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This past summer, my sister Sue and I embarked on a genealogical expedition. Our main focus was Hampshire County, West Virginia where the Rogers family has roots going back hundreds of years. I’d  visited this area before but this was Sue’s first trip. We camped at Wapacoma Campground on the South Fork of the Potomac River, west of the county seat of Romney.

Wapocoma Campground

It takes a special kind of nerd to find pleasure in digging through old documents for clues to our past. We visited the main library and the Capon Bridge branch, both which have historical and genealogical records. I’ve spent many hours in these libraries and always find new treasures, but the weather was too nice to spend all day indoors.

Most of our West Virginia ancestors came from the British Isles in the 1700’s and settled in the vicinity of Slanesville, a small community in the Cacapon River Valley. Daniel and Nancy Slane and their six children immigrated from Ireland in the late 18th century and settled in what became known as Dogtown because the Slanes had so many dogs. Later it was renamed Slanesville.

Almost Heaven

The Rogers moved here after the Civil War and married into the McDonald clan. After farming in Pennsylvania and Kansas, this part of West Virginia must have seemed like Heaven. For the life of me, I don’t understand why they left this lovely valley for the bitter climate of upstate New York. Not all of them left. William Lewis Rogers remained and is buried in the Kidwell Cemetery.

Sue’s favorite place to look for ancestors is in old graveyards. The Kidwell Cemetery is at the end of a private lane with one residence which is a family day care. In addition to Kidwells, there are a variety of other family names, including McDonald. William Rogers was not related by blood to the Kidwells but through the marriage of his son John Thomas Rogers, my great-grandfather, to Rebecca McDonald. Apparently William got along well enough with his in-laws for them to provide him with an eternal resting place.

Sue meticulously inspected each headstone, deciphering weathered inscriptions, while I took notes and photographed them. I noticed more comings and goings at the day care next door than usual, but I didn’t give it much thought. Finally, no more tombstones to examine, we moved to the nearby Mount Union Church Cemetery. I’d never stopped here, but Sue couldn’t pass it by.

We parked on the dirt road behind the church and found dozens more Kidwells, McDonalds, and other names connected with our family. While we cataloged more possible dead relatives, quite a bit of traffic zipped by on the dirt road, which I thought was strange. Sue went back to my van for something, leaving me to take notes and pictures. When she didn’t return, I went to check on her. I found a pickup truck parked near my van, and a man was talking to Sue.

Apparently, my big blue van with the Florida license tag had attracted attention. The valley was buzzing with questions about who we were and why we were hanging out in these graveyards all afternoon. Hence, the traffic at the day care and behind the church. Finally, this man had the courage to stop and check us out. He had a good laugh. Two ladies doing genealogical research had spooked the whole community!  He said we were welcome to visit any dead relatives we wanted to, and he would notify the citizens of Slanesville that we were no threat.

Not only accommodating, but helpful, he said, “You see that house next door? That man knows all about these cemeteries and who’s buried here. Go over and tell him I sent you.”

So we did. I wasn’t sure what kind of reception we’d get, but by now word must have gone ‘round that we were harmless. The man next door didn’t know much about our dead relatives, but he did know some of our living ones. Names like Hiett and Kidwell, previously known to me only from dusty documents and decaying headstones, tumbled from his mouth. He gave us directions and phone numbers. I’d always suspected we had distant cousins here but wasn’t sure how to find them. Could our attempts to dig up dead relatives yield some live ones?

I drove around trying to locate their residences while Sue tried calling them on her cell phone. Country directions being what they are, I couldn’t find them. Sue couldn’t reach anyone by phone and left messages. We headed toward North River Mills in search of the historic Evan Hiett House.

“Evan Hiett House” in North River Mills

On the way, we passed a little church with a cemetery. We stopped and, no surprise, found more dead relatives. While there, Sue received a phone call. One of her messages had reached someone who passed it on to the family historian, Linda, a distant cousin who was more than willing to share her knowledge of the Kidwell/Hiett/McDonald families. We met her for lunch at the restaurant in Slanesville the next day.

