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And I thought PRENTIS was a difficult name!

A 2nd great-grandmother of mine was a CASTETTER, but my genealogical research has turned up so many variations of this family name: Castetter, Castator, Castater, Castteter, Carsteter, Casteter, Castor, Kirstaetter, Kestiter, Kearstuter, Kerstetter, Kierstaetter, Kirstätter, Kirschstatter, Karstetter, Kastetter, Kastater, Kastator, Kaster,  Kostatter, Kostetter, etc. Census takers and transcribers created even more unusual variations in spelling (Custaton, Casteller, Castelter, Casteator, Castrater, etc.), making it very difficult to find available records!

From J. R. Baker: “The surname seems to have originally been Kerstaetter. It was spelled that way, plus Kirstetter, Kerstetter, Karstetter, etc. in German church records in Pennsylvania. When the family reached Kentucky and Ohio, the officials, of English descent, spelled it Castator or Castetter. I’ve been told that it is pronounced similar to Gestapo (cas-TAH-ter).”

Some time ago, while researching my Castetter/Castator line, I found a wealth of information in Stephen Arlington Kerstetter’s online publication: THE KERSTETTER FAMILY: THE EARLY YEARS, 1727-1850. Part V refers to Michael and Dorothea Kerstetter (a.k.a. Johannes Mikael Kirstaetter and Maria Dorothea Dietz), my 6th great-grandparents. They were the parents of Martin Kerstetter (a.k.a. Johan or Johannes Martin Kerstaetter) who married Abby Elizabeth (a.k.a. Appolonia and Abigail). Martin and Abby were the parents of Michael Castator (a.k.a. Castater, etc.) who married Anna  (“Anne”) Thomas. Michael and Anna’s oldest son, George Washington Castator (a.k.a. Castater and Castetter, etc.), married Elizabeth (“Eliza”) Anne Watson, 24 Aug 1840, in Ripley County, Indiana. George and Eliza Anne are my 3rd great-grandparents.

I was very grateful to the author for all his effort and found it extremely helpful to my own research; however, it dead-ended for my branch of the family with a snippet of information that piqued my curiosity:

V. THE FAMILY OF MICHAEL AND DOROTHEA

(p. 55 )

Michael Born about 1798 in Tennessee
Married Anna Thomas on Jan. 16, 1817 in Butler County
Died in Ripley County, Indiana after 1840

(p. 58 )

• Michael and his wife Anna apparently moved from Butler County to nearby Ripley County, Indiana, not long after their marriage in 1817. The 1820 census in Ripley County shows Michael, his wife, and two daughters and one son under the age of ten. At the time of the 1850 census, an Anna Castator, age 49, was living with the family of George Washington Castator in Ripley County.

George Washington Castator married Eliza Watson on Aug. 24, 1840. George
Washington was born about 1817 in Ohio and Eliza about 1820 in Indiana. Eliza
apparently died after 1850. The 1870 census listing includes a Louisa Castator born in Indiana about 1821.

Born where, you say?

None of my own information suggests that Michael was born in Tennessee; however, Anna’s birthplace is listed as Tennessee in the 1850 census. As with most families, a lot of public information is conflicting. Parental information on census reports between 1880-1920 for some of their children confuses me further with birthplaces listed for both Michael and Anna as Pennsylvania, Ohio, Germany, Kentucky, “the United States of America,” or left entirely blank.

I had concluded that only Anna was born in Tennessee, and that Michael was probably born between 1797-1801 in Northumberland Co. (or adjacent Snyder Co.), Pennsylvania, as were his other siblings (from various family records). Do documents exist (Tennessee land records, etc.) that suggest Michael was born there instead of Pennsylvania?

Castetter, Kerstetter… Where are you?

As for Michael living past 1840, I’ve located a Mikael Castator residing in Ripley Co. in 1830, but haven’t yet found any record of him still living there in 1840. I did find record of a Michael Castater in Ross, Butler, Ohio in 1840, but the ages in the household aren’t right for him at that time (must be some relative though!). My records agree that he was married 16 Jan 1817 in Butler County, Ohio to Anna Elizabeth Thomas (born abt. 1801-02 in Maryville, Blount, Tennessee*, and died after 1850 in Ripley Co., IN). They had seven known children: George Washington, Abigail, Mary Ann, Elizabeth, Malinda, Susannah (“Susan”), and Ira Ishmael. The 1830 census records another son, while a known daughter was overlooked. Was there another son we don’t know about, or did the census taker mistake their youngest daughter for a boy?

