East Hill Where Heritage Lives. 100 Acres.

East Hill Where Heritage Lives. 100 Acres.

Purdy Family Bible

Family Bible of Elbert Purdy and Elizabeth A. Williams of Enfield, NY

A Note to My Readers: Going back to the heirloom that is the root of my genealogical interest and ultimate passionate life long study, I began to parse the details from the clippings that my maternal great grandmother, Elizabeth A. “Libbie” Williams Purdy Smith (1848-1940), carefully secured to her family bible.  Details matter and more often than not, offer us a greater picture of our ancestors’ lives.   In the case of Samuel D. Purdy (1818-1898), it gave me a pivotal clue as to where his farm was located and the knowledge that Semantha, his wife, co-owned the property.

ENFIELD, TOMPKINS COUNTY, NY

When Libbie’s father-in-law died in Elizabeth A. Williams Purdy with son, Burt Samuel1898, she had been a widow for ten years and pasted not one, but two newspaper clippings of Samuel D. Purdy’s death into her bible. By then she had remarried to a widower, Charles R. Smith, and relocated from Enfield to Ithaca, but she clearly maintained her Purdy and Enfield relationships. Perhaps she felt her matrimonial bible was not just her anchor of faith, but it also would serve as a treasured family time capsule. A remembrance of her and our entangled family history.  The tiny, distinguished and iron-willed woman who her descendants recall as Mrs. E. A. Smith of 309 Eddy Street, Ithaca, New York.

MERCHANT.  CARPENTER.  FARMER.

Samuel D Purdy obit 1898So…what is Libbie telling me with her inclusions? In my many trips to Enfield, I carried with me the 1866 map which indicated where Samuel D. Purdy’s mercantile – cum – U.S. Post Office and carpentry shop stood in Enfield Center. It was easy to identify the site of his business operation, but his obituary said he had a farm.  On East Hill.  Samuel bought and sold multiple parcels over his lifetime as an Enfield resident and I realized that I didn’t clearly understand exactly where his ‘farm’ on East Hill stood.

 

Without finding an official designation of what East Hill was/is, I assumed it is informally named by locals and not necessarily a bona fide geo-political name. I started to read references to East Hill of places in the area of Enfield Center (Harvey Hill and Bostwick Road intersection) and considering the steep inclination of Enfield Main Road to Enfield Center, I deduced that East Hill refers to Enfield Main Road.  Surely there was a stronger and more precise case to be made.  On to more official clues.

MAPS.  LAND RECORDS.

A record of a 1867 transaction selling 2/3 of an acre of land gave me another important benchmark location when a piece of property was sold by Samuel and his wife, Semantha.

“in the Town of Enfield in the County of Tompkins and State of New York being part of lot no. 60 in said town of Enfield as follows: to wit; Beginning at the south east corner of a lot of land on said great lot no. sixty & at the centre of highway running north and south through the village of Enfield centre & which lot is owned by Eliza Barber running from thence westerley as the fence runs on the south line of said Barber to lands owned by Gertrude Bailey hence southerly as fence now stands to the northwest corner of a certain piece of land owned by Sylvester Wright on said lot no. sixty….Being the same premises conveyed by deed  by S.D. Purdy & Semanthia (sic) his wife on the twenty seventh day of March 1867 to Elizabeth Kellogg.”

In a 1918 classified notice in the Ithaca Daily News I found a more precise description of Samuel and Semantha’s farm.

“All That Tract or Parcel of Land situate in the Town of Enfield, Tompkins County, N.Y., known and described as being subdivisions No. (blurred, but appears be ‘2’) and No. 5 on the north side of Lot No. 61 in the said Town of Enfield, and bounded as follows: Subdivision No. one thence running south thirty-nine chains and sixty-nine links: thence east twenty-five chains and twenty links; thence north thirty-nine chains and sixty-nine links; thence west along the north line of said lot No. 61 twenty-five chains and twenty links to the place of beginning, containing one hundred acre of land, more or less, and being the farm at one time owned by Samuel D. Purdy. Being the premises described in a deed recorded in the Tompkins County Clerk’s Office in Book 147 of Deeds at page 560, and also in Book 150 of Deeds at page 593 in said Tompkins County Clerk’s Office. Being the farm owned by Frank Cummings at the time of his death.
Dated, April 4, 1918”

1920 Enfield MapWith all of these elements…references in transactions dating back to the 1850’s to Military Lot 53, Lots No. 52, 60 and 61 owned by the Purdys and consulting a 1920 plot map of the Enfield area,  I will take Grandma Smith’s ‘hint’ and begin to diagram the mentioned lots, neighboring landowners, dates to develop the history and timeline of the Purdy properties.

