The family church, in more ways than one

leacock_cropped

I should really just retitle this blog “Tim’s Adventures in Historical Documents.” I keep finding really interesting stuff when I dig.

Today’s interesting find is probably only interesting to my Lancaster County family, but here goes: the Leacock Presbyterian Church in Paradise, PA, which was my mother’s family’s church since at least the early part of the 20th century, has a deeper connection to the family than we knew.

I was looking through deeds, as lately I seem wont to do, when I decided to stop checking out property sold by Abraham Hershey and look for what was sold by his father and mother, Christian and Susanna. And, though I still didn’t find who sold the barn, I found something more interesting: a deed, on pp. 459 and 460 of the old deed book Z7, dated June 12, 1840, recording the sale of land in what was then Strasburg to the trustees of the old Leacock Presbyterian Church, so that they could “erect and build… a house or place of worship, for the use of the members of the Presbyterian Church…”

If you look closely at the photo above, at its maximum resolution on the Flickr page, you’ll see a dedication stone listing the beginning of the building in 1840. The land that Christian and Susanna Hershey sold the trustees for the princely sum of $286.87 became the home of the “new” Leacock Presbyterian Church, the church that my great-grandfather and his family then attended, in which my parents got married, in whose graveyard now resides a fair number of my kin. It gave me a bit of a shiver knowing that my connection to that church goes back even further.

Brackbill Farm: no needle in the haystack yet

I was a little premature with my sketch of the history of the Brackbill Farm two weeks ago. As you’ll recall, the farmhouse says it was built by Abraham and Barbara Hershey in 1857 (or maybe 1867–the sign isn’t very clear in the photo I took from the ground). And I was very excited to find the microfilmed deed books of Lancaster County so that I could start figuring out how it passed from their hands to my great-great grandfather Elam Brackbill.

Turns out that just reading the microfilm was akin to sequentially looking at sectors on a hard disk. If there was an organizational structure there, it wasn’t apparent to me–each book was chronologically ordered, but there was no relationship between book numbers. So I couldn’t even find which book had the deeds from the 1896-1897 timeframe that I guessed to be the date of sale of the farm.

The Internet to the rescue. The Southern Lancaster County Historical Society photographed the Indexes of Grantors for all those deeds, meaning if you know who sold the property, you can go to the photo pages, read the book number and page, punch them into the online microfilm reader, and read the deed. So I found four or five deeds relating to the estate of Abraham Hershey and his wife Barbara and started reading avidly.

And was crestfallen. Each of the deeds conveyed property, to heirs or others through sale, but all of the property was on the wrong side of Rt. 30, in Paradise or Strasburg, or in the townships of Eden and Bart. As near as I can tell, the family property’s mailing address should be in or near Salisbury Township, but so far none of the Abraham Hershey deeds have turned up in Salisbury.

The good news, I suppose, is that the indexes only represent the years up to about 1893, so it’s still possible that the second volume of the index will show a deed in about the right time period showing Elam Brackbill’s purchase of it. And I’m now certain that Elam purchased it; a newspaper record from 1905 talked about his residence in Salisbury Township. (Special hat tip to the Access Pennsylvania Digital Repository, a really well put together research site.)

So we’re not back to square one, but I still haven’t found the relevant information. It’s frustrating, knowing that it’s somewhere in that massive pile of microfilm and that I simply don’t have the key to find it.

Family history: when was it the “Brackbill” farm?

harryAndEstaBrackbill

I got email yesterday that there was a fair amount of storm damage at the Brackbill Farm in Lancaster County, PA earlier this week. The storm uprooted half a dozen old trees, and sent major chunks of other ash and locust trees flying, with the result that the old cabin and bunkhouse near the creek were heavily damaged. They had stood for over 50 years, so the loss was pretty painful, but fortunately the main buildings and the people on the farm were spared.

