Off we go, to ‘Antiques Roadshow’

Off we go, to ‘Antiques Roadshow’

A few weeks ago, my sister Theresa and I went to a taping of Antiques Roadshow in Virginia Beach. I’d been trying to score tickets for years — it’s a lottery — and finally got them this year. I was so excited, having collected antiques for decades and having deemed numerous things over the years my “Antiques Roadshow item,” should I ever be lucky enough to get tickets.

So, naturally, when I finally got tickets, I wondered, “Whatever will I bring?”

My first item, more correctly items, were letters written to husband John’s grandma by her second cousin, once removed, U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice James Clark McReynolds.

John wondered what they might be worth and also what the appraiser might think of them.

James McReynolds circa 1913 LOC - Bain News Service
James C. McReynolds, circa 1913. Bains New Service. Library of Congress.

McReynolds, a Woodrow Wilson appointee who served on the court from 1914 to 1941, was apparently a character, and not in the best way.

He was known for doing things like turning his back on women who were addressing the court, and in 1924, he refused to sit for the annual SCOTUS group photo because, due to seniority, he had to sit next to Louis Brandeis, who was Jewish.

It doesn’t sound like McReynolds was a very nice guy, but he sure seemed to like John’s grandma, the former Lillian Boone. They both grew up in the same small town of Elkton, Kentucky, and while I don’t know much about their relationship, it appears he was quite fond of her.

In a letter congratulating Lillian on her 1944 marriage to Bromfield Ridley, McReynolds wrote:

Dear Lillian, 

Felicitations, my dear lovely girl! Brom may count himself the luckiest of men. And my affectionate good wishes will follow you both. 

Of course, I think no woman can have a higher mission than to make a loyal wife. She can be happiest there as nowhere else. You will make a success, I am sure. He will find that nothing is so superb as a woman who cares. 

As an indication of my interest, please accept the enclosed check and convert it into something you will like to have. 

The best of good luck all the days of your life. 


J.C. McReynolds

chair bottom rail2
Look how worn the bottom rail is from years of shoes resting on it.

The second item I took — you’re allowed to bring two — was an old ladder-back chair. Bringing the chair, which I bought for $10 at a local consignment shop, was a last-minute decision.

I took it because, in the end, it was the only antique in my house that I knew absolutely nothing about.

If you Google search images for “ladder back chair,” you come up with near-infinite examples of chairs from the 1700s to the present day. I figured my chair was “old” but had no idea how old or where it might have been made.

For her two items, Theresa took a powder horn our grandpa had given her many years ago and a painting.

She suspected the painting was by an artist named Edwin Oman, but since it was signed only “OMAN” she wasn’t 100-percent sure. It looked like Oman’s other work on AskArt and it was framed in New York, where Oman lived.

The painting’s subject looked like it could have been Central Park. Oman did a painting called “Walking in Central Park,” but Theresa hasn’t found a photo of it. Perhaps, it’s because she owns it. Who knows?

Before ARS
Pre-Roadshow. Theresa, with her painting, and me, with my chair.

So, off we went to Antiques Roadshow, where for six hours we waited in lines to have our items appraised. The painting line alone took more than two hours to get through, and by the time we’d had all four items appraised my feet were killing me.

We had a great time, though, and here’s what we found out about our items:

The Letters:
The appraiser said the letters were worth about $100 and were of sentimental value only. Had McReynolds been writing about SCOTUS-related subjects, he said, they would have been worth more. How much more? I didn’t ask, but there have been some McReynolds letters online that folks wanted about $1,200 for.

theresa with powder horn
The powder horn.

The Powder Horn:
It was a real, usable powder horn, made in the early 1800s. Value was about 30 bucks. Theresa was happy that it wasn’t a 1950s-era decoration.

The Painting:
The appraiser agreed with Theresa that it was an Edwin Oman painting. He wasn’t familiar with the artist and researched it online, just as Theresa had already done. He valued the painting at about $150. Theresa was happy to be right about the artist, but a little disappointed that the painting wasn’t worth thousands and thousands of dollars.

The Chair:
The first appraiser who looked at my chair said it was an 18th-century, ladder-backed “country chair.” It was the kind of low chair that would have sat in front of a fireplace. She also described it as “Colonial.” I thought it was old, but hadn’t expected Colonial, so that made me happy.

The appraiser, who works in New England, said the chair was made of ash, chestnut and maple, and had likely been painted in a former life. She said people would paint these kinds of chairs because they had used all sorts of un-matching woods. It looked to her like a New England chair. She was confident it wasn’t Shaker.

She valued it at about $100.

When she consulted another appraiser about it, he thought it was likely made in the 19th century and possibly in Lynchburg, maybe even by a member of the Johnson family.

