My German-(A)Merican Heritage

This is the first of a several-part series on my grandfather, Thomas Austin Merica.

Thomas Austin Merica was born on May 28, 1884 in Greene County, Virginia. Or at least that’s the family legend.

He was from sturdy German stock, tall and broad-shouldered, with strong arms that could swing an ax and big hands that could grip a plow. He’d do plenty of both in his life.

There are no documents, no photos, no heirlooms to help inform the history of Tom Merica’s heritage. There is only the story that his family came to Page County, Virginia from over the Blue Ridge Mountains, in Greene County. And that story turns out to be wrong.

That, and the story that he and his siblings were abandoned by their parents, which turns out to be right.

Palatine ImmigrationTom’s ancestors, it seems, came to America from the Palatinate region of Germany early in the 1700s, settling in Pennsylvania.

Thousands of Germans were emigrating to Pennsylvania, escaping a semi-feudal and poverty-stricken society that had been embattled in wars for a hundred years or more.

First the Thirty Years War, and then Louis XIV of France kept picking on Protestants wherever he could find them, which meant up the Rhine River.

Then came famine. And more war. Which made a gruesome 12-week journey across the Atlantic with 400 others in a small ship seem absolutely delightful. William Penn had been advertising the awe-inspiring wonders of America to the war-weary Germans.

How could they resist?

Peace! Farmland! Freedom!, he cried out on the handbills his workers spread throughout the Rhineland.William Penn poster

He called the American colonies “the seeds of a nation,” said potential immigrants could practice their religion freely, and assured them they would be paid more here than at home.

He extolled the plenty available to all. In fact, there was “more being produced and imported than we can spend here, we export it to other countries in Europe, which brings in money.”

Anticipating his audience’s desire for “stuff,” he told them they would have three times as much of it in America, of “all necessities and conveniences (and not a little in ornamental things, too).”

Who wouldn’t come?

So Tom’s ancestors landed at the harbor of Philadelphia, and from there they appear to have traveled to the inland regions, perhaps Bucks County, or Lancaster, where so many other Germans settled, and whose unique ways can still be seen today in the Pennsylvania Dutch. But that is a misnomer; the Germans called themselves Deutsch, and Americans misinterpreted it as Dutch.

We don’t know the names of these ancestors any more than we know where they lived, what they did to earn their living, whether they fought off Indians, served as soldiers, died in childbirth, or sang in the church choir.

We know only that they came to America searching for a good life, and hopefully found it out there the edges of society, in those borderlands advertised so vividly by William Penn.

Tom Merica’s ancestors stayed in Pennsylvania for several generations, we believe. Conestoga wagon paintingThen, like so many German immigrants, they packed their belongings, maybe into a Conestoga wagon, that most practical of German American inventions, and turned south.

I don’t know why they went south. Perhaps they heard of the rich farmland to be had in Virginia and Carolina. Or perhaps they were tired of watching over their shoulders for hostile Natives, which were always a problem for settlers in the borderlands of Pennsylvania.

So they joined the flow of German and Scots-Irish immigrants on the Great Wagon Road, a 735-mile trail that carried hundreds of thousands of settlers to their own promised land in the southern colonies and beyond.

Great Wagon RoadPerhaps Tom’s great-great grandfather, Johannes Markey, drove a Conestoga wagon down that great highway.

He might have traveled with the family of Philip Dietz, his future father-in-law.

The Dietzes had previously lived in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where they belonged to the First Reformed Church. It was customary for German immigrants from a particular town or large family to emigrate together as a group, which is a clue that young Mr. Markey might have been from the Dietzes homeland, Baden-Württemberg, in Germany.

By 1795 the Dietzes had settled in Rockingham County, Virginia, where Philip’s daughter Elizabeth married Johannes Markey and became Tom Merica’s great-great grandmother.

Johannes changed his name from Merkey to Merica. But he forgot to change how the name was pronounced, so now, nearly 125 years later, half the family says, “Merica” and half says, “Merkey.” Go figure.

The couple proceeded to have seven children, six boys and a girl, including their second oldest, Tom Merica’s grandfather, George.

George was born near the dawn of the 19th century, 1799, a time that marked a dramatic shift from pre-industrialism to the modern world. The Industrial Revolution was creating new, technological solutions to age-old problems. And it was speeding up the world as never before.

But not on a farm that ran along Naked Creek in Page or Rockingham county, Virginia. Life there remained pretty much as it would have been for centuries. Naked Creek cropWomen loomed their own cloth, men hoed the earth with hand-made tools. Families lucky enough to have a plow horse were as close to technologically advanced as it got.

