Tag Archives: North Carolina

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.

Continue reading Into the Great Black Swamp


Riding along in Bessie and other business

When I came along, as their second grandchild, Grandpa was 48 – not quite five years older than his father had been at Grandpa’s birth. This might suggest Grandpa had experienced some of the emotional distance from his own father that I, in turn, felt from him.  That is, he was repeating a pattern he had absorbed as a child. There was, at least, something formal in the relationship between generations.

My earliest memories include climbing – repeatedly – up through his legs as he sat in his upholstered chair in their living room (in the days before the recliner) or of being bounced on his lap – the same chair he’d wind up snoring in after Sunday dinners. Curiously, I don’t recall the same playfulness with my own dad, although I carry a memory of riding home on his shoulders once, all the way from Wayne Avenue to our rental on Wilmington, and impressions of riding piggy-back from time to time.

Later memories have Grandpa sitting in the chair, teasing at a strand of hair – a nervous habit that left bald patches in his otherwise thick head of hair.

While his plumbers relied on a fleet of paneled vans, Grandpa always relied on a pickup named “Bessie,” no matter the make or model, or a nondescript car for his rounds. The vinyl seat-covers he proudly installed were sticky hot in the summer and stiffly cold in winter. During the years we were without a car of our own, Dad would sometimes borrow Bessie for the weekend so we could run errands or go out to the farm. In those days, we kids could always ride in the open-air bed, as long as we behaved ourselves. It’s been outlawed, at least where I live.

By the time I remember riding along with Grandpa on his plumbing rounds, he was well established and in his 50s. At that time in my life, chemistry experiments would have been more interesting, along with seining crawdads. But there was little explanation in these trips to the plumbing supply warehouse or the Ford dealer, much less the intricacies of one hot water heater over another, or the reasons we were popping into basements all over town.

As boss, he could combine business and pleasure. I remember his  stopping at a small grocery on Riverside Drive, the only place for miles that carried a delicacy known as pickled pigs feet. He bought several jars, and then found an excuse to be in another part of town where he could pull to the curb, run up to a door, and hand one to the woman of the house. “Surprise Ike when he comes home tonight,” he told her.

“Oh, James!” she shrieked. “You know how much he likes these!”

Ike was one of his black diggers. Or “colored,” as they said.

Me, I never touched the stuff. And, come to think of it, I’m not sure he offered.

Once, he let me open the mail when it arrived beside the dining room. I remember handling a check for almost seven hundred dollars and thinking it was an impressive sum. (In fairness, the average annual wage at the time was under $5,000.) I imagined Grandpa must be a very rich man to be getting checks like that. But another envelope had a cancelation mark saying HELP STAMP OUT SYPHILLIS. “Grandpa, what’s syphillis?” I asked innocently.

Continue reading Riding along in Bessie and other business

On the educational side

In this family, education was taken seriously, within limits of practicality and with a strong dose of suspicion.

I had always assumed that Grandpa had finished high school. His father, however, had received only rudimentary schooling at the outset and after the Civil War. In North Carolina, the Quaker schools were the last to shut down, and reopened early in the years after with much assistance from Friends in the North.

Still, the 1870 Census reports 13-year-old Joshua was working the farm while his 10-year-old brother attended school. Grandpa’s mother and his wife both taught school for a while; a college degree was not required in those days, especially in the one-room schools.

TJ notes, though, “I don’t think my dad went beyond eighth grade. The boys had to work the farmland. I have my mother’s eighth-grade graduation picture, but not a high school picture. She did prepare for a teacher’s certificate and I assume she did teach, but not for long.”

Now I’m wondering just what drew Grandma to teaching.

Continue reading On the educational side

In the mirror

What precisely did I see? And of that, what have I blotted out? As a kid, I always felt somehow lacking any authentic traditions, not solely from Grandpa and Grandma’s side, either. While much of their Sunday dinner conversation felt banal, I’d assumed – only half-right, as it turns out, we’d been in Ohio since its beginning. Nothing of the Carolina Piedmont was acknowledged, although in time I would eventually hear a touch lingering in Aunt Vera’s inflection.

What I remember is imbued with a sense of loss and foreboding. Contemplating my grandparents is difficult because I, too, have spent so much of my life trying to break away from their ways, no less than they did in regard to their own grandparents – I, with my passion for fine arts and literature, my radical political convictions, and, especially, my zigzag spiritual quest that paradoxically led me to reclaim practices and teachings of our earlier ancestors. Even after I was active within the Society of Friends, Grandpa never mentioned it had been the faith of his own father. Nor did he ever let on that he knew our surname had used three spellings – Hodson, Hodgson, and Hodgin – a problem that plagued Floyd and me as we delved into the labyrinth of our family origins. Only after Grandpa’s death and much struggle in piecing together the appropriate Quaker minutes and our finally concluding the three spellings really did spring from a single source, did Aunt Myrl recall having a slip of paper on which Grandpa had written the three variants.