But it got me thinking. I learned yesterday more of the provenance of the cabin–which great-uncle built it; which of my first-cousins-once-removed helped–than I knew about the provenance of the actual farm. So I had to do some digging. I already knew that the farm had been the home of my great grandfather and his large family, and I had noticed in 2003 the dedication name on the side of the house that said Hershey rather than Brackbill. A few years later I went back and took a better picture, and was able to decipher the stone entirely; it said “Built by Abraham & Barbara Hershey 1857.” That’s interesting, I thought. There are plenty of Brackbill/Hershey marriages, but I knew Harry G. Brackbill hadn’t married a Hershey (that’s my great grandparents Harry and Esta above, in front of the farmhouse). So what was the connection?

I went back and looked at my genealogy. It seems Abraham Hershey was Harry’s great-uncle–his mother, Barbara Hershey, was the daughter of Christian Hershey, Abraham’s brother. (He was also Harry’s wife Esta’s great-uncle, but that’s a story for another time.) But Abraham had children of his own. How did the farm end up in the Brackbill family?

This week I found some clues, finally, in the magnificent MennObits archive of old Mennonite obituaries. There we find obituaries for both Abraham and Barbara, and some pieces start to fall into place. Abraham passed away in 1887 and Barbara in 1904, and Barbara spent the last seven or eight years of her life living with her children. Presumably she would have lived at the farm if it was still in the family, and had the children living with her (it’s a large farmhouse with enough room for large families). So sometime around 1896 or 1897, the farm may have been sold. My mother thinks that it was sold to Harry’s father, Elam, but I haven’t been able to find anything to confirm that.

The good news is that the historic deeds of Lancaster County, from the 19th century through 1980, have been made available online. The bad news is that the files are in unindexed images, and there are hundreds of pages of books. So I will find the answer… maybe within the next year.

Postcard from Madison County

madison county vista

Today’s post is a delayed peek at where I was the first week of August. We took a week’s vacation and spent it with my parents at their house in Buncombe County, as well as getting in a lot of good time with my aunt and uncle, cousins, and a rare visit with my Aunt Jewell. The photo above was taken at what I still think of as my grandmother’s farm (now my Aunt Jewell’s) in Madison County, as are a number of the other photos in the Flickr set I just posted. (Folks who are marked as friends and family in Flickr will find some new family photos in this set and in my photostream.)

Every time I go down there to visit, time slows a little bit. Part of this is because of the infrastructure in western North Carolina; though growth has accelerated in Buncombe County around Asheville, Madison remains the same deeply rural, underdeveloped county that maddened me as a bored child and entrances me and saddens me now. Part of it is the land and the quiet. Part of it used to be the isolation from technology, but my parents have had high speed for a while and before this visit they installed a wireless access point. I still managed to spend most of my time outside.

I sometimes think: so much of my job is virtual. What if I had to live in Asheville? I could probably do some of what I do, but sadly product management still requires a lot of face to face time with the various constituencies that we support. The refrain of “Free Man In Paris” goes through my mind every time I leave: “If I could I’d go back there tomorrow, but for the work I’ve taken on…”

(Of course, I’d miss other things about where we are, like being able to sing in the Tanglewood Festival Chorus. But our work is the main thing.)

Persistence of memory: Lengacher’s Cheese House

I ran across a fabulous collection of old postcards from Lancaster County today–a bygone Lancaster County. Not the real Lancaster County that my distant Mennonite ancestors settled, fleeing persecution; nor the modern Lancaster County Route 30, home of strip malls, outlet malls, and the occasional Amish farm, but something in between. Yes, this is the Lancaster County Route 30 that I remember as a child through the 70s and early 80s–the National Wax Museum, Dutch Wonderland, the motels, the Willows (where my mother worked as a cook in the 1960s), the Dutch Haven. Even Miller’s Smorgasbord.

But the one that really hit me square between the ears with nostalgia was this:

Vintage Postcards from Cardcow.com

Lengacher’s Swiss Cheese, aka the Cheese House. You drove maybe 10 miles east on Route 30 from Dutch Wonderland, past Paradise, toward Gap, and it was on the top of a small hill on the left hand side. The office was at the left in the back. They made cheese on the right hand side, right behind those windows, in big stainless steel and copper vessels. The center part was the store, where they sold imported European treats (like Ricola–back in the late 70s they weren’t widely available–and Toblerone) alongside local food products like honey in plastic bears, and their cheeses.