It would be more than 120 years before people here had the electric light. More than 160 before they had a telephone. Roads would remain unpaved well into the 20th century.

So Johannes and Elizabeth farmed, loomed, hunted, sewed, and made a home for their children the only way they knew how. The old ways nourished their parents, and their parents’ parents before them, and they would nourish this family now.

When the couple’s son George was 27 he married 19-year old Catherine Wagoner. They stayed near the elder Markeys and Dietzes, and eventually built a farm somewhere along the 20-mile stretch of Naked Creek between the town of Shenandoah and the Skyline Drive, land so pretty it makes you cry.

Horses in fieldI’ve found nothing to say if George had rich bottom land or farmed the poorer-soiled hillsides of Piney Mountain, or maybe Green or Grindstone mountain.

I only know that he had a bundle of land, and that 80 years later, as young men, two of his grandsons were building side-by-side frame homes and starting farms in the Fleeburg section of Shenandoah.

Tom Merica and his brother Hunter had bought out the inheritance of their other siblings, so this must have been their missing parents’ land, or perhaps their grandparents’.

But wait. Their missing parents?

Tom and Hunter’s parents were Joseph W. Merica, who was George and Catherine’s youngest son, and Elizabeth Turner. They probably pronounced their name, “Mer-key.”Family tree.GIFJoe was 24, a blacksmith, when he married 16-year old Elizabeth. They lived near George and the new wife he married after Catherine died. But it would be six more years before Joe and Elizabeth would start a family.

Twenty years later, in the 1880 census, they were still there. JJoseph W. Merica Family 1880 census.GIFoe was listed in the census as a farmer. He was 44 by this time, Elizabeth 38. The three older children were named in the census as well, but it would be another year before little Maggie was born, and four years before Thomas Austin Merica came into this world.

It would be 26 years before he married Florence Elizabeth Collier, my grandmother, and 40 years before my mother, Ruth Virginia Merica, was born.

A lot would happen in the next 40 years, and the next 40. But we’ll leave that for another story.

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Posted in 18th Century, 19th Century, 20th Century, Blue Ridge Mountains, Collier, Merica, Shenandoah | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

My Mysterious Mary Margaret Magdalene Meadows

My great grandmother is a mystery to me. My mother knew her well, but she’s 93 and can’t think of much to say about her. My cousin knew her too, but she has nothing to add either. I have no photos, no diaries, no one’s memories.

Here’s what little I do know. She had thick hair that she wore in a knot at the back of her neck. When she got old it turned pure white. She had a sweet face. She called my mother “Little Joe,” though her name is Ruth. She made mackerel cakes for lunch when her daughter and family came to visit.P1000721

Mary Margaret Magdalene Meadows was born on May 10, 1864 in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Page County, Virginia.

The “Magdalene” part of her name is not confirmed, but my mother tells me that was her second middle name, and I have seen “Mary M. M. Meadows” on several documents. So I’m going with it.

Mary was born during the Civil War, just about the same time her father died from it.

Not in it, mind you, but from it. The circumstances are a mystery, and there are several theories, but no evidence that would confirm any one of them.

One thing is certain: Mary grew up a fatherless child, and for this it is said she was given powers.

A girl who is born after her father dies is said to have the gift of healing a baby’s thrush. The healer has only to lean close and blow gently into the baby’s mouth.

Mary Meadows had this power, and through her life many new mothers cP1000789ounted on her healing breath. My mother says this was her only extraordinary healing power, but that it was well-used.

My grandmother, Florence Collier Merica, who was Mary’s child, learned many remedies from her mother.

Put an axe under the bed of a birthing woman and it will cut the pain in two, she said.

Brew ginseng root into a tea for the flu, sassafras for a fever.

Give brandy with sugar and water to a child with a cold.

I’m sure there were other poultices and tonics, oaths and spells that were engaged when needed.

Maybe I can pluck one or two more out of my mother’s memory, but mostly they are lost to history, as much a mystery to me as Mary Margaret Magdalene Meadows.

Mary Meadows married William Collier in 1884, when she was 20 years old. He was 28.Mary M. Meadows and William Durret Collier wedding photo

He went by his middle name, Durret, which, with the Blue Ridge accent, came out as “Dirt.”

They owned property in the Blue Ridge. I recall it was a little over 450 acres.

Durret and his son-in-law, my grandfather, shaved tan bark in the spring to sell to the tannery in Elkton. That land made them a decent living.

Mary raised five healthy daughters and a big, strapping son. Annie, Emmie, Florence, Maggie, Charles, and Minnie, in that order.