Theirs was also the generation that relocated from the farm to the city. For Grandpa, there were other departures from tradition, such as joining a secret society, the Masonic lodge, which would have been a disownable offense in the churches of most of his ancestors. Leroy, his brother, did likewise, in addition to serving in the U.S. Army during World War I.

Granted, these reflected society at large, and my grandparents did live through two world wars that reshaped American attitudes and life. Nor were they that far removed from the American Civil War; both of their fathers had been born before its eruption, one in North Carolina, the other in Ohio, in pacifist households.

Also hindering clear perceptions of Grandpa and Grandma were my subconscious attempts to fit them into the archetypes of idealized grandparents. Or, more fully, my mother’s efforts to fit them into the fairy tales she held regarding perfect families. Who insists, after all, that grandparents are to be doting and spoiling, free to go home at the end of the day? Or even that anyone deserves to be perfect? For that matter, Mom was the one to complain when her stepmother, our Gran, slipped my sister and me each a dollar bill for the week – effectively doubling our allowance.

In the long haul, simply showing up for occasions marking others’ milestones conveys more than I had imagined, regardless of my sense at the time. From the photographs, I see Grandpa and Grandma were present when I received my Eagle Scout badge, took confirmation, and graduated from high school (but not college).

More telling, there was no need to call them Grandpa and Grandma Hodson.

Look closely, though, or ask around, and you’re likely to find nobody whose grandparents quite fit into the warm, doting prototypes. The same goes for exemplars as parents or the idealized home life.

Continue reading In the mirror

Back to the countryside

Grandpa’s final years were spent in a brick ranch house set in a loop amid fields along the National Road. Through this period, we seldom saw each other. I came down, from another corner of the state, with my fiancee when he remarried. And later, after our return from the Pacific Northwest and resettlement in another corner of the state, we came down for his funeral, conducted by two members of their church. “They nearly converted me,” my then-wife said afterward. His widow, meanwhile, said, “Don’t those hymns really move you? Don’t they really say it all?” Referring to the heavy vibrato electronic organ, rather than any singing we might have done.

He had married another woman with impressive Brethren roots. Another Capricorn, for that matter. “A good Christian woman,” as he put it. I remember a somber woman with two gracious sons, and rumors of some conflict with one of my cousins.

There were more trips to California, too, with his preference for Knotts Berry Farm rather than Disneyland.

Perhaps this was a time of reflection for him, before he collapsed and died while shaving.

We did not smoke, drink alcoholic beverages, or tell certain kinds of stories the way others did. We did not gamble, that I can tell. We did not party much, at least not in the raucous, outgoing, overbearing way that brings the police. We were not wealthy and did not live in the classier parts of town, either. In short, we were – and still are – a rather simple people. With some pretty good reasons.

About all we seemed to have was this odd, seemingly rare, six-letter name. Not as rare, it turns out, as I had thought. But still uncommon enough to cause problems: a name others often misspelled as Hudson or, as I could never understand, as Hodgson, with a g. Yet, as cousin Floyd Hodson has remarked, “A name is something we should live up to, wear with pride, constantly strive to upgrade its identity, let it always stand for honesty.” He adds: “I think the name Hodson has done all of these things. I’ve never been ashamed to introduce a Hodson to anyone. My name, because of the value and high standards given to it by my ancestors, has been one of my most valuable possessions.”

When I was an intern reporter at the Journal Herald in Dayton, I was surprised at the number of times I encountered the response, “Oh, you’re Marion’s boy,” or, “Are you any relation to James the plumber?” – to which would be added: “They’re a good family.”

But what does that mean?

Perhaps it was simply the lack of talk about anyplace else that misled me.

I do not recall hearing, as a child, many stories of my family roots – at least beyond my grandparents. My Hodson line seemed to possess little in the way of music, literature, or the visual arts, other than a generic Protestant religiosity and plastic-fork consumerism.

At any rate, searching for family roots was something I would have shied away from. In the end, each individual must assume responsibility for his own destiny, regardless of the strengths or weaknesses of genetic endowment. What is the good of finding distant linkage to royalty or fame unless estates or lost fortunes are involved? There is ego gratification, of course, but that urge entails risk: consider those who set out with high hopes that quickly shatter when they discover an ancestor hanged as a horse thief or that their good Christian name exposes relatively recent Jewish descent. At such points the quest is usually dropped. For others, genealogical investigation is a form of ancestor worship; frankly, I can think of better ways of spending eternity than being bound to legions sharing a surname.

Yet some curiosity remained. As Floyd observed in his letter: “When we think or speak of a name, we immediately think of those people’s characteristics, their habits, their personalities, and everything [else] that makes up every fiber of their being and [whether] it adds up to good or bad.”