*I assumed Anna was from Blount County, Tennessee since Michael’s sister Christina / Christiana was supposedly married there in 1808, and have recently found more evidence to support this. According to another researcher for this family, Tracy Bischoff, who found land records, the Castator family was living in Butler Co., Ohio by 1811, and apparently Anna’s family also moved from Tennessee to Ohio, where she and Michael were married in 1817. They may have known one another in Tennessee, but without documentation proving otherwise, I tend to believe she was the only one of the two actually born there. There are several marriage and land records for people with the surname Thomas in Butler Co., Ohio and Ripley Co. IN, which are thought to be relatives, but the names of Anna’s parents have only recently been discovered. (See updates below.)

Almost all family histories indicate that his father died about 1814, but C. R. Mapes gives an unsourced date of 1 Sep 1815, in Snyder Co., Pennsylvania, and Tracy Bischoff gives information extracted from Michael’s father’s will. An unnamed source gives the date of  20 Aug 1814. Abby (recorded incorrectly as Abegail Castrater) was still living as of 1820, as evident in Butler Co., Ohio census records. Since she was a widowed landowner there, it seems logical that Michael died there instead of Pennsylvania, as Tracy Bischoff believed.

Tangled Roots…

When I read on page 58 that Eliza was assumed by the author to be dead after 1850, I wondered how many other family researchers had the same misconception. She was still living in 1860, and I had already seen the 1870 census with “Louisa J.” as George’s spouse and knew it was a mistake. Also still living in the household at that time were daughter Ida, son John, and their married daughter, Margaret Jane (“Jennie”) Bone, whose husband was either temporarily away or living elsewhere for some reason. Apparently wherever one was living at the time the census was taken, was where one was documented, whether it was a permanent residence or a temporary one — so the inclusion of a married daughter without her husband (or children, if there were any) could also be evidence of an extended visit there without her spouse.

I wasn’t sure when George died, but I knew Eliza lived past 1881. Census mistakes were common.  I have a Louisa in another family line whose name was pronounced in a way that rhymes with Eliza — so with this in mind, I believe the census taker may have simply misheard her name. Eliza was still married to George in 1870, and did not die until sometime after 4 Oct 1881, when she was married 2nd (probably in Ripley Co., Indiana) to William Hobbs.

At that point in reading the Kerstetter genealogy, I checked for contact information for the author and planned to offer “new” information and correct what I knew to be inaccurate — but first I thought it best to locate Eliza in public records after 1870.

With some difficulty due to the many variations of the family name, I finally located Eliza in the 1880 census, divorced —not widowed as I’d always believed — and living in Ripley Co., Indiana with her youngest son, John T. Castator (their last name transcribed as Castater on the census). Who knew? Not only was I surprised at this discovery, but the idea of divorces being recorded in census records of that time period had never even occurred to me. Incidentally, John T. is also recorded as John F. on the 1870 census, and on the 1860 census, the family name is spelled Castteter [sic].

Besides the name of Eliza’s second husband and their date of marriage (provided years ago by my grandfather), I have no other information about him from family records. Online records for Ripley County marriages also only go through 1880, and they were married in 1881. According to Granddad, Eliza died in Delaware Township, Ripley Co., Indiana (no date given), but I find no record of her there past the 1880 census. Unfortunately, 1890 census reports were mostly destroyed by fire, and she’s nowhere to be found by 1900.  It appears that both Eliza and her second husband were deceased by 1900.

My family records never gave any indication of their divorce. I don’t know if there was a deliberate “cover up” of this information by subsequent generations, but it was definitely not shared with me.  While contemplating this new information, it occurred to me that the notation of divorce could be incorrect, and then it also occurred to me that even if they were divorced after 1870 and George had since died, Eliza’s marital status in 1880 would probably be “single.” Since it was neither single nor widowed, then George must have still been living and there should also be an available census record for him in 1880. Maybe this is why social networking sites like Facebook include the relationship status “it’s complicated.” Census forms apparently needed the same option back then, and probably still do today!

Unable to find any record for a divorced George, I wondered if he had already remarried by then. With further checking, I found an 1880 census record in Fairmount, Grant, Indiana under the name George Custaton (Castator, transcribed incorrectly) that could belong to him with a much younger wife, Margaret — but also with three children (the oldest a teenager and the youngest born in 1879). Because none of the children were recorded as stepchildren to George, I dismissed it at first, but after much more searching, that was the only George I could locate that could possibly be him! By then I felt like I was playing a game of Clue.

It was Colonel Mustard, in the conservatory, with a revolver…

Recalling that in 1870, married daughter Margaret (“Jennie”) was listed as a household resident, I tried to make the 1880 record a better match for our George by considering that maybe Margaret was again (or still) living with her father without her husband (Did his occupation involve frequent or extended travel?), that perhaps she was recorded incorrectly as wife instead of daughter, and that the children were actually grandchildren to George — but her birth year was off by four years, she was more commonly known as “Jennie,” and if the name I have for her husband is correct, she was in her own household in 1880 with different children. All that pretty much ruled out this Margaret being a daughter rather than wife.

