Thank You, Libbie Van Dorn

A Note To My Readers:  While genealogists spend enormous amounts of time researching public records…court records, deeds and wills, birth, marriage and death certificates, state and federal censuses, military service and pension records and the thousands of archived newspapers that are available with announcements of births, marriages and deaths, it is the old pioneer story that captures the heart and imagination.

Yes.  Yes.  I know.  We all know that these stories are a blend of fact and fiction.  And just because an oral tradition is in black and white print doesn’t make it so.  None the less when a biography is published, we read it not only for corroborating proof of pedigree, but for a sense of history and personal character as well.  It is as close to a personal interview as we are going to get and how many of us wish that some generation before us had the interest and wherewithal to sit down with grandpa or grandma to ask them about their memories.  About family lore.  And write it down.

I suspect it is a bit like the young folks in my life.  “Oh, Lord.  She is rolling out the old family stuff again!”  They can’t say they hear their mother calling…because I AM their mother.  So they are stuck with my golden years, early bird special, sentimental journeys with long dead people.  Stuck.  Just like I was with my mother.

The difference now is that unlike my mother who threatened to write, I am chronicling what I know and how I know it.  The usual tree building data…the central information of our lineage… is populated in Family Tree and on  But there was always so much more to it than that for me.  The fact is now I wished that I taken the time for an honest to goodness formal interview session with my mother.

Lucky for me I grew up in central New York in the 1950’s and 60’s and we had time for one another.  Winters were long and more often than not, it snowed.  Buckets!  After clearing the porch and front walk and perhaps after a brief snowball fight, it was good to sit in our little living room and sip hot cocoa and listen to my mother’s stories.  Summer nights were laden with energy leaching humidity.  We were smack in the middle of the Finger Lakes.  Perched on the front porch with a cold glass of lemonade and a bowl of fresh strawberries, we sat so very still to preserve the chill in our hands and wait for my mother’s murmuring journeys into her past.

The stories were familiar ones.  I suspect the ones we heard most often were more about her reliving pleasurable childhood moments and comforting herself…perhaps with a tinge of hope that her children would gain some understanding of her as a human being.  But I was young and lacked the maturity to understand how important those moments were..not just to her, but to me.

With this blog I not only share a bit of scholarship and retrospection with my fellow historians, but I like to think I take my place with other ancestors who liked to tell the tale of family on a Sunday afternoon to anyone who would listen.  My front porch, if you will.

And Libbie Johnson Van Dorn’s.


My grandfather’s mother was ELIZABETH A. WILLIAMS PURDY SMITH .  I have written several times about her as her presence loomed large in my mother’s trips down memory lane.  In her youth Elizabeth was just plain Libbie.  A personal fact that my research revealed as my mother and her siblings referred to her simply as Grandma Smith and she was formally known as Mrs. E. A. Smith in Ithaca society.  She was the daughter of Colonel OLIVER S. WILLIAMS and MARY VAN DORN of Enfield, Tompkins County, New York  and one of two children that survived to adulthood.  Her younger sisters, Henrietta and Emiline,  died within a few months of one another in 1853 leaving Libbie and her older sister, MARY LORINDA WILLIAMS to carry on the next generation.

Mary Lorinda wed “Captain” ALBERT JOHNSON when she was nearly thirty years old.  Her sister had married at nineteen to Elbert Purdy in 1867 and already had one son, Wilmot, when Mary gave birth to her only child, ELIZABETH MARY “LIBBIE” JOHNSON.  Though her birth year on her monument states 1874, little Elizabeth Mary is not enumerated in the New York State 1875 census so the exact birth year is in question.

On November 15, 1875 my grandfather, BURT SAMUEL PURDY, was born in Enfield and the two sisters raised their children in Enfield under the guiding hand of the family matriarch, sixty year old MARY VAN DORN WILLIAMS.

It was a short walk between the PURDY, JOHNSON and WILLIAMS Enfield households.  In fact the Purdys and Johnsons lived virtually steps away from one another.  No doubt the children spent a good deal of time with their maternal grandmother and heard the VAN DORN family lore.  The Purdy boys…my grandfather and his brother… might have enjoyed a brief afternoon of Mary Van Dorn’s cookies and indulged her here and there, but it was little Libbie Johnson who fell under her grandmother’s spell and became her generation’s VAN DORN family historian.  And my kindred in flesh AND spirit.

The years of 1887 and 1888 would decimate a generation beginning with the death of OLIVER S. WILLIAMS, followed by his seven year old granddaughter, MARY SAMANTHA PURDY (Libbie Johnson’s only female cousin) in 1887.  The following year ELBERT PURDY would leave the mortal coil at the age of 43 and MARY LORINDA JOHNSON succumbed at the age of 45.   LIBBIE PURDY lost her father, daughter and husband and sister within one year’s time.  AND her namesake…her niece, LIBBIE JOHNSON was a motherless 14 year old girl.


Albert Johnson…the Captain…was an ambitious man with a political aspiration beyond Enfield and he was ill-equipped to raise LIBBIE on his own.  He belonged in the world of men as it was back then and knew nothing of girlish needs.  And so he turned to his newly widowed mother-in-law and sister-in-law to fill the void that his wife had left and made his way to New York City to bigger things.

