Family History as a Civics Lesson

Once upon a time, I thought it was decidedly macabre for people to wander around cemeteries randomly looking for names on tombstones. Then I turned into one of them—long before I qualified as the kind of person (OLD) who seemed most fascinated by this hobby. 

The Gnome and I found ourselves immersed in genealogy in our earliest forties. At first, it was nothing more than wanting to find the names and origins of our ancestors, but it quickly became so much more. I wanted to know about these people who came before me. And the more I learned, the more I wanted to know: who they were, what they did, how they ended up where they were, what their world looked like. I wanted to round out their stories.

That’s when I realized that, at least for the intellectually curious, one’s family history is really a massive civics and history lesson.

Do you know how roads in the United States were maintained in the early days? If not for genealogy, I wouldn’t. Each locality required all ‘able-bodied’ men to spend a designated number of days on road work. Imagine that today. Fines—maybe worse—were imposed on shirkers. I suspect most of us are happier paying a fuel tax than putting aside our normal work to build roads on demand with pickaxes and shovels in hand. I understand the quality of those roads was somewhat (!) unreliable. It was a serendipitous lesson to discover that history because it helped me understand the nature and evolution of mutual responsibility for public works.

As for my own story, I lucked out when I came upon the account of a pair of ancestors, Jimmie and Jerutha Holland, written by Nellie Holland Russell for her pre-teen nephews. The somewhat fictionalized version of these early Scots-Irish settlers nonetheless told me how desperate things were in the ‘old country,’ how dangerous it was for two teenagers to cross the Atlantic on a rickety boat (‘ship’ is much too generous a word), how their vessel turned out to be run by pirates, how their naiveté in a strange land made them easy marks. In short, it told me I’m darned lucky to be here today.

This historical marker in Wayne County, NC, celebrates my fourth-great-grandparents. Who knew?

Surely it was much the same for millions more immigrants whenever and however they made their own journeys. It’s a piece of our collective history we would all do well to understand.

As the Gnome and I became more involved in learning about our family histories, we found ourselves engrossed in their times. I have precious few details about a great-grandfather and another great-great grandfather who fought in the Civil War. When I came across a book of letters from Confederate soldiers to their families back home, I wildly hoped I’d luck across one signed by one of my ancestors.

 

 

My great-great-grandfather, John Holden, and my great-grandfather William Holland Thomas Dillard were soldiers in the US Civil War.

Of course, I didn’t, but that didn’t make the stories any less compelling—stories of boredom mingled with bloody horror, near starvation, worry about a son or other family member in another unit, prison conditions, anxiety about the women and children back home. In that moment, it didn’t matter whose signature was on a letter or which side of the conflict he was on. I suspect the story was much the same for every soldier.

I read about soldiers returning home to western North Carolina from the prison in Petersburg, Virginia, after the war had ended. I pictured what it would have been like to be in their shoes. Or their bare feet, for some were without shoes. My grandpas weren’t part of that group, but reading about the odyssey told me a lot about how it must feel to return home after war, defeated, carrying the wounded, hungry, walking most of the several hundred miles to reach home, not knowing what one will find upon arriving. Seeing the desolation along the way. No parades, no hordes cheering from the roadsides.

It’s a story that’s been repeated through the ages and still is today in too many corners of the world. Looking through this lens, without the judgment of who’s right or wrong, but simply seeing the human heart, gives a person new perspective.

When I traveled to the heritage center in my dad’s hometown, I was hoping to learn more about my grandparents. What was education all about then? Why did Granddaddy only go to school through the seventh grade? He was eighteen when he finished, and within days he married his teacher, only a few months older than he. What a treat when the center’s director pulled out an old survey which included my great-grandparents’ farm. A little square on the edge of their property designated a school. They donated that bit of land to the county. It’s where Granddaddy went to school and most likely where he met my grandmother. With that tidbit of new knowledge. I felt closer to them.

I learned that school wasn’t compulsory, that children who did attend often started at age eight.

In those days, a three-person committee ran each school independently. In some cases, when they needed money to build a new school house, rather than raising taxes as the committee had the authority to do, they chose instead to close the school for a year and divert the teacher’s salary to purchase building materials. Hmm—no wonder a person didn’t finish seventh grade at age twelve.

I was in my small, local public library browsing some North Carolina history books when I came upon a small volume about tobacco-growing in the state. My dad’s father was a tobacco farmer. Working in tobacco—and cotton—was how Daddy and his brothers grew up. Maybe I’d find something useful in the pages of my book discovery. I did, but not what I was expecting. There was something about mules—how important they were to farm life in earlier days—so important they were considered part of the family. I asked my Uncle Edwin about that. “Noooo! They were never part of the family. I’d chop cotton [one of the most dreaded farm chores] before I’d plow a mule!” Now, that told me something about my dad’s life growing up. And I never would have known it if the only place I’d searched was the genealogy shelf. 

