Archive for February, 2010

For me, the guiding passion behind my 20 year dance through the looking glass of my past has been the need to know the stories behind the dates and the names.  I grew up listening to the stories about life up home, on the farm, stories that my great grandmother used to entertain me during the long lazy summer days I spent at my grandmother’s house, stories that my grandmother would tell me on Saturday nights as she patiently guided my hands through learning this embrodery stitch or that one.   And as always, the conversations on those long ago Saturday nights were filled with stories of watching this afgan being knitted or that set of bedsheets and linens being stitched.  A history made up of needlework and creativity, flavoring my images of the women that came before me.

I tend to think of the people on the other side of that looking-glass as stitches in the pattern that makes up who I am, each generation leaving behind their handiwork on the canvas creating corners of the whole pattern to who I am.   Not really an odd analogy when you consider I come from a long line of needle jockeys.  My mother does lovely work, she never travels without her sewing bag.   My maternal grandmother was exceptionally skilled, each one of us has various treasures that Gram created with her needle and thread.  Her mother, my great-grandmother was the head fitter at the Paris salon at Huztlers Downtown Baltimore and did some of the most incredible needle point I have ever encountered.  My paternal great-grandmother knit and crocheted and won 1st place at the state fair back in the 50’s with an afghan that I have a duplicate of.  Stepped back another generation, my maternal great great grandmother, Fanny Lillian Kreglo Houck created some of the most beautiful linen work table cloths and napkins I have ever seen.   I imagine that it was her hands that guided Gram’s through the first beginning stitches as Gram’s guided mine two generations later, giving me a real sense of continuance and connection with these women who make up part of who I am today.   And touching these items gives me another dimension to those names and dates in my past, which is, after all, what makes the journey through the looking glass so much richer than just dry little names and dates on a chart.  Which is, after all, the real meaning of searching for where you came from, isn’t it?

Take for example the story of my 3rd great grand-aunt, Mathlide Root Simpson.   On the surface, there’s not much to tell.  She was born April 5, 1857.    She married December 29, 1856 and less than a year later, she died in childbirth.   Bare bones facts.  No flavor to them at all.  Now, take a look at the image at the top of this post.  It’s a counted cross stitch image of a beautiful bouquet of roses.  Although hard to see, there are delicate shades of color in the threads, giving a rich dimension to the needlework.   I strongly doubt it was done from a pattern, but even if so, it’s a testament to an incredible skill with a needle when you realize that  instead of canvas, it’s actually stitched on perforated paper.  It was carefully and expensively framed, behind glass and paper backed.   And on that paper backing are two lines.  Tillie Root 1854.  And then look back at that simple dry little entry on the tree.  Mathilde Root Simpson 1839-1857 suddenly comes to life.  She literally jumps off the page and becomes three-dimensional.  She was Tillie Root a teenager with an incredible skill with needle and thread as she completed this piece at just 15 years of age.  She was a treasured child/sibling as this work of needle art was expensively framed and preserved with tender loving care for the last 156 years.    Tillie is no longer just a foot note to the family tree, my 3rd great grandmother’s sister who died young, but somebody so real you can almost reach out and touch her.  And that, my friends is what the journey through the looking glass is really all about.


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We’ve all been there I know, that ugly ole brick wall must have a billion head dents in it from where we have all hit our heads over and over, trying to push through, burrow under, climb over, whatever it took to get to the next level. Finding that one illusive puzzle piece that will unlock the secrets of the next generation back. The thrill of the chase, the incredible reward of looking at an old record, finding a letter in the back of a forgotten book, having a name leap out at you and take life shouting here I am. For me, when one of my most stubborn brick walls came down, it was a double thrill, in part because the one wall I’d been bashing my head against for nearly 3 years wasn’t even my wall to begin with.

My first forays into research were deceptively easy. My Gram’s father’s family was already well documented. And that was back before we had all this wonderful internet access and information readily available. I was fortunately enough to encounter a fellow who had posted information to one of the FTM Family Tree CD’s that was from the Ohio Branch of the Buckinghams that included a great deal of information about my branch here in Maryland. Coupled with the fact that my Gram’s aunt was still alive and still sharp as a tack at 100, I was able to easily establish the connections and tuck away that line very nicely. The Houcks, Kreglos and Roots took a little more digging, but again, all my little ducks quequed up nicely in their rows. And again, owing to the wealth of family history I had from listening to my great-grandmother’s stories for years and years.

