Whenever a relative writes me with a family history question [a more common occurrence during the early 1990s, when I wrote this essay, than now], I’ll go through my genealogical collection to find information or locate an item to copy or a photograph to reproduce. Today I’m looking at the material out of nostalgia.
Whenever I look through my family history material, my mind fills with peaceful images of “place”: Four Mile Prairie, Route 185 as it crosses the prairie and curves into a grove of timber, the hills around Ramsey, IL (associated with the Carson and Washburn branches of the family), Vandalia, and Brownstown. All these are locations in Fayette County, Illinois. Genealogy, memory, and landscape sentimentally mix in my mind.
My material—today strewn over the kitchen table—consists handwritten or typed manuscripts in folders, charts, photographs in albums, and an antique oatmeal container. I really did a lot of genealogical research when I was just a teenager! And I gained such a wonderful sense of family and local heritage. A little later, when I worked at my local library during my college years, I always wanted to run from the genealogists who verbally depicted their family trees to anyone standing nearby. But I was the same. I could top their depictions. I could recount how my first ancestors settled Fayette County in November 1829. They were the Pilchers and the Gatewoods. Next came the Carsons about 1830, the Mahons in 1835, the Washburns and Browns separately in 1836, the Williamses about 1840, the Crawfords in the early 1850s, and finally the Strobels in the 1880s. I never meant to bore anyone; I aimed to show them how deeply go my ties to home. I wished nothing less for them.
I preserve my Pilcher keepsakes in a scrapbook with a copy of the family history. Most of Grandma’s Pilcher artifacts were lost in the fire, but I did have her handwritten copy of the family tree and a few pictures. The “tree” is the record of the descendents of Winslow and Averilla Pilcher. Grandma’s great-grandparents who came to the Four Mile area in 1829 along with Averilla’s parents, Thomas R. and Margaret Gatewood, and Averilla’s brother Thomas A. and his family. Blanche Harstad, Grandma’s first cousin, worked on the history during the 1930s and distributed carbon copies of the history in 1940. She begins: With all due apologies to anyone who might take offense to anything that 1 have compiled in these records. I started out to compile this Pilcher Family Tree for my own pleasure and interest. However it has turned out to be a good deal of work and most of my spare time was spent in making these copies this winter as I did want the secretary and one in each family of the first eighteen children to have a copy.
Blanche began with Winslow’s parents, about whom she knew little. Lewis Pilcher was born in England. He moved to Fairfax, Va., then to Frankfort, KY. Mary was from Wales. Lewis and Mary had eighteen children, twelve girls, six boys. One adopted boy, Robert Sage, fought in the Battle of Germantown. Mary Rogers Pilcher was the one who supposedly was George Rogers Clark’s aunt. General Clark would have been my first cousin seven times removed. It’s still a good story.
Blanche continues. Winslow came from Frankfort, KY. Their religion was called the Hardshelled Baptist. They were honest and respectable people. They had to endure many hardships. They settled on what is now known as Four Mile Prairie. They had to go with team and wagon to St. Louis nearly 90 miles. It would take nearly one week to go. Sometimes it would rain and water would come up so high they would have to wait until it ran down before they could get home. One time Great-grandmother (Averilla) took her seed beans down and was going to cook them for the hungry children when Great-grandfather came.
Averilla was a large woman. She was quick-tempered. She would often take her slipper off to spank her young offsprings.
One day two old buck Indians came to her home while Winslow was away, took down the shotgun which hung over the door. They grunted in their Indian fashion, hung the gun back, and walked away.
Averilla was a hard worker.
Among the several genealogical projects that I undertook during teenage, summer days, I set about finding all I could about the Pilchers. In my imagination they seemed a kind of Lincolnesque example of stalwart pioneers who “broke the prairie,” the kind of everyday people who helped found Vandalia. According to family lore the Pilchers hoped to travel farther north but the Vincennes Road was so muddy they resolved to stay where their wagons were mired. Four Mile is not mentioned among the named prairies in Fred Gerhart’s Illinois As It Is (1857) nor in local sources until later. Instead local sources call it “Wakefield Prairie,” after the first white settler who’d settled there in 1824, and also “Cumberland Township,” a reference to the nearest post office three miles north on the National, or Cumberland Road. The entire township was finally given the name Otego, after the New York location from which some settlers came. Several pioneer families began moving to the vicinity during the later 1820s and the 1830s; the county history names the several men who came to the township at that time, including other maternal ancestors of mine. Wives and children aren’t listed. As for the Pilchers, their “Hardshell Baptist” convictions apparently were fervent, for by 1830, according to the county history, the first church of the township was organized—in the Pilchers new home.
