Thursday, January 24, 2019

The Ecology of Memory and Apricot Dreams

Most of the area in question from a 1906 map.  Springer is on the right.  El Monte crosses the center and O'Keefe Lane (nee Josefa) branches off to the left.  Covington did not exist and the yellow portion was owned by Sarah Winchester who sold it to Los Altos for their downtown.

By Bob Ferris

Memories are a funny thing.  I, for instance, have trouble remembering Elijah Wood's name and differentiating between Sam Shepard and Sam Elliott.  Many of us wrestle with lapses like this.  But I do remember the first time that I heard the word "ecology" in the mid-1960s when I was twelve going on thirteen.  It came in the form of a rebuke: Don't they teach you about ecology in school?  And it came from the mouth of a man named E.G. Kern.  A large round-faced German guy.

I later studied ecology in college and co-taught this subject in graduate school.   I have given guest lectures on this and related topics at universities on both coasts.  So, in retrospect, this seed planted by E.G. , or OK as he was also known, is important to who I became and what I am now.  I am thinking about E.G. because I don't know or remember that much about him and that bothers me.  And with the marching of time, in general, and my older brother Bill who knew Mr. Kern better and longer passing away this fall, the door to my knowing is closing.  There is only a small crack where some light flows through.

My family in 1959.

When I tell people I grew up in Los Altos I generally get a city-boy stamp because of the developmental explosion of Silicon Valley.  This strikes me as humorous as my older brother and sister often roamed our now densely settled former neighborhood with bows and arrows shooting apricots out of trees and wandering wild when they could.  I was not anymore subdued and remember dirt clod and BB-gun wars as well as romps in Hale Creek and more than a few episodes when I would come home a little bloody only to start crying when my mother opened the door to let me know how badly hurt I was.  Certainly we lived on a city lot but this was a base rather than something that defined our total home range.

The French ormolu clock that my great-aunt Mary Morris Phelps gave my mother and then me came to us in a well constructed box delivered by train to the Los Altos train station. 

This was in a time before Foothill College, 280, and the Foothill Expressway.  Before Mayfield Mall came and went and when Sears was the place to buy Craftsman tools that lasted a lifetime.  During my youngest years the wreckage of what was San Francisco before the 1906 earthquake rested safe beneath the protection of sturdy, creosoted ties and operating railroad tracks that ran to a station that awaited passengers and freight in downtown Los Altos rather than the next iteration of a restaurant or some other enterprise.  Whitecliff Market was operating and Clint's with its peppermint stick ice cream made after Christmas with crushed candy canes.  It is also a time mostly populated by those now gone.  So I triangulate and speculate with the help of my nearly 98 year-old mother and my older sister Caroline.  And this story starts with eggs and apricots.
"--his first home was a cottage on the E.G. Kern chicken farm at the end of O'Keefe Lane."  in The Passing of a Los Altos Legend: Co-Founder David MacKenzie Gave Local Community its Voice
E.G. Kern was our egg man in the 1950s and 1960s.  We had a box where my mother would put money and Mrs. Kern would deliver our eggs never speaking or holding a conversation with customers.  My mother thought she had little or no English.  We also had a milk man named Gene and he was a little bit more gregarious when he brought us our Borden's.

We lived at the corner of Springer and Covington (nee Emerson) in the house with the Rancho sign.  E.G., Mrs. Kern and Natasha, a Russian refuge rescued by Mrs. Kern, lived at the end of O'Keefe Lane in Los Altos Hills.  I know this location from the sole electronic evidence I could find that an E.G. Kern ever existed which was an obituary for one of the co-founders of the Los Altos Town Crier, David MacKenzie.  Mr. MacKenzie lived in a cottage on Mr. Kern's land that was also the site of the iconic oak tree which inspired MacKenzie's long-running "Under the Oak" column.

David Yule and me in 1958
My mother traces our deepening and more personal relationship with Mr. Kern to 1960 when Helen Yule our neighbor around on Riverside Drive talked to my mom about OK having trouble locating workers to harvest his apricots.  Mom being a mom of the time volunteered her kids and then went off to recruit others in the neighborhood including some of the Yule children and the oldest Martin family offspring, Galen.  The Martins had been our neighbors in Palo Alto in the late 1940s before our family moved to Los Altos just before I was born in 1952.  The Yules and Martins were what I would call shadow or parallel families in that there seemed to be a post-WWII, baby-boom reproductive synchronicity at play that paired members in my family with those in theirs.

We descended on the orchard along with Diane Nelson and Tris Rosenburger from across the street and John Millar from next door on Springer.  We know it was 1960 not because we remember the date, but because of a bit of auditory annoyance.  Mr. Kern had attached a transistor radio to the electric fence near the cutting tables.  So while the boys picked and dumped galvanized buckets of apricots into wooden lug boxes, the girls and me, because at seven I was too small for the three-legged orchard ladders, sat at the tables, cut cots, and listened to music.  It was the summer of a certain swimsuit song and according to my mother it played, and played, and played.   This was also the year of the payola scandals that involved Dick Clark, so there you go.

