Wednesday, June 01, 2016

Alice K. Thurston, Deaf and Determined, my 2nd cousin

This morning, I came to the Thurston branch of my family tree, which shoots off from the Greeks and McCormicks of Gibson County, Indiana. For reference, my third great-grandmother on mother's side was Berilla (Mills) Greek, who lived 1829-1908 and was the daughter of my pioneer ancestor, Duston Mills (1804-1875), and wife of prominent Gibson Co. farmer, Joseph Greek (1822-1911).

Berilla's grand-daughter, Helen McCormick-Thurston (1902-1980), had two daughters--Evelyn in 1925 and Alice in 1931. Helen was a single mother in 1940, raising her daughters alone and running a beauty salon in Princeton, Indiana. The girls were listed on the 1940 U.S. Census as living at home with their mom; however, I found a second census record that year for the youngest one, Alice K. Thurston, and it led me to this:


I searched for records of her attendance, but could find nothing on Google. On the school's website, I found the Admissions Office and contacted a Mrs. Rice. She led me to the digital collection containing their archives on Indiana University's website. That's where I struck gold, including this senior picture of Alice, giving her full name and hometown.

Not only was that such a cool find in and of itself, but her name is the same as my grandmother, Alice Kathryn Dunning-Larson-Wright, just spelled in the "southern Indiana way." In fact, I've seen my own grandmother's name mispelled "Kathern," they way it's pronounced in the country. :)

The school had a monthly publication, first called The Silent Hoosier, but by the time Alice enrolled in January 1937, it was simply called The Hoosier. Not only was Alice in that publication dozens of times between 1937-1950, but she submitted more than a couple of articles, including this one on learning to swim in the May 1949 edition of The Hoosier:

I have been afraid of water all my life and never learned to swim until last summer. My sister and brother-in-law tried their best to make me overcome this fear. When they tried to teach me how to swim, I was very stubborn. They let me go after they helped me to float many times. I was choked, but sure enough, I conquered the fear. I learned to do several things in water. I have not learned to swim skillfully, but it is satisfying to know that I can swim some. Now I would love to go swimming. —Alice Thurston

I learned all kinds of valuable information from that publication, like her nickname "Thirsty," the names of her best friends and her aspirations. During her last two years at the school, she aspired to become "the world's fastest typist," the Vice-President of the United States and the operator of her mother's beauty shop in Princeton. I don't know if any of those aspirations were realized or not, but I feel like I came to know my second cousin a little bit better. She was a very active student at the school, attending there from K-12, participating in clubs, music, cheer squad ("yell leader")--yes, the deaf school had yell leaders--and writing for The Hoosier. She graduated June 6, 1950 and the trail for her grows cold.

Her parents either divorced or her father perished while she was a student at the Indianapolis-based school, about a three hour drive from her hometown. There was one instance where she wrote about a visit by her mom, dad and sister, in the late 1930's. My best guess is that her father left for California, remarried and became an auto mechanic for a Bakersfield, CA, Chevrolet dealership. Her mother reported to the 1940 Census taker that she was widowed. I'm not certain, but I do know that she grew to womanhood without her father's presence. I can't imagine that opportunities were as plentiful in the 1950's for people with disabilities as they are today, but with her good looks, abilities and determination, I'm sure she made a good life for herself.

Discoveries like that are what fuel my drive to complete the book I'm writing about my family, from pioneer times in Gibson County, IN, to the present. Thanks for taking the time to read this post.

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Friday, May 27, 2016

Sybil Niemann, Rest in Peace

So this is the post I either missed or didn't want to consider last July...

At the time, I had just returned from visiting my mother who was dying of late-stage cancer. Honestly, I don't remember if I read Sybil's post or not. I just remember some of her more recent posts about her illness and how it was keeping her from one of her loves, and that is Facebook. It's how we stayed connected.

You see, I had met Sybil on a Gibson County (IN) message board, a forum where we discussed everything from corn and melons to family history to politics. I originally joined the forum to discuss my genealogical pursuits in the county of my birth. Sybil and I hit it off right away. We shared a similar worldview and sarcastic sense of humor. I would private message her to make comments I wouldn't otherwise make on the forum, especially when it came to other users.

