The Bones of David Robinson

The Bones of David Robinson

Somewhere in the lush countryside above Cayuga Lake lie the bones of a Revolutionary New_York_In_The_Revolution_2nd_ed_1898 David Robinson_Page_1Way soldier, David Robinson (1740-1823) my paternal 5x great grandfather and his wife, Polly Raynor (1751-1824). They came to Lansing, Tompkins County from Suffolk County (Long Island) around 1790. With them they brought their children including my 4x great grandmother, Jerusha.

Within a few months, Jerusha had met young widower John Bowker who had migrated from Ulster County with his brothers Noah and Joseph and settled in Lansing.   John and Jerusha married and had twelve children – all who survived to adulthood and provided them with many children and grandchildren. At the time of their deaths they had 140 children, grandchildren and great grandchildren which included their son Jonathan, my 3x great grandfather.

Like Jerusha’s parents, there are no records of her burial nor John’s, but the lots of the Robinson and Bowker land ownership are well documented and as tradition has it, they are most likely buried on their own property.   Subsequent generations are buried in Miller Cemetery on Breed Road and others in Groton Rural Cemetery in Groton

When I was asked *where* my Revolutionary War ancestor David Robinson and his wife Polly may be buried, I could only reply that I had found no recorded burials. That said, their daughters Juliana and Elizabeth are recorded as being buried in the ‘inactive’ Lane or Ostrander Farm Cemetery in North Lansing with their husbands, Henry Carter and Daniel Lane.  The supposed site is located on property previously owned by Orry Ostrander that most likely bordered the West Groton/Locke Roads and Breed Road in North Lansing.

Here are interesting notes that historians made that may explain why no Robinson burials have been recorded.

“From the notes of Dorothy Ostrander, past Town of Groton Historian, the first two headstones in this record “…are the only two stones found in what used to be a large cemetery on the present Orry Ostrander farm. They say the cemetery once covered 7 acres. Many stones were removed and used as the foundation in part of the barn. Also, when Orry Ostrander decided to move his sidewalk one day, he found the stones to be gravestones too. All that remains of the cemetery itself is a brushy area with a couple trees approximately 12′ by 25′ and the two stones above although there may be more stones buried under the rubble that has been dumped there (stones off the plowed field) over the years. Headstones have been recorded as read to include misspelling.”
The next 8 headstone inscriptions in this record are from the stones that were used as the sidewalk at the Orry Ostrander farm.

Four of those eight stones belong to the Robinson’s two daughters, Elizabeth and Juliana and their husbands, Henry Carter and Daniel Lane.

From the notes of Isabelle Parish, past Town of Lansing Historian, “People removed all the stones from this cemetery and they were standing beside a garage by one of the houses on the road. The cemetery itself is in one of the fields; unsure which one.
Written August 18, 1953 by S. Haring and I. Parish: Back of the house now owned by Orrie Ostrander on Locke Road, just east of where the new road to Locke turns north-east. We were told there were no stones left where the cemetery was. Mr. Ostrander found many in the barn wall when he moved there some twenty years ago. There were perhaps 25 gravestones.”
Taken from the local history book, North Lansing’s Remembrance of Things Past, “The Lane Cemetery: Two acres surrounded by a large iron fence about one half mile back from Breed Road constitutes the Lane Cemetery. Many of the headstones from the cemetery were used in the foundation of the barn which is still standing on the Orry Ostrander farm. Most of the rest of them were used in a sidewalk which leads from the front porch to the edge of the driveway, then from the other side on the lawn to an old well. In 1960, there were only two head stones still standing. They are in a field at the top of the hill standing under a large old hickory nut tree. It is said that Mr. Lane was the first person who owned the land. Then John Buckley bought the farm from Lane. The government then bought the land from Mr. Buckley. Mr. Orry Ostrander who still owns the farm, bought it from the government in 1938.”

Chances are that David and Polly Raynor Robinson’s headstones are part of the foundation of a barn or were part of the pile of rubble mentioned in 1953 by Haring and Parish.

Time for a field trip with the assist of the Lansing historian and perhaps an archaeological dig.

Deborah J. Martin-Plugh

Author, Historian and Genealogical Researcher

© Copyright 2018. All Rights Reserved.

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.