They all grew up and married fine spouses, built or moved into homes of their own, and started raising their families.

Then came 1925. In late July Durret died of Hodgkin’s lymphoma after a long and painful illness. He was 69.

One month later their daughter Maggie died too, far too young, and leaving a 13-year old daughter.

So at age 50 Mary took on the granddaughter Maggie left behind. P1000782Maggie’s husband Comie Watson, a handsome young man, couldn’t care for his daughter, either through grief or aptitude, or because the family decided young Elsie Mae needed a woman’s care.

Elsie was raised with care, as loved as any child could be, and doted on by her grandmother and four aunts.

All Mary’s family was dear to her, and near to her. Only one daughter moved away, to Newport News, a half day distant. The others lived within a few miles of her Jollett Hollow home, two in #2 Furnace and two in Fleeburg.

What a time there was when the daughters visited! They sat and gossiped the afternoon away as the children played wild inside and out, or quietly read or listened while the women talked.

Her second to oldest, Florence, who was my mother’s mother, took her younger children with her on these visits.

When she could, she got her son Jesse to drive them, either in the car or in the wagon. Occasionally her husband Tom came along and did the driving.

Tom always greeted Mary the same, “Afternoon, Miss Mary.” Mary always answered, “Oh, Tom!” Theirs was a true respect and affection.P1000745

If there was no one to drive them, Florence and the children walked the several miles from Fleeburg to Jollett Hollow. Or, as the community called it, “Jolly Holler.”

They commenced several miles down Fleeburg Road, past Minnie’s house, past their beloved Oak Grove Church, then across Naked Creek and left onto Naked Creek Road.

They walked up past the Merica Store, the road winding with the creek, about six miles distant, till they reached the plank footbridge that took them across to Mother Mary’s log house.

As a routine they stopped along the way at Merica’s Store to buy several cans of mackerel.

They took the mackerel to Mary and she tossed it with an egg and a little cornmeal, shaped it into patties, and fried the cakes up in lard till they were hot and crispy. These were savored by the women and children alike during those visits.

After lunch the children might leave the women alone to talk in peace.

P1000715One late fall day Elsie was asked to watch little Ruthy and Annie Merica, my future mother and her little sister, play outside after lunch.

They got down to the bridge and started across. Elsie called to the children to be careful, just as little Annie gave Ruthy a good shove and she fell in.

Elsie ran into the cold creek, grabbed up Ruthy, and raced into the house to get off the sogged wool clothes and wrap her in a warm blanket.

All that afternoon Ruthy sat by the stove and listened to the women chatter, and loved every moment of it.

I wish I had a picture of that old log house. I remember it vaguely, still standing on the hill long decades after Mary died, logs mortared with mud chinking that was now so loose that the wind leaked in, three wood steps and a stoop up to the front door, packed dirt floor inside, though the second story was fairly nice with plank floors and better walls. Only Elsie lived there now, as old and decrepit as the house, with her vast and beloved store of folk songs she had gathered through the years.

I wish I had taken a photo the last time I saw it. Better yet, I wish I had wandered through with the nostalgia that I feel now that I am older. I would have liked to feel my great grandmother in that space, for I am certain her energy still radiated. Then I could have known a little more about her, not through documents or facts or other people’s memories, but through my own senses.

But it’s too late now. And what I’ve said is all I know about my great-grandmother. Except for where she was buried after dying on November 21, 1953, five months after I was born. Mary Margaret Magdalene Meadows and William Durrett Collier rest now in the Samuels Cemetery in Jollett Hollow, where I visit them whenever I am in that part of the world.Mary & Durrett Collier headstone

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Annie Ada Collier Harris Loved Her Husband Dearly

Annie Ada Collier Harris loved her husband dearly. He was a farmer, and she went to the fields each day just to be near him. She took him his lunch, sat with him, watched him eat, and the two of them talked.Woman on porch

I never saw them do this. I never met my Great Aunt Annie or her husband, Grover Lee Harris. But my mother, who is 93 now, and who is Annie’s niece, tells me these things. “She was deeply in love with her husband,” Mom tells me.

Before he got old Grover went blind. He could no longer work, or go to the fields. Annie read to him. And he sat with her while she tatted her lace. Her fingers moved quickly, and every few stitches she ran the needle that someone had made for her through her hair, and that oil helped the needle glide through the threads.

Her hands were never idle, and her home and the homes of her family members were never without lace. Lace doilies for the tables, lace antimacassars for the backs and arms of chairs, lace trim on the sheets and pillowcases, on sleeves and collars. Her sisters laughed about it, but loved her lacy gifts.