From that conversation, we became Facebook friends, and though I wouldn't meet her in person for a couple of years, I felt a keen connection to her. It was as if we came from the same stock. She was of my parents' generation and grew up just up the road from them in Patoka, Indiana. I was born in Princeton, where my parents were raised. My roots go back to pioneer times in Knox and Gibson counties, so that's why I had originally joined the forum where I first met Sybil.

She was very young at heart and seemed to connect easily with those of us younger than her. That's probably why she was such a good teacher at IU's School of Dentistry.

On Facebook, she would post of her simple life in Speedway, Indiana, where she had retired and lived with her two Jack Russell Terriers. And through that medium, she introduced me to the "rock smiley" and her friend in California, Lisa Albanese. Lisa and I became Facebook friends through our mutual love of Sybil and her youthful persona. I knew from following Sybil online that she frequented Charlie Brown's a longstanding eatery in the heart of Speedway.

So on a visit to my parents' house in the summer of 2014, I finally got the chance to go meet Sybil at Charlie Brown's for lunch. I arrived just as she came riding up on her tricycle, adorned with spinning wheels, American and checkered flags and a personalized Indiana license plate. I found her to be just as charming and warm in person as she was on the Internet.

We communicated quite regularly through early 2015. In fact, it was spring the previous year when she learned of my love of percolated coffee and without even a passing second thought, sent me a percolator she no longer used along with a rock smiley she had made. Her generosity struck a chord in me and I reciprocated with a hand-written thank you note. I think my daughters ended up with the rock smiley. My oldest thought it was so cool, she painted an old, black guitar pick with pink nail polish making a pick smiley of her own design. I posted a pic of it as a comment to Sybil's post of my thank you card back in May 2014. I still have the Farberware percolator she sent me.

But somehow, we sort of fell out of contact. You know how life has a way of interfering. I was focused on spending as much time with my mom as I could, making three trips up to Cicero, IN, to see her last year. During that time is when Sybil learned of her own cancer.

When she learned of my mom's cancer, unaware that my parents were still together and able to get around okay, she offered assistance in getting my mom to and from her appointments. She didn't want my mother to deal with any of it alone. I assured her that my dad had those bases covered, but I really appreciated her selflessness when she had never even met my mother. That and the gift endeared her to me, as did her wisdom and worldliness.

I'll never forget Sybil Niemann's thoughtfulness, friendliness or her indomitable spirit. Even cancer couldn't keep her down when it was ravaging her body. She was such a stellar human being. I was quite shocked when I just learned today, 15 days late, of her passing. It's bothered me greatly all afternoon...more because of my ignorance and neglect of our friendship, than anything else.

I needed to get this down in a blog post, so that I could begin to get past it. I feel really awful for her precious dogs, for her sons and their families and for the world at large. We lost one of our everyday angels, but the heavens gained a bright-shining star.

Rest in peace, my sweet friend. (Her obituary from Colvin Funeral Home).

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Wednesday, April 27, 2016

My Dunnings and the Great Flood of 1937

The Great Flood of 1937 hit the Ohio River Valley hard in mid-late January after 12 days of rain caused every tributary to over top their banks, flooding 70 percent of Louisville and 90 percent of it's sister city, Jeffersonville, Indiana. Things were so bad down river that Evansville officials declared Marshall Law. Upstream, things were nearly as dire for towns like Hazleton, Patoka and Wheeling, Indiana. The highest crest ever recorded in the town of Hazleton, situated at the mouth of Robb's Creek on White River, was in January 1937 at 31.7 feet, just for reference.

Gaylord, Elsie & Nancy Kirk
We'll get back to the flood momentarily, but first let me introduce you to my Aunt Elsie's family. That picture was taken around 1957 of Aunt Elsie with her husband and oldest daughter. Elsie was the first child born to my maternal great-grandparents, David and Ruth (McEllhiney) Dunning. 

She was born in 1909 on the farm of her grandparents, Thomas J. and Rhoda (Greek) McEllhiney. In fact, the attending physician mistakenly wrote her last name as McEllhiney on the birth certificate when, in fact, she was the first Dunning child born in Center Township, Gibson County, Indiana.