I turned my attention to my father’s family, feeling rather sure of myself. After all, I knew where we had come from originally, what little my grandfather had ever said about his father’s family was that we were French, had come over to New York in the colonial days, that Leonard was a family name and the original middle name had been Geisinger that had been shorted to Guy. That his father had died during a coal strike as a member of the national guard in West Virginia. I knew little more about his mother’s family, but not much. I knew his grandfather on that side had owned a rather successful business in Baltimore with an office in West Virginia. Thinking I had more than enough information to get started, I put my notes together and began to hunt. And got nowhere. Fast. My neat and tidy assumptions got the best of me faster than you could say Census. My maiden name is rather unique. It’s LeVee. Pronouced La Vee as my grandfather was always extremely quick to point out, not Levy, LA Vee. LeVee, it’s French, we came from France.   He always said it pretty much that way, too so I always just assumed that was one of his little quirks. I posted that name on every message board I could possibly find. And again, nothing. We had no family members to talk to. My father is an only child of an only son whose father was also an only child. At the time I was beginning my search for that side of the family, my grandfather had been gone nearly 20 years. My grandmother had had a stroke and was no longer able to even recognize my father. And my father’s one aunt on that side of the family had also passed away. My father grew up in the middle of his mother’s rather large Czech family. The only family he had on his father’s side was his grandmother, her sister, his aunt, her husband and one cousin who was just a few hours older than he was and by the time I was working on the genealogy for that branch of the family, they had all passed away.

In the middle of all of this, my father got a letter from a woman by the name of Kathryn Levy Bush in Florida. A very nicely written letter, telling him that they were second cousins, that his grandfather and her grandfather were brothers. He called me out in New Mexico where I was living at the time and read it to me over the phone. He was skeptical and for that matter, so was I. Nothing in her letter matched anything we knew about our little family. As my father is a total gentleman, he wrote her a nice letter, thanking her for the contact, but that we were not the family she was searching for, he wished her well in her search and considered the matter closed. The next letter arrived with copies of old photostats of some wills and some LDS family sheets and discussing German ancestry. We knew then that this had to be wrong, We were from France. Not only that, my wonderful and loving Czech born Grandmother would have NEVER married anybody with German ancestry. In fact when I started studying German in highschool she was livid, how could I, she asked, after what they had done to her family when Prague fell. Again Daddy and I talked and he said he would send me copies of the papers. Once more, a polite, thank you, but letter went to Kathryn., although he let her know that he had forwarded the information to me as I was the family historian. My brother got involved at this point when Kathryn called him and he simply said, No, ma’am, we’re not related, our family is from France, my great-grandfather was an only child like my father, asked her not to call again and hung up.

I got this packet in the mail a couple of days later and looked it over. And suddenly the France, we came from France mantra that my grandfather had always chanted anytime we asked about our family history began to take on a Dan Ackryod Jane Curtain Conehead flavor. I recognized a name that my grandfather had mentioned once, a long time ago. Geisinger. I knew one other solid piece of information, that the name Leonard Guy was one that had been handed down generation to generation, in fact my father’s birth certificate lists him as Leonard Guy LeVee IV. While Leonard is a fairly common name, Guy is not. Seeing a whole row of Leonard Guy’s got me to thinking and for a long rather puzzling afternoon, I sat and wrote down everything I could remember that my grandfather had ever mentioned about his family. This man with a thirst for history who knew every nuance of the Shriver Family in Westminster MD from his years as that family’s historian had been very closed mouthed about his own family. My list of what I knew was very short. I got to the end of my list and went back over Kathryn’s information and then called my father. He still was not convinced when I told him that she might be on to something. I could hear the backwash of anger in his voice, not at me, but at the ghost of a possibility that he might have been lied to all these years. I decided that the best way to solve this mystery was to see if I could get his records from the West Virginia National Guard. After all, we did know that my father’s grandfather had died during a Coal Strike as a member of the national guard. Surely this very nice lady may have gotten some records mixed up, the man she was looking for died two years before my great-grandfather. It happens to all of us. So I sent away for the records, not really expecting much, maybe a sheet or two because according to what we knew he’d only been in the guard for a year or so. I put Kathryn’s information in a file and went about other things as I waited for records. About two weeks later, I got this enormous packet in the mail from West Virginia. I was rather surprised at the size of it. With heart pounding and sweaty palms, I sat down at the table and opened it. Nothing like knowing a part of who you are is just on the other side of an envelope to kick start excitement. I read through the very nice letter from the records registrar and opened this huge sheaf of papers. My first thought was, she messed up, this is the wrong man, for there in my hands were the records of Leonard Guy Levy, the gentleman that Kathryn had been writing my father about. I turned the first record over and got a cold chill. His signature on the bottom of one of the promotions could have been my father’s. Down to the way he made his L in Leonard. I went through all the records including a death notice, for this man, Leonard Guy Levy had been not only a Captain in the guard but a highly thought of, decorated solider. With a wife named Gertrude, a son named Leonard and a daughter named Frances.   I sat there, stunned.  There was no way that this man could be anybody else but my great grandfather.  There was no way that two men could have belonged to the West Virginia National Guard and be married to women with the same first name and have two children named the same.  I called my father. He’d been mulling over Kathryn’s last letter as well, to the point where he had gone up into the attic just that day and pulled out the box of papers that belonged to his mother. Important papers, such as her citizenship papers, her immigration papers, his grandfather’s declaration of intent. He’d not gone through them, simply put them in the attic after he had had to close out her apartment after she had had her stroke. He was in fact, getting ready to call me and open the box with me on the phone. I sat and waited listening to him sort through papers, making comments here and there and then silence for a moment. Then in a rather hushed voice he read me the death notice I was holding in my hand.  Buried in an envelope was the confirmation proof that the records I held in my hand belonged to my father’s grandfather and in the space of a single heartbeat, not only did that old brick wall come down leaving a wide open door of information behind it, but in the dust that settled, my father and I realized, we were not who we thought we were.

