Into the Great Black Swamp

Grandpa’s funeral struck the first crack in my assumptions of his background. His obituary said he was born in Van Wert, Ohio. I stared at the entry. I thought he had told me he was born just northwest of Dayton, “on a farm where Wolf Creek originates.” Only after my dad’s funeral would I realize that farm must have been where Dad was born, instead. And when Grandpa had nodded, over there, maybe he didn’t actually mean the farm in immediate view on that road north of Brookville, but rather a farm somewhere on its far side.

Still, this was the first clue I had that Grandpa hadn’t originated in Montgomery County, but four counties to the north, in the heart of what had been the Great Black Swamp. By now, I had already lived a couple of years in another corner of the swamp’s former expanse – some of America’s richest farmland, once it was drained in the late 1800s. Settled nearly three-quarters of a century after the land around Dayton, this was a place long prone to malaria – and then, to an oil boom, like those of Oklahoma and Texas. When Grandpa was born, it was still newly developing country – much of it only a generation or so – rather than long settled.

But how did he begin there? To understand that requires uncovering something of his grandparents, which I explain in depth in earlier posts on this blog.

In brief, the lives of both of my grandpa and grandma’s paternal grandparents would have centered on distinctive religious communities – for the Hodsons, the Quakers, formally known as the Society of Friends as well as just Friends; for the Ehrstines, it was the Dunkers, or German Baptist Brethren, before their branch emerged as the Church of the Brethren. Other strands would include the Brethren Church and the Grace Brethren – but not the Church of the United Brethren in Christ (generally known simply as United Brethren) and the River Brethren, or Brethren in Christ, which also play significant roles in the family history. Again, you’ll find these detailed in earlier posts.

I knew none of this at the time of Grandpa’s funeral. We were simply homogenous Midwesterners, awash in the middle class of America. Only later would I see how the very practice of simplicity and humility was a distinctive tradition now obscured by its very essence. Unconsciously, I was mourning the loss that accompanied their assimilation – the blackout of two legacies of focused living that had spanned nearly two centuries on this continent.

Even before Grandpa’s funeral, the large family Bible – later re-enforced by Grandma’s notes – had provided a few more clues about the Hodsons. Grandpa’s parents were Joshua and Alice McSherry Hodson, and Joshua was the son of Pleasant and Eunice Osban Hodson. But that was as far as it went, and there were no locations – no hint, especially, of the Tar Heel generations.

Alice, meanwhile, was Joshua’s second wife. His first, Josephine Jones Hodson, had died of complications after the birth of their second son, Kyle. Only their first son, Samuel, survived.

After Grandpa’s death, a number of relatives decided to devote the next family reunion to a presentation of what they knew of its origins. My mother reported that they spent a lot of time talking about a horse, Prince, all three of the boys had owned, and the family had been Quaker and come from North Carolina.

Both the Quaker and North Carolina elements came as a jolt. Yet, hearing of the horse details, I said, “Yep, they were Quaker.” Knowing the Society of Friends had kept meticulous records of its members, I at last had a place to begin research.

For Joshua, however, Van Wert’s index of minutes proved enigmatic. He was received into membership by request, married Josephine Jones, and after her death, was released from membership by request.

Thus, when Joshua moved north and applied to Van Wert Friends, he was reinstated in good order – four generations after George Hodson and Rachel Oldham had married contrary to discipline and been disciplined.

Joshua was born in 1857, just before the outbreak of the Civil War, which would curtail the little formal education he would receive. While the Quaker schools continued longer than others in the Confederacy, the stress eventually proved too great to sustain the effort. His father, meanwhile, faced the dilemma of being part of a church that taught pacifism as an essential element of Christianity; when the government that demanded he join its Confederate army, Pleasant, like many others, took to the woods – an activity they called “bushwhacking.” Pleasant no doubt saw it as a rich man’s war fought by the poor; Joshua must have witnessed the Home Guard, comprised of men from families that owned more than 20 slaves, when they harassed his mother and threatened to kill the rooster, to cut off the eggs that were the main protein in their diet.

These were stories handed down in the family, but not all the way down to me, not growing up.

After the death of Joshua’s first wife, this trail also led him to Alice McSherry, who had been one of Josie’s best friends and had boarded at the Jones’ household.

Grandpa was born not quite 35 years after the end of the Civil War. Those who had participated would have been telling their stories. On Alice’s side, a bachelor uncle – her mother’s only brother – had died of wounds two weeks after the brutal Battle of Stone River in Tennessee, six months before Gettysburg; his unfinished memoirs would come into her possession. They, too, are posted in this blog.

In both marriages, Joshua lived in the country most of the time. When they lived in town, however, it was on Race Street in Van Wert and, with his team and wagon, he hauled coal. He was also the fire chief, driving the team for the fire engine, where he created quite a stir as he raced past, his mustache flying in the wind. “Every time there was a fire, we kids would run outside and wave to Dad as he drove by,” my grandpa’s sister Vera recalled. Other employment included street building in the city of Van Wert. And, Aunt Vera remembered, the family had a pet peacock; for years afterward, her half-brother, Samuel, kept a photograph of the bird.

