Notes from the Field: Recently I traveled to central New York…my childhood home and the sites where my ancestors lived and died. I am 65 years old and have lived away for more years than I lived there, but it is and always will be the place I call ‘home’. I concentrated on Cayuga County instead of including explorations in Tompkins, Seneca, Wayne and Madison Counties as I had in the past. Partly because I wanted to be more disciplined and focused…partly because I am not the kid I used to be and my energy only goes so far these days. And partly because I could take time to visit with my high school friends…and embrace my very own history.
I had a game plan as usual, but it was more relaxed and open to hanging out and experiencing the moment versus intense information gathering. Good thing, too, because it rained every day I was there. And I am a field historian by nature and don’t have enough sense to come in out of the rain.
Though it had been just past lunch time when I arrived in Auburn, I had skipped lunch and headed straight to my first research site. Here is where my kids yell…MO-O-O-MMM!
I drove the few miles west of Auburn, NY to the little Village of Cayuga and to the Lakeview cemetery where my maternal ancestors and my dad are buried. I always look forward to that visit. As the name implies, the cemetery sits just above Cayuga Lake. I can imagine that when it was cleared to become a burial ground, there was indeed a generous view of the lake that sat just a few feet away. Over the century and more, large pines and elms grew up and shaded the monuments..some crowding the tombstones and engulfing others within the trunks and roots. Once I turn onto Center Street, I am home (owning in 1971 the historic Federal period home called Tumble Inn built by Dr. Jonathan Whitney in the early 1800’s) and just a block away from the cemetery entrance and my father’s grave. He is always my first and last stop. “Hey, Dad.”
I drove down toward the lakeside entrance as is my practice so I can work my way up the hill visiting my ancestors and noting burials of newly discovered family. Turning down the old path I came upon an orange cone sitting smack in between the tire worn grooves. I thought…must be a funeral below…or maintenance going on. It was then I saw the large truck and tractor and the two men below. And the enormous damage. On Thursday, May 30th a violent storm swept off the lake with microbursts that tore 40 foot elms right out of the ground and twisted others so violently that their huge trunks snapped like mere twigs. I walked down the crude road and met one William (he told me to call him Bill) Patterson and his workmate who were cutting up the debris and clearing the monster trees out of the cemetery.
At first glance I saw one tree down, but as I approached, it was clear that several of the old sentinel trees had fallen and the men had a Herculean task ahead. I asked Bill…he was the chatty one…his younger workmate was no nonsense and ‘gettin’ on with it’… to pause for a few moments to share his storm experience. I introduced myself and shook Bill’s rough hand firmly and asked if he would stand next to the massive and broken tree trunk for a photo so I could show scale. He hitched up his well worn jeans and adjusted his suspenders and struck a pose. It was clear old Bill was enjoying his momentary celebrity.
Then it was back to loading the truck with the cut up limbs some as thick as Bill’s waist with a quick and nonchalant toss into the truck bed. Bill..a self-described “old farmer who mows the cemetery and sees to burials”…took a shine to the talk of my ancestors buried there asking me for the litany of family names. “Yep, know that name. Buried a family with that name just recently,” he said. I asked him about whose monuments were under the biggest fallen elm and he said, “We’ll find out when we get the rest of the tree cleared,” when his associate chimed in, “Damn mess and we got clearing all over the place to do..not just here.” He shook his head and climbed into the truck and hauled away the load. Bill stayed behind…muttered “damn mess” as an echoing sentiment and continued his chores while I headed into the debris to see if the monuments of my “people” had escaped damage. And they did in a remarkable twist of fate. The fallen trees had found other directions and my family burials were just outside of the large canopy of the ruined elm. I stopped to say “Hey” to my maternal great great grandparents, Deborah Jane Tyler and her husband, Francis J. Curry and up the slope a few steps to their daughter’s in-laws and my other set of maternal great great grandparents, Susannah M. Downing and Henry Eugene Curtis. Someone newly discovered by me just before the trip, I found Deborah’s oldest sister, Abbie Tyler and her husband James Jenney just strides away. Just across the road, my maternal great great great grandparents, Lonson Tyler and his wife, Betsey Tyler. Cousins of some kind…the Tylers had a habit of that…and the parents of Deborah Jane Tyler. Just to the north of the huge tree, my Titus family members and their monuments remained free and clear. “Hey, everyone.”