The wrong family name and the fact that both of this George’s parents were “born in Ohio,” should not discredit the possibility that this is our George. Names and census information were often poorly recorded or transcribed, and it is apparent that several siblings of George who lived past 1880 also gave erroneous information for their parents’ birthplaces. Our George’s youngest brother Ira, a Civil War veteran who lived at least through 1920, changed his response for that section of the form on every available census after 1880!

If there are any real inaccuracies on this census, what are they? Did the census taker mean to write “W” for “widowed” rather than “D” for “divorced” on Eliza’s original form, or if George was still alive and married to this younger Margaret, were all or at least two of the children really adopted stepchildren, but not recorded correctly?  If George was still living in 1880, but this wasn’t the right George, where is the correct census record? If the record I found is the right record and there are no errors, then our George may have fathered two or all of these children illegitimately before his divorce from Eliza, and that would have been quite the scandal!

One factor that supports this being the right record for our George is that the youngest child, Ira, has a name common to our family line and could have been named for his brother Ira. Another is that in 1900, this same Margaret (now widowed) is Margaret CASTETTER, living with her married, oldest daughter’s family. CASTETTER is the way of spelling the family name that by that time was preferred by all of George’s children and at least some of his siblings.

Divorces at that time were not so common, especially late in a marriage. Why would a woman married forty years prior to 1880 divorce her husband? An adulterous relationship with a much younger woman and 1-3 illegitimate children would certainly explain a divorce, a change in location, and why vagueness or a possible “cover story” may have led future generations to assume George had died before Eliza married a second time.

Forgive me, George, if I have unjustly shamed you!

Although there are many unanswered questions regarding this family, the real story is probably not nearly as complicated as incorrect or missing information makes it seem. No family is perfect, but it was not my intent to let my curiosity fabricate or unearth an unsavory family tale. What I have or haven’t yet found is definitely not enough to conclude without doubt that George had a second family with adulterous beginnings — but it does raise the possibility.

It’s all relative

Apart from all the mystery surrounding George and Eliza’s final ten years, it’s interesting to note that except for one unnamed brother who (if he existed at all) apparently died in infancy, all the rest of George’s siblings survived into adulthood and married.

George’s oldest sister Abigail married Eliza’s older brother, Henry Watson. They had ten children.  George’s sister Mary Ann creates yet another mystery: Did she marry William Culver, Culyer, or Cuyler, and did they have any children? George’s sister Elizabeth married John Morris and then nothing more is yet known. The sister Malinda (or was it Melinda or Belinda?) married Levi Tucker. They had eight children. The sister Susannah (“Susan”) married Richard Lyons (a.k.a. Lions and Lyens). They also had eight children. George’s brother Ira, born a decade or more after all the rest married Florence J. and they had nine children.

George and Eliza’s firstborn was my 2nd great-grandmother Sarah who married Josephus Main. They had eight children, including my great-grandfather John Dwight. The rest of George and Eliza’s children included William Montgomery who married Belle Little, Margaret Jane (“Jennie”) who married Mr. Bone (probably James Milton Bone), George Washington Jr., Franklin Marion who married Sarah A. Brinegar, Ida May who married Martin Van Buren Brown, and John T. All this makes for quite an extensive descendant outline covering eight generations beginning with George and Eliza. There are also eight known previous generations in this lineage.

The Source of the Matter…

My sources for this family line include online Ripley County Indiana marriage records (site linked above), personal records, and genealogical records of my maternal grandfather, Weldon C. MAIN (J. Dwight MAIN3, Sarah E. CASTETTER2, George W. CASTATOR1) compared with various family trees, marriage records, military records, census data, and public records available through Ancestry.com and other online searches.

____________

Update: (14 Jan 2009)

Re: ANNA THOMAS
Since originally writing this entry, I have attempted to connect Michael Castator’s wife, Anna Thomas, to others of that name in Blount County, Tennessee. My findings indicate there were several Thomas families residing in Tennessee by 1800, some with Welsh ancestry and some with German. Our Thomas line would more likely be German, and with Blount County ties, I zeroed in on the most likely family to be that of Anna’s father. A Jacob Thomas of that location had five sons and one daughter. The daughter (Margaret) and two of his sons (Jacob and Adam) remained in the area and their descendants have been fairly well documented. The remaining three sons (George, Henry, and John) were mostly unaccounted for. Other than their mention in Jacob’s will, there was apparently no further record of them in Blount County.  I emailed Bettye Heinrich, a known descendant and she very kindly offered assistance in checking census and marriage records for the areas in which they were believed to have lived. The 1820 Ripley Co. census revealed Anna living near a Henry Thomas old enough to be her father and a George Thomas, old enough to be her brother. The 1820 Butler Co. Census revealed Abigail Castator living near another George Thomas. Butler Co. marriage records revealed a possible sister Elizabeth.

