A Brilliant Wedding–May 31, 1898


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When I visited Baltimore in April, exploring the places where my mother’s family lived, worshiped, studied, and worked, I hadn’t yet discovered the wedding announcement that appeared in the Baltimore Sun on June 1, 1898. What a gem! So today I remember my great grandparents, Mary Carroll Hill and Dr. James J. Mills, married 120 years ago today and return to two of the places I visited last month.

Mills, Mary Carroll

Mary Carroll (Hill) Mills in 1915 at age 40. This picture reminds me so much of her daughter Elsie, my grandmother.

The wedding in the grand Baltimore Cathedral is described in exquisite detail in the article below, so I’ll stick to a few highlights.

Major Nicholas Snowden Hill, father of the bride (my 2nd great grandfather) walked Mary down the aisle. Oddly, there is no mention anywhere of the mother of the bride, Mary (Cocke) (Johnson) Hill.

The large cast of clergy was led by the eminent Cardinal James Gibbons, a close friend of Major Hill. With four priests officiating in red and white vestments embroidered in gold, it must have been quite a spectacle.

I’m loving the detail in this article, with vivid fashion descriptions, down to the orange blossoms fastening the bride’s veil and her bouquet of white sweet peas, a description of the church decorations, and an account of all the music.

Seeing the names of the bridesmaids, ushers, and a long list of guests invited to the wedding breakfast at the bride’s parents’ house got me curious, and I’ve been down the rabbit hole looking up bridesmaids, ushers, and wedding guests. No big surprises, but I found a few entertaining tidbits and a photo of bridesmaid Nanine Brent. Caton Mactavish, the ribbon boy, grew up to become a Baltimore newspaper journalist and close friend of Ogden Nash and H.L. Mencken.

Hill, N.S. Jr.

Nicholas S. Hill, Jr. (1869-1936), my 2nd great uncle, was Mary (Hill) Mills’ older brother, and was an usher in the wedding. Uncle Nick was also the father of my favorite extra grandmother, Isabelle (Hill) Guthrie (1896-1995).

Brent, Nanine, Mary Mills bridesmaid, photo other wedding

Nanine Brent, a distant cousin of Mary’s, was a bridesmaid. This photo was taken at another wedding where Nanine was a bridesmaid.

My visit to the Cathedral in April was a thrill. The building, described as America’s first cathedral, is glorious and was beautifully restored not long ago.

Baltimore Cathedral c. 1902

Baltimore Cathedral, c. 1902. Designed by Benjamin Henry Latrobe and completed in 1821


Baltimore Cathedral interior, April 2018


Cardinal James Gibbons c. 1903

Cardinal James Gibbons, c. 1903.

Following the wedding ceremony, guests joined the family at Nicholas and Mary Hill’s home just a few blocks away at 813 North Charles Street for a breakfast. I had the thrill of being able to visit this house. The first floor now houses a vintage clothing shop (The Zone), so I popped in and got a look at the parlor, which still retains a bit of original detail.

The newlyweds, James and Mary, returned from their wedding trip and lived here with her parents for the first year of their marriage, which meant that my Granny, Elsie Mills, was probably born in this house.

813 N. Charles St

813 North Charles Street, home of the Hill family and location of the wedding breakfast.

813 N. Charles St Int

813 North Charles Street, parlor

And the article from the Baltimore Sun, June 1, 1898:

The_Baltimore_Sun_Wed__Jun_1__1898_Pt1The_Baltimore_Sun_Wed__Jun_1__1898_ Pt2

The_Baltimore_Sun_Wed__Jun_1__1898_ Pt3

Historic view of the Cathedral and photo of Cardinal Gibbons are from the Library of Congress collections.


Major Nicholas Snowden Hill (1839-1912) and Mary Watkins Cocke (1834-1903) – 2nd great grandparents

Dr. James J. Mills, Jr. and Mary Hill (1875-1937) – great grandparents

Elsie (Mills) Oliver (1899-1993) grandmother

My mum


Another Yearbook Find


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I just found this fabulous yearbook picture of my great uncle Damon Willbern (1900-1985) at age 16 at Llano High School in West Texas. He looks just like the successful Kansas banker I remember in his last decades. He was married to my Aunt Margie (Marjorie Miller), sister of my grandmother, and I adored them both.

