Monday, September 24, 2012
Learning About Home
I grew up on a farm, land owned by my family since the 1840s, in Sugar Creek township, Walworth county, Wisconsin. The nearest community, perhaps a mile away, was Millard, formerly known as Barkers Corners, but renamed for Millard Fillmore in the 1850s. In its heyday, the place had a general store, a feed mill, a church, a school, a cheese factory/town hall, a couple taverns, and a couple blacksmith shops. People socialized, had box lunches, ice cream socials, went to dances, played cards and had bowling and softball teams. People expected Millard to become a city, once the railroad came through. My great great grandfather, an immigrant from Ontario, who had about a thousand acres of land in wheat production and a couple of mills, had high hopes for rail coming through, but died disappointed that the trains took another route, bypassing the hamlet. Through generations sons sold off their acres, until my dad had 120 acres and a dairy operation when I lived at home. After he died most of that land was sold, and now my brother lives on a couple acres, all that remains.
When I was small the general store was run by Ed and Vera Bray, nice people. Vera gave my very first bag of corn chips, a special treat. In the 1950s the store no longer was a post office, but people stopped there all the time for gas from the single pump, groceries, or other sundries like school supplies, comic books, small toys, kitchen utensils, or even blue jeans. I got into big trouble once when I was about ten when I rode my bicycle to the store because I wanted an frozen orange, but I neglected to let my parents know where I was headed.
Today there are no blacksmith shops, though there is a little machine shop. The old feed mill burned in 1959, and was rebuilt down the road. The elementary school closed when rural schools consolidated in the late 1950s, and is now a private home. The general store is a taxidermy shop, and little museum of dinosaur bones. A hand lettered sign on the door says it is open weekends from 10 a.m. until 5, but I've stopped twice and never found open. Some of the houses have burned down, or been torn down, and others are for sale. The church is doing fine - I recently stopped by for the funeral of the organist who had been there when I sang in the church choir in high school. She had been playing church music for 80 years. I wanted to pay my respects, and I couldn't resist the luncheon the church ladies put on afterward.
My family, great grandparents, grandparents, great aunts and uncles, parents, sister all all buried in the little cemetery, and I have walked the rows of stones since I was a toddler, since my mother always cleaned and decorated family graves. Since she is gone, I visit at least twice a year, to set out silk flowers in the spring, and later in fall to pick them up again. It's a quiet place, a little overgrown, surrounded by farm fields. This year I was inspired to go a step further that just tending my family lots.. I decided to make sure that all the burials, especially the oldest ones, are posted on the internet (Find a Grave.Com) for people who are interested in local history and family genealogy.
The stories the names and dates suggest fill my mind with questions. Why were so many of the earliest settlers in Sugar Creek from Canada? I expected many of them to be from New England, from Norway and Germany, but not so many from Nova Scotia. What happened in the family who left behind three daughters, one dying each year for three years? What happened in the family who sent two sons to the Civil war, had a new baby the next year after one of their soldier sons died, only to have the infant die as well? Why are there so many single women, buried alone? What happened to Nancy Tinker, the women whose stone I loved best when I was a child, but is nowhere to be found any more. I was surprised, though I supposed I shouldn't have been, to see how hopelessly intertwined by marriage the biggest family groups are. Many local people have the same last names even now, and I suddenly had some insight into why my parents knew everyone and their family histories. I'm just figuring it out, a little, now.