Of Wookeys and Woodchucks

A Note to My Readers:  I have added another “cousin” to my list of researchers.  This time it is Don Sevier, a U.K. native and relative of Caroline Sevier Bobbett.  We have  shared some wonderful Wookey stories and after introducing the Woodchucks… an expletive or two.  “Strewth!” and “Bob’s Your Uncle!” have become my favorites, but somewhere in there I would add “Frank’s Your Uncle”!

Coming to America

In 1874 George and Caroline Sevier Bobbett and their children, Frank , William Bobbett (my step great grandfather), and daughters, Elizabeth, Ellen and Jane left the little village of Wookey in Somersetshire, England and their rich farmlands along the Axe River and sailed to America where they settled in Cayuga County,  New York.  George had followed his younger brother, Francis,  who a few years earlier had purchased farmland in Throop in Cayuga County and was living next to his English born neighbors, William and Jane Slocum Whitehead.  Francis had married a young American, Mary Ann Bird, who was 15 years his junior and they had one child, William H.

Elizabeth, the eldest of the George and Caroline’s children, was a young married woman when they left England.  She and her husband, William Hole, settled in Aurelius and later in Skaneateles where William worked as a milk peddler.  Together William and Elizabeth had eleven children.  Elizabeth’s siblings Frank, William and Jane who were many years her junior immediately became servants and laborers at farms neighboring the Hole family and thereby setting themselves in place to eventually own and operate their own farms.

By 1880 Francis…known as Uncle Frank… owned almost 50 acres, having established a very successful dairy farm in Throop.  His nephews, too,  had purchased their own farms; Frank (his namesake) in Throop and William in Fleming.   Jane had married Englishman James Clark and they settled in Throop on their own farm.  In fact, the Bobbett family bought some of the most prime dairy farm land in the county…raising milk cows and hogs….and collecting “stuff” to put it politely.

Uncle Frank and his nephew and my step great grandfather, William, often ran afoul of the local law with their habit of hoarding.  William was once arrested and fined by the Fleming health department because he was transporting garbage from the Auburn city dump to feed his hogs resulting in the death of eleven of them from hog cholera.   Hog cholera is highly infectious and can be transported through infected material…not just animal to animal.  His neighbors were tearing out their hair as they were losing their hogs due to cholera and though he was warned once, he was caught continuing to cart the tainted garbage.

Scalawags and Scoundrels

1903 Frank Bobbitt (sic) Reports Murderous Assault Headline

Uncle Frank was often cited in the newspaper claiming to be robbed.  He hoarded money as well as things…into the thousands of dollars and seemed to be the target of nefarious characters.   He would summon the sheriff…showing his bruises…and exclaiming about scalawags and scoundrels accosting him in his home…on the road…wherever the tale unfolded.  The sheriff was duty bound to investigate and after awhile, they caught on that the old gentleman was eccentric and tailored their response to his claims.    Shortly before his death, he travelled to New York City and brought his drama to the unsuspecting New York City police.  The confused man, carrying thousands of dollars in his purse,  had made his way to New York City with the intention to sail back to Wookey.  He was found dazed, but relatively unharmed, and once again, the “victim” of scalaways and scoundrels.   His son, William, made the trip to New York to retrieve his father and his belongings and soon thereafter had seventy-six year old Frank declared incompetent and under his protection.  Years before, his hoarding behavior had driven off his wife, Mary Ann and constantly challenged his only son, William.  Though Uncle Frank was very much loved and tolerated by his extended Bobbett family…he was a handful.

Of Woodchucks and Wookeys

William Bobbett, my step great grandfather, had been a life long bachelor when he married  my great grandmother, Emma Case Penird in 1903.  Her husband, William Penird, had been killed in a runaway wagon accident in 1901 leaving her to raise her five living children alone on their Aurelius farm.   William Penird’s horrific accident happened when he was hauling “found timber” to his farm.  In addition to farming the Penirds made money with what was then called “scrap” and had dealings with the Bobbett family.  And so Emma and William Bobbett found love and companionship in the bucolic setting of Cayuga County dairy farming and “recycling”.  William and Emma were in their forties when they married and had their only child, a son, Albert George,  in 1904.  By then, my grandmother, Sarah Leona, and her two younger siblings, Ethel and Harold, were helping around the Fleming farm and were active in church and school activities.  Everyone played the piano and sang in the parlor of the farmhouse.  Older siblings, Lillian and Floyd, were married and had families of their own by that time.   My grandmother married my grandfather, Albert,  in 1905 when she was just 15 years old and moved to the Danby farm that young Albert was working.  In 1918 Spanish Flu hit the area and Ethel and Harold who were now young adults died within hours of each other.  William, Emma and Albert were now alone on the Fleming farm.