One of my favorite memories of Uncle Damon was seeing him sitting in his Cordoba red leather reclining chair in their house in Coffeyville, Kansas, with his favorite Spanish peanuts, holding a fussy baby granddaughter in his lap. In his gravelly voice, he’d tell this tiny baby, “Give ’em hell, honey!”

From the yearbook I learned that Uncle Damon was born in a place called Baby Head, Texas, now a ghost town. For real!

Off to Baltimore–A Geographical Genealogy Adventure


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After an eighteen-month hiatus from blogging due to the chaos of work and family life, I retired last week. So…I’m taking a deep breath and jumping back into blog life and family exploration.

Post-retirement getaway number one will include a quick family history stop in Baltimore next week. No research, but a 24-hour pilgrimage to visit five generations of houses, work, school, and worship places, and a cemetery. I lived in Baltimore until I was five, and with no family there after we left, have never really explored the family sites.


Nicholas Snowden Hill about 1909 with his daughter, Mary (Hill) Mills, and grandchildren. L to R: Elsie (my grandmother), Audrey, Mary Carroll, and Jimmy.

A big part of my love of genealogy (and of history in general) is about putting people in the context of their places–geographical genealogy. I want to be able to visualize where they lived and what they did there. Placing Granny in her childhood home–an urban row house on Park Avenue, Baltimore, full of children; picturing the 1912 funeral of her beloved grandfather, conducted by his lifelong friend, Cardinal Gibbons, at the Baltimore Basilica; walking the Johns Hopkins University campus where my dad studied and my parents strolled with me as a toddler, all keeps their memories alive and vibrant in a way that mere names and dates never can.

And then there’s my inner architectural historian at work. To see these buildings that are so evocative of their time and place–the Italianate row houses in the Mount Vernon and Bolton Hill neighborhoods, the 1920s apartment building near Hopkins, the spectacular, high Victorian Johns Hopkins University Hospital. These places would speak to me even if they weren’t tied to my family, but those connections make them especially dear.

Step one in my geographical genealogy research is to figure out where my people lived, most often through census records and city directories. According to these records and the deeds for the property, my great grandparents, James and Mary (Hill) Mills moved to their home on Park Avenue in 1900 with my grandmother, Elsie, age 1. They had been married two years, and rented the house for five years before Mary bought it in 1905. They remained on Park Avenue for the rest of their married life. James, a physician and medical professor at Hopkins, ran his practice from home, and he and Mary raised their four children here. By the time James died in 1925, the children were grown, and Mary sold the house and moved in 1927.

James Mills 1900 census

After identifying the locations of family places, then comes the fun part–seeing what they looked like. Through the wonders of Google maps street view I’ve figured out which of these homes and related places are still standing (happily, most of them), and found current images of the ones that survive.

853 Park Ave Mills House

James and Mary (Hill) Mills’ home on Park Avenue in Baltimore (left of the white building).

My pilgrimage will include a few sites from my own early childhood, including a peek at one of my earliest homes.

The Bradford

The Bradford Apartments on St Paul Street, where I lived with my parents in the late ’50s.

And for extra thrills, real estate websites have even provided interior views of the Park Avenue house (now apartments, but a few original details survive), and some beautiful 19th century interior features of the Eutaw Place house where my grandfather was a tenant while he attended medical school at Johns Hopkins. Seeing the very rooms where my family lived a century ago takes my breath away.

853 Park Ave interior

A 2nd floor bedroom (Granny’s?) in the Park Avenue Mills House, courtesy of an online rental listing.

1324 Eutaw Pl. Baltimore interior

Perhaps my grandfather, Ken Oliver, had a chair in this first floor window, or in a similar upper story window when he rented here on Eutaw Place in 1926.