I had to look for pictures of wooden lug boxes like the ones we used.  Large enough to hold some fruit but rigid enough so the cots would not be bruised or crushed when the lugs were stacked.  Indentations on the end for finger grips.
Beyond the above recollections things get a little murkier.  All three of us remember Mr. Kern as being large, florid-faced, khaki-shirted, and highly educated.  I remember his WWII surplus jeep too as I was the one who had to jump out and twist the hubs putting us in 4-wheel drive when the road got rough.  My sister and I remember something about Heidelberg University and thinking he had a Ph.D. and possibly lectured for a time at Stanford.  And my mother told me she recalled Mr. Kern telling her of his trip across the US working at a steel mill once and harvests of corn and hay. 

The other misty memory is that E.G. was married to a German countess and when she arrived at the Los Altos train station she was dressed in finery and furs.  She was so elegant, in fact, that E.G. considered just turning around and leaving her there as he was so embarrassed about his happenstance and could not imagine taking this woman dressed as she was to his chicken farm.  She came and worked side-by-side with him until her death.   I have no memory of her.

The next few years are blurred for me.  I grew and I remember cutting more cots and eventually being able to manage the heavy wooden ladders and picking--perhaps at ten or eleven.  I also recall with a little bit of dread the ivy covered outhouse on O'Keefe where the black widows lived.  I would stand but not sit.  I recollect a Bavarian cuckoo clock, beer steins, and lived a little in fear of Natasha who was rumored to have chased a woman off the property with an axe because that woman had the temerity to show a romantic interest in Mr. Kern.  Natasha wore bandanas and had gypsy kind of look.  She rarely spoke with me and she was fiercely loyal to the memory of the Countess who gave her a home after her tribulations in Russia.  My impression was that Natasha was institutionalized occasionally but neither my mother or older sister remember that.

The first tape measure from the first tool box my father ever bought me.  
My next clear memory has to do with biking.  My father bought me a J.C. Higgins three-speed bicycle at Sears.  I promptly pedaled that bike to Frost Amphitheater at Stanford and rode it from the rim to the stage down the stair-stepping seating.  The bike made it home but it was never the same.  About the same time some boys, I think it was a trio, rode bikes from Los Altos to Santa Barbara and back.  To me as this point that was the functional equivalent of a Mt. Everest climb.  I know that one of the boys was Art Yule and the other two could have been his brother Gordon and Joe Tyburczy.  I remember Art because on his return he chose to sell his Royce Union ten-speed with a Campagnolo derailleur for fifty dollars.  I wanted that red and silver bike which was one of the first ten-speeds in our neighborhood.

My father told me that I would have to earn the money myself for this new bike which brought be back to Mr. Kern and odd jobs at the chicken ranch and in the orchard.  I shoveled chicken manure and cleaned stalls often stalked by Natasha's cats that were more wild than tame.  There seemed to be hundreds of cats and I often found the little nests they made in the barn as the cats produced more and more.  Luckily my father (or mother) advanced me the money so that I could ride the Royce Union the roughly two miles to work which seemed like an expedition.  I kept that bike for nearly two decades.

Mr. Kern had another property in Corralitos near Watsonville.  It was an apple orchard surrounded by forests which he called Laugh-a-Lot.  When I was twelve Bob Climo and I went to work for a period at Laugh-a-Lot staying in a primitive one-room cabin near the orchards.  Part of our job was to break up packrat nests near the trees.  It was an adventure and I was armed with older brother's Benjamin pellet rifle.  It was pump model and shot .22 caliber pellets until we ran out of ammunition and eventually tried to make our own out pebbles, sticks, and even pepper which unfortunately ended up in my friend's face (he got me back when a firecracker blew up in my face two years later).  We were generally boys on the loose and that is when Mr. Kern talked to me ecology, which was a little before my father talked to me about jamming the barrel of that pellet rifle with wood so completely that my father had to make a drill out of brass welding rod to bore it out.  The former lesson stuck with me longer than the latter as I still do stupid things occasionally.

My brother was fifteen that first summer of the apricots and twenty-one when I camped out with Bob at Laugh-a-Lot.  My brother took German in high school and college; I assume largely because of Mr. Kern.  His memories were probably deeper and broader, but they are gone.  I never knew OK's first name or that of his wife or possible later partner who joined him in Corralitos after Natasha was gone.  I don't know for sure what he studied at Heidelberg or when.

Stories were told by OK and Natasha while we were cutting cots.  My older sister Caroline was too young and likely too distracted by a crush she had on John Millar to remember or appreciate the tales.  It was old people talking in often hard to understand accents.  My mother remembers some of what was told but was probably more focused on making sure I did not eat too many apricots, cut myself with the wooden handled paring knives, and keeping my younger sister Mary, who was four, out of trouble.  We held all of this in our hands and let it drift away.

This could have been the end of it.  In doing my research I contacted former anchorperson and Los Altos High School classmate Robin Chapman who wrote a book on apricots and blogs about Los Altos and the region.  She was not aware of E.G., but knew our house.  I also contacted Judy Malmin who runs a Facebook page and website dedicated to Corralitos History.  I thought that she might know about Laugh-a-Lot and Henry.  Judy found a Kern farm but not the right one.  Judy also did a census search for 1930 and found Emil G. and Hildegard Kern. She did the same for 1940 and then it was off to the races. (Thank you, Judy!)

