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.


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.


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.


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.


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

Ithaca Days and Being Purdy

A Note to My Readers:  I write for my fellow researchers because they should revel in their family history…the process and the discovery and to remember to celebrate their own successes and to forgive their own blunders.  I write for my family because the stories of our family are all at once so inspiring, embarrassing, noble and undignified and so darn human.  Somewhere in my “Purdyness” I find the humor in the most impossible and difficult of moments and storytelling is a dominant gene that blesses and plagues me.  There is no rehab for that addiction and I am glad.

Seeking inspiration for a new post for my blog, I opened up a storage box full of black and white snapshots of my family from the 1950’s.  What I thought would take a half an hour of sorting for a quick nudge of inspiration turned into three hours of peering through the gray tones and enjoying the flashbacks of a voice, a gesture, a scent of perfume or the rustle of lovely fabric.  Scores of images and memories later, one photo rested on my lap as I was unwilling to put it back with the others.

The Purdy Gathering in 1956 Buffalo New York

One of my favorite photographs of my mother’s family was taken in the summer of 1956.  The Purdy siblings…surviving sisters Elizabeth, Mary, Deborah and Esther and their brother, Bill…. gathered with their families in the Buffalo, New York home of Mary Samantha Purdy Kroll and her husband, Harry.  It was the first time the Purdy children had been together under one roof since their Ithaca childhood in the 1920’s. 

I was eight years old and in the midst of the mélange of Purdy personalities, memories and the occasional serenade…all accompanied by spontaneous kisses and hugs…a cheek pinch from my Uncle Bill, cocktails, cigarettes and cigars and ridiculous amounts of food.  Fifty three years later I would gather in Ithaca with my cousins, brothers and my daughters with a deeper knowledge of our Purdy ancestors and a more profound love and appreciation for our parents and a wistful thought to 1956 and to the Ithaca history that is so much a part of who they were. And who we are.

Sisters, Silks and Conspiracy

Almost from her birth in 1900 eldest child Elizabeth had been raised in the home of her paternal grandmother, Elizabeth A. Williams Purdy Smith, the matriarch that even her great grandchildren who never knew her still deferentially call Grandma Smith.  Betty was doted upon by her grandmother while her sisters lived in the nearby, but more modest household of their parents.   Although she was pretentiously called “Elizabawth” by Grandma Smith and physically separated from her siblings and parents, she was their “Betty” and the sibling bond remained strong and loyal.  

The lovely dresses that hung in Betty’s wardrobe were beyond the means of parents Burt and Florence Purdy, but the mere distance of a block or two was no match for the devotion of Purdy sisterhood.  Betty’s younger sisters, Kathryn, Mary and Deborah were lively and vivacious and living in the midst of the dynamic “Roaring Twenties” period of Cornell campus life and there were fraternity parties to attend and eligible young men to dance with.  In a female conspiracy against a disapproving Grandma Smith and their unassuming parents, Betty’s party dresses were lowered from her second story bedroom to her giggling sisters waiting below.

Vibrant assortments of silks and chiffons were secreted behind the drapes of the girls’ shared bedroom until the sisters, freshly scented and hair bobbed and marseilled in the fashion of the day, were ready to greet their young beaus at the door.  With a quick kiss for Mama and Papa and their younger sisters, Esther and Ruth and and an adoring cuddle for infant brother,  Bill, the sisters Kathryn, Mary and Deborah and their dates swept out of the house in a waft of perfume and absconded finery.

Elizabeth “Betty” Curtis Purdy Crane

On June 23, 1900 Elizabeth Curtis Purdy was born to twenty-five year old haberdasher, Burt Samuel Purdy and his eighteen year old bride, Florence Curtis Purdy in Ithaca, New York.  She was named after Burt’s mother and with a nod to her teenage mother’s maiden name was given the middle name of Curtis.  Burt and Florence were still newlyweds and living at 205 Prospect Street with Florence’s parents when their daughter, Elizabeth was born. 

Elizabeth Curtis Purdy at eighteen

According to my mother, Grandma Smith took physical…not legal…custody of Elizabeth when she was just an infant and despite her mother’s sobbing and pleadings, Aunt Betty would not ever be returned to the Purdy household.   Thus Betty was raised on 322 Pleasant Street with her grandmother, her step grandfather, Charles Smith and his daughter, Vera.   After Charles died, Elizabeth purchased a home at 409 South Aurora Street.  Betty continued to live with her grandmother even past her marriage on February 7, 1928 to Robert Lupton Crane.  Their early married years were spent with Grandma Smith living with her in her home on 307 Eddy Street.  In the 1930 census 30 year old Betty is listed as 25 years old; Robert is correctly listed as 23 years old and Grandma Smith, like her granddaughter, has reported her age as five years younger than her correct age of eighty-two years old.

Eventually Bob and Betty Crane left Ithaca for his hometown of Buffalo, New York.  In the autumn of 1940, just months after the death of Grandma Smith, Betty and Bob adopted their newborn son and gave him the name Peter Van Dorn Crane.  Though Peter was named after our ancestral grandfather, Betty was fond of telling him that it was the name of her pet rooster…much to her amusement and much to Peter’s total confusion…a tale Peter and I had a grand chuckle over at our Purdy Gathering in Ithaca in the summer of 2009.

Silk Bosoms, Reno and Crimson  Busses

My earliest memory of Bob and Betty Crane was an infantile one to best describe it.  I was starting to talk…and I haven’t stopped yet.  My parents had driven from Ithaca to Buffalo to visit my mother’s sisters.  While the adults visited, I was put down for a toddler’s much needed nap on my aunt and uncle’s bed in their elegantly decorated master bedroom.  Peeking in on me, my mother and Aunt Betty noticed me rousing and came in to retrieve me.  “What beautiful skirtans!” I exclaimed to my mother and aunt which put them into fits of laughter. Both women liked to tell that story to me all during my childhood and even as a young bride on my wedding day, I heard the story again and again from the two sisters as they fondly reminisced about the little blonde toddler who admired her aunt’s choice in draperies.    

I remember Aunt Betty best in her Darlington apartment.  She was divorced and the only sister that drove a car.  And she had a “boyfriend”.  That made my aunt a woman of intrigue to me.  When we visited her, my sleeping arrangement was on her bedroom chaise lounge that had a direct view of her vanity table. The table featured an attached round mirror which reflected a riot of nail polish, perfume bottles, a silver framed photo of my cousin, Peter and an impossibly large crystal ashtray crowded with the lipstick stained remnants of her chain smoking habit.  A pull of the vanity table’s crystal knob revealed my aunt’s other treasures…usually a clot of loose diamonds rattling among out-of-favor lipsticks and a collection of match boxes from Reno.  I suspect the Reno match boxes were wistful souvenirs of her divorce from Bob.

Peter was as elegant to me as my aunt’s home.  The slightest hint of a bemused smile played about his serious young man’s face and lit up his eyes.  It was when he spoke with a clever and wry wit in his rich and rare baritone that Peter’s charm and warmth etched himself into my heart.  Fifty years later at our 2009 Purdy Gathering in Ithaca, I could have closed my eyes and picked his voice out of the hotel lobby full of gabbling people.

Aunt Betty’s living room was chic.  Silk banquette style couches surrounded a large round mirrored coffee table.  Dominating the coffee table was the obligatory oversized ashtray- the matching twin of the one that sat on her vanity- with its ever present Tarleton cigarettes.   The pristine white cylinders were neatly arranged in a monogrammed silver box while a host of their sullied brethren lay burnt and ringed with red in the deep recesses of the lovely ashtray.   Corals and turquoise tones accented with brilliant touches of faceted crystal pieces graced the small sitting room.  A vestige of Grandma Smith…a petite, carved rosewood chair with a white silk seat anchored one wall while against another wall a Philco AM/FM radio and 78 rpm record player highboy gave Betty the panache of a modern woman.

Among the iconic recollections of chic and cigarettes resides the equally important imagery of bosoms and blossoms…silk to be exact.  Betty had been the only sister to be graced with an ample bosom…a physical trait that even in her dotage, she proudly flaunted and invariably anchored with a delicate, but large silk bloom.  Her dramatic embraces usually entailed a bit of perfumed smothering accompanied by a solid buss upon a cheek  that required one to take an oxygenating breath and make a subtle swipe to remove  the tell tale crimson lip print.

I must confess that I have a tendency toward serious hugging and leaving behind a trace of my own shade of lipstick.  I just pretend I don’t see anyone swiping the affectionate method of Purdy branding from their cheek.

 Kathryn Louise Purdy

Kathryn Louise Purdy

Born three years after Elizabeth, Kathryn Louise Purdy was christened Kathryn after her maternal grandmother, Kate D.  Curtis and her grandmother’s sister, Jennie Louise.  Like her sister Betty, she was a lovely brunette but with sable brown eyes.  My mother only spoke of Kathryn on occasion.  Kathryn and my mother shared a bed in their second story bedroom on Tompkins Street and my mother said she was Kate’s shadow.  Though still tinged with the never forgotten grief of her loss, the picture my mother painted of Kathryn was of a vivacious young woman, full of life and fun.  The leader of the Purdy girls at home, she was the instigator in the “party frock conspiracy”.  Though she was courted by many Cornell “swells” who would drive up to their home in a Stutz Bearcat and sporting a raccoon coat, she had one steady beau that held her heart.  Sometime in her twentieth year, she became mysteriously ill and her desperate family and baffled physicians sent her to Florida in hopes for a “cure”.   Within a few weeks, mortally ill Kathryn…Kate like her grandmother…returned on a train to die at home on April 24th  1924 surrounded by her family and grieving beau.  

