Friday, March 16, 2018

Benjamin Smith's baby dress

The 52 Ancestors theme this week is “lucky.”

This beautiful baby dress once belonged to Benjamin Gordon Smith, my husband’s grand uncle. Ben was born in Apollo, Armstrong County, Pennsylvania on November 18, 1882 and was the first born child of John Milton Smith and Amanda Larimer Horne. He was an only child until his brother George was born on October 22, 1885.

In 2008, my father-in-law (Earl Murphy) was in declining health so he moved to an apartment near us. At the time, he still owned a house about 25 miles away. He and my mother-in-law (Mary Athya Murphy) purchased the house in 1981, planning to move there when he retired. Earl spent several years remodeling the house while still living in the family house. Once he was ready to retire, they sold the family house and moved to the retirement house. We helped them clean out the family house attic, which contained many boxes that hadn’t been opened in years. Those boxes were moved to the retirement house and placed in a cement block shed that stood beside the driveway where they would remain unopened for many more years.

Before her death, Mary told me several times that there was a program in the shed from Apollo’s 125th anniversary celebration in 1941. Because of this, and assuming there would be other documents, I knew it was important to go through every box when we  cleaned out the shed in the late 2000s. Having done a lot of research on the Smith family, I was on the lookout for the celebration program, which we found, along with many other documents that are gold to a genealogist. It turns out, the boxes contained items that had once belonged to my husband’s maternal grandmother, Bertha Edna Smith Athya and his maternal great-grandmother, Amanda Smith. I remember opening one cardboard box in particular. Inside the box were odds and ends as well as a dirty plastic bag. I could tell there was a piece of cloth wadded up in the bag but had no idea of what I was about to discover. When I opened the bag, I found this baby dress. My mother-in-law was the only person who would have known anything about the gown, but she had passed away in 2006. Lucky for us, Mary’s mother, Bertha, had written a note and placed it inside the bag with the dress. The note reads:
Uncle Ben Smith’s baby dress made by his mother about 1884. His birthday Nov. 16, 1882. Died Dec. 15, 1956. His mother Amanda Horne Smith.
Note found inside the bag with the baby dress, written by Ben's
sister Bertha Smith Athya. (Note: all records show Ben's birthday
as Nov 18, not 16).

Ben never married and lived with his mother Amanda for many years. It’s assumed that once the dress had met it’s needs, Amanda packed it away for safekeeping. I have no way of knowing if Ben ever took possession of the dress as an adult but I doubt it. My guess is it stayed packed away with his mother’s possessions until she passed away in 1943. Amanda was living with Bertha at that time so being the only girl in the family that survived, she took possession of the dress and it moved with her to Ohio after Amanda’s death. In 1949, Ben moved to the Elks Home in Bedford, Bedford County, Virginia where he died in 1957. Bertha was living with Mary when she passed away in 1979. Mary kept many of her mother’s belongings, the dress being one of them.

The 1880 census record shows that Amanda was employed as a dressmaker so it’s no surprise that she made this dress for her first-born child. She would have been 24 years old at the time.

Amanda and Ben Smith

After finding the dress, I brought it home and gently cleaned it with baby laundry detergent, then laid it flat to dry. I spent a Sunday afternoon looking for a baby hanger in the local shopping center and no one had anything appropriate for sale. I finally found one in a baby clothes display at Macy’s. I asked if they were for sale, which they weren’t. They had several laying around the cash registers though and one of the cashiers gave one to me.

The dress is 19 ½ inches in length and 10 inches wide at the waist. The material, which is very thin, is the color ecru. The dress has some damage—four small holes on the front skirt, two round holes on the back, and a long-frayed tear on the back. I see the beginnings of a small hole on one sleeve. Otherwise, it’s in fair condition.

The dress is about 134 years old and now hangs in my bedroom. Thank God Bertha left a note in the bag with the dress or we would have never known the history behind the dress.