Aunt Elsie married Uncle Gaylord on Christmas Eve 1933 in Evansville. She had spent the better part of her life taking care of eight younger siblings, so having kids was not her first priority after marriage. Oldest daughter, Nancy Gayle, wasn't conceived for almost seven years. In the meantime, the young couple took up residence in a house near Hazleton, owned by the Ice family. The Ices were property owners north of Wheeling, not far from where Elsie grew up. The Dunning family farm was on Wheeling Road, north of Francisco. Anyway, Elsie's older cousin, Venita McEllhiney had married Charles Ice three years earlier, so we know the cousins were tight with Charles and his family. While living near Hazleton, Gaylord was a bus driver for the local school there. It wasn't long before they moved into the house owned by Gaylord's grandfather, John A. Kirk, elsewhere in Washington Township, Gibson County.

When they moved to Section 1, Center Township in Gibson County, they were living in the Netty Moore house very near where Elsie attended 7th and 8th grade at the Lawrence School, a single-room country schoolhouse before the consolidation of county schools in 1927. She never went beyond the 8th grade. That old schoolhouse, as well as the Netty Moore place where she was living, was on property once owned by her 3rd great-grandfather, a war hero, Joshua Stapleton, who fought the Native Americans at Tippecanoe (and I believe, also saw battle during the American Revolution). Joshua had lived there as early as 1820 and donated the land for Lawrence School. This was the best place they had lived since getting married in 1933 and it put Elsie much closer, within 2 miles, of her family home.

So that Gaylord could work his own farm, reaping more of his labor, they once again moved within Center Township. This time, they moved even closer to Elsie's family, taking up residence on the 100-acre Morrow farm on Wheeling Road in the Patoka River bottoms. It was late 1936 and they were about to experience one of the worst flooding disasters in Indiana's history. By mid January the next year, with the ground frozen and saturated by the Indiana winter, the rains began to fall, 15 inches in 12 days at Louisville fell from January 13-24th, according to the National Weather Service. As noted at the beginning of this post, it was a disaster of epic proportion for the entire region.

The land rented from Vesper Morrow began to fill with water. Unlike their McEllhiney neighbors across the road who had built their house on an elevated piece of land in the bottoms, the Morrow home that Gaylord and Elsie lived in was at ground level. The Patoka River flowed into the first floor of their farmhouse, but they had prepared by removing valuables to the second level and elevating furniture as best they could. Wheeling Road was impassable below the Dunning farm and the Kirk home on Vesper Morrow's farm was only accessible by boat until waters receded in February. The family had escaped in time and most of their valuables and sentimental items were spared.

It was still a mess and took some time to get back to where they were when they had moved in a few months earlier. Keep in mind, this disaster came on the heels of the Great Depression. As Uncle Les (Elsie's younger brother) reports, the financial crisis did not hit farm families quite as hard as they were more self-sufficient than ordinary homes. For instance, "they had their own wheat for flour, cows for milk and butter, chickens for eggs and meat, hogs and cattle for meat, their gardens for vegetables, enough crops to feed the livestock and sell for the staples needed. Eggs and cream were sold for salt, pepper, coffee, baking powder, soda, sugar and etc." ("The Early Life of Elsie Isabell Dunning/Kirk/McDowell" by Leslie Dunning.).

Elsie took the hardships of the flood without complaining and accepted the gracious help of friends and neighbors to recover, clean and set back up her home. In early 1938, she was dealt another setback, as her mother left her father at home with two children and another finishing high school. Elsie stepped in to help her grieving father take care of the house and the children, stepping back into the role she served as a teenager. 
Aunt Elsie

Her mother left with Elsie's Uncle Edward Williams and soon filed for divorce from David Dunning. This was quite a shocking development and David demanded that his ex-wife, Ruth, have no contact with their children, the youngest of whom, Carl, was only six. Two years later, Elsie became pregnant with Nancy, who was born in early 1941. By then, her brothers, Roy, Tom and Les were serving our country, Ginny was in high school at Francisco and Carl was in 4th grade.