Mary Samantha Purdy Kroll

Mary Purdy Kroll

Mary Samantha Purdy was named after her two paternal great grandmothers, Mary Van Dorn Williams and Semantha Ingersoll Purdy though my Aunt Mary always told everyone her name was Mary Ann.  She was the first to marry.   In 1923 eighteen year old Mary Purdy eloped with furrier Harry Aaron Kroll and left her Ithaca family to create her own family in Buffalo, New York.  Sons Harrison (Hak) and Robert (Bobby) were born and raised in Buffalo, New York. 

Aunt Mary was the Buffalo “hostess with the mostess” and affectionately called her loved ones “Tweetsdie-Dins”.  Her 419 Voorhees Avenue Tudor bungalow was always open to friends and family.  Mary’s fashionable plum and ice blue kitchen was the heart of the home for her and cooking was definitely her joy and long suit.   In the spring of 1952 I spent a period of time with my Aunt Mary.  I was four years old and ate my first waffle with strawberries and whipped cream which was prepared by her German maid and served at the breakfast bar.   

Aunt Mary’s vanity table was a concoction of powders, perfumes and brushes and mirrors that eerily resembled that of my mother’s and my Aunt Betty’s.   A dainty perch for its mistress completed the feminine tableau where with a pat of her hand, Aunt Mary would summon me to sit beside her and observe her beauty ritual.  A lesson in choosing the right lipstick and matching nail polish to complement one’s apparel along with a quick dash to her walk in closet to peer among the furs and lovely dresses became our morning ritual.

Tallulah Bankhead, Snickers and Flash Gordon

Aunt Mary kept her cigarette holder on the telephone stand that sat at the base of the banister and was a ready prop for a kid that had a bent for entertainment.  To the amusement of my aunt and uncle, I mimicked actress Tallulah Bankhead with my aunt’s cigarette holder casually perched in my upturned hand, tossing my head and drawling “Dahling” as I sashayed down their long staircase. 

I was not the sole entertainer in the household.  In fact, my Uncle Harry, a rakish ukulele performer and lively vocalist often gathered with Hak at the piano and Bob on guitar to favor us with a bit of pre dinner revelry.  Bob was cousin crush material.  He was older and wore his clothes like James Dean.  I was homesick for my big brothers and Bobby made me his little sister that spring, lifting me to his shoulders and dashing through the house with me with his whoops and my giggles filling the air.  Harry with his neatly trimmed moustache and silk smoking jacket and Mary’s girlish and twinkling eyes, delicately perfumed wrists and her crisp organdy cocktail apron tied at a trim little waist are an enduring and endearing image in my memory.

I ate Chinese food when I didn’t know what or where China was.  I watched “Flash Gordon” on the Krolls stylish, modern RCA television with my cousin, Bob and learned to love Snickers lovingly dispensed from my Aunt Mary’s “candy drawer” at the right side of her sink.  I rode the escalator at Hengerer’s, Buffalo’s leading retail store where my uncle Harry was a furrier.  I banged tunelessly on the piano in imitation of my cousin, HAK.  I sat silently in the breakfast nook…a difficult task for the chatterbox that I was…am…while my Uncle Harry ate his soft boiled egg and toast over the Buffalo News.  I was tenderly loved by the Krolls that spring and I will never forget it.

I am 63 years old and fantasize about knocking on the door of 419 Voorhees Avenue to peek inside at the stairway where I flounced and into the living room where male voices blended in song and to test the air for the faint suggestion of waffles and strawberries emanating from my aunt’s kitchen.

Deborah Jane Purdy Martin

Deborah Jane Purdy

Another girl.  By now the Purdy household was a bastion of females and it seems it was preordained for Burt to be surrounded by females…his mother, his Aunt Mary Purdy Russell, his grandmother, Mary Van Dorn Williams and now his wife and daughters.  But this daughter was blonde with hazel eyes…more like him physically than his other daughters who favored the Curtis family. 

My mother’s recollections of Papa and Mama were not so much of a husband and wife, but more of a series of vignettes of them as individuals. There was Papa making popcorn for the children and encouraging them to do their homework.  Mama was so beautiful that men would often gawk at her even when she carried her children. Papa was a “tailor’s dummy” and always dressed nattily and sporting a bowler hat.  Mama was meek and kind and never raised her voice.  And there were the fires. 

In the early 1900’s the steep hills atop which Ithaca is perched and the large wood frame houses that were and still are the composition of dwellings along with the method of gas and wood fires for heating and light created a frightful combination that often resulted in disastrous fires.  Grandma Smith was burned out of one home and the Purdys were burned out of two.  Thankfully no lives were lost, but family treasures were victims of the flames.  Oliver S. Williams’  letters written in the mid 1800’s from California to his wife, Mary Van Dorn Williams…keepsakes that Mary kept bundled in a satin blue ribbon were claimed by fire and my mother spoke often of Grandma Smith’s melancholic and continuing distress over the demise of her father’s love letters to her mother.  Only Ruth had a dangerous brush with fire.  After wandering too close to the wood stove in the kitchen, her frock caught fire and my grandmother had to chase her as she ran screaming and bring her down to the ground while beating back the flames with her bare hands. 

There never seemed to be much money in the Purdy household and yet the girls made their own entertainment.  The front sidewalk at the base of the large steps to the house was the site of girlish games of hopscotch and jacks and dolls.  My mother taught me to make my own paper dolls…something she had mastered when she and her sisters were young.  Summer meant the weekly appearance of the ice wagon pulled by a dappled gray horse.  While the obedient creature stood at the side of the street, the ice man grappled with large chunks of ice harvested that winter from Cayuga Lake.  As he headed up the steep front stairs with the large block upon his shoulder, the girls would approach the gray beast and gently touch his soft nose and offer him a lovely dose of little girl affection.  Chips of ice at the back of the wagon would be brushed into the cradle of a skirt and after a quick dash to the welcoming shade of a tree, the sisters would sit and let the delicious cool of the ice melt in their mouths.

Excitement in Ithaca in my mother’s childhood went beyond fires, gentle horses, hopscotch and ice.  Movies were being made in Ithaca…at the Wharton Studios in what is now Stewart Park.  Stars like Pearl White and Lionel Barrymore and magician Harry Houdini walked the streets of Ithaca while filming on location amidst the breathtaking scenery at the foot of Cayuga Lake.  It was during this heyday that my mother met and was befriended by legendary dancer and actress, Irene Castle. 

By 1924 my mother was a freshman at Ithaca High School.  Sister Kathryn had died that year, but there was the comfort and distraction of three younger siblings that had been added to the Purdy family-twelve year old Esther, seven year old Ruth and five year old brother, Bill.  Elizabeth was still at Grandma Smith’s home and Mary had married the previous year so that left my fifteen year old mother as the eldest child in the household and without the company of her sister companions that had comforted her.  Florence and Burt by this time were most definitely strangers under the same roof.  Money was scarce and it wasn’t long before my mother left school, her family home and her childhood behind.  Mom found a room at a girl’s only boarding house and cleaned houses by day and took courses at night to pass her GED and then went on to secretarial school where she learned dictation, typewriting and bookkeeping.  The flighty young teen that danced with Franchot Tone at Delta Tau Delta became a serious adult before her eighteenth birthday.

Deborah and a Serious Young Man

Ferg…as my siblings and I affectionately call our mother…or Grace L ….worked as a secretary at the Morse Chain where she met my father, Albert E. Martin.  “He was a serious young man,” Mom told me many times.  Dad was a shipping clerk in those days and the serious young man worked his way up to be one of their youngest traffic managers and making enough money to finally marry my mother on July 30, 1932.

The first four years of their marriage brought my three brothers, Gale, Dave and Dick into the world and my mother’s previous life of female influence was overturned by the masculine whirlwind of three boys, dogs, train sets and constant roughhousing.  During that time my brothers and my parents moved into their first home, a little white house on York Street where my father finished the wood floors.  Dad was a volunteer fireman at that time and my mother loved to tell me about the night that he had to climb out their bedroom window to respond to his fire company’s alarm.  He had just finished the lovely, golden oak floors and they were perfect.  I understand that part of my father.  I have in my own way leaped out of a number of “windows” to preserve my masterpieces.

Before World War II Dad left Morse Chain and opened his own businesses in Ithaca…first a gas station and then a full service parking garage on State Street.  Business was good and after the war, my parents built their house on South Plain Street and welcomed their first girl…me…eleven days after the death of my maternal grandmother.   Five years later when my parents were in their mid-forties, my sister Mary was born. 