Vera also remembered her girls’ Sunday school class in the Van Wert Friends Church and looking out to see her father seated some distance away, his back to her as he taught the boys’ class.

Josie’s mother remained close to the family, serving as a grandmother to all. When she had moved to East High Street in Columbus (or possibly Summit, if it was “just around the corner” from High), Joshua visited frequently, often taking Samuel and Vera along and, later, Leroy. As Vera recalled, “Grandma was a very devout Quaker and spoke ‘thusly.’ It was always ‘thou’ instead of you, ‘shouldest’ instead of should.” Once, when Samuel ran off around the house, Rhoda Jones scolded him, “Thou knowest thou should not do that!” To which Floyd added: “Aunt Vera said she was always amused at her expressions.”

Samuel’s obituary places the family’s move to Brookville, in Montgomery County, around 1904, but Floyd gave me a five-page letter to Rhoda Jones placing the change earlier; it is dated Brookville O 7/2/-02, and an envelope, postmarked July 8 and addressed in a different hand, is to Mrs. Rhoda C. Jones, 1417 Summit St., Columbus, Ohio:

Dear Mother & Family

Your letter this P M and was glad to here from you but was sorrow to here of your sickness & was so in hopes you would be able to pay us a visit this Summer & sincerely hope you will gaine your streng- suficiently to come after a while I want Samuel to go to your house some time summer if we can posably see our way clear to send him he is sitting by the table whistling and ocasionly asking me som questions he has bin gathering rasberies for severel days him and I got enough the other day to make 10 quarts and we have over 20 cans so far and lots in the woods yet to get if we can find time to pick them. I am not done making hay yet it has bin so very wet for a weeck as (most?) I could not do any thing at it. We have Plenty of new Beens Potatoes & Cabbage & Red beets know (Carie?) in Regard to your geting from Dayyton to Brookville thier is a Traction Road Runs from dayton to Grenville [Greenville] By way of Salem Brookville and soon they leve the mmain st River Bridge every hour from 5 o’clock in the Morning untill 10 at night Know we would be awful glad to have you take a sunday trip and come out and see us and if you should when you get on the Traction give the Conducter a quarter that Pays your fair from dayton to Salem and Return then tell him you want of at Mitchels Crossing that is the first X roads west of Selm, turn southe that would be to your Left looking west the second house on your left is where we ar at a 2 story frame if you will let me know I will come up and be on the look out for you we have no buggy ar carage but it is onley 1 mile, and going in to dayton the cars go in Just the same as they come out they Pas evry hour one Each way I Think you could get out here by 9 or 10 Clock. Mother Take good care of your Self O yes I got an other swarm of bees Last weeak that makes Me to swarms so far this summer I must close hoping to here from yuou soon

Fare well to all

J F Hodson

Samuel said he would write some other time. he got his grading card yesterday he was Permoted

Josh

P S if you cant Read this just bring it over and I will Talk faster Than I can wright

The penmanship deteriorates as the letter progresses. The last entries are placed upside-down or sideways, and the spelling and grammar reflect a semi-literacy (no doubt arising from an education interrupted by the Civil War), yet I am struck by the open emotion and humor he expresses.

Perhaps Alice’s earlier exposure to Montgomery County – in addition to movement of others in her family to the city of Dayton – encouraged Joshua to move to Brookville and Verona (also known as New Baltimore).

In a telephone conversation, Vera recalled bits from her childhood. A time, for instance, when my grandfather, her brother James, “nearly choked to death on ‘hooping cough.’” She confirmed that Joshua remained Quaker – the family observed “silent grace” before meals – and he wore felt hip boots all winter: she called him “proud but with a mustache. He would help us kids. He had typhoid when I was little. Another time, he got his teeth too cold, ‘pert near died’” of a condition she called ensyphillus. “He had broad shoulders, never swore, a good clean man.” She recalled, too, an incident when she was eight or nine and he was using “a little horse whip to get ’em where they shoulda been” as he fed them. When he saw Vera, he snapped: “Get back in the house,” perhaps embarrassed to be seen using force of any kind. “My dad was strict on living,” she said, telling of a time Samuel had a deck of cards. Joshua “took them cards and said, ‘Here’s where those go,’ and put them in the stove. Dad was strict, but he was good.” She did observe, surprisingly, that he chewed tobacco – a practice Friends would have frowned upon, though certainly not out of character for someone raised in major tobacco-growing countryside like North Carolina. Telling of another experience, “He thought we was storying” – until he saw footprints in the mud and knew their report was true, the children had encountered a threatening stranger.

Of her mother, Alice, Vera said, “She wore long dresses. Was very particular. She wasn’t big – straight up, slender, was never real heavy. She always called him ‘Josh.’ Her hair was heavy, went clear to her ankles. One time, honey bees got in it” – something that must have been a hilarious recollection for the children. “She would sing, ‘Precious Name,’ you know.” Her favorite expression was “‘Just to think!’ She never talked much.”

That’s the flavor of Grandpa’s upbringing. There are many more details in the earlier posts, should you be interested.

But for now, my focus turns to Grandma and Grandpa themselves and the new worlds they faced.

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