The family was an extended one. The adult children and their own offspring lived around the Four Mile area. According to the census records Thomas and Margaret Gatewood also lived nearby. Thomas sometimes ran for county offices and happened to be Fayette County coroner during the years when Lincoln served in the state legislature. Some of Winslow’s brothers apparently lived nearby, too, for in Winslow’s estate papers I located a transaction between two of them—a tragic transaction. Know all men by these presents that I Lewis Pitcher [the son of the first Lewis] have this day sold to Alexander S. Pilcher four slaves to wit Aaron about the age of ten years, Moses about eight years of age, and Ann and her child named Mary Jane, for and in consideration of the sum of one thousand and five hundred dollars to me in hand paid the reciept whereof I do herby acknoledge and do warrent them slaves for life, the title whereof I do bind myself forever to defend against any and all claims what ever given under my hand this 7th day of Oct. r 1839 Lewis his x mark Pilcher.
It is difficult to picture how Fayette County looked in those days, days of virgin prairie and the oldest stands of timber in Southern Illinois. I’m sure it would be entirely unrecognizable to me. Fayette County farms were just beginning to be productive by the late 1820s. Vandalia was eight miles east on the Vincennes Road and the new National Road; Winslow surely purchased many of his family supplies in Vandalia or at smaller settlements southeast of Four Mile.
Winslow set about farming but he did not limit himself to that. Like most men of the time, he hunted. The 1878 county history notes that Winslow purchased the first Durham bull in the township, so he must have raised some livestock also. Strangely no one in our family remembered that he made a hefty sum of money when Vandalia’s statehouse was constructed in 1836. Several downtown Vandalia businessmen and county residents pitched in on the building project that summer and fall, and records of state appropriations show that Winslow hauled timber to the public square during the summer of 1836. During the following winter he swept plaster from the senate chamber. For these duties he was paid $47, a very large sum considering that, forty years later, his widow received only $8 a month for a pension. Besides economic need I don’t know what might have compelled him to travel to Vandalia to help in the building project. For the sake of family history, I’m glad he did.
Winslow and Averilla died after the Civil War. Their two-story log house stood until the 1910s when, according to Grandma, it was torn down. It was located at a spot which is now a small fenced-in pasture adjacent to the family burial ground which had comprised the original property. According to family lore the little graveyard began when the eighth child, Octavia, contracted tetanus from a stepped-on nail and asked to be buried beneath a favorite bush. Winslow and Averilla were buried there too but their graves are unmarked, as (presumably) are the graves of those among their children who did not survive to adulthood. A marker honoring Winslow was later placed upon a simple grave there. Four other children—William Lewis Pilcher, Louisiana Smith, Charlie Pilcher, and Jonathan K. Pilcher my great-great-grandfather—are buried within the shady, peaceful space of their own childhoods. (Jonathan and his family comprise the stern group, circa 1891, at the beginning of this essay.)
I leaf through the history of the people and their descendents. Blanche’s text has a wonderful quaintness that enthralled me as I read the pages while sitting in Grandma’s house. The stories of the eighteen children are wonderful evocations of the Four Mile area from over a hundred years ago.
Hannah Pilcher was born in Catskilll, N.Y. At one time they [she and her husband William Lewis Pilcher] lived east and north of Jonathan K. Pilcher’s out through the woods. On their way to see them they often stopped to pick papaws. Mother can remember how they caught fireflies from the field of wheat across the road….
Cordelia was so small they could turn a teacup over her head and it rested on her shoulders. They carried her on a pillow for weeks…
Louisiana was a very large woman, plain spoken. They had one son who left home and was killed; the body sent home, buried as their son.
Uncle Charlie’s wife died leaving him to bring up the children to the best of his ability, and that proved to be extremely good. He would take them to church and parties and enjoyed the fun along with them. He was a Hardshell Baptist and believed what is to be will be, and in May there was one special Sunday that was always a big day at Four Mile. People would come for miles and if anyone got a new hat, it was always for that day. Uncle Ben Mahon would preach. They had a foot washing and Uncle Charlie was the one that always had his foot washed…. He was found dead in a chair outside his house. Aunt Cordie and family came to see them that particular 4th of July morning and found him dead..
My mother was hardly sixteen when her mother died in 1893. Her father, Jonathan K., was hard of hearing thus making it hard to carry on unnecessary conversation; therefore much of the family history was lost. Jonathan did quite a bit of carpentering, laying brick for brick houses, built wagons, buggies, and bobsleds. He owned 57 A. of land, also farmed, kept stock of all kinds. He sold the farm after Rhoda Ann died, and bought the farm on Route 185 owned by Steve Sidwell at that time, sold it later, and bought on the Brownstown Road… A kitchen lean-to was built on the house that extended to the smokehouse. It had a 10-ft. table with a bench next to the wall. Uncle Henry ate his first dish of oatmeal at this long table. The flue caught fire and caused the house to burn down. And again much of the family history was lost. Rhoda Ann loved to sing. Horseback riding was a delight to her. Aunt Martha says that I had as fine a grandmother that ever lived. She raised chickens, did some milking, made butter, baked eight or nine loaves of bread in an outside bake oven, and no doubt had many more responsibilities. She was born in Morgan Co., Ohio.
The stories of the third generation are similar.
