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

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Tyrrell (and Dare and Washington) County, Day 4, Part B

After my long walk on the beach, I drove back to Manteo and browsed through shops near Roanoke Island Festival Park before making arrangements with Sucelia Fahey to meet at the Outer Banks Visitors Center.  She’d gone home and brought along photos of her Hassell grandparents and great grandparents from Tyrrell County, arranged in a weathered window frame.  I remembered that somewhere in my family tree, someone married a Hassell.  In the month ahead, I hope to parse out any possible relatedness.  She was so very nice to share them, and meeting Sucelia at a lunch counter – like most of what happened on this trip – was serendipitous. 

The sun was out, it was still early afternoon, and I realized I had time to drive west from Manteo on Rt 64 to Jamison, and buy peanuts to bring back to Philly.  And buy I did – blister fried, French fried, salted in the shell, two kinds of peanut butter, trail mix -- and peanut ice cream for the road!   It’s good to know I can reorder from Mackey’s Ferry Peanuts, because the share that I kept for myself is dwindling.   Fast.

Once again, I drove by Washington County locations where my mother and her family once lived, without stopping.  Nothing about the area around Roper looked familiar after more than 40 years.  For some reason, it seemed more foreign to me than Tyrrell County, and less navigable.

Exploring Washington County will be on my agenda for the next trip Down Home.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Tyrrell (and Dare) County, Day 4, Part A

Familiar strangers, a strange yet familiar landscape.

Until Thursday, October 16, it had been 44 years since I’d set foot in the soft sands of North Carolina’s Outer Banks.  In researching a piece I wrote for Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built & Natural Environments in 2002, and from vacation pictures taken by former co-workers, I realized that the Banks, as I knew them, were only a memory.

And so I felt a need to protect myself from the collision of memory and reality by believing that I could approach the beach on Rt. 64 and quickly head south into Cape Hatteras National Seashore without contact with the new.

That wasn’t the case, but neither did I feel a sense of loss about the built world that confronted me. 

I first stopped at the Outer Banks Visitors Center, where the man behind the counter, John Fast, turned out to be a retired Pennsylvania State Police officer who formerly had been assigned to my hometown, Bedford, PA.  John shared some insights into relocation to the Carolina’s from the perspective of a retired Pennsylvania state employee, which was an amazing coincidence of perspectives.

I asked John for a recommendation for breakfast in Manteo and he directed me to TL’s Country Kitchen, where locals gather, and where I happily ordered a Greek omelet with biscuits.  Eating at the counter, I struck up a conversation with Sucelia Hassell Fahey, a health care professional working on the Outer Banks who just happened to have deep roots in Tyrrell County. 

The lunch counter conversation had turned from infectious disease to genealogy.  I don’t know if we are kin, but Sucelia had pictures at home to share and we agreed to touch base in a few hours. 

I headed south on Rt 12 into the national seashore park, where the dunes have been replenished and re-vegetated over the decades to new heights, and the wide beach in mid-October was luxuriously empty, and reminiscent of the empty beaches I walked on as a child.

That empty beach restored my soul.  Truly.  I was able – through time and space – to have an exhilarating and solitary experience that I’d imagined could no longer be had on the Outer Banks. But it was fall, and miles away from the billion-dollar real estate investments to the north. 

It was perfect.  In fact, there were mirage-like places among the dunes more beautiful than I remember.  Those places seemed sacred.

Tyrrell County, Day 3

Rain, relatives and ghosts.
The road to Somerset Place, Creswell

On Wednesday, October 15, the day began with rain that had moved in from the west during the night.  It seemed like the perfect time to visit Jimmy Fleming, owner of Flemz Market & Deli, local historian, writer and – of course – kin.  Jimmy and I are related through the Parisher line, and although we’d never met, I felt an immediate sense of familiarity. 

A few days before I met Jimmy, Debbie Armstrong Cobb had passed along a death certificate for Olly Armstrong Voliva, A sister of Mary Ann Armstrong.  I had been trying for years to discover, online, what their mother’s maiden name might have been.  She is everywhere listed as Armstrong but I’ve wondered if that was truly her maiden name.  The death certificate noted Mariah Jarvis as Olly Armstrong’s mother, and Jimmy confirmed that – although from the same source document.  

One document does not a fact make, but what I found so interesting about Jimmy’s genealogical insight was “Jarvis is not a Tyrrell County name – more like Hyde or Dare.  Even Chowan.”
So now I’m trying to learn more about Jarvis families in those counties, looking for Mariah and possible Native roots among the Jarvis families.  (Jarvis is a surname that appears in the Lost Colony project rosters).

After visiting with Jimmy, I drove west to Creswell in a light drizzle to Somerset Place, a former plantation on the shore of Lake Phelps in eastern Washington County.  The soft rain created a kind of filtered experience.  I was the only visitor at the site, and without a rain jacket, walked around the grounds awkwardly taking pictures while holding an umbrella.