Annie and Grover were married for 39 years before he died. Annie buried him near their #2 Furnace home, at the Koontz Cemetery at Naked Creek.Woodcut gate

Their children, Wilma (Wilmy) and Agnes were grown and married by that time. Wilmy married Clarence Blose and Agnes married Joseph Merica. Joseph was the grandson of George Strother Merica, who was the grandson of Johannes Merkey. Johannes was also my third great grandfather from the line of Mericas that reaches down through my grandfather, Thomas Austin Merica, who was married to Aunt Annie’s sister, Florence.

That’s just the way it works in the Blue Ridge.

After Grover died, Aunt Annie was alone for the first time in her life. Sure, she had her daughters, but she had been deeply in love with Grover, as my mother keeps telling me, and missed him terribly.

There’s an English proverb, Need makes the old woman trot. The 1917 Dictionary of Proverbs explains,

“it intimates the great Power of Necessity, which does not only make the young and lusty go a trotting to relieve their necessities, but also makes old People, who have one Foot in the Grave, to bestir their Stumps. Necessity makes the Weak strong, the Decrepid active and nimble, the Cripple walk: It gives Vigour and Life to the most languishing and feeble Starveling, makes the Lame find his Legs, excites the most Obstinate to lead or drive at the Will and Pleasure of his Master.”

Need makes the old woman trot.GIFAunt Annie had a need, and that was to be with people after Grover was gone. And so she took to visiting. She visited her sister Florence, my grandmother, for days or weeks at a time. They were both widows and enjoyed each others’ company. That’s what widows did. Used to the hustle and bustle and needs of busy households during their earlier years, the walls of their now-empty houses crept in on them if they did not get out for happy, long visits. Always to family.

Aunt Annie and my grandmother used their time together to make quilts. Their favorites were crazy quilts, those Jackson Pollocky riots of colored bits of stitched-together cloth. They chattered and gossiped and quilted their days away, never hurrying, never impatient to be somewhere else or doing something else. Woodcut haning laundry

Annie visited her daughters, and I imagine that she visited her other sister and her brother. She visited nieces and nephews, too, like my Uncle Jesse Merica’s family in Waynesboro. My cousins remember her visits.

She took the Trailways bus from Elkton to Waynesboro and Jesse’s wife, my Aunt Emily, picked her up at the station. Aunt Annie stepped down from the bus carrying her two paper shopping bags with handles made of twine, her thick stockings rolled to just above her knees, and wearing heavy black shoes with two-inch heels and three eyelets for the laces. Everything she brought was in those two paper bags. She didn’t need much, just the company.

When she arrived the first thing she did was to count out enough money for her bus ride home and put that back in her coin purse. The rest she had for spending, mostly on supplies for lace-making that she stocked up on before going home, although she always took out a nickel or a quarter for the children.

No matter who she was visiting, Annie kept to her routine. At night she put on her nightgown and let down her long, white hair. Then she brushed it. Many strokes, till it shined like silk, or like starlight. She took off her glasses and set them on the night table, tied a black scarf around her head so she wouldn’t get earaches, then she reverently got down on her knees to murmur her quiet prayers to God.

I don’t know what she prayed for. Maybe for the soul of her beloved husband. Maybe for the safety and happiness of her daughters. She probably prayed also for her sisters and their families. That was her world.

The next morning she pulled her hair up again into a tight bun worn at the back of her head. She put on her stockings, rolled them to her knees, tied her black shoelaces, grabbed her tatting bag, and was then ready for anything.

Woodcut field cowAnnie Ada Collier Harris loved her husband so much that she visited his family after he died, my mother tells me, even though they lived over the mountain in Greene County.

One day she was visiting my grandmother, Florence Collier Merica, and as she readied to leave she said, “I’m going to visit Grover’s family, so I’ll have a lot to tell you when I come next time.”

But before she went on her visit she needed to rest up. She went home, took off her bonnet,  lay down on her bed for a nap, and never got up.

My cousins tell me Aunt Annie was “a sweet old woman.” Their stories, and my mother’s, make that clear.

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My Grandparents, by Pearl Eggleston Berryman

My Grandparents

By Pearl Eggleston Berryman

Note: Pearl Eggleston Berryman was born in 1979 in Knoxville, Tennessee, where her father was a physician. He later went back to Oberlin College’s school of theology and emerged a Methodist minister. The family lived in many towns and states, as it is the Methodist way for their clergy to change congregations every few years, but every summer while growing up Pearl returned to Chagrin Falls, Ohio, to visit her two sets of grandparents. Pearl wrote this biographical essay in 1966, her 87th year.