Lottie, Lavina Litchenwalter, and Mother were together one Sunday. Loytie and Lavina were to go to church that evening. Lottie wanted her dress fresh and cream-colored, so she washed, starched and dyed it with strong coffee, ironed it, and was ready for church…
Clara was a large woman. She had well-behaved children. She dressed Ida like a doll. One dress that my mother remembers was embroidered with a long waist, wide ribbon sash, short puffed sleeves. Mother thinks they lived in Denver, Co.
John was a very small man; most Pitchers were rather large. Very nice sort of fellow.
Robert went with a Catholic girl at one time. During Lent she wouldn’t see him. He made the remark, “And by gosh, I respected her for it.”
Kate took care of the twins. She had a bed fixed in front of the buggy. There was where she put them while she drove around through the country.
Most of these people were Fayette Countians. Yet Pilcher is no longer a common area name. As in the case of Grandma the name was “married” into other local names.
Blanche wrote, I do not feel this book is complete until we have eliminated all the blank spaces that are possible to fill out. I do feel that you who have a book or see one can help make this a success by sending me the information that I have failed to get. Any remuneration will be guilefully appreciated. As I pursued genealogy I modestly added other branches of the family to sections which Blanche had found no leads. I do not know when Blanche died–she lived most of her life in the Dakotas–but I would like to think she’d appreciate my efforts to bring her chronicle to a greater fullness.
Here is my Pilcher Cemetery manuscript. In 1973 and 1974, when I was 16 and 17, I spent hours at the cemetery copying all the inscriptions. I tried to copy each inscription exactly, although I didn’t take time to double check my work.
Those were summertime trips. A dermatologist had advised me to get a lot of sun for my acne, and I definitely wanted to get tanned. So I wore a tank top or no shirt at all. Usually I didn’t wear shoes, either. I reasoned that shoes were unnecessary for a morning spent outdoors in the grass and sticky but soft evergreen needles. The thought of going to work barefooted still sounds appealing to me. I remember startling a visitor to the cemetery who didn’t expect to see a long-haired, barefoot young man walking around the graves with a clipboard.
Back home, I typed my notes and made several pages of lists of inscriptions—just over 250 inscriptions in all. I also painstakingly created a chart that showed how many of the people in the graveyard were interrelated and intermarried. About this project, I was particularly proud of my identification and indication of unmarked graves. My grandmother and other older relatives knew where certain people were buried who, for whatever reason, never had a tombstone. For instance, one of Grandma’s cousins told me that six of her young siblings were buried beneath a tree in the smaller family cemetery.
As I wrote in the previous essay, the Pilcher Cemetery is actually two graveyards. The Winslow Pilcher Family Cemetery is a small area near the site of Pilcher’s homestead. Thomas R. and Margaret Gatewood, Winslow and Averilla Pilcher, several of that couple’s children and grandchildren, and also Averilla’s brother Thomas A. Gatewood, are buried here. A few people not related to the Pilchers are buried here, too: my distant uncle Ben Mahon and his wife, children, and mother in law. The last burial here was 1928.
The graveyard is a pleasant small place, distinguished from the surrounding fields with a farm fence. Tall evergreens lay a carpet of shade upon the area. Sometimes cows had peaked at me over the fence. When I visit the place I like to see monuments for Louisiana Pilcher Smith, with its rounded plain top and its fading, soft-looking inscription; the old broad stone for William L. and Hannah Pilcher (on which Hannah’s death date was never carved); the small tablet for Charlie Pilcher; and my great-great-grandparents, Jonathan K. and Rhoda Pilcher, who died in 1908 and 1893 respectively. I remember how thrilled I felt to discover that these people are my ancestors; their gray obelisk stands at the west side of the graveyard at the edge of the evergreens’ shade.
Beside that obelisk is a row of small tombstones for the couple’s young children: children who would’ve been my grandma’s uncles and aunts. As a childless teenager I didn’t quite grasp the tragedy of this smaller cemetery: how many our children and infants are buried here. A few epitaphs reflect the terrible grief:
Jesus said suffer little children and forbid them not for such is the Kingdom of Heaven Mat. 19
Our darling one hath gone before
To greet us on the blissful shore.
The larger Pilcher Cemetery is just up the narrow road from the family cemetery. Until the mid or late 1970s, a beautiful large oak tree dominated the cemetery, which is a pretty clearing a grove of timber. The name is a bit of a misnomer, because fewer Pilcher descendents are buried here. But seemingly the place began as a community graveyard, separate from Winslow Pilcher’s family but associated with the pioneer. The cemetery was called “Mr. Pilcher’s Graveyard” in an 1840s family letter. A cluster of plain stones crudely inscribed with initials and 1830s dates mark the oldest known graves. The place was also called the Washburn Cemetery in turn of the century obituaries–and several Washburns are buried here. My great-great-grandparents Josiah and Margaret Williams actually deeded the land in 1893 to cemetery trustees.
In this larger cemetery are buried my grandparents, great-grandparents (Crawford and Pilcher), some great-great-grandparents (Crawford and Williams) and great-great-great-grandparents (Williams and Washburn), as well as distant uncles and aunts and cousins. All but one of the original eight Crawford children are buried here. Altogether, twenty of my ancestors are buried in the two cemeteries, along with many other relatives. Over the years, more of my great-uncles, great-aunts, and cousins have been interred here, as well as my mother’s brother and his wife.
