Gamboa News

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From "Why Not" to Panama

chronicled by
Williams and Hearnes and Shobes and Van Siclens

Two married couples sat around the kitchen table on Thanksgiving evening in 1905. The kerosene lantern softly highlighted the shoebox at the tableıs center.

Brother and sister had married sister and brother in the church at the nearby Mississippi farmerıs town with the unassuming name of "Why Not". These two couples and their progeny, Hearne and Williams and Shobe and Van Siclen would over most of the 20th century: help build the Panama Canal, keep it open and reluctantly, accepting a new definition of "in-perpetuity", leave the Canal to Panama.

Within the shoebox lay "Baby Girl Williams", a name they once expected to inscribe on stone.

She was born at home during the second day of November. Her aunt and uncle, Nanny and James Hearne and her parents, Cora and James Lafayette Williams were recalling her birth: her crib a shoebox, her bottle an eyedropper, her incubator the nearby wood stove.

Baby Girl Williams beat the odds and won her fight for life. This Thanksgiving evening she would be named, and that name inscribed, not on stone, rather on paper, her birth certificate.

Aunt Nanny softly started singing the yearıs popular song starting with the lyrics "Iım looking over a four-leaf clover that I've overlooked before." The other three joined in and they knew they were singing her name, Clover Nanny Williams.

At the age of five, Clover and family including sister Mamie were living in the Panama Canal Zone.

On this same Thanksgiving evening a thousand miles west on a Missouri farm a thirteen old boy, Solomon Stone Shobe was already feeling the pull of the Mississippi river and within two years he would work the Mississippi and Missouri and Ohio rivers. His first job was caring for the mules that turned the engine for the snag-boat while towing trees, stumps, and floating debris from the river.

Winter came early to Ohio in 1919 and Shobieıs steamboat was blocked by ice from embarking for the return trip to New Orleans. He did not "take" to working on land or the cold winter of Flint, Michigan.

He soon made friends with the local postmaster. Every week Shobie would visit with him while checking for the weekly letter from his mother in Missouri. On one visit he asked his friend the postmaster "Does the government have any jobs for a marine engineer and the further south the better?" The government did and Shobie's new job placed him on suction dredges in Cristobal and Balboa harbor and the dipper dredge Cascades in Culebra Cut and Gatun Lake.

He still went to the Post Office every week for his letters from Mom, and again formed a close friendship with the postmaster.

But there were no letters!

After three months the postmaster handed him a sheet of paper and said "Shobie. Write your name exactly as your mother does."

Shobie wrote:

   S. S. Shobe
   Balboa, Panama Canal Zone

The postmaster looked at the address and with a big smile said "Shobie, go over to the harbor-master's office and get your mail". Shobie saw the postmasterıs smile and reread the address he had written; it was his turn to smile.

Off Shobie went to the Harbormaster's office where he knew there would be twelve letters waiting for the "Steamship Shobe" to transit the Canal.

Nine years later on November 1, 1929 Clover and Shobie were married at the Cristobal Bible House. He was 38, she 24. They would have three sons: James and Richard and David. Jimmy was born March 31, 1932; Dickie was born April 15, 1935; David was born March 30, 1945.

David however first saw the light of day in the fall of 1944 when Clover was operated on to remove a tumor. Thatıs the way it was at Gorgas Hospital. Sometimes you got great army doctors, sometime not so great.

Clover and Shobie and their boys lived in Gamboa for almost twenty years, and during those twenty years the Williams family and the Van Siclen family and the Hearne family were frequent visitors. Julian, one of Clovers double-first-cousins, and Des Hearne, Julian's wife and their family lived one house removed for many of those years.

And that is how Jim and Dick and David each have a document from the Panama Canal Museum that proclaims their grandfather, James Lafayette Williams, received the Roosevelt Medal for his work during the construction of the Panama Canal.

Mamie, Clover's sister, married into the Canal Zone Van Siclen family. Five of her six children were CZ kids.

The contribution of the extended Van Siclen and Hearne families to the building and using of the Panama Canal has long been recognized.

James and Cora Williams had seven daughters and no sons; that's why James Williams first grandson is James Williams Shobe.

Clover and Shobie were loved by all who knew them.

Thatıs the story of brother-and-sister and sister-and-brother and their journey from "Why Not" to Panama and their legacy.

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