Mom was the only sister to remain in Ithaca and had more intimate and constant contact with her parents and Grandma Smith than her siblings during that time.  Burt and Florence lived separate lives sometime after 1930.  In 1937 Burt was 63 years old and living with his 89 year old mother at 307 Eddy Street and, no longer a haberdasher, is working at his older brother’s profession as a house painter.  By 1944 Burt and Florence are clearly living apart as evidenced by their individual listings in Manning’s Ithaca Directory.  Burt is in the nursing home on Geneva Street suffering from what my mother described as “milk leg” – a lay term of the day for phlebitis.  Burt blamed his condition on the incessant ladder climbing of his late in life career.   Florence is living as a housekeeper on South Meadow Street RD5 with her friend, DeForest G. “Ducky” Drake.

My parent’s South Plain Street home was within walking distance to South Meadow Street, but my grandmother suffered greatly from debilitating arthritis and almost exclusively went everywhere in her coupe…her pride and joy.  Mobility was so difficult for her at that time that she would often park the car in our driveway and visit with my mother there.  My brothers loved the gadgetry and knobs and if they boyishly fiddled with her car, Florence would gently chide, “Don’t meddle, dolly”.  

“Ducky” was a fisherman…as were my young brothers.  Ithaca with its gorges and streams is a fisherman’s paradise and many times my brothers, pole slung over their shoulders and a baloney sandwich packed for the excursion, would come upon Ducky fishing at Enfield Falls with our grandmother comfortably ensconced in her coupe under a nearby tree.

My clearest memories of my mother’s emotional connection to her sisters and brother…aside from visits to Buffalo, New York, Texas and Massachusetts…revolved around Christmas.  My mother loved Christmas and with very little money to create the delights of her favorite holiday, my mother puts Martha Stewart with her open-ended budget to shame.  My father had died in 1958 having lost his business in the early 1950’s.  We had been broke and struggling in Auburn ever since, but my mother’s Purdy style…or perhaps it was more of the determined spirit of her grandmother, Grandma Smith…manifested.  We strung popcorn and cranberries and the rich tones of a newly purchased Nat King Cole album uplifted our hearts.  

With a new spring in her step and her eyes sparkling with Christmas spirit and a precious small sum in her purse, my mother boarded the bus for downtown Auburn where she purchased red beeswax candles and gold and silver sequins and a few yards of red organdy.   Cigars were packaged in crisp, white tissue for “Brother”.  That snowy weekend mom made hot chocolate and my sister and I sat at our kitchen table and pushed pinned, glittering sequins into the beeswax while my mother meticulously sewed festive holiday cocktail aprons for her sisters.    My mother was happy again after my father’s sudden death in the blizzard of February 1958 and all it took was a bit of sequins, a waft of organdy and a bundle of cigars…and some childhood stories told to her daughters over steaming cups of cocoa. 

I mistakenly thought of my mother as a lone, brave figure during those sad years.  Thinking about my mother…really considering her and her life proved me wrong.  Oh, she was brave.  But she wasn’t lone.  Her siblings were in Buffalo and Texas and Massachusetts and in those days that might as well have been on the moon.  My mother never drove and riding the bus to downtown Auburn…was her accommodation for travel…transplanting the trolleys she rode in her Ithaca youth.   Letter writing and lovely cards with the occasional excitement of a long distance call had to suffice for the more satisfying visit over a cup of tea.  Despite the passing of decades and her sense of overwhelming geographic distances, my mother was as close to her sisters and brother…and mama and papa…as the Ithaca Days she held in her heart.

Esther Madonna Purdy

Esther Purdy Mulloy

My grandmother must have been feeling very biblical and maternal when her fifth daughter was born.  Esther’s biblical character was born in poverty, but eventually became the Queen of Persia.  Chosen for her beauty by Persian King Xerxes, Esther proved to be not only beautiful, but wise and kind and a woman of great courage.  Florence’s great hopes for her daughter’s future were certainly embodied in her choice of names.  Sentimental promise was the only dowry that Florence Purdy could provide her newborn daughter in 1912. 

In the early summer of 1953 my mother ignored her sense of security with the earthbound transportation afforded by trolleys and buses and boarded a TWA airplane with my sister and me and flew to Dallas with a stopover in Chicago.  We were going to the moon…to Texas…to visit my mother’s sister, Esther whose King was not Xerxes of Persia, but oilman L. B. Mulloy of Longview, Texas.  I distinctly remember the experience of walking to the airplane across the tarmac and holding my breath against the strong odor of aviation fuel all the while hanging onto my mother’s skirt.  “Stay with mommy,” my mother shouted above the high-pitched whine of idling engines.  

I was six years old that early summer and discernment and awareness was beginning to wire itself into my blond head.  Approaching the steps to the airplane,  I peered around my mother’s skirt and saw a flight of stairs that appeared insurmountable.  One breathtaking scoop and I was in the arms of the gray uniformed copilot and being brought up the steps like visiting royalty.  He was Prince Charming and Flash Gordon with a hint of Old Spice.   Civility and elegance was part of the flight experience in those days.  The flight crews were romantic figures…always crisply dressed and the essence of good manners and style.  Passengers dressed in their finest Sunday attire.  Ladies and Gentlemen.  Hats and Gloves.  Sweatshirts were for college jocks and never left the locker room.  Travel by air was elegant.

Our flight to Texas had one stop over…in Chicago.  The trip was a stomach dropping introduction into flight.  We hit violent thunderstorms with updrafts around the Great Lakes and by the time we landed at O’Hare, the adults were as gray as the flight crew’s uniforms.   Ashen and shaken the passengers were escorted to the terminal gate for their connection to the Dallas leg of the flight.  After a period of time, a TWA representative came to the cluster of travelers to personally inform us that all flights were grounded until the next day when the storms were expected to have cleared.  We were in Chicago…somewhere between the moon and Auburn, New York…in the days before credit cards and cell phones and when a woman carried only enough cash for a lovely sandwich and a cup of tea.  But it was 1953 and Howard Hughes owned TWA and ladies and young children weren’t left to their own devices in the cavernous O’Hare terminal overnight.  Nosirree.  

Once again…in the arms of a uniformed TWA officer, my exhausted little body was held aloft and swept along to our waiting hotel room with a heated bottle of milk and a crib for my sister and a warm meal and hot bath for my mother and me.  All courtesy of Texas resident and celebrity, Mary Martin…a stranded fellow traveler.  Miss Martin was returning to her Texas home from Chicago and was intrigued to see my sister’s name beside hers on the passenger roster…Mary Martin…and being informed of our dilemma saw to it that we were treated to a good dose of Texas style hospitality.  Texas, here we come.

The Moon

There were horses…and cows…and fences…and barns and a neat little house at the end of a dirt road with a quaint little pond with bullfrogs, but the setting could not have been more foreign to me than if we did indeed land on the moon.  The grass was not lush, soft and green and the earth was gritty and almost without color.  And the ants were not benign little critters that scurried through the blades and across the sidewalk, but biting, ferocious monsters whose stinging brought grown men to tears.  Still there was my aunt’s lemonade and her iced tea and barbecues that brought neighbors from everywhere and lasted past my bedtime.  The cows were steers and not the gentle black and white bossies of my central New York family farms. 

Cousins Wayne and Gay Andrea were young adults that summer and walked among the “big people” occasionally giving notice to their little cousin with a pat on the head.  Andrea was a blond Texas young lady coming into her own and one afternoon I sat mesmerized on the porch next to a pair of deliciously white majorette boots…smelling of fresh polish and sporting new pompoms…watching Andrea deftly twirl and toss a baton.  I drove my mother crazy that year with my adoration of Andrea and the image of the flashing and spinning baton.  That Christmas, nestled under the tree and just the right size for a six year old, a pair of white boots and a baton found its way from the Lone Star state.

My cousin, Mike and I became fast companions as we were the closest in age and definitely “middle” children.  He taught me to collect eggs and how to avoid the perturbed hens and the lord of the yard, the large rooster.  He showed me a black snake and like any good southern gentlemen, didn’t chase me with it to make me scream.  I had my first taste of watermelon in that hot Texas summer and Mike gamely showed me the ropes of biting the cold, wet pulp and spitting out the seeds.  In the summer of 2009 Mike and I eschewed the gathering of eggs and spitting watermelons seeds for gathering with our Purdy family in Ithaca and ice cold martinis…which we definitely did not spit out.

Snuggled into the first floor bedroom, I fell asleep to the sounds of my mother and her sister, Esther’s voices as they sat on the front porch surrounded by the deep Texas night.  Their voices were so alike that at first it was hard to tell them apart, but the drop of a flat A or the intrusion of a “y’all” identified each sister nestled in the darkness.

My sister learned to walk that summer and I went to school that fall with a decided Texas drawl…y’alling my way around the James Street schoolyard until time and the lack of Texas family leached it away.

Ruth Norma Purdy

Ruth Norma Purdy

The year before her birth her forty–two year old father had declared bankruptcy.  Nothing was new in the Purdy household that year except little Ruth and father Burt who had been a haberdasher since his eighteenth birthday was out of work.  Ithaca was having an economic struggle at that time and retail took the biggest hit. 