I had read about the history of the site in Dorothy Spruill Redford’s book, Somerset Homecoming: Recovering a Lost Heritage but without a sense of the landscape, nothing was quite as I’d expected. 

I didn’t really understand the relationship of the built environment to the lake, or how the cedar trees would look, or how I’d feel when I saw the canals and the scope of that slave-made infrastructure.

Although I didn’t see the interior of the plantation house, it was a gift to be there alone in the rain.  With the exception of a single parked truck near the office, there were no people, no aspects of modernity other than signage to distract my attention from the recreated physical world of 1860.  

Humid, isolated, evocative, sad.  Haunting.

View through the trees toward shore of Lake Phelps, Somerset Place

View of plantation house from path to cemetery, Somerset Place
Curtains like ghosts in the windows of Collins/Pettigrew plantation house, Somerset Place

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Tyrrell County, Day 2

I’m sure that not everyone in eastern North Carolina is a genealogist, but those are not the people I encountered during my stay in Tyrrell County.  

On Tuesday, October 14, women I’d met through the Tyrrell County Genealogy Facebook Group arrived at the courthouse, our starting point for a 10-hour road trip through local history. Both had driven two hours to convene in the place that grounds their research and imagination. Cathy Roberts had generously volunteered to be my field guide into the past; and Debbie Armstrong Cobb, an enthusiastic researcher of the Armstrong line, joined our expedition.

Debbie Armstrong Cobb on the landing at Lake Phelps
With Cathy at the wheel, we explored sites in the Riders Creek and Gum Neck areas, and traveled into eastern Washington County, where we stopped in Creswell and the Lake Phelps landing in Pettigrew State Park.  We visited three cemeteries in the Riders Creek area: Henry Cooper, Malachi Chapel Free Will Baptist Church cemetery, and Paramore. 

We visited with Buddy Brickhouse at his landmark country store.  Like everyone else I met on my first trip to Tyrrell County, Buddy was a generous fountain of information and probably kin.  He is also a storyteller, who brought out documents to feed our curiosity about the Armstrong family, and illustrated his stories with pictures and props!
Buddy Brickhouse illustrates a story

Buddy's store, Doris'
Back in Columbia, we made a brief visit to the courthouse, where Cathy provided an overview of the  available resources and Debbie found a deed that added to her knowledge of the Armstrong clan.  We ate dinner and regrouped at The Brickhouse Inn before parting.    Their passion for the past was truly contagious.  I was hooked.
Malachi Chapel Free Will Baptist Church cemetery, late afternoon light

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Tyrrell County, Day One

On Monday, October 13, I drove from Philadelphia to Tyrrell County, North Carolina.  

It rained until Virginia.  When the skies cleared, I entered an unending T-Mobile dead zone, which left me without that directive yet reassuring little voice that says “In a half mile, remain in the right lane and turn right onto US 17 South.  Turn onto 17 South!” 

At 20 miles long, the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and Tunnels was a far longer and more beautiful crossing than I had imagined.  Everything was shimmering, silvery and ethereal.

After the bridge, I made a few wrong turns and had a few time-wasting off-road adventures.  Everything looked the same to this traveler: flat farm fields, planted with yellowed soy beans that shone golden in the late light, broken by the occasional cotton field and long expanses of forested swamp. 

As I got closer to my destination, Columbia, the billboards began to advertise Outer Banks destinations, and the horizon began to promise nearby water.  I spotted a road sign that said “red wolf crossing.”  There was a subtle shift in the landscape, a sense of increasing wildness and isolation.

It did not feel like going home.  It felt like going toward something unknown and unaltered by the 21st century, a perfect landscape for travelling back in time, hunting ancestors.

It was also blackpowder deer hunting season in North Carolina, I learned after I checked into the Brickhouse Inn Two hunters in the room across the hall from mine were also traveling back in time, using muzzle-loading rifles to recreate an earlier hunting experience. 

I was about to learn just how much Tyrrell County -- with its sparse development, swamps, forests and humidity -- welcomes retrospective pursuits.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Ready, set, go -- down home!

I have procrastinated, delayed, watched the weather, finally decided on a mode of transportation, stopped my mail delivery and in five days, I’ll be in Columbia, NC for a short week of research.  I’ll stay at the Brickhouse Inn B&B, and spend my time in courthouses, libraries and cemeteries, trying to establish a feel for a past I've never known. 

In the past few weeks, I’ve discovered Facebook groups that I wish I’d known about a year ago!  There’s  the North Carolina Genealogy Network, the Tyrrell County Genealogy group, and the Washington County Geneaology group.  Great group of serious researchers, some of whom are familiar to me, such as Taneya Koonce and Shannon Christmas

Through these groups, I’ve discovered some new relatives, learned that I’ll be missing the 23rd annual Scuppernong River Festival by two days, and generally found myself moving out of the abstract world of family trees, old photos and paper ephemera and into an excited anticipation of being in the present and among the living in a different landscape.
I’m planning to visit Somerset Place, and hopefully, with one of my DNA relatives from Virginia.

My next post will be from Down Home.