To this day, we are not sure of the hows or the whys. The man that was my great-grandfather died in a snow storm in February in Charleston West Virginia leaving behind a wife and two young children. For reasons unknown she made a complete break with her husband’s family.  Not only was he a decorated solider, but far from being the only child we had always thought him to be, he was the second child of a family of five children, one of whom outlived everybody and was still alive when I was born, but behind that brick wall so we never have the pleasure of knowing him.  I can only surmise what the back story is. He was interred in Charleston with military honors only be be removed and brought up to the Levy family plot and buried with his family at his parents request. In 1910 the family is listed as Levy, but by the 1920 census that found my great-grandmother and her children in Baltimore, they are listed as LeVee. Did she change the name out of anger at her late husband’s family over having his body disinterred and removed to Maryland?  Or was it out of fear of being a widow with young children and a German surname in the hostile environment of WWI in Baltimore.  My grandfather’s insistence that we were of French descent makes the later a more plausible statement, but the fleeting memories I have of his mother don’t jive as I doubt she was ever afraid of anything.  We do know that she never spoke of or had anything to do with her husband’s family for the rest of her life.  To the point where my father never even knew he had family living literally just blocks away.  The name change was very easy to accomplish back then. They simply changed it. And when my grandfather was required to produce a birth certificate to get a radio license, he simply wrote to West Virginia to request one be issued in the name of Leonard Guy LeVee. In 1903 West Virginia did not issue certificates. All that was required to get one was to make an application and have somebody who attended the birth co sign. My great-grandmother attested to the names and place and bingo, we were now LeVees instead of Levys.

Kathryn passed away a few years ago, but at least from the time of our discovery of who we really were until her death, my father had the pleasure of a cousinship from his father’s side of the family and got to know, indirectly at least, who his family had been.

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Who was Aunt Sara?

Aunt Sara

Aunt Sara

For years, this picture had haunted my father. Two of the figures he knew quite well, one was his aunt, the sparkling and witty Fanny as a teenager standing next to her mother, his grandmother, but the other two were total strangers. The only clue we had was the phrase written on the back of the picture in his father’s handwriting that simply stated, “Mom and Aunt Sara”. He’d discovered the photos while cleaning out my grandmother’s apartment after she had a stroke, long after his father had passed away. There were no other family members to ask, his aunt had passed away some years earlier, and his only cousin on that side of the family, just 12 hours his senior had also passed away the year before. One night as we were looking over the pictures and talking about family after I had moved back to Maryland, he brought this picture out and handed it to me with a request. “Please find out who Aunt Sara is.” The resemblance between my great-grandmother and the mysterious Aunt Sara is a strong one, so it was obvious to us that this was a blood relative.