Little Ruthie, as my mother spoke of her, was her living doll.  She carried her about and mothered Ruth in a way that only an eight year old sister is capable of.  That was a hard year and it distinctly marked my mother’s in such a way that her recollections would pendulum swing from warm familial love to the hurt of a child that knows true poverty.

Ruth’s short life was framed by her family’s economic shortcomings, cataclysmic fire, older sister Kathryn’s death and her own tragic death at the age of nine.  On a warm April day, she and her childhood friend, Lillian Hull, sat on the steps outside the Ithaca neighborhood store after the rare treat of a purchase of penny candy.  The two girls instantly died…crushed under the automobile driven by a retired Cornell professor who lost control of his new vehicle…stepping on the accelerator instead of the brake.  Everyone knew the Purdys and someone was sent to fetch my grandmother.  She ran down the street, her long hair falling from its carefully placed pins, calling for her child and finally arriving at the horrifying scene, falling to her knees.   My mother told me that my grandmother’s waist length hair “turned white overnight” that year.


Curtis Wilmot Purdy

And then there was Bill…Billy…Brother.    Curtis Wilmot Purdy to be precise.  On February 4, 1919 the Purdy household finally had a boy and baby Curtis was immediately and affectionately called “Brother”.   As was a common tradition of the time, a son was given a family name, but this time, the only son was not given his father’s name or even his grandfather’s.  He was given his mother’s maiden name and his uncle’s first name.  In retrospect it is fitting that Bill was given his mother’s maiden name.  Mother and son were exquisitely and exclusively tied with love and affection for one another.

Burt had found his economic footing having spent a year or so working for the World War I effort building wooden frames for biplanes at the Thomas Morse Airplane Company.   By the time his son was born, he was back in the retail business and managing the men’s apparel establishment, the Square Deal Clothing Store on 110 South Cayuga Street.  Burt had his beloved bowler hats again and now at long last, a son to carry on the Purdy name.

Uncle Bill as the young prince of the family knew the infinite and sentimental affection of the women in his family while his father fitted and fussed over the young gents of the day and their finery.  Unlike his grandfather, Elbert, Bill did not spend his days in the aisles of his father’s mercantile, but instead wiled his early days under the influence and admiration of his sisters and mother.

Bill was always larger than life.  At the slightest provocation or with none at all, he sang Irish ballads in a clear and true tenor voice.  His cigars were monumental and if you were not fleet enough to avoid it, you were left gingerly comforting your cheek after one of his hearty pinches.  If you asked for a sandwich, he would order a steak.  No distance was too great, no weather too extreme to waylay the loyalty and love of Uncle Bill.

Orange Juice, Cigars and The Blizzard of ‘58

A brutal central New York blizzard in the February of 1958 brought about the death of my 52 year old father.  I was ten years old.   My sister was five and my brothers were grown and gone.  My father died at my feet on our kitchen floor of a massive coronary and his body was carried over the two story drifts to a waiting snow plow truck.  We were in shock and numb…our little ship adrift.   My brother, Dick, was stationed at Quonset Point, RI, near my uncle’s Massachusetts home.  Bill hung up the phone, packed his bags, kissed my Aunt Mary and two year old cousin, Chris, stuck a cigar into the corner of his mouth and headed out into the Nor’easter.

The first leg of his trip was to get to my brother in Quonset Point and Bill bullied the car through the storm, tucked Dick into the front seat and set out for New York State.  The New York State Thruway Berkshire and New England connections wouldn’t be opened until the fall of that year and that meant driving through the howling storm on the switchback roads and hairpin turns of the Berkshires and Adirondacks and through the Mohawk Valley.  Bill’s sales territory had been Elmira and Penn Yan in his post WWII days and he knew not only the location of every gas station, but he was on a first name basis with damned near every owner.  Hands clutching the wheel and crossing his now Catholic heart, he headed into the Mohawk Valley. 

In the haste and grief of the moment my brother had packed and left his base without remembering to eat, but Bill had come armed with a big brown sack of baloney sandwiches.  Unfortunately, Bill had left behind anything for the pair to drink and despite the sad circumstances, this is where the story has always put my family on the floor with laughter.

Somewhere around the city of Amsterdam, my brother couldn’t ignore his thirst.  It had become so acute due to the salty baloney sandwiches that it had become an obsessive craving for orange juice.  Undaunted and determined to get his nephew the comfort he craved, Bill pulled into the nearest Mom and Pop store he spied.  Besides this was as good time as any to gas up the car, light a cigar and “take care of business”.    Bill had been steadily driving, leaning into the windshield to stay on the road, for over twelve hours.

Standing near the front entrance of the little store was the newest acquisition of the store owner…a vending machine.  With orange juice.  Now put away the modern day experience of cold, canned or boxed juice…or if you have a penchant for crap…orange drink.  This tribute to 1950’s technology offered FRESH! SQUEEZED! ORANGE JUICE!  Unfamiliar with the vending gadget, my brother put in the proper amount of coins…and nothing happened.  Crazed for juice…exhausted…tense…grief stricken, Dick kept feeding the coins into the hungry monster waiting for something to happen that would slake his thirst.  The car freshly gassed up, extinguished cigar butt resting on a snow bank and business taken care of, Bill came to fetch Dick and get back on the road.

Upset and maddened by thirst, Dick haltingly explained that no juice was coming out despite putting in the coins.  Bill patted my brother on the shoulder and pressed the PUSH button.  My brother blushed, but was too grateful and anticipating the juice when…well, the juice hit the fan.  The first cup dispensed, an orange half dropped down, was gently squeezed and voila.  There was juice.  And the oranges kept coming.  Cups and cups and oranges and oranges endlessly dropped down, the two men barely keeping up with the process.  Dick had inadvertently dropped enough coins in the vending machine to basically clean out its inventory, but in the end, he and Bill had had a much needed laugh…and a few gallons of freshly squeezed orange juice for the rest of the trip home.

My Uncle Bill was sentimental enough to cry without shame, sing at the top of his voice in public, smoked cigars and drank Irish whiskey despite his physician’s pleas, regularly played poker…for money… on Friday nights with the parish priests and smothered his family with unabashed love and affection.  His Massachusetts home was always open to family members…whether you wanted to or not.  Bill didn’t take “No” for an answer.  You were a captive…locked in with an overwhelming abundance of love.  My Aunt Mary dealt with all of his larger-than-life drama with an occasional “Christ, Bill” and his son, Christopher worked his way through his father’s loving pride with what I can only call good Irish humor. But in the company of his sisters, he was Brother and crying and singing and smoking and drinking, poker and smothering Purdy love was legend and inevitable.

In our 2009 Purdy Gathering in Ithaca, Chris and I fell into the easy habit of Purdy reminiscing-something he and I have done over the years -in person, in letters and now emails and blogs.  Ithaca is a magnet for us and there is something physical about our “going home” to Ithaca.  It is easy to walk those streets and sense our family there.   We will be back for a stroll down Cayuga Street and a hike up into “the heights” and to listen for the sounds of the long gone trolley or the nicker of a dappled gray horse and in classic Purdy sentimentality share the rich stories of our Purdy family.

Author’s Postscript

I apologize to all those who worked their way through this lengthy post.  I had not intended it to be immense, but once a Purdy is wound up to tell a story and it is about a cast of Purdys… you…and I…are all but doomed.

So thank you for your tenacity and I hope it was good for you…it was for me.

Sunday, Serendipity and Survivors at Cayuga Lake-Notes from the Field

Notes to My Readers:  Sometimes our history reaches out to us as a reminder of just how precious and serendipitous our existence is.  It is a wise researcher who recognizes the circumstances of our ancestors and takes the time to consider just how we…you and I…come to be…or not.
Sunday, Serendipity and Survivors at Cayuga Lake

It was Sunday.  My son and I had experienced a most wonderful Saturday in the field.  Mike had found the obelisk of his maternal 3rd great grandparents, Samuel D. Purdy and Semantha Ingersoll and the monument of Semantha’s mother, Elizabeth Weyburn Ingersoll in the old Presbyterian Cemetery in Enfield, NY.  I was thrilled for Mike and grateful for his enthusiasm to assist me in my two year struggle to find them among a dense tangle of bramble and treacherous collapsed earth.  Everything that Saturday seemed a path of fateful synchronicity.

Sunday was supposed to be our day without intense purpose.  The sun was shining.  The leaves were beginning to show their glorious autumn colors.  The lake was sapphire blue.  And we were visiting a pioneer cemetery in Lansing for the first time.  The plan was to photograph the Miller Cemetery which is the resting place of my Case, Bowker and Learn forebears.   With the use of iPhone technology we would archive each burial using digital photography and establish GPS coordinates for each individual burial location.  And pay our respects to my paternal 4th great grandparents, John and Elizabeth Freece Learn and their daughter, Sarah Learn Case and her husband, John R. Case…my 3rd great grandparents.

Miller Cemetery

Small rural cemeteries are a source of valuable information for family researchers.  In the last century individuals and organizations such as the D.A.R. had walked the cemeteries and recorded their observations in various methods.  There was no standard, scientific manner and so you will find the burial listings as simple as name, birth date and death date or thanks to a literal soul a more detailed accounting that would include the location and condition of the stone.  On occasion a local would provide personal knowledge regarding the individuals buried in the cemetery such as a maiden name or military service or family relationship.   These databases are a solid way to begin.  To begin.  They are as fallible as the collectors and those that typed in the information.  In the past year or so, I have taken on the task of validating the burial data with field visits.  A curious mix of practical, data mining for my research and an intensely personal, sentimental journey.