“Hurts me awful when I see a fallen stone,” called out Bill. “Can’t do anything about either.” He made his way up to where I was taking photographs and listed all the burial grounds along the lake that he tends and his chagrin at his limitations. “Money,” he says, “and time.” Finishing up my video and photo session, I continued to make my way up to my car and Bill stopped me one more time to express his apology for his language…he had said “damn” a couple of times. “Just an old farmer”, he sheepishly reiterated and climbed aboard the tractor and made his way up the old dirt road that meanders up the cemetery.
They had a lot of work to do…those two men with just a chain saw…a truck and a tractor. And I had chewed up a bit of their time talking about the terrible storm and the lakeside damage. They advised me to take a drive down Lake Road to see the roof blown off one historic home and the big old elm that was lifted out of the ground with the exposed root ball….which I did.
I noted for my research cousins that the beautiful old Hutchinson mansion was untouched…a few small branches still sat on the portico, but the lakeside properties to my right and directly on the lake took a beating and looked like a giant had played pick up sticks with the huge trees. Yep, Bill…a damned mess.
After treating myself to an icy martini and a steak and a salad, I fell asleep sometime around 9PM. I was wicked tired from my drive up from Philadelphia and the field work at the cemetery so I gladly gave up the idea of making notes or even pondering the plans for the next days work. Waking at 5:30 in the morning rested, but content to snuggle into the super comfy pillows…in the dark, I stayed in bed until 6AM when I saw dawn peeking through the crack of the darkening hotel drapes. A decent cup of in-room brewed coffee and I was returning emails from the day before and organizing my research materials for the day. It was rainy and gray in central New York after the incredibly crystal blue skies that graced my northward drive up route 81 the day before.
My first appointment was at the Cayuga County Museum to view the Civil War material archived there and to discuss a proposed exhibit with images of the family collection from my great great grandfather David Penird who served the entire war with the 75th Regiment formed from the ‘boys’ of Cayuga County. The sky had opened up and gutters and downspouts struggled to keep up with the pouring rain. Teeming, pouring rain, as my mother would say. Tucking my head under the umbrella, I made a dash to the back entrance of the museum with one of the staff and her most handsome dog. As I walked to the work room that obviously doubled as the staff lunch room, I felt instantly at home. Two huge boxes and a large number of books were placed at the table in front of me and I dug into the as yet uncatalogued material. Folder by folder the years fell away and the letters home to loved ones played out with the old cabinet cards and post war G.A.R. programs and songbooks capturing my every heartbeat.
It was with the tender experience of holding the field arm band of a Cayuga County doctor who served in the 9th Corps…and the buttons and badges from the uniform of another young man who served in the old 75th regiment that I found myself having to remember to breathe and I sat back from the box and knew this was something special. After awhile, I took a break and found my way down the hall to the office of Lauren Chyl, the museum’s curator. We chatted for a few moments and she rose to walk with me back to my work area and to refill her mug. While I was going through the boxes of Civil War memorabilia and old newspaper articles and she sipped at her coffee, I reminisced about my childhood days at the museum. I took art lessons with Dr. Walter Long in the Case Research Lab and spent several summers there learning to draw and paint and listen to the wandering and amazing stories that only Dr. Long could tell. He loved history and would often tell his students to visit the museum before we dashed home. Even though we had seen the exhibits many times, we would dutifully walk across the parking area and scoot into the back door…the very one I had just entered and made our way through the museum. The favorite stop for Dr. Long and ours as well was the velvet draped exhibit with the phosphorescent rocks that glowed in the gloom. “Did you stop to see the rocks that glow?” he would ask. Of course we had and pleased that we did, he bade us goodbye until our next lesson. And the predictable gentle command to visit the exhibits before we went home. I chuckled when I told Lauren about how many times his wife would come to the classroom with a brown paper bag neatly packed with his lunch…that he had characteristically forgotten on his way out the door. Of course, sharing the well-known story of how he had returned home from a conference absentmindedly leaving Mrs. Long behind left Lauren and I smiling and nodding. She had never met Dr. Long since he passed away many years before Lauren took up her position, but it was as if he was still there wandering about his beloved museum and its collections…forgetting that he had left this realm perhaps and looking for the rocks that glow.