A couple of weeks after the trip, I visited the Lynchburg Museum. I looked at furniture items in their collection and files on local craftsmen of the early-to-mid 1800s. While they have a few examples of Johnson chairs, in photos or in the collection, they are all Windsor chairs.

The files actually contained the names of several Lynchburg chair makers who were operating during the time period in which the chair was made, among them George T. Johnson, Lewis Johnson, Thomas H. Johnson, Benjamin Caldwell, George Walker, Edward Litchfield, Chesley Hardy and Alanson Winston.

It would take a great deal of research and an even greater amount of luck to find out who made my chair. It’s likely I’ll never know who made it. Regardless, I like it and had a great time at Antiques Roadshow.

Also, in case you’re interested, here’s a closeup of one of the McReynolds letters:

homestead mcreynolds 1

From cotton mill to battlefield. Who was William Harrison Brooks?

From cotton mill to battlefield. Who was William Harrison Brooks?

A couple of weeks ago, husband John and I went to Lynchburg’s Old City Cemetery to look at the roses in bloom and the old gravestones. While there, we found the final resting place of William Harrison Brooks.

William Harrison Brooks Tombstone
William Harrison Brooks’ headstone at Old City Cemetery.

Actually, it was John who first noticed Brooks’ tombstone and the death date — November 11, 1918. The stone also said Brooks died near the Meuse River in France.

As I was photographing some roses nearby, John called over, “Hey, he died on the last day of the war.”

Sure enough, Brooks died on the last day of the Great War, the day the armistice was signed, and the date now celebrated as Veteran’s Day. He died during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, also known as the Battle of Argonne Forest.

We later found Brooks’ name on Monument Terrace, the Lynchburg veterans memorial. It’s a long flight of steps that runs between Court and Church streets and has monuments to the Civil War, both World Wars, the Korean Conflict and the Vietnam War.

At the top of Monument Terrace, across Court Street from the Lynchburg Museum, is a statue of a Confederate soldier. At the bottom is what most people in town call “The Doughboy.” It’s a bronze statue of a World War I soldier and its official name is “The Listening Post.”

The names of the World War I dead from Lynchburg are listed to the right and left of The Doughboy.

The Doughboy stands watch at Monument Terrace.

Being a curious person, I wondered what more there was to learn about William Harrison Brooks. While I didn’t get all crazy and track down living relatives — but if you are a relative and see this, please contact me — I did find out a few things:

According to his WWI registration card, dated June 5, 1918, Brooks was 21 years old and born in 1897. He was white, with brown eyes and “reddish brown” hair, and he wasn’t bald. I don’t know why the Army cared about that, but apparently they did.

According to the 1910 U.S. Census, Brooks worked as a spinner at the Lynchburg Cotton Mill. He lived on Arthur Street, in a neighborhood known as “Cotton Hill.” The census has Brooks living with parents Henry and Clara, older brother Robert and a younger sister. The sister’s name is difficult to decipher, but looks like Iva or Eva. Henry was a carpenter and Robert worked as a carder at the cotton mill.

Lynchburg Cotton Mill Housing2 - Library of Congress
Lynchburg Cotton Mill housing, 1911. Note the outhouses. Library of Congress: Hine, L.W., photographer.

Thanks to the nice folks at the Lynchburg Museum System, I found out that Arthur Street no longer exists. Like a lot of Cotton Hill, the street disappeared when U.S. 29 Business was built and the Spring Hill Cemetery was expanded. But in 1918, Arthur Street was just two blocks from the cotton mill.

cotton mill - credit lynchburg museum system
Lynchburg Cotton Mill postcard, courtesy of Lynchburg Museum System.

The cotton mill closed in 1957 and was demolished in the 1980s, but at least one building associated with it remains: Melrose Hall.

According to the Facebook page “A Visual History of Lynchburg, Virginia,” Melrose Hall was built in 1906 as a social hall for cotton mill employees. Today, it’s owned by Liberty University and used for “Scaremare,” the college’s annual haunted house.

But back to Brooks.

A muster roll for what it calls “the War with Germany,” found at the Lynchburg Circuit Court Clerk’s office, says Brooks “selected service” on August 7, 1918. He joined the Army and served in the 330th Infantry. A little more than three months later, he was dead, killed in action in France.

On his tombstone is written, “Nobly he fell while fighting for Liberty.”

Here are a couple more cotton-mill-related photos you might find interesting:

Lynchburg Cotton Mill Housing - Library of Congress
Lynchburg Cotton Mill housing, 1911. Library of Congress: Hine, L.W., photographer.
scaremare building - tomlinson photo
Melrose Hall, circa 1979. Courtesy Andrea Tomlinson.