Once I had a first name for E.G. I got beyond the exempli gratia (i.e., e.g.) confusion of his initials and eventually ended up with the above gem.  This is E.G.'s draft card from WWII.  He was 44 at the time and missed being in the so-called Old Man's Draft by less than a year.  When I saw this card it took my breath away, because I was also born on September 26th...but not in 1897 nor in Kirchheim unter Teck, Germany.

Into the wee hours I looked at census records, old phone books, immigration records, and social security information and here is what I found in addition to the information in his draft card.  Emil came to the US in 1924 and by 1926, when Hildegard arrived and they were married, the couple called Los Altos and O'Keefe Lane (Avenue), specifically, their home.  They were not citizens in 1930 but were by 1940.  I do not know if this was the natural course of things or in response to events brewing in Germany.  E.G. was listed as a farmer in all documents and Hildegard as a his wife (the above is from 1940 census). 

Of his life and how they met or courted there is not much.  He was of an age to have served in WWI.  He never mentioned it, but that is not uncommon for veterans.  He was around 27 when he came to the US and the education section of his 1940s census record (above) seems to indicate that he went to college and perhaps graduate school so that seems to agree with our impressions.  (The "no" refers to school or college in 1940 see instructions).  Emil was 29 and Hildegard 28 when they married for their first and last time.  And I cannot find any record of children, but the couple collected people like Natasha and Henry.  My brother and I might be on that list as well.

I could not find a maiden name for Hildegard but suspect that she very well could have been a countess and was "von" something or another.  Being noble had some meaning in Germany during the early 1900s but not much after 1919 when the privileges of German nobility were removed.  She went to college for at least one year.  I could not find when or where she died but suspect it was in the late 1950s.

Emil Gustav Kern breathed his last on November 28, 1973 in Santa Cruz two months after his 76th birthday.  By that time my parents had moved from the Covington house to Los Altos Hills and would leave there in a couple of years.  My brother was in the Navy and my sister Caroline was married and had just returned to the area.  I was in college at Oregon State and my sister Mary was in her last year at Chester F. Awalt High School (now Mountain View) and had just been crowned homecoming queen (she is in the yellow dress in the above video).   My point is that we had all moved on from apricots and lug boxes.  We would not collectively return to Los Altos and sleep in one house for something like forty years and then we did that missing two family members--my father and brother.

The last picture of my entire family in 2014.

No one wrote an obituary for Mr. Kern or Hildegard that I can find.  My mother seems to think he was with another woman during his last days, but I could find no record of that.  I think this an egregious oversight, but then I remember my brother's love of German, my pursuit of ecology, and that this piece might serve as an obituary of sorts.   Auf wiedersehen, Herr Kern.

Monday, October 1, 2018

The Sadness of Tumbleweeds

By Bob Ferris

Tides ebb and flow.  A little more than three years ago there were four males in my line with the last name Ferris and now with the recent passing of my older brother William Ramsay Ferris Jr. there is just one: Me.  I am wrestling with how I feel about this and it is more complicated than simple loss.

From 2014 with my father and brother in the last photo of all three of us.
Certainly all of these passings in relatively quick succession have affected me and that is not helped any by a political and climatic landscape we now find ourselves in that speaks more of end-of-times than vibrancy and optimism.   The processing of this grief is not ameliorated at all while sucking wildfire smoke, watching dismal weather radars, combating Russian bots, and witnessing the potential collapse of the New World enterprise that our collective family has fought for and then served in various capacities for nearly four hundred years.

My father, uncle, brother, and I were dropped from similar genetic molds, but we differed in beliefs, experience, education, and interests.  We did hunt and fish together and we four also held tight to history and family both current and long past, but we were literally and figuratively all over the map.

We were all also named for those in our Morris and Ramsay lines which adds another onion skin to this complex, because my older brother was also the keeper of much in terms of family history and memorabilia.  This will come to me and I have no children myself and limited space in my retirement downsizing to accommodate walls, bookshelves, file cabinets, or other functional equivalents of family museums.

The garage office I am building for writing and perhaps processing what material might come.
While I am anxious to get the genealogical materials assembled by my grandmother Edna Robb Settles, I fear that some of the other materials will be much more like the links in Jacob Marley's chains.  So blessings and burdens both.  It makes me feel a little like a farmer who no longer has a farm, but will soon have bags and bags of seeds some of which are a couple of hundred years old.  This farmer challenge is exacerbated by the fact that most who care about farming in this sense are old like me and also have their own seeds.  And the younger ones seem to care little about farming.

There are reasons why these roots mean less.  For instance, my father and uncle were born in New York state, my brother in Florida, and I started life in California yet my father passed in Annapolis, my uncle in Atlanta, and my brother in San Jose while I now live in Eugene.  Yes, my two sisters and my mother live in Maryland and Virginia near where many of our lineages landed in the 1600's, but all three of them where born in California.  Moreover, my wife and I have lived in Eugene for six years but we have moved seven times in our nearly fifteen years of life together.  In short, we were once a family of trees that now more resemble tumbleweeds.