During a visit home during Dad’s long decline to Alzheimer’s, I worshipped at a pastoral Friends meeting, rather than my more traditional “silent” variety. When an older woman asked why I chose them rather than another meeting nearby, I explained briefly that I enjoyed experiencing the other kinds of Quakers – and besides, I had the book, meaning a thorough oral history of the congregation and its town before they were relocated by a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dam project. She gazed at me and said, “It’s fiction. It’s all fiction.”

I keep coming back to this matter of identities and their influences. I think it’s often easier to say who or what we’re not than who or what we are, exactly. At least the negative list will always be muc­h longer than the positive one. And that’s not even touching on what we’d like to be. But we can also look to the ways and times our personalities are revealed through relationship – or even opposition to another. Or, as the local rabbi asks, why do we keep telling the same stories – what keeps drawing us back to the Biblical dramas?

Self-identities and a sense of importance do shape us.

Going through my files, I find a later, undated note to me headed, “Formerly Dayton’s Leading Republican Plumber, Now Just Grandpa Hodson.” Until TJ had asked if I knew his slogan, this entry was entirely baffling. Now, in context, he observes “a bit of joy comes as I realize I am one – only one – of ‘Those Shriners.’ That reminds me of what my good friend Dr. Gregory once said, ‘After all there is nothing much more valuable than a host of Christian friends.’

“Lots of good old fashioned Preble County love.”

This, after he had sold the house in Dayton and retired across the county line in Lewisville.

At last the meaning comes clear. All these years later.

*   *   *

Who would describe himself as a leading Republican plumber today? Not after Watergate, when “Republican plumber” became a euphemism for buglar, the band of bungling former spies and thugs actively attempting to subvert open elections and American democracy. A “Republican plumber” was even a CREEP, thanks to the Committee to Re-Elect the President. Watergate, the hotel and office complex, itself carried a biting irony in this matter: “water gate” was originally a kind of plumbing.

Not that the Grand Old Party hasn’t tried. In 2008, the John McCain presidential campaign floated “Joe the Plumber,” touting Samuel “Joe” Wurzelbacher as just another regular Ohio man. A plumber, however, who wasn’t licensed and inexplicably had an income far above what any hourly wage would provide or an average homeowner could afford.

Of course, the Republican Party was transmuting from the party of Lincoln and Hoover into its opposite.

Dayton, too, is not what it was.

My attitude toward the bubbling Christmas tree candle lights has changed, too. They become somehow appropriate for a plumber’s Christmas tree, or perhaps even our own, which will never have tinsel. (My wife’s style is folk arts, unlike theirs.) As the owner of a house built about the same time as their McOwen street home, I’ve come to treasure a good plumber. The range of required skills for maintaining an old structure far exceeds my own, and with Rick, our carpenter and electrician, we’ve uncovered too many examples of people in over their heads over the years; it’s a wonder the kitchen roof never blew off in a nor’easter or blizzard.

In all of this, as I probe my memories of Grandpa and Grandma, I also sense a legion of ghosts behind them – not apparitions, exactly, but rather the people who were already old when they were small: connections from the years before automobiles and farm tractors became commonplace. This, I will argue, is their essence – something they knew they had lost, much the way Adam and Eve sensed deep loss in their expulsion from Eden. Of course, Grandpa and Grandma would openly admit that farming was never an Eden, not with so much endless hard labor. And like Adam and Eve, something was both lost and gained in moving on. Even so, in our Sunday afternoon visits to Grandma’s sister and her family, we returned to something unspeakably fundamental and true – the farm, set so close to so many other family connections.

Greetings to all

Here we are, a day shy of the date given – without support – as Orphan George’s birthday. Not that Quakers would have celebrated.

What I would like to celebrate, though, is the conclusion of the serialized branch of the family that Michael Howard Hodgson shared through the past year. Yay! I still believe it’s a remarkable document of family movement westward in generations across the frontier.

I’m hoping it will inspire other family members who have documents or artwork to contribute to do so. The blog’s open!

Before the postings return to Ohio, for now, let me return to our North Carolina roots.

Researchers who go to the old Quaker minute books can expect to face pages like this.

A page from the New Garden Friends men’s meeting minutes that include mention of Orphan George’s son, George, my great-great-great-great-great-grandfather.


And the New Garden Friends meetinghouse in Guilford County, North Carolina, is one our family knew well.

The exterior in its later years.


And what to expect inside, seen from the men’s side of the room. The vertical shutters seen as open windows across the middle of the room could be closed for business sessions, with the women handling their own agenda.


Remember, too, this blog has other centers of action, including much from my Pennsylvania Dutch background as it was transplanted into southwest Ohio.