Jubal Early Punch

Last weekend, husband John and I hosted 50 people at our house for a cocktail party as part of the Boone Family Reunion. The Boones are John’s mother’s family, but before I go any further, you might have two immediate questions:

Q: Do you mean those Boones? The honest-to-goodness Daniel Boone Boones?
A: Yep, although actually more directly through Daniel Boone’s brother, Samuel.

Q: How did you get 50 people into your 2,300-square-foot ranch house?
A: I have no idea. It might have been the promise of copious amounts of alcohol.

I’d never hosted a cocktail party before, and I’m not even a big liquor drinker, but I wanted to do it right. First of all, I knew I had to have bourbon. These are Kentucky people — “Straight Outta Kentucky” as the official reunion T-shirt declared — so there had to be bourbon.

John’s parents took care of that. (Thank you!)

Because the reunion was being held in Lynchburg, Va., this year, I wanted to serve something “Lynchburg-y.” But what? I’m not from Lynchburg or even Virginia. I didn’t grow up with silver and china patterns. My family didn’t have a liquor cabinet or a Confederate ancestor buried in the back yard. We certainly didn’t have an old family recipe for punch.

But thanks to Google, I found a recipe for Jubal Early Punch.

Jubal Early LOC photo
Lt. Gen. Jubal Anderson Early (Library of Congress)

If you’re not from Lynchburg or a Civil War buff, you might be wondering, “Who is Jubal Early?” — more specifically Lt. Gen. Jubal Anderson Early.

Basically, Ol’ Jube was a Civil War commander known for his general badassery. He reportedly had a nasty temper and was known for his aggressive, albeit brilliant, nature on the battlefield, among other qualities. He also did things like threaten to burn down Union towns unless they paid a ransom.

With affection, Gen. Robert E. Lee called Early his “Bad Old Man.”

After the war, Early was what’s been called a “unreconstructed Rebel,” escaping to Mexico and then Canada, rather than swearing his allegiance to the Union. He later returned to the U.S. and settled in Lynchburg, where he died in 1894. He’s buried in Spring Hill Cemetery.

In Lynchburg, there’s a fort named for Early on the aptly named Fort Avenue. Across the street from the fort, an obelisk stands in his honor. There are streets or roads named after Early in West Virginia, Texas and in several Virginia towns.

As for his choice of libation, I don’t imagine Early ever drank this particular mixture of rum, brandy, lemon juice and champagne, but someone named it after him, so it was good enough for me.

Jubal Early Punch
Jubal Early Punch. Not the most appetizing color, but it sure tastes good!

Here’s how you make it (and a big thanks to Esquire magazine for the recipe and instructions):


1 cup superfine (quick-dissolving) sugar
1 cup lemon juice
1 quart plus 1 cup water
4 ounces dark rum
1 1/2 cups brandy
1 bottle dry champagne


In a punch bowl (large bowl, big pitcher, whatever), dissolve the sugar in the water and lemon juice. Add the rum and brandy. Let sit for a while, 30 minutes or so, in the fridge or some other cool place. Just prior to serving, add the champagne.

Before making the punch, use a gelatin mold, bowl or anything else that suits your fancy to make a big chunk of ice to float in the punch. The Esquire recipe suggested a “cannonball of ice” but I couldn’t figure out how to make one, short of using a water-filled balloon, and I didn’t know if that was food safe or not.


The ‘terrible death’ of Conrad Cramer

The ‘terrible death’ of Conrad Cramer

Sometimes, while looking for one thing, you happen upon something else — something too interesting to ignore. That was the case yesterday, when I learned about the shocking death of Pennsylvania teenager Conrad Cramer.

I was reading old newspapers at Jones Memorial Library, researching something I’ll write about later this year, when I happened upon this fascinating headline on page two of the October 19, 1878, Lynchburg Virginian:


Well, I had to find out what that was all about. How could I not?

Turns out, the story of Cramer’s gruesome death made numerous newspapers — not only in Virginia and Pennsylvania, but also in Maryland, New York, Ohio and likely other places.

So here’s what happened to poor Conrad Cramer:

On October 15, 1878, 15-year-old Conrad Cramer was working at a coal mine in Luzerne County, Penn. It was his job to carry coal dirt from something called a “culm pile” to a boiler room. He did this using a mule-drawn cart.

miner and mule - loc photo
A boy and mule in a Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, coal mine, 1911. Hine, L.W., photographer.

According to an article in The Carbon Advocate, of Lehighton, Penn., “It was the habit of the boy to jump upon the mule’s back, after dumping the load, and ride over the return trip.”

On this day, however, the mule was having none of it and tried repeatedly to throw Cramer. This cantankerous behavior amused the other mine workers, who reportedly “laughed heartily at what they termed the mule’s ‘circus tricks.’”