The country road was lined with what was left of this year’s corn crop only interrupted on occasion by a modest home or a stand of woods.  It was peaceful.  After pulling off the road next to the old cemetery which was surrounded by tall woods, we approached the rusty farm-style gate.    The only sounds were the gentle wind soughing through the trees and the half-hearted bark of a neighboring dog.  Stepping through the gate, we found ourselves in a well-kept glade.  Among the old pioneer stones, one or two new granite monuments sparkled in the dappled sunlight.  Small American flags fluttered next to the graves of long gone veterans of past conflicts…the Civil War and WWI.   It was clear that these pioneer families had modern-day caretakers who saw to Miller Cemetery and Mike and I wondered if those caretakers just might be descendants of those who rested there.  And we understood they were our family, too.

John Learn (20 Apr 1779-1867)

John was the son of George and Anna Brink Learn and the grandson of Johannes Martinus and Cadarina Learned of Tannersville, Pennsylvania.  Johannes Learned came to America before 1750 and moved his family from Philadelphia to Tannersville, Northampton (now Monroe) County, Pennsylvania  in 1750.  The Learns, as they eventually spelled their name, operated a tavern in Tannersville, a small settlement nestled in the Pocono Mountains and strategically located in the Delaware Water Gap.

As reported in HISTORY OF WILKES-BARRE LUZERNE COUNTY, PENNSYLVANIA FROM ITS FIRST BEGINNINGS TO THE PRESENT TIME; INCLUDING CHAPTERS OF NEWLY-DISCOVERED EARLY WYOMING VALLEY HISTORY, Volume II BY OSCAR JEWELL HARVEY,  “Learn’s was at that time the outpost of Northampton County civilization on the road to Wyoming”.  The Learn family was one of a handful of white pioneers in that area of Pennsylvania.

During that time the colonies were not only fighting with the British for the survival of a nation, but the pioneer families also were engaged in periodic violent conflict with Native American tribes.  A pivotal event in Pennsylvania and New York State history was an expedition across the Pocono Mountains known as “Sullivan’s March” in June 1779.  Planned by General George Washington, the purpose of Sullivan’s March was to exterminate and destroy the hostile tribes of the Indians of the Six Nations. It was a mission to which the Congress assigned as a high priority.

Pennsylvania Historical Marker-Sullivan’s March

There is a historical marker on the corner of Route 611 and Old Mill Road in Tannersville. It reads: “Learned’s Tavern marked the end of the second day march from Easton to Forty Wyoming at Wilkes Barre. The army camped here June 19th 1799 after a 16 mile march from Heller’s Tavern.”

The Massacre

Journalist and Author  Charles Miner, in the History of Wyoming writes about the Larned (Learn) family tragedy: “On the 3rd of July 1781, a bloody and most melancholy tragedy was enacted on the road leading from Wyoming to the Delaware at Stroudsburg. Mr. Larned, an aged man and his son George, were shot and scalped near their house. Another son, John, shot an Indian, who was left dead on the spot where he fell. The savages carried off George Larned’s wife [Anna] and an infant [baby daughter, Susanna], four months old.”

The book Genealogy of Western Pennsylvania – Volume II by J. W. Jordan (1915) adds that “At the time of the massacre George Learn’s little son, John (my4th great grandfather), was taken by an aunt, who escaped (family tradition says) out a window with him, to the shelter of some bushes, where they remained concealed. A little dog followed them from the house, and in order not to be betrayed by him, the aunt muffled his head in an apron she wore.”

John Learn Monument – Miller Cemetery

Standing next to John Learn’s monument, I briefly told the tale of his miraculous survival to my son.  “Wow, Mom,” Mike exclaimed after a brief silence.  “Yeah, Wow,” I replied.    By now we had had a number of conversations about the struggles of pioneer life and have a keen respect for just what that means to our own existence.   Wow, indeed.

Taughannock Falls

The sun was strong and the day was young so Mike and I decided to continue our meanderings along Cayuga Lake and in the footsteps of our ancestors.  After a visit to my grandparent’s graves in Cayuga Heights, and wandering among the many monuments and mausoleums of Lakeview Cemetery, we made our way into Ithaca.  Our morning’s trekking had left us ravenous and in need of a break.  Refreshed after a leisurely lunch at Simeon’s Bistro and one of their signature Bloody Marys, we headed to Taughannock Falls.   At the overlook we joined a dozen tourists snapping photographs of the breathtaking view, but our visit was more of a pilgrimage.

In 1790 Samuel Weyburn had left his homestead in the Wyoming Valley of Pennsylvania and with his family built a log cabin at the base of Taughannock Falls.

The Massacre

Our young country was in the throes of war with England and the hostilities were not limited to the battlefield.  A force of eight hundred Tories and Indians under Colonel John Butler swooped down from New York upon the settlement of New Englanders in the Wyoming Valley. Samuel was one of the Connecticut Yankees that had settled in the Wyoming Valley as part of the Susquehanna Purchase. The settlers numbered something more than three thousand souls. Though there was local militia men which included Samuel, they were ill prepared for defense, as most of their young men had joined the fighting in the battlefields with the Continental army. The local militia of some three hundred men, commanded by Colonel Zebulon Butler went into battle on July 3, near the site of Wilkes-Barre.

After an hour of fierce fighting, the Americans broke and fled for their lives, but more than half of them were slain in the battle or in the massacre that followed. The British commander afterward reported the taking of “227 scalps,” and laid all the blame on the Indians. During the night the Indian thirst for blood seemed to increase, and next day they began anew the massacre. The fort in which many had taken refuge surrendered, and the lives of the occupants were spared by the English commander, but the Indians put many of the others to the tomahawk. All who could do so fled to the woods, and a large number perished in crossing a swamp, which has since been called the “Shades of Death.” Others perished of starvation in the mountains.

Samuel is my maternal 4th great grandfather and on July 3, 1778 thirty-two year- old Samuel was one of just over two dozen men who survived the Wyoming Massacre.

Taughannock Falls October 2010

For the second time that day Mike and I had the same exchange.  “Wow, Mom”.  “Yeah.  Wow.”

And there we stood, mother and son, descendants of the two massacre survivors, over two hundred years later, standing in the October sunlight after a day of walking in the footsteps of our pioneer grandfathers.

Deborah Martin-Plugh

Author, Historian and Genealogical Researcher

(c) Copyright 2010.  All Rights Reserved

Brambles and Bracelets….Notes from the Field

Notes to My Readers:  I spent the last weekend in my hometown of Auburn, New York.  It was my 45th high school class reunion and my central New York field research had been delayed while I recuperated from the aftermath of shingles.  I was especially excited to be “in the field” again and to share the experience with my son, Mike.  The research coupled with seeing old friends again for the first time in fifteen years was a definite double win.

While I accomplished a great deal of field work at pioneer cemeteries this past weekend and had the pleasure of sharing this work with my son for the first time,  I had some unexpected history of my own.  It is worth sharing this personal moment  to serve as a special reminder that history is just yesterday and we are every bit a part of the human experience that history is.


It was going to be a beautiful early October weekend.  Mike and I began our five hour drive from southeastern Pennsylvania to central New York State after a drenching rain storm that had begun the day before.  As we travelled north on Route 87 nearing Cortland, we drove through the tail end of the big storm.  At one point we caught sight of the flooded valley below us…farms and buildings were inundated with deep muddy water.  We had no idea what we might encounter in Auburn, but by the time we arrived that afternoon, it had just stopped raining.  The sky was already clearing and the weekend promised to be one of crisp air and blue skies.   And we were burning daylight.  We checked into the Holiday Inn, stowed our gear and jumped back into the car.

Mike and I headed to the little village of Cayuga which is seven miles away and to the cemetery that holds the remains of our Tyler, Curtis and Curry ancestors.  We took several moments to visit my father’s grave which is located near the Center Street entrance.  It was Mike’s first visit to his grandfather’s grave.  As Mike laid his hand on my father’s monument, he spoke a soft “hello” and gently moved aside the fading geraniums to read the inscription.  He took out his iPhone and displayed a photo of his family and promised my father that they would visit him some day.  This was the first moment of Mike’s understanding of what drives me to be a family researcher.  I could tell he felt it, too.

Lonson and Betsey Tombstones

Within the next few minutes, we began the trek down to the pioneer section.  Our first stop was at Lonson and Betsey Tyler’s graves.  They are my maternal great great great grandparents.  It continues to astonish me that the stones are in such remarkable condition.  The tombstones are still solidly affixed to their bases and stand tall and perfectly placed.  The only signs of their age are the inscribed dates and the clinging mildew and lichen.

A short walk further down the steep and rutted road and a climb up several levels of soggy earth, we arrived at their daughter, Deborah’s burial site.  She lies alongside her Irish born husband, Francis J. Curry.  Frank, as he was called, was a Civil War Veteran, serving with the 111th New York State Volunteers, Company C and his grave is marked with a simple monument that was provided under the act of Congress of 3 February 1879 (20 Stat. 281) that extended the privilege of government-provided gravestones to soldiers buried in private cemeteries.  Deborah has no marker and it is unclear that there ever was one.

