On 28 November 1888, Mary Ellen Johnston (1864-1928) married William Hamilton Felton (1859-1928), the son of a pioneer Macon County family who was just completing a term in the state legislature as representative from Bibb County. The Feltons had roots in New England, but well before the Revolution, some of them had established large tobacco plantations along the Chowan Rivers in northeastern North Carolina. Perhaps as early as the 1780s, some of these Feltons followed the frontier to the southwest and were in the upper piedmont of Georgia. Shortly after the War of 1812, Felton's grandfather William Felton (1796-1853) moved from Gates County, North Carolina, to Georgia, and was among the early settlers of the 1821 Creek Indian cession. There, some forty miles southwest of the town of Macon, he built a substantial house that was used as a hotel. Widely known as "the Billy Place," it served as the local stage coach stop and was "probably the nicest building in that whole section."
Another of the early settlers in what would become Macon Counties in the 1820s was John "Flint River Jack" Rushing (1765-1845) and his wife Rachel Renfroe (1766-1833), who moved from Anson County in the North Carolina piedmont and were soon to be among the largest land-owners in the area. In 1825, William Felton married their daughter Evelina, and there were two children, Leroy Monroe Felton (1826-1894) and William Hamilton Felton (1828-1906), before Rachel's death, perhaps in childbirth, in 1828. William Felton may not have remarried, and the two brothers were said to be "unusually devoted to each other,” and even to have "thought and acted alike." They built houses across the road from each other in what were then the outskirts of Marshallville, and and both served in the state legislature, "taking an active and prominent part in every good movement that arose."
In 1859, Leroy Felton, already a very rich man, married Mary Jane Lowe (1840-1914), whose family had also moved to Georgia from North Carolina after the War of 1812. By 1860, he could claim $34,000 in real estate and $53,000 in personal property, which would have included the value of the twenty-three enslaved African Americans who worked his plantations. Even after the economic devastation of the 1860s, including the loss of his slaves, the Federal census schedule from 1870 enumerated him with nearly $22,000 in real estate and $47,000 in personal property. None of his neighbors' fortunes came close to that.
The first of Leroy and Mary Felton's children was born on 19 September 1860, William Hamilton Felton. Two more followed: Eula Lowe, born 12 Jan 1863, and Leroy Monroe Felton Jr., born 3 November 1865.
Raised on the family's plantation near Marshallville, the young William Hamilton Felton graduated second in his class at Mercer University and then studied law at the University of Virginia. In 1884, he returned to Macon and formed a law partnership with Tracy Baxter, the only son of Mary Ellen Johnston's uncle Dr. John Spring Baxter.
In 1886, Felton was elected as one of three of Bibb County's representatives in the state legislature. Two years later, still only twenty-eight years old, he was appointed state solicitor general. According to his obituary, Felton as solicitor “demonstrated the qualities of fearlessness and directness of attack that always marked his career.” In 1895, the 36-year-old Felton was elected judge of Superior Court for Bibb, Houston, and Crawford counties, the youngest judge in the state. Following his retirement from the bench in 1912, Judge Felton served until his death as president of the Macon Railway and Light Company and the Macon Gas Company.
In addition, Judge Felton served on the faculty of the Mercer Law School. Teaching classes in the old summer living room in the basement of the Johnston-Felton house, he was part of a faculty of three, headed by Dr. Emory Speer. Among the law students at the time were Carl Vinson and Walter F. George. Vinson would be elected to the U.S. Congress in 1914 and serve continuously until 1965, the longest term on record. George was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1922 to replace Sen. Rebecca Latimer Felton, the country's first female Senator and a distant cousin by marriage of Judge Felton.
Upon their marriage in 1888, William and Mary Ellen Felton immediately set up housekeeping at 2 Georgia Avenue, where their first and only child, William Hamilton Felton Jr., was born on 20 September 1889. Still living at the house at the time were the widowed Mrs. Johnston and her brother-in-law John Baxter, both of whom continued there until their deaths in April and October, respectively, of 1896. In addition, Carrie and her family lived at the house, at least off and on, until they built their own home on College Avenue in 1891. How accomodations were arranged during those periods is not clear.
The Johnston's house underwent a number of alterations by Judge and Mrs. Felton in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. No references to these changes survive in the letters but it appears that the majority of the changes occurred in two, or possibly, three stages. It is unlikely that any major changes were made prior to William Butler Johnston's death in 1887 and Mary Ellen's marriage in 1888. Perhaps after the Duncan family moved out of the house in late 1890 or early 1891, some redecoration and minor changes occurred as the Feltons began to make their mark on the house; Mrs. William H. Felton Jr. in an oral interview conducted by Maryel Battin in 1980 stated that "it was after the Johnstons had died that Judge and Mrs. Felton started work on the house.”