Aunt Elsie survived the Great Flood of 1937 that claimed nearly 400 lives, fairly unscathed, and the personal tragedy at home of her parents' 1938 divorce. She was a great stand-in matriarch for the Dunning family all while trying to start a family of her own. She and Gaylord Kirk had two daughters who are still living in the area where their parents made their humble start. Speaking of humble beginnings, Elsie started her life in a one-room log cabin and grew up on the Dunning homestead, which still stands (in an updated form) on Wheeling Road outside Francisco, IN. She was my great-aunt and lived a great life of 96 years.

My family has now farmed Center Township in Gibson County, IN, for more than 200 years. I'll be posting more about our pioneer ancestors in the weeks to come to commemorate the bicentennial of the State of Indiana, admitted to the Union in 1816.

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Thursday, April 14, 2016

My pioneer family and ties to Lewis & Clark

Today's pioneer history lesson takes us back to 1799 and Gibson County's oldest known settler, Keen Field. I was transported back in time when I first saw his grave, marked with a pioneer-era tombstone, a piece of slate with his name rough-etched into it. He's buried north of Patoka, Indiana, in a cemetery now known as Field-Morrison Cemetery, once maintained by my late Uncle Les Dunning. It sits at the edge of a corn field alongside the railroad tracks and CR 50 E. It is the cemetery where my Morrison ancestors from North Carolina are buried.

It is Rachel E. Morrison (1840-1917), my third great aunt, who ties me to the famous pioneer family. I say famous because Keen Field's wife, Anna Lewis, was kin to Meriwether of the famed Lewis and Clark Expedition. Keen's brothers, Joseph and Reuben Field, were part of Lewis & Clark's Corps of Discovery. Anna (Lewis) Field gave Keen at least 10 children, some born in Kentucky before the move in 1799 to Indiana. Their grandson, Joseph Jackson Field (1831-1864), who died in a sorghum mill accident, was my Aunt Rachel's first husband, married in Gibson County 8 Jan 1863.

The Field and Morrison families were part of what became the Steelman Chapel neighborhood just north of Patoka. That area, first surveyed by the British when it was still part of the Northwest Territory, is laid out in 100-acre tracts running diagonally, SW to NE, known as Military Donations (land that was given to American war veterans in the late 18th and early 19th centuries). The Field family owned Military Donation 10, just south across Steelman Chapel Road, from where the pioneer cemetery mentioned above is located. The Morrisons took up farming just east of there and on the north side of Steelman Chapel Rd, sometime during the last half of the 1850's.

Aunt Rachel was married twice. After her first husband's accident, she married a Henry Barton, whose lineage I have not confirmed, as there were at least 3 Henry Barton's born around that time in Knox and Gibson counties. The headstone where he is buried at Shiloh Cemetery, not far from the original family farm, bears a birth date nine years later than his actual birth--a mistake on the part of the family or the gravestone engraver, I'll never know. I only have record of one child, Nancy Jane Field, being born of Rachel's first union. However, with Henry, she bore at least six children. She died 5 Dec 1917, at age 77, near Patoka and is buried near her parents, David and Jane (Swaim) Morrison, in the same cemetery as Keen Field.

Though not a direct relative, I took much time in researching the Field family from Virginia, who settled at the mouth of the Salt River, just south and west of Louisville, KY. I happened upon Lucie and Gene Field's research some years ago at, where they have painstakingly laid out the family history and retraced the famed steps of Meriwether Lewis and his intrepid group of explorers. It was with great sadness that I did not get to meet Gene and Lucie in person during their trip to SW Indiana in the Summer of 2011. Gene Field left this world two years later, leaving a great legacy to those of us who were connected to his family, either by birth, marriage or friendship.

I've been painstakingly tracing my roots back to the pioneers of Knox and Gibson counties for the better part of 15 years. My mom's lineage goes back to pre-Indiana statehood and pioneers from Maine by the English name, Mills. Since this is the state's bicentennial, admitted to the Union in 1816, I'm near the end of writing a book about that family, showing where we've come in 200 years, it's working title is "My Mills Family: 200 Years in Indiana." Stay tuned for more as I travel along in this quest.

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Sunday, April 03, 2016

Stewart Cunningham (1818-1903)

In keeping with my Indiana Bicentennial theme, here is the profile of another pioneer ancestor from my Scot-Irish roots on mom's side.