Mary Virginia Kidwell McDonald, ca 1930

Linda turned out to be our fourth cousin, descended from Francis Marion Kidwell,  the brother of our great-great grandmother, Mary Virginia Kidwell McDonald.  Cousin Linda came armed with a wealth of information, including old photographs and family crests.

Kidwell Family Crest

Cousin Linda kept making references to the “tiara” she should wear because we are descended from royalty, specifically the Plantagenets who ruled England before the Tudors. Then she burst our bubble by explaining that many people are of noble descent. We know more about our exalted ancestors because the nobility kept better records than the peasantry. No surprise—we’re also descended from peasants.

Hiett Family Crest

Cousin Linda said the house in North River Mills wasn’t our ancestor Evan Hiett’s residence, that his was up the road from Slanesville. She showed us pictures of his and other ancestral homes. These are on private property and not readily accessible, but she knows who to ask for permission to visit them.

Unfortunately, Sue and I had to leave the following day, so further adventures had to wait. This coming summer I look forward to exploring the nooks and crannies of Hampshire County for more stories about my roots.

Read the story of Linda’s ancestor, our Uncle Frank, at https://marieqrogers.com/2012/12/30/falling-off-dutchess/

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In Mt. Airy, North Carolina, I turn onto Rt. 52 North. After crossing the state line into Virginia, the terrain changes from hilly to mountainous and the road snakes almost straight up. I grip the steering wheel and press the gas pedal to the floor, urging my van to keep climbing. Good thing there’s a passing lane so the locals don’t get too impatient with flatlanders like me.

The road almost levels out and I breathe a sigh of relief. A sign says Fancy Gap and a stone arch carries the Blue Ridge Parkway over the highway. I love the Parkway, but grandchildren wait on the other side of the Blue Ridge, so I’ll stay on 52 to Hillsville, after which I’ll take a series of mountain roads to the New River Valley.

Fancy Gap is a quiet village, if you stay away from the Interstate that roars through, and the countryside is a vista of rolling hills and farmland. Between Fancy Gap and Hillsville, as I round a curve, I’m treated to a vision that could have dropped out of a fairy tale. On a hill with a magnificent view of surrounding farmland and mountains, sits the Sidna Allen House, an exquisite Queen Anne home built over 100 years ago.

sidna-allen-house

The first time I saw it, I could hardly believe my eyes. What was this jewel of Victorian architecture, with gingerbread trim and stained glass windows, doing here in Appalachia? The second time, I stopped to take pictures and read the large billboard advertising tours. There was no one at the place, so I jotted down the phone number on the sign. But when I called the number, it no longer worked. I pass through here a couple times a year on my way to and from my daughter’s, generally stopping to admire and take pictures, but I always respected the No Trespassing signs and enjoyed the house from the roadside.

I didn’t give up my desire for a tour. I learned the house had changed hands from the family that owned it to, thankfully, the Carroll County Historical Society. Unfortunately, no one was giving tours. But I remained intrigued.

I searched the internet and found a colorful history. Sidna Allen was a prosperous merchant in Fancy Gap. He built the house in 1911 for his wife Betty and their daughters. Sidna spared no expense. He used the best materials and finest workmanship and the house was a showcase in its day. But now it sat empty. Year after year as I drove by, I watched paint peel and the place look more and more neglected. I hoped the interior was holding up better than the façade. Pictures on the internet showed an artfully appointed residence, shining woodwork, beautiful wallpaper. How I longed to see inside.

The history of the Allen family and Fancy Gap is a tale worthy of the Wild West. Many of Sidna’s brothers and nephews were criminals and bullies, but they were either too slick to get caught or in cahoots with the law. Brother Floyd actually served as a deputy. The house of cards eventually collapsed, however. When two nephews were arrested for assault, Floyd waylaid the deputies who were transporting them and freed the boys. He was subsequently charged with battering the lawmen, but he vowed he’d never spend a day in jail.

