Our dinner table in southwest Virginia was always full. Mother and Daddy at either end, us four kids seated two across from two on each side. In the center, sat two vegetables, a starch, a meat dish or casserole, to be passed to the left until all were served. At each place was a glass of milk and a small bowl of canned fruit, preferably fruit cocktail with maraschino cherries which had to be equitably divided among the four of us.
The highlight of every meal, though, was dessert. My mother was a terrific cook; her baked goods, however, were whole-other-level fantastic. Homemade cookies or brownies or cakes of all sorts were a daily staple of my childhood memories.
Among the recipes in my mother’s Recipe Accordion File was a hand-written page of directions from her sister’s mother-in-law, Cora Carroll of Waynesburg, Pennsylvania. This Texas Sheet Cake is one of the most sweet-tooth-satisfying cakes I have ever bitten into.
Try it. You’ll like it, I’m sure!
Texas Sheet Cake
Sift altogether in large bowl:
2 cups granulated sugar ½ teaspoon salt
2 cups all-purpose flour 1 t baking soda
Melt 2 sticks of margarine [or butter], 1 cup water, ¼ cup cocoa. Bring to a full rolling boil.
2 eggs (beaten) 1 teaspoon vanilla
½ cup buttermilk 1 Tablespoon vinegar
Add everything to large bowl. Mix lightly. Pour into greased jelly-roll pan (15 ½ x 10 ½ inch)
Bake 20 minutes at 400°.
Ice while warm with Chocolate Icing:
[Mix together] 1 pound confectioners’ sugar, 1 egg (beaten), ½ cup melted butter, 2 squares melted unsweetened chocolate, 1 teaspoon lemon juice. [spread over warm cake]
I transcribed the recipe as Cora wrote it out for my mother, baker to baker. I made sure to translate anything that seemed confusing, like measuring abbreviations, but other than that this is how the recipe was handed down.
I have another recipe for this cake from a 1980 edition of A Heritage of Good Tastes from Historic Alexandria, Virginia that uses a mix of shortening and butter instead of margarine in the cake. And in that version the Icing recipe substitutes 6 tablespoons of milk for the egg.
And you, my reader. Do you have variations of this Sheet Cake? What are your favorite childhood dessert memories?
I have not written much on this blog since my mother died. The daily exercise failed to distract my grieving brain.
Instead I hopped into a genealogical burrow and nosed around through its labyrinth of story lines, tumbling out in previously unknown family territory and time. The research begged for more than a cursory post. I drifted for a while, before I befriended a deadline, and realized how important these “time to stop writing” moments are in the process of developing a story, of finishing thoughts, of discovering what emotional responses to ancestral tales actually mean–to me, today. An article has been published in my local genealogical society’s newsletter. I drafted a 3000 word essay, that still sucks, but is the transformative story before the story, the first baby step in confronting my family’s legacy of enslaving.
Now I return to the blogger community, to embrace daily prompts, tiny deadlines. This community is my channel, the place where my stream of words can bounce up against the research rocks, and rush over and under branches of “what ifs” and “whys”, to sing the past into the present.
I have always been curious about the name of my 2nd great-grandfather, Francis Marion Minor. Neither Francis nor Marion makes an appearance among family tree leaves until his birth in 1828, a strange happenstance in an era that often confounds modern genealogists with its generation-lapping of names. So what’s up with John Pierson and Isabella McClelland Minor in 1828?
An area newspaper, the Washington Reporter (Washington, PA) carried the musings of a Mr. Sample on its front page in January 1825 about Brigadier General Francis Marion. The South Carolinian was known among American Revolution veterans as the Swamp Fox for his daring guerrilla tactics against the British forces occupying the southern coast. His movements against a superior force were credited with forcing the redcoats’ evacuation. And during the 1820s General Marion was still being remembered as a prominent revolutionary hero, comparable in intelligence, benevolence, and bravery to the illustrious General George Washington.
John and Isabella were raising their children where they had been raised, in Greene Township, Greene County, Pennsylvania, just outside the village of Garards Fort–an area developed by the revolutionary generation. As those community members aged, and began to die out, there was a heightened sense of that generation’s role in the country’s freedom and enfranchisement. To honor and commemorate the grit and determination of their predecessors, parents named their children for people they had never known but would always admire. And that is how I think my great-great-grandfather got his name–Francis Marion Minor (1828-1918).
I am currently enrolled in a MOOC, HIST1.1xThe Civil War and Reconstruction – 1850-1861, taught by respected historian, Eric Foner. Each week our online student body analyzes a primary resource, an activity I enjoy immensely. This week’s challenge was the above envelope. Who was the audience for this 1860s product? What message was it trying to convey? How did it reflect the symbolism and policies of the nascent Republican party?
so I posted:
Last year, when I took the course the first time, I am sure that I saw a clear appeal to the demographic that embraced free labor in an expanding country. Now, all I can see is an appeal to white men, who had the privilege of dreaming about being their own boss, marking their own territory, building their own factory/workshop. Blacks, enslaved or free, and Asian immigrants didn’t have the opportunity to set up boundaries, either physical or mental. Indigenous peoples measured territory and property with a whole different paradigm. The nascent Republican party was appealing to the common man, as long as he was white. The economic and cultural revolutions may have broadened the concept of “good” labor, but the political system was still attempting to reinforce white supremacy.
The discussion that followed had me return, reflect, and drill down into the free labor/free soil ideology, a fascinating and confusing exercise that only got productive when I harnessed my roaming mind to my own family history.