Pearl_Abigail_Eggleston_c.1887-MOD When I was a little girl I lived in new England. Nearly every summer my mother and I would visit my grandparents in a little town outside of Cleveland.

As the little train rattled its way to the Station I could see Grandmother Brown in her doorway wildly waving something white at us. Then at the Station was Grandfather Eggleston with old Nell – the old white horse – and the carriage “with the fringe on top.”

With Grandfather’s hearty greeting a feeling of peace and security came over me such as I’ve never had since.

The mansion on the hill overlooked the little village and the river. Grandfather Eggleston’s home was admirably constructed for a child’s pleasure – inside and out! The broad stone sidewalks were perfect for rolling hoops or playing marbles with my cousin from the town in the valley; and as the years passed there was croquet and tennis.

There were so many interesting things to see! The barn, carriage house, tool shop, woodshed; the hitching post – a little negro boy! And on the back porch was the “old oaken bucket” itself. One turned the crank and received the best water in all the world. Would that I had a drink!Pearl_Abigail_Eggleston_c._1895.r

At the foot of the long grape arbor was the privy: stiffly starched white curtains, upholstered seats, and a stool for short legs; pictures from “Godeys” on the walls; and a pile of S.S. papers in the corner, if I wished to rest awhile and amuse myself.

Saturday night was the time of the Great Ritual – the weekly all over bath in the big kitchen by the big coal range, in the tin wash tubs.

There was always a jar of cookies in the pantry, as I remember now – after eighty years.

Grandmother took care – immaculate care – of this house of twelve big rooms. No heat except three huge fireplaces and the kitchen range. She was a Lady. No bad words must pass our lips. A leg was a limb.

Grandfather was a fine figure of a man – I best remember him in a flowered “weskit” with a big gold watch chain across his chest, singing “A Frog he would awooing go” to me.

Grandfather Brown’s little white cottage in the little village held many delights. Grandmother was a pretty old lady with pink cheeks: wooed by Grandfather for his first wife and won for his third. After every meal Grandfather – with a bow – would say, “Many thanks for this good meal, Mrs. Brown.”

But the best at Grandfather Brown’s was a little room at the top of narrow, winding stairs. Grandfather’s den I guess we would call it now. Two sides of the room had glass cases filled with insects (dead, of course), birds and specimens of stones. (At Grandfather’s death they were given to some college and considered quite valuable.) Then there was a machine into which you inserted strips of paper with holes in them and put them in the machine and made music! A mystery to me then – and now! Then there was a little music box. If I could hold it and hear its sweet tones I’d be a little girl again.Pearl_Abigail_Eggleston_and_friend_c.1885.r

Grandfather proudly considered himself an Agnostic, but wouldn’t allow a pack of cards in the house – “the Devil’s game” – and firmly maintained the earth to be flat.

Across the street was the village Graveyard, presided over by a huge angel over a grave occupied by a young lady said to have died of “unrequited love.” It was a lovely place to play with neighboring children, jumping over the gravestones, studying the inscriptions, or playing hide and seek.

Beyond the graveyard was the cheese factory run by my Uncle Parly Fliminus Brown. I enjoyed watching the farmers bring in their great loads of big cans of milk, and listening to their entertaining and instructive conversation re politics, religions, etc.

Now they all sleep peacefully in the little graveyard.

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She Swore to Never Have Another Child.

Pearl (Peg) Abigail Eggleston Berryman had her beloved daughter, Priscilla. No matter how unsettled the rest of her life had become, no matter how many times she had to pull up stakes and move, no matter how many times her husband changed his chosen career, she had Priscilla. guardian angel

Through the desolate years in Oklahoma, the contented but too-brief time in Virginia, the happy days spent at her parents’ home in Oberlin on their months-long visits, and now, living with Robert’s parents in Lima until they could make other arrangements, Priscilla nourished Peg as much as Peg nourished the seven-year old.

When a friend of Peg’s asked if Priscilla could spend the night, Peg said, “I can do without Robert now and then, but I could never stand a minute without Priscilla.

Her life had been so perfect until Oklahoma, and then so shockingly bad in that bone dry wasteland of dead Angel watching over childgrass and starving sheep. But that was just her living circumstances. She had her adored Robert, and then Priscilla. That was all she really needed, anyway.

Robert toiled day and night to make the ranch work, and there were no neighbors for miles. It was lonely there, but Peg had Priscilla, and she poured all her love and hope and dreams into the bright child.

