Dear Mills – letters that illuminate

So far these posts have focused mostly on what the Lane family restored and accomplished in Savannah, and there is much more of that to come. But the family chemistry is a part of that building mortar.

Harvard Graduation 1965

Mills Lane IV (1942-2001) grew up in an age where letters were encouraged and expected. He wrote to his family every week when he was away at school, and the letters capture his early and enduring interest in architecture, history and preservation.

Yet a 1959 letter from his mother, Anne, to his father, Mills Jr., begins, “We agree that Mick is a spoiled, head strong young man – and also our most precious possession. We agree, too, that you and I are mostly responsible for the present Mick. We are afraid that, if he continues, uncurbed, society (in the broad sense of the word) will not find him acceptable.”

She continues to describe her son as “sweet, impulsive, generous and intelligent” but also someone who is head strong, self-centered and “wants to be captain at all times. … He consistently says tasteless and sometimes insulting things – interrupts and never seems to know how to remain attentively silent. He has never learned to listen.”

She admonishes her husband, “You have been completely absorbed in your world – and have left him to me to rear.”

Another 1959 letter from his father, who at the time owned the Savannah Morning News, to his mother, Mary Comer Lane, who helped finance the operation, indicates satisfaction with building the new printing plant on Bay Street (now restaurants and condos) and making a $150,000 profit for the year.

Mills Jr., who was also running C&S Bank in Atlanta, was equally pleased that he would be giving his son a couple of career options – banking or publishing, but he feared “music is his first and only love.” However, Mills, Jr. learned fairly quickly that a bank and newspaper don’t easily make good bedfellows and sold the newspaper three years later.

Mills IV’s letters from school indicate efforts to make his parents happy: “I’m working hard, my grades are improving, I’m on a diet, and please send money.” Examples of his frugality accompany the pleas, including elaborate descriptions of typewriter and clothing repair. He was always assessing his abilities, worth and weight, literally and figuratively, often connecting the issues. At school he claimed financial problems were caused by successful dieting: it was expensive to alter and re-alter clothes.

His early Harvard years include agonizing fluctuations about his studies. He originally thinks he wants to be a music teacher at Savannah Country Day School, but decides his talent is not up to his standards and switches to Russian history, influenced perhaps by a sail on the SS Brasil to Russia with his grandmother.

He later concentrates on American History, especially history of the South, with his thesis “The Negro in Georgia politics between 1880 and 1906.” By the mid-1960s he starts sowing the seeds of the Beehive Press with letters about history, books and preservation in Savannah to his grandmother, Mama Lane.

Rexanna Keller Lester is working on a book about Mills Bee Lane IV and his preservation legacy.

For more on architecture and the history of the South, click on the “Books” tab at the top of the page.

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