Bettye Heinrich directed me to a Thomas Family website that had archived the findings of now deceased Barbara Fitzmaurice. In the last years of her life, Mrs. Fitzmaurice made several forum posts on genealogical sites regarding the Thomas family of Blount Co., TN. As I became more convinced that Anna was a daughter of Henry, I recalled seeing in one of her posts that Henry’s wife was named Mary, but couldn’t relocate it. Attempting to find that, I instead found another, and there, among Henry and Mary’s children were Anna, George, Elizabeth, and others.

Combining data from government documents and several family histories available online, I have concluded the following:

Jacob THOMAS (farmer) b. abt. 1739-43, Northumberland Co., PA; d. bet. 20 Jun – 28 Aug 1804, in or near Maryville, Blount, TN; m. abt. 1760-61, Pennsylvania, to Margaret ____, who was still living as of 1808, and d. in or near Maryville, Blount, TN. They had the following children:

 

  • Margaret THOMAS (F) b. abt. 1762, Northumberland Co., PA; d. aft. Jun 1836, Blount Co., TN; m. abt. 1789, Blount Co., TN to Jacob NEIMAN, b. bef. 1759, PA; d. May 1793, Knox Co., TN (now called Blount Co.); issue.
  • George THOMAS (M) b. abt. 1763, Northumberland Co., PA; d. aft. 1820, probably in Ross, Butler, OH. (Probably father of George THOMAS, b. abt. 1790, Tennessee;  who m. Margaret ____, b. abt. 1790, Tennessee; both probably d. in Ross, Butler, OH.)
  • Henry THOMAS (M) b. bet. 1764-67, Northumberland Co., PA; d. aft. 1820, Rush Co., IN; m. abt. 1783, Pennsylvania to Mary ____, b. 1767, Pennsylvania; d. Rush Co., IN; Issue. (See list below.)
  • John THOMAS (M) b. abt. 1768, Northumberland Co., PA; d. __, probably in Indiana. (Likely one of the first land owners of Ripley Co., Indiana, along with other Thomases.)
  • Adam THOMAS (M) b. 1 Jan 1770, Northumberland Co., PA; d. 10 Jan 1855, Blount Co., TN; m. 1st,  abt. 1790, Blount Co., TN,  Anna B. ____, who d. abt. 1840, Blount Co., TN; issue; Adam m. 2nd, 13 Nov 1849, Blount Co., TN, Jane Ralston, b. 1826.
  • Jacob THOMAS (M) b. abt. 1780, Northumberland Co., PA; d. 10 Sep 1855, Cleveland, Bradley, TN; m. 20 Feb 1812, Blount Co., TN to Margaret Elizabeth NEIMAN, b. abt. 1787, TN; d. 10 Jun 1888, Cleveland, Bradley, TN; issue.

 

 

Children of Henry and Mary THOMAS:

 

  • Jacob THOMAS (M) b. 30 Oct 1784, Pennsylvania
  • Henry THOMAS (M) b. 1786, Pennsylvania; Served in the War of 1812.
  • Margaret THOMAS (F) b. 1787, Pennsylvania
  • Elizabeth THOMAS (F) b. 9 Apr 1790, Tennessee; m. 8 Feb 1810, Butler Co., OH to Stephen SCUDDER, b. abt. 1785; Stephen may have d. in War of 1812, as there is no record of him beyond that. Another Stephen Scudder in Liberty Twp., Butler, OH proves by later census records not to be him, but is probably a cousin. Elizabeth may have remarried.
  • Barbary THOMAS (F) b. 16 Nov 1792, Tennessee
  • Mary Ann THOMAS (F) b. 1794, Tennessee; d. 1855, Rush Co., IN; m. 1813, Butler Co., OH to Jacob BOLSER / BALSER, b. 1789, York, PA or Butler Co., OH; d. Aug. 1844, Rush Co., IN; issue.
  • George THOMAS (M) b. abt. 1798, Tennessee; d. 1869, Rush Co., IN; m. 27 Nov 1818, Butler Co., OH to Elizabeth ELDER, b. 17 Jul 1797, Tennessee; d. 18 Jan 1869, Rush Co., IN; issue.
  • Anna Elizabeth THOMAS (F) b. abt. 1801-02, Maryville, Blount, TN; d. bet 1850-60, Delaware Twp., Ripley Co., IN; m. 16 Jan 1817, Butler Co., OH to Michael CASTATER / CASTATOR; issue.
  • Susannah THOMAS (F) b. 8 Jan 1802, Maryville, Blount, TN; m. 2 Mar 1819, Ripley Co., IN to James Stevens, b. abt. 1799.

