Maybe it’s because the internet didn’t become part of my life until I was well into adulthood, but I still believe it’s magical. And that’s been proven again and again in my family history research. Sometimes the magic is random, and sometimes it’s been the result of methodical research, but either way, the information and contacts that have come to light feel like gifts that have fallen from the sky.
My grandfather, William Edward Stephenson (1910-2004), was born and raised in Augusta, Kansas. His dad, Richard W. Stephenson (1874-1960), started a men’s clothing store in town around the 1910s, and Bill’s older brother Paul Noble Stephenson (1902-1972) and his wife Dorothy continued the business until about the 1960s. I wrote a post about Grandpa Bill and his younger brother, Clark (1911-1994), and their high school and college yearbooks here.
On a whim this week, I did a search on WordPress for Augusta, Kansas. No particular reason. And what popped up was a bunch of blog posts by crittersandcats/Dave, who shares stories for his kids and grandchildren about growing up in Augusta in the ’40s and ’50s.
As if it wasn’t enough for me to get some local flavor for a place I’d only visited a couple of times, Dave answered my comment by sharing that he’d known my family and had written a story including Uncle Paul, Aunt Do, and their son, my dad’s cousin Dick!
Back in the 1950’s, we had a men’s clothing store in Augusta, Kansas. It was owned and operated by Paul Stephenson as Stephenson’s Men’s Clothing. The store was located on the east side of the 500 block of State Street, nestled up against the Prairie State Bank, on its north and Mamie Hall’s book store on the south. Paul and his wife (only 60 years and I’ve forgotten her name) were in the store every day, well dressed and professional but friendly in demeanor. Their son, Dick, was a classmate of mine. Dick and I graduated in 1954 and I went to work and I think Dick headed for the University of Kansas. The following year, I was going to attend a wedding and needed a new suit. I went down to Stephenson’s and Paul fitted me with a new outfit and his wife set me up with a lay-away plan to pay for it. Those were the last dealings I had with the Stephenson family.
Dave goes on to write about an unplanned landing in Guam in 1959, where he bumped into Dick, who was by then an ensign in the Navy. Small world!
The moral of the story is: Methodical research is all well and good, but don’t forget that serendipity also plays a part. Indulge yourself in the obscure Google search. See if somebody has written a blog post about your grandfather’s small home town, or the tiny school your great grandmother attended, or the newspaper your great great grandfather published. Surprise connections sometimes fall from the sky. There IS magic. (And thank you, Dave!)
P.S. Dick had won my heart as a five year old (just a few years after Dave’s story) when he came to visit, looking quite dashing in his Navy uniform. He pulled out a guitar and sang to me. “The Fox Went Out on a Chilly Night” has been a favorite folk song of mine ever since…
I managed to spend more time than usual frolicking in my family research this year, including a trip to England in August and a road trip through family-related places in Pennsylvania, Virginia and North Carolina in March. The research was a refuge and escape from other worries at times, and the travel and people I connected with were pure magic. Genealogy was definitely a highlight of my 2019, with a few particularly special discoveries and experiences.
A brick wall came tumbling down; never seen photos emerged; I visited a cousin in England and made contact with several cousins I hadn’t known about; I walked in places where my ancestors spent their days. My plan was to blog about each of these, but most of those posts are still drafts… Goals for 2020!
OliversandOliphants – Finding the father of my born-out-of-wedlock 2nd great grandfather, David Oliver (my mother’s family name), has long been a challenge, and the discovery of DNA matches named Oliphant helped redirect my search. Thanks to the help of a great new online community, Walk My Past (see below), the mystery has been solved. David Oliver’s father, my 3rd great grandfather, was George Oliphant (1827-1904) from Bower, Caithness, Scotland. And… I found a photograph of the place he was living at the end of his life!
James Mills and Maria Milnes Photos – I’ve always had a fair amount of information on Granny’s (Elsie Mills, 1899-1993) maternal family, but not much on her father’s side. So far I’ve only turned up one blurry passport photograph of her father, James Mills (1863-1925). And then this unexpected gift! An Ancestry member posted a pair of photos from a family album–Granny’s grandparents, James Mills (1824-1904) and Maria Milnes (1825-1892). It was remarkable to see their faces and especially to discover how much my Granny looked like her grandmother.