Then the sheep ranch failed. The farm experiment in Virginia didn’t last. They returned to Ohio to regroup, rethink their next move, what they wanted to do with their lives.

Maybe it was time for Robert to use his innate gifts, his intelligence and mental dexterity. No more of these adventures. First the Philippines, then Oklahoma, then Virginia; it was time to move back to the society they knew. But how, and what? They had to think of something soon, because Peg was pregnant, nearly ready for her second baby to come, and they needed a home for the new baby and Priscilla.Watts - Death Crowning Innocence

Then Priscilla got sick, horribly sick. She vomited, cried out in pain, sweat with fever, and sometimes stared blankly at her parents and would not let them touch her, or slept and could not be awakened.

Her parents sent for the doctor, but there was nothing he could do. Priscilla had spinal meningitis, and it was too late, and she died, right there, at her grandparents Berryman home, on December 22, 1915.

The baby came two months later. But the virus was still present, and baby Roberta didn’t live more than a few weeks.

Like many workers around the country in 1916, gravediggers were on strike. It was the birth of America’s labor union movement, and Robert had to dig the graves for both his daughters himself.Guardian angel2.GIF

Peg was inconsolable. Her heart was broken, she felt only numbness, then pain. She gave away Priscilla’s fine dresses, her little doll and her books.

Grandfather Eggleston neatly folded the letter Priscilla had recently sent him, the one with the poem about the little seed, and he placed it alongside his own poetry.

Peg packed away the christening gown, and the silver baby’s drinking cup engraved with Priscilla, and she swore never to have another child, ever.

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Priscilla’s Silver Cup

Pearl Abigail Eggleston Berryman was not about to have her first baby on a farm somewhere out on the Oklahoma prairie. So she went home to her parents, and on August 7th of 1908, in a tidy Victorian home on a tree-lined street of Oberlin, Ohio, Priscilla Harriet Berryman was born, the daughter of Robert Fulton Berryman and Pearl (Peg) Abigail Eggleston Berryman. Priscilla Eggleston 1.r

So named Priscilla because her mother thought it beautiful, and Harriet because Robert’s sister was Harriet, Priscilla here began what her grandfather called, “her bright life.”

Her parents and grandparents doted on the baby, who was by all accounts a beautiful and gifted child. Peg only wanted ever to have girls, and here was her first, a darling dumpling of a baby, expressive and alert, with curly hair atop a broad, round forehead, and wide-set eyes that Peg could gaze into forever, bonding as closely as any mother ever had.

Pearl_Abigail_and_baby_Priscilla_Eggleston.r

Peg put Priscilla in a christening gown of fine cotton and handmade lace with petticoats beneath make it plump and full, like the adorable babe who wore them. She brushed Priscilla’s soft curls on her forehead, tied her brimmed bonnet against the sun, delicately lowered her into the carriage, and strode to the photographer’s studio for portraits.

In the studio Peg could not pull her eyes from her cherished babe for long enough to look at the camera. She gazed in awe and adoration at what was hers, what she and Robert had created.

Of all her life’s joys, this was by far the greatest. Who can know what a new mother feels? Only her adoring gaze, her utter awe could express it. She forgot any woes she ever had, and if she thought of it at all, she recalled Oklahoma’s wide plains and soft grasses, and was eager to bring Priscilla home to Robert.

When it was time to return, Pearl packed up the baby’s blankets, gowns, and cloths; she boarded the train, found her seat, and never once let her baby go until she reached Robert.

Priscilla Eggleston c1908

Even in that wilderness of dust, Peg dressed Priscilla in white cotton and lace, and bought her a silver drinking cup engraved with her name.

Peg may not have had a carriage to stroll Priscilla in, or a boulevard to parade her up and down on; she may not have had much more than a new home on a lonesome prairie, far from anyone or anyplace she ever knew – far from anyone at all, really – but no matter, with her precious baby she was in heaven.Priscilla_Eggleston_r

Priscilla was her salvation from the deadening sun, her refuge from hard farm work she had never known before.

As her father said, Peg could do without the necessities of life as long as she had the luxuries. Priscilla was both necessity and luxury.

But even with her heavenly baby, Oklahoma was draining, and so she and Priscilla went to her parents’ home in Claridon, Ohio for extended visits. Robert stayed behind in Oklahoma to try and make his struggling ranch work. Drought was going on three years now.

Priscilla Eggleston c.1912The sheep were dying, and there was nothing he could do, but he was never one to turn from a challenge. He toiled till his fingers were raw, till there were few sheep left, till there was nothing else to be done, and nothing left to lose.