Next spring upon returning to my ancestral roots in Enfield…diagram in hand… instead of having the general sense of  heritage presence, I hope to stand with surety upon the farmlands belonging to my 2x great grandparents.

 

Deborah J. Martin-Plugh

Author, Historian and Genealogical Researcher

© Copyright October 2017. All Rights Reserved.

 

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Hoss Flesh and Cow Tails

A Note to My Readers:  Researchers find information in so many sources to fill in a biography…censuses, wills, land purchases and birth, marriage and death records.  Sometimes there are personal documents and memorabilia such as letters and family bibles to provide a detail or two.  Nine times out of ten these types of records give us timeline events and relationships, but few and far between give us the slice of life stuff.  Of course that leaves most of us tingling with curiosity and with little or no way to touch that personality.   But…controversy shows up in newspaper articles like the village gossip inviting you to sit a spell and listen to a yarn or two.  

And so it is with Lewis Purdy, Jr. (1840-1923)

Goodness me. I long had the gist that Lewis Purdy, Jr., the half-brother of my maternal 2nd great grandfather, Samuel D. Purdy (1818 – 1898) of Enfield, NY was a bit of a character with a life of highs and lows, but today’s research tells me that ‘bit of a character’  isn’t exactly an apt description.

Samuel’s mother, Rachel died in 1839 when he was a young man and his father, Lewis, Sr (1791- 1875). remarried a much younger woman named Sarah J. and had several more children.

Lewis, Jr. was born in 1840 so Lewis, Sr. had wasted no time. Sarah died in 1863 and left behind several daughters who as young girls were farmed out to various families in Tompkins county working as house help.  Lewis, Jr. was off to fight in the Civil War with the 109th Regiment that year. When he returned and mustered out in 1865, he married Miss Olive Sholes of Newfield on February 5th in Enfield. Probably under the watchful eye of  his staid and respectable brother, Samuel.  Olive and Lewis initially lived with her parents in Newfield. The Sholes were neighbors of Lewis, Sr. and his third wife, Esther Eddy Purdy.

Lewis and Olive went off on their own buying a farm at Van Etten (Swartwood Station) in Chemung county, New York.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Immediately Olive gave birth to daughter Fannie in 1866 and in 1870, son Freddie was born. Death came to the Purdy household in 1873 and both children perished. In 1882 Olive gave birth to daughter, Murtie, but she, too perished, dying at the age of 7 years old. All three children are buried in Trumbull Corners in Newfield.

Life goes on as they say and Lewis seems to have followed a dark and angry path.  He was in conflict with his neighbors…far beyond verbal, many set-tos turning to violence.  In 1888 after another angry dispute, Lewis suffered a “body execution” upon being sued by Lewis Smith and so his brother, Samuel had to travel to the jail to retrieve him.  In one 1893 fray, Lewis sued a Mr. Thompson for false representation of ‘hoss flesh’.

But it was the bitter feud between James R. McKay that festered and boiled over and by 1910 the duo were in Chemung court after 70 year old Lewis was assaulted by Mr. McKay.  He was dragged to the ground from a wagon by Mr. McKay, his clothes torn and two teeth broken and one loosened causing Lewis to purchase false teeth.  Before you want to dig up Mr. McKay and yell at him, the court testimony states that

Mr. Purdy is a man of violent temper, of a quarrelsome nature and given to brawling and fighting; that prior to April 1 the defendant was forced to eject Mr. Purdy from the defendant’s hotel in Van Etten and on April 1 was forced to remonstrate with Mr. Purdy because the man was using profane language in the presence of a woman with whom the defendant was conversing.

While I did not find the conclusion of the court case, I did find that the quarreling men were not done with one another.  No, sirree.