But as the article went on to describe, “their mirth was suddenly turned to mourning.”

The mule finally succeeded in pitching Cramer from its back, and when it did, the boy became tangled up in the harness. As reported in The Times of New Bloomfield, Penn., “The animal plunged and reared and bit at the boy, who was dangling in front.” Then the mule took off running, “dragging Cramer over the sharp rocks.”

When the mule finally stopped, as described in hideous detail by the Northern Ohio Journal, “he seized one of the boy’s arms in his teeth and literally tore it into fragments. He then attacked other portions of the bruised and bleeding body, and with fiendish malignity tore open the breast, thigh and back, laying the bones bare in many places.”

Apparently, it was a terrible scene. When the other miners finally reached Cramer, he was dead and his body unrecognizable. As reported in the Lynchburg Virginian and other newspapers, “The old miners, who has looked upon death in almost every form, turned their heads away involuntarily, sickened at the horrible sight before them.”

Using FamilySearch and Find A Grave, I was able to find out a few more things about Cramer. He was born on July 5, 1863, in Luzerne County, Penn., and was the son of Conrad Sr. and Amanda Cramer.

On December 12, 1864, when Cramer was about a year and a half old, his dad died while serving in the 4th New Jersey Infantry. He’s buried in the Loudon Park National Cemetery in Baltimore.

Before 1870, Cramer’s mom married Josiah Trumpore, described in the 1870 census as “boss at coal works.” Perhaps it was the same mining operation where Cramer would meet his untimely and “terrible death” eight years later.

(Both images of the boy and mule were taken by photographer L.W. Hine in 1911, as part of a series on child labor. While the photos were taken in a coal mine located in the same county where Cramer lived, the subject is not Cramer. Photographs courtesy of the Library of Congress.)

End of Summer: When Lynchburg closed its pools

End of Summer: When Lynchburg closed its pools

On July 4, 1961, Audrey Lenon was swimming at Jefferson Park pool. At the time, it was the only public pool open to African Americans in Lynchburg, Virginia. The day was hot, with temperatures in the mid-80s. One might imagine the pool was packed.

And then the police arrived.

“We were in the water and there was a ramp that you walked down to get to the pool,” Lenon, who was 15 at the time, recalled. “We looked up and it was lined with police officers. They told us to get out of the water. No explanation.”

Lenon said she and the other swimmers were “herded … like we were criminals,” told to gather their things and leave. The police refused to answer any questions.

Jefferson Park Pool - Gilmore Pic for blog
Swimmers pose for a photo at Jefferson Park pool. Photo courtesy of Charlie Gilmore.

“We asked, ‘What happened?’ and ‘Why are you closing the pool?’ but we didn’t get any answers,” she said. “We were just told to put our clothes on and the pool was closed. That’s all they said, no why it’s closed. I guess they didn’t feel like they needed to tell us. … Do they really need to give a child an explanation?”

What Lenon didn’t know at the time, what she heard later on the evening news, was that something had happened across town at the whites-only Miller Park pool. Something that had caused the police to come Jefferson Park, something that would ruin a summer holiday so full of fun and promise and essentially put an end to summer.

On that Independence Day, 55 years ago, six black boys and an adult civil rights leader tried to buy tickets to Miller Park pool, one of two city pools open only to whites. The newspapers, no doubt familiar with sit-ins happening at lunch counters all over the country, would call it a “wade-in” and “swim-in.”

The City of Lynchburg’s response to this act of civil disobedience was to close all of its pools.

In a newspaper article the next day, City Manager Robert Morrison said the pools were closed as a “matter of public safety.” The same article also listed the boys’ names and their parents’ names and addresses.

An editorial titled, “Closing the Pools,” which ran a few days later, blamed “militant Negro leaders” and their “sense of justice” for what happened that day:

Now, each of these pools has been drained. Negro leaders forcing the issue knew that this would be the result of any attempt to integrate either of the pools used by whites. Perhaps, today, they are proud of their accomplishment and consider their ‘sense of justice’ somewhat satisfied.

It’s true, the wade-in didn’t come as a big surprise to city officials. It was all part of a bigger initiative organized by local civil rights leaders to desegregate public facilities. One of these activists was Virgil Wood, who was then pastor of Diamond Hill Baptist Church.

Wood said city officials had known about the plans for a wade-in and told him the pools would be closed if they actually did it. Wood also described the city manager as a “very decent man” who seemed to be a victim of the times.

“I think he didn’t believe in the old way, but he was trapped in having to carry out what he didn’t believe in,” Wood said. “That was my impression. We also had a high level of respect for each other. We didn’t do sneak attacks. We also gave them the opportunity to do what was right before we challenged it.”