 

 

____________

Re: ELIZABETH (“ELIZA”) ANNE WATSON

Eliza’s 1880 census supports the information I had from my grandfather’s records that Eliza’s parents were both from England. Granddad’s information included that she had a brother Henry Watson (b. 11 Apr 1817), who married Abigail Castator (oldest sister of George W.).  Abigail was b. 8 Sep 1819 In Delaware Twp., Ripley Co., IN, and died 5 Dec 1880, in Union, Worth,  MO. After her death, Henry married 2nd in 1882, to Elizabeth _____ (born 21 Apr 1829 in VA; d. 15 Aug 1905 in Grant City, Worth, MO).

From Henry’s 1900 census, his place of birth is England and his year of immigration is 1818. (His sister Eliza was born abt. 1821 in Ripley Co., Indiana). Henry is listed as both Henry Watson and Henry Walton on Ripley Co. marriage records (alphabetically, he’s Walton, and by date, he’s Watson). Henry and his second wife are buried in Grant City Cemetery, Grant City, Worth, MO. Abigail, some of their children, as well as Abigail’s sister Balinda (as spelled on her headstone; a.k.a. Belinda and Malinda) and brother-in-law Levi Tucker are buried in Bethel Cemetery, Union, Worth, MO. The Tuckers’ daughter Elizabeth married Ellis Denver Watson, whose grandmother was born in England, so was probably indirectly related to Henry. Her family is also buried in Bethel Cemetery.

I don’t know the names of Eliza and Henry’s parents. I suspected they were children of Eber and Phebe (Thompson) Watson, since Eber was the only Watson on the 1820 census for Ripley County, but a marriage record for Eber in Phebe in Butler Co. Ohio says they were married there in 1805. They do have ties to Ripley Co., Indiana though, so may be related in some way. Perhaps Eliza was born in an adjacent county where other Watsons resided and moved to Ripley County later.

I found a reference for James V. Watson, born in London, England in 1814, and “when quite young his parents removed to Indiana.” This Watson moved around a lot, but was somewhere in Missouri about 1832. Our Henry was in Worth County, Missouri by 1855 as one of its first settlers. Since Eliza and Henry’s parents came to Indiana from England in 1818, this James could fit into their family as a brother. I will try to research this possibility further.

____________

EDIT (22 Apr 2014): I was contacted yesterday by Sarah E. North, saying she was a descendant of Henry Watson’s sister Sarah Joanna (Watson) Jackson. I had never heard of Sarah in all these years. How did I miss her? She also said, “The whole family is listed in THE EMIGRANT’S GUIDE by William Cobbett, an English reformer.” I had also never heard of this book, so I began searching online for where to find it. I love the Internet! The book is available online: The Emigrant’s Guide, and there on page 50 is my third great-grandmother’s date and place of birth, as well as correcting her middle name for me (it’s not Eliza Jane as my grandfather believed, but Eliza Anne, short for Elizabeth!), and finally giving me the names of her paternal grandparents and several other relatives. I had guessed completely wrong about her paternal grandfather. The family correspondence is amazing! PLEASE READ THE LETTERS and see my updated genealogy!

EDIT (1 May 2014): You know my methods, Watson

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As mentioned previously (and made obvious by recent posts), my family has many February birthdays. Going through the list in my head, I recall that the 19th was my maternal grandfather’s birthday. I’m also reminded that several months ago, as I was rummaging through an old box of photos and memorabilia, I came across a newspaper clipping that inspired me to jot down memories of my grandparents and their home.

Newspaper Article
(Click to read)

The Main Family Homestead — This is the house at 201 Dunning Avenue in Mount Ayr, Iowa that my grandparents Weldon and Elma Main purchased in 1948, and in which they resided until their deaths – a much-loved home with much history, often filled with much-loved people. Shortly after my grandparents moved to this home with the skeleton key locks, the Ringgold County Hospital was built across the street. It was an improved, paved street that I remember once being canopied with elm trees, and filled with the sound of singing birds. The trees submitted to Dutch elm disease in the 1970s and the house to fire in 2003.

In its day, it must have been quite an elegant home, which was apparent still in my childhood with its lovely painted porches complete with hanging swings. Built-in “fancy colonnades” with paneled oak columns and etched glass cabinets filled with personal treasures and model replicas of the cars Granddad sold at his dealership divided the living room and front parlor – or “Front Room” and “East Living Room,” as Grandma called them.

The “East Living Room” housed Grandma’s ornate, cherry spinet piano, Uncle John’s chair, a short sofa where I sometimes slept, and the tall Zenith console TV they seldom watched, but John always did – even during mealtime. The TV was a lot like ours at home, with 13-channel VHF and 33-channel UHF dials, but if we could tune in more than a handful of stations and all three major networks we were lucky. Personally, I was happy with any station that showed I Love Lucy, Here’s Lucy, The Lucy and Desi Comedy Comedy Hour, or the Lucy Show, and as far as I was concerned, these could be shown twenty-four hours a day and it would not be too much.

