Asenath, Speedy, Zepheniah…Heritage with Poetry

Sometimes I have a rhyme AND a reason to research an ancestor. This time it was because her given name is so intriguing. ASENATH ROBINSON (1766-1847). She is my maternal 4th great grandmother and the daughter of Reuben Robinson and Esther Palmer of Scotland Society, Windham, Connecticut and a direct descendant of the Reverend John Robinson who was the spiritual leader of the Mayflower Pilgrims. Asenath had ELEVEN children including my maternal 3rd great grandmother SOPHIA GREENE (wife of DAVID CURTIS).

What a journey to follow all of the children of ASENATH and LEVI GREENE! AndZepheniah Greene what fun. The given names were a poetic blend of biblical and historical. Zepheniah Ripley, Aurelia and yes…Speedy Greene! I love Speedy Greene! Speedy married Scotsman Gerothman McDonald and they had eleven children of their own…with some pretty spiffy names. Gamaliel Barstow and (this one rolls of the tongue)…Beebe Galusha McDonald.  A lively and celebrated family from Livonia, Livingston county, NY.

ASENATH is a favorite given name and many of her granddaughters and great granddaughters were named after her including the granddaughter of Fanny and Orange Chapin. Because of that family affection for her, I have been treated to flowery obituaries filled with poetic family lore. It impressed me how many other descendants lived and died in Auburn, New York or the surrounding area.

I HAD to do a bit of research on the origin of ASENATH and found the story of the Egyptian woman who was given to Joseph as his wife by Pharoah. Biblical, Hebrew and Egyptian scholars alike have studied the saga of the pair…what her name meant…her Egyptian father’s priesthood. Her conversion and the perils that the two encountered.   What did her parents, Reuben and Esther Palmer think when they beheld their infant daughter and chose such a name?

Asenath met Levi Greene when he came to the Robinson home to Scotland, Connecticut to stay with his friend and fellow Revolutionary War soldier, Reuben Robinson – Asenath’s older brother.  She was just 18 years old when she and Levi married in Scotland, Connecticut in 1785.  The pair moved to Venice, Cayuga County from the Albany, NY area sometime around 1811 and eventually left Venice to establish themselves in Livonia before moving to Oakland county, Michigan with son Zepheniah Ripley Greene and his wife Zilla Gould (don’t you just love it!) leaving behind a large extended family in Livingston and Cayuga counties.

Like all naming trends…the descendants finally lost track of their ancestral names and heritage and “modern” names left the Asenaths and Aurelias and Zepheniahs and Beebe Galushas to the past.

Newspaper Auburn NY Democrat - Argus 2 Mar 1900 Asenath Robinson Chapin obitThe last Asenath I found was Asenath Robinson Chapin Benedict (1831 -1900). She was the daughter of Orange Chapin and Fanny Greene and born in Venice, Cayuga county, NY. Her memoriam in the Auburn NY Democrat, was her gift to me…her first cousin, 4 times removed. A grand life, well spent and a tribute to the earliest Cayuga County pioneers.Orange Chapin Tombstone

Asenath Robinson Chapin Benedict and her parents are buried in Fort Hill Cemetery in Auburn, NY along with a great number of descendants.





Fanny Greene Chapin’s sister and my maternal 3rd great grandmother, David and Sophia Greene Curtis TombstonesSophia Greene Curtis is buried beside her husband, David Curtis in Oakridge Cemetery in Livonia, Livingston county, NY.  Oakridge, too, is the site of burials for a great number of ancestors including the wonderful Speedy Greene McDonald and her descendants.




Deborah Martin-Plugh

Author, Historian and Genealogical Researcher

(c) Copyright 2015.  All Rights Reserved

The Defamation of Henry Eugene Curtis. And His Dog.

A Note to My Readers:  I have spent the last few months dotting i’s and crossing t’s in my Martin research…tidying up citations and readying the work for publication in one of the Mayflower Society’s “Silver Books” that will be released next year.  So I put on my scholar cap, put down my writer’s pen and concentrated on being an academic genealogist.   The work is pretty complete now and I am working on a new relationship with another publication and editor for a future project.   Pretty breath-taking to make this leap.  Breath-taking and highly consuming.  I became very serious and preoccupied.   It was certainly energizing and educational, but now…back to the fun.   I love to write, you see.  And I missed it while I was being a grown up.

I have at least four solid story lines in draft mode.  Two are huge and will definitely preoccupy me to do them justice, but for now I thought I would tell the tale of Henry Eugene Curtis, the bachelor grocer from the little Village of Cayuga.  He was a smart business man, a bit of a dandy in his youth.  Like his brother, George…my great great grandfather.  And he was…like George..a risk taker and flamboyant personality.  Unlike his brother, he had a steadfast love for his life in the little village and clung to it and his mother, Susannah. And there was his dog…. Henry owned several properties in Cayuga Village, an ice house and a number of grocery stores and a small farm just east of the village where his mother Susannah spent her remaining days.  His home on Center Street in the 1800’s was just down the street from the home “Tumble Inn” that I would own in the 1970’s.

Henry’s ambition took him south to Ithaca where in 1890 he partnered in a men’s clothing store with his cousin, Guy W. Cayuga Village Henry CurtisSlocum.  His brother, George would join Guy and Henry for a brief period and then among George’s other establishments in Ithaca, he would open a “ready made” clothing store of his own in Ithaca in 1895.   That same year Henry bought a store in Cayuga Village with another cousin, George D. Coapman, renaming it “The Economy Store”.   Less than a year later, Henry dissolved the partnership so George could move to Lockport with his sisters and mother, Elsie Yawger Coapman.  The Curtis brothers never put their eggs in one basket or let family politics keep them from cheerily moving on to the next opportunity.  Or engaging another family member in their enterprise.

Henry intrigued me…this man who sold groceries and lived on Cayuga Lake and was so fondly remembered for his jolly nature in a 1973 nostalgia piece by Miss Ruth Dundon.

A backward glance at the now obsolete, old-time grocery store.  We like to remember our earliest loves, and one of mine was the store in Cayuga and Henry Curtis who owned it.  He was a genial gentleman whose shining spectacles shaded a pair of merry brown eyes.  His customers were greeted as welcome guests, so it was a privilege to be sent to the store. Lighted by large kerosene hanging lamps and heated in winter by a huge pot-bellied stove, the store also had a handsome, plump tiger cat to add a homelike touch. Usually a few men sat on the corner bench and exchanged news and gossip. Compared to elegant modern stores, this would seem pretty drab and dull.  But the owner’s ready smile and promise of a handsome wedding present sent us happily on our way.

My great grand uncle rebelled along with several other businessmen against the local excise tax and proudly “plead guilty” and paid a fine of $75 for his defiance in 1873.  This hearty bachelor who spent so much time with friends and family and struggled through a terrible bout of typhoid – the scourge that sickened many residents in that area long Cayuga Lake in the bitter winter of 1886.  There was the aging but still enthusiastic Henry who went to the 1901 Pan American Exposition in Buffalo to see the wonders of electricity and the promise of modern life.   Henry whose exhilarating and grand holiday turned to bitterness when he experienced the murder of President McKinley only to return home to Cayuga County which was to become the epicenter of the trial, execution and ignominious burial of assassin Leon Czolgosz in Auburn, New York.

Along with cabinet cards of my 2nd great grandfather George and his family, two charming photos of Henry E Curtis Jr 21Henry are in my possession.  A dashing Henry who had such fondness for his dog that his portrait included his furry companion.   As reported in an article in the Cayuga County Independent,  twenty-nine year old Henry’s  jolly and friendly nature was tested in September of 1879 by the nastiness of village politics and the taunting by his neighbor, John Heffer, which included the words….

Will Your Dog Bite?

 John Heffer, of Cayuga, a middle-aged man of one of the witnesses to the late church trial at that place, received a severe drubbing at the hand of Henry Curtis, Friday.   The fracas occurred near the home of the latter and resulted from a chain of circumstances of which the seemingly harmless question “will your dog bite?” was one of the licks.  It is alleged that Curtis, whose name was extensively used in connection with the unproved scandal of this trial, was deeply incensed against those who sought to defame his character, and that Heffer was one of the more prominent witnesses pressed forward to bring about this result.  Like all similar questions, this one had two sides and the action is both eulogized and severely condemned by members of the community who are thoroughly conversant with the details of the scandal and the resulting fracas.  The story told by Curtis is to the effect that Heffer while passing the Curtis property asked him if his dog, which was near, would bite.  To this he replied in insistence that he hoped not, such a creature as he was!   That thereupon Heffer called Curtis insulting names and struck him, or at least struck at him.  This so maddened the latter that he dealt Heffer a blow.  In the melee which ensued Heffer was badly pommeled.  The other version is that when Heffer asked the question in regard to the dog Curtis responded by calling the latter an opprobrious name and immediately followed it up with an attack on Heffer’s person.  It is reported that a warrant has been issued for the arrest of Curtis.  The matter is a leading topic of conversation in Cayuga.  No matter what the provocation, such occurrences cannot fail to produce a demoralizing effect on the community which tolerate them and they are sincerely to be regretted.  In addition to this, the peace and order loving portion of the community have a right to be protected and they should insist upon active measures being taken to insure against re occurence (sic) of such demonstrations – no matter who may be the offender.”

John Heffer had been described as a middle-aged man in the newspaper article and was in actuality fifty years of age when he and Henry engaged in their dispute.  He sued Henry for $1000 in damages for assault and battery and on Wednesday, December 10, 1879, the men were in Cayuga County court where a verdict was rendered by a jury presided over by the Honorable S. Edwin Day.   Henry who was represented by Judge Hewitt was ordered to pay Mr. Heffer the sum of $250.  A clear message was given to Henry that pommeling a middle-aged provocateur is not a gentlemanly solution and a young man best learn to temper himself.  And to Mr. Heffer…perhaps it would be best to not ask a man if his dog will bite.    Heffer would sell his village home in 1888 for $700 and continue to live in the village among Henry and Henry’s friends and family without further incidence.

But what is a ‘church trial’ that invokes the word scandal and such a ferocious emotional contention between neighbors in a small village?   My great grandparents, George D. Curtis and Kate C. Curry were married in the little Methodist church in the village in March of 1879.  Kate’s mother, Deborah Tyler Curry was a devout Methodist and was a church member.   What ‘church trial’ was going on at the time?  I have found no specific mention of such an event, but from reading more modern day accounts of church trials, it is serious business.   Ministers are discredited and defrocked.  Parishioners dismissed and shamed.  Sin…a mighty sword.   Back then it was an internal church matter and not necessarily the stuff of newspaper coverage, but definitely the stuff of gossip.  So researching for newspaper articles yielded no further enlightenment about ‘the church trial’ or the scandal in which Henry’s name was ‘extensively used and unproved’ .   Unless of course the bad blood escalates and  the parishioners engage in a public brawl.   A fracas.

Much was said about ‘gossip’ and the harm of it in local newspapers.   A lengthy piece entitled “They Say” and attributed to an individual only identified as A. E. D. was published in a Auburn NY Daily Bulletin edition in June of 1873.   It concerned the evil of gossip and warning of the destructive nature of indulging in character assassination in the ‘milder form of evil’ by prefacing the tale-telling with the phrase “they say” and concluding the thoughtful item with

Observe the speaker does not wish to give the unclean thing as from himself; he carries as it were, a pair of moral tongs, with which he handles the matter, and when he has put down the tongs he says, I am not dirty.

Henry went on to represent himself well, caring for his mother and his nieces and nephews and clearly Newspaper Auburn NY Semi-Weekly Journal Tue 24 Jan 1911 Henry Curtis dies after fallleft the impetuousness of youth behind.  His life was well documented and with many notable events and relationships to admire.  When he died on January 20, 1911 in his village home, he left behind many who mourned his death.  Henry left behind a sizable estate and generously provided for his surviving siblings and their children.  And his funeral was Presbyterian.

And me?  I have a photo of him with his dog.   I am Henry’s great grand niece…and that makes his dog…the one that would never great grand dog, I suppose.  Sweet.

Deborah Martin-Plugh

Author, Historian and Genealogical Researcher

(c) Copyright 2014.  All Rights Reserved


Trodding the Boards

A Note to My Readers:  It was heady stuff…trodding the boards as a high school senior..”Onions In the Stew” and on to Auburn Community College acting under the direction of Dan Labeille in Moliere’s “Tartuffe”…studying Pinter and Chekov and crewing behind the scenes for “Antigone”.   On the road to the Corning Theater Festival…and later the marvelous fun with the Auburn Players…Mark Twain’s “Adam and Eve”.  Rehearsals.  Scrims.  Gels.  Albolene cream.  Performance jitters.  Applause and a curtain call.  

In later years when I would attend the theater, I would find my foot or hand twitching in sync with the performer’s movements.  Obviously though I had gone on to other things, some ancient vibe still responded to the footlights.  And it’s no wonder…it’s wired in the blood.