What the City of Lynchburg did that day was similar to what nearby Prince Edward County had done two years before as part of what was called the “Massive Resistance.” Prince Edward closed all of its public schools, rather than allow blacks and whites to attend school together.

The prevailing opinion was that while federal law said schools must be integrated, no one said you had to have public schools.

Regarding Lynchburg’s pools, Morrison told a reporter, “The city does not have the right to deny any citizens admission to a pool operated by the city of Lynchburg. The only way to legally prevent their admission is by closing the pools.”

Two weeks after the pools were closed, Brian Robinson, a 12-year-old African-American boy, drowned while swimming in a canal lock in downtown Lynchburg. According to a newspaper account of the drowning, he would have normally cooled off at Jefferson Park pool.

Robinson’s death was blamed on Wood and others in the local civil rights movement. An editorial in the July 23 newspaper reads, in part, “Because the pools were closed by the wade-in, as city authorities had always said they would be if such a move was made, it’s easy enough to see where the responsibility lies.”

Three city pools closed on July 4, 1961, at Miller, Jefferson and Riverside parks. Eventually, the pools were filled with dirt and grass was planted.

Riverside Park Pool
What remains of Riverside Park pool today.

Today, the only visible evidence of the three pools is at Riverside Park, where you’ll find a large rectangle of sod, surrounded by a stone pool deck. In what was the deep end, you can still see the concrete sides and the metal rings, through which ropes once ran around the pool’s perimeter.

A year or so ago, the city installed an interpretive sign at Riverside Park that tells the story of what happened to the city’s pools in 1961.

As for what Lenon and her friends did on that summer day 55 years ago, after the police had locked the gate and left, it appears they tried to make the best of it.

“There was a concession stand as you were entering the pool,” she said. “The lady kept it open. It was Fourth of July. Kids needed something to do. She kept it open, so we bought food and just sat on the hill and looked at the water.”

Avoca Museum: Home of Southern hospitality, Victorian charm … and beer

Avoca Museum: Home of Southern hospitality, Victorian charm … and beer

Avoca was once the home of Col. Charles Lynch — planter, lawmaker and Revolutionary War soldier. Lynch also was the brother of Lynchburg founder John Lynch. Originally called “Green Level,” the land on which Avoca now sits was acquired through a land grant to Col. Lynch’s father from King George II in 1740.

There have been three houses at Avoca over its 261-year history. The first home was built by Col. Lynch in 1755. It burned down in 1879. A second home was built, and it burned down in 1900. The current house, a stately Queen Anne with Eastlake details, is the third house and is now officially known as Avoca Museum.

Avoca — tagline, “Where Southern Hospitality Meets Victorian Charm” — is open for tours, and the home and property can be rented for weddings and other celebrations. The museum also hosts annual events, including a Mother’s Day Tea, lantern tours and beer and wine festivals.

Next 2 the Tracks - Adrian Baird photo credit
Next 2 the Tracks. Photo, Adrian Baird.

This Saturday, June 18, Avoca will host its 4th-annual Made in the Shade Craft Beer Festival. Gates open at noon, and tickets are $20 ($15 in advance). Admission includes tickets for eight samples from the six craft breweries that will be on site.

The event also will feature concessions, vendors, and live music by Next 2 the Tracks and Chamomile and Whiskey.

I’ll be there Saturday, not only because Next 2 the Tracks is staying at my house (really, I must start cleaning…) but also because I’ll be a vendor. I’ll be selling bottle cap folk art and bracelets made from vintage belts. And, for full-disclosure purposes, my sister is Avoca’s event planner, so of course I’ll be there.

So, you should be there, too! It’s always a fun time. Avoca is located about a half-hour south of Lynchburg, in Altavista. For more information, visit Avoca’s website or email

Moving people, dead and alive: A story of Smith Mountain Lake

Lake View 1964
Smith Mountain Lake in 1964, before it reached “full pond.” (Photo provided by Marge Dillard.)

A few years ago, I was asked to write a story for a local magazine about the history of Smith Mountain Lake. The popular recreation area, located about an hour from Lynchburg, was created 50 years ago by Appalachian Power Company.

Throughout 2016, communities around the lake are celebrating the anniversary.

So, I researched and wrote the story, reporting about feasibility studies and how the power company acquired property in Bedford, Franklin and Pittsylvania counties. I wrote about the hydroelectric dam and how the Roanoke River Basin was flooded to provide power, recreational opportunities and other things.

What I found most interesting, however, was what had to be displaced for all of this to happen: namely people, dead and alive.

In May of 1960, two Appalachian Power employees were given a challenging — some might have said impossible — task: find and relocate every grave on the 20,000 acres of rolling Virginia farmland that would eventually become Smith Mountain Lake.