Whenever I visit the cemetery I read the inscriptions of relatives: Crawford, Fink, Williams, Washburn, Rush, and others. As I indicated in the previous essay, as a little boy I loved the archaic names on older stones. Gravestone symbolism isn’t plentiful but interesting: a finger pointed toward Heaven, hands clasped in greeting, a dead dove, a bare-bottomed cherub. A double stone for the babies Elvina and Lemuel Parks stands in the far corner of the graveyard because, according to Grandma, the babies died of smallpox. Nearby are a pair of tiny stones of Williams infants who died in 1861. They weren’t even named. Not far away is a young man who, according to the inscription, died at Vicksburg, and nearby is another Civil War veteran with a military marker but, hidden in the grass, is a flat circular stone that indicates he died in 1862. And not far away is an epitaph:
Farewell my wife and children all
From you a father Christ doth call
Mourn not for me it is in vain
To call me to your sight again
The epitaph is a fragment of a tombstone but I never could find the rest of it
As I look through my painstaking recorded and poorly typed manuscript, I remember that, when I was young, I tried to imagine what these people looked like based on their stones—like David Copperfield who thought of his infant brothers as having been born with their hands in their pockets. If I saw photographs of the people, of course they never looked like my preconceptions.
I sort through other pictures and items, letting memories intermingle. Here is a photograph of Andy Stroble, my long-dead grandfather. During the era when it didn’t matter Andy changed the spelling of the name according to the whim of the moment and happened to spell it “Stroble” on Dad’s birth certificate. Thus my name is different from my cousins. Here is the beginning of a Strobel family tree that I never completed before I left for college. John and Emma Strobel, my great-grandparents, lived north of Vandalia on U.S. 51 and had ten children. John was born in Bavaria in 1840 and emigrated with his parents a few years later. I never discovered much about my Strobel and Hotz ancestors, settling for a few family facts from the trivial to the bitter, concerning the immediate family. John was a farmer for 75 years until 1929 . . . John and Emma both died of myocarditis and senility . . . George Strobel worked in the coal mines . . . Lillie Strobel was the daughter of Ellen Watkins and her second husband; Ellen was the maternal grandmother of Grace Crawford, mother of Mildred Stroble, by Ellen’s third marriage to George Washburn . . . Gustav Strobel died when he drank some lye while his mother washed the kitchen floor; he was two days shy of his first birthday . . . Ed Strobel raised and sold horses, and served in World War I . . . . Andy died of a stroke walking to the harness shop in downtown Vandalia . . .
Here is Dad’s picture of John and Emma. Wearing work clothes and standing before a rose bush, they look like a German American Gothic. Dad remembers they grew rhubarb and cabbage and once “put up” 55 gallons of wonderful sauerkraut. He remembers sitting on their front porch with his cousin Delmer, practicing their slingshots, and Dad’s shot hit Delmer’s brother Fred in the head, momentarily knocking him senseless. “Damn! Paul! Damn! You killed the son of a bitch!” Delmer had yelled, laughing, and I hear his laughter in my father’s. Dad still has the gun which, according to family lore, John carried into the Civil War. The gun was found, loaded, after John’s death in 1932. In order to fire it but also to protect people if the old gun exploded, someone tied it to a stump, tied a long rope to the trigger, hid behind a tree, and pulled the rope… The gun fired, one last time.
I’d love to be able to add that a duck fell from the sky, and all the cousins feasted on duck and “roastineers” in memory of Grandpa Strobel, the old German farmer. But that would be adding to the truth.
Here is a Polaroid photograph of my dad’s mother and her siblings-Ross, Roy, Peg, Pauline, Lonnie. Grandma’s brothers and sisters were people who still elicit grateful memories from their kin. I remember how Aunt Peg loved to tease me about the time when I was a toddler and, during a family visit to her house in Decatur, I tried to fold a live cat in half and place it into a toy dump truck. I heard about that until I was in my twenties. Janie died when she was 101–the third of fourteen children, she survived them all–and her body finally outlived her mind. Before she went into the nursing home she’d tell me she and her mother (who was, at that time, dead for over 25 years) had taken a buggy ride that day. While visiting her I realized that sometimes, when the ties break between our minds and reality, our family ties remain strong.
Here is a photo of Mac Carson, my great-grandfather on Dad’s side, who lived in the northern part of Fayette County. James S. Carson, a Revolutionary War veteran and Mac’s great-grandfather, had settled the country in the 1830s. Mac has his gloved hands on a saw with which he is cutting a log, a cigar is in his mouth beneath an ample moustache, and he looks up at the photographer. His broad rimmed hat shades his face. But another picture shows him wearing a suit and looking slightly bemused. His wife Alice holds a squirming infant, Uncle Lonnie.