Holes on the front skirt

Back of the dress

Back of the dress

Back arm tear

In 2014, I set a genealogy goal to document our family treasures. Although I’ve included this item in previous posts, I recently realized it needs to be added in the family treasures series so this post takes care of that.

Friday, March 9, 2018

My Mama, the strongest woman I know

The 52 Ancestors theme this week is “strong woman.” I didn’t have to think too long to determine the subject of my blog post this week.

What comes to mind when you think of a “strong woman?” Do you think of one of the female athletes we just watched during the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympics? Maybe you think about Mother Teresa or Rosa Parks, two women that helped change the world. Or perhaps you think of one of the World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) divas, or She-Ra, the Princess of Power? Not me … when I think of a strong woman, it’s my Mama that comes to mind, Fay Lankford.

What makes her a strong woman? Well, let me tell you …

… Mama was just a young girl when her mother left home, leaving her only child behind. Granny would come and go in Mama’s life for the rest of her childhood, including having little contact with her from 1941 to 1948. Granddaddy was a truck driver so had to depend on help from family, neighbors, and hired help to take care of Mama. She had a lonely childhood.

Granny and Mama

… At age 15, Mama met and married Daddy. My sister was born the following year. Later that same year, Daddy came home and told Mama he was selling the house to a couple that lived with them and she could do whatever she wanted. Mama’s uncle helped move her and my sister to Tunnel Hill in north Georgia. The two of them moved between houses, staying with Granny and my Grandma Shields (Granny’s mother). At one point, Mama and my sister were separated for several months when Granny moved to Tennessee and took my sister with her. Mama divorced Daddy that year.

Mama, my sister Bonita, and Daddy

… While living in Tunnel Hill, Mama got a job in Chattanooga, Tennessee. With no car, she left home three and a half hours before her shift at the textile mill began and walked three miles to the bus station, then rode the bus 20 miles to Chattanooga, and finally caught a city bus to the mill. Her shift ran from 3 to 11 PM and then she made the same trip home. After several weeks of this routine, she was able to get a room in Chattanooga and found someone to help take care of my sister while she worked. They lived there a year before Mama got an apartment of her own.

… After moving to the apartment, Daddy re-entered the picture for a few days but then left again. Mama and my sister moved back to Tunnel Hill and stayed with Grandma Shields. Daddy eventually came back, they remarried, and Daddy helped Mama and my sister move back to the Atlanta area.

Grandma Shields, Mama, me, and Jennifer

… Four more children were born but by all accounts, it was a lonely, loveless marriage. Daddy worked and provided for the family but mostly kept to himself. Mama took care of everything else. She was involved in school, took us to church, and made sure we were always doing something fun. When I look back at family pictures, we spent a lot of time around water—going to Lake Spivey and Joy Lake. She saved her money and took us for a beach vacation in Florida every year. At least seven or eight houses in our neighborhood belonged to one family. They welcomed our family into theirs and invited us to join them at their property on Lake Jackson, their vacations in Daytona Beach, and even their family Christmas parties. They would often take us kids to the lake during the week and Mama would join us on the weekends. Mama and the five of us kids spent many, many fun times with them.

Michael, Mama, Jennifer (back), Vanessa (front), Bonita, and me

… Mama eventually divorced Daddy again but she waited for all five of her kids to reach adulthood before taking that step.

… Mama worked a full-time retail job all those years, managing a shoe store. She was robbed multiple times during her many years of employment—five times with a gun and twice with a knife. I would have quit after the first time but she didn’t.

… Mama was scheduled to go on a trip to Italy the fall of 2001. Then 9/11 happened. Many people felt she shouldn’t go but she said “if the State Department doesn’t feel it’s safe for us to go, they won’t let us go.” I would have cancelled but she went and had a ball.

