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. 

Matrilineal Monday: Whites of Whitesville, New York

This is my brain on genealogy.

While transcribing a letter dated July 24, 1869, a couple of its sentences looped relentlessly through my head, like a snippet of a catchy tune. My great-great-grandfather complained to his brother, James :

My year’s expenses devoured my year’s salary (as principal of Rushford Academy), and left me as poor today as one year ago today.  Serena does not dispose of much of her landed property, though, of course.
 

Just how much landed property did Serena have? De Beer’s 1869 Atlas of Allegany County, New York mapped residences, illustrating that the couple, or rather, Serena owned three properties – the Gothic house on Alfred University’s campus, a farm a few miles south in Independence, and a house on Main Street, catercorner to Rushford Academy.  How did Serena come by these properties?  On her teacher’s salary?  Hardly likely, since Ira notes that his wages didn’t cover expenses. Mutter, mutter….. Far more likely that Serena received land and property from her parents, Samuel S. and Nancy Teater White, who had been successful farmers and business owners in Whitesville, Allegany County. But how had they managed that in one generation, on those rocky Appalachian hills, removed from any highways or railroads?  And what attracted them to western New York in the first place?

In the space of five minutes I found myself in a web of my own, sticky design.

This is my brain on genealogy, just a web of ideas and places and people, stuck together in a mass of interconnected strands.  Not til I imagine that I am a Super Fly, using this mess as a trampoline, can I make a bounding leap of faith and see the story hidden in its design.

The Whites of Whitesville came from the sea

Samuel’s father was born Oliver White, Junior, in 1759 to Oliver White and Mary Sherman in the town of Newport, Rhode Island, down by the sea. Oliver Jr. removed west to Hopkinton, Rhode Island, a small town carved from Westerly, by 1775 when he first enlisted in the colonies’ army. Oliver served off and on for the duration of the Revolution, and between one of his tours of duty, on March 1, 1781, Oliver made a fateful decision. He decided to marry a Seventh Day Baptist.  Cynthia Burdick was the daughter of  Hannah Hall and Robert (4)  Burdick, who was the latest generation of Burdicks to provide leadership to the Westerly congregation.  Like other Baptists, they believed that local congregations were autonomous from a church hierarchy and had the authority to make decisions locally; and that the Bible was the authoritative source of faith. But unlike other Baptists, the Burdick family held that the scriptures designated Saturday as the Sabbath.  Sabbatarians worked on Sunday.  The rhythm of their work and worship, then, fundamentally differed from those of the larger community – and economy – in which they found themselves.   (Oliver Jr. became a member of the Hopkinton Seventh Day Baptist Church in 1786.)

As the atmosphere became more hostile to those not adhering to the conventional Christian sabbath, the sabbatarians began to migrate westward.  They moved in clusters, establishing communities in which they were free to work six days and worship on Saturday.  Oliver and Cynthia left Hopkinton, RI, with their children including Samuel, before 1810.  They lived for a short while in the 7th Day Baptist community of Brookfield, Madison County, New York, before moving on to Alfred, another center of sabbatarians, before 1816.  Here, young Samuel met and fell in love with a young school teacher and early organizer of Alfred’s Seventh Day Baptist Church, Nancy Teater.

They married in 1819 and moved to a new community south of Alfred, near the millson Cryders Creek. Within their first decade, Nancy and Samuel had established a farm, started a family, provided leadership for another Seventh Day Baptist congregation, and opened a hotel in the town which soon bore their name – Whitesville.