George D. Curtis, vaudevillian, Minnesota

George D. Curtis, vaudevillian, Minnesota

My great grandfather, George Downing Curtis,  was a theater man.   From his youngest days he was an entertainer and drama followed him in every aspect of his life.   He trod the boards, but soon found his entrepreneurial nature and began purchasing billiard halls and ‘eating establishments’ and vaudeville theaters…eventually opening one of Ithaca, New York’s first moving picture theaters in the old Cornell Public Library.    George was also a dandy who sported a diamond pinkie ring and it wasn’t a big leap to expand his business interests to men’s clothing stores.  Then on to Rochester where he and he wife purchased the old St. Paul’s Church and opened the Happy Hour.  Within a few years the building was razed and the great and grand Strand Theater was built.     Always the showman, his life story is definitely grist for the stage.  Gambling.  Drinking.  Scandal.  Bankruptcy.  Grandiosity.   Divorce.  But never dull.

The Smell of Greasepaint

He wasn’t the only grandson of  Quaker Obadiah J. Downing to find himself drawn to the world of entertainment and drama.  George’s older cousin, Edgar O. Rogers also left the small village of Cayuga to eventually find life under the proscenium arch.   His father, George G. Rogers,  well versed in caring for horses, took his wife, Mary Downing Rogers and their children to Waterloo and then to Rochester where he became a prominent veterinary surgeon.

E. O. Rogers, as he was always booked, had a flare for jewelry and was known to wear a very large diamond breast pin…only to be out shone by one of his minstrel players, “Hi Henry”, whose pin was described as illumining “the hall more than half a dozen or so kerosene lamps”.

As a young man, E. O. Rogers came back from the Civil War and immediately began his stage career.  By 1869 he was a variety performer headlining his own troupe with vocalist, Kate Tilston; comedian Mr. Fielding; Miss Susie Starr, whose specialty was a “Greek dance”;  Mr. E. F. Gorman, flutina soloist;Miss Maude Grinnell, actress;  Mr. J. M. Murray and Miss Nellie Clifford.  Called the Rogers Combination Company they were advertised as the most complete variety troupe ever brought together with a combination of five distinct companies -presenting dramatic, burlesque, pantomime, terpsichorean, Ethiopian and musical features.

Auburn and vicinity welcomed many of  his earliest shows.  The E. O. Rogers Pavillion show performed in Moravia in the summer of 1879.

In 1882 while his cousin was beginning his entertainment career opening billiard parlors and eating establishments, Edgar was the manager of a Havana NY Journal 17 Jun 1882 E O Rogers Uncle Toms Cabincomplete theatrical company taking “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” on the road…

laden with canvas of Mr. Roger’s Pavillion Opera House which he erects in every place where the show is given.  It is the most complete affair of its kind ever carried about by a traveling organization.  It included a large and commodious state, twenty-three complete sets of scenery, folding opera chairs for parquet and dress circle.  The stage has an area of 1600 square feet and the pavilion has a seating capacity of 2, 200.  The company consists of thirty-six artists.  Music is furnished by Professor Morey’s brass and string orchestra.

Never missing an opportunity to astound and thrill, the troupe of performers entered each town with a street parade featuring two uniformed brass bands, “white and colored.”

Investing in a large farm in Friendship, Alleghany, NY in 1885, Edgar and Lillie established a summer home where they could find respite from life on the road and ‘the canvas theater’.

With the flamboyant moniker of The E. O. Rogers Mammoth Double Uncle Tom Cabin’s Troupe, his retinue played to a full house at Nye’s Opera House in Auburn in February 1887 and again at Genoa’s Academy Hall.

The village of Cayuga welcomed their favorite son when he brought the E. O. Rogers Pavillion Opera Company presenting “Ten Nights in A Bar Room” under the big tent in July of 1888.  Company members (Professor) C.  J. Morey and W. B. Waterman registered at the Titus House belonging to  Edgar’s uncle,  David Sands Titus.

With his wife, Lillie Crider Rogers, who played Topsy to his Simon LeGree, Edgar and his entourage traveled throughout New York state, Pennsylvania and New Jersey to “Standing Room Only” crowds of enthusiastic fans as late as 1889.

The Roar of the Crowd

Belmont NY Weekly Dispatch 22 Apr 1890 E O Rogers Circus AdIn 1890 the flamboyant showman was not satisfied with the throngs and financial success that “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” garnered and decided a menagerie would be his next great venture.  Giraffes, elephants…”Ladies and Gentlemen…from the far corners of the world, I bring you…” kind of entertainment.    E. O. felt the need for something new to excite the audience.   For decades he and his accomplished troupe of stage performers had been one of the most successful companies in New York State.    On his new farm in East Hill in Friendship, New York, $8, 000 worth of circus animals were prepared for his latest venture.  A circus.   The animals had been  purchased from the holdings of the late Adam Forepaugh who died in Philadelphia in January of 1890 during the flu epidemic .   Forepaugh and P. T. Barnum had the two largest circuses in the nation, were bitter rivals and E. O. Rogers was ready to give old P. T. some stiff competition.

Elephants and camels were ‘prowling around” the farm joining the ‘terrors’ of the local neighbors…the Rogers family bloodhounds.  Despite the “-ugh” commentary in the Belmont, NY Dispatch, they politely wished Mr. Rogers a prosperous business.

Within months, he and Lillie who had been childless, adopted one year old Sarah Richardson from a Rochester orphanage and renamed her Edna Rogers.  Lillie’s twice widowed mother,  Emily Hess,  moved in with the Rogers and life was good.

Unlike his troupe of human performers, transporting the animals,  training them, caring for them was a bigger task than he had imagined.  And the human performers…were a different breed entirely.  He had heavily invested in his new enterprise confident in his ability to draw crowds.  But the competition was quickly becoming thick and he was out of his element.  Now in their forties and with a new daughter to consider, the Rogers found themselves struggling.    Expenses were terrific and the environs of  a circus brought a rougher side to their lives.

And gambling.  In 1891 during his Great Inter-state show,  circus and menagerie booking in Cattaraugus county New York, he was arrested for conducting a three-monte swindle in connection with the show “whereby one man lost $250.  Rogers readily settled the matter by back the money with $15 costs added.”  Things were going from bad to worse.

Running out of money and not getting any younger, the Rogers decided to go back to what they knew best.  Acting.  By 1897 E. O. Rogers had been booked quickly as a popular orator and promoting him as of “Uncle Newark NY Union Sat Jan 9 1897 Edgar O Rogers Sherman Opera House LectureTom’s Cabin fame’ and ‘veteran circus man’ .  He  gave illustrated lectures  on Sunshine Shadows of a Great City” and  “The War of the Union” and exhibited pictures with Edison’s kinematograph.

Trouble followed Edgar in the form of Rochester laborer Charles John.  When little Edna came home in late summer of 1898 and reported that she had been ‘interfered with’ and pointed out Mr. John as her molester, the enraged father rushed to the site where the man was working a short distance from the Rogers’ home and beat him badly enough to require a physician.  Edgar was arrested and put on trial.  Evidence of Mr. John’s proclivities were brought about by testimony of others in the neighborhood whose children had similar complaints.   After a short deliberation, Edgar was pronounced not guilty and he returned home to the arms of his family.

An 1899 newspaper report in the Bolivar New York “Breeze” reported.

E. O. Rogers, formerly of Friendship is now proprietor of an Uncle Tom show.  Rogers once made $60, 000 with an Uncle Tom show.  Then he got stylish and put his money into a circus that bankrupted him.  He is making money.

The Final Curtain

His beloved Lillie, known as the greatest Topsy for her role in “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”, was stricken in her dressing room before a performance of Edgar’s acclaimed play “A Dash For Freedom” in 1903.  Her husband carried on his role on stage and the audience knew nothing of the tragedy unfolding back stage.  She died days later in their hotel room in Friendship.

Edna,  then 13 years old, lived with her maternal grandmother in Williamson, NY and Edgar went on with the show.  Westfield NY 1 Nov 1905 E O Rogers Stock Co Ad

The new company, Rogers Dramatic Company later The E. O. Rogers Stock Company, toured the northeast performing their old standard “Ten Nights In A Bar”, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”.  The trades were picking up on his activity back on the boards with great enthusiasm in 1905 reporting a repertory which included his own play “A Dash For Freedom” and characterizing him and his performance as “the author, manager and leading man, is receiving much praise for his clever acting.”

As late as 1907 he was promoting himself  in the New York Dramatic Mirror from his mother-in-law’s Williamson home.


At Liberty after Oct. 15

For old men – height 5 feet 11 – weight 190 -wardrobe-experience-ability-good habits-one play preferred.

He was 57 years old.

In three years he would be dead, destitute, but not forgotten.   The vain and glorious young man who trod the board with the beautiful Lillie, wore diamond stick pins, fascinated crowds near and far, dreamed the wildest dreams ,  took his final curtain call at the Old Soldier’s Home in Bath, New York.

Deborah Martin-Plugh

Author, Historian and Genealogical Researcher

(c) Copyright 2013.  All Rights Reserved


Author’s Note:   My great grandfather, like his cousin, dreamed amazing dreams and found himself without his theater and his family.  

Notes From the Field: Not Enough Sense to Come In Out of the Rain

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.

May 30, 2013 Storm Damage at Lakeview Cemetery

May 30, 2013 Storm Damage at Lakeview 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 IMG_0547Corps…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.


Naturalization Testimonial Francis Curry 1856A 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 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 IMG_0663soaring 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.

May 30, 2013 Storm Damage LakeView Cemetery south

May 30, 2013 Storm Damage LakeView Cemetery south

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.

Deborah Martin-Plugh

Author, Historian and Genealogical Researcher

(c) Copyright 2013.  All Rights Reserved


A Note to My Readers:  Pretty much everyone should know by now that I am an old newspaper junkie. Anywhere that I can find them…I load the microfiche…log in to the digital files…whatever and wherever I can find them…I am like a pig in mud.   In fact, there have been a number of times that I have been transfixed for so many hours that I find that I have forgotten to eat or drink.  Getting up to stretch reminds me with every creak and ache that I need someone to babysit me lest I become frozen in my trance.  I like to think that with this rather benign guilty vice that I am not in too much danger of the need for rehab.  Maybe I might just need to get new glasses or apply a mist of Visine for my tired eyes…and perhaps I require a reminder to put a sandwich and glass of iced tea by my side before I begin to read.  Or an alarm clock to break the spell and to remind me to move.  Is there Pilates for Genealogists?

All of that aside, I do a great deal of research perusing military documents and land records…estate files…resplendent with legalese and their own special syntax.  That takes surgical concentration.   But not newspapers…there is a lyricism to the prose of yesteryear’s print media.  A folksiness that draws me in and transports me back in time.  Irresistible.  Magical.  And so close to sitting at an elder’s knee listening to stories of his youth…and the tales that were told about the canals…the trains…the crazy uncle…the year the crops failed…the time father came home with a new horse.   Something about the tang of the language, too.  It was sentimental and carefully constructed for polite society on one hand…and on the other…just as salacious and gossipy as today’s tabloids.  Don’t get me started on the advertising.   I love it all.

So when I am researching and finding the slimmest of proper documentation, I go straight to the old newspapers.  Forensic scientist, Dr. Edmond Focard, once said, “Every contact leaves a trace.”   It’s not such a far leap to think historians must be forensic scientists.  I have found more forensic evidence in newspapers than any other source.  And so it was researching my maternal great great grandfather, Henry Eugene Curtis.

It’s All Relative

Henry Eugene Curtis was born in 1825 in South Livonia, Livingston county, New York where his father, David, was superintendent of the County farm of Livingston.  In 1832, by the time Henry was seven, David was dead and his mother, Sophia Greene Curtis, had possession of their farmlands in Genoa, Cayuga County.  Sophia and her children, Levi, Edwin David, Henry Eugene and little Alexina put down roots in Cayuga County.  After Sophia’s death in 1848, with the exception of Edwin her children left the farm to strike out on their own.

Edwin carried on with the family farm in Genoa and like his father, he only lived to his mid thirties.  His first wife, Calysta Geer bore him two children, David Coleman Curtis and Calfernia “Callie” Curtis.   David moved on to Minnesota where he and his wife, Fanny Conklin raised a large family.   He left quite a footprint during his life and I was delighted to find living descendants to share the research on his family.   Callie was twice married, but had no children of her own.  She was a challenge…like many females of the past who bore no children.  Her first name, Calfernia, should have been Forensic 101.  Should have, but was definitely not.  That was another ‘newspaper trace’ marathon following Callie from Genoa to Auburn, New York -all through family news in the social sections of the newspapers of the day.  David’s second wife, Susan Bodine Vandermark, bore one child,  George Edwin Curtis.  George’s descendants live in the Genoa area to this day and once again…newspaper articles moved me from the mid 1800’s through to current day.