Rain and More Rain
It was just after noon when I left the museum and the rain seemed to have circled around to have another go at me. I grabbed my poncho from the trunk and ducked into my car. Peering through the rivulets streaming down the windows I could just make out the interior of the Case Lab. It seemed like yesterday that I had spent so many hours drawing horses and sweeping watercolors onto endless reams of paper. But enough reverie. There was an entire afternoon to work with and along with my own list…a request from a research cousin had landed in my email. She was on the hunt for more Parcells information and ‘if I had time”, could I check on some burials at Soule Cemetery. No time for lunch…maybe an early dinner…a hot shower and early to bed. But later. I was off to Soule Cemetery in Sennett where my great great grandparents, Albert S. Martin and Harriet M. Frear, are buried. My father’s great grandparents and always another stop I make when I am home.
When I pulled into the entrance off Pine Ridge Road, the work truck sat outside of the office like a huge and hapless creature. The bed was filling with rain water and the dirt that had been there was becoming a muddy mess and spilling over the edge in a sepia cascade. I pulled around the truck and windshield wipers on full and hazard blinkers on made my way to the Martin plot. Slipping on the rain poncho and my Wellies, I carefully made my way up to the slope to the monuments. “Hey, Grandfather and Grandmother.” The rain let up for a few moments as I paid my respects when the Parcells name caught my attention and I moved further up the hill. I had found what Marj was looking for and pulled out my iPhone and began taking photos of the family plot and the stones and their inscriptions when the rain returned in earnest. Slip sliding down to the road, I made it inside the dry interior of my car and though it was June, turned on the heat to chase away the chill. As I drove to the entrance and near the truck, I spotted a cemetery worker standing in the open door of the office and staring out at the deluge and the hulk of the truck. Not one to miss the opportunity to visit a cemetery office, I pulled up behind the truck avoiding the Niagara end, flipped up the hood of my poncho and hauled it to the door. He must have been startled at the sight of me…or the thought of someone running in the storm. “Hi!”, I said, out of breath. Sticking out my hand, I introduced myself and asked his name. “Michael,” he stammered. “Well, Michael, I sure hope you can help me. Can I look at the burial cards? I am an historian researching here and standing in a dry office sure beats bashing around the cemetery in this weather,” I said. Michael must have been thrilled at the thought of a dry few minutes and he swung open the door and waved his hand at the big set of drawers housing the cards. In just a few moments I had pulled the Parcells cards and had photographed them…I am an old hand at such things. I thanked Michael and headed out the way I came. “Are you sure you have everything?” the young man asked. I had the feeling that I had worked too fast and he wasn’t anxious to deal with the mess outside.
When I checked the time, I realized that I had just one hour before meeting two of my friends for “Zumba” whatever that was. Was it a restaurant? I texted them and got directions. Okay…I thought I was pretty current on things, but this wasn’t going to be a cocktail with Brazilian liquor. This was THE Zumba! Luckily I had my sneakers on and my friend Marie coaxed me onto the floor. I Zumbaed left. I Zumbaed right. I shook my butt and shimmied my shoulders for three-quarters of the class and took a break. Leaning against the wall I posted the Zumba class on FaceBook and my daughter, Cate, simply posted “!!!!” With an “LOL”, I sat out the rest of the class and Marie and I scooted over to the neighboring restaurant for a bowl of soup and gal talk. It wasn’t long before our friend, Sheila popped in the booth and after a round of hugs and laughs, we got down to a serious visit. I was tired from the day’s work and the unexpected Zumba lesson, but the time flew by and the years left us all and we were girls again for those few hours.
A good breakfast with some welcome cups of coffee and I was off to the County Records Department and then on to the new office of the Cayuga County Historian on Court Street. The records clerks were barely in their offices when I was at the counter waiting to acquire copies of the 1856 naturalization papers of my great great grandfather, Francis J. Curry. I had to put on the charm that morning. Poor souls had probably not had an early bird come into the office right on their heels and disrupt a perfectly good routine. But I was prepared with the index information and it was an easy find for the clerk. He made copies for me…of copies, that is…and I asked where the originals were kept. Oh, how I would love to see them! He cocked an eye at me as if I had asked where Moses had ditched the tablet shards and told me that originals were destroyed after copies were made. No room for all of that paper ‘stuff’. While my exterior was calm, inside…from my toes on up…my historian spirit shrieked like a banshee. “What if a descendant PAID for the originals?”. County makes money and space is saved and descendant genealogist is giddy with archival love. Win. Win. I was making sense to me anyway. It was then that the truth of public records and the bureaucratic heart (or lack of one) brings down a harsh reality. “Can’t sell public records,” came the reply. I sighed and packed up the photocopies that had cost me 65 cents apiece and tried to be grateful for that.