… Volunteering has always been important to Mama. When we were young, she volunteered with the March of Dimes. In 1996, Mama was a volunteer during the Atlanta Olympics, working security. She served on the Clayton County Senior Advisory Council for the Parks and Recreation’s Senior Adult Division where she helped develop programs for the seniors. She worked with the Red Cross, supporting blood drives and disaster relief. Mama was named Clayton County’s (Georgia) Red Cross Volunteer of the Year in May 2002. The Red Cross Disaster Relief sent Mama to North Carolina in 1999 after Hurricane Floyd and to Oregon in the summer of 2002 to help with the fires. As part of the Clayton County Golden Kiwanis Club, she supported schools, battered women’s shelters, the March of Dimes, and helped prepare food baskets to pass out at Thanksgiving and Christmas. She has been active in senior centers for years. She was there at tax time to help organize the seniors coming to get their taxes done. For several years, she cooked treats to sell at the senior center to raise money for birthday parties. She organized a group of women (and one man who drives his wife so he joins in) that meet monthly for lunch. They call themselves the Gruntin’ Grannies because she said they all grunt when they get out of their chairs or cars. Now I giggle every time I hear myself grunt when getting out of my car! She’s always thinking of something she can do to help someone.

… Mama has had several health setbacks in the last 25 to 30 years. She was near death a time or two but thankfully pulled through. On one occasion, I spent three weeks at my youngest sister’s house helping her take care of Mama. I gained a new respect for healthcare givers during that time. It was the hardest thing I’d ever done and I wasn’t the one in recovery. During her recovery, Mama did everything the doctor told her to do because she wanted to get back to her normal life. My sister, who has health issues of her own, has been a rock in watching over Mama for many years and I appreciate everything she does. They take good care of each other.

Mama last came to Virginia in May 2017 and while she was here, it struck me that she is a very independent woman. I hadn’t thought about her that way before. While clearly handicapped, she didn’t want to be waited on. She was perfectly capable of getting herself out of the chair or the car. Mama didn’t let the setbacks in her life hold her back. She likes to say she’s making rocking chair memories. Well, I think she’s made enough to last many lifetimes! Mama is the strongest woman I know. She raised five productive children. She persevered. I hope I can be half the person she is. She’s my hero.

Friday, March 2, 2018

Willie Mae Shields

Willie Mae (Shields) Smith
The 52 Ancestors theme this week is “Where There’s a Will” so I thought I would write about a female member of the family that fits the bill—Willie Mae Shields.

Willie Mae Shields, daughter of James Stewart Shields and Hattie Jane Rhinehart, was born on July 3, 1914 in Varnell, Whitfield County, Georgia. She was the 2nd child of 11—Daisy Lee Shields, Willie Mae Shields, James B. Shields, Betty Ann Shields, Paul Sam Shields, Bessie Lucille Shields, Mary Nell Shields, Dorothy Joline Shields, Bobbie Jean Shields, Charles Dewayne Shields, and Loyal Mack Shields. It’s believed that Hattie had a 12th child, possibly stillborn, but I’ve not found any proof of that. Her older sister Daisy was my granny so she was my grand aunt. I know we visited her a couple of times when I was very young but I don’t remember her at all. What I share here comes from my research and memories of a few family members. Her life timeline follows.

What goes into selecting your baby’s name? I know for my children, we simply created a list of names and crossed them off the list until we came up with a combined name we both liked. I probably shouldn’t admit it, but it never entered my mind to name my children after anyone. I wonder how my Pappy (James Stewart Shields) and Grandma Shields (Hattie Jane Rhinehart) came up with the name Willie Mae. Did they just pick the name out of the blue? The name wasn’t that popular at the time. There were 23 girls given the name Willie Mae in 1914 according to, although includes the names “Willie” and “Mae” on the list of “100 Most Popular Baby Names of 1914.” According to the Social Security Administration, the name Willie was number 66 and Mae was number 88 in the “Top names of the 1910s” for women. With “Willie” being a shortened form of William, perhaps Willie was given this name to honor family members. Her grandfather was William Dearnald Rhinehart; her great-grandfather William Robert Sneed. Another great-grandfather is said to be William Cleason Ogle although I still need to prove this one. Her uncle was William Elmer Shields. Her middle name “Mae” could have been to honor two of Willie’s great-grandmothers who were named Mary. According to, “Mae” is a “pet form” of Mary. I guess I’ll never know but I do like that it’s a very Southern name which was appropriate given that Willie and her family lived in north Georgia.

