Peeking Into Ira’s Soul


“”Practice any art,” Kurt Vonnegut wrote.  “…music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, essays, reportage…

“Practice any art…no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience becoming, to find out what’s inside you, to make your soul grow.”

Ira Sayles, 1817-1894, practiced art, writing essays and poems throughout his long life.  He shared them with friends. He enclosed them in family letters. He submitted them to regional newspapers and sought wider publication.  Ira yearned to belong among the publicly acclaimed, a recognized poet, an admired intellectual.  He had to settle for living among regular folks.

It didn’t stop his writing, though, and the samples of his art that survive are a testament to Ira’s experiences and soul searching. 

In a poem written 15 December 1872 and published in The Sabbath Recorder on 9 January 1873, Ira celebrates the biblical account of Jesus’ birth.  Each verse ends with “Peace on earth, good-will to man!” 

Is this refrain a peek into Ira’s soul?

Ira served in the Union Army in the early years of the Civil War, discharged after only a short campaign because his 44 year old body couldn’t bear the field conditions of a soldier, much to his dismay. He returned to his wife, Serena, and three sons to resume teaching at Alfred University, Alfred, New York. During early Reconstruction, Serena directed Ira to purchase land in Mecklenburg County, Virginia, where the family relocated in 1870. Her money, her land, in her name, feme sole.  The situation proved acrimonious, as Ira sought to retire and write. Serena, presumably, was determined to teach, farm, or both. 

By the poem’s wintry date, Ira was estranged from Serena, who stayed with their three boys down in Virginia.  Ira returned to his birth family in Pennsylvania.  Eventually, the 55 year old would resume teaching, traveling throughout northern tier counties of Pennsylvania and the southern tier counties in New York to fill vacancies in one room schoolhouses.

Do these stanzas tell us more than Ira was a Christian? Perhaps this poem was a way for Ira to process grief, shame, restlessness; to find peace on earth and good-will to Ira in the new year.

            "Christmas Choral"

 Music floats upon the night-wind,
            Watching shepherds list the strain:
Gently steals the anthem earthward;
            Echo whispers its refrain—
“Peace on earth, good-will to man!”
 
Seers had heard the wondrous story,
            Longed to seeMessiah’s reign,
“Come! O come! thou King of Glory!”
            Echo caught the faint refrain—
“Peace on earth, good-will to man!”
 
Cradled in a humble manger, 
            Nursed by earth’s most lowly train,
Lo! He comes, th’ Almighty stranger!
            Echo murmurs the refrain—
“Peace on earth, good-will to man!”
 
Magi see the astral token
            Shimmering o’er Judea’s plain;
Death’s gloomy night , they know is broken;
            Echo floats the sweet refrain—
“Peace on earth, good-will to man!”
 
Age on age hath borne its burden,
            Filled with human woe and pain, 
Since Faith first beheld her guerdon:
            Echo thunders the refrain—
“Peace on earth, good-will to man!”
 
Brighter gleams that astral glory,
            As the ages rush amain;
Echo louder peals the story,
            Thundering out that sweet refrain—
“Peace on earth, good-will to man!”
 
                                    Ira Sayles
Knoxville, Tioga Co., Pa., 
Wednesday, Dec. 25, 1872

Source

Sayles, Ira. Poem “Christmas Choral,” The Sabbath Recorder, 9 Jan 1873, v29 i2 p6; digitally accessed on Fulton History (FultonHistory.com) 10 Dec 2018.  Transcribed by D. Kay Strickland. 

Wealth and the Ideal Man: An Epistle from Ira Sayles to EB Hall, 1885

Ira Sayles, assistant geologist with United States Geological Survey. 
Photograph taken about 1885 at age 68.

Ira Sayles.

Had I nothing but historical documents, I would have but a simplistic notion of who my great-great-grandfather was.  A self-taught student who rose to be a college student, teacher and founding school administrator of Alfred Academy; Principal of Rushford Academy; Captain of Company H, 130th Regiment of the New York Volunteers in the Union Army; assistant geologist to Charles D. Walcott with the United States Geological Survey. 