Brothers Levi and Henry followed the lure of making money along the Chemung Canal system.  The brothers owned grocery stores in Havana and Watkins Glen that served the barges and steamboats as they made their way along the Chemung Canal system and the Seneca-Cayuga Canal system…all part of the complex waterways that fed into the Erie Canal itself.  By 1860 Levi was running a hotel in Alleghany County and Henry was his own man in Watkins Glen.  It wasn’t long before the Civil War swept up Levi and he enlisted in the 5th Calvary, Company F in New York State.  Levi returned home to Caneadea in 1863 with the rank of Captain after being wounded in battle and as a result, discharged.  He and his wife, Lurana Elsworth, followed their only child, Charlotte “Lottie” and her husband, Edwin Trump to Fenton, Michigan where Levi and Lurana lived out their days doting on their only grandchild, Minnie Lurana Trump.  Levi left more than a trace.  He was a hero of the Civil War and his history was celebrated in his adopted state of Michigan.  I knew more about Levi than I did about my great great grandfather at one point.

Alexina married Livonia resident John Landis Van Sickle and had three children: Sophia E., Ella Curtis and James Hixon Van Sickle.  The Van Sickles were prominent citizens of Livonia and stayed close with the descendants of their ancestral grandmother, Sophia Greene Curtis.   The newspapers are filled with interesting stories of their gatherings and reminiscences of the ‘old days’ of Livonia. My favorite is the derring-do of the winter sledding of the boys in Livonia.  The descendants of James Hixon Van Sickle are celebrated for their accomplishments in publications and have a nice, neat trail to follow.

The Big Pink Granite Obelisk

Curtis Monument Full 2One fine May day I stood before the monument rising high in Lakeview Cemetery situated above Cayuga Lake in the Village of Cayuga.  The breeze from the lake was at my back and the sun struggled to find me through the high pines as I considered the inscriptions.  It was the most concrete…or should I say marble…thing I knew about Henry Eugene Curtis at that time.  Other than he was my great grandfather’s father.  I set to conquering the basics…following the census material and found that was as good as it gets at that point.  Meantime, I posted to my blog…pieces about my great grandfather- Henry’s son, George Downing Curtis.  And another about one of George’s grandnieces and her runaway husband.  I was leaving traces this time…in hopes that a descendant of Henry’s would find me and share the Sherlock Holmes effort with me.  Forensic science is a two way street and I was in sore need of a Dr. Watson.

I kept digging…checking anything in Schuyler, Livingston and Cayuga counties…anything to tell me about Henry.  I found bits and pieces of information and continued the process of building the profile…bland, but better than nothing.  And then a couple of years ago I was contacted by another descendant of Henry and Susan Curtis and the game was afoot.  Sort of.  Marj had read my blog posts and had wonderful old portraits of Henry and Susannah Downing Curtis, but not much more in the way of information.   That was my bailiwick.  And my impetus to keep checking.  New information is available all of the time and Henry Eugene Curtis’ great great granddaughter is no quitter!

Be Patient, Grasshopper

Finding new sources is a must…there are always new places to look and learn.  That said, going back to old sources…rereading old material and discovering updated materials is simply oxygen.  Besides…I love reading old newspapers, remember?  Any new publications out there?   Has Tom Tryniski at been busy again…finding publications from Schuyler county?  How about or  Time to check back.

In just a short span of time…through the magic of newspapers (The Watkins Express on…I have learned so Watkins NY Express Thu 3 Mar 1864 H E Curtis expands hotel congratsmuch about my great great grandfather, Henry Eugene Curtis.  The first mention of him is as a grocer in 1853 in Watkins Glen. Henry was entrepreneurial and the canal systems offered a young man with ambition a plethora of opportunity. I know his hotel-The Curtis Hotel- stood on Franklin and Warren Streets in Watkins Glen with an attached ‘saloon’ where he served warm meals…including oysters…” in every form”…’at all hours’. He had a liquor license and was known by all as a “whole- souled man, big-hearted man” and most affable host. He was only 41 years old when he died and had suffered from an unnamed illness for quite a long time. During the last year or so of his life, he tried to sell the hotel, but finally ended up leasing it to a young man who had initiative of his own.

I learned that Henry was first buried in Watkins Glen in 1866 and 28 years later my great grandfather’s brother had Henry’s remains disinterred and brought to the lakeside cemetery in the little village of Cayuga where they had just buried their mother, Susannah.  To the layman…this may seem a paltry bit of information, but to the historian it defines a life that had up until now had only been a smattering of dates, a census enumeration and an 1864 liquor license roll and the presence of a pink granite obelisk at the rise of a hill above the lake.

And now the road trip!   After a brief phone call followed by a couple of emails to Andrew Tompkins of the Schuyler County Historical Society, I have a foundation of information to take with me to Montour Falls and perhaps to find more about the Curtis Hotel…or the Canal Grocery Store…and the life of Henry Eugene Curtis along the Chemung Canal.  It is always encouraging to speak with someone who has innate enthusiasm for someone’s quest for local history and I certainly felt that with the brief conversation we had this afternoon.  If nothing else, it will be a good day to explore Watkins Glen and learn the background history of the area.  Perhaps there is a hotel where they serve warm meals…including oysters in every form.

Deborah Martin-Plugh

Author, Historian and Genealogical Researcher

(c) Copyright 2013.  All Rights Reserved


Just the facts, Ma’am. Who is Uncle Chickafer?

To My Readers:  In my childhood days in the 1950’s  television was in black and white and there were three stations…all plagued by snow and flipping images unless, of course,  a flag of tinfoil merrily decorated the rabbit ears.  One of my favorite programs was “Dragnet”.  I never missed it and when it returned again years later, I was one happy camper.   I should have known I had a detective’s spirit and frame of mind by the nature of my viewing choices.   I could have just as easily loved “December Bride”.   I need a mystery to solve and that’s that.  

As an historian and genealogist, mysteries are the stuff of my dreams and the whipped cream on top of my homemade apple pie.  Sergeant Joe Friday was a no nonsense detective who relentlessly and stiffly pursued the facts…kept the interviewees in line with “the facts” and had his perp neatly in handcuffs at the end of the half hour.   Unlike the sergeant…I run amok now and then.  I suspect I have been more than a bit influenced by the playful nature of his partners as well -especially Harry Morgan’s Bill Gannon.  And thank goodness…because humor gets us through the worst brick wall frustration.  Along with a little apple pie with whipped cream.

Finding Uncle Chickafer

I recently connected with a long lost second cousin and we began sharing knowledge of our great grandparents, George Downing Curtis and Kate C. Curry Curtis. His grandmother, Jennie was my maternal grandmother’s sister.  I did not know my grandmother as she had died eleven days before I was born.  As a family historian that plagues me more often than not.   We all complain about never asking questions or listening intently to the stories of our elders.  Jeff’s grandmother lived until 1960 so she had time to share memories of her life and family with her grandson and now through Jeff I have the pleasure of knowing them in a more intimate fashion.  Along with the new facts,  a new mystery arose.

In the course of our emailing one another, Jeff asked me if the name “Uncle Chickafer” rang a bell. Uncle Chickafer evidently was a quirky old guy and liked to eat his dessert first. “Best part of the meal.” I do dig in and find the darndest things…part tenacity…part luck…and part finely honed research skills. But luck sometimes is everything. Or nothing. After all, I had to identify an old guy whose nickname was Chickafer and who put apple pie before roast beef. Oh goodie…let’s see if THAT is in a census…or a directory…or a draft registration.  But I am a Joe Friday devotee and an apple pie lovin’ gal, so I went to my old standby….reading vintage newspapers since so many times I had found personal information of all kinds there. I mean how much more ‘boolean’ can you get than “Chickafer”?

The Suspects

Frank J. Curry Jr.

With our great grandparent’s family group data in front of me, I focused on my great grandmother’s brothers, Eugene and Frank, Jr.   Frank seemed likely…he was a loner of sorts…married briefly and had disappeared for a number of years at the turn of the last century after leaving the family farm in Montezuma and enlisting in the army and shipping out the Philippines. Newspaper Auburn NY Daily Bulletin 1899 Frank Jr enlists and goes to Manila

He was nowhere to be found after the 1899 article about his sudden departure to Manila until he showed up in the 1910 Federal census working in Rochester, New York at his sister Kate Curtis’ business…The Strand Theater.  Frank married a younger woman in Rochester in 1913.  He is not showing up in the subsequent census or a city directory…and then he is alone again…working for the City of Rochester in 1930.   In 1940 and seventy years old he is living at 274 Smith Street in a rooming house…just a short distance from where The Strand stood on St. Paul.

He outlived his siblings…an old bachelor who had probably developed peculiar habits that suited him just fine.

Perhaps Frank Jr. learned to eat dessert first when forced to eat Army chow.  Could he be Uncle Chickafer? Could be.

Henry Eugene Curry

So let’s see…how about Eugene…Henry Eugene to be precise. He worked for my great grandparents managing their first billiard parlor in Ithaca in the late 1880’s and then after a bit of uncertain employment became a railroad man. By 1896 he was in Attica and moving to Rochester leaving his job as a master cook for the Rome & Watertown railroad depot and taking up the position of Baggage Master (cartman) for the Rome & Watertown railroad depot in Rochester. From that time on Henry Eugene Curry lived and worked in Rochester until his death in 1923.  Maybe HE made great apple pie and developed a dessert first philosophy.

Unlike his brother Frank, Eugene had a somewhat bigger ‘footprint’ as far as research information goes.   But not the sort that hollers “Hey…Uncle Chicafer, here!”

And it sure was a sweet sidebar in an otherwise ‘normal’ meat and potatoes life.  Sorry for all of the food puns…I skipped lunch to write today.
In 1907 Eugene was a prosecution witness at the Schultz murder trial in Rochester as recounted in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle of March 13, 1907.

“Eugene Curry, baggage master of the Rome, Watertown & Ogdensburg, who lives at the Rollian house, testified that he knew three men were lodging in the house, but never saw them. Mr. Curry is the man whom Officer Vaughn named as the one who informed him of the presence of the defendants in the Big B place house the morning of the arrest. The witness said he heard nothing of the men the night before the homicide or any other time. A light left burning in the hall at night and turned out by the last person to enter was out at 5 o’clock the morning of the homicide when the witness came down stairs.”

Rochester Democrat and Chronicle Wed 6 March 1907 Trial EvidenceThe 1907 “Shultz murder” trial involved the crimes of bank robbery and the murder of the night watchman, a Mr. Pullman of Sodus in Wayne county. The three perpetrators…Big Ed Kelly, Jim McCormick and Fred Shultz…also known as the Lake Shore Gang… fled the scene by stealing a horse and “cutter” (a sleigh) and were arrested after being cornered in their room at the Rollian boarding home…guns and knives were found hidden in the couch of the Big B Place boarding house including the weapon owned by the murder victim. McCormick and Shultz squeezed out a window, but were quickly caught.   Blankets from the cutter were found in the room…covered with hair from the stolen horse. The horse’s owner shared that it had to be hair from his horse…it always shed when it was nervous.  Take THAT defense team!

The trio were shivering, wet and cold and scantily clothed when they were apprehended.  They all had frozen toes from fleeing the crime scene. Big Ed Kelly was known nationally as a dangerous criminal and eventually the Pinkertons became involved in the investigation because it was a “railroad crime”. The trial was a fascinating tangle of witnesses and forensic evidence and for awhile Rochester was abuzz with the flamboyant nature of the case.

Eugene and his wife, Josephine lived at No. 2 Big B Place-the boarding home of Mr and Mrs. Fred (Florence) Rollian-a modest boarding place for teamsters and railroad workers. Testimony in the trial characterized Mrs. Rollian as a ‘crazy woman’ who had developed some sort of odd and delusional attachment to one of the defendants thinking he was her long lost brother.

The Currys had lived there for at least two years…it was a short walk to the depot and convenient and the Rollians, transplanted French Canadians,  seemed to be a nice little family.  It all was an ideal situation…until Big Ed and his boys turned the place into a major crime scene…and Mrs. Rollian had her ‘spell’.   By 1910 Eugene and Josephine were at their own modest home on 28 Scrantom Street where they lived until Eugene’s death in 1923.  I suspect the year long murder drama prompted the Currys to leave the now notorious boarding house at No. 2 Big B Place for the security of their own walls and free of fellow boarders who rob tiny country banks and murder railroad night watchmen.

Unlike their highly visible, business savvy, successful and influential sister, Frank and Eugene did not seem to break out of any work-a-day life…if you don’t count the sudden bolt to the Phillippines in 1899 or finding himself in the midst of a contentious murder trial simply by living in the wrong place at the wrong time.  The aging Curry brothers found a groove…near their sister in Rochester and that was that.   But not one hint as to an unusual nickname or a propensity to dessert first.

So WHO was I looking for?

Oh…Uncle Chickafer!  Guess what…I spent the morning reading the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle and a myriad of other newspapers following the crime and trial of Big Ed Kelly, Jim McCormick and Fred Shultz.

Today we are obsessed with forensics as a result of the O.J. Simpson trial, but the folks in 1907 were, too. Testimony involved a dizzying amount of circumstantial evidence…along with horsehair on the perp’s clothing and blankets…matching bullets…witness testimony and accusations that the railroad detectives…the Pinkertons…pressured ‘crazy’ Mrs. Rollian…Eugene’s landlady…to lie on the stand. I was riveted!