Here is a photo of Alice’s father, my great-great-grandfather, who also pauses from sawing a log. His beard extends to the middle of his chest. The photograph is an old postcard on which he affixed his own name and address: John T. Colburn, Loami, Lock Box 94, Illinois. That branch of the family settled in Sangamon County and helped found the town of Loami. Grandma Janie also gave me a picture of John wherein he sits beside animals and toys that he whittled from wood. He has an almost childlike look in his eyes.
Here are photocopies of Carson and Colburn family information that Uncle Roy Carson had obtained for me. The two-column page from the History of Sangamon County, Illinois (1881) states that John’s father Paul Colburn and his family traveled through rain, mud and unabridged streams for about five weeks, which brought them to the south side of Lick creek on what is now Loami township, where they found an empty cabin. From sheer weariness they decided to stop…. Having succeeded in bringing so many of his descendents to the new country, and witnessed their struggles to gain a foothold and provide themselves with homes, Paul died Feb. 27, 1825. near the present town of Loami… Elsewhere in the same history my great-great-great-grandfather John Carson–a Fayette County resident who left many descendents in Sangamon County–is mentioned as a veteran of the War of 1812 and the Black Hawk War. One day Mom, Dad, the family dauchshund, and I found John’s grave in a Fayette County cemetery high above the Kaskaskia River. Beside the grave was that of his son, James Carson, Mac’s father, who was killed while hunting wild turkeys in Fayette County In 1859, aged only 39.
“What a way to go!” my mom remarked.
Here are several sheets on the Mahon family, related to me through the Crawfords. An old gentleman in suburban St. Louis gave me information about the descendents of John Mahon, an Irishman who had emigrated in the 1760s and was killed by British soldiers as they ransacked his home. We know nothing about John’s wife but their sons were named Doctor, Barren. Dennizen, Pliant, Thomas and James. Doctor Mahon was my great-great-great-great-grandfather who, along with Thomas, settled Fayette County in the mid-1830s. Doctor’s son John was my ancestor who wanted a gravestone no more ostentatious than Jesus’ stone, but Doctor had less than Jesus did, his grave is unknown.
John had a brother named Benjamin who was a “Hardshell Baptist” minister in Fayette County for many years. My own ancestor emerges relatively colorless compared to his younger brother “Old Ben Mahon,” one of the very few clergymen in my family. He was a circuit rider of great local note in the nineteenth century. The county history calls him “a rough diamond, loving his joke,” and states that he took 150 preaching engagements each year, but he accepted no money for his evangelistic work. Grandma told me there was some uproar when he was disinterred in 1902 to be buried beside his wife, who had already been buried in the old family graveyard. The men opened the casket before reburial. Apparently Ben had rolled over.
Here are photographs of the separate graves of my great-great-grandparents, George and Ellen Washburn, and also the grave of their younger daughter Susan England. The graves are in a small cemetery in the hilly, northern townships of Fayette County. Grandma Grace liked to tell me the story of how George walked away from the Civil War, missing an arm, and came home to Fayette County only to discover his wife had recently died. He lodged with a family that included the recently widowed Ellen Watkins, and they eventually married. In her endearingly hard-headed manner Grandma always stressed that George and Ellen both had several children from previous marriages but that their own marriage produced only two children. Grandma’s mother Abby Pilcher and “Aunt Suze” England. It was essential that we know that Aunt Suze was not a half-sister but a “real” sister. It wasn’t that we’d have hurt Suze’s feelings if we got it wrong, though; she had died in 1931. Grandma just wanted us to know. The cemetery is pretty, nestled in a grove of trees beside a gravel road, far from the two-lane; to get there we pass “my” Miller High Life silo on a high hill along U.S. 51. A few years before I discovered genealogy Mom and Dad took me to the cemetery along with some cousins. I remember catching some good butterflies for my third-grade science project. I couldn’t have cared less about my ancestors.
Here is a sheet of paper on which I wrote that my ancestor, David Washburn, was a Cape Cod whale fisherman. His wife Esther Griffith was the daughter of a wholesale dealer in New York. I do not recall who gave me the information; perhaps Grandma’s distant cousin who ran the Four Mile store. The sheet of paper is stationary from “Hasler Oil Co., 501 S. Fifth, Vandalia” –Dad’s old employer. I always like to look at the beautiful cursive script upon David and Esther’s tombstones in the family cemetery. They came to Four Mile in 1836. I was able to trace a few of their descendents in Fayette County, including George’s and those of David and Leroy who married Crawford sisters, but eventually I gave up. I find the reason why: Leroy’s 1908 obituary states that David and Esther had seventeen children. Some of them were small children buried in the family cemetery; but I found insurmountable the task of locating even the names of all the original seventeen.