A son, brother, husband, father.

But I have letters. And poems. And journal articles. And more letters. 

Clearly, Ira Sayles was a complicated man, with a rich interior life.  His core identity was constructed from his intellectual activities, not his familial relationships.  He harbored ambitions for his poetry, teaching methods, and scientific observations, and nursed grudges with a world that failed to recognize his brilliance. 

In an undated letter to his friend, EB Hall, a druggest and amateur paleontologist in Wellsville, New York, Ira Sayles declares:

People may not be willing to accredit me with being their
Ideal Man. I have never striven to be their Ideal Man; but I do strive to be my own Ideal Man. I am no social puppet. The Ideal Man of Society is but a puppet. He must attitude, and bob, and bow, according to the notions of a silly mob, for whose good opinion I will not turn on my heel. 

Apparently Ira and EB Hall had been discussing the notion of wealth, how the great entrepreneurs of the age–Vanderbilt, Cornell, Rothschild–had used their money to endow public institutions.  Ira took issue with the social standing that these men accrued because of their riches and legacies.

  I know the power of wealth. I acknowledge its good, and I deplore its evils. I can say, too, I have felt its evils. I do not care to rehearse my experiences; nor will I enter into any explanations why I have been so long a homeless wanderer over this beautiful Earth. The story shall remain untold. 

No man can win through the ordinary course of business, a large fortune, but that every dollar is cursed with the tears of the hungry, the naked, the shelterless! 

Ira’s disdain for capitalistic success was connected to his concern about the changing aspirations of women.  In fact, in this letter, Ira predicted a total breakdown of the social order.  Because of financial expectations men, the natural providers for women, would not be able to afford the trappings of success needed to be married.  Wealth among the few would contribute to women not getting married and having children, and men frequenting houses of ill repute because they could not afford wives.  

Ira’s legacy, however, would not be appraised in terms of the dollar.

Instead of making Wealth an object of Life—the object of Life—I will make, as I have long been making, complete fullness of manhood and womanhood, in all its richness, not the chief
but the only end of Life. 

Perhaps you, like others, will call me a dreamer, indulging in an illusive (sic) fancy that will forever mock my hope. Be it so. I have the satisfaction and the joy of living that life myself; I will build myself a home where whoever will, may come and partake with me freely, on the same conditions as I impose on myself, viz. Living up to the Complete Laws of Human Nature. That and that only. 

Living up to the Complete Laws of Human Nature. 

Where the ideal man provided for the ideal woman who remained at home and became mothers.  Where everyone had enough to eat, a safe place to sleep, and honorable work to complete.  

Ira’s utopia. Did he ever discover the wealth inside his own ideal? 

Source

Letter from Ira Sayles to EB Hall of Wellsville, New York, ca. 1885; Hall Family Documents, privately held by Jay Woelfle [address for private use,] 2018. Transcribed by D. Kay Strickland, 2018. 

Reclaiming all the past

These thoughts are for all you white family historians out there.  Particularly the ones who are, like me, struggling to tell the unmentionable, the dishonorable chapters of our ancestors’ lives.  The plot lines of which extend into our own days, leaving us uncomfortable with our race.  Our whiteness.

I have been silent on this blog space, for what seems like a long time.  Not because I don’t have anything to say, but because what I have to say is so disconcerting to me.  I have hung out with my research for months, letting it rattle my bones.  Letting the names and the implications of the unnamed disturb my imagination, and disrupt my nostalgia of my southern past.

And humbled I return to this segregated space to confront the taboo against mixing race and family.  The taboo against talking straight up about how I can trace my status, my education, my opportunities right back to those of my Dodson forebears in 1772.

I want to reclaim all the past.  I want to braid stories of the Dodsons with the connections of the Crutes and dozens of unnamed African Americans who contributed to the Dodson legacy, yet seldom profited from it.