Those employees were an administrative assistant named C.O. Roberson and his coworker Herbert Taylor. Roberson, also known to be an “avid genealogist,” documented the daunting task in his 1963 report, “Relocation of Cemeteries in the Smith Mountain Lake and Leesville Reservoir Areas of Bedford, Franklin and Pittsylvania Counties.”

The report can be read, in full, at Jones Memorial Library in Lynchburg.

As Roberson wrote in his report, he and Taylor quickly realized “that the finding of these cemeteries would indeed be the most difficult task. Several months were spent on this one phase of the job. Many of the burial grounds were in most remote, isolated locations, far removed from accessible highways.

“They had to be found by walking and searching long distances through dense forests, briers, and bushes, and treelaps and honeysuckle vines, and everything else that grew over them. In some cases we spent hours locating a particular cemetery. We frequently solicited the aid of local residents and in a number of instances they joined the search.”

For months, Roberson and Taylor scoured fields and forests. They searched for tombstones, field stones, dips in the earth — anything that could possibly be a grave site. They also looked for periwinkle, a popular ground cover used in cemeteries.

“Periwinkle proved to be a blessing in helping us find cemeteries,” Roberson wrote.

The intrepid pair tangled with vines and briers. They got bit by lots of ticks but luckily no snakes.

“We killed two rattlesnakes and some moccasins, but we let the blacksnakes go,” the candid Roberson wrote, adding, “If anyone believes it is fun looking for graves in a rattlesnake and tick infested area, he should try it some time. We were often bitten by ticks, but fortunately not by a snake.”

Roberson and Taylor found graves from as far back as the 1750s. They also suspected many of the graves they found belonged to slaves. Very few graves were marked with names and dates, and many of the remains were of children.

Chimney at SML
My friend, Paula, found this chimney at Smith Mountain Lake State Park.

The pair found many graves at old home sites, identified only by a foundation or a couple of chimneys and, as Roberson put it, “often with large trees standing among the graves.”

During their two-year odyssey, Roberson and Taylor drove at least 100,000 miles and communicated with next-of-kin from all over the U.S. and Canada.

Roberson wrote that, “most of the next of kin desired and requested that the graves of their people be relocated, but in many instances their kinship was so distant that they did not show much concern or interest.”

Those in the black community, however, were adamant that their ancestors’ remains be relocated. “Without exception, colored people requested … their ancestors be moved to ‘higher ground,’ ” Roberson wrote. “They could not seem to bear the thought of permitting the graves to be inundated.”

Roberson and Taylor eventually found and coordinated the relocation of 1,135 graves from dozens of cemeteries. It was hard work, but it appears Roberson considered it a worthwhile endeavor.

“The relocation of graves, with all the minute details involved, turned out to be a bigger undertaking than we first anticipated,” he wrote at the end of his report. “It took longer than we thought it would, but it was a job that had to be done. We did the best that we knew how.”

Lots of living people also had to leave the area, among them people from Huddleston’s black community. Some families had been in the area since before the Civil War — first as slaves, then as sharecroppers.

For my original article, I talked with Margaret Garrett Moon, a sharecropper’s daughter. She grew up south of Lynchburg in Evington, but went to church in Huddleston.

Moon and her family attended church at Oak Grove Baptist and Thomas Slave Chapel. Thomas Slave Chapel was founded by freed slaves in 1877. It’s still used today, although mostly for annual homecoming-type services.

Moon remembered the older folks talking about being forced out by the impending flood. “Everybody, rich or poor, had to leave. … The dam was taking everything,” she said.

Trouble was, some people had nowhere to go. So the churches collaborated, building a shanty town at Oak Grove Baptist Church.

“Huts were put up … anywhere they could find a place to live,” Moon said, adding that some people lived on the church grounds “till they died or went into a nursing home or something.”

My friend and running partner, Paula, featured in the photo with the chimney, blogs at Virginia Sweet Pea. There, she writes about a variety of things, including crafting, fashion, food and her dog, Sherman. 

Final resting places

New Mexico tombstone
This wooden cross marks a grave in New Mexico.

Husband John and I like cemeteries and graveyards and — strange, morbid, whatever — have found ourselves wandering through them all over the country.

Before I go any further, some people might want to know what the difference is between a cemetery and a graveyard. They are often used interchangeably, but apparently there’s a difference and it has to do with location.

Based on what I found online, a graveyard is a burial ground that’s next to a church — in the yard, so to speak. A cemetery, on the other hand, is a burial ground that’s not next to a church.

To summarize: Small plot located behind a country church? Graveyard. Sprawling sea of tombstones next to the highway? Cemetery. According to what I found on this very informative Wikipedia page, a private family burial plot also would be called a cemetery.

