My maternal grandfather died when I was just 3 years old. I have only the faintest memory of him, and it's likely those memories come more from old photos and home movies than anything else. I know the waves in my hair are his. I know he was a bombardier in the Pacific theater during World War II and also served in Korea. I remember being a teenager and slipping on his old leather bomber jacket in my grandmother’s attic and loving the way it felt and the smell of the leather. I know that he worked at Sears after he retired from the Air Force and I kind of believe I remember visiting him there as a kid (this website was built at the library across the street from that old Sears building). Visiting my grandmother's house growing up, I spent a lot of time in his workshop, building model cars and airplanes. I liked his tool collection and how everything seemed to have its place, and I always felt connected to him there. Outside of these few small tidbits though, I really only knew one thing about him and about that side of my family which was the name of his hometown: Dillonvale, Ohio.
I had been to Dillonvale once before, not long ago. My mother, stepfather and I were on one of our many adventures together and we found ourselves in Wheeling, West Virginia. When my mom told me that Dillonvale was really close by, we drove out to see it. It was nighttime and it was raining really hard and the road to get there was narrow and winding and dark. We made it there, though, and even somehow managed to find the old house my grandfather's sister had once lived in, which my mother remembered visiting when she was a child. Other than that, it seemed like an aging town without much of a future. When I went back to Ohio, I was determined to learn more not just about Dillonvale, but about who my grandfather's people were and where they came from. What I found there last week changed my whole identity and my whole understanding of who I am and where I came from.
When I picture Ohio in my head, I tend to think of corn fields and farmhouses and the not-so-exciting Ohio Turnpike which I got the joy of traveling end to end twice a year as a child on my way to visit my father’s family in Wisconsin. From the time I was old enough to consider it, I just inserted my grandfather into this image - on a farm somewhere with hay in his mouth, and I didn't think much more about it. As I travel now, I have a far more nuanced understanding that states are not monolithic entities, but rather vary greatly from end to end and top to bottom. Thus, when I pulled down the same windy road into Dillonvale, this time in broad daylight, I immediately understood that while it is in Ohio, it is also deep in Appalachia. When I started researching my local family history at the library, I found that their neighbors were mostly immigrants. One was a tailor, another a shopkeeper and many more were coal miners and laborers. Just understanding this basic idea of the landscape, culture and economy of the town my grandfather grew up in made so much more sense than the picture I had in my head. I have enjoyed my time in Appalachia immensely over the years and somewhere in the back of my mind it always felt comfortable to me in a way I didn't understand. Now I do understand because some part of me is from there too.
My grandfather grew up in Dillonvale and while I wandered around I tried to put what little I knew of him into the bigger picture. I know he was a Presbyterian, so I assume he went to the Presbyterian church in town every Sunday from the time he was little. After high school, he had been accepted into Divinity School at Georgetown University, so church was probably important to him and had probably had a strong influence on him as a child. I knew he was the son of a railroad engineer, so as I walked up and down the tracks in town I pictured him playing on them, waiting for his dad to come home. My grandfather left Ohio after high school, but returned at the outbreak of World War II and enlisted at Fort Hayes in Columbus. He was still in the Air Force when he met and married my grandmother. They moved around several times before eventually settling down in my grandmother's hometown (and mine), Washington D.C. Next to the Presbyterian church is Dillonvale's War Memorial. Almost every town in America has one, but none has ever reached me in the way this one did. I realized when I looked at the names of those young men from Dillonvale who never came home, that they were probably people my grandfather had known. They were boys he had gone to school with and maybe young men he had run off and enlisted with. These weren't just names on a rock, they were the names of my grandfather's friends.
Impressed with my memory from a dark and rainy night several years ago, I also managed to find the house his sister had lived in, and her cousin after her. It warmed my heart to see it well cared for by the current owners and with an Air Force flag out front. After getting the lay of the land, I made my way back to the library, where the two wonderful librarians helped me start to trace backwards from what little I knew about my family. I was very pleasantly surprised with what I found.
My great-grandfather Joseph died the year after my mother was born. As I mentioned, I knew he was a train engineer but that was all I knew about my grandfather's father. It turns out that he was a train engineer, on the Wheeling and Lake Erie Railroad (W&LE). He had worked his way up from a rail chipper in a steel yard to a fireman and finally to an engineer. His sister, Mary, worked as a warper in a silk mill. His father was a German born cigar maker and his mother was the daughter of German immigrants with the last name Bourkhouse. He was named after his maternal grandfather Joseph Bourkhouse, and had given his son, my grandfather, his middle name which is also my middle name. His parents met in Scranton, Pennsylvania where they lived before moving to Ohio. He had grown up in a house on Main Street in Dillonvale, and when he married they had moved onto Smithfield Street and finally over to Watson Street where they would stay and raise their family. I couldn't find the exact addresses, but later, as I walked down Watson Street, I knew that this was where my grandfather walked and ran and played and laughed and cried. I know that at some point on my walk, my footsteps were falling on the same ground his did almost a hundred years ago. It felt good to be there, and I felt somehow connected to that little street. I started wondering where and when my great-grandparents had met. It had to have been nearby.