Living Cousins – 2019 brought re-connection and first contact with close-ish cousins in England, Scotland, New Mexico, Texas, and New York. Some were through DNA matching and others through more old-fashioned methods. It turns out that a childhood friend is a 10th cousin (thank you, Ancestry DNA) and a friend from college is a 9th cousin. Best of all, I spent a lovely afternoon with my Mum’s first cousin in London. Another goal for 2020 is to be in contact with more cousins.
Ackworth School – Oh, my, what a thrill this was! In August I arranged to spend a day visiting Ackworth School in West Yorkshire, exploring the buildings, and poring through the archival material collected for me by Celia Wolfe, the school’s kind and incredibly knowledgeable archivist. I won’t spoil the post that I really, truly do still plan to write, but the short version is that I strolled the campus where my great grandmother, Emily Wright (1865-1954) was born and spent most of her childhood, where her parents worked, and where her ancestors on both sides and her siblings were students from 1780 through the late 19th century. The original buildings and grounds of this Quaker boarding school are little changed, so it felt like they could have been right there, walking the halls and pathways with me.
And there were photographs of students and teachers, including lots of wonderful images of Emily Wright and her parents, Mary Ann Deane (1841-1884) and Alfred Wright (1831-1901). The Quakers are precise record keepers, so there were documents rich in details about many family members. Proper blog post to follow!
Pennsylvania/Virginia/North Carolina Road Trip – A spur of the moment driving trip in March took me first to Sunbury, Pennsylvania, in the Susquehanna River Valley, north of Harrisburg, where I researched my Miller and Deppen ancestors. Thanks to the helpful folks at the Northumberland County Historical Society, I learned that my 4th great grandfather, John Miller (1774-1821), is said to have drowned in the Susquehanna River while checking his flooded land on the Isle of Que. The tiny island is one half mile wide and 5.5 miles long, part of Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania on the west side of the river. I paid a quiet visit to that shore at dusk.
Next stop was Staunton, Virginia, where James and Maria (Milnes) Mills settled around 1870. I took a whirlwind tour of Trinity Church, where the family worshiped; Thornrose Cemetery, with a sizable Mills family plot beneath a majestic magnolia tree. Census records and city directories provided me with the addresses of several family homes, so I was able to find where James and Maria lived during their later years with some of their children.
The North Carolina leg of my road trip took me to Davidson County in search of late 18th to mid-19th century graves of my Owen, Bodenhamer and Goss ancestors. It was a bit of a wild goose chase. Visits to the Abbott’s Creek Primitive Baptist Church Cemetery, Reeds Baptist Church Cemetery, and Becks Reformed Church Cemetery led me to graves of some collateral ancestors, but no direct ones. But the bonus was some exceptional decorative gravestones–well worth a quick visit!
Walk My Past – A new resource for genealogists appeared on the scene this year when amateur genealogist Abbie Allen decided to create Walk My Past, a website where people could easily offer or request help with their family history. The idea is simple– volunteer “genies” are available to help with requests for information, cemetery photos, or a trip to a nearby archive. With willing helpers scattered across the globe, it gives access to information that can be out of reach otherwise. There are now 187 genies in 14 countries and the numbers are growing. Definitely worth checking it out!
And I’m the happiest of users. A kind-hearted “genie”, Meredith Cane of Revill McKay, Scotland, saw my request for help tracking down the answer to my Oliver/Oliphant mystery. She was already working in Scottish records for that region, and was able to identify my 3rd great grandfather, George Oliphant. Hoorah!
There’s my 2019 in a very large nutshell. Now, onward to 2020 and new adventures.
My lovely mother-in-law, Natalie (Munson) Brengle, would have been 100 years old today. Here she is as an 18 or 19 year old in a fashion show in Bar Harbor, Maine in 1937 or 1938. She only became more poised and elegant as the years passed. We miss her and raise a glass in her memory today!
I don’t know any details about this adorable picture, but my dad, (Billy in those days) is the little guy with the polka dot tie. Too cute! Seems appropriate on the first day of school. Probably taken in Kansas about 1937.
William Edward Stephenson Hare (1933-1961) – my dad
Kenneth Stuart Oliver’s Friends’ Ambulance Unit personnel card (Image from the Library of the Religious Society of Friends, London)
One hundred years ago, when the Armistice agreement was signed on November 11th ending World War I, Kenneth Oliver, my grandfather, was serving as a volunteer ambulance driver for the Friends’ Ambulance Unit, headquartered in Dunkirk. He had arrived in France the previous year, a baby-faced eighteen year old, and had undoubtedly experienced enough of war to last him a lifetime.