Daddy’s relationships with the family mules were as varied as their personalities. Rhodie was one of his favorites.

Random gleanings from random places. And each one a jewel that deepens my understanding. Our human story is so much more than the bare bones of begats. It’s a broader story, a deeply-textured one. Everyone’s story is different. Whatever yours is, if you let your curiosity guide you, it will teach you civics and history which will inform your knowledge about the world around you, give you an appreciation for where we are now as a society and what our forebears lived through to get us here. You might even discover a new passion.

Because there is a story to tell. You just have to find it.

Family Ties

Last year, I participated in a genealogy challenge on social media called Fifty-two Ancestors in Fifty-Two Weeks. You never know where delving into family history will lead you. You end up learning about people you’d never even heard of. It’s not about attaching yourself to fame and glory, at least not for me. But it does remind me that I’m connected to the history I learned about (and didn’t learn about) in school. It brings history to life. Being conscious of that history is not only interesting, but creates connectivity to others. It can teach important life lessons. And were it not for them—all of them—I wouldn’t be here.

For one weekly genealogy challenge, I wrote about my great-grandmother, Sarah Elizabeth Creech Smith. Somehow, that post popped up on a Creech family page, and next thing I knew I’d been invited to a Creech reunion. Of course, I had to go.

Columbus and Elizabeth Creech Smith

My curiosity about family and family history far outweighed my strong introvert credentials. I’d never met a Creech, probably because my grandmother died four years before I was born. That, and the fact that I was not born and raised in Johnston County, North Carolina, home to many a Creech and the location of the reunion.

I was anxious about being a stranger in the crowd, anxiety that was much alleviated by the Gnome’s presence at my side. (He’s as interested in my family history as I am.) But there was no need to worry. As the newcomer, I wasn’t only welcomed; I was practically rushed by my previously unknown cousins of various degrees.

What a welcoming crowd! Many of us appeared to be from the same generation, all descended from various of Martha Hare and Worley Creech’s nine children. If I’ve got it right, I’m third cousin to most of the kind folks I met that day.

Worley Creech, our common ancestor

Martha Hare Creech, our common ancestor

I gathered a few interesting facts about my ancestry. For one thing, the Creeches are a seriously musical bunch with a long heritage of vocal and instrumental talent. They played and sang for more than an hour, and it was beautiful. So that’s where my dad and his brothers and so many of my cousins got lots of their melodic genes!

My ‘new’ cousin Charles remembered being in the house where Worley (second-great-grandfather, if you’re keeping up) grew up. Worley’s youngest son, Carmel, lived and died in that house. Charles, just a kid at the time, remembered when Carmel’s body was brought back to the house. While the children played outside, the adults gathered around to watch over the body and to sing hymns, accompanied by the pump organ that had belonged to Carmel. The worn-out skeleton of the house still stands, hidden by a mass of pine trees and overgrown weeds. It remains in family hands.

Unfortunately, stroke has also played an outsized role in the Creech family for generations. My great-grandmother was a stroke victim. According to one of my uncles, “Grandma Creech was bed-ridden for as long as I can remember.” And my grandmother, Lula, died as the result of her second stroke. That’s why I never got a chance to know her. Not such a good sign—though stroke has not claimed anyone in my direct line since.

In addition to Charles, I met cousins Vicki (reunion host), Genie, Jody, Brenda, Steve, Sharon, Susan, Katherine, Shirley, Tap, and too many more to keep all the names straight—sorry.

A highlight of the day was being in the presence of the family’s matriarch—my second cousin once removed. But eighty-nine-year-old Sarah and I are much closer than that. She knew my dad! And remembered most of his brothers. She knew my great-grandparents! I could have jumped out of my skin. She remembered my great-grandfather, Columbus (Uncle Lumbus, she called him), from Creech reunions way back. And she told me a story about my great-grandmother, Sarah Elizabeth. It went something like this.

“There was this corner store our family went to. One day, I was in the buggy with Mother and we stopped at the store where Mother bought a bag of candies. Oh, how I wanted some of that candy! When we came out of the store and got back in the buggy, she said, ‘I want to tell you something. We’re going to see this lady who’s sick [that would be Elizabeth—Sarah’s mother was her niece], and this candy is for her. Now, she’s going to offer you a piece, because that’s what people do. But you are not to accept it.’

“And sure enough, that’s just what she did. And even though I really wanted a piece of that candy, I did just what my mother said, because that’s what people did.”

At the age of seventy-three I sat in the presence, held hands with, a woman who had been in the presence of, and probably held hands with, my great-grandmother. How about that!