I didn’t find slam dunk proof of the identity of Uncle Chickafer….but I did read some humdinger background on Henry Eugene Curry’s witness account.

And I am pretty sure Uncle Chickafer is NOT Big Ed Kelly…..

Deborah Martin-Plugh

Author, Historian and Genealogical Researcher

(c) Copyright 2013.  All Rights Reserved

Family Secrets. What the Directories Told.

A Note to My Readers:  A number of fellow researchers have asked lately…any family secrets?  “Oh, well, how many days have you got?”, I replied.    My mother’s mother was an enigma to me.  She died eleven days before I was born.  And my mother loved her so terribly much that even as a child, I knew how deeply she felt by the emotion in her voice as she spoke of her mother.  What was behind the tender pity and the purposeful incompleteness of my grandmother’s history.  And what did I learn years later as I used records to piece together her life…and death?

Florence Leora Curtis Purdy

Daughter of George Downing Curtis,  a entertainment mogul…a flashy, flamboyant rogue and his petite and savvy wife, Kate C. Curry Curtis.

Florence was born in 1883 in Port Byron, New York…in the days when her father began his career. George owned a billiard parlor and “eating establishment” in 1881.  At the time it was a hot spot for travelers along the Erie Canal system and it wasn’t long before George made enough money to take his family to Canandaigua where he expanded his business dealings owning a market and ice house.   He had a failure or two along the way…went bankrupt and Kate took control of the family’s finances.  She gave George an allowance and kept tight control on his activities.  He was a drinker, a gambler and a ladies’ man, but he had the gift of making money as much as losing it.   When the Curtis’ landed in Ithaca, George once again had a billiard parlor and eating establishment.  A men’s clothing store, Slocum & Co. came up for sale and George purchased it with cash.  He was booking entertainment in the theater he rented…recruiting in the trade papers in New York City.  George rode the trains, pockets full of cash doled out by Kate and went from town to town booking theaters…along with some gambling and drinking and dallying.   Eventually he opened one of the first moving picture theaters in Ithaca in the old Cornell Public Library building.    Life with George guaranteed excitement…but of the kind that a young girl turning 15 found unpleasant enough to elope with the handsome 23 year old, flawed young man who worked in her father’s men’s clothing shop.

My mother spoke of my grandmother as a raven-haired beauty with an eighteen inch waist when she married my grandfather.  I sensed my mother’s story-telling left out a painful reality of her family life as she almost exclusively spoke of her parents in terms of their physical beauty.  I knew “Mama” as a tragic heroine…by tone mostly, but by the fact that she lost two children and that “her hair turned white overnight” when her nine year old, Ruth was crushed to death by an out-of-control automobile.   And she made the best lemon meringue pies.  “Papa” was a “tailor’s dummy”-my mother’s term- who wore only the best hand tailored clothes and derby hats despite the family’s ongoing money struggles.  Neither Florence nor Burt’s parents’ wealth spared the couple from a life of severe financial ups and downs.  In 1908 Burt was given the Curtis theater interest in Ithaca…which he promptly sold for a tidy sum…and ten years later went bankrupt.  He sold men’s clothing and  during World War I, worked at Thomas-Morse aircraft making and painting airplane frames. After the war, he managed another clothing store in Ithaca and spent the latter part of his life as a house painter.    The Purdys never owned a home.  In fact when others in their generation with much less resources were upwardly mobile, they were curiously immobilized.  So many of their family members went to Cornell…my grandmother’s brother graduated as an engineer and the ladies played piano and held teas.  Grandma Smith’s niece, Libbie Van Dorn was a genteel and educated young lady…gracing her aunt’s parlor with teas and young gentleman callers and piano recitals.

The more I learned, the more questions I had.  It was as much a personal, psychological and spiritual journey of discovery as it was a genealogical one.

I had been piecing together the tapestry of my mother’s family cobbled with my mother’s brief bits of sentiment, the family bible that belonged to Grandma Smith, census records up to 1930 and newspaper articles.  I had only known that my grandfather had gone into a nursing home on Geneva Street and my grandmother lived on her own and had a gentleman friend in her later years.  Burt had developed thrombosis…from climbing up and down ladders painting the big houses in Ithaca according to my uncle.  Though he outlived my grandmother and died when I was three, I only remember standing in front of the nursing home waving to a darkened window…that was grandfather to me….a darkened window with the reflection of sunlit leaves from the Dutch elms that lined the street.

What the Directories Told

And then the Ithaca city directories became available for research online via the Tompkins County library.  Up to that point I had no idea that Burt and Florence had parted ways as man and wife long before his residence as a nursing home patient.    By 1932 Burt lived with his eighty-four year old mother, Elizabeth A. Williams Purdy Smith on 307 Eddy Street.  Grandma Smith had dominated Burt’s life…and Florence’s…never approving of their marriage…and taking their first born, Elizabeth to raise as her own.  I guess that made three children lost to Florence.  My mother did leave a note on a legal yellow pad that was tucked in her bedside table at the time of her death.

“Papa was a spoiled young man.  Spoiled by his mother.”

Florence was on her own living at 401 North Aurora Street working as a “domestic”.   After 33 years of marriage and six children, 49 year old Florence took her 13 year old son, Bill and walked away.  Or perhaps Burt simply went home to his mother and Florence refused to go.

Meanwhile her sisters and her brother had lovely homes in Rochester and Philadelphia…traveled and enjoyed an active social Rochester NY Daily Record Thu 14 Nov 1940 Florence L Purdy lawsuit against siblingslife and a very close relationship with one another.   The Curtis estate was worth a tidy sum.  Florence cleaned other people’s houses.  In 1940 she rose up and sued her siblings when they entered into a lease agreement with a large entertainment group.   The dispute seems to imply her siblings made a deal to lease the theater which included their interest…and hers…for less than it was worth and then receiving stock in the leasing company of  H. G. Carroll.  Florence had been shut out.  But then I don’t see any more reference to it in Rochester newspapers.  Perhaps Florence was given a settlement.    Which may explain why on earth our mother never told us of her aunts and uncles.  Had Florence and her siblings struggled with one another about family money in the past?  They were certainly given the responsibility of managing the estate interests over the years. Florence was managing her life with Burt and her children in the meantime.  The fact that George and Kate had provided Burt with the gift of the initial theater interest in Ithaca…and employment as well in the early years and it went nowhere, may explain much about the later family dynamic. Did that create a gap…or widen one already present?

Burt was listed as living with his mother in the 1934 Ithaca City Directory and Florence was living on South Aurora.  So I was pretty sure that was that.   During that time, my grandmother had learned to drive.  She bought a Ford coupe and would visit my mother often.  My brothers said she had a boyfriend whose name was Ducky Drake. It occurred to me that I should search the directories to see if she and Ducky shared an address.   What the heck, I wasn’t going to be shocked now. The obvious problem is that no self respecting man was going to be listed in the directory as “Ducky Drake.”

I found “Ducky”…Deforest Gaylord Drake and started tracking him and eventually found my grandmother living with him…listed as his wife, Florence L. Drake, in the Ithaca Directory in 1940 on 202 Dey Street.  But nothing in the 1940 census for her…until I decided to dig in and find Deforest Gaylord Drake.  There they were…still on Dey Street and she was listed as his wife, Louise…which explains why my mother thought her mother’s middle name was Louise and why Florence L. Purdy did not show up in the search.   I had been searching for my maternal grandmother’s listing as Florence Purdy in the 1940 census for months.  I never considered my timid grandmother would ‘live with a man’ and call herself “Mrs.” to boot.  And “Ducky”…well….

Another phone directory in 1942 has her still working as a housekeeper and living as Mrs. Florence Drake on  310 Farm Street.  Ducky was not listed in the directory at all in 1942…could have been in service during WWII.   In 1944 I found them again living on South Meadow Street.  She was not listed as his wife, but as Florence L. Purdy.  So I could keep the term boyfriend intact.  My grandmother did not divorce my grandfather or remarry.  She simply…ah…what’s the modern day term…oh yeah…cohabitated.

What is very interesting is that Ducky was the same age as  her eldest daughter, Elizabeth…born around 1901.  My grandmother was a ‘cougar’!  She was almost 15 years old than Ducky.   As my cousin, Chris said, when I revealed my findings….”Go Grandma”.

Bert Florence Katherine Ruth tombstoneAnd that brings us to the Purdy burial plots…there they lie…side by side…Burt Purdy and his wife Florence with their two young daughters, Kathryn and Ruth in a beautiful, serene family plot anchored with a huge granite stone and overlooking Cayuga Lake.  I suppose that was the last thing that bound the two together.  For eternity.

The directories and a bit of interviewing my brothers who knew my grandmother provided the last bit of information about my grandmother.   I certainly know she suffered struggles with her family and she was a bit of a loner after her children were grown…driving the little coupe around Ithaca…sitting by the streams in the shade while Ducky fished…indulging in French lingerie which she proudly showed off to my mother.  She let her grandsons climb in the front seat of the coupe warning “Don’t meddle, dolly,” when they reached out to tweak the dashboard knobs.   Florence was crippled with arthritis and rarely left the coupe.   My mother would bring them each an iced tea and sit in the cab of the car that was parked under a tree in the driveway and visit for long afternoons.  But she had Ducky and she had enough chutzpah to face down her siblings for her share of her parent’s estate…which appears she did not get by the way.  The deal was business savvy and complete.  But in an uncharacteristic flash of ego, she fought anyway.  What was that?  And there was the French lace fetish.  And her beloved, shiny black Coupe that sat in my parents’ garage for years after her death.

I think I would have liked my grandmother very much.  And the rest of her secrets will remain hers.

Deborah Martin-Plugh

Author, Historian and Genealogical Researcher

(c) Copyright 2013.  All Rights Reserved


Obadiah’s Grandsons

A Note to My Readers: Genealogists call it a brick wall…that ancestor who seems to have disappeared into the ages.   We all have a number of them tucked away for a fresh start at detective work -waiting for new sources to come available or playing on a new found research skill. There is no rhyme nor reason about why I choose which brick wall gets my attention.  Sometimes it is could be a simple as re-reading an old document that I had worked with a year or more ago.  A detail that has always been there failed to register as a clue and with a fresh and wiser mind, the detail becomes the clue that solves they mystery.  And the brick wall falls.

Obadiah J. Downing, the Quaker Gentleman of Dutchess and Cayuga Counties

On a 2011 research trip to Cayuga County New York I found the probate records for the estate of my great great great grandfather, Obadiah J. Downing, at the Cayuga County Records Department.  I had the framework details for his life from various historical resources including the Quaker records at Swarthmore Friends Historical Library in Pennsylvania.  The probate records of the estate of Obadiah J. Downing filled in those framework details with a richness beyond my wildest expectations.

Obadiah was born in northern Dutchess County, New York, the son of Quaker parents, Coe Searing Downing and Susannah Wright.  The Downings had migrated from Long Island and settled in Dutchess County where they were members of the Bulls Head – Oswego Meeting.   On November 14, 1827 Obadiah was joined in marriage to Lydia H. Titus, daughter of Gilbert Titus and Ann Hoag at the Bulls Head Meeting House.  Their marriage was recorded in the Bulls Head – Oswego Meeting Minutes.

Bulls Head Meeting House Photo circa 1960

Obadiah purchased land in Aurelius, Cayuga County in the mid 1820’s. On September 17, 1828, 18 year old  Lydia Downing was granted a certificate to transfer her membership from Bulls Head to the Scipio Meeting located along the eastern shores of Cayuga Lake.  In 1829 Obadiah and  a very pregnant Lydia packed up their worldly goods traveled the newly built Erie Canal system to the village of Cayuga where they set up household at the foot of the lake.  They were accompanied by his brother-in-law, David Sands Titus, David’s wife, Julia Ann Coapman,  and two year old son, Hiram and their “slave”.    Though the man who accompanied David was called a slave in a local historian’s account, subsequent information revealed that he was a free man named, Nicholas Bogart. Mr. Bogart eventually became the coachman for Auburnian and Secretary of State William H. Seward and lived to be 91 years old. His obituary recounted his relationship with David Sands Titus and his migration with the family in the 1820’s.   David was an abolitionist and a lifelong friend of William H. Seward.

Shortly thereafter, the Downings were joined by Lydia’s parents, Gilbert and Ann and her older brother, Daniel D. Titus and sisters, Sarah and Phebe Howes Titus. Sarah would marry Francis Twining who operated one of the hotels and stores in the bustling community.  Phebe married Alexander Crissey in 1839 and after his death, widower Norman Durkee.  Phebe would outlive all of her siblings, dying at the age of 85 in Buffalo, New York.

Brotherhood, Politics and Entrepreneurship

Obadiah and David Sands Titus were fast friends and supported one another’s enterprises.  Indeed, the two young men were like brothers.  The village of Cayuga was alive and bustling with travelers and traders along the Erie Canal system during the early 1800’s.  Merchants, tradesmen, entrepreneurs and inventors flourished.  Politics, too, were a vibrant element in the community and David Sands Titus (now called the Major) owned one of the most prestigious and strategic hostelries along the lake.  David and Obadiah held political meetings at the Titus House and in October of 1831 organized a committee to support the election of Andrew Jackson.  When I read the list of committee members, the name of Alanson Tyler fairly jumped off the page.  Like Obadiah, he, too, is my great great great grandfather.  Obadiah’s grandson, George Downing Curtis, would marry Alanson Tyler’s granddaughter, Deborah Jane Tyler.