This year we’ll be paying special attention to my grandfather and grandmother, who I had pretty much leapt over in trying to learn about my roots. It gets rather personal.

So, yes, we’re returning to Ohio … unless you have something to take us elsewhere!

None of my ancestors came by way of Ellis Island

Unlike many Americans, I can state that none of my ancestors arrived by way of Ellis Island. In some ways, that leaves me feeling left out. I’ll listen with curiosity to others’ accounts with all the more amazement, by the way, for those of you who tell them.

On my dad’s side – the one presented in this blog – I can safely assume all of my ancestors, including the Irish line, arrived before the American Revolution. (There are a few nagging details regarding the Bahills and Zieglers I still need to nail down, but I see enough to be confident in my claim.)

To add to my focus, it’s likely that all of Dad’s ancestors arrived by way of the port of Philadelphia and later lived a time in a relatively small window within Chester, Lancaster, York, and Adams counties before pressing on.

On my mother’s side, the more recent arrivals included Germans a half-century before Ellis Island was established and Scots by way of Ontario.

All of this acknowledges the immigration to America holds a host of tales yet to be told.


What were your family’s portals? Do you have any entry encounters to relate? Were there earlier family members to welcome yours? What else should we know or considering concerning the experience?

One fateful turning point

The central, most dramatic moment in the entire Orphan George chronology concerns his tragic Atlantic Ocean crossing. Not that everyone accepts the account, as I admit in the unfolding narrative that runs through this blog.

Still, its quickly sketched record, told as widely as it was early on, brings both drama and tragedy into account. It introduces piracy – and, as I’ve pieced together possibilities – the likelihood of its ruthless, officially sanctioned version of privateers, in our case even landing in Antigua before the victims arrive in Pennsylvania. We can presume the deaths of young George’s parents and siblings were prolonged and painful.

And then, as an archivist told me, Good luck with trying to trace a 10-year-old orphan arriving in Philadelphia. If that was the gateway, in fact, by which he came into America.

From what I’ve seen, I doubt we’ll find anything to match it in the earlier Irish and English generations. And in my line, at least, nothing comes close since.

All along, I’d felt my dad’s ancestry was pretty pedestrian. Or at least that was the impression I had growing up. Having done the research, I’m of another mindset altogether.


Is there a big scene, a history-changing moment, in your own family’s past? Care to mention it? What has most changed your understanding of your genealogical legacy?

The novel I couldn’t write

As I began piecing together the narrative that now runs through this site, I had pondered aspects of presenting the story as a large-scale novel. It’s an idea I long ago discarded.

Any structure itself would be problematic. Trying to span eight to 12 generations quickly sprawls out of focus. How many characters can you remember, much less follow, anyway? (In revising a new novel that covers just four generations of a family, I can assure you the task is daunting – and in fiction, I applied some tricks that greatly reduced the extent of an otherwise large family.) Well, I suppose it could become a series. Still!

Authentic dialogue is another challenge. Diction and vocabulary vary widely over time and place, and I doubt I could do even my Southern generations justice, much less the earlier Irish and Borderlands England generations. Besides, how could I create distinctive voices for so many sets of parents of parents of parents, much less any of the siblings?

Quite simply, I know I could never do them justice.


How about your own family? Is there any period that might shape a novel? Or are there books you’ve read, fiction or nonfiction, that already bring to life what you’ve uncovered?

Arising in ministry or perhaps other business

Sometimes our genealogical findings help advance a larger understanding.

In Quaker history, with its emphasis on lay ministry (there was no paid clergy), some individuals were encouraged to travel as ministers throughout the Society of Friends. These journeys could take up to two-and-a-half years, spanning both sides of the Atlantic.

In my research, Robert Hodgson of the Woodhouse was prominent among them. Traditionally, they were housed, fed, and transported by the Meetings they visited, and it’s assumed that their focus was entirely on the religious and family life of the Friends they visited. More recently, there have been suggestions that they may have also been important conduits for the emergence of Quaker secular business – trusted envoys to convey letters or even payments (in an era before banking), suggest business partnerships, or align manufacturing to retailing arrangements.

In Robert’s case, he may have been exporting beef and leather to England, along with his religious calling. We do know he was respectable enough to attend William Penn’s second marriage and to obtain (was it a gift or a purchase) nearly a square mile of land in Pennsylvania.

The activities of traveling ministers do need a fuller understanding than we currently have.

As genealogists, we can also look to the journals of many of these ministers, men and women, published after their deaths, for details about our own families. Some of the ministers visited every Quaker community in the world – perhaps even every family – and if your family was part of a Friends Meeting, you just might find them mentioned by name, along with an impression of their community at the time.


Has your own research touched on points that might illuminate a larger history? Or has the larger history informed your own genealogical comprehension?

While I focus on traveling ministry in my illustration, are there other activities that have opened your family vision?