Sarah fills me in. (Sarah was also  pianist for all the fine singing.)

I wouldn’t take anything for that reunion day.

(If you care about things like family degrees of separation, you can learn more here.)

Dear Lula

My grandmother, Lula Smith Coats,  11/25/1894-4/14/1942

(I was recently challenged to issue a dinner invitation to one of my ancestors. I chose my paternal grandmother, who died four years before my birth.)

Dear Lula, (you don’t mind if I call you that, do you?)

Will you please join me for dinner on Saturday evening? There’s so much I want to ask you. You’re the grandmother I never got to meet, having died just after my parents met. As a child, I didn’t know enough to ask about you, and once I had the good sense to get interested, some of the details had begun to fade from the memories of your children.

I want to know what it was like raising seven boys. They talked about some of their mischief, but I’ll bet they left out a few juicy details. I’d love to hear their mom’s perspective. You probably have stories of precious moments with each of them, too. I’d like to hear them. What made you proudest of them? (And did you secretly long for a daughter? Wouldn’t it have been nice to have some female companionship in that household! Did you dote on nieces? Seek feminine refuge with your sisters?)

Would you describe your typical day—if there was such a thing? I know you washed clothes in a pot over an outdoor fire and that between preparing breakfast, dinner, and supper you worked in the fields along with the rest of the family. And that you cleaned, ironed, made everyone’s clothes. What other chores filled your days? Did you ever have a moment to yourself?

What were your favorite activities? Daddy told me you gardened, played the piano, sang, and told stories. Were there more? What did you love to do above all else?

What would you have said and done with the twenty-two grandchildren you never got to know? Could you ever have imagined that after having seven sons, the first five grands would be girls—and that of the first eight grandchildren, seven would be girls? Would you have sewed up some frilly dresses for us? Would you have oohed and cooed over us? What advice would you have given us as we grew up?

And what about your experiences as matron at the Poor House? I never heard much about that. It must have been quite the experience raising those boys while overseeing all the domestic chores of the County Home when its seams were bursting during the Great Depression. Did you ever worry about the boys being exposed to the TB patients? To their being around convicts assigned to work on the farm? To their being around so much sickness and dying? Or did you even have time to think about it while you were overseeing the cooking, housekeeping, laundry, medications, clothing and personal needs, and more? Maybe you were just glad your boys had a roof over their heads during those tough years.

You were twenty-five, mother of four children, and pregnant with your fifth when our country finally recognized that women have an inherent right to vote. Did you take advantage of it? Your husband and father were on opposite political sides, almost rabidly so. Where did you fall? Did you ever share your political leanings with either or both of them or did you keep quiet about the whole thing? What was it like, in general, to be a woman in rural North Carolina in the early twentieth century? Would you have supported my feminist activism in the second half of the century?

I want to know about your strokes and your migraines, too. I used to suffer from migraines, too, so I have an inkling how you must have felt. But by my time, they’d at least discovered some medications that helped a little. It must have been devastating being in such pain and cooped up in a dark room so much of the time while life was swirling outside your door. Is it true that the doctor bled you when your blood pressure spiked? Did he use leeches? They say that after your first stroke, you were bedridden for a year or two and had to learn to walk and talk all over again. Is that right? What got you through those days and nights? Were your sons attentive to your needs? When you were up to it, did they fill you in on their days? Did they confide their fears and dreams?

And the little things—what was your favorite color? Your favorite song? Your favorite radio program? Did you have a favorite food? Book? Movie? Holiday? What were your pet peeves? Most dreaded chore?

Then there’s Granddaddy. The story goes that you were his seventh-grade teacher and that’s when you met. You married as soon as the school year was over. (He was old for a seventh-grader.) Is that the way it all happened? How did your romance evolve? What kind of student was he? Where was the school? I understand you only taught that one year. Did you give up a longed-for career to marry and start a family or was teaching simply the most logical job available to a young, single woman in those days?

You see, I have so many questions! Please come early. I’ll invite all the cousins and we’ll have a good old-fashioned pajama party catching up on each other’s lives all night long. You’d better believe I’ll be recording the whole thing, too. I can’t wait!

With love and anticipation,

Your (4th) granddaughter Carole

Yes, It Snows In North Carolina

Yes, It Snows in North Carolina   

(On the occasion of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Blizzard of ’93)

When the Michigander I’d just met learned that our family lives in North Carolina, he said, “Well then, you don’t have to worry about snow.” It’s a comment I frequently hear from people who “aren’t from around here,” as if they think all Tar Heels live at the beach. Little do they know. In a state that stretches 600 miles inland, my home is on the same longitudinal plane as Cleveland, Ohio. The meridian actually skims Michigan’s mitten thumb and lines up with eastern Ontario. Pretty far inland.