Of course, public buildings are easy to find, and I’m headed to see a few of those as well. James Mills, my great grandfather, taught at the Hopkins medical school, where my grandfather, Kenneth Oliver was his student in the 1920s. One thing led to another, and Ken married Dr. Mills’ daughter Elsie in 1925.


An early view of the Johns Hopkins University Hospital, completed in 1889.

Elsie was a student at the beautiful, Renaissance Revival style Maryland Institute College of Art, and I’ll be headed there too.


Maryland Institute College of Art, where Elsie Mills, my grandmother, studied in the early 1920s.

I’ve also found images of buildings that haven’t survived.  The two below were both victims of the Great Baltimore Fire in 1904.

B&O RR Central Office 1880

Design for the 1880 B&O Railroad Central Office, where Nicholas Snowden Hill was purchasing agent until 1888. Destroyed in the Great Baltimore Fire.


Carrollton Hotel

The Carrollton Hotel, managed by my great grandfather, Nicholas Snowden Hill, was also destroyed in the Great Baltimore Fire.

Much to see and much to enjoy during next week’s adventure!



Happy Anniversary, Daniel and Emily Oliver


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My great grandparents, Daniel and Emily, have always been the most colorful and compelling characters in my family history. I am lucky to have grown up on their stories, to have photos of them, and to have found a rich trove of their papers. And yet, there are so many unanswered questions…Today I wish them happy anniversary.

Daniel Oliver (1870-1952), an adventurous young Scotsman, left Thurso in Caithness in the northernmost part of the Scottish Highlands when he was a teenager. He was the youngest of three brothers, and came from a family of farm laborers who moved south to work on the docks in Edinburgh after Daniel left Scotland. He travelled to Morocco, where he did missionary work, and then in the early 1890s to Palestine and Beirut, where he studied Arabic. Soon he made his way to Brummana, Syria (now Lebanon), where he taught at the Quaker mission school that was founded there in the 1870s.

What ever possessed him to leave home so young? How did he become a missionary? His family was not particularly religious. What were those years on the road like? Did he travel alone or with companions? And how did a boy from such a modest family grow into such a commanding figure of a man? He didn’t speak to his children or grandchildren of his background. Did he cut off all ties with his family? Why?

Emily Wright (1865-1954) was born in Ackworth, Yorkshire, and was an adventurous young woman in her own right. She was the daughter of  Mary Ann (Deane) and Alfred Wright, a Quaker missionary, and came to Syria with him when she was in her 20s. I don’t know where Alfred went from there, but Emily stayed to teach in Brummana, finding a calling that she would continue for the rest of her long life.

What must it have been like to leave England at 25 and start life on an unfamiliar continent? The school was supported by Quakers from England and the United States. Did she know any of the faculty when she arrived? Were there friends of her father’s? Teachers from home? Did her father stay there with her for long, or did he continue on with his travels soon?

I wish there were letters or clues to Emily and Daniel’s courtship, but I don’t know of any. In my imagination I see two young, idealistic people with a deep commitment to making the world a better place through their faith and their teaching. Daniel was a strong and perhaps blustery man with an iron will and a powerful ambition. Emily was unwavering. She was his partner for sixty years, first at the school in Brummana, where he eventually became principal, and then at the Daniel and Emily Oliver Orphanage and School in nearby Ras el Met’n. There they supported, educated and provided work skills for hundreds of children through two World Wars and beyond.

On September 19, 1895, one hundred twenty-one years ago today, Daniel and Emily were married at the Friends Meetinghouse at Stoke Newington, London. I wish I knew whether they had any family or friends with them that day. With the exception of Emily’s mother, their parents were all still living at the time.  Was Alfred Wright there? Emily was close to her sisters and brothers, so I picture them with her at the meetinghouse. David and Esther Oliver, along with Daniel’s older brothers,  John and David, were living in Edinburgh. Did they make the trip?


Daniel and Emily had been married for 57 years when Daniel died in 1952. Emily’s death followed in 1954. They had four children, (including my grandfather, Kenneth), seven grandchildren (including my mother, Celia), at least six great grandchildren, and at least twelve great great grandchildren. They also touched the lives of untold numbers of children they taught and cared for during their sixty years in Lebanon.