Ithaca NY Daily News 1911 Lewis Purdys Cow Loses TailIn 1911 they were back in court when Lewis sued James McKay…oh, I can hardly type this without shaking my head….because Lewis’  Holstein lost her tail to the jaws of Mr. McKay’s dogs.    The saga went on for six weeks, calling 23 witnesses and finally going to the jury.

Lewis lived to be 83 years old passing away in 1923 at the Old Soldier’s Home.  He had been widowed since 1916 when patient Olive went to her peaceful reward.

Lewis and Olive Sholes Purdy Monument

The Purdys are buried in the family plot in Trumbull Corners with their three children – a quiet and bucolic spot where matters of  ‘hoss flesh’ and cow tails are of no consequence.

 

 

 

Deborah Martin-Plugh

Author, Historian and Genealogical Researcher

(c) Copyright 2014.  All Rights Reserved

 

 

Legacies and Heirlooms – Past and Future

A Note to My Readers: We spend years and countless dollars, travel to ancestral grounds and haunt offices of county clerks,  libraries and museums – looking for new research material…new information to feed our habit.  That’s all well and good…I love it, too, but taking the time to organize and maintain your home archives is one of the most important things a family historian can do.  You are a personal museum if you think of it and your inventory is irreplaceable.  Put down your Indiana Jones hat and pick up the white gloves and become an archivist for a bit.  You might have new revelations about your ancestors providing a new path for research, but if nothing else you will find comfort and confidence knowing that your legacy will be passing down the knowledge of what your family heirlooms are.

Family Bible Front CoverMy family bible is 146 years old.  It was the marriage bible for my great grandparents Elbert Purdy and Elizabeth Williams of Enfield, Tompkins County, New York.   The wedding certificate is a page that is one of the illuminated pages at the very center of the bible that contains pages of marriages, birth and deaths.  Other than the fact that the front cover is separated from the binding…the pages are in remarkable condition.  The bible has survived house fires, many moves…from Enfield to Ithaca to Auburn to Cayuga, New York to New Hampshire and Rhode Island cross country to California and back to New York state to New Jersey and finally here to Pennsylvania…thousands and thousands of miles over 146 years.  It has been passed down through several generations and I hope it continues to do so.  For years it was in a box…in my mother’s closet…and then in mine.  Until I started working on the family genealogy…and was bitten by the bug.

I work with historians and archivists…museums and libraries…and have learned how to protect my valuable family treasures.  Mementos is too small a word.  Treasure is more fitting.  The bible is in my barrister bookcases…behind glass…not exposed to sunlight and in a temperature controlled environment.  The newest expert opinion is out on the subject of handling old paper with or without gloves.  Making sure your hands are clean before perusing old books and documents seems to be the prevailing wisdom of the day though I still run into museum and library folks who maintain the glove requirement protocol.  The standards I have hung my hat on come from the National Archives…and you don’t have to be a big institution with vaults and expensive methods to use their guidelines.

Digital is nice for sharing with multitudes of people…and I have an ongoing project to scan old photos, documents and ephemera to do just that, but the real thing…the tangible items are dear and touching and a digital image can never evoke the same awe.

Store your items well…organize them.  If you are a Virgo, Type A like I am…catalog and index what you have.  When you pass them down, there will be no guess work for the next generations about what they are and to whom they pertain.    I spent over a decade working out mysteries and I still have some ‘orphan’ material and photos, but they are few and far between, thank goodness.  After all, we all have expressed regret because we didn’t get that information from the previous generation and we are left wondering.

Lots of stuff?   It’s not going to get any less, so choose one small box at a time starting with the oldest material and settle down on a rainy or snowy day and begin.  Your great grandchildren will be glad you did.

Deborah Martin-Plugh

Author, Historian and Genealogical Researcher

(c) Copyright 2013.  All Rights Reserved

A Saratoga Trunk with a Stranger’s Name

A Note To My Readers:  Family historians have a penchant for heirlooms and many of us are fortunate to be the keepers of family treasure.  Some of us haunt antique stores searching for a talisman of the past.  Perhaps great grandpa was a cobbler and and a vintage shoe last calls out to you from a shelf and you take it home to remind you of him.  Perhaps a Saratoga trunk with a stranger’s name.  Deborah Chase.