Stewart Shields, Daisy Shields, Hattie (Rhinehart)
Shields, and Willie Mae Shields
A month before Willie’s second birthday in 1916, her brother James, the first boy in the family, was born at home. Her sister Betty was welcomed into the family in 1919.

On January 6, 1920, Willie and her family lived in the Lower Tenth District of Whitfield County, Georgia. She and Daisy were both attending school. Willie’s father was a farmer on a general farm. Her 54-year-old widowed maternal grandmother, Betty (Sneed) Rhinehart, lived in the home with the family. Three more siblings were added to the family during this decade—Paul Sam in 1922, Bessie in 1924, and Mary in 1927.

On April 19, 1930, Willie and her family lived at Prater Mill and Deep Springs Roads, still in the Lower Tenth District of Whitfield County. At age 15, Willie did not attend school, however, she was able to read and write. Farming was still the occupation of choice for her father. Willie’s paternal grandparents, Cas and Martha (Ogle) Shields, lived next door, along with her uncle Blaine Shields. Willie’s parents now had a full house (with more to come) of eight children with the girls outnumbering the boys six to two. Joline, Bobbie, Charles, and Mack were all born during this decade.

At age 24, Willie was practically a spinster when she married Loyal Cecil Smith, son of William David Smith and Annie Mae Reed, on March 18, 1939, location unknown. No children were born to this union. Willie did become pregnant once but lost the baby and was never able to have others. I feel sad for Willie that she was unable to have children, but being the second oldest of such a large family, I’m sure she had her hand in raising many children.

Cecil and Willie Smith

At the time of their marriage, Cecil had been living in Chatsworth, Murray County, Georgia and Willie in Dalton. By the time the census enumerator made his rounds on April 26, 1940, they had made their home in Dalton, Whitfield County, Georgia. Willie stayed at home keeping the house while Cecil worked as a clerk in a retail grocery store. It appears they spent a short time living in Chattanooga, Hamilton County, Tennessee as I found them listed in the 1942 city directory. Cecil worked as a truck driver for the Malone Freight Line at the time.

By 1951, they had moved back to Dalton. At the time, Willie worked as a machine operator for Dixie Chenilles which is not surprising since Dalton is known for its textile/chenille industry. Willie and Cecil still lived in Dalton in 1958 according to the city directory.

On September 7, 1962, Willie’s father (my Pappy) suffered a blood clot of the heart and was found dead in the field by his house in Tunnel Hill, Catoosa County, Georgia. Her brother James lived in Alabama when he passed away in 1972. Her sister Betty also lived in Alabama when she passed away in 1975. Pappy and James were both buried at Nellie Head Cemetery in Tunnel Hill. Betty was buried at West Hill Cemetery in Dalton. Willie’s mother Hattie (her children called her “Mommie,” we called her Grandma Shields) passed away in Chattanooga in 1982. Grandma Shields was buried with Pappy at Nellie Head Cemetery. Daisy (my granny) passed away in Riverdale, Clayton County, Georgia in 1987. Granny was buried at Anderson Cemetery in Ringgold.

There was most likely always music in the Shields home. Willie’s father played the fiddle and her mother the banjo. I don’t know about the girls in the family but have seen photos of Paul Sam and Mack playing as well.

Frizzle chickens. Photo by
Jean Bungartz [public domain], 
via Wikimedia Commons.
Willie and Cecil had Frizzle chickens, which according to Wikipedia, “is a breed of chicken with characteristic curled or frizzled plumage.” Mama described them as chickens with the feathers turned backwards. She also remembers them having stuffed rabbits and snakes sitting on the mantel.