And I can still remember the cheese. If you’ve ever had locally, freshly made “Swiss” cheese you know how good it can be, and this was outstanding stuff. We would stop at the beginning or end of a visit to my grandparents and stock up, and say hi–and frequently collect my grandmother, who worked behind the counter (I think she ran the register or maybe helped them with bookkeeping–my memory is a little shaky on this score see below). Sometimes during visits she would watch us at the store. I remember napping in the little office on the green couch, and playing with elaborate marble racetrack toys for hours there.

The store, alas, closed in the 1990s–Art and Martha Lengacher, the Helvetian founders, having retired around the same time that the cheese production was kiboshed by tighter Pennsylvania food regulations–and both founders are now gone (Martha passed away in 2002, and I don’t know about Art). But the place gave me a deep love for locally produced food and is an important part of my memory of my grandmother. I was thrilled to find the postcard; it’s the only photo I’ve seen of the place as I remember it.

Update: My mother, whose memory for this sort of detail is naturally better, corrects a few items in the post:

Your grandmother worked not only under the Lenachers but also the Laderachs who owned it first.  I went to school with their daugher Jane, and had my first pizza in their upstairs home (before they built the home to the west of the shop.) Your grandmother made sandwiches and served truckers and locals who came in for the signature ham and cheese sandwich. No one before or since has made such a big one!  The Lenacher’s son, Artie, did try to run the shop for awhile after Art and Martha retired, but soon gave it up.  Too bad!

The pictures of the Willows bring back many memories.  I started there in the summer of 1959 as a dish washer/ pot scrubber, and worked my way up from there…  I spent most of my time in the summers of ’60 – ’62 as a salad preparer. Only at the very end of my stay did I get to serve up orders from behind the steam table. Never was I a cook.  Mrs. Neuber would have a fit if she heard me called that as she was the cook. Your grandmother was the pastry chef for a time (cannot remember how long).  Yes, she did everything.

Scanning the sepia

esta_lindaI’ve started digitizing some old photo albums. Nothing earth-shattering: these were photos I took as a kid with my first camera, starting in 1981 or 1982 through about high school. But some of the photos are interesting to me because they frame the way I think about some physical realities now–like my uncle’s house in Vienna, Virginia, or the land where my parents’ house is now on the old family farm. The photoset has started on Flickr; I’ll be adding more over the next few days.

One of the photo sets in particular is fascinating to me: a series of photos from my grandfather’s 65th birthday, circa February 4, 1982. I had only had the camera a month or two so didn’t know anything about taking pictures (as if I do now), but I worked my way around and got pictures of that whole kitchen, along with pictures of just about everyone in the family.

And then there’s the photo on this post, of my sister and my Grandmother Jarrett. I think when I was a kid that I always thought my grandmother was old–she was older than my Brackbill grandparents by quite a few years–but now when I look at that photo I realize that she was younger than my inlaws are now. Seeing it through the faded photographs, I feel older than I am.

Vacation, in the car


Ever have one of those vacations where it seems like you spent most of the time in the car? It took us forever to get to New Jersey and Lisa’s folks on Friday night, thanks in part to a two hour backup on the Tappan Zee Bridge. I think every now and then about that Paul Simon song that goes, “I believe in the future I may live in my car.” Thank goodness for rising gas prices; they’re the only thing standing in the way of that particular future.

We spent time on Saturday at the Jersey Shore (at Island Beach State Park) and I was reminded of why I really like the beach. I love Crane Beach but for various logistical reasons I’ve been less than thrilled the last few times I’ve gone. Plus, the gentle surf, pristine sand, and clear waters are all nice, but they don’t spell beach to me. I grew up near Virginia Beach and that, jellyfish and all, is the beach I enjoy. Island Beach had a lot of that–the rough surf, the cool but not frigid water, the feeling of being buffeted about by something larger than you. All aces in my book.

Sunday was a marathon trip over to Lancaster County, where we arrived at Leacock Presbyterian Church with ten minutes for me to go over the music for the service. We’ve had a tradition for the last few years (spearheaded by my cousin Don Brackbill) that the men of the Brackbill clan get a men’s chorus going on the Sunday of the Brackbill picnic, and we had a pretty good turnout this year although a few voices were missed.