Here is a photocopy of a page from the 1878 History of Fayette County. The pioneers of [Otego] township were Henry Scroggins, Thomas Crickman, Wm. Crickman, Mr. Riall, Mr. Clements, and Mr. Stanfield, who came in 1828. In 1829 came Jacob Tinker, Thoams Osbrook, Winslow Pilcher, Thomas R. Gatewood, Edward Healey, Hardy Heafy, Thos. A. Gatewood, Cole Norris, Mr. Robeson, and Wm. D. Brown. In 1830, came Ezra Griffith, Rutherford Shelton, Wm. H. Mabury, James Beal, Sr. … In 1832, Mr. Roe and Henry Brown In 1833, Hezekiah Brown, Mr. Johnson, Mr. Taylor …In 1835, ’36 and ’37, Harvey Lee, Asa Lee … and David Washburn … There, in one paragraph, I found several ancestors, as if they had gathered in Otego Township like pilgrims. I always thought of this paragraph as somehow fundamental to my very identity.
Here is a wonderful picture of my ancestors Josiah and Margaret Williams. Margaret’s family, Henry and Hezekiah Brown, had settled Four Mile several years before the Williamses. Bearded and dressed in an old suit Josiah looks clear-eyed out at the camera; she stands as tall as he seated. She was twenty years younger than he was. But they died within months of each other, in 1893.
Here is the Williams family history along with a print of a daguerreotype purported to be my ancestor Comfort Williams, whose tombstone fascinated me as a child. Her husband, the first Josiah, died in 1826 at the age of 40, leaving Comfort a widow at the young age of 32, and she never remarried. One wonders how she supported herself and their five children, but we know that she lived near Columbus, Ohio several more years. Her parents also lived there, as did other family members who are all buried in a small churchyard in Obetz, Ohio. Comfort did not join them there, however; some desire within her compelled her to travel the National Road to Illinois, and she and her five children settled in the Four Mile area around 1840. She lived there seven years. The author of the Williams family tree gave me a typed copy of a letter that one of Comfort’s daughters wrote when Comfort died. April 2n AD 1847 Dear sister I embrace the painful opportunity of writing a few lines to you know that we have had to endure great trouble we have lost our dear mother she died last Tuesday morning between eight and nine o clock. . . she had the Pleurisy or what is here termed the winter fever I do not think that she thought much about getting well after she was taken sick she was not able to be up any she was helpless as a child. . . Josiah write home every month we got a letter from him the Friday before she died and he told her if nothing happened he should be home before harvest and she calmly says poor boy I shall never see you she told us to not let him know anything about her death till he came home he had been verry well ever since he crossed the gulf he was in Tampico when he last wrote but I expect he is now at verry cruz . . . she looked as pleasant and natural in her coffin as though she had been sleeping with a smile on her countenance I trust she is better off than the rest of us I trust she is happy she is buried about a mile from home in Mr. Pilchers graveyard I can have the consolation of visiting her grave…
Reading through the Williams history I remember its author fondly. She was a dear woman named Helen Dickes. Helen was in her seventies when I knew her: she was blue-haired, short and broad and had a very clear intelligence. I don’t remember exactly how we came upon each other but some Brownstown Williamses must have given me her name, and Grandma and I were happy to obtain her family tree. Helen was descended from the first of Josiah and Comfort’s five children and I from the third, and I remember how interesting—exciting! —it was to learn about the history of Comfort Williams, and how grateful I was to Helen for the photocopy of her history. Her history provided another good windfall for my various genealogy projects because one of the five Williams siblings had married one of “my” Crawford pioneers and another had married one of the first generation of Fayette County Pilchers. Thus Helen’s book gave me two entire branches which neither Blanche nor I had been able to find. We had a lively correspondence during the early 1970s, and I’ve saved all her letters. Then we dropped out of touch and I never heard when she died.
Before we stopped writing, though, I visited the cemetery in Obetz. Bronze markers had replaced the tombstones of my ancestors. An unmarked grave lay between the graves of family members, and I’ve always assumed that the grave is that of the first Josiah Williams. But his tombstone was not replaced by a bronze one. He lies forgotten, while many miles west his wife’s grave has fresh flowers each year—for a very large number of Williams relatives live in the Vandalia area.
Genealogy is a mixture of historical, heritage, personal identity, and family pride. Sometimes I think I confuse these people’s real lives with the few materials before me, their real faces with old photographs, and I confuse their lives with the place. My family keepsakes comprise a hodgepodge of information — less a local “saga” than fragments and images about the first generations of Scot-English-Irish-German forebearers in a small Midwestern community. Yet I’ve counted the material a precious store of knowledge which takes my love of place to a different level. If one counts genealogy as a kind of self-knowledge, a way of knowing “who you are,” the hobby has helped me know who I am and where I am. Fayette County was home to generations of my family. I could by no means decorate all their graves.
Along with various photographs, keepsakes, notes, charts, and typical genealogical paraphernalia on other branches of my family, I keep my Crawford material. I leaf through my own family tree, embarrassed by my adolescent phrasings and my poor typing. Thanks to my Utah cousin I could begin the history with additional information about Paul Crawford (to whose name I affixed “1809-1849”) and his wife Susanna (whose dates remained “1809- ? ” until I learned that she died in 1875). So many “shirttail” cousins around Fayette County provided information about their own branches. Still, my little history emphasizes the descendents of my great-great-grandparents Andrew and Caroline (Mahon) Crawford. Like Blanche and Helen, when it came to writing the family history I had the most information about my own branch.
