Join me as I monkey around in my family tree
My grandmother, Leona Olive Williams Wilson.
To my knowledge, no historian or newspaper reporter ever asked Leona Olive Williams Wilson to give her life story.
Maybe they should have.
After her first husband died of a brain tumor, my grandmother hitched a ride in a gravel truck from Springfield, Ohio, to Elliottville, Ky., to arrange her move back home with her parents. She worked briefly as a school teacher, riding to and from class on horseback. She loved squirrel hunting; disdained copperheads, swimming and cats; and made fried apple pies that were as inimitable as they were delectable. She lost a father to a stroke on Christmas Eve, her second husband to Alzheimer’s shortly after his retirement and a daughter to Type I diabetes before her 40th birthday.
Granny had stories to tell. Maybe not stories that deserve a spot in history books alongside George Washington. Maybe not stories that bump Middle East conflict off the front page. But Leona Wilson lived a life that, for all it’s anonymity, I find interesting and instructive.
This blog is for those who would agree.
About three years ago, I started a project to trace the history of the ridge-top truck farm where my mother grew up in a three-generation household — the place where Leona settled in after marrying her second husband, Oliver Wilson. As I dug into the story of this place, I kept unearthing nuggets that, although ancillary to the original task, seemed worthy of preservation, too.
Long after finishing that project, I continue to dig whenever time allows. I subscribed to Ancestry.com. I purchased genealogy software for my laptop, tracked down distant relatives, and collected family recipes that will become a cookbook if I can ever wrest them from an uncooperative database.
Best of all, I’ve gotten to know relatives long departed.
Some might be familiar to you — take Col. Richard Henry Lee, American patriarch of one of Virginia’s most distinguished families and ancestor of a certain Civil War general. Some are prominent, if forgotten — like Cora Wilson Stewart (at left), a Progressive Era adult-literacy advocate who took her message to Congress, presidents and international gatherings.
But most of my ancestors were simple, working-class stock, much like my great-grandfather, Burl Wilson. (Ironically, the first cousin of the great adult-literacy crusader Cora Wilson Stewart signed his mark with an “X.”)
Burl died before I was born, but my mother, aunts and uncles have told me so much about him, I can easily imagine him on the porch of that farmhouse on the ridge, relaxing with a chaw in his mouth after a hard day behind the plow, leaning back in the homemade chair now displayed in my living room, its front spindle bowed where Burl hooked his boot heels each evening.
On a bookshelf near the chair, I keep an old corncob pipe that belonged to my papaw, Burl’s son and Leona’s second husband. I never saw him smoke it, but it is displayed next to a Zippo I saw him fire up hundreds of times and a metal cigarette case that he carried in his pocket to protect his soft-pack Winstons from the sweat and crush of manual labor.
Papaw was someone else worth knowing, with a story that would amuse even those who never had the pleasure. Unless, of course, you know a hundred other people who have shot themselves in the leg, tumbled from a cliff and lived to tell about it. (Papaw didn’t do all of that on the same day, though. I’m not trying to brag.)
I’ve stumbled upon scores of similar tales. War heroes. Bridge builders. A great uncle with a glass eye. Murderers and the murdered. Ancestors who conspired to kill the loathsome son and brother who drove them off their homestead.
And, of course, a great-uncle who was a notorious moonshiner. (My people hail from Kentucky. What did you expect?)
Primarily, I launch this blog to share these discoveries with a family flung far from the hilltop in Kentucky my mom once called home. For that reason, I’ll be happy with an audience of a dozen.
But if you’re not blood and find these tales as interesting as I do, allow me to introduce you …