I always marvel at those folks who have seemingly endless family heirlooms still in their possession.  I have been reading old wills from the 1800’s which spell out the usual estate holdings followed by the distribution of goods and money.  In those formal documents the trail of an heirloom exists.  After all, these vintage things that we possess today were inherited down a line and have a history.  Practical, personal and human.

Elbert Purdy and Elizabeth A Williams Matrimonial BibleThe heirloom centerpiece of what I have belonged to my great grandmother, Elizabeth A. Williams Purdy Smith.  Her marriage bible…the family bible…from 1867 and its companion pieces tucked away in its pages.  Tintypes and cabinet cards, yellowing obituaries, handwritten birth, marriage and death notations.

And her rosewood parlor chair…delicate and Libbie Williams Purdy chair 2small with a horsehair filling.  It crunches when the seat is touched.  I have recovered it a couple of times.  It’s original ivory white silk cover was deteriorated and worn when I received it from my late Aunt Elizabeth’s belongings.  I wished I had kept a scrap of the silk, but I was young when I reupholstered it the first time and what did I know about such things.  I kept the horsehair fill though…it…spoke to me, I guess.

My mother told me of a stack of letters “from a loved one” that my great grandmother kept bundled in a blue silk ribbon and a marble topped table that sat in her parlor with the Brussels carpet.  Her grandmother would carefully untie the silk ribbon and read aloud the contents of  the letters while my mother sipped tea.  Ceremoniously the letters would be tucked back in the envelopes….the ribbon neatly tied and Grandma Smith would finally pour her own cup of tea.  My mother knew that parlor and could recall every detail of it right down to the marble top table and the lovely patterned carpet.  It was because of the recall of my mother that  the words from the 1887 will of my great great grandmother’s sister, Deborah Van Dorn Chase, leaped out at me when I read them.

“I give and bequeath to my grand neice (sic) Libbie Johnson the sum of four hundred dollars and the following named goods one Piano one parlor bedstead with high top one common bedstead one cane bottom rocking chair three can bottom chairs one marble top table eighteen yards brussells carpet and one Syrtoga (sic) trunk said property to be paid to her at the age of twenty-one years to have and to hold during her lifetime and in case she should die without child or children then the aforesaid money & goods or what shall be left of them shall go to my sister’s daughter, Elizabeth Purdy or her heirs.”

Deborah had been been married twice, but had no children of her own.  In her last will and testament she bequeathed money and goods to her sister, Mary Williams (my great great grandmother) and her daughter, Elizabeth Purdy (my great grandmother).  Deborah also left money and goods to her grand niece Libbie Johnson .  Libbie’s mother, Mary Lorinda Williams Johnson, would die one year after Deborah leaving the young girl without a mother.  Her father, Captain Albert Johnson, was a highly educated man, a Civil War Veteran and a career internal revenue man with the Federal government.  Albert left the little village of Enfield behind after his wife’s death, remarried and his career took him to New York City and Chicago.  Libbie found maternal love and support in her Williams and Van Dorn families and at age 20 married her second cousin, William Van Dorn who was almost twenty years her senior.  And she had a child.  Julia Burton Van Dorn.  Her heir.  Libbie and William eventually had separate households.   While William remained in Ithaca , Libbie and her daughter lived in Rochester where Libbie ran a boarding house and Julia worked at Kodak.  As a young woman Julia played the piano and spent many afternoons in my great grandmother’s Ithaca parlor serving tea.    A parlor with a marble top table and Brussels carpet.

It might be a leap to think my great grandmother’s table and carpet might be the ones mentioned in Deborah’s will…especially because they were willed to Libbie Johnson, but I do wonder.  And then there is the trunk.  My mother never mentioned a trunk and she had a memory for those details so it leaves me to think that Libbie passed the trunk on to her daughter, Julia.    Julia Burton Van Dorn became the wife of  John Fulmer Davis in 1925 in Trumansburg, a small town near Ithaca, New York.  Her father, William had died in 1922 and it is reasonable to think that she and her mother returned to settle William’s estate.    Libbie and  the newly weds moved to Binghamton, NY where Libbie’s father, Albert Johnson, had earlier retired and left a small estate upon his death in 1920.   Julia and John Davis had no children.   When Julia died in 1993, there was nowhere for the “Syratoga” trunk to go.  The close family connection was long gone.  My mother was the last of the Van Dorn Williams Purdy line to live in Ithaca and we had moved away in 1953.  Mom never mentioned Julia and if there had been a relationship, she most definitely would include her in our afternoon trips down memory lane.

