News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Local & Bistate

August 5, 2013

MIKE LUNSFORD: The girl who wasn’t my grandmother

Part I: Uncovering the history of Grandfather's first wife

EDITOR’S NOTE: We travel this week with Mike Lunsford on a journey across miles and memories, as he seeks answers to a long-ago family mystery. Today’s column is the first of a two-part story. Part II will run Tuesday.

I have tried to picture in my head a funeral procession of black, spindly legged Model Ts making their way across icy rural roads. It is a gray afternoon in March 1926. From the parlor of a small clapboard house in Brazil to an isolated and quiet Owen County graveyard, a grim hearse led the crawling procession east across the Old National Road to Manhattan, then southeast into the hilly countryside toward Fertig Cemetery.

Foremost among the mourners was my Grandfather Roy, for it was his wife, Beulah Jane, who had died; she was just 18 and pregnant, and they had been married less than two years. After that day, he would rarely speak of her again, and by doing so, he created a mystery for my daughter, Ellen, and me all these years later. …

I’m not sure why Beulah’s story has interested me enough to go in search of her. After all, she was not my grandmother, who was nearly worshiped in our family before she died at age 60. My grandfather married Blanche Nicely about a year and a half after his young first wife died, so any memory of Beulah faded away into the past, year by year. The little that anyone knew, or cared to share, about her eventually died with my grandfather, and my dad and my aunt. Years later, not long after my mother had passed, I found a photo in a basket of old snapshots she had kept in a closet. And in sepia tones of brown and yellow, there was my grandfather as he stood with Beulah, both smiling, both impossibly young.

“Who’s that?” I asked my brother, John, for no one else was alive who could possibly tell me. “That was Pa’s first wife,” he said. “She died young.”

Until then, I had never known there had ever been anyone in my grandfather’s life before my grandmother, and I suppose that is typical, for we don’t see our parents and grandparents as having lives, or being human, much before we are around to know them.  

Years later, as I digitized old family photos so that my brother, sister, son and his genealogy-obsessed older sister all could have copies, I kept coming across that same snapshot, wondering just who Beulah was, from where she came and where she was buried. A few weeks ago, I finally decided to try to find out.

The little that I knew about Beulah came from a story John told me. He said he remembered a drive that he, my mom, dad and grandfather had taken one Sunday afternoon not long after my grandmother’s death. He thought I may have been along for the ride, too, which makes sense, but I certainly couldn’t recall it.

“We were all crammed into that old blue Buick we had,” John said. “And I remember that we drove south of Manhattan, across John Gray Road (one of my grandfather’s sisters, Alice, lived there), and we went through a covered bridge, and Pa kept saying that it was so icy the day of the funeral and the cars could hardly make it up ‘Jackie Dunn Hill.’” He also said that my grandfather had gotten confused, and turned around as they searched for the graveyard, and that they ended up in several cemeteries, one that had a “white building near it.” He wasn’t certain that they had even seen Beulah’s grave that day.

With those few clues, I picked up Ellen on a steamy Monday morning in July and headed to Brazil, where, like two rookie history detectives, we started our quest in the Clay County Courthouse. My grandfather’s family, like many other large and laboring families of the day, moved where there was work to be found. Born in Parke County, he lived in Vermillion, Clay and Putnam counties, before returning to Rosedale in Parke, then eventually settling in northern Vigo County a few miles away. Born in 1902, he had at least 10 brothers and sisters, one of whom is buried in Missouri, and one who was killed at Haguenau and buried in France in 1945.    

Helped by a kind lady in the county clerk’s office — who upon discovering that I was going to write about Beulah in the newspaper, politely refused to give her name — we first found my grandfather and grandmother’s marriage license application and license. The person

who recorded the information listed Roy’s occupation as “miner,” and that it was his second marriage, his first ending in “Death.” Erroneously, it was recorded that his first wife had died in 1924, and that error, and others on her death certificate, would soon prove troublesome.

It is an interesting thing to be amid the musty and yellowing records of a county courthouse. The rush of forced air, the rustling of old paper, and the quiet scribbling of another family’s researcher excited us as we turned page after page and saw year after year of documents in hopes of finding what we needed. From the clerk’s stash of records, we then were directed to the county health department, near the hospital, to locate Beulah’s death certificate.

Ellen and I entrusted our search there into the capable hands of Lori Conrad, who claimed that she probably couldn’t help me as much as a colleague, who was at lunch. Yet, in just a few minutes (we first looked in the records for 1924), she led us to another yard-tall stack of registers, and eventually to Beulah’s death certificate.

That thin strip of information yielded important data: Beulah had died in her home along East Jackson Street in Brazil on March 4; she had been born on Dec. 1, 1907, in Putnam County, and her father’s name was Curtis Craft. Her attending physician was Dr. G.W. Finley; she had died of complications from nephritis, including “uremic eclampsia.” In layman’s terms, her kidneys quit working, and in those days before antibiotics, and because she was pregnant, Beulah couldn’t fight her own body’s toxins. Her blood pressure would have soared; she would have suffered convulsions; she probably would have slipped into a coma. …

The death certificate went on to list a local funeral home as handling the burial arrangements and that she was buried in “Ferdic” Cemetery in Putnam County. A quick search online showed us more than 100 cemeteries in Putnam County, none even close to that name.  

Perhaps the cemetery had been renamed; perhaps it was so small or so isolated that few people alive could even tell us where it was. After placing a call to the Putnam County Health Department in hopes of getting cemetery records, and waiting a while in a local coffee shop for a reply, Ellen and I headed to Manhattan in search of a covered bridge, a long, tall hill, and a cemetery that held the grave of the girl who never became my grandmother.

Mike Lunsford can be reached by email at hickory913@aol.com, or c/o the Tribune-Star at P.O. Box 149, Terre Haute, IN 47808. You can visit his website at www.mikelunsford.com; his new book, “A Windy Hill Almanac,” will be released this fall.

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