At more than 4,000 feet in elevation, we’re also a bit higher than coastal areas. So, yes, we have some weather, and it’s not usually fit for swimsuits. Our thermometer has read as low as -32º. Our most wintry weather has a tendency to come after many folks have long since said goodbye to winter. During our first year here, we were surprised by several inches of snow on Memorial Day. Just a few years later, four-foot drifts covered our gravel road in the middle of April.

Snowfall near our house, 2010: everything is covered.

Then, there was that other time . . .

In mid-March, 1993, I had a business meeting a couple hours from here. I decided to add a quick overnight visit with my parents, who lived nearby. Snow was again in the forecast, but it wasn’t expected to begin falling until sometime the following day. I’d surely return home ahead of any significant precipitation.

Even so, I parked my little Geo Metro at the bottom of the mountain road that led to their home. Just in case. If the snow came earlier and/or heavier than expected, it would have been treacherous trying to drive out from my parents’ mountainside perch.

The next morning, we woke to a world of white outside and darkness indoors. The snow was deep and heavy. Power lines had snapped for miles around. Snow poured down for three days. Hundred-mile-an- hour winds created monstrous drifts. The governor issued a two-day long, twenty-four-hour curfew. Even wwhen the curfew was lifted, it was clear I wasn’t going anywhere.

Not only could I not retrieve my little car from the snowbank created by a snow plow—I couldn’t even see it under its huge snow mountain. My seventy-something-year-old father, who had suffered a massive heart attack several months prior, was in no shape to shovel snow. And I wasn’t willing to risk the same fate myself.

Back at home, the Gnome and our college-aged son who was getting ready to return to school after spring break were confronted by drifts up to four feet deep once the snow finally stopped falling. They were trapped, too. We usually hire someone to plow out our gravel road when it’s impassable, but no one could get up there. With school beckoning, they felt compelled to begin the daunting task of digging themselves out by hand.

Worried about not one but two potential heart attacks, I insisted on sworn promises that they’d take breaks a minimum of every two hours and call me on the nose at each break. I couldn’t get to them, but if I didn’t hear from them on time, I’d be calling 911 stat!

There was nothing more I could do except wait it out. My parents and I got by with a roaring fire in the fireplace and a lot of canned soups heated on a camp stove. We entertained ourselves with conversation and reading.

Enjoying my snow exile in a hammock

My mother had recently acquired a book published by the genealogical society of her home county. Residents had been invited to send in family stories and histories. Some were straightforward with lots of begats. Some people heaped praises on themselves—in the third person, clearly not realizing their own name would appear as author of their submission. Some were pious, some irreverent, some lavishly embellished.

Other entries were laugh-out-loud funny. Like the one about the grandpa who never cut his toenails and walked around his log cabin barefoot, his nails clicking loudly on the wood floor with each step. Or the one about the family whose children decided to outfit their mother with a football helmet and hang her upside down in a homemade traction device to cure her aching back. Or the story about the man who kept a skull in his closet. Then again, maybe we were just punch drunk. It was good medicine to read and share those stories while we were cooped up.

The book presented another opportunity, one to learn about my own family history. When I’d previously asked Mother how long her family had lived in her home county, she couldn’t tell me. She knew nothing about her family beyond her grandparents. Even then, the information was sometimes scanty.

Each article, it seemed, provided a clue about yet another previously unknown branch in my family tree, which in turn led me to still another and another. My paternal grandfather died years before my grandparents met. Mother knew hardly anything about him. With the help of the heritage book, I discovered that he had been in the Civil War, that my great-grandmother was thirty years his junior and was his second wife. I learned that my grandfather’s ancestors were some of the first European settlers in the area. My grandmother had deep local roots, too. I discovered that while most of my ancestors hailed from the British Isles, some came from Germany. It was fascinating stuff, even if not quite all of it was verifiable.

I was stuck in place for almost a week, much of it with my nose buried in the heritage book. By the time I finally left for home, I had a sheaf of papers summarizing family stories and diagramming potential genealogical connections for further research.

That week was the beginning of an enduring passion for family history, one that’s even led to a couple of books. All because of the Blizzard of ’93, otherwise known all along the East Coast as the Storm of the Century. On this occasion of the storm’s twenty-fifth anniversary, we’re in the midst of another great snowstorm. It’s not expected to be as big an event as the Blizzard of ’93, but then that one caught us off guard, too. 

Taking a bite out of snow

For a recap of the Blizzard of 1993, click here:   https://www.wataugademocrat.com/watauga/the-blizzard-of/article_13899f70-3c38-5153-8e92-10c2da17e884.html