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In Search of Roots, Part Two

June 20, 2012

Six of us set out on a Thursday morning from Mount Vernon, Ohio in a minivan, and arrived in Grundy, Virginia in mid-afternoon.  There were four siblings, two brothers and two sisters who made the trip.

Left to Right: JR, Vera, me, Nell, Jim, Bev

The trip was born out of a conversation a couple of weeks earlier, when JR had joined Nell and I, and Bev and his wife Kayleen for dinner.  JR, Nell and Bev, the three oldest of seven living siblings, began reminiscing about family history, and before we knew it, they had decided it would be great to travel back to Grundy, Virginia to find old landmarks and get in touch with relatives not seen in decades.  As the plans were made, Vera and Jim said they’d like to go as well.  A date was set, and before we knew it, we were climbing into a rented minivan on a cool June morning.

The family moved from Grundy to Ohio when she was three years old, so she has only memories from when the family came back for visits.  Her three older brothers stayed in Grundy with their grandparents.  The oldest of the siblings, Sonny, passed away over two years ago.  When the two remaining boys, JR and Bev, rejoined the family in Ohio, JR, seen above with Nell, was eight years old.  Much of this trip depended on the memories of JR and Bev.

The were conflicting memories about the house they remembered living in.  One of the primary contenders was the white house up on the hillside.

We drove up a steep, one vehicle wide driveway to get a closer look.  Another possibility was this house next door to the other one.  A lot of years have passed.  The town has changed.  The two brothers couldn’t agree on this one.

The search for the home of Nell’s maternal grandparents took us up a narrow, winding road, past abandoned structures and overgrown plots of ground.  We were back up in the “holler”, a word we heard a lot during this trip.  The house back there in the shade of the trees is pretty close to being in the right place, but of course it looks nothing like JR and Bev remember.

Nature, of course, has overtaken a lot in these places back off the main roads.

We made a trip back to the Buchanan County Courthouse and spent some time searching land records.  A very helpful gentleman in the mapping department helped assure that the property we had found back in the holler was owned by Nell’s grandparents.  He also located the mine, long since closed, that Nell’s Dad had worked at for a time.

As JR recalls, the two sets of windows at the upper right were his classroom when he was eight years old.  This was Garden High School, which dates back to at least 1937, and now serves as part of the Appalachian School of Pharmacy.

Just across the river, with it’s back to the school, was Hagy’s Diner, in Oakwood, just up the road from Grundy.  Nell remembers Mr. Hagy always gave them a free soda pop when she and her siblings stopped in with their parents .   There is an empty slab next door, which was the post office at one time.  I found a great description of Hagy’s here, which could have described almost any teen gathering place in the country back in the ’50s.

An old foot bridge still crosses the river near one of the old homesites.

Aunt Garnie Matney Stacey, 87, sister to Nell’s mom.  Nell hadn’t seen her in over twenty years.  It was fun to watch this group being reunited for a visit in her living room.

We would never have found the hillside gravesite of Nell’s paternal grandfather without the help of her Aunt Effie, sister to Nell’s Dad, and the last of 14 brothers and sisters.  When relatives learned we were coming, one of them was good enough to clear out part of the cemetery for us.  It was terribly overgrown, and would have been impossible to find.

Aunt Effie directed us to another discovery: the first home of Nell’s parents.  No, it’s not the house she and Bev are walking up to.

It’s the old structure on the hillside in back.  Ireland and Ora Vance, Nell’s parents, bought this place when Ireland returned from World War II.  They lived in this little two room house when Nell’s two older brothers were born.

This was quite a find for the brothers and sisters.

After that discovery, the next stop was the home of Uncle Ralph Hess, husband of Nell’s mother’s sister.

The siblings spent some time on Ralph’s front porch, visiting with him (second from right) and his daughter (orange shoes), who lives right next door.

While they caught up on a lot of years, I roamed around Ralph’s farm, collecting reference photos for future sketches and paintings.

 Ralph took us to visit with his wife, Jo (Nell’s mother’s sister).  He’s unable to give her the care she needs, and she resides in a nursing home.

And then it was time to drive out of the Virginia hills and head for home.  Nell and her brothers and sister had reconnected with some of the surviving members of their parents’ generation  The had found their grandfather’s burial place, and came close to finding old homes.  There was some frustration because many things had changed.  They had found some answers, and probably a few new questions.  But I sensed a general feeling of satisfaction at having made the trip.

It was good.

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