The Transcriber and The Descendant, The Fight With The Technician and The Romantic

A Note to My Readers:   Transcribing takes patience and focus and a dispassionate mood.   On occasion I put my scientific mind in charge and take on the task.   And then sometimes the technician and the romantic collide and it is a thing of great joy and revelation.   Today I tackled an old monograph and sorted through some old images.

One of my favorite stories comes from “The Falls of Taughannock: Containing A Complete Description of this the HIGHEST FALL in the State of New York” compiled by Lewis Halsey and printed in 1844.  Among lovely passages of prose and poetry dedicated to Taughannock Falls, it provides a rare glimpse into pioneer life as told by George Weyburn, the brother of  my maternal 3rd great grandmother, Elizabeth Weyburn Ingersoll.


The following simple yet graphic account of a fight with a bear in the ravine of Taughannock was contributed by Mr. George Weyburn  to the “New York State Historical Collections,” published by John M. Barber and Henry Howe in 1844.
It is amusing to note what importance this old veteran gives to the least incident of the great “conflict,” which he describes with as much zeal and earnestness as if he were discoursing concerning a Waterloo, upon the issue of which the destinies of the world were depending.
His enumeration of the numbers, positions, and the arms of the combatants is worthy of a careful chro-


nicler, and he is unable to conceal his joy when, after recommencing “the conflict,” his friends are at length left “masters of the field.”
“One Sunday evening in October, about forty-seven years ago, as my father, Mr. Samuel Weyburn , was returning from feeding his horse on the north side of the creek, near where the distillery now stands, his dog started up a bear and her two cubs.  They followed their course up the hill on the south side of the creek until near the summit, a few rods above the mill-site fall, where the cubs took to a tree.  My father ran to the house, and, having obtained his gun, pursued.  Being directed by the barking of the dog, he passed about twenty rods beyond the tree in which the cubs were, and there he found the bear with her back against a tree, standing on the brink of a gulf, defending herself from the attacks of the dog.
“He fired, and, as it was afterward found, broke one of her fore-legs.  The animal retreated into the gulf, and was seen no more that night.
“In the mean time my mother , brother , and myself, who had followed in the pursuit, came to the three in which the cubs had retreated, who, being frightened at the report of the gun and the sound of


our voices, began to cry ‘mam! mam!’ in the most affecting tones, strongly resembling the human voice.
“My mother having called my father, he shot the cubs and returned home.  The next morning, my father thinking that he had either killed or severely wounded the animal, for the want of a better weapon, (having expended his only charge of powder the evening previous,) took a pitchfork, and proceeded in quest of the enemy, accompanied by myself and brother.
“I was armed with a small ax; but my brother, not being equipped for war, was allowed to accompany us bare-handed.
“Thus accoutered and followed by our dog, we proceeded to within about forty rods of the great fall, when my father, apprised of the nearness of the enemy by the barking of the dog, ran and left us in the rear.
“We soon came in sight of the bear and dog, who were passing from the left wall of the precipice across the basin to the right, and ascended almost to the perpendicular rock, a distance of eighty or one hundred feet.
“My father, climbing up lower down, was en-


abled to intercept her passage in consequence of her broken limb.
“Here the action again commenced by his giving her three thrusts with the fork.  The first and second were near the heart, the third struck her should-blade, when she turned upon him, and he met her with a thrust in her face, putting out one of her eyes with one prong and tearing her tongue with the other.  She then rushed toward him, his feet gave way, and as he fell she caught him by the clothes near his breast.
“At this juncture he seized her and threw her below him.  This he repeated two or three times in their descent toward the bottom of the ravine, during which she bit him in both his legs and in his arms.  At the bottom, in the creek, lay a stone whose front was not unlink the front of a common cooking-stove, the water reaching to the top.  Near this, four or five feet distant, stood a rock on the bank.  Into this snug notch it was his good luck to throw his antagonist, with her feet and claws toward the rock in the stream.  In this situation he succeeded in holding her, with his back to hers and braced between the rocks.  With his left hand he


held her by the back, and with his right held her by the neck, until I came up.
I struck her with all my might on the back with the ax.  At this my father sprang from her and seized his fork.  The bear turned toward us with a shake and a snort.  I gave her a severe blow.  She fell, but, recovering herself, endeavored to retreat.  We recommenced the conflict, and ere long the life-less corpse of the animal proclaimed us masters of the field.
The victory was dearly bought.  The blood was running in streams from my father’s hands, and from his limbs into his shoes.
On examination, he found that she had bitten him in each limb, inflicting four ugly wounds at each bite, besides a slit in his wrist, supposed to have been done by one of her claws.