Perhaps the trunk ended up in an antique store in Binghamton.  Perhaps a stranger treasures Deborah’s trunk.   I hope so.

Deborah Martin-Plugh

Author, Historian and Genealogical Researcher

(c) Copyright 2013.  All Rights Reserved

 

As You Are, I Once Was…

Presbyterian Cemetery Pioneer Burials
Enfield, New York

I spent this morning in my ancestral grounds of Enfield, New York…just above Cayuga’s waters…traipsing about the two old cemeteries in Enfield Center.  They are still active…meaning they have open lots and current burials…handsome new stones that neither tilt nor mildew and glisten in the summer sun.  But for the pioneer areas…Mother Nature is relentess and the presence of man is only embodied in the old epitaphs.  In the four years since I began to visit these cemeteries, the odds against these old monuments being here for another generation continue to rise.  My great great grandparents and my great grandparents are buried in the Presbyterian Cemetery. And my great great great grandmother, Elizabeth Weyburn Ingersoll.   Samuel D. Purdy and his wife, Semantha Ingersoll rest at the very back of the cemetery down a forbidding slope, but their monuments still sit fairly upright…the eight foot obelisk is a mighty sight.  More modestly…but more level and pristine sits the headstone of Elizabeth Weyburn, wife of Samuel Ingersoll, Jr. and daughter of Ovid and Ulysses pioneers Samuel Weyburn and Jane Bratton.

When my son, Mike, came with me a couple of years ago…he bullied his way down the overgrown slope and beat back the brush so we could visit their graves and lay a pink rose at each monument.   Mother Nature has reclaimed this grandson’s rude path and the blackberries with their prickly sentinels once again guard the way.   So I can only stand there from the high ground and zoom in with my camera to reassure myself that they are there for one more year.

I made my way down the Enfield Main Road to the Christian cemetery and walked up to the Van Dorn and Williams graves.  They remain as always…darker with mildew and pollen…but still upright and facing East as the Christian burial tradition dictated, but I cannot say that others have fared so well.  I still peek into the heavy brush at the back, but dare not enter…take a photograph or

Pioneer wife Lydia Baker’s broken monument

two…and then head south to the old debris pile to make sure that Judah Baker’s Revolutionary War Medallion is still stuck amidst the brush…and his wife, Lydia’s broken stone still sits…slowly being covered by broken wood, leaves and dirt.

I wish I were twenty years younger with my strong body and hands and fearless heart.  But I am a (gulp) senior citizen now and clearing and hauling brush and mending stone is for the next generation.  If they will.

As I drove away…it occurred to me that these pioneers settled this land…made the first roads and maintained them…most new ones follow the old turnpikes….many bear their names…Applegate…Harvey…Van Dorn.  Judah and Lydia Baker have a NYS historical marker at the road by Christian Cemetery.  And yet we shrug sympathetically…”there is no money…I don’t have time….someone else will do it.  Oh well…that’s how it goes…”.   Townships are strapped and spread thin and have priorities…that’s a reality.  The same holds true with cemetery associations.  What to do to preserve our history and honor those that struggled so that we could be free and live in this most amazing country?

I had put off joining the DAR…the economy has a grip on my purse. I still have the original papers from 2008…dated the day before Leaman fell.   But I think for me this might be the place to start…an organization that has in the past tackled these cemeteries…raising funds…getting grants…moving mountains to make sure our pioneer cemeteries continue to exist and stand as a testament to those that came before us.

I have told this story before…but it bears repeating.  Years ago I found an old cemetery and began to push through the rusty gate when an old and faded sign caught my eye.  It had hung on the gate at one time and had been as white as the snow.  Its letters once coal black as a raven’s eye were weathered and worn and the words barely legible.

“As you are, I once was.  As I am, you will be.”

I thought how poetic…it was as if the old sign whispered to me…the words as gray as a ghost.  I never looked at a pioneer cemetery the same way again…or the history and lives these old cemeteries represent.

It may start with a five dollar donation and rustling up some high school kids and college kids who love and study history…but the journey has to begin somewhere and if I cannot heft a sickle….I will tug at someone’s conscience and grab a hold of their change purse.