I hope you will return to learn how my dad’s scribbled note prompted my memory of something Norman said, which together led to the documentation of the Dodson Crute Connection.

Next up:  The Dodson Crute Connection

SCAN0478

 

Chase the Man. Chase the City.

Today’s NY Times Opinionator piece discusses the history between Abe Lincoln and Salmon P. Chase, an earnest, no nonsense man who was both a fabulous Secretary of the Treasury and Lincoln’s arch rival.

Why care about this troublemaker?

Because the dude had a fan club among the founders of a little town in Mecklenburg County, Virginia. Christiansville was a backwater village when George Endley and John Boyd rode in, buying up land on the cheap in 1868-1874. They held big plans for this area, recruiting northern colonists and railroad lines (that never quite materialized) to build a grand town–and in 1873 they approached fellow Ohioan, great banker, former US Senator and Ohio Governor, Secretary of the Treasury and US Supreme Court Justice. Your Honor, may we use your name for our grand Southside town?

Thus was born little ol’ Chase City, home of my beloved father, Norman S. Strickland.

This article details Salmon Chase’s political aspirations and his personal idiosyncracies. Thankfully, the nation was able to profit from his zealous anti-slavery and radical reconstruction ideas–a federal banking system was created, including the greenback demand note which was the first federal currency. His system also made it possible to fund the war effort with government bonds.

Salmon Chase, though an excellent financial administrator, was a pugnacious political fighter, with no sense of humor or understanding of human nature.  He aspired to the presidency himself and used his cabinet post to his own advantage, accumulating favors, names and cash–a fact overlooked by Lincoln because Chase was so good at his job. Salmon Chase overplayed his hand, however. Posturing for a particular political outcome, the Secretary offered his resignation.  Lincoln, weary of the man, accepted the letter. A surprised and humbled Chase did not seek the presidency. That year.

Lincoln, however crazy Chase made him feel, recognized the man’s intellect and within a few months of the resignation appointed Salmon Chase to the Supreme Court.

During 1872-1873 George Endley and John Boyd led the Southside Board of Settlers’ effort to incorporate their growing town as “Chase City”.  In April 1873 a delegation met with the Chief Justice in Richmond, Virginia to formally advise him of the town’s name, and to invite him to be an honorary member of their board.  By all accounts, Salmon Chase cordially received this news.

Date: Friday, April 11, 1873   Paper: Alexandria Gazette (Alexandria, VA)   Volume: LXXIV   Issue: 81   Page: 2; accessed from Genealogy Bank, genealogybank.com, (http://www.genealogybank.com/gbnk/newspapers/doc/v2:109C88C3000E7338@GBNEWS-1311C15624D3B048@2405260-130F20A3672B8AC8@1-13C9BD412BA945A4@%22Chase+City.%22/?search_terms=christiansville%7Cchase&s_dlid=DL0114070315453127032&s_ecproduct=SUB-Y-6995-R.IO-30&s_ecprodtype=RENEW-A-R&s_trackval=&s_siteloc=&s_referrer=&s_subterm=Subscription%20until%3A%2004%2F21%2F2015&s_docsbal=%20&s_subexpires=04%2F21%2F2015&s_docstart=&s_docsleft=&s_docsread=&s_username=dkstrickland43@gmail.com&s_accountid=AC0110012820154827911&s_upgradeable=no) on July 3, 2014.
Date: Friday, April 11, 1873 Paper: Alexandria Gazette (Alexandria, VA) Volume: LXXIV Issue: 81 Page: 2; accessed from  http://www.genealogybank.com,July 3, 2014.

I have always wondered whether Endley and Boyd knew Salmon Chase personally, or if they had ever contributed to one of his political campaigns, or been the recipient of his patronage.  No matter.  Their admiration for their Buckeye buddy lives on, in the little town of Chase City.

 

Update:  The original post of July 3, 2014 stated that Salmon Chase never sought political office after Lincoln accepted his June 1864 resignation as Secretary of the Treasury.  That setback only affected the ’64 election.   Chase attempted to win the nomination in 1868 and 1872, unsuccessful in both attempts.