The picnic itself, over at the Brackbill farm, was gorgeous–not too humid but warm, and the usual crowd of aunts and uncles, cousins, second cousins, first cousins once removed, and dogs. I missed my grandfather and my uncle Harold, and my aunt Marie. But my cousin Catherine was there with her family, and it was nice to see them–they haven’t been to a reunion for a while. I’ll post pictures when I get them off my computer and phone; in the meantime, I have a few from 2003, 2005 and 2006 online (though not 2007, when it rained like crazy).

Family vacation time

I’m heading south this afternoon. We’ll stay a day or two with Lisa’s parents, then head to Lancaster on Sunday for the family reunion.

This will be the first Brackbill reunion since my grandfather and aunt passed away. It feels odd to be heading back to Lancaster, a little like one of my feet has come unglued from gravity and I might float away.

At least the weather is going to be nice. It poured last year, which was a little bit of a bummer. And being down on the family farm, where my grandfather grew up and where his grandnephew still lives, is going to be nice in the August heat. I miss that honest humidity of the mid-Atlantic from time to time. I tried to capture it in photos back in 2006, but I think I didn’t succeed in doing it justice.

Friday: too busy working …

… to write anything halfway intelligent, so you get this instead.

But Estaminet has been writing a fair bit; check out her travel journals from her Oregon trip.

She’s back staying with us, and our parents come in late tonight, so it’ll be a fun full house. This is, of course, the other reason I’m not writing so much–lots of stuff to take care of before I pick them up from the airport.

And I’ll be checking out the temporary James Hook lobster shack this weekend to see if they’ve been able to resume any level of retail operations. It would be great to get some in time for my dad’s birthday.

N. Marie Brackbill, 1943 – 2008

My aunt Marie passed away Monday afternoon. This one hurts. Unlike my grandfather, who had been in ill health for quite a few years before his death in January, we didn’t even know how sick she was until two months ago.

My aunt was one of the strongest people I know. Stricken with juvenile arthritis at the age of nine and spending the next two years in the hospital recovering, she was put on a path at an early age that might have limited her potential. But she recovered her mobility (albeit with the aid of multiple joint replacements over the years), learned to drive, went to college, became a teacher, and then did a career change into accounting, business, and quantitative analysis. She was always independent, stubbornly so, living alone for many years.

It’s not her stubborn independence that I’ll remember as much as her sense of humor and her willingness to treat me as an adult when I was still very much a kid. She treasured the company of her cats, and let me name one of them. At the time we were both reading Lord of the Rings, so I suggested Boromir. Yes, it was a geeky thing to do, but she had already named one cat Bilbo Baggins, so we were very much on the same wavelength. Boromir it was. And she was always a lot of fun to be with. I still remember dinners out with her at the Corn Crib, a corny pizza place with a warped sense of humor (a sign above the door said, “In the event of nuclear war, will the last person to leave please turn off the soup!”).

It was during her early years as an accountant that she came to stay with my family when I was growing up. I think it was because she spent so much time with us that she had such a strong influence on me. I don’t think I’d be half the bookworm I am without her, and I know I wouldn’t be as brave. She was never one to hold back what she thought and never one to bite her tongue when she thought something was wrong. In her last days, we used to hold out hope that she would pull through by saying, “At least she’s still got her sharp tongue.” When my sister was sufficiently alarmed by updates on her health to drive through the night to get to see her, my aunt’s first words as she walked through the door at 3 am were “You’re an idiot!” And of course she was right, she was always right.

I’m really angry about her passing. To watch her struggle for so long against her various illnesses, only to see her get blindsided by the left hook of cancer, is maddening. Not only that: the fact that her cancer was so advanced when it was diagnosed makes me think, if only it had been caught sooner! But ultimately that’s self delusional: her cancer was a type that has a very poor cure rate, and we know it was very aggressive. I suppose I’m angriest for selfish reasons: I wanted her to be a part of my family’s life for a very long time. I miss you already, Aunt Marie.