It’s just one Starbuck’s coffee away from reality.  And heck…THEY would approve…Starbucks were pioneer whalers….

What will you do to preserve history?

Deborah Martin-Plugh

Author, Historian and Genealogical Researcher

(c) Copyright 2012.  All Rights Reserved

Good Pioneer Stock

A Note to My Readers:  At first I intended to write primarily to my fellow historians…to share my experiences researching my family and to share analyses and tips…to be scholarly with a personal perspective, if you will.  Over the past two years, it has occurred to me that I am channeling the matriarchs of my family and their love and pride in their family history.  I am fortunate that my mother saw fit to trust me with her childhood memories, the Williams-Purdy family bible, boxes of photos from the 1800’s,  the days of the Roaring Twenties when she was a young “flapper”, the “Depression”, World War II, the Fifties…my childhood days, and the Sixties, my teen years.  She kept my report cards…from kindergarten on up.  I thought she was “weird”.  Now I am so grateful.  I suppose at some point I told my growing children about me…and my mother…maybe threw in an ancestor story or two.  But then they grew up and there was so much to tell and they are off into the busy world and making their own history.

Enfield Days

Oliver S. Williams, son of Dr. Parvis A. Williams and Lorinda Smith, was born in 1816 at Applegate Corners…just a short walk down Mecklenburg Road from the home of his future bride, Mary Van Dorn.  Mary’s parents had migrated from Somerset County, New Jersey and built a tavern in 1820 on what was then (as it is still) called Van Dorn corners.  Oliver took Mary as his bride on July 3, 1842 and the pair set up house and a business on land given to the newly weds by Dr. Williams.

Map of Applegate Corners in Enfield New York 1853

In 1843 Oliver and Mary welcomed their daughter, Mary Lorinda to their Enfield farm, followed by Henrietta, Elizabeth and Emiline.  The joyful early years were followed by a series of heart and spirit breaking events.  Before 1850 Oliver’s home and business had burned to the ground and part of the farm was sold at a Sheriff’s Sale.  In 1853 Henrietta and Emiline died within a few months of one another.  Their grandfather was a well known doctor, not just in Enfield, but in New York state as one of the charter members of the New York Medical Society.  It must have been a terrible experience to tend to his granddaughters to no avail.

But…as my mother would always remind me…”we are from good pioneer stock” and so the Williams family persevered and indeed flourished.  Daughters Mary Lorinda and Elizabeth…Libbie to family and friends…knew a comfortable life, a good education and the love and support of the Williams, Smith and Van Dorn families.  And the confidence that comes from the knowledge that they were “from good pioneer stock”.

So much of the family lore was passed down to me by my mother…along with Libbie Williams’ family bible, a smattering of old photos and Libbie’s petite rosewood chair.  Mom spent a good deal of time with her grandmother in the three story home perched on the hill on 307 Eddy Street in Ithaca. Afternoons of tea in the formal parlor crowded with marble topped tables and delicate china were accompanied by the childhood stories of “Mrs. E. A. Smith”, as she loftily referred to herself.  Tales of Libbie’s grandfather, Peter Van Dorn, and the early days of the tavern were a favorite.   Libbie’s father was a bit of an enigma, however.  That they were considered “well-to-do” was a certainty and if one had any doubt, Libbie would straighten up her tiny frame, pat her perfectly coiffed white hair and with the air of a “lady born of the manor” voice,  soundly cast doubt from your mind.

“Farmer” has a connotation of a hic, a hayseed, a bumpkin, a rube…that can get in the way of historical knowledge of the folks in an agrarian culture of the 1800’s and the boon of opportunities that our young nation provided.  Though Oliver’s occupation was listed as “farmer” in each of the federal census records, I knew from my great grandmother’s musings to my mother that Oliver had been some kind of speculator and that he had an adventurer’s spirit.  I am not sure what my mother thought that meant…just that it was another impressive word her grandmother would roll around her tongue.  And one never interrupted Grandma Smith when she was favoring you with her childhood reminiscences.

Oliver’s obituary tells that he spent some time in California.  Was he prospecting for gold like his brother-in-law Norman Van Dorn?  Or part of the land speculators of the early 1840’s and 50’s?  Young men from that area bought land in the rich Sonoma and Napa valleys during that period.  Perhaps one.  Perhaps both.