Stewart Cunningham was born in Edwards County, Illinois, and raised in southwest Indiana. The county maps of 1880-81 show that he owned a 75 acre farm in Decker Township, Knox County, Indiana, operating a ferry across White River between Gibson and Knox counties. His affairs were very much tied to Gibson County, where he was a commissioner as early as 1852, according to Gil R. Stormont (see p.91 "History of Gibson County...", Bowen, 1914), a post he proudly held, on and off, until 1866.

He was the son of either John C. or William "Buck" Cunningham, brothers who came with their immigrant father to the Wabash River valley from a Scot-Irish settlement in north Georgia. Stewart's grandfather (presumed), Andrew J. Cunningham (1776-1840), was born in East Lothian, Scotland, but married a Nancy Shields (1778-1840) in Ireland, 1797. They lived in County Donegal before joining other Scot-Irish immigrants and sailing to the Port of Savannah in Georgia. Also, Andrew's brothers, John, Joseph, and Stewart and sister, Jane (who married Edward Phillips in Gibson County, IN) were born in Scotland and came to American about 1800 at the Port of Savannah. They left Georgia and came north about 1803, according to Leland S. Cunningham (see his book "Early Hazleton"), but Dan Elliot has found a land record where Andrew deeds to Samuel his land in Clark Co, GA, in Sep 1805, so they may have moved before the winter of 1805 to Indiana.

Back to our subject, legend has it that he ran away from home in Illinois as a young boy, sometime after his mother's death in 1827, crossing the Wabash River at Mount Carmel, coatless and barefoot. He wound up finding shelter at a home in Gordon Hills, a bedrock rise near the mouth of the White River due west of Patoka, Indiana. He was but a teenager when he left there and took up residence with Smith Miller at Miller's Station, an old stop on the Evansville & Terre Haute railroad between Patoka and Hazleton. He was married to Susanna Robb, who undoubtedly introduced the young Stewart to her younger sister.

On the first day of February 1842, a 23-year-old Stewart was joined in marriage to Miss Georgianna M. Robb, whose father, James Robb, Jr., was also an early Irish immigrant to pioneer Gibson County, Indiana. They were married by Methodist minister, Rev. Samuel Stewart, who at one time also served as a judge in Gibson County. For their first home, the couple had but $400, so they borrowed money from John Brown to purchase Militia Donation 39, a one-hundred acre tract in White River Township, about a mile northeast of Miller's Station. They set up housekeeping in a small log cabin on the north end of the tract. I believe present day Steelman Chapel and Cunningham roads intersect near where his property was. The 1881 county map shows that he also owned part of Military Donation 26 giving him 150 acres of land in that township. From his land across the river in Knox County, it is said that he set up a saw mill and launched flatboats to carry farm products all the way to New Orleans. This is also where he ran the aforementioned ferry until automobiles and bridges made his service obsolete.

Every year, Stewart and "Georgie" celebrated their birthdays together on August 12th by providing a large meal for family and friends, of which they had many. That was Georgie's actual birthday. Stewart's was three days later. Known as very generous folks, they would take in orphans and the needy on a regular basis, per family sources. Their son "Doc" Cunningham (1844-1915) always brought several dozen watermelons for the occasion. And anybody who knows Indiana produce, knows that Decker melons are the sweetest and juiciest in the world!

The two-story home they built in the Steelman Chapel neighborhood from timbers Stewart razed from his military donation lands was burnt to the ground in December 1948. It had stood for more than a hundred years as an old pioneer landmark in Gibson County. The couple had been long since passed from this world, Stewart died in 1903 and his bride in 1915. They are buried in the cemetery that bears her father's name.

My connection to this pioneer couple is through my 3rd great-aunt, Gracie E. Morrison-Cunningham (1844-1921), who married "Doc" the farmer and melon-bearer mentioned two paragraphs above. She was born in the Surry/Yadkin County area of North Carolina, where my maternal great-great grandmother, her younger sister, was also born in 1854. Their family traveled by wagon through the Cumberland Gap in 1858 to escape policies they didn't agree with in the South, namely the institution of slavery. Arriving in southwest Indiana sometime before 1860, they took to farming the same area of Gibson County as the Cunninghams and Robbs. Gracie and Doc Cunningham raised a family of four children in that area and are buried in Patoka's Oak Hill Cemetery.

