I 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Camera and binoculars bounce on my vest-padded chest as I leave footprints in week old snow. I am headed to the river, to watch the ice floes flow. Here at the bend, where West Pittston says hey to Pittston, the Susqhehanna is open, ice clinging in nooks and crannies. A dozen Buffleheads ride the current toward Wilkes-Barre. Common Merganser and Mallard pairs gather to preen or forage where the river meets beach. A lone Bufflehead floats mid-river, his glossy black-green head turning slowly right and left. Suddenly he tips tail to sky, and plunges beneath the icy water, with barely a ripple. I take slow, deep breaths, and smell what these birds know.
Spring is coming.
We have more mud than snow, more current than ice. Insects are hatching, snails are moving, mussles are available, fish swim closer to the surface. Life is on the move.
The ice is floe-ing on.
May Laura Stevenson lay under covers, listening to eight siblings rustle from bed’s warmth into cold, thick wool layers. Procrastinating would not reduce her chores or delay the walk to school, so up she sat, throwing off her blankets, reaching for her clothes. In quick fluid movements May covered her shivering little body, and joined the familiar morning jostle. Ice had to be broken from animals’ water troughs; pigs had to be slopped, and chickens fed. Stalls needed to be mucked out, and cows milked. Breakfast had to be fixed, the table set.
May’s early life was spent on Gabler’s Knob, a farm that looked out over the bustling river town of Greensboro, on the Monongahela River in Greene County, Pennsylvania. Born in 1874, May was the seventh of nine children born to Ellis and Mary Jones Stevenson.
After a hearty breakfast the school-age Stevensons set off down the hill, past Dr. G. F. Birch’s orchard, and turned left onto the main road of the Old Glass Works*. As William, Presley, Permelia, and May walked up the village street, they were joined by young Kramers, McCoys, Mercers, Blacks, and Gablers. The wind coming off the river hurled the winter damp through their coats, and the would-be scholars hurried past Mr. Neil’s ferry, round the corner, and into the school house. All together they learned to read, to write, to do their figures. At day’s end, the group trudged on home, the Stevensons to return to more chores before settling down for the dinner and a good night’s sleep.
On Sunday, the family traveled into town, to attend services at Greensboro Presbyterian Church, on the corner of Clear and Second streets. The sanctuary was just a block down from the Star Pottery and Tile Works, owned by Frank Hamilton and John Jones, Mary Stevenson’s cousin. After church service, May and her family walked three blocks south on Front Street, to eat Sunday dinner with the Jones’. Uncle David and Aunt Cill ran Greensboro House, a family business handed down from father, John Jones, and the home to the Jones family since the late 1840s. Her double first cousins, Anna and Fannie, would regale May with stories about the latest hotel guests, and the difficulties steamboats had when the river ice grew thick. The girls imagined a day in spring when they would saunter down County Street to the quay, and board the Packet Dean Adams, traveling all the way to Pittsburgh, just to shop for a dress. Laughter and dreams and family.
That is what I imagine for May, my great-grandmother, as I walk down May’s street in my mind. [click on the maps below for enlarged viewing]
*Some seventy years before May was born, the village on the banks of the Monongahela River had been occupied by the first glass making factory west of the Allegheny Mountains. German immigrants like May’s great-great-granduncle, Adolphus Eberhart, lent their expertise to the making of frontier window glass and bottles.