Piece of the past

While I was in Pennsylvania, I helped my uncle move some junk out of the storage unit where we put some of my grandfather’s things. A few items held memories for me (I never could get comfortable on that fold-up metal cot, and was glad to see it go), but others were remnants: the boxes for his stereo, a piece of old demolished kitchen cabinets that was being used as a laundry table.

I happened to open one of the drawers in the aforementioned kitchen cabinets, and found an odd artifact: a hand drill, but looking like none I had ever seen. I asked my uncle about it, and he said he remembered using it with my grandfather on the farm back in the 1950s and 1960s. He said I could take it, so I brought it home.

The lettering on the gear handle said “Millers Falls Company, Greenfield, Mass.” A little searching turned up a history of the Millers Falls company and an illustration, description and photograph of our drill: a number 308, the so called “Buck Rogers” drill. The drill as manufactured featured red plastic grips and a fully enclosed gear, which had the benefit of keeping the mechanism working smoothly even after many years in a drawer. My grandfather’s was missing the box, and had white paint on both handles, but otherwise was intact. The handle still had some of the drill bits inside, though I haven’t looked closely to see if they are the originals.

It was oddly evocative to have this palmsize memento of my grandfather, who was so much bigger, whose hands fixed and built, fed and sheltered his family, until he couldn’t any more.

Waiting for a phone call

I came home from Pennsylvania on Saturday, which stands as one of the harder things that I’ve had to do. My aunt’s condition has been up and down. While I was there she was lucid, eating and drinking a little, watching the Phillies beat up St. Louis, and ornery (she complained to the nurses that while they had temporarily rolled her away from the TV, the Phillies got their first three runs of the game). But she’s in a lot of pain and keeps getting more and more health complications, and our guess as to how long she’ll be with us keeps spinning around to longer and shorter numbers.

I wish I could just have stayed there. A good part of my mind is still there. Now all I can do is wait for a phone call. My connection to my aunt and her status now comes in drips and drops over a long distance wire.

At the hospice

I rolled into Lancaster, PA about 3:30 last night. I’m staying with my aunt for a while (see my sister’s post for why).

Road food for a six hour drive that commences at 9 pm? Three Cokes, a bag of peanut M&Ms, and a small bag of mixed nuts and fruit. And water to dilute the complex carbs.

My aunt is in good spirits, considering. I think the best way to describe where she is was her answers to the new nurse this morning: she hasn’t been out of bed since the end of April, and she’s been in two other care facilities in the interim before arriving at the hospice here. She has a certain amount of native orneriness that is standing her in good stead at the moment. Which is good: I feel very lucky that I got here in time to spend some time with her.

Electronic text comes to family research

When my grandfather passed away in January, I made a resolution that I would do what I could to ensure that he was not forgotten and that my descendants would know about him. So I started a little project that blossomed. The Brackbill Wiki is a set of pages I set up to collect family genealogy information, primarily original documents and pointers to photos. In the process of getting the site together, I also collected a bunch of information about various family members, friends, and institutions.

The core of the site is a set of documents from my grandfather and other family members that he gave to us or that he left behind. In particular, other family members and I are in the process of transcribing four years of his journal that span from the time he graduated from the state teachers’ college to the time my mom was born. The 1939 journal has been completely transcribed and the 1940 journal is in progress. We also used the site to provide a new home for my sister’s project, “Great Aunt Eva’s Blog,” which disappeared when her old blog host shut down. Esta is in the process of bringing it back on the new site right now.

There are a bunch of cool things that have come out of the process of transcribing these journals. I’ve gained a new appreciation for my grandparents’ lives (just how did they work six days a week and go out every night to choir practices and committee meetings? I only work five and I’m exhausted when I get home), for the people they spent time with (Twiddley!), and the infrastructure in which they grew up. I’ve also gotten to know my grandfather, and his sense of humor, a little better.

What occurred to me the other day was how this project is analogous, on a humbler scale, to big digital humanities projects like the Valley of the Shadow project, in which former UVA professor Ed Ayers and a team of students indexed and digitized reams of original materials from two Civil War era communities. In this case, our scope and our team is quite a bit smaller, but thanks to the wiki technology we used the material is coming together quite a bit faster.

Note, 2017-03-29: the Brackbill Wiki has since moved to a new location.