Two or three rows back from the Currys stands the tall, polished pink marble obelisk of my maternal great great grandparents, Henry Eugene and Susannah M. Downing Curtis.  Their son, George married the Curry’s daughter, Kate.

Mike was hooked with the human history that surrounded us and began to walk row upon row reading the names and dates and wondering aloud about the lives of the individuals each stone signified.  We went on through the entire cemetery… up the steep slopes together until the light began to wane and the air became uncomfortably chilly.  I could see the “field fever” in Mike’s eyes as we left the small village behind and headed to the warm hotel and a cocktail and a good meal.


We had a full day ahead and we were ready to go early…anticipating a day in the field…and Mike was excited to see my 76 year old brother…his uncle Gale.  Gale was excited, too.  That morning the car was full of conversation – mostly the monologues of my brother ranging from Cornell…Einstein…Keith Olberman…Bill O’Reilly…Karl, a heavy metal guitarist acquaintance of Gale’s… all intermixed with tales of my father.

I picked up a dozen rose buds to lay at each ancestral grave that we planned to visit that day…three more than I needed.  All through the morning, we stopped and paid our respects…back to Lakeview to my father and the Tylers, the Currys and the Curtises with a rose for each grave and then on to Enfield in Tompkins County and to the two small pioneer cemeteries that held my Van Dorn, Williams and Purdy ancestors.  I had walked both these cemeteries last year with my brother and have written an earlier post about our experience…cows, violets, lost keys and found family.

Mike Plugh Field Researching in Christian Cemetery

This was Mike’s first field trip to Enfield and unlike Lakeview Cemetery, Christian Cemetery was in open country and had unkempt areas with fallen and broken stones…many stacked on the perimeter of the cemetery and overgrown with tall grasses.   I know the perils of tromping through heavily tangled growth and unstable earth in old cemeteries and I also know the thrill of pushing through those obstacles and uncovering old monuments.  Mike’s intrigue about the monuments that peeked above the grasses had him pushing through and reading the old pioneer stones.  Oh yeah.  Field Fever.  After laying a rose on each ancestral grandparent’s grave, I prodded Mike away and cajoled him on to the next cemetery, but I knew how he felt.

The Presbyterian Cemetery was just about a mile away and on the same road and presents an entirely different environment.  It is heavily treed and lushly carpeted with wild flowers.  It is trim and neat and the protected stones and obelisks are mostly level and intact….until you reach the very back of the cemetery…just four feet from the gravesites of my great grandparents, Elbert Purdy and Elizabeth Williams Purdy.  I took a moment and placed two of the last five roses with  Elbert and Elizabeth and pointed out the terrain at the back of the cemetery…just steps away.  Elbert’s parents and grandmother -Samuel D. Purdy and his wife, Semantha Ingersoll and her mother, Elizabeth Weyburn Ingersoll – were recorded as buried in this cemetery.  I had visited the cemetery in May and August of last year and alone ventured into the fallen area in an attempt to find their monuments, but to no avail.  The tantalizing view of the top six inches of  some tall tombstones and an obelisk left me frustrated, but I knew it would be dangerous and foolhardy to attempt to penetrate the area alone.  Several yards of the eastern section of the cemetery had dropped at least 10 to 12 feet from below the level of the rest of the cemetery.  It had been undermined by erosion and the occasional flooding that devastates the Ithaca area and was tangled with growth that was several feet over my head.  But I was not alone this time and Mike was keen on finding Samuel, Semantha and Elizabeth.

Purdy Obelisk in the Bramble of Presybterian Cemetery

Before I could utter the words “Be careful!”, Mike had charged down the steep and slippery incline and began to push and stomp his way through the bramble.  As his mother, I couldn’t help but constantly call out to watch out for the possiblity of unstable earth…snakes…and poison ivy.  “I’m fine, Mom.  I’ve got it.  Don’t worry,” he assured me as I watched him create a discernable path to the obelisk.  His assuring words became a shout.  “PURDY…MOM…PURDY!”  I turned to my brother and told him to stay put and tore down the slope…my heart pounding and shouting, “Samuel! Semantha!  Elizabeth!”  Without one worry about falling into the brush, I plunged ahead to find Mike standing in front of a seven foot tall stone obelisk.  Once again, he said, “Purdy” while pointing to the base.  Mike had crushed the grasses away to reveal the base and the six inch tall letters.

Elizabeth Weyburn Ingersoll Monument

As my gaze travelled up the obelisk,  I was transfixed by the words S. D. Purdy and his wife Semantha.  My brother, Gale, despite his age and some health issues was damned well not going to stand by and not be part of the action.  He made the difficult journey down and joined us while we stood reverently before the obelisk of  Samuel and Semantha.  Mike broke ranks and continued his method of probe and stomp and within four to five feet of the obelisk, there was Elizabeth Weyburn Ingersoll’s tall tombstone.  It was in perfect condition, but had a troubling woody growth wedged against it and threatening to undermine it.  Elizabeth Weyburn Ingersoll.  Wife of Samuel.  Daughter of Ulysses pioneers, Samuel Weyburn and Jane Bratton.  And I had three remaining roses…one for each grandparent.

GPS positioning and photo archiving accomplished,  we left the cemetery with an incredible high spirit and a shared experience that few people have.  After a quick late lunch and a farewell visit at Gale’s home, we headed to the hotel to rid ourselves of the dirt and clinging bits of brush and bramble and ready ourselves for my class reunion.

The Reunion

Clean and groomed and still elated over the discovery of the Purdy obelisk and the lovely Ingersoll tombstone, we drove the short distance to my class reunion that was held at my friend, Jim Hutchison’s beautiful old Victorian home on South Street.  We ran about twenty minutes late and entered the gathering of West High graduates that was in full swing.  It wasn’t long before dozens of hugs and kisses later, we were part of the laughter and happy conversation.  At one point, my friend, Marie Raymond Phillips, pulled me aside explaining she had “something” for me.  Marie is one of my classmates and friends that year after year works with other fellow West High graduates to organize our 1965 class reunions.  This was the first one I had attended since 1995.  I figured it was an old picture of us that we would laugh about-bemoan the current state of our waistlines and then go on to the business of old friends catching up with each other.  She opened her hand and I saw the glint of metal and I immediately recognized it as an “ID bracelet”.  Friends and sweethearts often gave a personalized bracelet as a token of their relationship.  My first thought was she was sharing a treasure of hers and I thought it a very lovely gesture as we hadn’t seen each other all these years.  She put her hand on my shoulder and said, “I wasn’t sure whether to give this to you” and I was even more confused as I stared at the item she held in her open hand.  I looked up to meet her eyes and saw some of my closest “guy” classmates standing close behind her and looking at me with a tender expression I couldn’t understand.

Marie took a deep breath and explained to me that some time ago, one of our male classmates had given this to her with the instruction that it was to be given to me.  And she couldn’t remember who it was.  And no one at the reunion was that male classmate.  I looked down at the bracelet again.  What was this about?  What classmate?  How do I understand the expressions on everyone’s faces?  That moment seemed to hang in the air as the world stood still.  I then became aware Marie was speaking to me again and I snapped back to attention when she said “Chappy”.  Chappy was Charles Reed, my high school sweetheart.

All through high school, I was “Chappy’s girl” and remained so to all of my high school chums.  I had just told Mike that story on our trip up.  Though Chappy and I had both gone on to very different lives and to have families of our own, he and I were frozen in West High School history…together.  In 1990 we saw each other again at our reunion and had caught up on our lives…visited his brother, Bob and his wife, Mabel…sat on their front porch with a cold beer…and reminisced with our close high school pals.  We walked along the lakeside arm and arm with our closest friends and felt a special love that was just ours.  It was sweet and kind and eternal.  We all laughed… a lot.  Remembered…a lot.  And we went back to our lives.

In 1995 we were once again all reunited and celebrating our high school reunion, but with the terrible news that Chappy was very ill with cancer.  But he was fighting it and the reunion was important for him to attend.  So we once again laughed and reminisced though we felt the presence of his illness.  And then he was gone.  From our lives and this world.   Buried in Arlington Cemetery.

A Sweetheart’s Message

And so standing in front of my friends so many years later, I realized what she cradled in her outstretched palm.  The inscription read “CHAPPY”.  It was the ID bracelet that I had given to him for his sixteenth birthday…47 years ago.  I took the bracelet and held it gently. And cried.  When I looked up, there wasn’t a dry eye among the people around me…the sixty-something faces of the men and women that are the friends of my youth… the friends of my old age.

When Marie finished our embrace, she told me that as he was dying,  Chappy had given instructions to one of our friends that he wanted make sure that I be given the bracelet.  I turned it over and read “LOVE DEBBIE”.  I don’t think anyone was breathing at that point.  I know I wasn’t.  Marie said what was in my heart. He had kept it all these years and he thought of me at the very end.  AND I understood his message.  LOVE DEBBIE.