While her husband and brother were in the thick of business and politics, Lydia was occupied with her growing family, raising them in the Quaker tradition.  She tended the sheep, carded and spun the wool to use in her household and to sell in the marketplace.  The Downings were prosperous and held in high esteem by their fellow citizens.

The Great Montezuma Marsh

If life was full of opportunities in the late 1830’s, it was also full of challenges.  In springtime, roads were packed dirt that ran to deep mud that would suck the boots off of a grown man’s feet and hold fast the hooves of horses and wagon wheels.  Winters brought fierce winds that blew across the frozen lake and drove the snow into high drifts confounding horses and man alike and isolating all but the heartiest souls.  Summer was relentlessly humid and hot at that end of the lake.  The Great Montezuma Swamp, one of the largest wetland systems in the Northeast, sits at the foot of Cayuga Lake. Historians, travelers and adventurers alike wrote in their journals that the area was one of the most dangerous parts of the canal because of the mosquito-infested marsh.  Native American folklore tell of mosquitoes the size of eagles.   Close to 1000 Erie Canal workers died of malaria.  Typhoid was an ongoing scourge as well.

A native American legend is recounted in Florence Pharis McIntosh’s 1927 publication, “History of Cayuga”.

Another Indian Legend concerns a huge mosquito which infested the Cayuga- Montezuma Marshes, and prevented the hunting of game. So one day Ha-wen-ne-yu, the famous warrior, came upon the beast, pursued it, and chased it all around the Great Lakes and surrounding country, until he at last slew it in the neighborhood of Seneca River. “The blood flowing from his lifeless body gave birth to innumerable swarms of small mosquitoes which still linger about the place of his death.”

While the location of the village was a strategic point of travel and commerce,  it was a haven for mosquitoes and I believe that to be the cause for the premature death of 37 year old Obadiah J. Downing on October 24, 1839.

Probate Records Spanning Thirty Five Years

Obadiah was a man in his prime when he died and no doubt thought a will was for old men.  Whatever took him must have been quick and unexpected as he and David were men of business, responsibility and influence and Obadiah would not have left his wife and children without the benefit of a well constructed document.  Obadiah’s father, Coe, left a practical, handwritten will in 1830, filed in Poughkeepsie, New York.  Surely, his son, who was a husband and father would have seen the value in that.  But he was young and he had many years ahead to worry about that.  Or so he thought.

It fell upon the shoulders of his brother-in-law, David Sands Titus, the responsibility of administering Obadiah’s estate and the guardianship duties for the three daughters and infant son of his newly widowed sister.  After reading the practical and short wills of various ancestors over the years, the job of studying the 85 pages of probate papers that spanned the years of 1839 to 1874, the year of Lydia’s death, was to say the least, overwhelming.  It was full of the most incredible information.  The inventory list of household goods, the sheep, the wool, the bedding…solid silver spoons and plates…told me that the Downings were prosperous.  Lydia was “given” a specific lot of goods as Obadiah’s wife.  In early America, there were laws that prohibited married women from owning property.  If a husband did not leave a will, probate court would more often than not, put the value of the estate in trust for the children as happened with the estate of Obadiah Downing.  Lydia kept her bible and her household goods and her garments including a coat and a number of sheep, her inventory of wool and a loom.

Silver Spoon belonging to O J Downing

My fellow researcher and third cousin, Marj Deline,  who is also a direct descendant of Obadiah and Lydia, has the monogrammed silver spoons that served the Downing household.  It means so much that the spoons listed as Lydia’s are still in the family and are treasured.

The Downing Children

Though she referred to herself as Susan M. Downing Curtis, my great great grandmother was Susannah in the probate records of her father’s estate.  It seems likely that Obadiah and Lydia’s first born was named for Obadiah’s mother, Susannah Wright Downing.   Like many children, she sought her own identity and so it was Susan throughout her life…even to the inscription on the pink granite monument that sits above Cayuga Lake.  However, she was 10 year old Susannah in the probate papers of 1839.  Susannah to her mother.  And so she remains Susannah to me.

Susannah married Henry Eugene Curtis sometime around 1847.  The Curtises settled down next to her mother Lydia in the village of Cayuga.  Henry and his brother, Levi, owned stores and “saloons” and inns in Cayuga and Watkins Glenn.  Four children were born to the Curtises; Hellen “Nellie”, Henry Eugene, George Downing and Jennie L. Curtis.  Like her mother, Susannah was widowed in her thirties.

Mary Jane Downing Rogers was born in 1832 in the Village of Cayuga and though I found her name indexed online in “guardianship records” in Cayuga County, I had not yet gone to the Cayuga County Records department and found the 85 pages of her father’s estate papers.  She had not been in her mother’s home in the 1850 Federal census.   Mary Jane Downing was a brick wall until the spring of 2011.  More on Mary Jane later….

Daughter Phebe A. Downing Buckhout was born circa 1846.  She had married Edward Allen Buckhout and bore him two sons, Edward E. Buckhout and Herbert Obadiah Buckhout.  In the New York State Census of 1855 Phebe and Edward are living in Aurelius with their young sons.  In the 1860 Federal Census, I found Phebe and her sons living without Edward.  In the 1865 New York Census, Edward is found living with his father, William and his sons, Edward and Herbert.  I found no record of Phebe after 1860.  Edward remarried, but his sons were separately sent west to live with Buckhout family members. Both grandsons are mentioned in Lydia’s probate papers.  I have followed Herbert “Obie” Buckhout’s line to Minnesota and California.  Edward was in Nunica, Michigan when his grandmother, Lydia died in 1874.  I have not found him after that.   And what happened to the daughter of Obadiah J. Downing?  If she followed her mother’s Quaker faith, she might have been buried with Obadiah in the Old Friends Cemetery in Union Springs.  I suspect her mother, Lydia was as well.  Many of the tombstones that remain have worn inscriptions that are nearly impossible to read.  For a good number of the Quaker burials there were either markers of wood and long gone…or in the tradition of modesty…none at all.

George Henry Downing was born in October of 1939 within days of his father’s untimely death.  The fact that he was named George Henry strikes me as tribute to his father’s family as both names are first names of Obadiah’s brothers and a good number of forefathers as well.  As George was the only Downing son, he took on the role of man of the family…under the watchful care of his uncle David.  The Downing children were well provided for as the land holdings of Obadiah were of substantial value and their Uncle David was a man of means himself.   At the end of his mother’s life, George Henry oversaw the goods and wealth of his father’s estate.  The probate records of his mother’s estate and the guardianship records all clearly indicate that he was fulfilling his duty as Obadiah’s only son.  George was briefly married in his twenties though her name is not mentioned.  He married his second wife, Anna Mills circa 1870 and the couple had two daughters – Mary and Georgia Anna.  George ran his farm in Venice and died in 1929.  He and Anna and daughter Georgia Anna Hodge and her husband, Perry are buried in the East Venice Cemetery.  Georgia and Perry had one son, Leon Curtis Hodge who ran the family farm until he collapsed and died at the age of 47, leaving behind a two year old, daughter Elaine Ann.  Elaine Ann’s mother had died just months before and there is no record of Elaine after her father’s sudden death.

Which brings me back to Mary Jane Downing…..

In her mother’s probated estate papers, the reference to her was “Mary Jane (Rogers) from Rochester NY”.  That’s it. Easy, huh? Nope. I found one Mary J. Rogers in the 1880 federal census in Rochester…wife of George G, a veterinary surgeon. Well,  that should make it easy…that’s an impressive occupation in those days. Oh sure…lots of George material…directories, et al. The search into 1870, 1860 and 1850 in was an entire frustration…they were a no show despite all my Soundex search methodology. The search brought up every Rogers from everywhere BUT Rochester. On to…let’s read some Rochester newspapers. First result!…George’s obituary stated he came to Rochester from CAYUGA COUNTY in 1862. His burial was “at Cayuga”. OOO…a clue!

Rochester Democrat and Chronicle Tue 4 Mar 1890 George G Rogers Obit

On to to the Cayuga County site and to the burial records for the little lakeside cemetery in the village where Mary Jane’s sister (my gg grandmother, Susannah) is buried. Hello, George!…and there is Mary. Next to to check out the New York State censuses. The 1875 New York State census has a search option and there I found them in Rochester with both George and Mary J.’s birth county stated as CAYUGA. On to 1865 which requires you to know exactly what location in which to search…well Rochester, ok. YIKE…all those WARDS! In for a penny, page by page by page…ward by ward and hundreds of images later…there they were with their children! But he was Geo. G. Rogers which must have given the ancestry search option some kind of headache. At the end of all this that took me minutes to write…it took me hours of eyestrain and self sorting and reading to get this far. I forgot to eat…just one more search and I will get something……wait…one more… this time I really mean it….OMG when did it get dark outside?

With the discovery of the life of Mary Jane Downing Rogers, I began to learn about my great grandfather’s cousin, Edgar O. Rogers.  Edgar was in show business…like his cousin and my great grandfather, George Downing Curtis.  Failure didn’t seem to faze Edgar…he lost his “canvas show” in the mid 1880’s, but picked himself up, dusted himself off and opened another traveling show, booked himself as a lecturer and actor. He was a showman, an actor, a son and a husband…and a father. Edgar and his wife, Lillian toured New York State and Pennsylvania performing “Uncle’s Tom’s Cabin” and other classics of the time.  Edgar purchased a large farm in Friendship, New York and populated it with exotic animals.  He and Lillian summered there, performing the popular productions of the day.

I found adoption records in Rochester, New York for a little child, Sarah Richardson, age one, whom they renamed Edna Lillian. Edna would know the world of show business and have a prestigious education at Williamson School in Wayne County, New York. Her showy and flamboyant father will be in the headlines in 1898…not for his performance as an actor…but in the protection of his little daughter. “Cry Murder” caught my attention as Edgar had soundly beat a man who had attempted to “interfere” with little Edna and the frantic scene alarmed the neighborhood. The trial was swift. Edgar was exonerated as an “INDIGNANT FATHER.” When his dear wife, Lillie, died in 1903 after collapsing on stage during a performance at their summer theater in Friendship, NY, Edgar went on to raise Edna with the help of Lillie’s mother, Emma Hess. I found Edgar performing and lecturing in his elder years and promoting himself in the New York Mirror as ready and able to play old men with an ‘ample wardrobe’. Finally, Edgar faded away from the limelight and I found no more of him. I did find Edna had married post office clerk Charles M. Conroy and living in Manhattan with their daughter, Jean.

My great grandfather, George, also was a showman…owned restaurants and billiard parlors, ran vaudeville theaters and an early moving picture theater in Rochester, NY. He made and lost fortunes and found himself in the midst of an infamous, highly publicized trial in 1901.

Did the flamboyant grandsons of Obadiah and Lydia Downing from the little village of Cayuga know each other?  I wonder.

A word from the Author:  When I was first married, my husband and I with our infant son, Michael, moved to a historic home in the village of Cayuga that bore the name of “Tumble Inn” in 1971.  I had no idea at the time that I had moved into the little village that had been settled by my ancestors and that another of Obadiah’s grandsons would take his first steps 145 years later in the little village on the lake. 

I do remember the mosquitos…though modern efforts to diminish the biting beasties made a great difference in their population.  And I do recall the size of the spiders that would build webs in the shutters of our home…and the audible “dunk” of their bodies clinging on the webs spun across against the window panes.  Well fed by the throngs of mosquitos, no doubt.

Deborah Martin-Plugh

Author, Historian and Genealogical Researcher

(c) Copyright 2012.  All Rights Reserved

My Grandmother’s Face

A Note to My Readers: Periodically I think about just why I became a genealogy-history researcher.  Every once in awhile the answer comes across the centuries with such a resounding clarity, it shakes me to my core.  It is not an “Aha!” moment…the one we all know very well.  Not the triumph of solving a mystery.  No, it is one of those profound personal moments that answers THE question.  Once and for all.

Yesterday the answer arrived in an email.  My grandmother’s face.

Shape Shifter

I never knew my maternal grandmother.  I never sat on her lap.  I never held her hand.  I never looked into her face or heard her voice. I never ate her specialty, lemon meringue pie, made by her hand.   She died eleven days before I was born.

Despite the fact that my mother had boxes and boxes of photographs of family and friends that span over the decades, there were no pictures of my maternal grandmother, Florence Leora Curtis Purdy…or her mother, Kate Curry Curtis.  Mom is long gone and I never asked her why she had no picture of her mother or her maternal grandmother.  My maternal grandfathers both had formal portrait photographs.

I knew my grandmother solely through the reminiscences of my mother.

