Going Down Home Timeline

May 2018 Third trip Down Home

July 2015 Second trip Down Home

October 2014 First trip Down Home

July 2013 to October 2014 Online research and interviews

July 2013 23andme results received

Monday, May 28, 2018

May 21, 2018: Inner Banks, the South Shore and a Farm in a Forest

On Monday morning, our last day of this trip, we headed west from Manteo toward Creswell. I’d eaten at the Creswell Café in 2015 and had been thinking about their biscuits. But the parking lot of the popular eatery was empty, the one-story pink building abandoned. The café had closed.
 We turned down St. David’s Road and stopped at the historic Saint David’s Episcopal Church and cemetery, once known as Pettigrew’s Chapel. Constructed in 1803 by the Rev. Charles Pettigrew, across the road from his Belgrade Plantation, the chapel is the oldest remaining Episcopal church in the area.

More than two centuries of heat and humidity have been kept at bay, making it possible to maintain the structure and small cemetery, where the surnames of the departed are woven into my family tree: Ainsley, Alexander, Armstrong, Barnes, Bateman, Cahoon, Davenport, Dillon, Furlough, Patrick, Phelps, Sawyer, Spruill, Swain, Tarkenton, Woodley.
We headed east under gloomy skies, hoping to stop at the Spruill Farm Home Place in Washington County before the rain would arrive.  Jack Spruill has an enviable relationship to the land. My parents both grew up on farms but left, relinquishing family land to their siblings.

Jack has managed to protect and share this special land on the south shore of the Albemarle Sound. As a conservation project, the 110-acre farm honors our dependence on land and water. It is a place where people gather, but we found the farm to be a quiet place on a cloudy Monday morning. We parked, walked past the 100-year-old Scuppernong grape vine and the fig trees and waived to Joey Eason, who was kind enough to take some time out of farming to talk with us. Before leaving, we walked on the beach and admired the public access Jack has provided to the Sound.
It was noon when we reached Columbia, and we were hungry.  The trendy restaurant where I’d eaten in 2014 had also closed. We found another lunch spot and moved on to the Tyrrell County Courthouse, where I would finally see a graphic depiction of land my ancestors once owned.

In the 1921 map of the Richmond Cedar Works holdings in Tyrrell and Hyde counties, which hangs in the Deeds Office of the courthouse, the land that was once a homeplace is depicted as “Exception 2: “The Old W.G. Armstrong Plantation”. It is a green shape, landlocked by corporate holdings. It is the place that Roy T. Saywer, in “The extinct community of Up Road, Gum Neck,” describes as having once been a pivotal stopping place for anyone traveling between Columbia and Gum Neck.
Maybe it was the gray skies, but too much of what I’d longed to see on this third trip down home was extinct or closed or now unrecognizable. The branding of the Inner Banks – a marketing effort meant to attract tourists and retirees to the rural areas to the west of the Outer Banks - seems without efficacy. The Inner Banks do not seem to be a pivotal stopping place.

The population of Tyrrell County remains at slightly more than 4,000, with a population density of 11 people per square mile.  Adjacent Dare County has about 35,000 permanent residents, a population density of 78 people per square mile and absorbs another 225,000 additional residents during peak summer months. Inner land and outer land are radically different and support dissimilar economies, dissimilar lifestyles. The natural environment has elected the built: the imbalance is disorienting.


Sunday, May 27, 2018

May 20, 2018: Part 2 - Nature vs Man

Driving east From Columbia, NC along US 64, fields give way to wetland forests. To the north of the highway, the 10,000-acre Palmetto-Peartree Preserve maintains habitat for native species and migratory birds. To the south, the 150,000-acre Alligator River Wildlife Refuge also shelters species you don’t want to encounter on the trail: black bears, red wolves, American alligators, bobcats. Snakes. Lots of snakes.
Whether the wetlands habitat has been preserved by government action or has existed, undrained, for centuries, there is something so formidable about its density that even from the paved highway, we can imagine the challenges this terrain presented to our ancestors.  We pass a small house that has become an armature for vines and sense how quickly nature can claim the built environment in this heat and humidity.

In Dare County, the highway sign for Buffalo City references a former logging and moonshine town that has been swallowed up by nature. South of US 64, the location of the community that once had 3,000 residents appears in Google’s satellite view as a solid green canopy of forest.

