Wednesday, October 10, 2007

West Virginia -- It's All Relative

I'm my own grandpa
I'm my own grandpa
It sounds funny I know
But it really is so
Oh, I'm my own grandpa.

--Dwight Latham & Moe Jaffe

The Wheeling Suspension Bridge
(The National Road)
Taken 10/6/07 on Wheeling Island, West Virginia

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Well into my second week here in the Mountain State (I refer to Montana as “the Other Mountain State), I am ever more deeply immersed into family ties and genealogy. This may get confusing, and you may feel the need for one of those character lists they used to print in the front of long Russian novels, but hang on. I find all this fascinating, and I’m willing to bet that if you, dear reader, were working on your family tree, you’d be fascinated with what you found too.

I’ve long said that I’m my own fifth cousin twice removed. Part of that is having West Virginia roots. Those hollows (hollers) are deep and twisting, and people didn’t venture very far afield to get married. In my case, my relationship to myself all comes from a man who was born in Germany in 1734. Heinrich Fleischer moved with his family across the Atlantic, settled in the hill country of what was then western Virginia, and changed his name to Henry Flesher. In time he founded a town and a dynasty. The town is Weston, West Virginia, and as for the dynasty, let’s just say that there are still lots of folk named Flesher in these parts (14 listings in the 2007 Parkersburg phone book), and two of Henry’s granddaughters appear in my family tree.

Historic Victorian Wheeling
Taken 10/6/07 in Wheeling, West Virginia

Now let’s talk about the word “cousin.” It’s the most confusing term in English family descriptions. Last night I was in a theatre waiting for a staged reading of The Laramie Project to begin. I was sitting between Sharon, the daughter of my cousin Betty Lee, and Ron, the son of my aunt Ruth. Ron and I are first cousins, being one generation distant from common parents. It turns out that Ron and I are also “ortho-cousins” because our mothers were sisters. Betty Lee, the daughter of my mother’s brother Brady, was also my first cousin (and Ron’s first cousin, for that matter), but we were “cross-cousins” because our parents, while siblings, were brother and sister. Are you confused yet? In introducing Sharon to one of Ron’s friends, I called her “my first cousin once removed.” The friend, grasping the relationship, disagreed. “No, she’s your second cousin.” This morning I decided I was tired of being confused by these terms, so I did a search using “What is a first cousin once removed?” I typed into the search window. And this is what I learned.

The web site I visited drew lots of nice little diagrams designed to show levels of relationship within a family with common ancestors. Essentially it comes down to this: I WAS RIGHT! (This is all about me, remember.) The designation of first, second, third cousin refers to the number of generations BOTH sides are distant from a common ancestor. The number once, twice, three-times removed refers to the number of generations separating you from a common ancestor on only one side. In other words, Ron and I are both one generation away from having common parents. We are first cousins, as I noted above, and Betty Lee, Sharon’s mother was also a first cousin to both of us. Sharon is one generation further away from my grandparents, her great-grandparents, so since the distance is further on only one side, she is my first cousin once removed. Should either Ron or I have a child (unlikely as we are both gay men who have never been married), that child would be equally distant from grandpa and grandma Stephens as is Sharon, and would then be her second cousin. Are you having fun yet?

I certainly am. And I’m learning a lot. Not just about genealogical terms either. In the past ten days I’ve become comfortable driving around a city with a confusing maze of one-way streets, most of which date from horse and buggy days so they’re not really car friendly. I’ve crossed the Ohio River four times, and visited Wheeling to the north and Buckhannon to the east. I’ve learned about “The National Road” and I’ve been to Big Isaac, a town that isn’t even on any of the West Virginia maps I have with me. (Foolishly, I left my West Virginia Atlas in Montana, and I’m not about to buy another one at this point.) I’ve driven Interstates, two lane state highways, one and a half lane roads that are designated “Emergency” routes, and winding country roads where I feared being obliterated by a speeding coal truck. And I’ve driven two different stretches of the “Robert C. Byrd Appalachian Highway System.”

The Jarvisville Road
Taken 10/8/07 in Big Isaac, West Virginia

West Virginians sent Robert C. Byrd to the US Senate in 1958. Every six years he is re-elected. The joke around here is that West Virginians will still be voting for Byrd twenty years after he dies. And why not. There is probably no one more responsible for bringing money into West Virginia than the state’s senior senator. Got a government office you want to get out of the District of Columbia? Byrd has an answer—send it to West Virginia. The Treasury Department’s Bureau of the Public Debt is right here in downtown Parkersburg. It struck me that having your name on a blue highway information sign is like having publicly funded campaign advertising. You see the name everywhere you go in West Virginia. The man was first elected to the West Virginia legislature in 1946, at which time he was also serving as a Kleagle in the Ku Klux Klan. He now says this was a youthful indiscretion, but he was twenty-nine at the time. Now at age 16 I was fascinated with fascism. That was a youthful indiscretion. By twenty-nine I had learned enough to know better. Still and all, you can’t deny that West Virginia today has a lot of people working whose jobs can be tied directly to funding that Byrd has sent to the state.