Taughannock Falls, View from Halsey's Hotel at Sunrise

Taughannock Falls, View from Halsey’s Hotel at Sunrise.  Albumen Print.  Repository: New York Public Library

Of note is the fact that one of biggest advertisers in the monograph was the Taughannock House which was located just opposite the falls.  Its proprietor was one J. S. Halsey.   No doubt the Halseys were not only promoting history, but this was a clever advertising piece to encourage patrons.  The ad describes the accommodations with particular romance.

This favorite Hotel, having been this season enlarged, refitted, and refurnished, is now open for the accommodation of visitors.
All than can make a hotel attractive and interesting to tourists or pleasure-parties may here be found.

The Taughannock House is situated just opposite the Falls, two and one half miles from the village of Trumansburgh, and ten miles from Ithaca.

Cayuga Lake boats, touching four times per day at the landing near the Falls, connect with the New-York Central and the New-York and Erie Railroads.  A carriage will be in readiness at the landing to convey visitors to the hotel.

The far-famed Cayuga offers ample accommodation to the sportsman for fishing and boating.

Park at Taughannock Hotel.  Albumen Print.  Repository: New York Public Library

Park at Taughannock Hotel. Albumen Print. Repository: New York Public Library

Being off from the line of direct communications with Atlantic cities, near the banks of the beautiful Cayuga, surrounded by a pure, clear, and bracing atmosphere, it presents peculiar inducements to travelers in search of healthful summer residence.

Particular attention will be give to orders for rooms during the summer.

J. S. HALSEY, Trumansburgh, New-York.

I visit Taughannock every summer…drawn to it with some kind of primitive urge I suppose.  In my younger days I marveled at it as a geophysical wonder…my ‘pre-genealogy’ days if you will.   After discovering the little publication a few years ago, I hike the 3/4 mile trail to the cataract pondering the tale of the fight with the bear all the while trying to calculate the location of the battle between my 4th great grandfather and the great bear.  And so it goes with transcribing the passage, the technician is in a fierce struggle with the romantic…carefully and perfectly typing the words while my imagination plucks at my sleeve urging me to join the tale.

The Author at Taughannock Falls Overlook

The Author at Taughannock Falls Overlook

Deborah Martin-Plugh

Author, Historian and Genealogical Researcher

(c) Copyright 2014.  All Rights Reserved


Written in Ink. Not Stone.

Confirmation with a bit of mystery…isn’t that always the way?

Analyzing evidence is an art as much as it is a science.  Not every thing is a slam dunk because we are always dealing with information provided by human beings.  Information with bias or best guess affected by faulty memory.  And then there is the challenge of reading unfamiliar handwriting.  Graphologists nod here!

I just received two death certificates from New York State in today’s mail….for my paternal 3rd great grandparents, Jonathan Bowker (1798-1891) and his wife Emeline Powers Bowker (1806-1888) of Lansing, Tompkins County, NY.  Through past research I pretty much proved my Bowker and Powers lineage, but since the Bowkers died after New York State began to require death certificates, I thought it worth spending the $22 each to secure an official document.    Names.  Check.  Dates.  Check.  Places…almost check.    And parents…Check with a mystery.

Jonathan’s father, John Bowker (1771-1855),  was purported to be born in Ulster County, New York, but his son’s death certificate states his father’s birthplace was “Mass”.   Both make sense as John’s father and mother (Silas Bowker and Esther Hobbs) were from Massachusetts and migrated to Ulster County where Silas was a scout in the Revolutionary War.   So…this is one of those toss of the coin at this point.

As for Emeline’s death certificate…everything checks out with my research evidence.  Except I cannot read the handwriting that states her mother’s first name.  My research shows that her mother was Ruth Roberts, second wife of Jacob Powers.  And everything points to it.  Jacob’s first wife, Rhoba Tabor, bore him ten children, but she died in 1804 and is buried in Sharon, Connecticut.  He then married Ruth and fathered at least five children with her…including Emeline. Emeline Powers Bowker DC Crop

But! (isn’t there ALWAYS a ‘but’) Emeline’s death certificate isn’t clear and it even looks like it says “Phebe” which I know isn’t right…could it say Rhoba?  Ruth?…it just doesn’t look like it.  Not even close and I am pretty good at this.  I take into account that my 2nd great grandmother, Sarah D. Bowker Case Johnson, cared for them in their elder years in her home and so I assume she would know these family details.  But then…could Phebe be Ruth’s real name and she chose Ruth as her ‘familiar’ name?  After all, the Powers were Palatine immigrants to the Hudson Valley who were originally Pauer.  Her grandfather was Joest Power with no “s” and he was often called Justus in Dutchess County records.  Or could the good doctor have interviewed Sarah and in the midst of the bureaucratic necessity of paperwork forgotten and guessed a name to get the chore done and over?