Nature can win quickly here. Even when our ancestors cleared fields, the margins could push back. A hurricane could change the boundaries of land and water. Nature had and still has an advantage in this biodiverse coastal terrain. Black bears may paw through the trash while people sleep in their air-conditioned homes, and snakes may be lurking in the garden.  
That our ancestors came here in the 17th century and lived in that challenging environment and procreated and passed their genes into a modern world seems in many ways amazing. Even though my maternal line is filled with women who died before fifty, who were replaced by second and third wives who bore their husbands more children, we descended, and from US 64 and my home in Philadelphia, that is no small thing.

May 20, 2018: Part 1 - Man vs Nature

We decided to let the weather organize our day, and because it began with blue skies, we headed for the beach. Our first stop was Jennette’s Pier in Nags Head. The pier I had known was a wooden pier, suspended over the surf on wooden pilings. After Hurricane Isabel destroyed that historic structure in 2003, the state approved funding for the reconstruction of a 1,000-ft pier with classrooms, concrete pilings, three wind turbines, and all the amenities of a modern welcome center. It is a beautiful facility and sits lightly on the landscape and water.
But the rest of modern development of the Outer Banks communities does not sit so lightly on the sand. Built out, landscaped, bike-pathed, with upscale shops and restaurants woven between closely-spaced, expensive beach houses, OBX seems a city dropped upon the shore. In the absence of damaging storms, Man has won. The wild, vegetated places seem neutered.

The Cavalier Motel in Kitty Hawk, where we stayed in the Fifties and beyond, still stands, dwarfed by new construction. Once I was a child in that very same spot, my mother pushing my hair away from my face, but the place as it was in that time, and the people who inhabited it, have been lost.
The randomly-built past has been replaced by a kind of homogenized affluence.
I  am still trying to process why I was so saddened by the present, with its overwhelmingly density of development. I’ve considered that so much change triggered some big mortality blues, but I didn’t feel that way about Manteo, where the transience of tourism blends with the permanence of a small town, and where I could imagine myself living in a vintage home on a quiet street.
Ultimately, I think I was saddened by the level of development, the triumph of the built environment over a place that once seemed wild and unwilling to give up its scrubby vegetation and mosquitos for high-end rentals.
I would have plenty of opportunity to see untamed land on this trip.


May 19, 2018: Landed

 It has been a long three years since my last trip to North Carolina, and while my July 2015 trip was about family, this trip was largely about the land: who owned it, how it was used, how it has changed, how it has nourished or limited the experiences of the people who lived there.
The East Coast storms that threatened the entire weekend held me back in Philly. I landed in Norfolk almost an hour later than expected, then headed south through patches of hard-driving rain toward my Google-mapped, homeplace destination.

Colors pop on dark days, and as I drove, I passed field after field of glowing flowers. Lavender and light green frothy blooms shaped like snap dragons reminded me of how much I don’t know about what is being grown in that sandy coastal plain. (Later I’d learn that those were fields of clary sage.)
When I finally arrived at the genealogical society’s cookout,  the eating had ended, and the group had moved on to grave dowsing. I don’t understand the science behind this work, although one of the participants is a nuclear engineer, and must understand its inexplicable powers.

I tried holding the metal rods softly in my grip as I walked over a family plot and was amazed when they took on a life of their own, crossing and uncrossing over the remains beneath my feet. The dowsers mark the heads and foots of the graves with cornstarch. They are mapping the long-dead that lie in orderly and disorderly formations on this land. They hold theories about what has happened on this farm and when.
My research partner and I are exploring different branches of a family of Ulster Scots who came to the Colonies and first farmed in Maryland. After a couple of generations, we assume that they wore out the land before moving south, where their holdings were once significant.

She has done extensive work in wills and deeds and understands how strategic marriages were used to increase real estate assets and build wealth. She has been following our extended family’s land ownership for decades. During less than four days, we’d visit four counties and look for secrets in the landscape, places that could be marked with cornstarch, places that could not.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

A year later: family secrets and distance

It's been almost a year since my second research trip to eastern North Carolina and I am still trying to process its bits and pieces.   

Going back to North Carolina a second time was a heavier experience than I'd anticipated. 

I met living family I didn't know I had -- one of whom said Why did you bring this Yankee down here to see me, just kidding (he wasn't) -- and learned new sad stories about ones who had died. 

There was the cousin who died at 37 in Dix Hill asylum, having been committed 16 years earlier, her death attributed to a chronic kidney condition that might well have caused her behavioral symptoms.

There were babies that had perished shortly after birth, or who'd never been born.  Ghosts of where families once lived, homesteads long consumed by termites and back hoes, their foundations peeking out of rows of cotton.

There were revelations about the frailties of people who blustered and postured and talked tough, and the strengths of quiet women.

