U.S. Congress finally authorized a pension for “Merchant Mariners.” Howard considered it recognition that he had served his country.
He worked as a clerk in a drugstore from 1946-1955 and from 1958-1960. In between, he worked as a “shipping clerk” for Sorrells Brothers citrus. He spent 1960 as a car salesman at Mattison Motors.
Then he attended Trevecca Nazarene College (1961-1965), working first as manager of the cafeteria and for his last year in maintenance. As a minister, he served the Church of the Nazarene in Punta Gorda, New Port Richey, and Orlando, Florida, as well as in Thomasville, Georgia.
After retiring from the ministry in 1974, he worked as the executive director of the Housing Authority for the city of Arcadia (1974-1979) and became a Certified Public Housing Manager in 1974. As an antiques dealer, he owned and operated Melton’s Country Store (1980-1981).
He was a lifetime member of the DeSoto County Historical Society, served as president in 1988-1989, and in 1990, Luke Wilson christened him “Mr. History.” Many people gave him historical information and photographs--and some artifacts, and in turn, he generously shared photographs and information--often at his own expense. He also bought objects he thought were important to DeSoto County’s history--such as the negatives of Arcadia’s studio photographers, old postcards, and other items.
In 2007, the Society agreed to purchase his collection, and in 2008, honored him and his contribution to local history at a tribute dinner. In 2009-2011, the Society raised funds for and built a replica of the John Morgan Ingraham Seed House (120 W. Whidden St.) for the Howard and Velma Melton Historical Research Library. In 2012, I moved every binder, book, and artifact from his home to the Research Library, and then the Society opened the library to the public.
As coordinator of the Research Library, I am in the process of digitizing (and indexing) Howard’s collection for public access. I spend at least one day a week with the collection--which is much like Howard. I know his handwriting--and how it evolved over time--and his biases. He liked pretty girls and saved their photos and stories, yet some matrons are recorded only by their husbands’ name--a custom he grew up with, of course. He filed copies of newspaper clippings and photographs under many categories, yet I can search all day and not locate the original photo.
In his desire to keep information together, he used cellophane tape, trimmed items to fit into his binders, and wrote on historic photographs. (He also “photo-shopped” historic images with felt markers, ballpoint pens, and white correction fluid.) Every time I am frustrated by how he archived history, I feel instead a deep gratitude for what he saved. Few communities are blessed with a man who worked so diligently and enthusiastically to record local history, and I wish he had written everything he knew before he forgot that he knew it.
I was his “student” for years. I have asked him to “check the facts” in what I have written; to allow me to scan his historic photos; to research the broad avenues and back alleys of history; to let me to interview him--or Velma; to speak to groups or an individual; to tell me everything he can remember. I am forever grateful that he always said, “Yes, Carol.”
The Footprints, Landmarks of Howard Melton
by Luke Wilson
This “tribute” was published in the June 23, 2016, issue of the Arcadian newspaper and reprinted in the DeSoto County Historical Society’s July 2016 newsletter.
I always knew I’d be writing this particular column someday, and during the past year or two, I knew it could be anytime. But that doesn’t make it any easier, by any means. DeSoto County’s “Mr. History” is gone.
I first started calling my friend Howard Melton that in December 1990 when I drew a caricature of him, portraying this local history hound surrounded by part of his vast collection of historical binders that would later be purchased by the DeSoto County Historical Society. Our paths crossed four years before that with the forming of the DCHS, of which we both were charter members and past presidents.
For nearly 30 years he was an active member and contributor to the success of the society, constantly seeking ways to share our history, and his thirst to uncover more of it was never quenched. And we are all the richer and wiser for his dedication.
Howard moved here from Georgia as a young boy, attending school in DeSoto County and served on the staff of the high school newspaper The Bark and also the yearbook, then called The Cornucopia.
He worked at a drugstore in town as a “soda jerk,” as he called it, and got to know a great many people. He served his country as a Merchant Marine and loved telling stories about how he’d meet DeSoto residents also serving, thousands of miles from home. He became a minister of the gospel, serving many years in the pulpit and also leading singing. Everything he did was with great passion, and none more than his historical research.
He wrote a two-volume history called Footprints & Landmarks, Arcadia and DeSoto County, Florida that was jam-packed with amazing photographs and stories and sold many copies. I remember him researching for years. He had file cabinets filled with photos, negatives, and newspaper clippings right there in his dining room, and the table was usually covered with paper and the old typewriter that he used to write his book. Many was the time I’d ride by his home very late at night and glance in the window as I passed by, seeing him sitting as his table working. “God to bed, Howard,” I always said aloud.
My fondest memories of being with Howard were attending the Nocatee Old Timers Reunion each year. For several years I followed him through the crowd with my video camera and he’d find folks for us to interview. He’d introduce them to the camera with some very kind words about them and even an anecdote sometimes, and then ask them great questions about their family history and lives.
A number of times I visited him and his wife Velma at their home, and they were such gracious hosts. There was no end to his stories--for one would lead into another--and I enjoyed every thought and word he shared. So often complete strangers would call him out of the blue and even show up on his doorstep because somebody had told them about some guy named Howard who knew so much about our local history and the families that lived it. And he always took time to accommodate them as best he could, whether he provided them with a photograph or filled in some blanks for their family history.
A few years back, the DCHS honored Howard with a sold-out tribute and dinner in his honor, with about 200 in attendance. Several spoke about his life and told wonderful stories, and he came to the podium. and in his humble, encouraging way, he spoke in kind to those gathered and reflected on our county that he adopted as his own. It was just like Howard to do that.
He seemed a bit lost when Velma passed away in 2009, but continued to immerse himself in his passion for history and church. When his health began failing, he attended the monthly meetings of the DCHS when he could and also the Nocatee Old Timers Reunion gatherings, dispersing history for free much faster than he could ever sell it in his wonderful books. In fact, I last saw him at the Nocatee reunion in 2015, and his physical and mental health continued to decline after that.
If Howard had possessed superpowers, I know what his two strongest would’ve been. One would’ve been his ability and drive for collecting and sharing local history, but the strongest would’ve been his ability to make instant friends and make them feel as thought they’d known him all their lives. He was an encourager and sincere in all he said or did. I will never forget the passion in his voice when he was recounting his childhood and the things he’d witnessed. And I distinctly remember when he’d go to make a very important point, he’d preface it with the word “Listen!” and I did, and am glad of it.
For so many years he recorded history in his books and a long-running historical series in The Arcadian and DeSoto County Times newspapers, and now he has passed into the pages of history himself. I recall him saying that his favorite song was “Among My Souvenirs” from 1928, and just the title itself seems quite fitting for this special man.
There’s no good in goodbye when it’s time to let go of a friend this precious, and in thinking of the title of his published histories, I believe it’s safe to say that Howard Melton left footprints on our hearts, and will always be a landmark among our memories. Farewell, Mr. History, and thanks for everything you taught us about ourselves and our heritage.