Daniel’s wedding ring is inscribed D + E   19th Sept. 1895. My husband wears it now with the added inscription KW to LJB 1-2-82.

And a very happy first anniversary today to another Emily–Daniel and Emily’s great great granddaughter–and her husband Matt!



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I’ve just returned home from a mini-vacation that included family history research, visits to special places holding a century of family experiences, along with lots of museums, catching up with friends and relatives, and eating good food. Phew! As a result, there has been no blogging and my whirring brain is processing lots of impressions and information.

So, while the next family stories are percolating, here are a few highlights of the places we visited, in no particular order.

Memorial Hall, Fairmount Park, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

My college thesis was on the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition of 1876 and Memorial Hall is the only surviving exhibition building from the extravagant world’s fair celebrating the United States’ 100th anniversary year.

It now houses the Please Touch Museum, and is full of life, inside and out. It’s easy to imagine the hustle and bustle of the fair, displaying the latest and best of America’s arts manufacturing, agriculture and so much more.

There was the Philadelphia Museum of Art, with assorted gems large and small:

And Winterthur Museum, Garden and Library was spectacular, in all its facets:

Not to overdo it on the museums, but…we were bowled over by the Barnes Foundation. Spectacular building and an even more spectacular collection.

Magill Library at Haverford College was a special pleasure. I did lots of family research there and inhaled the place where my grandfather went to college 100 years ago.

More when the percolating is done…


A quick happy birthday


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Happy birthday to my lovely grandmother, Elsie (Mills) Oliver.

There was a news story last week about a woman in Italy, (I think), believed to be the last living person who was born in the 19th century. How can that be? Well…Granny was born on May 23, 1899. She would have been 117 today.

I took this photograph in about 1977 as my mother and I took her to lunch at a waterfront restaurant in Gloucester, Massachusetts. She must have just had her hair done–it looks just the way she liked it–and her lipstick was freshly applied. I know just how she smelled, too. Her favorite perfume was 4711 Eau de Cologne, which had a distinctive fresh smell that I always loved, and it still makes me think of her.

Granny was a talented painter, passionate lover of dogs (I got those genes), fabulous baker, voracious reader, and at her best had an almost giddy enthusiasm about the people she loved. 

Loving the Yearbooks, Part I


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Until I discovered how many yearbooks are lurking online, I had only one photograph taken of my grandfather, Bill Stephenson, before he was an adult. I knew hardly anything about his interests, activities, or friends and I had no mental picture of the schools where he spent all those years. What an eye-opener three yearbooks have been!

At age 14, Grandpa Bill, who I knew as a gentle, loving man with a very silly sense of humor, looked like a bit of a punk, or at least a surly teenage boy.


The Orange A, Augusta, Kansas High School, 1925. William Stephenson, center

Bill, my dad’s father, was born in 1910 and raised in Augusta, Kansas–a middle child with two brothers, Paul and Clark. Paul was eight years older, while Clark was just a year younger, going all through school in the same grade. From Augusta High School, they went on to the University of Kansas together, where they were roommates and fraternity brothers. Clark was the scholar in the family, and Bill always found it challenging to be in the academic shadow of his younger brother.

What tidbits did I learn from these yearbooks?

Stephenson WE August HS 1928

Stephenson Clark Augusta HS 1928

The Orange A, Augusta, Kansas High School 1928

Grandpa Bill was musical. He played in his high school orchestra, (what instrument?) and sang in the glee club and a special boys quartet.

Stephenson WE AHS 1928 quartet

The Orange A, Augusta, Kansas High School, 1928

He was class president his sophomore year and Uncle Clark was class president their senior year.

He played basketball, (top right). He always loved sports.

Stephenson WE AHS 1928 basketball

While Bill always looked serious–sometimes even scowly–Clark occasionally had a big grin in his pictures.

He had a girlfriend! And his best friend might have been Arlice Williams (to the right in the  photo at the top of the post), who appeared next to him in many pictures throughout their high school years.