Tracing my father’s side of my family has been a challenge from the beginning and is a blog entry unto itself. Of his father’s family, he knew virtually nothing, aside that his grandfather died when his father was in his early teens. Of his grandmother’s side he knew just a little more. That her father had owned a rather prominent framing company in Baltimore at the end of the 19th century, that she had one sister and one brother and had married her father’s West Virginia Lumber Company’s bookkeeper about 1901. He knew she had grown up in Relay, that her daughter had actually been raised by her sister Harriet after the death of her husband and that she had very little love for the ‘foreign woman’ aka my wonderful grandmother, who married her only son when he was 28.

Armed with only a handful of names, the deed to cemetery plot and a couple of letters that went back and forth between my father’s great-grandfather and the War Department over repayment of his possessions lost when the picket boat he was serving on during the Civil War sank, I headed out the most logical places to look, the Census and Baltimore City records. It was literally an ordeal by fire as Baltimore pretty much burned to the ground in 1904, turning most of the city records to ashes. And we all know the pain of loss over the 1890 census.

Finding the Landons turned into quite the hide and seek search. They are an elusive family, appearing in only a a very limited number of censuses. George and his wife appear together in only the 1880 census, even though they were married in 1863. The Landon family plot holds a random assortment of relatives, in-laws and infants, but no siblings. It wasn’t until I went over my grandmother’s handwritten list of who was in this plot that I discovered my first big break, not only was George W. Landon’s father buried there, but his mother in law and aunt in law were also interred there. Armed with the next generation back of names, I returned to the census and to the Baltimore city records. Hours of sitting at the microfilm machine trying to avoid motion sickness was finally rewarded when I found in the 1850 census, one Josiah W, Landon, his wife Alice and their four children. And there was George, along with his brother Joseph W, his sister Amelia and his sister Mary. And while I was thrilled to discover this additional information, I wasn’t any closer to finding Aunt Sara than I had been two years earlier when my father handed me that picture. Finding Joseph’s wife’s name was ridiculously easy, he had been married just a year after his brother and they were both listed in the Baltimore Sun index. But her name was Margaret so once again, I was off on my chase. I turned my attention to Sarah Jennie Lynch Landon’s family. It took another year of research, owing partly to the fact that Sarah’s abrupt disappearance from the public eye after 1880 and the odd weaving of half truths and omissions based on the very sad discovery that Sarah Landon spent the last 24 years of her life at Mount Hope Retreat. Again. No other Sarah but Sarah Lynch Landon.

I put the search aside for a bit, hitting that brick wall can be painful. About a year later, I found myself again at the library in Baltimore and decided it would be nice to go back to the old City Directories and pull the ads for Landon and Kent for my father. It tickled him that the building his great-grandfather had his offices in was still standing and I knew he’d get a kick out of seeing those old ads. I was once again back at the microfilm machines and ran across the entry showing George W. Landon’s home and noticed a name I hadn’t seen before. Emmeline. Listed as Mrs. Emmeline Landon, living at the same address as George W. Landon. Sarah Lynch Landon was not listed and I now know that is because in 1890, she was at Mount Hope. Both my father’s grandmother and his grand aunt Harriet were young girls at the time, so obviously this was a female relative that had come to stay and help him with his young daughters. Figuring it was worth a back track, I took the name Emmeline Landon and started back through the censuses once more, figuring she was an widowed aunt of George’s. I’d already come to see that family was very important to George Landon, his company employed his brother, his nephews, his son and later his son in law. His eldest sister spent the last years of his life living with him and keeping house for him. By this time, I was a member of Ancestry.com so instead of sitting in front of microfilm machines I plugged in this tidbit of information into the Ancestry search and almost immediately, the name Emmeline Landon popped up, listed as the spouse of one Josiah Landon in the 1870 census. I felt kind of sheepish, I had not pursed Josiah Landon after my first discovery of him. Obviously he’s remarried after his wife, George’s mother had died. I clicked on the view image and grabbed my pen so that I could make some notes about this second wife to add to the history I was building for my father, never expecting to find anything more than Josiah and Emmeline listed. After all, this was the 1870 census, Josiah has been born in 1802 and I knew that he died in 1975. In 1870 he was a grandfather several times over. So I was totally unprepared for the list of four names after Emmeline’s. Four little girls, Lydia, Emma, Laura and Sara.   I’d found her.   The mysterious Aunt Sara. One of four half sisters that nobody had ever mentioned.  Part of a family that we’d never known existed and had it not been for that single note on the back of a very old photo, she would have forever remained merely a name on a census page.

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