I bemoan the fact that my nieces and nephews seem to care little about things genealogical or family history, but I suspect that it is hard to truly appreciate family trees and roots when we are rarely anchored to a hometown and are so constantly moving.  I loved my grandfather and father, but it has been more than forty years since I visited my grandfather's grave in Palo Alto and I have only visited my father's once since his ashes were placed in Arlington.  Neither neglect springs from apathy or paucity of feeling, I think of both most days.  But tumbleweeds tumble...sadly.

Me walking in the Warren, Vermont 4th of July parade with some of my "children" and the Ferris Wheel they built.  
But all is not sadness for as tumbleweeds tumble they drop seeds.  I recall sitting with a group of interns at an informal gathering in a past professional incarnation when one of them asked me whether I had any children.  When I answered that I did not she countered claiming that they were actually all my children.  It was a nice thought and I think that I will work to embrace it as I process the pile before me and that which age and circumstance has brought to us all.   

Thursday, August 16, 2018

But I Already Bought the Hat and T Shirt...

By Bob Ferris

My wife, mother, sister and I took a trip nearly two years ago to New Harmony, Indiana (see here) from my mother's home in Annapolis, Maryland.  Along the way we stopped by the Buffalo Trace Distillery and bought a hat and t-shirt because the establishment was founded by Taylors who we thought were our Taylors.  I even made the above Facebook/Instagram post that was "liked" by the Buffalo Trace folks.  Turns out we were wrong.  We were the unwitting victims of hopeful genealogy, coincidence, and assumption.  I am not pointing fingers here only trying to get the story straight.

Minerva Jane Taylor born 1816
It all started with James Taylor (father of Minerva Jane above) and mistakingly linking him to William Gibson Taylor or Big Foot Bill as he was known in those parts of Kentucky which brought us to the lineage that includes Zachary Taylor.  Solid, well-documented lines going forward and back from there.  Cool and exciting but not true.  The confounding problem being that this is the way it is listed in several sources except that was done with no evidence that this Taylor ever had a son named James.  Yet this was an easy assumption as James is a very common name in that line.   But nope not our folks or kin as they would say in Kentucky.  So onward we go. 

John Prine has an iconic song called Paradise (above) where he sings about coal, Mr. Peabody, and Muhlenburg County in Kentucky.  I have used it as an anthem in my fights with the coal industry and it turns out that is where the answer was found.  Part of our challenge in finding our James Taylor, aside from his name being common and that Fire and Rain singer guy confusing things, is that we were looking in and around Bardstown in present-day Nelson County, Kentucky.  Here there were hints and wisps but nothing that absolutely supported or knocked this false lineage out of the running. So it lived on in the limbo of enough hope and mystery to keep it breathing.

We did know some information.  James Taylor was a name in a family Bible.  There was a story of him being a cultured gentleman from Virginia.  We knew that James married Susannah James (also making searches complicated) and that she was the daughter of Samuel James and Francis "Frankie" Randolph who was born in Manassas, Virginia.  This was a second marriage for Frankie who was married first to her cousin Thompson Randolph not to be confused with her brother Thompson or her son Thompson (all of which were frequently called Thomas).

All of this swirled in confusion until I found the kernel above.  I say "kernel" because much of the upstream and downstream from this is faulty or incomplete.  Once we had Jacob and Mary things started to fall in place.  What if Jacob was the gentleman from Virginia rather than James?  Gibson County is near to Posey County and New Harmony.  So I tracked Jacob from Virginia to North Carolina where he married Mary Wilkins, probably fought in the waning years of the Revolution, and by 1790 was the head of a household that had one male over 16 (him), four males under 16, and five females of all ages.  That meant James Taylor was born in North Carolina and was possibly a twin with Hannah.

But back to Muhlenburg.  An 1810 census of Muhlenburg County has James and Jacob Taylor as well as a John Taylor.  That is helpful but this population count also includes Samuel James, four Randolphs that match with Frankie's siblings, and five people named Wilkins (Mary Taylor's maiden name).  It also contains Jesse Reno and two others from his clan.  Why is Jesse important?  Mr. Reno is important because when Samuel married Frankie on May 30, 1793 in Allegany County, Maryland it was a double ceremony including Frankie's niece Elizabeth "Prudence" Randolph who married Jesse.  Bingo.

Muhlenburg County also has records that link all these names including the Kinchloes who come into play below.  These records include land sales from both Jacob Taylor and his son (see entries for McIlvain and James Taylor) which pegs their move north to Indiana sometime between 1810 and 1814.  All this takes us to Minerva Jane Taylor who married Thomas Robb and then we enter the land where we have gravestones, a rich history, and photographs for nearly the all of the players directly to my mother Mary Robb Settles Ferris.  All mysteries relatively solved except for a lingering set that are all named Thompson Randolph.

Where to start?  To begin with Virginia genealogy in the beginning of the 18th century is complicated because there were not a whole lot of surnames and they tended to use first names repeatedly often using them multiple times in the same family and generation.  And sometimes last names were used as first names.  Common names in this clump of Virginians were Randolph, Osborne, Bland, and Thompson.  In this somewhere is also a connection to the Kincheloe's who were related to the Randolphs and/or Osbornes either by blood or marriage and served as the guardians for some Randolph children, possibly Frances for a time.