When World War I broke out in 1914, Ken and his brothers, Doug and Hugh, were students at the Westtown School, a Quaker boarding school near Philadelphia. They were sons of British Quaker missionaries in Lebanon, raised and educated in a pacifist tradition. Joining the military would not have been an option for them, yet like many young men and women raised in the Society of Friends, they must have felt a strong need to be of service during the terrible war.
In response, the Friends’ Ambulance Unit (FAU) was created by British volunteers in 1914 as a way for Quakers and others to provide medical aid and other assistance to civilians and members of the military during the war without compromising their commitment to non-violence. Over 1000 volunteers served in France, Belgium, and England between 1914 and 1919, driving ambulances, assisting in hospitals and providing aid for civilians evacuating the war zones.
Following his sophomore year at Haverford College, Ken left to join the FAU. He departed New York on the RMS Aurania, arriving in Liverpool on September 2, 1917. (Incidentally, a few months later the ship was torpedoed by a German U-boat off the coast of Northern Ireland on February 3, 1918, heading from Liverpool to New York). It was customary for new volunteers to spend a month at an FAU training camp in Birminghamshire before being assigned to a unit.
Ken’s Friends’ Ambulance Unit personnel card (Image from the Library of the Religious Society of Friends, London)
FAU ambulance convoy (Image from Cadbury Research Library)
Ken arrived at FAU headquarters in Dunkirk on October 10th. His personnel card lists a variety of assignments and job titles—chief orderly, chief clerk, stores buyer, and primarily driver. He served as a driver in an ambulance convoy like the one pictured here, and he was listed as being based in Dunkirk in August 2018, when the FAU headquarters were bombed. Family lore has it that one of my grandfather’s assignments was to inspect the sanitary conditions of French military brothels, but of course this doesn’t appear on his personnel card…
FAU headquarters, Dunkirk, after bombing, August 1918 (Image from Cadbury Research Library)
Alan Douglas Oliver’s FAU personnel card (Image from the Library of the Religious Society of Friends, London)
Uncle Doug, Ken’s elder brother, left Haverford and joined the FAU in May 1918, nearly a year after Ken’s arrival. He sailed to Liverpool on the RMS Carpathia, renowned for having taken on passengers from the sinking Titanic in 1912. Like the Aurania, the Carpathia was torpedoed by a German U-boat, and sunk off the southern coast of Ireland just two months after Doug’s arrival.
Both young men remained in France for several months after the armistice, with Doug departing in January 1919 and Ken following in February. They rejoined their classmates at Haverford for that spring semester and both graduated the following year.
Haverford College Yearbook, 1920
I never heard my grandfather speak of the war, but surely it had to have changed the course of his life. I have to believe it played a role in his choice to become a doctor. He went on to medical school at Johns Hopkins University and then a career practicing and teaching medicine in Lebanon and the U.S.
I like my family history tangible. I want to see the places where my ancestors lived, learned, worked, and worshiped. I need to know what their faces looked like, read their very own handwriting, surround myself with their art, and if possible, I want to touch their stuff. Or better yet, wear it!
This month I joined in an Instagram “genealogy photo a day” challenge, and today’s theme was “my favorite heirloom.” Well! I picked one, but it was hard, and left me wanting to share more, so I think I’ll revisit this topic again soon.
This image of my maternal grandparents, Elsie Mills (1899-1993) and Kenneth Oliver (1898-1975), was taken before they were married in Baltimore in 1925, and has always been one of my favorites. He was 26 and a young doctor, and she was 25, a talented painter, and daughter of one of his medical school professors. I remember her regal bearing and sometimes haughty expression, but I don’t ever remember seeing him with such a dreamy expression.
This engagement portrait hangs in my house and Granny’s spectacular jacket hangs now in my closet. The cloth beneath the metallic mesh (which is very heavy!) is gray blue with a black lining. Very 1920s, very Art Deco, and very Granny. My favorite heirloom. At least for today…
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.
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.
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).
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. Designed by Benjamin Henry Latrobe and completed in 1821
Baltimore Cathedral interior, April 2018
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 North Charles Street, home of the Hill family and location of the wedding breakfast.
813 North Charles Street, parlor
And the article from the Baltimore Sun, June 1, 1898:
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
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!