My great-grandmother was born Winifred Irene Lynn in Mount Pleasant, the next town over from Dillonvale. Mount Pleasant was settled in 1803, the year Ohio became a state. It had a large Quaker population and was deeply anti-slavery. The abolitionist newspaper The Philanthropist was published in Mount Pleasant and it was a stopover on the Underground Railroad. There was a store in Mount Pleasant called The Free Produce Store which only sold produce which was not the product of slave labor. In other words, it was a pretty progressive place in the early 19th Century, where people had a strong sense of justice and a strong belief in freedom. I'm proud to have had relatives that lived there. These were my people. My great-grandmother's father was a coal miner, a teamster and a farmer and both of her parents were at least second generation Ohioans. One of her brothers, Charles, was already working in the coal mine at 15. The furthest back I could trace this side was my great-grandmother's grandfather William, who was born in Ohio in 1824. It's quite possible they may have been there when Ohio became a state in 1803. Wandering around Mount Pleasant, I found some beautiful old buildings and churches and a store which dated back to 1895. I imagine in such a small town some of my family must have at least gone into this store from time to time. When I stood in front of the glass, I felt like I was looking in a window that once caught their reflection on it as it was catching mine that day. Again, I felt an amazing sense of place.
Behind the Mount Pleasant Presbyterian Church is the Mount Pleasant Cemetery. As I walked the rows and looked out at the names, I again felt like many of these people were people my people would have known. It took a lot of looking and a lot of winding in and out of the tombstones, but finally, near the top of the hill, I found them. I found my great-grandparents' grave. There they were, the names of two people who just that morning had been complete strangers to me, but now I felt like I knew something about who they were and where they came from and what their lives had been like. As I approached their final resting place, high on a hill overlooking Appalachia, I broke down and cried. I think it's kind of strange to cry for no reason over people you never knew, but somehow in that moment, I felt like I did. I cleared the grass off from around their tombstone, and found an engraving of an old W&LE steam engine running across the top. I sat down with them and introduced myself. I told them about where I was from and how I was related to them and what I was doing and how I had come to find them there. I sat and talked for a while before I got up to go. I had hoped to find my great-great grandparents' grave as well, because I know it's there, but a storm was brewing and I didn't want to get caught out in it. So I said my good-byes and promised I'd be back to look in on them next time I'm around.
Heading back down to Dillonvale, I felt really good as the rain started to fall. I had seen a sign in front of the Presbyterian Church there for a "Peach Social" that night. I stopped in for peaches and ice cream and told the lady at the door who I was and what I had been doing all day. She brought me over and sat me down with two sweet ladies in their mid-nineties who had lived in town their whole lives. Their husbands had worked for the railroad and they knew my cousin who had only left town a dozen years earlier. It was amazing to find a living connection in town and they sure seemed happy to have the company. It was also nice to hear about the "good old days" in Dillonvale when it was a booming coal town and had far more to offer than it does today. I had been picturing my family in present-day Dillonvale all day, so it was nice to hear what it had been like when they had actually lived there. It sounds like it was a really nice place to live. That made me happy.
My last stop on my way out of town was the old rail station. These days it's pretty beat up and wasn't the easiest place to find, but it's a small town so I managed to track it down. I stood there in the rain and just stared at it. It was probably there that my great-great grandparents had arrived when they moved from Pennsylvania. The trains that pulled in there were probably the inspiration for my great grandfather's career. My grandfather probably walked over to greet his father there after work. It was also there that my grandfather probably caught the train to Columbus when he went off to enlist, making it the location where that side of my family arrived in and, two generations later, departed from Dillonvale.
The day I spent in Dillonvale and Mount Pleasant was a fascinating one. I learned so much more than I ever knew about where my family had lived and died and what their lives had been like in Appalachian Ohio. I found connections back to Pennsylvania and Germany, cigar makers and coal miners, farmers and railroad men, abolitionists and Ohio pioneers. I'm sure that many people are like me in that they don't think too far back beyond those family members whom they knew when they were alive. Despite the fact that I never met any of these people, it is still, in part, their blood that courses through my veins. And while I never even considered that where these people who I never met lived and died could possibly affect my own life, I sure felt like some pieces better fit into the puzzle having been there. I may have never had the opportunity to know my grandfather when he was alive, but having walked in his footsteps I feel like I know a whole lot more about him now.