Which takes us to Kincheloe Fort or Station (near Bardstown) in 1782 and Thompson Randolph (born 1746) the brother who is in Kentucky with the Kincheloes, his wife Ann Bayliss with their young child, and cousin Osborne Bland.    The fort was attacked by Indians and Ann was killed and so was Osborne but Thompson escaped with his young child William Bayliss Randolph (who was eventually active in the Underground Railroad).  Accounts of this vary but in all this Thompson and his son lived (1,2,3).  According to the above this Thompson later married Hannah Taylor sister of James Taylor in 1802.  This seems unlikely as she would have been around 17 at the time and this Thompson would have been 56.  The more likely candidate is Thompson Junior from the husband Thompson and Frances who would have been 16 or so.  This latter situation is the one favored by my grandmother Edna Robb Settles.  Phew.

But what about the husband Thompson?   This is where the site provides help and confusion.  If we accept that the Thompson Randolph who married Hannah Taylor is the son of Frances' first husband Thompson Randolph (which works if son was born in 1786) then cutting out the obvious mistake with spouse Elizabeth Taylor who was born after the subject died so not his wife then we are left with the mystery of "Tuckahoe" as in Thomas Randolph of Tuckahoe Plantation and one-time home of a young Thomas Jefferson.  But Frances is related to the Manassas Randolphs and not those of Tuckahoe.  Which raises the issue of sorting out the various Randolphs of Virginia and many people much smarter than me have been trying to do that for centuries and I have to finish putting a new floor in my bathroom. 

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

The Day Horror Met Hoodoo on the Columbia

By Bob Ferris

I have lived in the Pacific Northwest for nearly a decade now which made Major Samuel Canby's grave in Vancouver, Washington a curiosity to me.  How did a Brandywine-born Quaker with a Viking last name end his days across the continent in Washington State just days before his 60th birthday?  My interest was also piqued because while I knew quite a bit about all my other ancestors in this generation, I knew next to nothing about Samuel other than his birthplace and where he breathed his last.  It was a mystery, so I dug and found the below which only made it even more mysterious...and tragic too.

July 24, 1897 from here.
Samuel Canby was my great-great-grandfather and he was born in 1837 into a prominent family of millers in the Wilmington, Delaware area.   The Canbys along with the Tatnalls and Prices were big doings in Wilmington and young Samuel carried within him the blood of all three families.  Though identified as Samuel Jr. on many documents his father's name was Edmund so I believe that the junior was added so he was not confused with his uncle of the same name.

Samuel Junior served in the Union Army during the American Civil War joining less than two weeks after the attack on Fort Sumter.  When you look at his service record you find that young Samuel enlisted at 23 as a sergeant in a New Jersey regiment but soon found himself in units associated with his native Delaware (above).  It was during his switch between state affiliations that he married Rebecca Tilghman Johnston in December of 1861 and then he went to war in earnest.

Depiction of Union charge at Gettysburg
Saying that he served seems like such a simple statement, but I suspect that it is like claiming an atom bomb is just another loud bang.  The newly-married Samuel was at the battles of Shiloh, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Franklin, and Nashville.  He was wounded at Gettysburg and by age 28 he was a major.   He left the Army in 1868 and by then he and Rebecca had three children.  He had as they said at the time "seen the elephant."

Now I have not been able to find much on-line about Samuel and Rebecca for the period between 1868 to 1894 when Samuel seemed to appear sans Rebecca in Vancouver joining his younger brother Edmund.  Certainly Samuel and Rebecca were together and still having children until their last, William Poyntell Canby, was born in 1879.  And they were listed in an 1880 census in Delaware with Samuel's profession given as Civil Engineer--the same as my great-grandfather, William Gouverneur Ramsay, and my father, William Ramsay Ferris, who were both majors too. 

Samuel's profession explains, in part, why he would find himself manager of the nine-year-old Vancouver, Klickitat, and Yakima Railroad.   The other part was that the railroad was founded by his brother Edmund and others associated with the then extant First National Bank of Vancouver.  Hard to say the deciding factor in his hiring and it could have been a chicken and egg situation.  But we do know on that fateful day in July, Samuel was seen off in good spirits by his brothers Edmund and Col. James Price Canby and not by Rebecca who remained in Wilmington.  And this is where the hoodoo enters.

The stern-wheeled steamer Mascot.
The steamer Mascot was built in 1890.  Fast and long-lived for an all-wooden boat (21 years), the Mascot ran a strenuous route from the Lewis River in Washington to Portland, Oregon and points on the Willamette River six days a week starting at 5 AM.  This was a profitable run but the boat seemed plagued with miss-haps including three sinkings, several deaths (two by suicide), and the fire in 1911 that finally ended its service.  For these incidences, rightfully or wrongly, the steamer was labeled as a "hoodoo" or jinxed ship

 It was from this "hoodoo" that the troubled Samuel jumped into the Columbia River after throwing his coat on the deck and tossing his hat towards the boiler room doors 121 years ago today.  No one knows but Samuel what was running through his mind as he stood on the rail before launching himself for his last swim, and there is much we do not know about his life and condition at that time, but I cannot think that what he experienced at battlefields like Shiloh and Gettysburg was not somehow involved in the calculus of it all.  Those war days had to have left a mark beyond whatever physical scar he carried from his wounding.