After Willie was diagnosed with cancer, the Reed family and her brother Charles’ daughter took care of her. Willie died on January 13, 1994 at the age of 79 in a Dalton hospital. She was buried on January 15 at the Reed Family Cemetery, a private cemetery in Chatsworth on top of a hill overlooking the mountains. They had to dig through solid rock to make the grave.

Willie and Cecil Smith

Photo by Vida Betterton from Find A Grave ID 47182808.

Friday, February 23, 2018

Electra Smith's water pitcher

Electra's water pitcher
The 52 Ancestors theme this week is “heirloom” so I’d like to tell you about a water pitcher that was given to me in the late 1990s by my mother-in-law, Mary Athya Murphy. Mary held on tightly to her belongings so it was a surprise when she gave it to me. I had been researching her Smith family, which she had said would be impossible to figure out because they had such a common name. Fortunately, her ancestor named her first three children with “E” names—Electra, Erastus, and Eunice. This made it very easy to research this family! After I’d spent a year or so working on this line, I began to feel like I knew the Smith family. I’m sure many of you feel the same way about the ancestors you spend so much time researching.

Mary kept Electra’s water pitcher on top of the organ in their living room. At the time, it was filled with cattails and other dried flowers. On one visit to their house, I shared with Mary my feelings about the Smith family and told her I’d love to have Electra’s water pitcher if she was ever ready to give it up. It didn’t happen immediately, but one day as we were saying our goodbyes, she gave it to me. I promised Mary I’d take good care of it for her.

Electra Smith Jack
This water pitcher originally belonged to Electra B. Smith, Mary’s grand aunt. Electra, the daughter of John Thompson Smith and Jane Gordon, was born in Armstrong County, Pennsylvania (probably Apollo) on February 11, 1841. Electra and her husband Daniel Jack (a Civil War veteran) spent their last years living in the home of George Athya and his wife Bertha (Smith) Athya, Mary’s parents. Daniel died in the house on December 10, 1925 before Mary’s birth in 1929. Electra continued to live with George and Bertha in the house until her death on April 22, 1932. I assume that Bertha kept the pitcher after Electra’s death. Although Electra helped raised her sister’s six children, she never had children of her own. Since Electra was living with Bertha, one assumes they were close so it makes sense that Bertha would take possession of the water pitcher at that point. Bertha was living with Mary in Virginia when she died in April 22, 1979 (and I just realized as I’m writing this that both Electra and Bertha died on the same day, April 22!) so the pitcher became Bertha’s at that time. Mary kept the pitcher from 1979 until the late 1990s when she gave it to me.

Electra married Daniel Jack, the widow of her sister Eunice, in Apollo on February 20, 1896. This tells me the pitcher is at least 122 years old since the last name on the side is her maiden name “Smith,” not her married name “Jack.”

The white glazed pitcher is in good condition. It has grape leaves on both sides and underneath the spout. There is gold stenciling on the handle, around the mouth, bottom, and on the leaves.

The name “Electa Smith” is also stenciled on the front. The height of the pitcher is 9 inches at the spout and 10 and a quarter inches at the handle. The base is 4 and a half inches and the bowl about 8 inches.

The stenciling shows some wear on the handle and spout but otherwise is in good condition.

The marking on the bottom is “AF” followed by a period. There is the number 2 underneath the AF. The “A” and “F” share the same line.

Electra’s water pitcher sits on the dresser in my bedroom so I see it every day. I often find myself reflecting on what life would have been like for Electra in the late 19th, early 20th centuries.

I plan to keep my promise to Mary and take care of this Smith family heirloom.