The trial took place March 12th and 13th, 1912. Despite death threats, the judge refused to prohibit firearms in the courtroom. Even the defendant was packing. When the verdict came down—Guilty!—Floyd Allen stood up and declared, “Gentlemen, I just ain’t a goin’.” To this day, no one knows who fired the first shot. Over fifty bullets were later collected and the courthouse stairs still has two holes from Floyd’s last shots. When the smoke cleared, the judge, prosecutor, sheriff, a juror, and a witness were dead, and many, including Floyd Allen, were wounded. The incident went down in history as the “Hillsville Courthouse Massacre” and through the years books and songs and a play have been written about it. Floyd and his son Claud died in the electric chair and other family members went to prison, including Sidna Allen.

Sidna’s involvement in the shoot-out has been debated for 100 years. If not one of the shooters, he was guilty by association. His family lived in their beautiful home only a year. Floyd spent his last free night in the house. This was probably Sidna’s last night there as well. The tragedy changed everything. The family of one of the victims sued and the property was part of the settlement.

On August 22, having spent my summer traveling and visiting grandchildren, I set out for Florida. I gassed up in Hillsville and headed toward Fancy Gap. Driving by the Sidna Allen House, I noticed something new: people and activity. A man sat on the front porch. I pulled off the road and asked if I could look inside.

“Just be careful crossing the road,” he said.

As I climbed the steps to the porch, I heard a noise and looked up. A small drone was flying overhead. How odd.

The man turned out to be Ed Stanley, President of the Carroll County Historical Society. He said I could come in and look around, but they were getting ready to do some filming. A documentary. They were trying to raise money to restore the house. A handsome woman in period costume came to the door and invited me in—Betty Allen herself! She said she had a few minutes to spare and took me on the grand tour. At long last! I felt like a kid at Disneyland.

img_0398

Not a large residence, it was a palace in its day. Miss Betty is very proud of “her” house and knowledgeable of its construction and what it will take to restore. Despite the tattered wall paper, cracked and peeling paint, and plaster separating from its lathes, the quality remains evident. Floors are oak and white maple. Mantles are cherry and tile. Windows and doors are situated to catch cross breezes in summer. Miss Betty proudly pointed out these and many other features.

She has immersed herself in her character and agreed the story would make a good movie or miniseries. I think part of what makes the tale so fascinating is the characters. Despite being scoundrels, the Allens were smart and resourceful. Sidna was a skilled craftsman. In prison and after, he made beautiful pieces of inlaid furniture.

Sidna and Betty in front of their parlor fireplace. Unfortunately, the historical couple weren't able to grow old in their home.

Sidna and Betty in front of their parlor fireplace. Unfortunately, the historical couple weren’t able to grow old in their home.

I got to meet Sidna briefly and he and Betty allowed me to take their picture in the parlor. I didn’t have the time or opportunity to take more pictures, though, as the film crew was soon ready and I’d promised to be out of their way before they started.

Now the house is being restored. They are still trying to raise money for this expensive project. I can’t wait to see the finished product. For more info: https://www.facebook.com/SidnaAllenHomeFoundation/ This video shows the house’s interior: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aoUTz8WGpbw The Ballad of Sidna Allen may not be quite accurate, but it’s charming: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_uCwBJNCwPo  I look forward to seeing the documentary.

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A creek runs through my property, a small creek hardly worthy of a name. My front acres are high and dry but I chose to build in the pine flatwoods on the backside of the creek. Why? Because I like it here. Where the driveway crosses the creek I installed culverts. For years, every hard storm washed out my culverts and left me with expensive driveway repairs. Finally, an old farmer suggested that instead of running the culverts straight across the driveway, they should slant with the course of the creek. Now, why didn’t I think of that? My creek and I have coexisted quite well since.

Look closely at a map of the Mississippi River and you’ll see oxbow lakes where the river once flowed. Parts of states remain on the other side of the river, isolated from the rest, where the river changed course after state lines were drawn. Where does an 800 pound Gorilla sit? Anywhere he wants to! And he is capable of crushing whatever he sits on.