I've said it before, my roots run very deep in Gibson County, Indiana. This is yet another example of my pioneer roots in that county. I will continue to celebrate my rich Hoosier heritage throughout 2016, the Bicentennial mark of Indiana's statehood.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Mary Mills-White, My 5th Great Aunt & Pioneer Ancestor

I don't have a photo of her, but then again, she died in 1877, so the headstone will have to do. Mary Mills-White is my 5th great aunt on my mother's side. Her parents, James and Rachael Mills, were pioneers who made the arduous journey from southern Maine to southwestern Indiana in the second decade of the 19th century. They arrived in what was then still wild country full of Indians and every kind of game, settling in the area that would become Princeton, Indiana, before Indiana was admitted to the Union. That would not happen until five years after their arrival in the Indiana wilderness.

Mary was only three when they began their journey, her mother setting up home in New York while her father and uncle ventured westward in search of new farming land. The story has it that the family dog accompanied the men on the journey, returning alone by harvest time back to the temporary farm in New York. Fearing the worst, Rachael Mills, an industrious woman, sold the harvest and made plans to return to their homeland in Kennebec County, Maine. Before she could start the journey back eastward, the way she had traveled with her husband and five young children earlier in the year, the men returned from surveying their future home in Indiana territory. The family then made their way south to Pittsburgh and west down the Ohio River by flatboat until they reached Indiana on New Year's Day 1811, or so the story is told by Berilla Mills-Greek in Gil R. Stormont's "History of Gibson County, Indiana" (1914, Bowen & Co.).

By the time Mary was 18, she had caught the eye of a handsome suitor, Isaac A. White, a young man born in Massachusetts, but reared just across the river in Friendsville (Wabash County), Illinois. He went by his middle name, Anson, and is also mentioned in Stormont's history.  According to Gibson County (IN) marriage records, the two were wed on Christmas Eve 1825. They remained in that county until the late 1830's welcoming at least six of their ten children into the world in Indiana. The other four children were born in Wabash County, Illinois. They remained in that county at least fifteen years before heading westward in 1855. Anson White is counted among the men in Wapello County, Iowa, on that state's 1856 Census. He would die two years later, leaving my Aunt Mary a widow with three children at home--twins Elizabeth and Sarah, 18, and Mary, 15.

On the 1860 U.S. Census, less than two years a widow, Mary is found keeping home in rural Sciola, in the West Nodaway River Valley, halfway between Des Moines, IA, and Omaha, NE. Twenty-four year old son, Samuel W. White, who would not marry for another couple of years, was home tending to the family farm and looking after his mother. He would soon enlist with the 9th Iowa Infantry of Company A, serving eight or nine months before becoming ill and being laid up in Nashville, TN. He returned to Douglas Township, Montgomery County, IA, buying a 100-acre farm nearer to Grant (just north of Sciola, where he lived with his mother before the war). By 1870, Mary had moved in with Samuel and his wife, Sarah Jane, near Grant, Iowa, where she would spend the last seven years of her life, helping to raise four grandchildren, the youngest of which was only 2 1/2 when she died in 1877. Mary joined her husband in a plot they had purchased in the back lot of East Grant Cemetery in Montgomery County, IA. That is where the headstone, above, was photographed in 2010.

Obviously, Mary inherited her pioneering spirit from her parents who made the roughly 1,260-mile trek from Maine to Indiana in 1810-11. She was among Gibson County's earliest families, then helped to shape Wabash Co, IL, and Montgomery Co, IA, living a robust life of 70 years, seeing a son go off to war in the South, only to come home with impaired eyesight due to sickness, to outlive her husband by nearly 20 years (the date on the headstone for her death is off by five years) and to help raise many grandchildren.

This year marks Indiana's Bi-Centennial, so I'll be sharing more about my pioneer ancestors who came to the Hoosier State before it's admission into the Union in 1816.

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Thursday, March 03, 2016

Cartoon Depicting Racism

When my friends or those who suffer white angst tell me that I'm just suffering "white guilt," I'm going to show them this cartoon and tell them it's something called EMPATHY...they should check it out. :)

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