Ultimately, the ranch failed. Robert closed the door, turned east, and went to Pulaski, Virginia, where he undertook “a farming project.” That is all I know of it.

Peg came from Oberlin with Priscilla to reunite with her husband. By that time, Priscilla was seven years old and Peg was pregnant again.

But it wasn’t long before the farming project was complete, or went bust, but either way, the little family packed up and returned to Shawnee, Ohio, where Robert’s parents lived.

Priscilla missed her Grandfather Eggleston, with whom she and Peg had been staying before Virginia, and so wrote him a letter on stationary of her Uncle Waldo Berryman’s company, typing it herself, though no doubt with her mother’s patient help.Priscilla Eggleston poem

“Grandmother is geting as fat and harty as can be,” she wrote. And then, “I made up a poem. And I will write it to you.” 

The poem goes, “Just a little seed/Very small indeed/Put it in the grown/Make a little mond/See what I have fond/Peeking out of the grown/Soon it will be seen/Just a little been/Very small and gren/Just can be seen.

Today Priscilla’s silver cup sits on my mantle, tarnished, dented from the 100-year journey that brought it through 17 states and countless homes, being packed and unpacked, carefully at first and then less so as time’s distance grew.Priscilla Eggleston silver cup

“Priscilla,” it says in delicate, perfect script, enveloped by loops and flourishes that surround the cup, much like Priscilla’s tiny fingers once did.

How did the cup come this far, when Priscilla didn’t?

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She Would Follow Him Anywhere, Even Oklahoma

It turns out that Pearl Abigail Eggleston married a dreamer, much like her father, who had changed from physician to Methodist clergyman, to Unitarian clergyman, and finally to writer.Victorian couple

Pearl’s husband, Robert Berryman, would have a career as varied, and as interesting. You can read about some of his adventures here.

Soon before their marriage Robert left for a one-year assignment in the wilds of post-Spanish American War Philippine Islands.

Straight out of college, instead of all the things this athlete and academic prodigy could have done, he took a position to teach in this dangerous place, where rebels still marauded from their hideouts in the jungles.

Robert traveled from town to town by boat, around the islands instead of through them, because it was too dangerous to enter the jungles. He was instructed to always carry a gun when he left the house, and he did.

By the time he ended his one-year assignment, he had been made Superintendent of Schools for the entire chain of Philippines Islands. All this on a not-yet 25-year old man.

Pearl imagined that was his adventure, that he needed a wild experience before settling down.

Victorian woman on lakeShe waited for him. She taught school and lived with her parents in Oberlin, Ohio, where her father, Francis Otto Eggleston, was a pastor and her mother, Clara Brown Eggleston, was a successful businesswoman who owned and ran a boarding house for students.

When Robert returned, they married, and I’m sure Pearl now thought her world was perfect. A new life with a husband she was deeply in love with, the love of her parents and friends nearby, and a future laid out before her that looked as smooth and contentment-filled as what she had come to expect of life.

Now she had every reason to believe Robert would take a position as a professor or other professional. He was so smart, so interested in politics and the world, so driven in everything he did, and now, so well-educated, and with a first professional success under his belt.

She let him have his adventure, and now it was time to settle down, to settle into adulthood.

He was offered a professorship in Ann Arbor, Michigan, which I assume means at the University of Michigan; the family history does not get more specific. But that was not to Robert’s taste. It was too tame.

Peg knew they might not live near her parents after marriage. That was alright, she wasn’t afraid of leaving her parents’ home, or even their town. Her father’s woVictorian couple2rk as a Methodist minister meant they moved often, and had lived in places as varied as Troy, New York and Knoxville, Tennessee, and she had boarded away from home at several schools.

Peg knew how to quickly make a new place her own. She was ready to follow Robert, if only he would choose his career now that he was back.

They were starting a new life together and could go anywhere, be anyone! Peg may have dreamed of New York, or Chicago, or maybe a quiet little college town somewhere in the Midwest.

But Robert had different plans. Once back from the Philippines he discovered he had inherited a sheep ranch in Oklahoma, and so they moved to that dry wilderness, sight unseen, to be sheep ranchers.

I’ll never understand that decision. Perhaps it was because they were bright-eyed and full of promise that they went, and because they had never seen Oklahoma. After all, they were only young adults, infallible and indestructible in their own minds, but years away from wisdom, and perhaps with no knowledge of the kind of toughness that Oklahoma demanded of its inhabitants.