“Mama was so beautiful.  She had long, long black hair down to her waist and large, brown eyes. I can still see the gold flecks in her eyes.”  “Mama was just fifteen when she married Papa.  On her wedding day, she had an eighteen inch waist.”  “People would always turn to look at Mama, she was so beautiful.  Her girls would never see the day that they would be as lovely.” “Mama loved beautiful lingerie. She would always show me her latest slip with such pleasure in the lovely silks and laces.”

There were no “moments” or character traits mentioned in the wistful trips down memory lane.  I cobbled together her image many times…choosing eyes from my Aunt Mary, a nose from Aunt Elizabeth, my mother’s hands, my Aunt Esther’s trim figure.  The image was always shifting, but always keeping the long black hair and the brown eyes with gold flecks.  After all, it was all imagination and wishful thinking and the sisters really had a wide range of features.  And it didn’t really animate her…what I really wanted.

 A Son’s Treasure

My mother has been gone for more than a decade and I never asked her why there were no photographs of “Mama”.   The only tangible trace I have of my grandmother is the envelope flap my mother kept tucked in the family bible because “Mama had such lovely penmanship.”   A few years ago my cousin, Christopher, told me that he had a creased and worn photograph of our grandmother that his father had carried in his G.I. wallet during WWII and continued to do so the rest of his life.  Uncle Bill was the only boy and the baby of the family and the two had a very deep and special bond.  Thank you, Uncle Bill.

Chris sent me the photo which I tenderly removed from the old wallet and unfolded it on my lap.  I sat there for the longest time memorizing her face.  She must have been around my age in that small faded, creased and monotone photo.  I see Aunt Mary in her face, but nothing of my mother.  She takes after her Papa…fair with hazel eyes.   Florence looks weary, small and alone.  The rheumatism that crippled her is apparent in her clenched hands.  Her fabled physical beauty is gone.

Little Women with a Dash of Alice in Wonderland

I spent the next three years digging into every detail of her childhood, her child bride marriage and giving birth to seven children.  Her first child, Elizabeth was born when my grandmother was just sixteen and early motherhood and an already tumultuous marriage left the teenager “fragile” and under the care of a doctor.  In 1902 she was pregnant again with daughter, Kathryn Louise.   Shortly after her arrival home with Kathryn, Elizabeth had found her mother’s pills and swallowed enough of them to make all fear for the toddler’s life.  Florence’s disapproving mother-in-law took the recovering Elizabeth home with her…never to return her to her mother.  “I would see my mother wipe a tear from her eyes,” my mother wrote, “somehow I couldn’t forgive her (my great grandmother Elizabeth Purdy Smith).”

The death of her 21 year old daughter, Kathryn Louise in 1924 was preceded by the terrible suffering and struggle of a virulent cancer.  Three years later, little Ruth Norma was killed with her friend Lillian Hull as they sat in front of the corner store.  Ruth and Lillian were crushed by an out of control vehicle driven by a retired Cornell professor.  The one clear story my mother shared with me was this tragedy.  My grandmother ran the two blocks only to find Ruth pinned under the car, crushed and gone.  “My mother’s hair turned white overnight.”

Papa, according to my mother, was “a spoiled young man-spoiled by his mother.”  My grandfather, too, was described by his appearance.  “…in a three piece suit and a gold chain and watch at his waist.”

I stopped writing for a few months when I found the article about my grandfather’s violence toward my grandmother in the first year of their marriage.  I was more rattled about their reality than I realized.  My mother’s vague stories were pretty in many ways and suspiciously romantic in so many others.  It was a bit of “Little Women” with a dash of “Alice in Wonderland”.  No wonder my grandmother remained a storybook tragic heroine to me.

Surviving the Truth

When I communicate with researchers and historians about constructing the family tree, my favorite advice is that one should be prepared to find a scoundrel and wench or two amidst the perpetual parade of human beings.  As a longtime family historian, I have been amused to find a great uncle that was a forger (who just happens to be my grandfather’s brother) and a ninth great grandfather, John Billington, who landed with the Mayflower and was hung for murder by the good Pilgrims of Plymouth, Massachusetts.  A good chuckle at humanity all around.

Earlier research showed my grandfather declared bankruptcy in November of 1918.  My mother spoke of their unexplained poverty during her childhood, but when I found the records most of the bills were medical.  Who was sick?  Not Kathryn at that point.  Did my grandmother continue to be “frail”?

All a complex mix for me because it explained my mother to me…piece by piece…and it explains me in part…so it is history…genealogy…but it is also a keen reminder that it is my family and me.

I am writing again after receiving another picture of my grandmother at the tender age of three.  The beautiful child with the cherub face took my breath away and at the same time washed away the nagging sting of her story and the picture of a tired, faded beauty.   While I hadn’t written previous to receiving the photograph, I had been researching, networking, collecting, learning new resources and entering and organizing the data.  Busy. Busy. Busy.  And so very productive.  But as anyone knows, if you keep your shoulder to the wheel, you can’t fly and it was time to fly.  It was time to celebrate ALL of my family history the painful and the glorious…and the ordinary.  I had tripped and lost the perspective and humor and compassion that I so carefully armed myself with when I began to learn about who my family was.  Is.

My Grandmother’s Face

Florence Leora Curtis Age Three

During the busy work, I had contacted an individual who seemed to be researching my immediate Curtis family line.  A courtesy check.  “Hello, I am…  My line is…  Are you related?”  Standard stuff.  I have been rewarded with second and third cousins and some delightful insights into ancestral lives and family and friends and once FIRST once removed cousins who have become dear to me.    Who says lightning doesn’t strike twice in the same place?  My casual “Hello” turned out to be another first cousin who is the steward of our Downing-Curtis family memorabilia.  And my grandmother’s face.

Marj recently began the process of sorting old photos and emailed me a selection of photos she thought I might like to see.  “Are these photos of anyone you know?”  Click.  The JPG opened and my grandmother’s face looked out at me with large dark eyes and though it is sepia…no question brown and her hair was even at three- thick and dark.  She was impish and sweet with a face that I had always categorized as Purdy…but it is a Curtis face and it was my Aunt Mary’s face and my cousin Chris’ face and his father, Bill’s face.    My grandmother became dimensional and animated at that moment to me through her children and grandson who bear a remarkable and almost unalloyed resemblance.  My Aunt Elizabeth had drawers stuffed with lovely “delicates”…to the point they could barely close.  Though I spent such a short amount of time with my Aunt Esther, she was reserved compared to her boisterous and talkative sisters and I wonder if Grandma was, too.  I knew my Aunt Mary’s impish personality and cherub face and her voice still rings in my memory.  “Tweetsdie Dins!” she would cry…arms open wide and in a moment you were enveloped in organdy, perfume and endless kisses.  My cousin, Chris, is a spirited, big hearted man that I have loved forever.  He has made laugh uncontrollably when I thought I couldn’t and always made me feel loved.  His father, my Uncle Bill…his mother’s darling son… was larger than life…quick to laugh and quick to cry…and quick to pick you up when you fell down.

And my mother’s hands…always there to comfort me and clap with joy at my silly girl jokes and antics and to make me her miraculous, homemade lemon meringue pie.

I did know my grandmother after all.

Postscript:  Thank you, Marj for your incredibly kind gesture of sharing this photo with me and all of Florence’s grandchildren and great grandchildren.  We are very grateful.

In case you wonder where the photo of my aged grandmother is, WordPress had a problem…or my grandmother admonished “Don’t meddle, Dolly”…a pet phrase of hers to my curious brothers.  I was fiddling with minor edits and  I could not insert both her young photo and her old photo in the post.  The older Florence overlaid the baby Florence no matter what I did…so I will check with tech support and maybe a psychic and try to fix the problem.  For now the child wins.  And I won’t meddle.

Deborah Martin-Plugh

Author, Historian and Genealogical Researcher

(c) Copyright 2011.  All Rights Reserved

Deep in the Research-Notes from the Field

Notes to my Readers: My readers have missed me, I know.  Emails asking what I am doing…when will you post something new?  What will it be?  So I am taking pity on my faithful readers and am taking a break from what I can only call a FLOOD of research that fairly overwhelmed the past two months to let you know that YES…I am here…and YES I am researching.  As for writing, I have to keep that on the docket, but if I don’t deal with the research…the researchers…and the amazing influx of data and opportunities, I will definitely need a jacket with lots of belts and buckles.

Two recent very big breaks plunged me into following up on my Curtis-Downing-Titus family research…after being contacted by a “cousin”…another ancestral granddaughter of Lydia Titus and her first husband, Obadiah J. Downing.  Marj found my blog post about  “James Atchison Patrick, The Missing Grocer of Cayuga Lake”,  who was her great grandfather.  My intrigue with the plucky abandoned wife, Nellie Curtis Patrick, and her children led to writing their story and ultimately to connecting with my cousin, Marj.

Silver Spoon once owned by my GG Grandmother, Susannah M. Downing Curtis

Comparing notes with Marj before my research trip to central New York had me rearranging my focus…finding what I could on our ancestors and adding to our knowledge of their lives and relationships.  I was beyond thrilled to know she owned silver spoons that were once owned by my great great grandmother Susannah Downing Curtis and her father, Obadiah.  The hallmark on the spoons states “Chedell Auburn”.  John Chedell was a silversmith in Auburn using this hallmark from 1827-1850.

So adjusting my research plans, I jumped in and added to the already dizzying goals for my field work.

 Day One Monday, May 23rd

I spent several days last week researching along the shoreline of Cayuga Lake.  “Bit off more than I could chew” as my mother would say.  The first day of my trip, I picked up my brother, Gale,  (after driving four hours from my PA home to his home in Auburn, NY) and made the one hour trek to Newark, Wayne County to visit the homestead of my Huguenot ancestor, Simeon J. Frear…only to be thwarted  with a DELUGE of rain and lightning that is typical off the Great Lakes and that kept me from his grave.  Tail between my legs…I went back to Auburn  and took my brother out and fed him his favorite…anything with mashed potatoes……and finally after a hot shower  and a glass of wine…I prepared for DAY TWO.

 Day Two Tuesday, May 24rd

Day Two was a trip to my father’s grave in the small lakeside cemetery in the Village of Cayuga with my oldest brother.  Gale is approaching 80 and is the eldest child in our immediate family.  I am more than 15 years his junior with the enthusiasm and available “youngster” energy that is still mine.  Though Gale has a generation knowledge of memories beyond mine…it is apart from my early life experience.  My mother made me promise NOT to bury her in that modest cemetery in the village of Cayuga and it is more of her forebears’ resting place than it is my Dad’s.   In fact he has NO family there other than his brother…though I wonder if my mother knew that.  GENERATIONS of my mother’s Tyler grandparents are there and she was so proud of that heritage.  I suspect it has more to do with her undying love for her parents and the sisters who died so young.   I took a good number of photos and sent data to my Tyler, Curtis, Titus, Parcells, Olds “cousins” for their research.

When my mother died in 1997, my siblings and I surreptitiously dug a hole in Lakeview Cemetery in Cayuga Heights (on the east

Lakeview Cemetery in Cayuga Heights

side of Ithaca)  between her parents and her young sisters, Kate and Ruth,  and placed her ashes there.  The Lakeview Cemetery located in Cayuga Heights didn’t allow that without a huge fee and all kinds of oddball requirements.  So what the hell…my mother wanted that and we had her ashes and we were her devoted children. No time for processing…so I dug an impromptu hole…using the only available tool, an ice scraper from the trunk of  my brother Dave’s car.  Ashes properly placed…sod replaced…church bells spontaneously rang through the Cayuga Lake hills. We all held our breath and knew Mom had expressed her gratitude.   I think my mother was pleased that we had granted her wish despite the bureaucratic restrictions and let us know with the bells.   SHHHH!

A short trip to Soule Cemetery in Sennett, NY (outside of Auburn) to do some Parcells work and as they had done on a previous visit,  the maintenance guys stopped to help me find a burial plot that had eluded me.  They are reverent and respectful despite the fact that we are strangers and I was looking for Christopher and Nellie Parcells who left this earth long before their parents were born.  They are more than guys who mow the grass…and I thank them!

After a long DAY TWO…Gale and I were ready for a good meal and ended up at my favorite haunt when I was a teenager,  Green Shutters.  Car Hops. Incredible French Fries.  Hot Dogs.   And the wonderful scent of Owasco Lake wafting into the open windows.

Day THREE, Wednesday, May 25th

Cayuga County Courthouse

Day Three…MORNING…I spent one whole morning at the Records Department for Cayuga County… in a windowless, concrete block room in the old jail that squats at the rear of the magnificent Cayuga County Courthouse in Auburn, NY.  It certainly could have been a cell…without the toilet and sink and cot… though a toilet was next door with all of the visitor’s noises clearly audible.  Ignoring the ah…neighboring audio of each visitor to the loo, I did end up finding the fate of my ancestral grandmother, Lydia Titus, a Quaker who had traveled the Erie Canal when it opened in 1829 with her husband, Obadiah J. Downing, from Dutchess County, NY.  My “cousin” Charlie Baker and I have been communicating for years playing the game “Where in the World is Lydia?”  I solved it…in that 6” x 8” cell-like space in Auburn.  But as you can imagine, I solved one question and at least a dozen more popped up. Did I mention that I fed the damned ONE HOUR parking meter on Court Street three times?  So I had to time my research with my iPhone alarm…jump up…grab my quarters and feed the meter at my parking space and run back to continue the research.   It was kind of a jail break…and back to serve my time though it was research that was my offense.  Chuckle.  Have to say…the folks there were incredibly supportive and patient…and own a treasure trove of research information for Cayuga County.  We owe them at least of cup of coffee….a hug and a big “THANK YOU”.