I can say with reasonable certainty, that my cattle drover ancestor, John Pearson Minor, regarded land as the ultimate asset, not only for the stock that could be raised on top of it and sold to expanding markets but also for the coal, salt, and other mineral resources beneath it that could be mined and sold to expanding markets. From his base in Southwestern Pennsylvania he speculated in land in what became West Virginia, Illinois, and Iowa. Extended family swept westward through this free soil era as well.
Letters reveal that the free labor concept of “work hard and rise to the top” was a core piece of this westward impulsion. Other documents indicate that these same people aligned themselves with the Democratic party. Republicans may well have captured the votes of some of this crowd, but only in as much as the Republican-defined property rights aligned with their own self interest. And that self-interest was what white men could define, legally describe, control, and profit from.
In as much as enslavers demeaned the very work that such cattlemen/farmers/entrepreneurs conducted, I speculate that my ancestors viewed slaveowners with contempt, and the ultimate insult would be to not acknowledge their social structure, the cornerstone of which was human chattel. And Native Americans worked from a whole different paradigm regarding property and community with a degree of stewardship of resources that was alien to the white, Protestant mind.
This one branch of my family demonstrated that an American could be an advocate of free labor and agitate for “free” or deeply discounted soil, and yet remain committed to a hierarchical, racist social structure, that codified a particular definition of property–fenced in by white folks.
Yellowed from one hundred eighty-four years, the paper unfolds with a pungent, almost yeasty smell. Ink, now walnut brown, spreads line after line across the long, creased sheet. When pen touched this page, the roads west of Pennsylvania’s Allegheny Mountains were detestable. Neither railroad nor canal connected Greene County stock and crops to eastern metropolitan markets. Small farms dotted the hilly landscape and residents interacted with the same folks day after day after day. And yet my collection of family papers holds numerous examples of memoranda and receipts that clarify and testify to verbal contracts. The key to a prosperous and self-sustaining community, it seems, was documented communication.
The language of this Article of Agreement is rooted in the law. Though it names the parties as John P(ierson) Minor, my great-great-great-grandfather, and James McFarland, house joiner, it is unclear whether either man actually wrote this document on 22 February 1831. But someone in the Garards Fort area knew how to construct a legal-like agreement for a home renovation project on the “brick house formerly occupied by Jacob Myers.”
John P Minor stipulated that James workon site for the coming year, laying “plowed and grooved” floors upstairs and down, partitioning each floor into three rooms, and building sashes for all the windows. Mr. McFarland was to “run up two pairs of stairs in the dwelling house” and one “outside on the porch.” Cupboards were to be built in every conceivable space. To accomplish this work in a time-effective manner, James was to be lodged by the Minors, thus saving everyone from the headaches of a daily commute from neighboring Cumberland Township. John P. was to “furnish bords (sic) glass hinges door laches (sic) nails and all the necessary materials for finishing the same” and pay James upon “the true and faithful performance” of this renovation three hundred dollars cash.
There is neither codicil to indicate the project’s completion nor receipt of payment among my Minor collection. Yet the work must have been satisfactorily completed and the home occupied, for in his will John P leaves “unto my son, Francis Marion, the tract of land whereon he and I reside, known as the ‘Myers Farm’ containing three hundred twenty-nine acres more or less.”
But… why was this agreement preserved, first by John P and later by son, Marion?
John P and Isabella McClelland* Minor set up housekeeping within the boundaries of her father’s farm. Four children later, the couple had the resources to purchase a piece of Robert McClelland’s land, which abutted property of Jacob and Mary Corbly Myers. As neighbors and fellow congregants of Goshen Baptist Church, John and Isabella would have had many opportunities to hear of the Myers’ impending migration to Clear Creek, Ohio in the early spring of 1829. The township’s loss of the Myers’ family was to be a Minor’s gain of prime farm land. John P speculated in land throughout his life, accumulating acres in Pennsylvania, Missouri, West Virginia, and Iowa, but he, himself, remained at the home farm, the Myers’ farm, “enclosing his happiness within his horizons.”**
Marion, my great-great-grandfather, was just starting to pull up and toddle after his seven older siblings in 1829 when the farm was purchased, and just beginning to take on farm chores when the brick house was finally occupied by his mom, dad, and siblings, Abia, Robert, Hannah, Mary Anna, Margaret, Rebecca, Samuel, and Isabelle. For all intents and purposes, this was the only home that Marion ever knew, and this carefully preserved record of the 1831 renovation may have given Marion a sense of grounding, or prompted memories of childhood, or provided evidence of just how far the family had progressed in his lifetime.
The brick house, formerly occupied by Jacob Myers, became home, and the hills against which it nestled became a legacy, passing from father to son to grandson to great-grandson.
“…unto my son, Francis Marion, the tract of land whereon he and I reside, known as the ‘Myers Farm’ containing three hundred twenty-nine acres more or less.”
“to my son, Robert Minor, my home farm, situated in Greene Township, Greene County, Pennsylvania containing three hundred acres more or less.”
“unto my son, Donald C. Minor, the farm on which he now (February 1938) resides, known as the Home Farm, containing approximately three hundred forty acres…”
A legacy that heard my mother’s laughter, sheltered her dog-grieving sobs, embraced her valedictory success, and witnessed the cutting of her wedding cake. This is the house that Jacob built, formerly occupied by the Myers family…and stuffed to the rafters with Minor hopes, dreams, and love.
*John first married Hannah McClelland in 1814. She died shortly after giving birth to their second boy in the spring of 1817, and John married her sister, Isabella, later that year.
**Alex de Toqueville made this observation of the German immigrants in eastern Pennsylvania, during his 1831 trip through America.