As line number 10 reminds us…

I hereby report this Death, and certify that the foregoing statements are true according to the best of my knowledge.  (signed by George Beckwith, M.D.)

Oh my…a genealogist’s challenge….but then we love a challenge, don’t we???

To keep my sense of humor and stay on track, I bow to Mark Twain.

The very ink with which history is written is merely fluid prejudice.

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

The Lovely Daughters of Ithaca

A Note to My Readers: My great grandmother’s family bible is an amazing ‘go to’ source for me. She was meticulous…her reputation of propriety and a stickler for detail was borne out by her record-keeping. She died in 1940 at the age of 90 and by the time my mother passed it along to me, the ‘who was whom’ became ‘they are Grandma Smith’s family – the Williams and Van Dorns’. So it was up to me to begin the task of putting these folks -the lovely daughters, granddaughters and great granddaughters of Peter Van Dorn of Enfield – in their rightful place in the family pedigree.
Mary J Holmes Stamp Obituary Barely yellowed and still clear as a bell and neatly clipped as would be her style, Norma Stamp Griffith’s obituary was adhered to the pages of the family bible. And nearby was the obituary…likewise aged and with tidy corners…of Mary J. Stamp. A bit of researching using my great grandmother as a nexus…and I had my connection. Mary J. Stamp was Mary Julia Ette Holmes, my grandmother’s first cousin…and Norma Van Dorn Stamp Griffith was her daughter. Mary’s mother, Margaret Van Dorn, had married the handsome sheriff, Samuel Holmes from Enfield who later purchased the Tompkins House in Ithaca and with his son-in-law, Abial B. Stamp ran the hotel for a number of years.

Norma was the only child of Abial and Mary- the Stamps having lost a young son so she was the source of their love and devotion…educated and refined. The lovely Norma caught the eye of a successful young attorney, John Samuel Griffiths. He whisked Norma away to New York City where he had already established a successful practice. Once more…a lovely daughter was born in Ithaca, New York. Juliette Holmes Griffith, a debutante and gifted vocalist who was the darling of New York society. She was a sought after young lady for marriage…listed in the Blue Book, but she only had eyes for one Dr. Burr Burton Mosher, an accomplished (and very married) physician thirty years her senior. He had a fine education…he was born in Union Springs, Cayuga, New York and attended Oakwood Seminary before going on to his higher education.

In fact, Dr. Mosher had a glorious reputation as a pediatric surgeon and philanthropist, but his marriage woes were very Juliette Griffith Brooklyn Eagle engagement photopublic and decidedly fiery. Their rows were public record and subject of much gossip. Tiring of the embarrassment, he packed the first Mrs. Mosher off to Europe ‘for a vacation and rest’ and set the legalities in motion and secured his home against her return. They were divorced in 1915 and he married Juliette in 1918…his daughter Harriet attending her new stepmother. He was 55 and she was 25. Harriet was three years older than her father’s new wife. Burr and Juliette were to have only three years together. Dr. Mosher was seriously hurt in a trolley accident in 1920, but seemed to recover. Unfortunately his injuries and trauma were such that eventually, he collapsed and died in 1921.

And the lovely Juliette with the voice of angel? What of her? She was still a young woman and her voice was considered spectacular so she went off to Europe and trained her voice with the finest coaches eventually returning to her home in Brooklyn…visiting Ithaca. Eventually she met Dr. Harmon Hadley of Princeton, a widower and successful doctor. The pair married and raised Harmon’s two children.

Juliette Holmes Griffith Mosher Ashley is buried with her parents and brother in Ithaca City Cemetery.


Deborah Martin-Plugh

Author, Historian and Genealogical Researcher

(c) Copyright 2013.  All Rights Reserved




Family Secrets. What the Directories Told.

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

Florence Leora Curtis Purdy

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

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

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

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

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

What the Directories Told

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deborah Martin-Plugh

Author, Historian and Genealogical Researcher

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