In the “Front Room” were my grandparents’ favorite chairs, a footstool, a large picture of Christ, a wall mirror, end tables, a sofa, my Granddad’s pipe and cigarette stand, and a varying speed stool-shaped-drum-fan-we-could-never-touch-for-fear-of-death whirring quietly near the center of the room. My heavy-set Grandma sat in her chair every morning to roll on her nylons and put on her polished, low-heeled pumps that always matched her purse. Above her hung the little knick-knack shelf filled with inexpensive figurines her grandchildren walked uptown to buy for her at the drug store, and the sofa where my lanky grandfather napped very still with his ankles crossed and his hands crossed on his chest during noontime breaks from work was along the front window. If we were visiting, he made it a special delight to wake him when his meat and potato lunch was ready. As Grandma directed, “Just touch him with one finger in the middle of his chest.” I knew what was coming. I’d tip-toe in, touch his chest, he’d make the expected startled jump, and I’d break into a mischievous giggle of anticipation. “What are you doing?” he’d jokingly bellow, but one of those times his startled reaction made me swallow a starlight mint I had in my mouth, it stuck in my throat choking me, and he had to reach into my mouth, dislodge the mint and save my life!

Great Grandma Addie died before I was born, but I was told that everyone in town called her Grandma, and she often treated her grandchildren and great-grandchildren with bottles of 7-Up soda and lumps of brown sugar. I don’t recall seeing Great Granddad Dwight except in his own home, but if my Grandma’s parents visited, they’d occupy the favorite chairs and sometimes Great Granddad John would entertain us with auctioneer spiel and bribe us with candied orange slices. With lots of grandchildren around, the “Front Room” often had a card table set up for Monopoly, Chinese checkers, card games, or a large, interlocking puzzle. Granddad always finished most of the puzzles.

My mother lived in the house only a few years during her late childhood, but I often visited this home as a child. Before my grandparents owned it, it had been occupied by a doctor, who had purchased it from the original owners. The doctor’s office entrance was at the rear of the house, which Granddad sealed off from the outside, but the concrete steps leading to the old entrance remained. That portion of the house was used by them as utility and storage space and was off limits to me as a child, so I attributed much mystery to this forbidden area, especially the “secret” room behind the freezer, as well as the cellar down the dusty, creaky stairs. Even though I often played on the outside steps to the long-abandoned entrance, the inside door to the closed off portion of the house was out of view, so in later years I forgot the room was even there. As an adult I was reminded in recurring dreams and mentioned once to my brother Tim how odd it was that I kept dreaming of finding secret rooms in Grandma’s house. At first he thought of the upstairs storage room and all the closets, but I’d been in all those many times. “In my dream, there’s a hidden door,” I said, and to my surprise he replied, “Well, there is one!” However, my excitement was dampened when he added, “but there was just a bunch of old junk and it was never as fascinating as you imagined.”

I have always been directionally challenged and was even more so as a child, so Grandma’s names for the rooms frustrated and confused me for some time, as did her directions to someplace in town when I was finally old enough to drive. “Turn south a mile before you get to the old Leason place,” or something similarly nonsensical to me. How on earth was I to know when I was a mile before I got someplace I’d never heard of in a town I wasn’t too familiar with, which way was south, who were these people that didn’t even live there anymore, and why were total strangers waving their index fingers and nodding to me as I passed? In addition to that, I was puzzled by the one-way sign on the town square that pointed both left and right and the dead end sign at the cemetery. The people in this town surely had a way of life foreign to me.

Grandma was forever sending me on a mission to retrieve something from the “South Room,” and I don’t really remember at what age I finally figured out which room that was! The “South Room” upstairs had been my mother’s bedroom. During my childhood this room and its large walk-in closet was also used primarily for storage of family heirlooms like beautiful hurricane lamps, music boxes, old blue glass bottles, and the many games and puzzles the family enjoyed. The closet was oddly shaped because it surrounded what must have been the furnace chimney. Inside was a very old and very large portrait in a wooden frame. Bowed glass encased the sepia-toned head and bust of a young girl with an unsettling gaze. She was most likely a relative. I don’t recall who she was, but I was convinced for a time she haunted that closet. After their marriage, my parents also lived in this “South Room” for about two months until Dad went into the Navy the following March. Mom often expressed how she hated the home’s wallpaper because it reminded her of when she had been ill with scarlet fever during her eighth grade year of school and the large, overwhelming patterns of the paper in her home at that time made her dizzy. (The old house was just south of the town square, probably a block or so before you get to the old whatchamacallit.) Grandma, of course, loved the designs and told of Granddad’s mother, Great Grandma Addie doing most of the papering.