Deborah Martin-Plugh

Author, Historian and Genealogical Researcher

(c) Copyright 2010.  All Rights Reserved

Enfield and Keys, Violets and Cows – Notes from the Field

Dear Readers, I wrote this piece while doing site research in central New York State in May of 2009 and with some judicious editing, I think it is definitely worth a blog post.   My apologies to my family and fellow researchers who plowed through last year’s field version.  I have an inexplicable propensity to use three dots…

Monday Evening

Monday was an absolutely gorgeous day.  It was warm and sunny and promised to provide ideal weather for field research in the Finger Lakes.  After the previous day’s six hour drive to Skaneateles from Pennsylvania and a good night’s sleep, I  treated myself to a  leisurely breakfast on the large front porch of my lodgings, the Sherwood Inn.  The two hundred year old inn overlooks the deep blue waters of Skaneateles Lake and has always been a favorite of mine.  Fortified by a the inn’s excellent coffee and fresh pastries, I was off to pick up my oldest brother, Gale,  for field research and family reminiscences.

Our first stop in Enfield Center had a dual purpose.  First,  find the burial sites of our ancestors and then check out Van Dorn Corners for a possible group photo location for our upcoming Purdy Family Gathering.

Enfield was and still is a farming community.  Rural and stubbornly resistant to change.   One local explained to me, “We like it that way.  City people want to come in here and change it, but it isn’t going to happen.  It’s fine just the way it is.”

Enfield Historic Map circa 1866

That resident, Steve, is an import really.  Just second generation.  Early in the day, we had found Steve and his co-worker, Jack, whose pedigree was several generations’ worth of Enfield history.   Gale and I had someone to talk Purdy and Ingersoll history with!   But I am ahead of myself.

Despite my field research preparations which included a Google map with latitude and longitude and a GPS device talking at us all along the way, we found actually driving the rural roads and navigating them in search of the little pioneer cemeteries was still a bit of a challenge.  NOTE TO SELF – stop and ask directions!  It still works and you get to talk with people and is part of the process for me.  So there on the main road which is no more than a two lane country road that rises and falls and curves with the terrain, we found the Enfield Township garage.  And Steve standing out by his big truck preparing to head out to clean up after a recent windstorm.

Steve took a couple of minutes to warm up to two strangers.  After all,  we could be “comin’ into town lookin’ to change it”.  Within a moment or two of explaining our presence there,  Steve was a one-man welcoming committee.  He would introduce us to his co-worker, Jack…an old timer (my age for God’s sake) and a fellow who knew just about everything that ever happened in Enfield.  The problem was Jack was just pulling out of the garage in his big truck to go down the road a bit to look at some cleanup work and so for the moment we just had Steve.  And Steve was ready for some good old fashioned conversation.  Heck,  it was a nice day and we were interesting enough and things move…well… how they move in Enfield and it didn’t look like we were going to change that.  “Stick around a few minutes and Jack will be back and he can tell you anything you want to know.”   In the meantime Steve filled us in on Steve…his folks being from Scotland though he had never been.

In less than twenty minutes and a few Steve stories later,  Jack at last arrived back at the garage and we shook hands. Dirt and all.  Honest Enfield dirt.   Jack warmed up to the talk of the Purdys right away and began his small town, rambling style of tale telling.  The Purdy topic spun into a description of the old Purdy “market” down the road and then there was Mabel Purdy,  the town historian,  who was an Enfield encyclopedia…and dead.  So no interviewing  Mabel, I guess. But the good news is Mabel’s daughter is alive.  The bad news is she is poorly and probably off to the nursing home by now.  But wait.  HER daughters are around.  Sometimes.  Steve had obviously embraced the Enfield story telling technique from his friend, Jack.

After patiently listening to Jack’s  “Enfield past and present meanderings” while he comfortably leaned on his big tractor in the late spring sun, I knew we were burning daylight and tactfully brought us back to the business of getting directions to the two small pioneer cemeteries in the area.  Jack was delighted that he could at least provide us with something useful and informed us that we were just three houses down the road from the Presbyterian Cemetery and a quick “turn around” would take us to the Christian Cemetery around the curve past the old Baptist Church.  “Oh, and watch the curve,” he warned.   Grateful for the directions and charmed by our immersion in Enfield character, I thanked Steve and Jack and we were finally off to find the cemeteries of our ancestors.

Presbyterian Cemetery Entrance

Just moments later we found ourselves at the Presbyterian Cemetery.  Ready and anxious to archive my research, I had my list of burials with me and my video and still digital cameras.

True to the old pioneer cemeteries there is NO driveway or parking.    So spotting a “friendly” driveway across the curved road, I pulled in and silently thanked the neighbors of Enfield for their hospitality.  Gale figured it was okay, too.  They had a Marine Corps flag flying below the American flag.   SEMPER FI!

A quick look…left and right…and a dash across the road had us at the entrance to the old cemetery.  I stood there for a moment impacted by the fact that this cemetery held the history of this area…and our young country.  Graves  dated back to the early 1800’s and earlier.  Some of the tombstones were at least five feet tall.  Many were tilted precariously to the side and some had broken and now resembled stepping stones.  Some were lichen covered.  Some were barely legible and were clustered tightly together while some stood alone.  A curious landscape within the deep green shade.  Violets grew among the gravestones and their merry color gave it a little garden appearance.

I was prepared to find my ancestral grandparents,  Samuel D. Purdy and his wife, Samantha Ingersoll Purdy and her mother, Elizabeth Weyburn Ingersoll.  What I found was great great grandfather,  Elbert Purdy and his two small daughters, Henrietta and Emilie.  There at the back of the cemetery stood the five foot granite obelisk.  Not the humble tombstones of a Methodist that I had expected,  but the serious mark of a man and his family.  To impress.  To remember.  I had hoped that his father and mother and grandmother would be close by, but after half an hour of tombstone-to-tombstone searching,  I had come to the back of the cemetery that had a precipitous drop filled with thigh-high brambles and a cluster of more obelisks and tombstones ensnared in the collapsed terrain and wild growth below.

Dangerous?  You bet!  And tantalizing?  Oh, yes.  But, let’s see.  I am a sensible adventurer.  I am 61 years old and plan to live a long time and, oh.   I hate snakes and that looked like snake habitat to me.  Having left Gale behind to commune with the Williams and have his cigarette…oh, dear the Methodists wouldn’t approve…I traipsed back to pick up my wayward brother and head to my illegally parked car.

The car was just fine and with a salute to the flagpole and a hearty “Semper Fi”, we drove the mile or so down the road to the Christian Cemetery.  This very different cemetery was  open terrain and  smack dab in a cow pasture.  It was a simpler affair with straight rows and a tree or two, but uphill a bit toward the pasture and its cow neighbors.  It was a fine weather day and Gale was enjoying the electric controls of his window so I had abandoned my “big city” proclivity to lock the car up tight.   I figured the cows didn’t want anything I had in the car anyway.

So the window stayed down.

I was energized to at last find the Van Dorns and pay my respects.   I grabbed the cameras.  AND my car keys.  You never knew about cows.  We headed to the left to start scanning the rows for our ancestors.  Left to right.  Front to back.  Name after familiar name.  I knew these folks from my research and said my hellos as we went.  Cows don’t care if you are crazy.

And as my luck would have it, our ancestors are buried at the far back right section.  I did note something I thought curious.   You see the inscriptions were facing the BACK of the cemetery so when you come in the front, the uninscribed back sides of the monuments are facing the entrance.  Subsequent research revealed the earliest settlers had their feet pointing toward the east and the head of the coffin toward the west, ready to rise up and face the “new day” (the sun) when “the trumpet shall sound and the dead shall be raised” or when Christ would appear and they would be reborn.

Gale Martin ponders his great great aunt, Deborah Van Dorn

And there were the Van Dorns…like soldiers in a row.  Some of the tombstones had broken so low to the ground that just the death dates were left.  But Deborah Van Dorn was there…next to her mother, Mary Irwin Van Dorn.  Mary’s death date was still was visible though the top half of her tombstone was long gone.  To Deborah’s right was her sister, Margaret Van Dorn Holmes.

Deborah was Peter Van Dorn’s eldest child and when his wife Mary died, Deborah took over the household duties.  She finally married in her thirties to a widowed farmer named Samuel Burlew who was considerably older and died leaving Deborah alone and childless.  Deborah married again soon after to Obadiah Chase, another elderly widower.  The inscription on her tombstone declares her as Deborah Van Dorn Chase,  wife of Obadiah.  Gale settled in the meadow grass near the tombstones and I was once again off to see what the remainder of the cemetery could reveal.

Spirited and energized by the beautiful day and the realization of almost two years of research,  I headed back to Gale seated at Deborah’s grave and began to photograph the cemetery and surrounds.  With the field work completed, Gale and I headed down the gentle slope to the car only to discover that I had both cameras but NO car keys.  And the car has an automatic, electronic locking system.  You know, in case of cows.

