Tick Tock: A timeline for Ira Sayles, 1884-1894

In 1884 letters to his buddy, Edwin B Hall in Wellsville (NY), Ira set out his specs for what sounded like a utopian “home”, where fellow believers of THE WAY OF IRA would live in harmony.  Clearly, the estrangement with Serena and his sons ruled out Virginia as a potential location. 


Ira went on to state that he intended to head out west and carve from the Public Domain land that he can call home.  Buoyed by the steady income from his employment with the United States Geological Survey, Ira seemed keen on making the move in the next couple of years.  

However


Records show Ira hopscotching from town to town, collecting fossil specimens in Appalachian strata, and residing in either Washington, D.C. or Ithaca, NY (Cornell connection) while labeling and organizing the collections for the National Museum for the best part of a decade.


Ira did go west, eventually.

The 75 year old suffered a stroke in November 1891 while in Ithaca, that reduced the capacity of his right arm. Another life-threatening “attack” forced his hospitalization while in Washington, D.C. the following February. Just weeks after the second illness, a Greensburg (KS) newspaper reported that Captain Ira Sayles had arrived to make his home with his brother Loren, the city’s water engineer. But that experiment out west ended in July 1892.


Ira returned to Washington, D.C., where he applied for a pension on August 2 based on his military service in 1862-1863 . Later that week Ira collapsed at the Pennsylvania Railroad Depot and was whisked away while unconscious to the Emergency Hospital. 


A former colleague, Dr. R. R. Gurley saw a notice of the hospitalization in the paper and went to visit the elderly friend. Seeing that Ira was intent on leaving the hospital though weak and confused, Dr. Gurley persuaded Ira to spend a few days at his home in Carlins (now in Alexandria) before continuing his travels.


Ira remained in DC until at least October when he was examined by pension board of examiners’ doctors, Little and Davis. Their report indicated that an inguinal hernia (completely returnable and held in by truss!) and some heart disease limited his ability to do manual labor, and therefore qualified him for a disability pension.

 
Later that fall, the patriarch traveled to his son’s home, where he remained confined and totally dependent on family formerly estranged. 


The pension was approved in June 1893, and payments sent to Chase City, where he died a year later. 


Without his home. 


"…the small still voice spoke to the soul, and the soul listened, bowed and received the instruction given it. So shall my labor be. I will speak to those only that wish to hear, and hear but to obey. Every principle I teach, shall become an active element in the lives of them that hear. Whoever hears but refuses to practice, will hear no more. He cannot live with me; and so shall it be with them that follow me. My home shall be the home of such and of such only as wish to live the life that I teach and… (missing)”
~~Ira Sayles in a letter to EB Hall, 1884 

I find this man and his life struggles fascinating. 

A[nother] Letter from Ira Sayles

Updated 23 February 2019

IN 1884 Ira Sayles, 1817-1894, wrote a letter to his friend Edwin B. Hall of Wellsville, New York. My great-great-grandfather could have been writing from Ithaca, New York or from Washington, D.C., in between field trips for the United States Geological Survey. He could have been writing on site in Tennessee or Virginia or Vermont, after a day’s work collecting paleontological specimens. Though Hall was also a renowned amateur paleontologist, in this note Ira dwells on his aspirations rather than fossils.

While the first page is missing, it is possible to discern that Hall and Sayles were in dialogue about life’s value and one’s hopes. Ira says, ” The whole scope of our natural activities must be met, grasped, and guided by a master-hand.”

Ira proceeds to lay out his plan for a home, to be established on public land out West, where he could retire and live with others who practice the principles that he teaches. “My home shall be the home of such and of such only as wish to live the life that I teach…[I]t will be to me as the beginning of my life anew–a life with a purpose humble, but deep as the Eternal Fountain whence it draws its inspiration.”

Ira Sayles aspired to build a utopian community, or so it appears. As Ira was a prolific letter-writer, I am certain to flesh out Ira’s “principles” as I take a new look at old files.

This letter contains clues worthy of pursuit. And after a fresh take I can answer a few questions.

Why did Ira claim that he had never had a home of his own?

Ira lived in his parents’ home, with siblings, in Alfred College dorms and in residences that his wife’s money purchased. He rented hotel rooms and apartments, stayed in boarding houses, and visited his estranged wife on the farm that she owned. A recurring theme for Ira, “home” as something he purchased and constructed in accordance with his values and principles eluded the man throughout his life. His search for status and belonging makes for a poignant story.

What happened in 1880 that led Ira to feel healthier, more fit?

This question requires more research. And luck.

What happened in 1883 that contributed to Ira’s financial security?

While serving as Secretary of the Interior (1882-1885), Henry M. Teller appointed his former Rushford (NY) Academy principal and teacher Ira Sayles to the newly formed United States Geological Survey. Ira was then able to have a steady income from work that centered his scientific interest in geology. Ira’s field work yielded rock and fossil specimens from the Appalachian strata from Tennessee to Vermont before illness forced the elderly paleontologist to resign in 1892.

Did Ira ever go West? If so, where did he travel, how long did he stay, with whom did he live?

Ira finally went west…in 1892, after suffering a stroke the previous fall and some sort of “attack” that forced him into a Washington, D.C. hospital for a few days in February 1892.

By March 11, Ira had crossed the country to Greensburg, Kansas where he intended to make a home with his brother, Loren Sayles. No description of his four month visit has surfaced, but it is clear that health played a part in Ira’s return to Washington, D.C. where he made application for a military pension on August 2 based on general debility. The story of what followed his return to the East deserves a post of its own.

Home.

There is no place like home.

Ira wandered like a stray puppy looking for his home, to the end.

Source:

Letter from Ira Sayles to EB Hall, 1884. From the Edwin B Hall Family Collection, privately held by Jay Woelfel, [address for private use.] Transcribed by D. Kay Strickland December 2018.  

Letter. Sayles, Ira to EB Hall. 1884.transcription. images 1,2,3.

Newspapers.com – Kiowa County Signal – 11 Mar 1892 – Page Page 1

 Newspapers.com – The Olean Democrat – 5 Jun 1883 – Page Page 6

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

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