How did a young couple, bright, well educated, from prosperous and prominent if not wealthy Ohio families, end up on a drought-desiccated ranch in Oklahoma? The world was wide open to them. Robert and Pearl (Peg) Eggleston Berryman had led charmed lives since birth.Couple

He was a star athlete at Oberlin College, a record holder in the two-mile run, and was a prodigy as a scholar, finishing high school in one summer and college in three years. His accomplishments brought attention, and he was offered top positions right out of college.

Peg was an adored daughter whose parents and grandparents doted on her. She was the preacher’s daughter, attended two different colleges, and had just married her college sweetheart, the man her father wrote she had “fallen deeply in love with.” The world was their oyster, and Peg was ready to take her place in society beside her gifted husband.

When her gifted husband inherited an Oklahoma sheep ranch, Peg’s plans changed. Never dreaming she would be a ranch wife, she nevertheless packed up her belongings, her silk and lace dresses and silver hair clips, a few necessities, and the young family headed into that great unknown.

They traveled across Ohio, Indiana, Missouri, through St. Louis, and then, at the end of their 1,000-mile journey, in the blistering heat of a dry Oklahoma summer, Peg Berryman opened the-stairsthe door to her one-room house on an isolated sheep ranch amid a wilderness of desolation. And there they set out to make their lives, like fish out of water.

I wonder if she cried on that first day. I wonder if she begged Robert to take her home. Or maybe she put on her bonnet and apron, rolled up her lace sleeves, and got to work making that one room house a home.

I think she cried, and then she went to work. She had to. What else could she do? Her other home, the one with her parents, was in the past. It might as well be a million miles away. This was home now.

I imagine that Pearl came here willingly, though unenthusiastically. It would be easy to say this young wife’s starry love focused her eyes only on her husband, following him anywhere he might take her, but that was never her character. Pearl Eggleston was taught to think for herself. I imagine her father taught her by Socratic method, asking questions that would encourage her to think critically, to form firm and logical conclusions, and to consciously solve any problem she encountered rather than defer to another or put off to a later time.

This was a young woman who led the pampered life of an only daughter, who dressed in white lace and played croquet and tennis on the grounds of her grandfather’s mansion. Yet faSAG65029r from frivolous, she was serious-minded, and put her considerable intelligence to use on issues and questions of the day. Women’s suffrage, racial discrimination, hunger, and war occupied her thoughts and conversations. In that she and her erudite husband were well matched.

And now, here this eager and idealistic young woman was in Oklahoma, on an isolated sheep ranch with barely a house to live in, the nearest town so small and ephemeral that it would disappear entirely in a few years, decimated by drought.

Robert, my grandfather, could withstand any degree of hardship. He once broke his leg so badly that the bone protruded from the flesh. But he braced himself against the pain and set the leg himself.

Peg, my grandmother, was no so tough. She was not delicate, but preferred life’s delicacies. Still, here she was.

Oil had just been discovered there, and the illusion of prosperity and a limitless future filled the imaginations of thousands of immigrants who flocked to the nation’s newest state to seek their fortunes. Many more came when Congress opened the Indian Lands to settlement by any who would claim and work the land.Tissot - july

The reality was starker. More than two hundred thousand farmers struggled, while oil corporations sent their wealth out of state.

Deepening drought turned family farms into tenancies, and social unrest from increasing inequality of income grew worse.

This is the landscape my grandparents inherited. I don’t know if, when they arrived at the property they had moved to sight-unseen, they sat down and wept because it was dry and lonely. Or perhaps they laughed for joy because it was theirs and they were in love.

Whatever their outlook, this was their new life.

There were no woods, no trees like there were at the homes her family had had in Ohio, Tennessee, Vermont, New York, or Virginia. After her father’s visit to the young couple, he wrote that, “There was very little wood or trees. To make wood we burned old roots and stuff we picked up.”

Then one day the house burned down, and Peg and Robert moved into the barn loft. They slept on hay, cooked in tin cans over fire, stored what few belongings they salvaged in corners, like hobos.387px-James_Tissot_-_Chrysanthemums

Peg hung in. But she cried; I know she cried. Maybe only at night, while her husband slept.

Or maybe only when washing clothes at the water pump, or in letters home to her mother and father, or to her dear friend Elizabeth, who by this time was married to Robert’s younger brother, Waldo, and starting her own family, though more comfortably.

But however openly or secretly she cried, her father came to visit, and when he saw how they were living, he made up his mind to take Peg home with him for an extended visit. She had a baby due now, and he did not want his daughter giving birth on a remote farm far from family or doctor. But first he helped Robert to rebuild a house.

The next chapter of Pearl Eggleston’s life will be published soon. To make sure you don’t miss the rest of the story, sign up to this blog at the top right of this page.

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