Here is a key written from the perspective of one of the Ramsay girls children of Caroline (Lena) Johnston Canby.  

Some in my family and elsewhere will likely be offended some by this post and see it as a familial stigma that I have exposed to the world.   I do not see it thus but rather a cautionary tale about looking after our loved ones and keeping them from harm as well as a larger story about the value of maintaining peace and the dangers of war.  And it is not necessarily a totally unhappy spinning either as Samuel and Rebecca in spite of this inner storm and consequence produced a pile of Canbys (some above).

I do not know for certain whether or not my lack of knowledge about Samuel was a direct result of how he ended his life, but I suspect it contributed.  We are a family of great men and strong women that seems to respect courage and toughness foremost with not much room allowed those who are born vulnerable or damaged while trying to live up to this ideal.   I would think that a heightened awareness and openness on this topic of suicide could probably prevent some of these occurrences as well as help ease the pain for those left behind when they do happen.

George Britton Compton

Samuel's great-grandson George Compton (above), who we all knew in our household as Uncle George, committed suicide when I was about seven or eight just before his 40th birthday.  To this day there still seems confusion about the root causes of that happenstance but I do not think that people asked adequate questions nor watched him closely enough at the time.  This is also one of the reasons I never met my own grandfather Van Wyck Ferris who left this world similarly.  Perhaps we would do better by Samuel, Van, George, and others not mentioned by employing a different approach that celebrated their victories, recognized and accepted their challenges, and did not ostracize them for the way they passed.    It is something to think about.


I believe my late father once identified the young girl at the far left in the Canby photo as Caroline Johnston Canby Ramsay and one of the young boys at the right as Uncle Poynt (William Poyntell Canby) which would date this to the mid to late 1880s.  I suspect that one of the children is also the artist Ethel Canby Peets who was two years older then Poynt.  I do not know, but if others do, please let me know.  The story and picture haunts me.  (Cousin Wyn Evans was kind enough to provide a key above.)

Saturday, June 30, 2018

For the Revolutionary War Our Family Turned it Up Above Eleven and Now We Need More

By Bob Ferris

I have butted heads with the so-called "patriot" groups over the years on various matters relating to the US Constitution, conservation practices, and public lands.  One group in particular drives me crazy: The 3 Percenters.  This para-military group claims to be the voice of those 3% of Americans who served in militias during the American Revolution.  This number is a little specious both in terms of a measure of patriotism (i.e., militia members being more patriotic than those in the Continental Army) and gross numbers as overall participation in this conflict was something like 15 percent.  It made me wonder where our family came out in this number and what that means now and in the future.

The Revolutionary War started in earnest 243 years ago.  As male generations are on average 35 years long, or 15 years longer than female generations, that means we should be talking about males in the seven or eight generation or between 64-128 potential soldiers in the Revolution.   As we have at least 17 Revolutionary War combatants in our tree or 13-26 percent of our expected pool that means that we might have collectively served a little less or a lot more than the average population at 15 percent.

But it is more complicated than that.   For one thing, males had to be a certain age (16-55) during a certain window of time (1775-1783) so we might have had some who were alive during war, but too old or too young.  This said we also had instances where both father and son served such as Declaration Signer Lewis Morris and Lt. William Walton Morris (not to be confused with his son Gen. William Walton Morris who served in the Civil War).   And we had a few who were not in the country at this time such as Patrick Ramsay (Scotland), William Poyntell (England), and Joseph Gales Sr. (England), the latter my family's most recent immigrant (1790s). 

David Deschler

Joseph Tatnall
Benjamin Chew

Also mainly through my great-grandmother Caroline Johnston Canby Ramsay on my father's side, there is a strong Quaker connection.  Three of note were David Deschler, Joseph Tatnall, and Benjamin Chew.  Interestingly, all three hosted George Washington in their homes at times, but they dealt with their pacifism and the war in different manners.  David was perhaps the most involved providing supplies, money, and eventually serving as the Commissary of the Army in 1780.    David was also a man of principle supporting the Revolution, but also once defending a British officer who was traveling with his family from an angry crowd of militia members in Philadelphia.  Joseph Tatnall, a mill owner, also worked hard to keep the Continental Army in flour and had constant contact with Washington.  Benjamin Chew stuck to his material neutrality offering only legal advice to those serving in the Continental Congress and advocating for protest leading to a peaceful resolution rather than declaring independence.  While David and Joseph retained the full goodwill of their neighbors and new countrymen, Benjamin's road, because of his why-can't-we-all-be-friends approach, was rougher.