Albert was a solitary individual unlike his half siblings.  His mother was active in church and civic organizations, but Albert was content with the farm and the company of the livestock.  Emma died in 1926 and William followed her ten years later.  In those ten years without Emma the two men had become shadows of one another…farming and tinkering…and hauling junk.  The piano in the parlor had gone silent in 1926.  Albert never married and was most definitely his father’s son and his great uncle Frank’s nephew.   He was the quintessential hoarder and odd fellow about town.  He would often leave his wagon or tractor along the road and walk into town to conduct his business and promptly forget where he left it.  The sheriff knew Albert well…they would dispatch a deputy to take Albert along his accustomed route to find his transportation and bid him a safe trip home.

When Albert died in 1960, my father had been dead a couple of years and I was just 12 years old, but I remember the trip to the Fleming farm well.  The lawyers had gathered my Aunt Emma and Uncle Ron (my father’s siblings) and my mother and took us to the farm as part of the estate “discovery” process as Albert had died intestate.  I often accompanied my widowed mother in serious matters as her moral support even though I was young.  The once beautiful farm hadn’t seen paint in almost 40 years.  The grass was waist high and strewn with old lawn chairs and farm machinery.  The attorney cut a swath to the front door which fell open with the slightest nudge as the door knob had been long gone and replaced by a length of twine and a rusty and bent nail.

I remember my mother’s hand falling onto my shoulder and the adults at once exclaiming, “Oh!”.

The front hallway was stacked to the ceiling with bundled magazines….row upon row and in the deep shadows you could see the scorched parlor with a lone and ancient upright piano and stool. We could not enter any of the rooms as the stacks of magazines were a paper fortress.  The attorney silently closed the door…respectfully affixing the twine to the bent nail and led us off the tilted and rotting porch and toward the barn.  The barn was freshly painted and the doors sporting a new steel handle and rail, slid back at the touch of a finger.

Inside the barn the empty stalls were clean and had been freshly hayed.  The cows had been sold off to a local dairy farmer immediately upon Albert’s death.  In the dim light of the barn, we came upon one of the larger stalls that had been furnished with a worn, overstuffed chair.  A single unadorned light bulb hung from the ceiling.  A shelf fashioned of old barn board was full of books and next to the bookshelf stood a wash basin on a metal stand.  That had been Albert’s parlor, kitchen, washroom, entertainment and for company…his cows.  He hadn’t lived in the old house for decades.   His old John Deere tractor…bright green and shining…sat outside the door…Albert would have seen it from his armchair as he read.

Standing in the stall, the adults discussed Albert.  As I was a child,  I remained invisible to them so they spoke freely.  Albert would visit my aunt or uncle on Sundays (we lived too far away).  He loved mashed potatoes and gravy and would eat silently as everyone else chatted around the table and without much ado he would head to their barns or gardens…putter about…and if there was an old tidbit lying about, politely ask if he could have it.  Everyone knew he was a recluse and didn’t have much desire for anyone to come to his farm.  In fact, he was so clearly painfully shy that family gave him that respect and distance.  He came and went as he pleased and that was that.  In the end, he had the comfort of his books, his cows and the shiny, green tractor…with the prospect of Sunday meals that without a doubt had mashed potatoes in the fare and a comfortable forage among family clutter.

So William’s 51 acre farm in Fleming where he lived with my great grandmother and their son, Albert, was sold off.  It was prime dairy land after all.  The dilapidated house was torn down.  It probably could have fallen down with a polite request to do so.  The barn was dismantled and relocated.  I have no idea who bought the land, but I do know where…within a reasonable estimate…the Bobbett’s Fleming land holdings on Dougal Road were situated.   Perhaps I will visit sometime and listen for the sounds of piano playing.

Emma, William, and son, Albert Bobbett headstone

William and my great grandmother, Emma, are buried in Fort Hill Cemetery in Auburn, NY.  Alongside them rests Albert.  My oldest brother, Gale and I visited their grave last summer and I affectionately thought we should have brought an old light bulb or farm machine part instead of flowers.

And “woodchucks”?  Well, that is my brother, Dave’s quaint expression for the Bobbetts…and somehow it fits.

Deborah Martin-Plugh

August 7, 2010

Author’s Note:

The Bobbetts owned several large farms in the Auburn, NY area, but as time went on and the elders passed away, the land was sold off as the children became tradesmen and merchants or moved westward.  That was pretty much the way it was throughout central New York during that period of time.   The last name was sometimes published as Bobbitt…and on rare occasion…Babbitt….making it a challenge to follow the line.

George and Caroline Sevier Bobbett are buried in Pine Hill Cemetery in Throop while many of the other Bobbett family members are buried in Soule Cemetery in Sennett…just outside of Auburn, NY.

Deborah Martin-Plugh

Author, Historian and Genealogical Researcher

(c) Copyright 2010.  All Rights Reserved

 

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One thought on “Of Wookeys and Woodchucks

  1. Years ago my brother Dave and I hunted on Alberts farm. Alter hunting, without much luck, Dave and I went to the house and the barn, but Albert was no where to be found. I saw enough to realize that Albert was an unusual person and maybe even unique. I wish that I could have met him.

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