Deborah Van Dorn Burlew Chase Monument

Had I left the keys in the car?   A car window was down thanks to Gale’s fascination with the electronics and my newly found sense of “what the heck”.  I opened the car through the passenger’s window and the alarm began to reverberate across the cemetery and into the peaceful Enfield countryside.  After a quick, frantic look in the car for the keys, I realized that in my enthusiasm to begin the cemetery walk  I had absent- mindedly clutched my cameras with my keys in one hand before beginning the typical methodical walk up and down every row.  My slacks had no pockets.    Everything had been in my hands.

So with the constant clarion of the car alarm ringing in my ears,  I settled my elderly brother in the passenger’s seat while I began to retrace my steps to find the set of keys.  Somehow, though a sinking feeling lurked, I knew…I KNEW…I would find those keys.

Putting logic aside, I visualized the set of keys in the grass and after walking one short row, I lifted my head and made a bee-line for Deborah Van Dorn.  The thought of Deborah had just popped into my head and I went straight to her monument.  There were the keys in the meadow grass, metal winking in the sunlight in front of Deborah’s tombstone.  I swallowed hard and placed my hand upon her tombstone.  And I thanked her…for a lot of things…not just the keys.  It seems Deborah continues to watch over her family.

Within two steps of her grave, I tapped the button to stop the alarm, turned,  apologized to the cows and headed down to the car.

Gale laughed and I did, too, but with considerable relief because we knew that with no keys…in the middle of nowhere…and a bleating alarming system, we might just have to settle in among the good people of Enfield.   Jack.  Steve.  Semper Fi.

NYS Historical Marker Peter Van Dorn

In a few moments we were once again on our way and headed toward Mecklenburg Road (the old Catskill Turnpike) where my 3rd great grandfather,  Peter Van Dorn had built  and run his tavern in 1820.  We were on the next quest for a possible group photo site for our upcoming  Purdy Gathering.   And there, it was…the old New York State historical marker…weathered and askew along a deep roadside gully.  Where the bustling Van Dorn tavern once had stood, now a rusted house trailer sat anchored by an old apple tree that was rotted, split and black as midnight.  Definitely not a scenic or poetic backdrop for our family photo.  I took a picture of the New York State marker anyway…positioning myself to avoid the ugly reality of what was now sitting atop the grounds of the longgone historic tavern.

The food and the adventures of the day tamped down the energy we had been thriving on earlier in the day and we did have an hour long drive back to Auburn.  We headed northward finally arriving in  Auburn just before 4PM.  Seventy five year old Gale was tired.  He had thoroughly enjoyed the day and was sleepy after all of the excitement and with the local diner’s meatloaf, mashed pototoes and gravy settling comfortably in his stomach.  After a good hug and a promise to begin again early tomorrow, I left Gale at his Auburn home and headed back to Skaneateles for a well deserved, ice cold vodka martini and a serious writing session.


In Auburn I was so tantalizingly close to the North Street Cemetery and burial site of  5th great grandfather, Gideon Tyler and his family that I just had to make one more stop.  One more.   At that point I was becoming aware that my luncheon beverage was now beginning to have an effect.  Do archaeologists pee? And where?  I should research that, I thought.  Uncomfortable, but determined, I  found a parking space nearby and walked to the front gate.

Gideon Tyler Tombstone in North Street Cemetery

The Tylers are the very first row next the front gate so that was a no brainer, but I understood that William and Abalena may be in the back and it couldn’t be THAT big a cemetery and I am not THAT uncomfortable and it IS a nice day and it IS early.

I walked back and forth through the rows of tombstones and up the hill and …oh…my…God….it went back and back and fanned out beyond my sight line.  Old tombstone after old tombstone and I had left the cemetery burial information in the car.  At that point I was definitely tired of guessing how much longer my body would allow me to talk myself out of …well you know.  So another day.  Forgive me, William and Abalena.  Another day.

Tuesday Morning

Today we are off to Cazenovia in search of Martin lore and gravesite visits.  It is another beautiful day.  Now dear ones and fellow researchers,  I have to take a quick shower and grab breakfast.  And wear pants with pockets!

Deborah Martin-Plugh

Author, Historian and Genealogical Researcher

(c) Copyright 2010.  All Rights Reserved

Grace L. Ferguson Airline and Storm Door Company

The first time blogger dilemma…the initial posting…ah, we do suffer.  For at least two days I have been fairly frozen in front of my laptop.  Surrounded with my copious notes, electronic files and years of research filled with great stories and characters,  I struggled with what would be the first post…the first biography.   You see, I have spent so many years with each of these individuals that I love them all and want each to have your undivided attention.  But who should be first?

The answer was right in front of me.  My mother.  The keeper of family memories and treasures…the story teller who wore Tabu, made pomander balls and sequined candles for Christmas and in her seventies retired from her job at Auburn City Hall with a key to the city.  She shaped my life.   Grace L. Ferguson Airline and Storm Door Company.

And before you think I have gone “off topic” or had a mini stroke, that was the affectionate name my siblings and I gave to my mother.  My family…including her grandchildren …called her “Mom or Gram” on occasion, but most often and in the interest of brevity, Ferg or Grace L.   As is a family tradition of sorts…we all have character nicknames for one another.  I was dubbed Hobster.  My mother’s moniker came from the 1950’s Bob Newhart classic stand up routine and was immediately embraced by us all.

There are so many memories I have of my mother, but my favorite ones usually revolve around the times when she would favor me with the tales of her Ithaca childhood in the early 1900’s.  And so for clarity…and the joy of using those endearments once again, I will refer to her on occasion as Grace L. or Ferg in my blog.  She would like that.  Me, too.

The Actress With Egg And Olive Sandwiches

My mother was born Deborah Jane Purdy in Ithaca, New York – the daughter of Burt Samuel and Florence Leora Curtis Purdy.   Burt and Florence would have six daughters, Elizabeth, Kathryn, Mary, Deborah, Esther, Ruth and in their forties… their only son Curtis.  My grandfather, Burt, lived in a world of women.  His twice widowed mother, Elizabeth A. Williams Purdy Smith, resided just steps away and throughout Burt’s life was a dominating force.  She pretentiously and properly referred to herself  in the third person as Mrs. E. A. Smith.  She superseded Burt’s marriage vows to Florence and was his first consideration in most matters.  My grandmother was a meek woman and accepted her secondary role in Burt’s life.  In fact, first born child, Elizabeth, lived her entire childhood with her grandmother much to her mother’s unending distress.

The Purdy household full of female love and competition existed in the midst of the dynamic Cornell University community and in the excitement of the early film industry.

From 1913 to1920, Ithaca, NY, was known as  “The Hollywood of the East” .  Silent picture filmmakers came to Ithaca to make serial thrillers, slapstick comedies, mysteries and patriotic films.  The Wharton Studios were established in an old trolley amusement park (Renwick, now Stewart Park)  by brothers Theodore and Leopold Wharton.  Wharton directors were particularly fond of sending old trolley cars over the rims of Ithaca’s famous gorges while actors often did their own stunts and were thrown over waterfalls or dunked in the icy waters of the lake.  Pearl White, Lionel Barrymore, Francis X. Bushman, and other early silent stars were familiar sights on the streets.

Wharton Studios

On July 11th 1916, the famous dancer Irene Castle arrived at the Lehigh Valley train station and took up residence in the Cayuga Heights area just off the Cornell campus and just a few blocks from my great grandmother’s home.  Irene had been signed for a twenty-week shoot on the Wharton thriller film, “Patria”.  Her arrival with her entourage of servants, animals including monkeys, horses and dogs, a mountain of trunks and two open-top vehicles had an immediate impact on the little city at the head of Cayuga Lake.  She was young,  beautiful and spirited with a passion for animals and small children.  It was her practice to pack one of her vehicles with her dogs and hampers of sumptuous provisions (no doubt including a “bracer” –Southern Comfort) and drive to the studios every day.

On one of Irene’s drives to the nearby studio she spotted my five-year-old mother as she played with her older sister, Mary, outside of their grandmother’s Cayuga Heights home.   She was struck by my mother’s golden curls and in a blithe moment the pretty actress hopped to the sidewalk and asked Grandma Smith’s permission to take Grace and Mary to the studios.  Seated by the old trolley tracks with her sister Mary, the little girls would lunch upon the hamper of egg and olive sandwiches and fresh oranges while they could observe the filming and activities but wouldn’t spoil the shots.   As long as I could remember, my mother favored egg and olive sandwiches and the only fruit she ever ate were oranges.

At one point in the summer of 1916 Miss Castle asked Grandma Smith’s permission to have an oil portrait of my mother made.   My mother would be picked up at Grandma Smith’s and taken to Miss Castle’s home where she would sit for the artist surrounded with the sounds of the monkeys chattering in an adjoining room.  According to my mother, the oil painting hung in the actress’ home, Greystone.  In my research I found that Irene Castle had indeed commissioned various pieces with her favorite local artist and Cornell professor, William Charles Baker.   Does an oil painting still exist?

And where do I begin to find that treasure?  My researcher mind and daughter’s heart has another intriguing place to investigate.  So fortified with a freshly made egg and olive sandwich accompanied by an orange, I might find providence and come upon the portrait and gaze upon the golden haired child that was my mother.


Deborah Martin-Plugh

Author, Historian and Genealogical Researcher

(c) Copyright.  September 6, 2010