Those who served were old and young.  Though my mother has told me often of a little drummer lad in the family who went to war I have yet to discover that intrepid boy.  The youngest I have been able to find is Ensign John DePeyster Douw who joined at 19.  The oldest was Colonel Samuel Coit who led his Connecticut regiment for a year before being replaced at age 73.  They also came from nearly every colony so there was diversity in this regard if not in other areas.
"Mrs. Johnston died in that city, but we have no record of the date of her death or where interred."  In Some Pennsylvania Women during the War of the Revolution (1898 see here).
But what about the women?  The above quote says a lot about that issue.  The Mrs. Johnston in question was Alice Erwin Johnston wife of Colonel Francis Johnston and she broke with her Quaker community and worked hard to get food and supplies to soldiers during the war.  This was particularly true about Valley Forge where her husband served with Washington and another Francis (Chaffin) who died there of small pox even with the efforts of Alice and her allies.  Luckily, we actually do know where Alice was buried and then reburied, but even in a book dedicated to acknowledging the role of women in the Revolution details about women were omitted or overlooked.  Odd that.

This walk through history is interesting but how do we judge it and our collective role?  What does it mean for the future?  In essence, what is the point?  My sense is that revolution is much like soil tilling in that it gives a clean slate on which to grow dreams like those expressed by Gouverneur Morris in the Preamble.  Perhaps we should not be measured by the quality or quantity of our disturbance as I have documented above, but by the crops ultimately produced.   And even there my desire would be that we evaluate ourselves more by the flowers nourished and enabled rather than just in terms beets and broccoli.

Alexander Johnston Cassatt by Mary Cassatt.  Alexander helped his sister promote her art in the US.  They are both great-great grandchildren of Alexander Johnston who immigrated from Ireland and was father to Francis.  
Our families have a lot of these exceptional "flowers" growing from various branches.  I bumped into two, in addition to Alice Johnston, while writing this piece.  The first was the impressionist painter Mary Cassatt who called Colonel Francis Johnston great-great uncle.  I knew of her connection to the Johnston line but not of her brother's efforts on her behalf.  The other was Lillie Hitchcock Coit of San Francisco's Coit Tower fame who was married for a time to Benjamin Howard Coit great-great-great grandson of Colonel Samuel Coit.  In this in-laws count just as transplants do in a garden.

Illustration from one of Mary Lanman Douw's books.  The Rapelye (Rapalje) cradle was where Sarah Joris Rapalje was rocked after being born in the New Netherlands in 1625.  She was the first female child born in the new colony at Fort Orange (Albany).

In addition to a painter and fire-chasing, trouser-wearing philanthropist in our extended family we also have writers.  One such was Mary Lanman Douw who wrote much about history, genealogy, and the early Dutch experience in the New World.   Nina Chandler Murray is another author who penned a book about an epic family cruise to the Galapagos Islands.  I would also include Winifred Marshall Gales, the first female novelist in North Carolina, within this group too even though she was in England during the Revolution, because her public sympathy to this revolt and breaking away led to her and her husband Joseph Gales Sr. being chased out of England one step in front to the law.   The fact that the Gales entertained folks like Thomas Paine of Common Sense fame in their home and printed some of his material probably helped along this process of moving from liking the American stance to being American.

Award-winning teacher Lauren Bergland Rosenberg at work.

My grandmother Edna Dora Robb also was one of these flowers.  She wrote about her experiences in post-World War I Alaska in Field and Stream Magazine, but she is better known as a school teacher who as a single woman went to the relative wilds of Seward to teach before marrying my grandfather at the start of the Roaring Twenties.  And there are other teachers too like second cousins once removed Lauren Bergland Rosenberg (above) and Patty Lavarias who are both probably going to look at my grammar. 

In closing, I will say that we are living in dark times, but the strength, creativity, and sensibility of the women in our families and lines gives me hope.  I gain this feeling, because these women might be the ones who inspire or lead this next revolutionary adjustment or needed democratic booster shot.  Maybe they can do so in a better and more enlightened manner than our more recent forbearers did in the mid-1800s.  It might also be good time for those of us not women to model Alexander Cassatt by recognizing this talent, however different, and supporting it.

The above is something that we should think about this July 4th as we celebrate the work of our Founding Fathers and simultaneously mourn how far we have drifted away from our founding principles and the vision expressed in the US Constitution.  We need to return to protecting all within our country from the corrupting forces of a too-empowered elite, over-entitled corporate interests, and the dangerous re-emergence of the functional equivalent of a state church or religion.  We should recognize this trio for what they are: the catalysts for the original Revolution.  So enjoy the fireworks, but get your shoes ready to march on as the fife and drum are calling!

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Memorially Thinking about Cheating Death

My father and his "modified" P-40.  The sheep fleece lined boots in this picture remained in father's closet until his passing in 2015. 

By Bob Ferris

My greater family has often been described as being a military family.  My sense is that is mainly true as my ancestors have served in nearly all the wars, large and small, waged on this continent since stepping on Plymouth Rock nearly 400 years ago.  Some have been notable officers such as Colonel Benjamin Church (1,2) or William Walton Morris and George Douglas Ramsay, the pair of West Point classmates and Civil War generals whose children married four months after Appomattox (see below).  Others have been more humble like Privates John "KW" Waller and Samuel Canby who served in our fight for independence.

Ann Morris Ramsay and Lt. Colonel Joseph Gales Ramsay who married in August 1865 with their son Major William Gouverneur Ramsay who served during the Spanish American War.  The Major is my great-grandfather.