The photograph of Andrew is striking, for one of his eyes seems tired and weak and the other is wide open and penetrating. The effect must come from the Vandalia photographer’s light, for half of his goatee is washed out by the light and half is dark. Andrew was killed the year their last child was born. I have a photograph of Caroline and her five children in 1899. It is a wonderful picture; the Crawfords all look fairly fierce—Andrew’s penetrating look must have dominated the family genes. They also look fuzzy; only the tree beyond them is in sharp focus. John sports a moustache that droops to his chin; his brother Will, who lived in the same house all his life, stands near him. Paul, Alice, and Andy Jr. complete the picture; one infant daughter had died many years before.
Coming to Vandalia I sometimes see cousins who are descended from John, Will, Paul, or Alice (Rush), but the younger Andy Crawford lived a mysterious life and had no children. This 1899 photograph may have been taken around the time he ran away from home. Apparently he resented Caroline’s 1890s remarriage, left one day, and never came home again. My great-aunt Nell told me he would cruelly write or wire information about his whereabouts; the whole family would come to meet him, but he’d not be there. This happened several times every five years almost to the day. Caroline died in 1921, never having seen him again, although some of the brothers apparently met him sometime, somewhere. When Andy died in 1959 he was living in a shack near Caseyville, Illinois, with two women, who reported his death and weren’t seen again. The family buried Andy in the Pilcher cemetery.
Here is another photograph of John from 1899 He and his wife Susan sit together with their young children; there is Josiah my grandfather, who is thirteen years old in this picture, Marvin (who, like my grandfather, I never knew), Charlie, Jean, Ruby (holding a doll), and the infant Mary. Nell and Ruth were not yet born. They’re nearly all gone now — those dear older relatives who figured so importantly in my childhood. How wonderful it would be to have just one more day to speak with them, to embrace them, now that I’ve become an adult and see how deeply they became a part of my life!
John Crawford kept his personal papers in a “Farmer’s Pride Quick Cooking Rolled Oats” box. I reach for the box, open the cardboard lid, and empty it out the contents. Among my ancestors I knew the most about him because of his white-haired daughters’ fond remembrance (Jean, Ruby, and Nell, especially) — and the contents of his box. I assume my grandfather acquired the box after John died. Most of the material therein dates from the years 1925, 1926, and 1927, the last three years of his life.
What records would any of us want to leave at the time of our deaths? John’s papers reflect local history. Brownstown and Vandalia during their busy, railroad eras when my parents were small children. John lived just south of Brownstown on the Brownstown Road; thus he kept a number of receipts from Brownstown businesses like Bingham Brothers and Brownstown Lumber and a few from Vandalia businessmen like George A. A. Dieckmann and Polk Atkinson. A receipt from Pevely Dairy Co. in St. Louis may have been from the company’s Brownstown station. (There are, however, some St. Louis trains schedules in the box; John has written home 10 o clock on one.) Brownstown during the early 1900s had a wide assortment of stores, physicians, churches and schools, a lumberyard, a blacksmith, a hotel, a mill, an I.O.O.F. hall, farm machinery and feed stores. Like Vandalia, its economic mainstays were the St. Louis, Vandalia, and Terre Haute Railroad and the county’s agriculture. “Crawford” is an old Brownstown name, as are Washburn, Williams, and Mahon, and I imagine John was a local fixture as he walked the village streets.
There is nothing in the box concerning the purchase or repair of automobiles. I wonder if John owned one. Grandma and Grandpa owned a car at that time. But in 1920s Four Mile, considering reliable horses and buggies and the handy train depots at Brownstown and Vandalia, a family could have gotten along without one.
When Susan was diagnosed with stomach cancer, she had to spend time in the Mark Greer Hospital in Vandalia, and died there in 1926. Several of John’s checks from his account in First National Brownstown were written to the Mark Greer Hospital, and endorsed by “Dr. Mark” himself (Dr. Mark, with his downtown waiting room filled with animal heads, was just winding down his local medical practice when I was a boy.) One hospital receipt has Board & Room 8 days at 3.50, 28.00, Operating Room 10.00, Special Nurse’s, 7.00. Today, those decimal points have moved to the right! John kept several get-well cards that Four Mile people had sent to Susan, posted with 2-cent stamps. A receipt from the Brownstown undertaker totals the funeral expense for Susan at $277.50, most of which was for the casket.