But most of all, there was the pervasive sense of disconnection and the irony of researching dead family in the hope that I might find connections that felt better, truer, more meaningful than the ones I've had with family I've actually known. 

Even as I've been collecting ancestors like baseball cards, I've known that in this lifetime, I will not form deep and sustaining connections with most of my extant family.

We were isolationists. I don't know what it is to attend a family reunion, to identify with family members, or even to go to Grandmother's house for Thanksgiving.  My grandmothers died before I was born.  I had no relationship with either grandfather.  My parents always encouraged individualism, separation and competition over community and cooperation.  They didn't even like each other.

Late in life I am challenged to understand why family was not -- on the surface -- important to us and what family dynamics and secrets shaped our particular brand of separation. 

Maybe it started when my mother married a Yankee.  Or when my great grandmother, Ida Fritz Fries, met my Southern mother and flashed back to the day the Confederate soldiers had raided her Franklin County, Pennsylvania farm, on their way to burn Chambersburg.

I know pieces of how my parents' lives derailed from all they had known, how they struck out on their own and created a failed experiment. In the past year, new pieces were given to me, laid at my feet.

Some of them, mysterious bits like the cousin who lived and died in Dix Hill, shimmer and pulse in my brain.  Figure this out, they say.  Make sense of it all.

Monday, December 7, 2015

The Unexpected in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania

Daisy Century as Sojourner Truth, Dec. 6, 2015 St. Paul's Elkins Park

You never know when you will be taken Down Home.  Say you are at a historic Episcopal church in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, celebrating the 150th anniversary of the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, and after the Right Reverend Clifton Daniel III, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania, gives the invocation, he mingles among the crowd and you learn that he is from Goldsboro, NC.  And you find yourself talking about Creswell, NC and looking together at pictures of Somerset Place on your Android phone.
Or a woman you’ve met in a genealogy group on Facebook, Marilyn Nance, learns about the event and drives down to Elkins Park from Brooklyn with her husband, combining a visit to the celebration with meeting one of her DNA cousins, who lives in the Philadelphia area.  And then you learn that you and Marilyn are both related to genetic genealogist Shannon Christmas.
Or you meet local poet Bernadine Davis, who asks you about your Going Down Home project, and confirms that the process of weaving together our past and our present is necessary work, often guided by the God of Second Chances, and meant to find substance that is missing. 
Those abductions into the past and Eastern North Carolina occurred over the weekend, Dec. 5 and 6th, here in my community.  The two-day celebration combined music, lectures, a gospel concert, author’s table, tours of the church (built by Jay Cooke in 1861) and the replica of a station on the Underground Railroad. There were wonderful actors who portrayed Harriet Tubman, Lucretia Mott, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Sojourner Truth.  There were members of the 3rd Regiment, US Colored Troops who marched, presented colors, staffed an exhibit.
There was no escaping the past – not America’s legacy of slavery, the enviable courage of the abolitionists, music that still calls to us from fields of memory.
There is no way of escaping how we are led to each other in the present.
Shango-Jamal Lewis, Old York Road to Freedom Concert
Dec. 5, 2015

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Day Five, What Remains

We met on the West Millpond Road in Roper a little before 11:00 a.m. at Millpond Crawfish, where it was hot in the sun and almost cool in the shade.  We drove around the countryside in a truck that seated five, over paved roads, grass and sandy lanes, hugging tracks next to fields, looking at empty spaces where family homes used to be. 
Weeks earlier, I’d looked for pictures of my mother’s childhood home.  I have no picture of the house, which was torn down long ago -- just the sense of it standing off stage. Most of my pictures were taken with the house behind the photographer’s back, the subjects framed by trees and the Millpond Road.
When we stopped on July 7th to look at the space where the house once stood, I felt the familiar orientation of the view beyond the missing house.  But I could not quite picture the exact footprint of the farmhouse that had once been home to Ben and Inez, Alger Ben and Reinette, then Alger Ben and Margaret and their children.
The big tree, draped in Spanish moss, which appears in most of my pictures from the old homestead (and here sits above my grandfather’s shoulder) is gone, but a tall pine still remains.  It may be the same tree seen here in 1942, to the left of his bent elbow, smallish. 

I sat in the truck and looked toward the field with the physical memory of that view.  There was a big tree where I remembered a big tree, but a different species.  There was a view toward a field that seemed timeless, and a line of trees to my right, but the house they once shaded, gone.
I should have gotten out of the truck, put a little of that sandy soil in a baggy, brought it home.