There was plenty of money and land wealth to support the household of three women and the Purdy boys, but the rural life of the little community of Enfield simply wouldn’t do.  So the women packed up their precious belongings, sold their properties and moved to Ithaca, New York where there were no cows to milk and chase when they escaped the fences that always seemed to need mending.  There were no fruit trees to tend and harvest.  Dust would not cling to their long skirts nor mud splash upon their button shoes.  Milk was delivered to the front porch as was ice and a neighborly visit wouldn’t entail an hour’s walk.   And there was Cornell and by 1892 the Conservatory of Music where LIBBIE JOHNSON learned to sing and become an accomplished pianist.  The Conservatory would become Ithaca College where Mary Van Dorn Williams’ great great grandson, CHRISTOPHER PURDY would be educated.  So the women found civilized life with trains and trolleys… sidewalks and ice cream parlors where the first documented ice cream sundae was served in 1892 at Platt and Colt Pharmacy.  And, there was the shopping in some of the lovely Ithaca stores where BURT PURDY would eventually meet his future father-in-law.

The move to Ithaca did not separate the women from their Van Dorn heritage, however.  Until her death at 85 years old in May of 1901 at her daughter’s home, Mary Williams remained the maternal heart of her family and granddaughter Libbie Johnson’s touchstone.


The PURDY WILLIAMS family bible has Mary Van Dorn’s Ithaca Journal obituary neatly pasted into it.  I have read and reread the obituary over my lifetime trying to find out who was this granddaughter Libbie Van Dorn of Ithaca?  How does MARY VAN DORN WILLIAMS have a granddaughter with the surname VAN DORN?  Once I traced my great grandmother’s sister’s history and found she had but one daughter named Libbie, that pretty much set the path.  So which VAN DORN did she marry?  I knew all of the Enfield VAN DORNS and all of the men were old..too old for young Libbie…and I also knew there were more distant cousins that settled along Cayuga Lake.  And then I found the breathtaking marriage announcement.

Ithaca Morning Herald, December 7th 1894

On November 30th, 1894, 20 year old  LIBBIE JOHNSON became Mrs. WILLIAM VAN DORN.  She had married her grandmother’s 43 year old nephew at the old VAN DORN home at VAN DORN Corners.   As if the actual 23 year age gap wasn’t bad enough, William was reported to be 50 and Libbie as 19. Clearly a bit of tsk tsk.

I have a sneaking suspicion that Mary Van Dorn felt her vitality slipping away and Libbie wasn’t getting any younger.  It was time.  And what better man would there be for her than a Van Dorn?  William was a successful builder in Ithaca and would be a good provider for Libbie.  In 1896 their only child, Julia Burton Van Dorn was born. By 1900 the Van Dorns had set up house next door to Libbie’s aunt, the newly married Mrs. Smith and grandmother, Mary Williams on Pleasant Street in Ithaca.  The silken thread was wound and the Van Dorn circle was pulled tight.

William and Libbie still shared a home as recorded in the New York State 1905 census.  I don’t find either of them in the 1910 Federal Census, but by the New York State 1915 census, Libbie is living alone with Julia in Rochester, New York where Julia is working as a clerk.

By 1920 Libbie…like her Aunt Libbie…had a boarding house.  She claimed to be a widow though William was alive in Ithaca and still building barns and homes in the city.  Julia was recorded as 23 years old and working at Kodak at that time and still single.

William Van Dorn had led a single man’s life for decades and died in 1922 in Ithaca.  He is buried in Hayt Cemetery with his parents and his brothers in the VAN DORN family plot.  Libbie’s father, ALBERT JOHNSON had died in Binghamton in 1920 and as his only child,  left her a tidy sum and his home.  By the year 1925 Libbie and Julia are back to the Ithaca area and living in Ulysses where Julia would marry John Fulmer Davis.  Upon Julia’s marriage, Libbie, Julia and John left Tompkins County and moved to Binghamton.  Julia and John had no children and this line of the Van Dorns came to an end.

Libbie and Julia visited Ithaca periodically during those decades as noted in the social items in the Ithaca Daily News

“with Mrs. E. A. Smith of Pleasant St.”


Mary Van Dorn Williams was always on her daughter and granddaughter’s mind.  In 1915,  fourteen years after Mary’s death, the two Libbie’s submitted a Van Dorn pioneer story to the Ithaca Daily News celebrating Mary’s 100th birthday.   Ninety six years later…just short of the 195th anniversary of her birth, I found this item lost to the descendants of Mary Van Dorn Williams.

I like to think it was her birthday present to me – her great great granddaughter and family historian.


Within a brief and thrilling few moments of discovering the birthday article, I was astonished to find that Libbie was still celebrating and sharing her Van Dorn heritage with a story of her great grandfather, PETER VAN DORNThe occasion was the razing of the old tavern at VAN DORN Corners in 1917.  A faded and askew New York State historic marker stands on the location today where the Dutchman from New Jersey established the inn where weary travelers and horses would find respite from their journey along the old Catskill Turnpike. It was the site of many rousing speeches at political meetings and where Peter conducted his role as postmaster and overseer of the poor.

It was where Colonel OLIVER S. WILLIAMS won the hand of PETER VAN DORN’s daughter, MARY and why I return to Enfield each year to honor the old Dutchman.

And now to say, “Thank You, Libbie Van Dorn.



Deborah Martin-Plugh

Author, Historian and Genealogical Researcher

(c) Copyright 2012.  All Rights Reserved

One thought on “Thank You, Libbie Van Dorn

  1. I’m with you, Deborah, about telling the tale of family. You have some good points in your introductory explanation, and put your ideas into practice in this article. I’ve always found it more fascinating to know the stories behind the people, rather than just collect names and dates.

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