Down the rabbit hole

Lee Ann Sontheimer Murphy
Neosho Daily News

As a child, I was the kid who would hang out the adults, especially the elders, so I could hear their stories about old times. I was known to eavesdrop if necessary. Add to that that my early years were spent in St. Joseph, Missouri, an old river town where history surrounded me.

I learned a lot about my family and ancestors that way but when I was nine, my maternal grandmother’s family held a family reunion at Swope Park in Kansas City.  Dozens of relatives were there, my Barbie doll took a wild ride down the Blue River or one of its’ tributaries and I got bit by the genealogy bug.

When my mother took me to meet her late grandfather’s youngest brother, Uncle Paul, I had no idea what this meeting would mean to me. Although we’d never met – find a better word – him before, he told my mother to leave me with him, that he wanted to talk to me. And to my surprise, she obeyed and although I could be shy at that age, I sat down with him at his feet and listened.

He told me he knew about the poem I’d had in the paper about pioneers and wagon trains and told me that I came from those pioneers. He told me stories and I listened. I can’t remember all he told me but he fired both my imagination and my thirst for family history. And what I do recall proved true and verifiable.

So I’ve followed the trails into the past for decades now. Last week, when Newspapers.com announced a several day free period, I was hooked. Since those days coincided with our bitter temperatures and wintery weather, my focus shifted into the past. With a hot cup of coffee on the desk, I dived into to discover various newspaper accounts.

For a family historian, it was a treasure trove of obituaries, information and photos. I discovered a photo of my Pop’s grandparents. Since I have his grandmother’s rocking chair in my bedroom but had never seen a photo, this was huge. I also learned that my great-grandfather’s (Ben Hayward) brother, Uncle Joe was the “oldest veteran of the Burlington system”. Not only that, he’d worked with railroads back in England. He was part of the crews that built virgin track and eventually served as roadmaster.  As the oldest of Ben’s siblings, he was already working for a railroad when my great-grandfather was born. They were 14 years apart in age. He lived just over a year longer than his youngest sibling. When Ben died in 1929, my Granny recalled that Uncle Joe had said, in his broad Midlands English accent, “I was there when you were born and I’m here when you’re dead.”

I found addresses for homes where my ancestors lived and thanks to the magic of the internet was able to see a few of those that remain. For fun facts, I learned that my Granny played bunco back in the 1920’s and that my dad, age ten, liked to ride his bicycle off four-foot-high walls.  I read obituaries for my Lewis great-grandfather, great-great grandfather and third great-grandfather as well. I learned that that man, William Bruce Lewis, brought his family to live in Carthage prior to the Civil War, then moved to St. Joseph two years later. That was a new bit of information and now I’m interested in finding out why.

Like Laura Ingalls Wilder’s family, he trekked from Kentucky to Illinois to Iowa and Carthage before settling in St. Joe.

Although the free access to the site had ended, my zeal for tracing family history through the generations remains. There’s nothing like a new discovery or a confirmation of family lore.

-  Lee Ann Sontheimer Murphy is a former newspaper editor and journalist. Now a freelance writer, photographer and author, she makes her home in Neosho, MO.