One of my favorite burial grounds, so far, is Bonaventure Cemetery in Savannah, Georgia. It was made popular by John Berendt’s wonderful non-fiction book, “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.” I haven’t read the book in years but I might have to crack it open again soon. The movie, which starred Kevin Spacey, also was good. I love Kevin Spacey, even when he’s the bad guy.

Bonaventure has many beautiful statues. It’s very shady, park-like and ornate. Savannah native Johnny Mercer, who wrote the lyrics to “Moon River” and was the founder of Capitol Records, among other things, is buried there.

savannah cemetery angel
An angel statue at Bonaventure.

John and I visited Bonaventure several years ago. It was on a day trip while we were vacationing in Charleston, South Carolina, which is a couple of hours north. Charleston has some amazing graveyards, too. I’ve been to several in the historic district, among them at the Circular Congregational Church, St. Philips and the Unitarian Church.

Last time I was at the Unitarian graveyard it was this jungle-like mess of foliage and tombstones. It was kind of like I imagine Unitarians to be — do what you want, free and easy, without much concern for convention. But for that reason, it’s also one of my favorite Charleston graveyards.

New Mexican graveyards, for the most part, are very different from those in Virginia. First of all, you’ll never find a wooden tombstone in Virginia — too much rain — but they’re commonplace in the much-drier Land of Enchantment.

You also won’t see much grass in New Mexican graveyards. In a lot of the ones I’ve seen while vacationing there, there’s no grass at all. That said, the graveyards are beautiful, if in a desolate way, and I enjoy visiting them.

Fredericksburg Grave
A child’s grave in the Texas Hill Country.

In the Texas Hill Country town of Fredericksburg, John and I happened upon a German cemetery, where many of the tombstones were inscribed in German.

There, we saw dozens of small graves, each surrounded by a wrought-iron fence. Upon further inspection, it dawned on me that these were children’s graves. The fences encircling them were made to look like cribs.

While touring St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 in New Orleans a few years ago, I learned about “oven vaults.”

As explained on this tour website, “These walls of tombs were meant to be used to house the dead for an entire family line. Well after the funeral, the remains could be pushed to the back of the receptacle, to make room for the next deceased.”

Oven vaults remind me of brick pizza ovens, and I’m not just saying that because I’m hungry as I write this. When I see one, I imagine the remains of the last person being shoved to the back of the vault with a big spatula — kind of like a pizza.

Morbid, yes, but it’s an easy way to remember what an oven vault is.

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Oven vaults in New Orleans.

Not too long ago, one of my aunts showed me the tombstone of a relative I didn’t even know I had: my great aunt, Martha Jane Miles. Poor little Martha Jane was my maternal grandfather’s younger sister. She was born and died in 1909 and is buried near Barbourville, Kentucky. Martha Jane’s tombstone is a simple rock, crudely (but sweetly) engraved with her initials and two dates.

Martha Jane Miles
Martha Jane’s grave

Martha Jane died not too long before the rest of her family moved to Oklahoma, with plans to homestead. They didn’t stay in Oklahoma long, however, maybe a couple of years. I heard they returned home because my great-grandma missed her mother, but I also wonder if she missed the baby she left behind.

Indeed, there are interesting discoveries to be made in cemeteries and graveyards — too many to include in one post, that’s for sure.

Are there any neat burial grounds that you’d recommend John and I visit?


Skeletons in the Closet

Sometimes, our ancestors do things that are less than admirable. As I discovered recently, in the 1790s, my fourth-great-grandpa, Buckner Jones, fathered a child out of wedlock — or “bastard child” as it’s written in the 18th-century court records.

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Great-great-grandpa John Wesley Miles

In about 1880, my great-great-grandpa, John Wesley Miles, left his wife and infant child in Kentucky for a Wild West adventure. As the story goes, John told his young wife Josephine — and I’m paraphrasing here — “Hey, Sweetie, I’m going to go get a sack of cornmeal, OK?”

Then he left and didn’t come back for 20 years.

When he did return, he was carrying a sack of cornmeal, which I guess proves he had a sense of humor. By then, however, Josephine had moved on, marrying — or at least taking up with — the older brother of her son’s wife. It’s said she held no grudges, though, and loved that scoundrel John until the day she died.

After returning to Kentucky, John married two more times, had more children and supposedly died at age 106. I say “supposedly” because the dates of birth I’ve found for him range wildly. The record of his marriage to Josephine says he was born in 1859. The 1940 U.S. Census estimates his birth at 1853. An article written about his 105th birthday claims 1850. His death certificate says 1851.

In short, who the heck knows?

