In 1946 the songwriting team of Charles Tobias and Nat Simon captured the hearts, and ears, of a post-war audience with their tune, The Old Lamp-Lighter. Band leader Sammy Kaye recorded the song, featuring vocals by Billy Williams, and the haunting melody hit the Billboard Best Sellers List by November. The Old Lamp-Lighter stayed on the charts for fourteen weeks, peaking at #1. Among Sammy and His Orchestra‘s many fans was fourteen year old Marilyn Minor, a young pianist and talented vocalist living in rural Greene County, Pennsylvania. Every Friday she traveled into nearby Waynesburg, to stay overnight with her Grandmother May Minor for her Saturday piano lesson. I imagine this young teen sitting at the bench, determined to parse out the arrangement’s rhythm of dotted eighth and sixteenth notes. And I wonder if her father, Donald, sang along, “He made the night a little brighter wherever he would go…”
Chasing family tales is what gets all genealogists hooked, and when we get help from previously unknown circles, it feels like Christmas. To receive such collaboration AT Christmastime is just too wonderful for words. I want to thank cousin, Linda Bell, for her holiday energy and sharing. Family lore has become another GREAT family story.
Every once in a while as I was growing up, Minor family reunions would include some reminiscing, and tantalizing bits of information would drift about. Like…Robert and May Laura Minor, my great-grandparents, had a home in Florida. Sometime. Somewhere. For some reason. Years passed. THEN came an email exchange between genea-cousins, which connected my memories and photos with her memories and documents, and whoosh!! we have a Christmas STORY!
It is December 23, in southwestern Pennsylvania, 1918. Two years have passed since President Woodrow Wilson signed the Federal Aid Road Act, the first comprehensive commitment to the establishment of a nationwide highway system. America has entered the age of the automobile, BUT would-be travelers have no AAA to call, no Kayak.com to click, no system of vacation organization whatever. America has 2.5 million miles of public roads, but only 11% are paved. Let’s go on a Christmas roadtrip! To Florida! By auto! SAY WHAT?
‘TWAS TWO DAYS BEFORE CHRISTMAS . . . .
And Robert and May, Donald (16), Helen (24) and Alonzo Bell, were headed out, off the farm! Onward to Florida! But first to cross the Monongahela River! As told by Helen Minor Bell, my great-grandaunt, the trek proved to be eventful.
On Dec. 23rd 1918, Father, mother, brother, my husband and myself left the farm for Florida by auto. On reaching Carmichaels, we learned we could not cross the river at Crucible as the river was so high, but they were still crossing at Masontown so went back to Masontown and crossed that was we did not strike a good road until we almost to Uniontown.
The first day we only got as far as Flintstone Md. A very small hotel and no conveniences whatever. Sec. day ate dinner at HamiltonHotel, Hagerstown, Md, stayed that night at Berkley Hotel Martinsburg, W. Va. Christmas Dinner Edinburgh Hotel at Edinburgh Va. and stayed at Beverly Hotel at Staunton Va. Here we saw Pres. Wilson’s birth-place, also the Staunton Military Academy. There, next day after Xmas had dinner at Natural Bridge Hotel, Natural B Va. Here the natural bridge was one of the wonders of the world.
The drive this after noon from Natural Bridge to Lynchburg was the most dangerous and very risky trip in any afternoon. Part of the way we followed a road just wide enough for the car along an old canal, finally we came to a place which seemed to us we were driving up to some ones barn yard, we thought this as far as the road went, but asked the woman and she said you’re on the right road go straight ahead. We drove on up around the barn among the cows and up a steep hill which looked like nothing more than a rocky trail this we kept up all afternoon crossing one ridge after another of the Blue Ridge Mts. Just one steady pull and only wide enough for the car, down below hundreds of feet was the James river and not more than a foot away from the edge at any time. When we had crossed several ridges we came to a creek which we had to ford and right in the middle of it the car stopped and we were there for at least 3/4 of an hr before we got the car started, then when the car started we were wedged in between two rocks and could not go forward or backwards.
This wonderful account ends abruptly, but it is enough to get my heart racing. I have wandered among the Blue Ridge back roads, which even today are not much more than a car and half wide. I can easily imagine the cliff-hugging view. I suppose once they got through that creek they figured they could do anything, and managed on, day after day, until they crossed the state line into Florida.
Which they did reach. So wonderful was the destination, that Robert purchased a home. In Orlando. And yet another family story begins.
Make sure you check out this google map of the 1918 Christmas Roadtrip.
Sheets of rain draped my house as I set about sorting a stack of old books. The family treasures frequently double as time capsules, their margin scribbles hinting at ancestors’ personalities and thoughts. Every so often a careful gleaning reveals tucked newspaper clippings, forgotten photographs and hidden notes. A Spanish American Life, my mother’s college reader, rewarded my page flipping with a postcard!
My grandfather, Donald Minor, mailed this note in mid-May, 1951, to arrange for my mother’s return from Houghton College at month’s end. The family schedule sounds remarkably similar to plans I made with my own college kids. And his observations of the weather could have been made on just this day:
“My how it rains — We don’t have thing in the garden and no corn ground plowed.”