To me, one of the greatest pleasures in researching my family tree is finding a personal story about a particular ancestor.
These stories help that long-ago person come to life once again, if only in my mind. In earlier columns, I’ve written about Aunt Lydia Sisk (later Stuart) who, as a young, unmarried mother, crossed two rivers in 1895 to come into Newport from Freshour Hollow over Parrottsville way and look several local lawyers in the eye when she called her brother-in-law an “infernal rogue.” Over a hundred years later, when I read that deposition, Aunt Lydia suddenly became a real person and not just an image in an old photograph.
And then there’s the story I told recently about Grandmother Sisk’s stubbornness the time she sat on the front porch of her newly deceased sister-in-law’s home because during her last visit there, before Aunt Kate died, my grandmother heard her say, “I hope Zollie never sets foot in my house again!”
Well, Zollie didn’t.
The other day, while on a visit to Parrottsville Elementary School, I chatted quite a while with Johnalee Wisecarver Coffey, a distant cousin on the Ottinger side of the family, and during the course of our conversation, she mentioned the gooseberries her grandmother used to grow.
Her comment triggered a memory of my own.
My great-great-great-grandmother was Fanny Fox Gray, wife of William Gray. She was born in Virginia on February 1, 1801, a daughter (we think) of Peter and Mary (Steffey) Fox, Jr. On August 18, 1821, in Rockingham County, Virginia, she married William Gray (1797-1876).
I’m still hoping to discover how the young couple came to know one another for William had been brought to Cocke County in 1805 by his parents James and Nancy (Campbell) Gray from their home in Madison County, Virginia.
Young William had to travel quite a distance back to Rockingham to marry Fanny and then bring her to her new home to Cocke County.
The newlyweds settled on what today is Morrell Springs Road where they built a log home that stood just north of Wilson Livestock’s parking lot. Their initial log dwelling was a simple structure, but as the babies began quickly arriving, eventually there would be 15, including two born in the same year, one in January and the second in December, additions to the home were made.
Eventually it became a two-story structure, part log and part frame, and stood until 1953 when their great-granddaughter, Mary (Wilson) Lane had it razed and a smaller, more modern home erected in its place.
Fanny lived a long, full life, dying in 1883 at the age of 82. By that time, she had buried four of her children, including a son, Alba, who died in a prison camp in Mississippi during the Civil War.
The war took its toll in order ways as well.
Like many families, the Grays were divided in their loyalties, with Alba, Harvey, and Harrison joining the Confederate army, and Lewis and Newton siding with the North.
When the war ended, William and Fanny found themselves on the verge of bankruptcy. William’s Confederate money was worthless and taxes had to be paid.
Marshall Wilson, a young Union veteran, returned home. Marshall’s grandson, the late Ron Wilson, said that Marshall had saved enough gold to pay the taxes and save his future father-in-law from ruin.
To my knowledge, no first-hand memory of William Gray survives, but quite by accident I came across a letter penned by their great-granddaughter, Kate (Gorman) Stanbery, in which Kate shares her personal memories of Fanny.
...I can barely remember my great-grandmother Gray, sitting in the kitchen by that awful big fireplace, smoking her pipe...”
Although painfully brief, Cousin Kate’s recollection and description fits perfectly with the photo of Fanny accompanying today’s column.
Cousin Chlora (Wilson) Rea, another great-granddaughter, was a wealth of knowledge about the kinfolks and told me about Fanny’s gardening techniques.
Grandma Fanny had her garden “laid off English style,” said Chlora, “with many plots and paths. This land passed to her youngest child, Sarah, wife of Marshall Wilson (Chlora’s grandparents). “Marshall always fussed about the garden, because, when he plowed, Sarah followed him to make certain he didn’t disturb her designs. ‘Can’t be plowed with a turning plow,’ he’d fume, as he dodged the many vines, bushes, and plants. Included in this garden were such rare items for Tennessee as a quince tree, gooseberry vines, and currant bushes. There was also a plot of ground named ‘The Field Before the Door.
William and Fanny are buried in the old William Gray Cemetery just above today’s home of Terry and Sherry Butler. All of this property once belonged to the Gray clan, and today a small portion remains in the hands of a descendant.
As we celebrate Mother’s Day this weekend, I’d like to suggest a project for my readers. While your memories are still clear, take a tablet and jot down some stories about your own mothers, grandmothers, and great-grandmothers, so that they will remain “real people” for your children and grandchildren. After all, with every passing day, we all are aging and drawing closer to the time when our memories will fade away and then no one will be left to tell about Grandma Fanny’s English-style garden.