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Homer Sheeley (1841-1898? 1911? 1928?)
From the Thomas S. Orr Photo Album

“The report of my death was an exaggeration.” The well known Mark Twain quote seems very apt when it comes to the death of my great great grandfather, Homer Sheeley. I know quite a bit about his life, but confirming his death has been a challenge. Finally last week I confirmed when he did NOT die.

Homer Sheeley, born in Ohio in 1841, was the second of nine children born to John/Jehu Scott and Jane Caldwell (Tidball) Sheeley. At age 19, the 1860 census listed Homer and his elder brother Virgil as carpenters, and their father as a cabinet maker. By 1863 Homer was employed as a teacher, according to his Civil War draft registration.

His Civil War military service began late in the war and lasted only a few months. Homer enlisted as a corporal in Company C of the Ohio 81st Infantry Regiment on February 20, 1865. He was mustered out on May 16th and his rank was reduced to private on June 19, 1865. There must be a story there.

Following the war, Homer attended Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Between 1870 and 1873 he attended Danville Theological Seminary, Danville, Kentucky and Union Theological Seminary, New York. Like his brothers Virgil and Brownhill Tidball Sheeley, Homer became a Presbyterian minister.

Homer and Rebecca Conkling (1845-1894) were married in 1876. Rebecca had attended Western Female Seminary in Oxford, Ohio, (eventually merged with his alma mater, Miami University), where she was a close friend and classmate of Homer’s sister, Maria (Sheeley) Andrews (1843-1937). A family history written by another Sheeley sister, Margaretta Linn Sheeley, referred to Rebecca’s “long period of invalidism, ante-dating her marriage,” while other sources say she became an invalid following the birth of their only child, my great grandmother Alice (Sheeley) Stephenson.

Homer served as pastor in Presbyterian churches across eastern and southern Ohio and Indiana during a long career in the ministry. Daughter Alice was born in 1878 during their time in Lake County, Indiana. By 1885 Rebecca and Alice were living with Rebecca’s parents in Lyons, Kansas. I have found no indication that Homer and Rebecca ever lived together again, and Rebecca died in 1896. Alice remained in Lyons and was raised by her maternal grandparents and aunt, Hattie Conkling.

Then the information got interesting. Years ago I found this article. At first reading I thought it must be true. How could such a specific news story be wrong? (Yes, I was naive.)

Steubenville Herald-Star, Steubenville, Ohio. Friday, January 28, 1898, p. 5.

And yet, Homer appears in the 1900 Census, alive and well and living in Springfield, Ohio. And a July 22, 1924 article in the Akron (Ohio) Beacon Journal mentions a visit to him in Steubenville from his sister and brother-in-law. And, oh by the way, there was this gravestone with the rest of the Sheeley family in Fredericksburg, Ohio with a death date of 1928:

Find a Grave, (www.findagrave.com/memorial/147941370/homer-sheeley: accessed 25 May 2021), memorial page for Homer Sheeley, citing Fredericksburg East Side Cemetery, Fredericksburg, Wayne County, Ohio; maintained by Lois Revenaugh.

Just to make things more confusing, a published genealogy for the Sheeley family lists Homer’s death in 1911 and this source has been widely used in many a family tree on Ancestry and elsewhere. My best explanation is that at the time Margaretta Sheeley wrote the family genealogy in 1911, Homer was still alive. A death date “after 1911” could have turned into a 1911 death by mistake.

Then came the fun part! During a stroll through www.newspapers.com last week, I came across these two articles and both tickled me. Of course by then I’d long since realized the 1898 report of Homer’s death was an oops, but confirmation! Yay! And correct information with a smile and a nod to Mark Twain is even better.

Steubenville Herald-Star, Steubenville, Ohio. Tuesday, February 1, 1898, p. 5.
The Lyons Republican, Lyons, Kansas. Friday, February 11, 1898, p. 5. The publisher of the Lyons Republican was Homer’s brother-in-law.

I love the quirky items I find searching newspapers. I completely love that Homer signed his letter to the editor “Vivaciously Yours.” To find a bit of a sense of humor is a special treat–who knew? And the famous Mark Twain line about his own mis-reported death was first published in June 1897. Was Homer familiar with it and referring to it in his own response just a few months later?

I’m now confident that Homer Sheeley died in 1928, but I have many unanswered questions about Homer and his family. Did he and Rebecca separate because of her fragile health or was the story more complicated? Did he maintain a relationship with his only child, Alice? Did he meet his three grandsons, born between 1902 and 1911? And other than his gravestone, I still haven’t found a record of his death in 1928. Where is his obituary? The real one.

NOTE: Special thanks to Steven K. Orr, my 3rd cousin once removed through Homer Sheeley’s sister, Lovely Jane (Sheeley) Orr, for generously sharing Margaretta Linn Sheeley’s 27-page, handwritten “A Sheeley Genealogy.” Margaretta wrote the family history for Lovely, her youngest sister, on November 11, 1911, the 100th anniversary of their father John/Jehu Scott Sheeley’s birth. The photograph of Homer Sheeley is also from the Orr family’s collection.