In point of fact my ancestors showed up.  An example of this is that I descend from at least eleven who served in the Revolutionary War.  What is remarkable about this collection of soldiers is that I can only find one who died during all these conflicts.  That was Corporal Francis Chaffin who died at Valley Forge of small pox.  The rest seemed to cheat death which brings me to my father who was a P-40 pilot in World War Two.

P-40s in training flight over Texas circa 1943. 

My father served in New Guinea during World War Two.  He did not talk much about his experiences until he was nearly a half-century removed from the experience.  But one story he told was about flying between palm trees and modifying his plane in the process (see photo at top).  His story in his words is below.

I have three thoughts after reading the above transcribed account.  The first is my father's pugnaciousness which he certain passed on to me in some manner.  It reminds me that he and I used to wrestle when I was in my early teens.  Fighter pilots are relatively small and he would still come at me even though I was three inches taller and nearly a sack-of-feed heavier.

Bill Ferris in wrestling garb in 1939.  Taken at Governor Dummer Academy in Byfield, Massachusetts. 

My second thought is the complexity of flying these fighters.  I was reminded of this while watching the sequences portraying British Spitfires in the movie Dunkirk which I thought did a good job of giving a glimpse of much that was involved (see clip below).  Having experienced the intensity of concentration required to fly these winged beasts my father was too often bored and therefore drowsy when driving.  When he was older and still driving one of us always seemed tasked with verbally nudging him on long trips when his concentration flagged and his head started to droop.

My last thought is likely the most important and relevant.  My father and all these other ancestors did not die during a war or in battle so Memorial Day is not truly their day.  I get that, but I would also argue that a part of anyone who endured these types of situations and cheats death dies.  My father was forever changed and often spoke about his post-war existence as time borrowed or something similar.  On this Memorial Weekend I will remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice like Francis Chaffin but also those who were forever changed by galloping alongside death.  

Friday, March 2, 2018

Uncle Pat

By Bob Ferris

I was cleaning out my book case this morning and was stalled by the above.  It is a self-published book written by my uncle Morris Patterson Ferris who recently passed.  My cousin Patty and I had made a side trip to see him, but he died before the wheels of my plane touched the tarmac in Atlanta. I got the news as I was settling into my hotel room.

My uncle was a writer.  He wrote nearly every day.  He wrote about his garden and his sweet potatoes.  He wrote about his dogs like Beaver.  He wrote about what he shot hunting, netted shrimping, or gigged floundering.  He wrote a lot and most of it was not sterling prose or exciting, but it was all pure Pat.  (For a recording of Uncle Pat telling stories and oral history visit here.)

"Ground Swell" by Edward Hopper (1939)

Uncle Pat and my father sailed in a 25-foot catboat from Long Island to South Carolina in 1938 right before a hurricane hit the southern coast and the world exploded in war.  He wrote about this trip (which always reminds me of the Edward Hooper painting Ground Swell above painted about the same time) and was frustrated because he could not get it published.  He sent it to me with an entreaty to help him edit the piece.  I read it and gave him what feedback I could given my other projects.  My sense was that it needed more context and commentary.  It needed some life blown in it.  The most interesting things about that trip could not have been my father constantly fixing the make-n-break, one-lunger that drove them in ports or how much they spent on their various purchases.  These were the things of day diaries, but not gripping sea stories.  Now I wished that I had spent more time with the Ferris brothers reconciling the two stories and adding the fabric of the tale where needed.

Bill and Pat riding a sleigh in New York.

And the Ferris boys, Bill and Pat, had adventures and tales that should have been told.  They both "ran away" to sea on a four-masted, timber schooner the Annie C. Ross and they both served in World War Two in the in the Army Air Corps and the other in the Coast Guard.  Though they were born in the north, they were formed, in part, as they roamed their grandmother's Cat Island Plantation near Georgetown, South Carolina where so many of us since spent time with the mosquitoes and gators while pursuing ducks and deer along with sipping Aunt Mary Morris' "home-made" corn whiskey.  Now they are both gone.

Screen shot of photo of someone walking the deck of the Annie C. Ross while under sail.

Both my father and uncle passed in their nineties with Pat making it closer to the hundred mark than my father who died just short of ninety-five.  They had full lives with big stories and small.  I cannot say that I ever had a meaningful discussion with my uncle about politics, science or religion let alone feelings or philosophy, but that is not to say we shared nothing.  We had experiences and memories.  We had those aplenty and my cousin Scott reminded me of that recently when he mentioned a time when the two of us found ourselves bootless and asked to join a deer drive on Cat Island.  Each of us stood at the side of the muddy roadway in loafers while Uncle Pat played dog.  All was quiet for a time and then the swampy forest was filled with crashing and Uncle Pat shouting "Owooo, Owooo, don't shoot boys it's your Uncle Pat.  Owooo."  Those of you who knew him will probably chuckle at this and understand that while my cousin and I tried to remain appropriately vigilant and maintain our hunter visages both of us were likely incapacitated by laughter.
My Brother-in-law Rob and I book-ended by my father and uncle after a hunt on Cat Island.