Day Three…AFTERNOON…did I say I had over scheduled my time?  I drove to Ithaca and the library…found public parking…and dashed across the street and began the research.  The research librarians were helpful and sweet…though for a university and college town…a bit archaic for my electronic research appetite…and satisfied with microfiche technology ( I suspect this is more about a reality check with funds available for “history”  and the willingness to cope).  So…an intense afternoon on my part-handwriting pages of research  in my notebook while disciplining my scrawl to something I could read later without frustration.  I realized that this is going to mean a multiple visit investment with scheduled and generous appointments with Cornell’s library and the Ithaca History Center.  I gratefully accepted what I gleaned, packed up my backpack and traveled back to Auburn.

On my trip home I picked up Ithaca Beer…a Cascadilla Red and their Ginger Beer- DELICIOUS!

Ithaca Beer Sign

and then through Enfield  and on to  Van Dorn Road.  Enfield Township  has taken the wooded and meandering road down to the dirt base. Lurching and bouncing with my high tech suspension, I thought of the wagons and stagecoaches that had (TRULY) lurched and  bounced in the early 1800’s and their inevitable stop at my GGG grandfather’s (Peter Van Dorn) tavern for their respite. I turned west on to Bostwick Road. At the rise, I parked and looked down on Ithaca and the deep blue waters of Cayuga Lake. I was home. So were they.

 A Tribute to our Local Historians and Libraries

I am an enthusiastic internet researcher…but I wouldn’t miss these personal moments…treading in my ancestor’s footsteps.  I appreciate those dedicated folks who struggle with tightening budgets and support us by their stewardship of our human history…THANK YOU for you dedication.  You are our heroes!

It changes EVERYTHING about the way we work with the raw data.

And for my readers who are paying attention…WHAT was the second break?  I wouldn’t be much of a writer if I didn’t leave you wanting more.  Next post.  See you here!

Deborah Martin-Plugh

Author, Historian and Genealogical Researcher

(c) Copyright 2011.  All Rights Reserved

James Atchison Patrick -The Missing Grocer of Cayuga

A Note to my Readers:  I stumbled upon the story of James Patrick, the Missing Grocer,  because I was determined to connect my lineage…once again…to my “cousin”, Charlie Baker.  Charlie and I became research cronies as a result of our shared great great great grandmother, Lydia H. Titus Downing Coapman and the endless search for her fate.  The center of our genealogical universe lies in the little village of Cayuga located at the northeast tip or “foot” of Cayuga Lake.  Charlie and I seem to be cousins of a kind through the Titus-Downing-Coapman-Curtis families all of whom settled there in the early 1800’s.  I say “cousins of a kind” because I can circle our lineages back to us through several other families…the Titus-Downing-Coapman-Curtis family is the most direct, but Ferree , Hutchinson, Cowing and Dewees all create the unending gene pool that Charlie and I seem to have.  So, Charlie, this story is for you and I just know you brush your teeth with Colgate and have a love of Italian food and an ice cold vodka martini.
A Brotherhood of Grocers

Cayuga Lake Map

Although this story is about James Atchison Patrick, it actually begins with the central New York institution of grocers that populated my Curtis family in the 1800’s.   It started with the sons of David and Sophia Green Curtis…Henry Eugene (my great great grandfather) and his older brother, Levi Curtis.   The brothers had established a merchant partnership in the 1850’s while they were just in their early twenties.  Cayuga and Seneca Lakes were bustling with waterway traffic thanks to the canal systems and the young tradesmen soon had stores on the foot of Cayuga Lake in the village and another at the head of Seneca Lake in Watkins Glen.  The men prospered and by 1860 they had added a small hotel in western New York at Caneadea on the Genesee River.   In that year New York State was the richest and most populated state in the Union and civil war was brewing.

The call of May 3, 1861, for 42,000 men for three years, authorized committees and individuals by the war department to recruit regiments while the state was engaged in raising the thirty-eight two years’ regiments and by August of that year, both brothers had enlisted as volunteers and left the care of their enterprise in the capable hands of their wives.

Levi distinguished himself in Company F, the 5th Cavalry, NYS Volunteers, fought at Shenandoah and the second battle of Bull Run and after being wounded in battle, the innkeeper from Canaedea, New York was discharged on January 17, 1863  with the rank of Captain.

NY Town Clerks Registers of Men who served in the Civil War 1865 Levi Curtis

Records suggest Henry served in Company F, 136th Regiment Infantry, but there are several Henry Curtises and more than one is a Henry E. which makes proving his service difficult and really unlikely.  What is certain is that Henry E. Curtis was registered in Dix, Schuyler county, New York in the 1863 draft as Class II which classified “Salloon Keeper” Henry E. Curtis as a married man between the ages of 36-44.

1863 Draft Registration Dix NY H E Curtis

At the end of the war, Levi and his Michigan born wife, Lurana Ellsworth, moved to Fenton, Genesee, Michigan to live with their married daughter, Mrs. Edwin (Charlotte) Trump and to enjoy the company of their infant granddaughter, Minnie.

Henry Eugene Curtis and his wife, Susannah Downing, and their three children, Helen “Nellie”, Henry Eugene, Jr., George Downing (my great grandfather) and little Jennie L.  was not to stay whole long as Henry died in Watkins Glen at the age of 44 in 1866…little more than one year after the conclusion of the Civil War.

The Corning Journal Thu 4 Oct 1866

Levi, too, died young…in 1868 at the age of 49 at his son-in-law’s home in Fenton, Michigan.  A Death Notice in the Michigan Fenton Independent 22 Apr 1868 reports…

CURTIS, LEVI, ae 50y, at residence of his son-In-Iaw, Edwin Trump, in Fenton, Mich. Fentonville Lodge No. 109 3 June 1868 passed resolution: “Levi Curtis, late of Belfast, N.Y., formerly member of Chemung Lodge…”

The Curtis brothers who had a small and vital merchant empire along the New York Canal system in the heyday years before the War of the Rebellion lived long enough to know the embrace of family but not long enough to regain their spirited life of entrepreneurship.

A Safe Place to Fall

Susannah sold the store in Watkins Glen upon Henry’s death in 1866 and moved her family to the village of her birth…Cayuga.  Her twice widowed mother, Lydia Titus Downing Coapman, was still living in the village as were her siblings, Mary Jane, Phebe and George Henry Downing and half brother, David Sands Coapman. With the support of the Titus and Coapman families, the 34 year old widow settled into her Aurelius home to raise her children and live out her life.

In four years the siblings had acclimated to life in their mother’s birthplace and indeed the oldest child, Nellie, had fallen in love and married Christopher French Parcells, the dashing young son of Maria French and Joseph Jerome Parcells, a well loved and well travelled preacher who was born in Cayuga in 1822.  The Parcells owned one of the first stores in the village…located across the street from the Titus House.  The Titus house was established by my great great great grandmother Lydia H. Titus Downing Coapman’s brother, David Sands Titus.

Henry Jr. became the man of the house long before he reached manhood.  It wasn’t long before he was well known among the village residents for his good work ethic and his good nature.  From the start he was a “hardy” fellow and a strong support for his mother.  Susannah continued to live with her son, Henry,  as did his siblings until they married.  In fact, life long bachelor Henry cared for his mother until her death in 1893.  Sister, Nellie M., left the village home when she married Christopher Parcells in 1872 and they moved to Auburn. My grandfather, George, left when he married Kate Curry in 1879 and they moved to Port Byron.  The youngest, Jennie, was the last to leave when she married John Stahlnecker in 1880 and they moved west to the Minnesota Territory.

We have reached the point where we can introduce…..

The Main Players in the story of the Missing Grocer from the little Village

Nellie M. Parcells

Nellie M. Parcells was born in 1875 in the city of Auburn-the second daughter of Nellie Curtis and Christopher Parcells.  Her father was a well known pharmacist and for most of his life owned and operated his store on 29 Grant Avenue.  Nellie and her siblings, Anneka, William and Hortense had a happy and socially connected life.  When her mother died unexpectedly in 1890, her father soon remarried to Alyce Dewey who was 27 years younger than he and proceeded to have four more children-: George Dewey, Marguerite, Henry Curtis and Guy Alton Parcells.  The Parcells household was full of music, family and friends and was an altogether agreeable environment.  The only spoiling moments were the tormenting bouts of malaria that plagued Christopher.

As a young man, Christopher had spent time in and around the swamps of Montezuma…which were a haven of mosquitoes and I suppose that might well have been the source of his disease.

James Atchison Patrick

James Atchison Patrick, son of John Patrick and Jesse Nisbet was born in Ontario, Canada on December 9, 1877.  James and his parents left Canada and moved to Milo, Yates County, New York when he was just a toddler.  They had two more sons, William J. and Clarence, and had moved to Auburn by 1890 where the Canadian saddle maker bought a home on 96 Owasco Road and set up shop where he invented the Patrick Horse Collar.  Jesse died in 1893 when she was just 34 leaving John with three boys under the age of thirteen.  In 1895 in Mount Blow, Ontario, Canada, he married fellow Canadian, Agnes Jameson, a young widow with a son.  Agnes and her son had lived in Auburn several years before the Patricks so it appears they went to Canada to marry and immediately returned to Auburn to raise their boys together at their home on Owasco Road.

The late 1890’s finds James working at the McConnell Dry Goods Store on Genesee Street as a salesman and living as a boarder at 29 Grant Avenue where he met Nellie Parcells.  Nellie and James married when they were 19 and 17 respectively.  In December of 1896 they welcomed daughter, Christine Beatrice and less than two years later, son, Curtis Atchison Patrick arrived.  By 1905 James and Nellie were living in Throopsville, NY and in 1910 he was a working as a poultry farmer in Aurelius.

And then in 1911 Nellie’s favorite uncle…Henry Eugene Curtis… died.  Henry had property in several areas of Aurelius and owned the country store in the village of Cayuga…his favorite haunt …where folks came from all over to buy their goods…but especially to pass the time with the now rotund and ruddy shop owner.    Henry died a very financially secure bachelor and his nieces and nephews were all well remembered in his estate.  In 1911 the bustling store became the property of Nellie and her husband, James.  They moved to the village and began “keeping shop”.  James bought a boat and named the white motor boat “The Christine” after his daughter.

And on August 5, 1917, 39 year old James Atchison Patrick disappeared.

States He Saw Missing Man In Ithaca Monday

The Disappearance

When the little white boat was found bobbing off shore near Ludlowville the following day, the alarmed family began the frantic search.  The word went out up and down the Ithaca-Auburn Shortline- the railroad line that followed the lake shore to the city of Ithaca.  The newspapers were filled with the alert for James Patrick and the authorities prepared to drag the deep waters of Cayuga Lake.  James’ brother, Clarence, who by now was a successful plumber and prominent citizen of Auburn, led the search.  On August 7, an Ithaca man named George Taylor, an acquaintance of James Patrick and soliciting agent for the Shortline, reported that he had had a conversation with Mr. Patrick.  James had boarded the Shortline at Ludlowville and had casually told Mr. Taylor that he was on his way to “do a little swapping”.  His demeanor was casual and quite normal according to Mr. Taylor.  Sheriff Lyman Gallagher and his deputies combed the city of Ithaca, but James Patrick was nowhere to be found.

For five years, Nellie and her son, Curtis and James’ brother, Clarence searched for James through several states and sightings and into Canada where the Patrick family had relatives in Ontario.  Christine….the namesake of the merry little white boat her father had abandoned in August of 1917…married George Eugene Ferree, a young farmer from Aurelius.  The marriage would produce one child, Barbara Jean Ferree.   By 1918 the mortgage for the property in the village was foreclosed and Nellie and her son were left to pick up the pieces.  James had left the once thriving store in financial ruin.

Man Missing Five Years Returns: Memory Blank

The Prodigal Son Returns

And then on Sunday, October 15, 1922 “the mystery surrounding the sudden and strange disappearance of James A. Patrick from the quiet little village of Cayuga” was “ partially resolved by the return of Patrick to the home of his brother, Clarence Patrick in South Fulton Street”.   James had arrived that Sunday night “tired out from a long ride from Louisville, Ky.”  He was examined by a physician and found to be fit “but his memory is a blank except for matters of the immediate present.”

When questioned, he stated that he had no memory of leaving Cayuga or why or of places he had been in the past year.  According to James, while in Louisville someone mentioned the name of “Patrick” and the name “Auburn” and James had a sudden recall of his brother so he started out immediately for Auburn and the home of his brother, Clarence.