John was a farmer. There are mortgage papers in the box for his farm, which in 1899 was 80 acres. That is insufficient acreage today for a profitable farm; it was quite sufficient then. John’s neighbor up the road, Jonathan K. Pilcher, had only 57 acres. A statement of John’s 1925 Fayette County taxes indicates he paid $38.29 that year. John had livestock; in those days one took stock to Brownstown for shipment by train to Indianapolis or East St. Louis. One item from the box, which I’ve since had framed, is sad, for it announces the sale of John’s and Susan’s property. Public Sale of live stock and personal property. The undersigned will sell at Public Sale at his residence two miles south of Brownstown, in Otego Township, on Thursday, October 29, 1908, the following described property: four head of horses consisting of 3 good work horses and I good 2-year-old colt, 2 good dairy cows and 1 spring calf, 13 good head of hogs weighting from 100 to 250 pounds. Farm implements: 1 Champion Binder, 1 McCormack Mower, 1 McCormack Sweet Rake, 1 Wheat Drill, 1 Steel Harrow, 1 Cultivator, 2 Breaking Plows, 1 Wagon, 1 Top Buggy, nearly new, 2 sets Double Harness, and 1 set Single Harness. Also about 5 tons of Hay and 20 acres of Corn in the field. 1 Estate Steel Range and other Household Furniture . . . John Crawford. According to my great-aunts, their brother Marvin had contracted tuberculosis by 1908 and the sale was necessitated by his illness and subsequent move to Texas for his health. He and his wife had needed money badly, especially after the birth of their child. Grandma had a heartbreaking letter from Marvin to John and Susan when Marvin’s little boy died. The poor little Kenneth is at peace with the Angels now and I Pray we will all Meet him there when we leave this world of Sorrow. Marvin himself didn’t live long after that and was brought back to Four Mile for burial. The older aunts–Jean and Ruby especially–remembered with abiding sadness the early death of their second brother.
John and Susan must have rebuilt their holdings in the years ahead. There is little evidence in the box that they remained in deep debt. The only mortgage papers in the box are from 1899. They both died just before the Great Depression which, Mom says, struck the area very hard. Although oil exploration around the St. James Field took place throughout this period, the major discoveries did not come until the late 1930s, at which time the area began to recover economically. Widespread mechanization of farms didn’t come until later, too.
John kept several credit vouchers from Sears, Roebuck & Co.—2 cents, 3 cents. I’ve thought of taking them to the nearest shopping mall where I live and jokingly try to redeem them with interest.
John tore a First National Bank Brownstown check in half and wrote on the back: Andrew Crawford 218 South 4th Street St. Louis Mo c/o Erie House. I wonder if John was, at some point, able to meet his prodigal brother there, or if this is an artifact from one of Andy’s cruel wires home. I’ll never know. But John did keep the address.
One interesting thing to me in all these papers is John’s religious work. He was a very active lay person in the Methodist Episcopal Church. John left several Sunday school and denominational materials in his box. In the 1910s and 1920s he was a delegate to the Fayette County Sunday School Convention and the township president of the Otego Township Sunday School Convention. A statement from the Brownstown Methodist Episcopal Church states that he paid $19.50 to date for the 1924-25 year. The Nashville, Illinois Methodist minister wrote John a sympathy letter when Susan died. I rejoice in the fact that Sister Crawford had such resolute faith in her Lord and Master that no powers of life or death could separate her from His love. An older letter, from 1906, is a note of thanks from the Casey, Illinois Methodist pastor for John’s 50-cent contribution to the parsonage fund. Susan was apparently active in the church, too; two note pads from the M.E. Women’s Home Missionary Society gives the upcoming programs as “The Way of Christ in Race Relations” for 1924-25 and “The Slavs in the United States” for 1925-26. Susan was hostess for the May 1926 program; but I wonder if she was sick with cancer at that time.
There is a page from “Our Senior Lesson Quarterly” from 1906. This old book will survive the century, correctly states an editorial on one side. Brethren, let us study the Bible; let us love it; let us obey it; and if we do, we shall share in its immortality. “All flesh is grass, and all the glory of man is the flower of grass. .. but the word of the Lord endureth forever.” On the back is a hymn: Jesus is my Savior, is he yours? is his yours? John must have found the words especially moving. So he kept the sheet.
John Crawford went to Vandalia during the time when the old business blocks which I love were new and the trains made Vandalia a popular, exciting place; he knew Four Mile, the old Vincennes Road, the family graveyard, the route which became U.S. 40 about the time of his death, the schedules of the local trains. Like many of his relatives—and unlike many people of his generation who fled the farms for the cities— he didn’t budge from Fayette County. How did it move him within?
I know better than to think that these keepsakes will last forever. But I’m grateful for them. I wish we had more from my wife’s side. I’d like to think that, if Emily becomes interested in such things, she’ll treasure her relatives too. Hopefully she’ll treasure, too, the place.
Sketching my family background in an essay form, I was inspired by a wonderful book, Ancestors by William Maxwell (New York, 1972).
Nearly forty years ago, my relatives Grace Crawford, Janie Stroble Plinke, Harold and Tillie Crawford, Charles and Fanny Crawford, Jean Boughers Parker, Ruby Wiseman, Mary Philboork, Nell Storm, Ruth Kistler, Ella Braun, Erma Hachet, Ann Link, Roy Carson, Helen Dickes, Bessie Marquis, my parents Paul and Mildred Stroble, and others gave me family stories and keepsakes, inculcating in me a love of things historical–and a deeper love of Vandalia and Fayette County. All are gone except my mother, but I’m grateful for their gifts and love.