In addition, formal division of the Johnston estate between Mary Ellen and Caroline did not occur until 1901. This, coupled with such information as Sanborn maps, patent dates on fixtures, and general characteristics and stylistic features of materials used in making the changes, suggests that most, if not all, of the major changes made by the Feltons occurred certainly after Mrs. Johnston and uncle John Baxter's deaths in 1896 and probably after the formal division of the estate between Mary Ellen and Caroline in 1901.
In the division of the estate, Caroline received the northern half of Block 85, and since Mary Ellen had the southern half on which the house sat, Caroline received a substantial amount of cash from their parents' ample estate. She promptly had the property subdivided into four lots fronting Georgia Avenue and three fronting Cherry Street, all of which were soon built up.
The most significant addition to the Johnston-Felton House house was made sometime between 1901 and 1908 with replacement of the original rear piazza off the dining room with the present kitchen and back porch addition. This addition was constructed as a butler's pantry for the Felton's large collection of china and crystal. It seems likely that the large closets in the second floor hall, the china cabinets and consoles in the dining room, and the book cabinets in the library were installed about the same time.
With Judge Felton's retirement from the bench in 1912, the Feltons continued their campaign to totally rehabilitate and redecorate the house, which by then was over fifty years old. That year, the house was wired for electricity, probably for the first time, and the house was completely replumbed. The three existing bathrooms were remodeled and two new bathrooms added in the two front bedrooms on the second floor. New hardwood floors were laid throughout the first and second floor and the ground floor entrance halls were remodeled with the addition of a tile floor and wood wainscotting.
Although the house was changed substantially by the Feltons, these changes were, in general, sympathetic to the original design of the house. Indeed, the Feltons continued to use the house much as it had always been used. The kitchen remained in the basement, although some light cooking was occasionally done by Mrs. William H. Felton Jr. in the butler's pantry off the dining room. The Johnstons’ “picture gallery" remained intact, although the Feltons rearranged it, bringing the "Ruth" statue out of her little room and installing her in the alcove at the end of the gallery. Even the basement continued to be used as living space by the Feltons, especially after Judge Felton retired and his old office was again used as a sitting room.
According to interviews with the Judge's daughter-in-law, Mrs. William H. Felton Jr., the Feltons "loved to entertain," and with the Judge's political connections and their social standing in the community, the Johnston-Felton house was the scene of lavish entertainment, "the most marvelous parties I've ever seen—lunches, dances, buffet suppers, dinners, all the time something going on." Although large seated dinners were rare, large buffets in the dining room with dancing in the drawing room seemed to have been a frequent occurrence.
In January 1915, the Felton's only child, William H. Felton Jr., married Luisa Magill Gibson (1893-1985) at her family's home in Baltimore. After a brief honeymoon in New York, they returned to Macon and, according to the younger Mrs. Felton, “nothing would do but William and I live with them there." Occupying the second floor bedrooms along with Judge and Mrs. Felton, the new Felton family established itself in the house. Two children, William Hamilton III (1915-1946) and George Gibson (born 1920), were born and spent their early childhood there, along with a nurse who lived in the old servant's room on the second floor.
Although William H. Felton Jr. had other business concerns, including the presidency of the Central Georgia Automotive Company, his chief interest was in running the family farms, Hope Farm at Marshallville and Mossy Hill near Perry. The plantations produced large quantities of wheat, peaches, and pecans until they were sold in the 1940s.
On April 26, 1926, Mary Ellen Johnston Felton died, followed by her husband, Judge Felton, on October 18 of that same year. With the farm economy already beginning to deteriorate, the younger Feltons decided to sell the house. In December of 1926, Parks Lee Hay paid them $61,500 for the property, and they built a new house at 2417 Clayton Street in the Vineville section of Macon.
The Feltons took what they wanted of the Johnston-Felton furniture for their new house, offered some to friends and relatives, and auctioned the rest. Only a few pieces were retained by the Hays but they included the dining room table and buffet, the Randolph Rogers statue of Ruth, and the large over-mantle mirror in the picture gallery.
The Feltons, pleased that the house would be maintained as a private residence, remembered the Hays as being "just as nice as they could be." In fact, according to Mrs. Felton, "every time they did anything or made any alteration or anything, they asked my husband and me down to look at it and see how we liked it. William H. Felton Jr. died in 1956; his wife died in 1983.
. Augustus C. Felton, The Felton Family of North Carolina and Georgia (Macon, 1954), p. 120. Three of William's brothers, John (1798-1856), Shadrack (1806-1852), and Samuel (1815-1874), and a sister Louisa Felton Hare (b. 1800) moved from North Carolina to Macon County in the 1820s, producing several lines of Felton descendants in present-day Macon.