 

On The Trail To Tioga

Cemetery. Mount Pleasant. Westfield, Tioga County, Pennsylvania.  Sayles, Christopher and Sarah KingI woke to this thought–I live three hours from my great-great-grandfather’s childhood home. The weather report promised spring sun and warm temperatures, perfect for a cemetery hunt.  I gassed up my car, plotted out my routes, and headed out west through the Endless Mountains. I couldn’t help wondering why Ira Sayles’ parents and grandparents picked up and left Rhode Island.

At Williamsport, I turned north and traveled up the four lane highway where hillsides hug the horizon to the valley.   Just miles from the point where Pennsylvania’s Northern Tier turns into New York’s Southern Tier, I turned off onto a winding Route 49.  A stagnant band of water stretched some miles to my right, today’s Cowanesque River Recreation Area.  In another moment I realized that the water was off to my left and squiggling through the soil, a river of little size.  This then is the Cowanesque Valley which beckoned to my ancestors centuries ago.  Alrighty.  But why would the Howlands, Kings and Sayles make the trek from northwestern Rhode Island, small children, babies, pots, pans, quilts, packed into whatever form the roads required?  How did this land lure people from ancestral ties, family-packed villages, established communities and businesses?

I kept driving, through Elkland, toward Deerfield Township. Knoxville and Westfield were up ahead.

I rounded a corner–to a valley opened in a welcoming hello. Flat fields stretched for miles.  Farmhouses sat close to the road, their barns and outbuildings clustered close behind.  Green hills rose on the horizon, tethering the fertile ground to a wide sky.  So THIS was the Cowanesque Valley that pulled John and Lois Eddy Howland, James and Rhobe Howland King, and Christopher and Sarah King Sayles from the established coastal settlements to the western frontier.

Landscape. Cowanesque Valley, Tioga County, Pennsylvania.

The Howlands were Quaker, and their remains were buried in what is now the town of Knoxville. Quaker headstones were often inscribed with nothing more than initials and a date of death.  The town decided to replace the aging stones with one durable marker honoring the burial place of the area’s Quaker ancestors.

Cemetery. Knoxville. Howland, John and Lois Eddy.
On this site were buried the great-grandparents of Ira Sayles, John Howland (1743-1835) and Lois Eddy Howland (1749-1825)

The valley narrowed as I continued west to the Krusen Cemetery, located a short distance from the Cowanesque River bridge in Westfield.  On a knoll are the remains of this town’s elders, including Ira’s grandparents, James IV King and the Howland’s daughter, Rhobe.

Krusen Cemetery, Westfield, Pennsylvania. The gravestone of Ira Sayles' grandparents, James King IV (1765-1844) and Rhobe/Merrobe Howland King (1769-1836)
Krusen Cemetery, Westfield, Pennsylvania. The gravestone of Ira Sayles’ grandparents, James King IV (1765-1844) and Rhobe/Merrobe Howland King (1769-1836)

Turning east I took the hill-hugging Mill Street to Mount Pleasant Cemetery, the resting place of Ira’s parents, Christopher Sayles and the King’s daughter, Sarah.

Mount Pleasant Cemetery, Westfield, Pennsylvania.  The grave of Ira's parents, Christopher Sayles (1791-1884) and Sarah King Sayles (1793-1866)
Mount Pleasant Cemetery, Westfield, Pennsylvania. The grave of Ira’s parents, Christopher Sayles (1791-1884) and Sarah King Sayles (1793-1866)

Pausing at the grave sites I tried hard to imagine what characteristics I might have inherited.  Persistence.  Patience.  Imagination. Courage to get up every day even when you don’t know if you’ve done the right thing. The desire to make a building a home,and a network of people a community.

As I looked out over the hills of my ancestors I felt a piece of me relax, accepting their gifts, prepared to continue their legacy.

Landscape.  Westfield, Tioga County, Pennsylvania.