Stephenson WE AHS 1928 girlfriend

Stephenson WE AHS 1928 girlfriend 2

Augusta High School was two blocks down the street from the Stephenson house.


Augusta High School 1928


I didn’t dig as much in the University of Kansas yearbook for 1932, but…

Bill and Clark were both members of Alpha Nu of Beta Theta Pi.


Bill is 2nd row center, Clark is upper left

The fraternity house at 1425 Tennessee Street in Lawrence, Kansas is the former Usher Mansion, a striking limestone, Italianate structure which has continued to house Beta Theta Pi since 1913.

Stephenson WE KU 1932 Alpha Nu

More grandparents and yearbooks to come.

I’d love to hear what others have found through scouring yearbooks!

“A Most Dainty Dish,” or How to Prepare Muskrat Stew for a Crowd


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I grew up on my critter-loving grandmother’s stories about Major Nicholas Snowden Hill, her adored, indulgent grandfather, and most of those stories were about animals. Grandfather Hill took her to the circus, and soon after, he bought her Mars, the circus pony. He told her he had a surprise, and to pick a pocket in his overcoat. There was a puppy in each pocket. Granny’s stories were magical to a granddaughter who was equally animal crazed.

Nicholas Hill was a colorful figure in Baltimore. His family was among the earliest, Catholic settlers of the Maryland colony. He was raised in what is now Upper Marlboro, on one of Prince George’s County’s large tobacco farms. Sadly, his father, Charles, had many enslaved workers there. (A topic for further research). After serving in the Confederate Army in Arkansas as “Commissary of Subsistence,” he worked for many years as purchasing agent for the B & O Railroad, and later was managing director of the Carrollton Hotel and the Merchants’ Club.

I was curious about the Merchants’ Club, and a quick search led to this treasure:

Muskrat article

This 1896 article from the Baltimore Sun went viral. It was reprinted in publications ranging from The Annals of Hygiene, a medical journal; to Good Houskeeping, to the Scranton Republican, which expanded on the unappetizing muskrat, “its flesh is fat and greasy unto nastiness.”

Part of my family history search always includes looking for the places as well as the people, and up popped this wonderful image of the Merchants’ Club, site of the muskrat luncheon.


Design for Merchant’s Club Building on German St., Baltimore, MD
J. A. and W. J. Wilson, architect(s). From the American Architect and Building News, August 19, 1882

The Baltimore architectural firm of John Appleton Wilson and his cousin, William Thomas Wilson designed the Merchants’ Club. They were active from the late 19th century through 1907, and designed many private homes in and around Baltimore, many in the Queen Anne style, along with public and commercial buildings.

Baltimore’s Great Fire of 1904 destroyed both the Merchants’ Club and the Carrollton Hotel, and most certainly had a profound impact on Nicholas Hill’s life. To be continued…


The Annals of Hygiene, Volume 11, p. 383

American Architect and Building News, August 19, 1882

J. Appleton Wilson , MSA SC 3520-13819 at http://www.msa.md.gov



Major Nicholas Snowden Hill (1839-1912) – 2nd great grandfather

Mary (Hill) Mills (1875-c.1936) – great grandmother

Elsie (Mills) Oliver (1899-1993) grandmother

My mum


Rainbow of Places–My New Favorite Thing!


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There’s been a colorful chart (#mycolorfulancestry) making its way through the genealogy social media world over the past weeks, thanks to J. Paul Hawthorne’s creativity. It’s a fun, simple way to visualize the birthplaces of five generations of ancestors by color-coding.  Seeing my own has been fun, confirming that these folks truly did come from all over the place.

Final birth chart

Yes, my nomads’ birthplace chart was indeed colorful, but I decided to try it with both birthplaces and death locations, and it changed dramatically! With births and deaths, thirty-one people covered six countries and thirteen states, and only seven of those thirty-one people ended their lives in the state or country where they were born. I was running low on colors, but it would be even more colorful if I had included all the places they lived in between. Maybe I’ll try that next…

Final birth and death chart

You’ll find the template to try your own here.