The historian’s office is in the same building and just around the corner, but it still requires a walk around the exterior..and back in the rain. My poncho was getting a workout. The librarian was puttering about and hurried up to the counter to sign me in and instruct me as to the rules. I had to leave my purse at her desk which was weird because it was just big enough for my car keys and some lipstick with my driver’s license nudging the seams. But who knows the cleverness of a history thief, right? No cameras, either. Okay. And of course the menu of costs for photocopies. Got it. Now it was my turn to ask questions. Is there a catalog of what is here? I think I asked an impossible question because she patiently told me that she couldn’t possibly tell me what they had. I just had to tell her what I was looking for. HUH? How do I know what I am looking for if I don’t know what is here? If nothing I am a practical soul and just went for the obvious..how about surnames? Jackpot. She had just begun the task of indexing the files of surname loose material and now we had traction. I spent two hours there and we began to talk genealogy…a lot about her family which was interesting, but I hadn’t traveled all the way to Auburn to talk shop. While the librarian was photocopying (GAD I hate the word now), I wandered about the public room and found a binder full of material that was a gold mine for me. Cayuga Historian Ruth Probst’s transcriptions of the Village of Cayuga Records. Ruth was the quintessential historian. A virtual encyclopedia herself…”was” being the operative word. Ruth has joined her ancestors and I regret not having met her before I started my work, but she left behind a remarkably savvy and worthy effort. But, oh what she took with her….
It was closing upon lunch time – which as you know by now I forget to indulge in – and the office closes down. So I retrieved my purse and my poncho and in a naughty or was it saintly moment, I told the librarian that my iPhone was not only a still camera…but a video camera…AND a scanner and it had been visibly on the desk next to me the whole time I was working with the files. “Just food for thought,” I told her and reassured her that I was as Mary Tyler Moore as you can get and had observed the rules, but that was me…. Out into the rain again and to the parking garage with my photocopy treasures, I decided to head to Fort Hill Cemetery.
I was a bit hungry and fished out an energy bar and washed it down with bottled water while I made my way to the old Gothic administrative building of Fort Hill. Greeted by the secretary, Kristen, who warmly welcomed me in to her office, I stood among the old burial records and books and found myself admiring the beautiful map of the cemetery…almost as tall as I am…that hangs on the wall behind her desk. She graciously stopped her work for my impromptu visit and explained the records to me…pulled some cards for me from the files secreted away in the walk-in safe and showed me the beautifully bound records books. I sat at the big table snugged against the stone wall and pulled out my iPhone and took pictures…with permission, of course. After the visit at the Cayuga historian’s office, I felt a bit wicked even so. The topics of conversation wove in and out of Auburn’s history and that of my family and I shared my findings about Fort Hill’s predecessor, North Street Cemetery. Secret burials and cholera. Remarkably I knew so very little about Fort Hill and she began to share her knowledge with me. I could see she had work to do and I had taken up her time when she suggested that I purchase “Auburn’s Fort Hill Cemetery” compiled by Lydia J. Russell. She retrieved a fresh copy for me and for $16.50 I had a lovely little publication to take back with me for background research. It was time to leave…back in to wet weather that had gone from steady rain to clinging mist.
For the first time, I went beyond the usual visits to my grandparents’, Sarah Leona Penird and Albert H. Martin, graves in Fort Hill. “Hey, Grandparents.”