Grand Gulf, Mississippi was once a boom town. In my travels I picked up a flyer on Grand Gulf and this summer I paid a visit. Not far from the Natchez Trace, Grand Gulf Military State Park offers both history and camping. A small museum exhibits, among artifacts from pre-history to the Prohibition, a letter written by George Washington himself. The grounds display a collection of historical buildings that have been moved here: a church, a dog-trot cabin, and a grist mill, as well as cannons from the Civil War.

The only original house is the little Spanish House built in the 1790s. You see, officially, the town of Grand Gulf no longer exists. But its history is fascinating.

Native Americans, the Natchez and lesser know tribes, lived in the area before Europeans arrived–DeSoto, the French, the Spanish, and the French again. After the Revolutionary War, settlers from North Carolina traveled to what is now Claiborne County and, in 1828, laid out the 80 city blocks of Grand Gulf. During the hey-day of King Cotton, Grand Gulf became an important river port. Steamboats brought theater companies and shipped out cotton. With a post office, newspaper, taverns, churches, a school, a hospital, and several stores, Grand Gulf grew to be the third largest city in Mississippi. By the late 1830’s the town had over 1000 inhabitants. Then its luck changed.

Grand Gulf was named after a great whirlpool in the river. That should have been a clue to its eventual fate. Yellow fever decimated the population in 1843. Nine years later, a steamboat exploded, destroying the docks. The following year, a tornado devastated the town. Then the Gorilla shifted his weight. The Mississippi began to eat away at the town. By 1860, over 50 blocks had been washed away, obliterating the business district and whittling the population to 158 souls.

During the Civil War, this was a strategic location for the defense of the Mississippi. On each side of the town, the Confederates built forts which frustrated the Union’s attempt to gain control of the river. I won’t go into the details of the battles of Grand Gulf. You can find that information elsewhere. Suffice it to say that what little remained of the town was destroyed and it was not rebuilt after the war.

On the way to Grand Gulf, I passed a nuclear power plant and hoped this does not spell the town’s final tragedy.

As I drove to the park, on my left mud flats extended to the river. On my right rose the bluffs where the park is located. The charming Sacred Heart Catholic Church shone like a jewel halfway up the hill. This building was moved here in 1983 from Rodney, another victim of the Mississippi, a port town whose history parallels that of Grand Gulf, except that its demise occurred because the river moved away from the town.

Ft. Wade is located on the north side of the park. Behind it sits the Spanish House which miraculously survived the war. Uphill beyond the house is the old cemetery, most graves dating to the 1800s. Wisely, the townspeople buried their dead on top of the bluffs. Otherwise, the cemetery would have suffered the same fate as the town.

After touring the park and spending the night, I asked the museum staff exactly where the town had been. “Down the road about a mile, near Ft. Coburn.” The lady shook her head.  “There’s nothing left.”

Expecting just that, to my surprise I found, certainly not a bustling town of 1000, but a community that refuses to die.

An old store building still stands. Grand Gulf Business DistrictEmpty paved streets lead to an ancient, falling-down church. DSCF7557The road continues uphill past Ft. Coburn and a few modern (occupied!) houses.

But the amazing thing is, between the paved road and the river are at least a dozen mobile homes and a handful of campers. And I never saw the like—the house trailers were set on stilts! Many had screened porches. The SmithsOne sported a sign declaring, “The Smiths—Soul survivors of the flood of 2011.” The trailer of a neighbor, whose loss that year probably made him more gun-shy of the river than most, perched on two stories of metal supports.

So Grand Gulf is not inhabited solely by ghosts. It has been rebuilt, destroyed, and rebuilt again. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Gorilla still has unfinished business with this town.

What makes people so stubbornly defy fate and the elements? Some day I will go back and ask the residents why they insist on living here. But I expect no better answer than I’d get from a homeowner who builds on the other side of the creek, when it would be less trouble to build elsewhere.

 

For more about Grand Gulf, visit:

http://www.grandgulfpark.state.ms.us/

http://www.legendsofamerica.com/ms-grandgulf.html

 

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