The “North Room” was originally Aunt Barb’s bedroom, but before I was born it had become Uncle John’s room. However, when Aunt Barb and her husband were first married, they lived in a make-shift three-room apartment that included that room. The connected walk-in closet had been converted into a kitchenette large enough for a small table, wall cabinets and a sink. The kitchenette opened on the other side into the room they used as a living room. Later, they lived several years in another large home next door on the same street.

Except for the time it was used as my aunt’s apartment living room, my grandparents’ bedroom was the upstairs “East Room,” which had another huge walk-in closet with a window. While Uncle John was young, his bedroom was a twin bed in their closet and then later in the downstairs room off the kitchen that I only knew as the off-limits “Utility Room,” where Grandma did the laundry and ironing, and behind one of two upright freezers lurked the “hidden door.” Along the hall from the formal rooms to the kitchen was the oak-paneled staircase lined with coat hooks, various coats, off-season garments, and newly sewn creations fresh from my Grandma’s sewing machine. Once upon a time, my mother’s wedding gown probably hung there as this was the staircase my mom descended in her wedding gown to marry my father, January 6, 1951. Later, all the bridesmaids’ dresses for my brother’s wedding were completed and hung there, and for years Grandma’s wind chimes hung in the door frame at the entrance to the stairs and tinkled in the breeze wafting in from the porches and windows.

Clawfoot bathtubs adorned both the upstairs and downstairs bathrooms, but the one upstairs had been enclosed and surrounded by a tile ledge. The downstairs bathroom with the tall, old-fashioned commode (almost too high for a child to reach) was where I’d sit and watch Grandma apply her powder and rouge, and then she’d let me sample her makeup and Evening in Paris perfume. This room also stored supplies for making towel dolls and all their washcloth clothes, and the bathroom door was the door to which she once tied my loose tooth with a string and then closed it to yank it out when I hadn’t gotten the tooth pulled out on my own in the allotted time. I remember stories of how the large downstairs bathroom also served for a time as a home brewery when Granddad decided to try his hand at making his own beer, but he wasn’t very accomplished at it, added too much yeast, and greatly embarrassed my grandmother during a visit from her church pastor when all the corks loudly popped off and beer started spewing. Grandma wasn’t fond of smoking or drinking, but she would chuckle and say she did like a thimble full of homemade rhubarb wine now and then. She ruined Granddad’s tobacco pipes when she decided to wash “those nasty things,” and if he’d drink too much for her liking around Easter time back in his heyday, she’d make him a special breakfast of scrambled colored eggs bought from my Dad’s family’s egg hatchery.

Granddad installed all the modern conveniences of the time in their enormous kitchen, including a GE front-loading electric dishwasher, Youngstown steel cupboards, slate counter tops, and a horseshoe shaped booth and table. With all that, there was still room enough for another dining table when the family added generations. At some point, the front-loading dishwasher was replaced with a top-loading one that was so awkward to use that Grandma preferred washing and “scalding” the dishes by hand. She also decided that dishwasher was only good for storing seldom-used dishes, but it stayed in the kitchen for years before they finally got another good one. I remember Grandma fixing bacon and egg breakfasts with instructions not to put the potato bread into the toaster until I saw the whites of Granddad’s eyes. He’d then come into the room with his eyes exaggeratedly open just to be funny. I still shudder at the thought of him smearing his eggs with mustard before eating them. Next to the toaster, a Little Red Riding Hood cookie jar stood for years and years, usually filled with tempting homemade cookies. If it was a Saturday, it was cleaning day before playtime and my cousins and I would argue over who got to dust the piano. Somehow Grandma made cleaning day fun and I remember also occasionally tying rags to our feet to polish the upstairs hardwood floors.

The main floor also included yet another bedroom and a formal dining room. The dining room was only used for special occasions because most of the time the large table was covered with one of my grandma’s numerous sewing projects, as this room with its view to the massive side yard, capped off water well, peony bushes and side porch doubled as her sewing room. This room also housed one of two wall-mounted rotary-dial telephones, the other being in the upstairs hallway, and when I was a child, four digits were all that had to be dialed in Mount Ayr for local calls. In larger Iowa towns like Ottumwa, we dialed five. It hadn’t been long before when the phones there had no dial at all – one just simply lifted the receiver and waited for the operator to ask whom you wished to call. Since it was a small town and everyone knew everyone else (or was related to them) telling them “I want to talk to Grandma” usually sufficed. That was before my time, but I often played with the disconnected old dial-less phone Grandma kept stored in the “South Room.”

When the house was originally built, electricity was a new convenience. This was evident by oddly placed light switches and outlets. In the downstairs bedroom, which was most often used by company instead of immediate family, the light switch was across the room in the middle of a side wall. During my childhood, my grandparents furthered its inconvenience by placing bookshelves around it so finding it in a darkened room was always a challenge.