I drove and walked the 22 acres marveling at the stately monuments of Auburn’s notable families. Some were soaring edifices, columns and obelisks of amazing craftsmanship and intended to impress. It was misty and comfortably cool. A perfect atmosphere for the experience. I recognized a good number of the names…some of them my Tyler family members. One Tyler monument that I came upon was more marvelous than all the towering stone tributes. Fort Hill is not one hill, but a collection of them. Steep hills. I was mindful as I walked about the cemetery…careful of each footfall because the grass was wet and the ground so soggy as to defy even the most careful mountain goat…which I am not. I gave up walking at one point and drove slowly along the winding, curving road and happened upon the tombstone of Almyra Doty Pierce. She was the daughter of Jason Martin Doty and Anna Tyler. Anna Tyler was the sister of my maternal 3rd greatgrandfather, Lonson Tyler. Along side Almyra is the monument of her daughter, Helen and son-in-law, John Llewellyn Tyler. Oh, the Tylers were still marrying cousins even then. The monuments are lovely and modestly impressive, but that wasn’t the boggling aspect. Wedged at the very edge of a high rise of earth, one would expect them to come popping out of the hill at any given moment. I still ponder how they were put in the ground…and managed to be kept there. At those uneasy thoughts, I turned off my hazards and made my way out of the cemetery…back to the hotel…a martini and a salad…a hot shower and a good night’s sleep.
Breakfast with friends! I keep track of my high school chums on FaceBook and know that they gather once a month for breakfast so I had planned my research trip around that time to join them. Though the skies continued to be gray and promising to rain, I left my poncho in the back seat of my car and joined my friends for a couple of hours of coffee and reminiscing and catching up with news of grandbabies and retirement challenges and joys..keeping the ‘who died’ to a minimum. We sang Happy Birthday to one of our friends with great gusto and took a group photo before we all dashed off to our lives. It went so quickly, I wanted to snatch their car keys and hold them hostage for another hour or two.
I had an unscheduled afternoon ahead of me that I had saved for spontaneity. I drove the entire way around Owasco Lake. That was a first for me. I am a Cayuga Lake kid. Before I was born my paternal grandmother had a summer cottage on Owasco Lake and rented ‘camps’ along Cayuga Lake for summer visitors. A picture of her with my father and my two older brothers sitting outside her cottage hangs on my wall. It is black and white and curiously formal and devoid of cheer like the somber weather that followed me around the lake and colored everything in shades of gray.
I stopped at Green Shutters on White Bridge Road and chatted and dallied with locals…ate a hot dog, fries and a root beer along the lake while listening to the 1961 hit “Blue Moon” sung by the Marcels play on the jukebox. It was still early and going back to the hotel was not an option. I was fourteen again and immune to the cholesterol and salt and sugar in my lunch. It was Saturday and there were no afternoon hours at Seymour Library for researching historians. After considering my options and observing the lift in the clouds, I drove back to Lakeview Cemetery to see how Bill was doing with the clean up. Maybe I might be able to see what monuments were effected and record them before whatever fate was to befall them in the process.
This time I drove from the opposite direction and it provided an entirely different perspective . In for a penny…I found my way via the side entrance and began thoroughly walking the pioneer section to inspect the damage and the progress of removing the debris. Clearly it was going to take more than one old farmer and a middle-aged man with a chainsaw to get the job done. I peered into the largest fallen tree and could only make out a single obelisk still standing and tightly wedged in among the huge limbs. The canopy was so dense that there was simply no way to tell if anything else survived the crush or if the obelisk is standing on its base.
I will go back to findagrave and see what is posted…and my notes from visits over the years to make sure no information I have is lost…that may be the only thing left in that area of the cemetery after the old giant is removed…my notes and some photos.
Union Springs is just a short drive south of Cayuga and I had one more cemetery to visit. The sun was peeking through and shafts of light were finding their way to brighten the lake. The waters looked blue again instead of leaden gray. I had just found Chestnut Hill Cemetery for the first time and began to drive in when my cell phone rang and it was the Newfield historian from Tompkins County. Did I have time to come down for a quick visit? I pulled over and chatted with him for 20 minutes and though I really wanted to make the trip down and spend time, I had used up my energy and was ready to get back to the hotel and get some rest before the four and a half hour drive home the next morning.
At one time or another I could run rings about those many years my junior, but these days I respect the limits put upon me by the passing of time. That doesn’t stop my historian spirit from chafing at those limitations, but it does provide me with an excuse for another field trip. Back to Cayuga Lake and home.
Author, Historian and Genealogical Researcher
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