So what was John doing for all those years away? That’s where things get even fuzzier. The story I always heard was he went to Oklahoma or possibly Texas, where he sold trinkets to the Indians, started a new family and — according to tales he told after he returned home — joined the U.S. Marshals.

In the 1950s, John told a newspaper reporter he tried to serve a “desperado warrant” on Cherokee Bill of the infamous Dalton Gang. He said he met U.S. Presidents Lincoln, Garfield and Teddy Roosevelt, and heard Gen. Ulysses S. Grant speak in Springfield, Missouri.

It would take lots of work and a good bit of luck to find out if any of those things could possibly have happened, and it might not be possible. However, according to “Uncle John,” as the reporter called him, he did go through Springfield en route to Indian country, so the Grant story could be true.

The reporter wrote that in Kentucky John “met up with another man and they walked to the nearest railroad and caught a train to Springfield, Mo. He says from there he walked over 300 miles into the Southwestern part of the country.”

In the 1880 U.S. Census, I found a John W. Miles working as a cowboy on a cattle farm in Jack County, Texas. This John Miles reported he was born in Virginia, but he’s 27 years old, which fits into the range of birth dates, and it’s in the right part of the country and at the right time. Could this be him?

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All dressed up

Somewhere out West, there’s another family with a similar story: of a tale-telling man who came from Kentucky, started a family, and then left after 20 years — in their case, never to be seen again. I’m pretty sure I have relatives out there somewhere, and I’d love to find them someday.

I never met John Miles. He died in 1957, before I was born. My mom, aunts and uncles, however, recall him fondly. He’s a beloved figure in their family and no one is allowed to say anything bad about him. I might be ostracized at the next family reunion for calling him a “scoundrel,” but how else would you describe him? Loveable scoundrel?

The thing is, at this point, it’s not so much scandalous or shameful as it is interesting. So let those skeletons pour out of the closet.

The Sad Story of the ‘White Negro Girl’

The other day, I was doing some online research on a topic I’ll write about later this summer, when I happened upon these advertisements for a sideshow act called “The Albino, or White Negro Girl.”

The ads are dated 1864, 1866 and 1868, and each includes a photo of Henry and Helen Walker. According to the ads, Henry and Helen are “twin brother and sister, offspring of colored parents.”

Helen is obviously albino. Unfortunately, at the time, she would have been considered a “curiosity,” an “amusement,” something to be stared at for a fee.

In the earliest photo, the twins are 8 years old. They stand side by side, dressed in the finery of the day. Helen wears a massive bow on her head. Her hands are clasped in front of her. She looks stunned. Her brother, on the other hand, almost smiles.

The 1868 photo, advertising an appearance at Burnell’s Museum in Pittsburgh, also features an older, white man. He is standing behind the children, a hand on each twin’s shoulder.

Again, Helen’s hands are clasped in front of her and she wears what looks like the same big bow on her head. Henry doesn’t smile and stares into the camera. In my opinion, they both look sad.

The man in the photo is likely John Burnell, a showman who had museums in St. Louis, New Orleans, Pittsburgh, and possibly other cities. His museums exhibited curiosities: bearded ladies, “The Mer-Man,” “The Armless Lady” and, as advertised in The Pittsburgh Gazette on Nov. 23, 1868, the “white and black twins.” No doubt, these are the Walker children.

Thanks to a comment made on the website Sideshow World, where I found the photos, I was able to learn more about Helen and Henry.

The 1860 U.S. Census for New York City lists 4-year-old Helen — called “Ellen” in the census — and brother Henry living with their mother, Phoebe Walker. Phoebe is described as a 36-year-old, mulatto washerwoman. The children also are mulatto. All were born in New Jersey.

No father is listed. Maybe Phoebe was a single mother; maybe she was a widow. Without more research, it’s impossible to know. Another question is, how did Helen and Henry end up traveling the country with Burnell?

During my research, I kept stumbling upon references to parents who “sold” their children to showmen like Burnell. Maybe that’s what happened to Helen and Henry.

Maybe their mother sold them to Burnell because she was in a desperate financial situation. Maybe she let Burnell take them out of love, thinking they would have a better life and more opportunities. Maybe Phoebe died and Burnell found the children in an orphanage.

According to an online commenter, Helen’s great-grandson, Helen grew up and later went by the name “Nellie.” She married three times, first in 1872, when she was about 16 years old. Her first husband, Charles Price, also was albino. She is buried in Ohio.

Also, the commenter didn’t even know Helen had a brother until he saw the photos.

As for what happened to Henry, the 1870 census lists him as a 14-year-old “domestic servant” living in the Burnell household in Pittsburgh. I have yet to find a record of Henry after that.

I wonder if the children ever saw their mother again.