In later years, the house, and especially that room was associated more and more with convalescence and sadness. Following Great Granddad John’s death at their family home in rural Caledonia, and Great Grandma Pearl’s broken hip, Grandma Pearl moved to town with my grandparents and used the downstairs bedroom until her own death from ovarian cancer. Uncle John passed away in this room in his late twenties after a short teaching career, a brief marriage, and a painful battle with lymphoma. When they were older and Grandma had trouble using the stairs, the room then became my grandparents’ bedroom. Granddad was a hard worker up until the day he suddenly died in the living room, succumbing to a heart attack brought on by heat stroke while shingling the roof of their old garage earlier that same hot day in 1980.

During Grandma’s remaining years, Aunt Barb, who was by then a grandmother herself, took up residence in the family home and Grandma consolidated most of her things into her sewing room. Dining room furniture and her much-used sewing machine were replaced by a bed, chair and color television. Grandma lived for some time in the company of her daughter and an almost constant flow of local and visiting family members before placing herself in a nursing home. She died there shortly after in 1993 of ovarian cancer as her mother had years before, but prior to her death, she was privileged to enjoy a family reunion in her home the summer of 1992, which included all of her living descendants. Looking about at this great group gathered about her, she remarked with a chuckle, “Granddad and I sure did start something!”

When it was my grandparents’ residence, the property also included several out-buildings, a mink house, and fenced-in pasture from the time Granddad raised and showed ponies. Training show ponies was his passion and hitching them up for a fancy turnout or a sleigh ride with grandchildren was also one of his greatest joys. One of my funniest memories involves the mink house. One afternoon while visiting, Grandma went down to the mink house for something, possibly to care for the mink if they still had them at that time, but I don’t remember ever seeing mink so I think by then they may have been long gone and it was basically used as a tool shed. She hurriedly entered the house looking pale and frightened. “Andy! Tim! Go down to the mink house and kill that snake!” she cried. My brother and cousin, about 10 and 11 at the time ran to the mink house, but quickly returned saying, “Grandma, you already killed it. It was just a king snake, but you chopped it into about a hundred pieces already.” Grandma replied, “Make sure it’s dead. Go back and chop it up some more!”

When my aunt’s oldest daughter’s family began to grow, my cousin Brenda Grose bought the home from my aunt, and Aunt Barb moved to a smaller home on the family property. Brenda’s family turned the closet at the head of the staircase into a second, smaller staircase and was in the process of finishing off the attic for more bedrooms, when on March 5, 2003, the house caught fire and suffered severe damage. Unfortunately, the cost for restoring the home was prohibitive and it was eventually demolished. Although many of my cousin’s family and some of their children’s friends were home asleep at the time, thankfully there was no loss of life and their family rebuilt the smaller home that is there today at the same location.

This house and family homestead held lots of wonderful memories for our family. Mom and Dad were married there, my cousin Brenda was born there, and many happy family gatherings were held there. I don’t know what became of the many mementos the family treasured or never bothered to sort through. Did most of it pass from one generation to the next with the ownership of the house? Was much of it lost in the fire or was most dispersed to various family members over the years? What I know is that we each have a few things Grandma and Granddad wanted us to have because they knew they’d be important to us. For me, the most important thing was Grandma’s journal of memories she made especially for me, some old family photos thoughtfully marked with notes, and the candlesticks Granddad gave to her when they were married. I have a few other things I never expected to have, like her wedding ring and watch, and some seemingly insignificant things like a lion-head glass container and a cowbell that had been passed down from even earlier generations in Grandma’s family. There are other things I would have liked, but they were important to others as well and we had to share. The Main family homestead and the many family members who crossed its thresholds before passing from the earth before us, as well as all the love and treasures the house held through the years will be greatly missed by those of us who experienced it and remember – and by those of us who’ve learned of them from others.

At my grandmother’s funeral, her grandchildren paid her the following tribute: “We remember Grandma as a woman whose family meant more to her than anything else on the earth. In her journal, she left us many words of wisdom about family life and life in general. She had a keen sense of humor, especially about herself. Without her wonderful story telling ability, we would not have known about her interesting life, or about the lives of her ancestors. Because of her attention to detail, we will be able to recognize our ancestors immediately when they come to greet us in the hereafter.” I think I’ll first hear a chuckle and notice Grandma’s sparkling blue eyes. She will be wearing her recognizable grin, a blue, silky dress – and most undoubtedly fitting will be the beloved red hat she lost as a child, but remembered affectionately in a poem written by her in her later years. Granddad, with his warm brown eyes, will be smartly dressed wearing polished shoes and a snap-brim fedora hat. He’ll look at us with an exaggerated expression and ask with jovial force, “What are you doing?” Then he’ll probably offer us a thick chocolate malt, a maple crème, or a piece of Grandma’s Applesauce Cake – and of course a ride in a dapper buggy pulled by his favorite trotter.

Grandparents

Happy birthday, Granddad.

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