Now forty-six and apparently with no memory of a wife or children or family members…including his father and brothers, Nellie and her children were brought to the home to attempt to recover his memory.  Upon his return, James had made his home with his brother at the advice of their physician.   Whatever memory he did recover evidently did not ever include Nellie, Christine or Curtis.

Nellie Moves On

Despite the continuing search for her husband, Nellie had managed to take her monetary inheritance from her Uncle Henry and with what little she received after her father’s death-remember there were many siblings-she kept her home in the little village.   She gathered up her still devoted and grown, unmarried son, Curtis…and divorced daughter, Christine, and granddaughter, Barbara…and bought a small ice cream shop in Florida.  She had become a well known travel expert…perhaps in her five year long search for James…and headed a travel association to encourage New Yorkers to “winter” in Winter Haven, Florida.

Barbara Jean Ferree became quite the little traveler and was reported to have taken the train to Auburn from Florida when she was just 12…visiting her Parcells and Ferree family members. Barbara married her Auburn sweetheart, William H. Staat at the little Sand Beach Church at the head of Owasco Lake in 1946.  No mention of her father was made in the wedding festivities.  Her brother escorted her down the aisle.

I could not find out what happened to James for quite some time.  Indeed I just thought he died alone as he was never mentioned again in social notes despite the continuing and merry gatherings at Clarence Patrick’s home.  The last mention I had of James was in 1933 when his father, John, passed away.  “living in Cayuga”, it said.  The little village where the mystery started…where Nellie still owned her uncle’s home…but where she did not live again.

Nellie M. Parcells died in Auburn on May 7, 1962. Her obituary reads “Mrs. Nellie Patrick Dies in Hospital”.  Nellie was 87 years.  And her obituary states she is the widow of James Patrick.  The logic goes that her surviving family provides the obituary information and so I began to search for James’ resting place.  Did they reconcile…forgive…forget…accept?  Nellie is buried in the Parcells plot in Soule Cemetery and there is no James Patrick there. UPDATE: When I was contacted recently by Nellie’s great granddaughter, she told me that Nellie divorced James Patrick.  She writes:

Nellie Patrick filed for divorce from James Patrick and it was granted after 7 years of abandonment, as was the law back then. I’m sure the word “widow” was used by the undertaker in Auburn for the obit and not by anyone in the family. My grandmother, Cristine Patrick Ferree told me at one time when I was looking over her family genealogy papers, that she had been invited to go fishing with her father that fateful day in 1917, but she wanted to stay home and wash her hair instead(possibly she had a date that night with George Ferree, whom she married 2 months later). She always felt guilty that she didn’t go with him and perhaps could have prevented whatever happened.

Did he disappear?  Again?

A Canadian Moment

And then…I had a “Canadian moment”…might have been the bacon I had for breakfast.  Whatever.

So back I went to Ontario, Canada research and there it was…..James A. Patrick was James Atchinson (sp) Patrick.  The game was afoot.  I never found his World War I draft registration…don’t forget he disappeared on the very day that draft registration took place in central New York…could that have been another strain on his already distressed mind?  But then I tweaked his middle name as all genealogists know…what’s in a name?  So taking poetic license…thanks Will S….I researched James Atchison Patrick.

There in 1942 in Fairfield, Ohio on the KENTUCKY border is James Atchison Patrick, born in Brant, Ontario,  Canada on December 9, 1877 …and married.  To widow Alma Smith.  To someone who is not Nellie.

After Alma died in 1944, he married a third time to a woman named, Grace Leota.

James A Patrick Monument

And there he died in 1965…three years after Nellie.  He is buried next to Grace Leota in Forest Rose Cemetery in Lancaster, Ohio.

Questions Questions Questions….

At some point…did James return to Kentucky with the knowledge that he was married to two women?  Was he a grocer again? And with only the memory of one wife and not the mother of his two children…are there children with “that” Mrs. Patrick?  Did he stay in Cayuga because Clarence wanted him to find his old life only to give it up and go to the wife he remembered?  And is that why when Clarence died…he was not listed as a surviving brother along with William?  Did he just want to start over?  Or did he really suffer from a form of amnesia called retrograde or dissociative?

During this research I came across a family member of Alma Smith – her grand nephew.  So I did it…I asked the question and hit “send”.  What did he know about Mr. Patrick?  Turns out James was not a “talker” and they never met any of his family.  James never spoke of them.  And they never knew he had been married before.  “A nice enough fellow.”  And Alma was Canadian…lived in Kentucky with James with her Canadian born family members…who happened to be from Brant, Ontario, Canada.    Gently, gently, I closed that door….and let James Patrick disappear…again.

Deborah Martin-Plugh

Author, Historian and Genealogical Researcher

(c) Copyright 2010.  All Rights Reserved


George Downing Curtis, Sporting and Theatrical Man of Ithaca

A Note to My Readers:
Among the many stories of her family members, my mother rarely spoke of my great grandfather-her mother’s father, George Downing Curtis. In fact, the reigning tale was of his wife, Kate Curry Curtis, and her role as a woman pioneer of moving pictures.  So I found it odd that among the few old photographs tucked in the family bible, there existed one of  an urbane and jaunty George and none of Kate.  Stumbling upon the very lively coverage of The Turnbull Riley trial revealed the dynamic of the individuals and their relationships…and a family secret.

George Downing Curtis, The Sporting and Theatrical Man

The tale begins on November 1, 1901 when my 47 year- old great grandfather, George Downing Curtis,  travelled from Ithaca, NY, and according to his testimony, with the expressed intention of leasing a hall in Amsterdam, NY and converting it to a vaudeville house…

“instead upon arriving upon town started upon a sort of a continuing round of pleasure, and it appears to have afforded him abundantly, for in a way of top line variety stunts, he came next to a program that he will have occasion to recollect for several weeks at least.”[i]


The trial was scheduled to begin on February 4, 1902 and once again the temperatures were well below zero.  A violent snowstorm was making its way from Buffalo and the Great Lakes.   The defense asked for a postponement because George was unable to get to Amsterdam from his Ithaca home until the afternoon train.  On February 5th, despite the weather, the trial began in earnest and the scalawags Turnbull and Riley and the tale of drunkenness, larceny and bribery and the Sporting and Theatrical Man from Ithaca filled the courtroom.

The trial testimony given by George puts him at Kirschner’s…an Amsterdam billiard hall that served spirits and beer.  According to George’s cross examination discourse, he could “drink more beer after two or three whiskeys” and when asked if he was intoxicated, he said, “No, but I had a pretty good start.”  Enter Harry Turnbull and Walter Riley and a wasp’s nest of Amsterdam local businessmen and politicians just to add intrigue to the larceny.

The Difference between $450 and 55 cents

November 1st was a bitter day in Amsterdam.  Harry Turnbull and Walter Riley were making their rounds in the city…shaking down local business owners and citizenry alike.   The two men happened upon George at Kirschner’s where the pair frequently played billiards, gambled and indulged in some serious drinking.    After a few hours of drinking and “sporting”, the trio headed into the below zero weather and found a liveryman to drive a team and carriage to nearby Akin…a small settlement in the Amsterdam area.

Amsterdam Main Street West Postcard

According to the driver, Mr. Riley seemed to be the “master of ceremonies” and was ordering drinks at several saloons along the way.  The driver also stated that Turnbull and Riley seemed in control of themselves, but George appeared “drowsy” and the driver could not understand his mumblings.  As they drove down the icy and wind-blown boulevard, George was swaying back and forth on the wagon barely keeping his seat.  Many times the driver had to reach over and grab George to keep him from tumbling onto the road.  Riley was seen by several bartenders later on buying drinks with $20 gold coins when it was said that he was never “with that kind of money”.

A local from the Central Hotel testified that he had seen George in the barroom and rear room late in the day where George had slept for some time.  As George slept off his alcoholic binge, Turnbull was visiting saloons and buying drinks for everyone and exhibiting wads of paper money. When George awoke at one point, he brushed his hair and shook hands with a man at the bar, sat down and instantly fell back to sleep.  When he finally aroused at 6 o’clock, he was sobered by hours of deep slumber.  Alarmed and upset, he shouted that he had been robbed of over $400.00 and producing his gentleman’s purse, showed that he was left with just 55 cents to his name.

At one point in George’s testimony which was corroborated by a witness, he stated that he had made arrangements to meet with Turnbull and Riley to get back enough money to return to Ithaca.  The duo toyed with Curtis during the evening as he sat playing cribbage at a paint store in Amsterdam awaiting their arrival.  When they failed to show and George realized his predicament, the police were called.  The two confidence men were promptly arrested and the legal process was underway.  And the world and his family would soon know George’s disgrace.

The Sporting and Theatrical Man from Ithaca

The defense team squared off on George…declaring that the jury might care “whether Curtis got now what he hasn’t by gambling or conducting a baudy (sp) picture show.”  The prosecution fired back with the fact that witnesses stated that it was his money and that the only thing he was guilty of was overindulging in the varieties of entertainment that a town like Amsterdam provided that single day “when his exchequer[ii] was relieved of sums representing the difference between $450 and 55 cents.”

The defense was ready to explain the financial state of Turnbull and Riley…though the two had not been recently employed according to Amsterdam’s Chief of Police.   Indeed Riley had told him that he would have been glad to work on the railway extension, “even if he had to work with “Guineas” meaning Italians.”  But Turnbull and Riley had a nasty surprise for the city of Amsterdam.  The two concocted a story of bribery and “influence” to explain their “flush condition” stating that they took money from several prominent businessmen and politicians that day.  The smug defendants sat in the courtroom smiling and smirking as one by one the respected elected officials of Amsterdam testified in court.  And one by one the two rascals and their allegations of extortion were discredited by irrefutable testimonies and inconsistencies in their allegations.


The trial lasted three days.  On Friday at 9:10 PM the jury filed into the court room after deliberating for four and half hours which included an intermission for supper.  The sneer on Riley’s face faded while Turnbull maintained a stone face.  Mrs. Riley who sat behind her husband exchanged her usual pallor for a rose-red hue.  “Guilty”, the foreman had responded to the court deputy when asked to state the judgment of the jury.

On Saturday afternoon the two men were sentenced to three years in Dannemora Prison and led away in handcuffs.

Amsterdam Daily Democrat Banner

The Amsterdam Daily Democrat article concluded by stating that this crime and its trial had generated the most widespread interest in years.  In fact, the courthouse and the newspaper telephone boards were flooded with incoming calls from all over the country to learn of the jury’s verdict on Friday and again on Saturday to inquire about the sentence imposed.

Author’s Field Note:

I had been searching for information on another George Curtis…a second cousin of my great grandfather when I came across the initial Amsterdam Daily Democrat article about a Mr. Curtis of Ithaca.  When I read on and he was called George E. Curtis, I almost skipped it and moved on, but the words “theatrical” and “sporting” and “vaudeville” stopped me in my tracks.  My great grandparents owned billiard parlors and theatres in Ithaca and Rochester and booked vaudevillians and after all, it was just an “E” and it rhymes with “D”…and nothing is more fallible than a newspaper typesetter.

I GOOGLED the names of the “perps”.  Guilty Pleasure…I watch the A & E crime shows…and the Turnbull-Riley case came up in spades. Sorry about the gambling pun…couldn’t be helped after reading hours of blurry newsprint with archaic language such as the quote in the first paragraph of this essay.

As the day-long trial event rolled out through testimony, I kept hearing the lyrics from Music Man… “We’ve got trouble…right here in River City.  And that starts with “T” and that rhymes with “P” and that stands for pool.” George was a theater man, a billiard parlor owner and obviously had a taste for alcohol and bad company.  The sporting and theatrical man was out of control in Amsterdam, New York, a city perched above the Mohawk River.   And on November 1st 1901 he found trouble.

In my notes on George, I found that he had declared bankruptcy at one point and Kate had him on an allowance to curb his wastrel tendencies.  The Amsterdam incident explains more fully why his wife, Kate, solely owned the Happy Hour Theater of Rochester in 1907.  She had good reason to keep George under her control, but that didn’t  last and eventually the warden became the prisoner.  In 1915 George convinced her to turn over the interest in the Happy Hour to him as he was a man and could better obtain credit from the bank and besides it was manlier for him…and with the ink barely dry… promptly left her.

George had an astute and supportive family and endless opportunities for success.  When his bachelor brother, Henry, died in 1911, George had inherited a large share of his brother’s estate which was in today’s value over $111,000.  George died in 1932 at his Florida home and it was stated that his personal assets were valued at just $1000.00.  In a final gesture, the remaining asset…his interest in the theater (now called The Strand)… was willed back to his children, Henry, Katherine, Jennie and Ruth.  My grandmother, Florence, was not listed in the will in the Rochester newspaper’s article.

And now I think I know why George has no monument to mark his burial site.  Once again, he found himself left with the difference between $450 and 55 cents.

Deborah Martin-Plugh

Author, Historian and Genealogical Researcher

(c) Copyright 2010.  All Rights Reserved


[i] The Amsterdam Daily Democrat, February 5, 1902, Wednesday Evening edition, page one.

[ii] Cash in hand