If you Blink, You will Miss It.

While I found the Van Dorns and the Williams and the Purdys (Libbie’s future husband’s family) all in their Enfield homes and businesses in the New York state census of 1865, Oliver S. Williams and his family were nowhere to be found.

Was the census record incomplete?  Not unheard of.  Or…were they living somewhere else?  Why would a successful farmer and produce buyer leave his boyhood home? The New York state census of 1865 is not indexed so a researcher has to know precisely where an individual lives and winnow down to the location and read each enumerated page to find them.  As my mother would say, “Huh!”.

Being a genealogist…a family historian…requires a laser focus at times…and the agility to temper it with global perspective.  A chain of events will impact family members and provide all manner of clues.

Case In Point

Estate of Peter Van Dorn

In 1866 Mary Williams’ father, Peter Van Dorn died.  In his 1867 estate probate record, Mary’s residence is given as “Corning, Steuben County, New York”.  Had I only focused on Oliver as the pivotal figure, I would have created my own brick wall.  It was with this critical piece of information that I went to familysearch.org and delved into the 1865 New York state census in the city of Corning, Steuben county, New York.

And there they were…Oliver, Mary, Mary Lorinda and Libbie with their servant, Ralph Reynolds, on page thirty-one.  The family was living in their wood frame home valued at a $3000.00 which in today’s commodity value would be $41,000.00…and one of the most expensive homes in the Corning area.

Oliver S. Williams of Enfield, New York, had moved his family to live in Corning, New York and had become a petroleum agent in Oil City, Pennsylvania.  A speculator, if you will.

By 1870 the family was back in their Enfield home.  Mary Lorinda had married dashing Colonel Albert Johnson and Libbie was now Mrs. Elbert Purdy.

Ithaca Days

Oliver S. Williams died in his Enfield home in 1887 and daughter, Mary Lorinda, would die at the age of 45 the next year leaving behind her husband, Albert and twelve year old daughter, Libbie Mary Johnson.   That same year Libbie Williams lost her husband, Elbert Purdy.  So Mary Van Dorn Williams packed up her Enfield home as did her daughter, Libbie Purdy and moved to Ithaca where the two women oversaw the raising of my grandfather, Burt Purdy and his brother, Wilmot.

Mary Van Dorn Williams died in her daughter’s Ithaca home on Pleasant Street in 1901 at the age of eighty-five.  She had fallen and broken her hip the year before and never really recovered.  Libbie had remarried to widower Charles R. Smith.  Upon Charles’ death in 1913… from that day forward she became Mrs. E. A. Smith…each letter and word pronounced distinctly from the other.  I wonder if I was the first to reclaim her as “Libbie” in scores of years.  When Grandma Smith died, she was ninety-two years old.  She died in her bed, stubbornly propping her head up with her hand.  She hadn’t laid down and died in all the years of highs and lows and I guess she wasn’t about to give the Grim Reaper much due either.

My mother was born in Ithaca..as was I…and the pull of that place seems to be stronger for me every day.  The Eddy Street home

Libbie Williams Purdy Smith with her son Burt S. Purdy of Ithaca New York

is long gone…razed by Cornell University to make room for one of its buildings, but my older cousins and brothers remember it…and Mrs. E. A. Smith well.  I was born seven years after her death so she is alive through my mother’s stories and those of “the boys”…my cousins and brothers.  These days we all share stories and memories of our parents and Ithaca and go back periodically to see one another from our scattered homes across the country.  I like to think that Libbie would approve.  Her grandchildren…”good pioneer stock”.

Authors Note:  Much of what I know about the illustrious Libbie Williams…daughter of Mary Van Dorn and Oliver S. Williams…wife of Elbert Purdy and with the self anointed title of  “Mrs. E. A. Smith”…comes from the precious moments my mother would share with me when I was young.  I dearly wished that I didn’t just listen with youth’s restless mind, but then the young girl that was to become my mother, no doubt, sipped her tea and dreamily watched the dust motes drift in the parlor while her grandmother gave up her most precious treasures to her granddaughter.  Her childhood memories.

And so I write.  For my children and my grandchildren.

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