Electra holding my mother-in-law Mary Athya, ca. 1930

Friday, February 16, 2018

Warner’s Skyline Drive-In Theater

Ralph Murphy, Projectionist at the Skyline Drive-in
The 52 Ancestors theme this week is “valentine.” When I saw that, I immediately thought “I got nothing!” I dug around my trees, looked through some photos, and racked my brain for a good valentine story, but still came up with nothing. I’m sure there are love stories in my tree but I haven’t found them yet. Maybe it’s because Valentine’s Day has never really meant anything to me so my mind is fighting it. So, like last week, I’m cheating again and instead will share a group of photos we have of a drive-in located in West Virginia. Who knows, maybe these photos will remind someone of a Valentine’s Day evening they spent at a drive-in with a special person years ago.

Warner’s Skyline Drive-In Theater
In 2007, my husband Charlie, his Dad Earl, and I visited his Aunt Jean Murphy in Bridgeport, Harrison County, West Virginia. Before we left, Aunt Jean gave Charlie 15 boxes of slides taken by her husband (and Charlie’s uncle) Ralph Murphy. There were thousands of slides in the collection, spanning the years 1947 to 1984. Many were scenic shots from their travels across the United States, some were family members, and others were friends and co-workers. I wanted to convert the slides to digital images but there were so many the task was overwhelming. I converted a few here and there and then abandoned the boxes for several years. I finally bit the bullet in August 2015 and made it my yearly genealogy project during a summer “staycation.” I spent the full week inserting three slides into a tray, pushing the tray into the slide scanner, and pressing a button. It was that easy, but time consuming. Since I completed the project, I’ve spent hours looking at the photos and they’ve brought great joy into my life. I’ve been able to identify many of the family members in the images, but many remain a mystery. I hope to remedy that someday by posting the images on the Internet. Hopefully someone will find and recognize these unknown people. Now, about the drive-in.

Warner’s Skyline Drive-in Theater was located on U.S. 19 in Clarksburg, Harrison County, West Virginia. According to, it opened on June 29, 1948. The original owner was Charles Warner, thus its name. The first movie to hit the big screen was Come and Get It, a 1936 film that featured Walter Brennan. The capacity for cars was 400 spaces. According to an obituary I found for Evelyn Caputo, her husband, Samuel Caputo, purchased the drive-in in 1955. The obituary also noted “When the drive-in was destroyed by a severe storm in 1960, material salvaged from the screen was used to construct Sam’s Market on Rt. 19 S.” Mr. Caputo apparently rebuilt the drive-in and remained the owner until it closed in 1985. On a website for the WI Newsletter, Barbara Ann Paugh Patton posted a photo of the drive-in road sign on a page marked Trivia Picture. Many people who knew what is was wrote comments on the page. Kay Corathers Connor wrote the “drive-in was built on an old strip mine and the owners lived in a nice house up on the hill beside the theatre area.” Jay Sharp wrote “As you start down the hill you can see a small lake on the right-hand side.” You’ll see evidence of that lake in two of the photos in Uncle Ralph’s collection. And one person, Bill Losh, even mentions Uncle Ralph stating “Their projectionist at that time was my neighbor, Ralph Murphy.”

These photos are part of Uncle Ralph’s slide collection.

Ralph was there from the beginning, documenting construction

The driveway to the drive-in

Skyline ticket booth
Unknown projectionist
Unknown projectionist
Skyline refreshment center
Unknown workers inside the Skyline refreshment center
Unknown workers inside the Skyline refreshment center
Unknown workers inside the Skyline refreshment center
Skyline refreshment center

Ralph's wife Jean Murphy and an unknown woman
Jean Murphy

Ralph Murphy

First three young women are unknown; Jean Murphy

The lake mentioned by Jay Sharp
The lake mentioned by Jay Sharp

1., Skyline Drive-In Theater - Facts & Highlights;
2. Obituary for Evelyn Caputo, Davis-Weaver Funeral Home, August 2015;
3. The WI Newsletter, Trivia Picture, no. 91, March 2007;