One highway that Byrd can’t claim is The National Road. That route through the Allegheny Mountains was first authorized by Congress in 1806, well before Senator Byrd’s time. Construction on the road began in 1811 and by 1818 the route had been completed to Wheeling on the Ohio River. When I left for Wheeling last Saturday, Sharon told me about a bridge that I should photograph. That bridge turned out to be the Wheeling Suspension Bridge, built in 1846, as the connector for The National Road. Today that bridge with its original towers and cables (but with a “new” deck built in 1854) is still in use. For those of you not from this area, the National Road is now known as US Highway 40. It was the first highway in the nation built with federal funds.

After spending a pleasant couple of hours walking through the historic area of Wheeling, I headed back to Roseland Resort for the only weekend of the year when clothing is required. It was family and friends weekend—the only time that women and children are allowed on the grounds. I met up with cousin Ron at his camper trailer, and we talked into the night, taking breaks to watch the Richard Gere/Edward Norton movie Primal Fear and also going down to Friendship Hall to dance a bit. OK, I danced. Ron talked with friends. We also grabbed our cameras (my Nikon, his Canon) and did some night time shooting.

Sunday evening, back in Parkersburg, Sharon and I headed over to Ron’s home where his partner Derwin had prepared a minor miracle in getting some of Ron’s siblings together to meet their crazy Montana cousin and their almost equally crazy local first cousin once removed (you do remember that term, I hope). When Sharon and I walked into the room, my impression was that we were walking into a wake. Sharon’s impression was that the cousins were relatively normal. And I say that with love. For whatever reasons, the Stephens family members rarely get around to visiting each other. I used to say that the only way my Parkersburg relatives learned any family gossip was when they called or wrote my mother in California. Sunday evening was the first time in three years that Ron’s siblings had gotten together—the last time being at another of Derwin’s productions, Ron’s fiftieth birthday. Wake or no, we had a pleasant evening chatting about our lives and our relationships, and enjoying the extravagant desserts Derwin had prepared.

Mount Olive UMC
Formerly the EUB Church
Taken 10/8/07 near Jarvisville, West Virginia

On Monday, even though my horoscope said to kick back and relax, I hit the road again—this time heading for Buckhannon, home of my parents’ Alma Mater West Virginia Wesleyan College (WVWC). Driving east on US 50 (Corridor D of the Robert C. Byrd Appalachian Highway System), I drove across Wood County, Ritchie County, Doddridge County and had just entered Harrison County when I saw a sign for the Jarvisville Road. Turning right off US 50, I found myself on a narrow mountain road that wound its way through the countryside. I took this fork because while my parents were attending WVWC they were also serving a circuit of six rural churches, one of which was in Jarvisville. I don’t think I ever knew the names of all six towns, but I did remember that one. Along the road I passed a large brick structure that was a United Methodist Church, but it had a name I didn’t recognize and it wasn’t actually in Jarvisville. Driving through that unincorporated wide spot in the holler, I saw nothing else that might be a church, but I did catch a glimpse of a faded old sign pointing to the Mount Olive UMC. Up the dirt road we headed, my faithful Volvo and me, until we came out on top of the ridge by a lovely little old white clapboard church. This looked like something my parents would have been part of, so I parked the car, got out and started shooting pictures of the church and attached grave yard. The gate in front of the church wouldn’t open, and as I examined it more closely, trying to figure out why, I saw the letters on the gate “EUB.” Oh darn. This wasn’t my dad’s church after all. In the 1940s, when my dad was serving Jarvisville, this church was part of the United Brethren—cousins to the Methodists, but not yet a real part of the family. Still it was a lovely church, and I’m particularly proud of the picture I uploaded to Eyefetch.

Continuing down the Jarvisville Road, I began to wonder if I’d find my out of these runs and hollers. I was no longer sure that I was even on a road that showed on my map, and I was using blind faith alone to lead me safely onward. Soon I found myself in Big Isaac (unincorporated) which wasn’t on my AAA map, but was on my family history map as it was the location of another of the six churches from Poppa’s college days. Eventually, after several miles of narrow, winding road, I came out on US 33 just west of the town of Weston (you do remember Weston and great-great-great-many times great-grandpappy Henry Flesher, don’t you?). In Weston I came across the largest empty building I’ve ever seen anywhere—one with an historical marker noting that the West Virginia State Hospital was first authorized by the Virginia Legislature in 1858, but construction was interrupted by the War Between the States. Today the building sits abandoned and empty, although I heard that a man has bought it with the idea of renovating it and turning it into a destination casino/resort/hotel. I hope he has lots of money.

The (Former) West Virginia State Hospital
This shows less than 1/3 of the structure
Taken 10/8/07 in Weston, West Virginia

I will write more about Weston in my next blog posting when I will also talk about Buckhannon, WVWC, and the Central West Virginia Genealogical Library. But for now, I’m getting ready to leave for several days of a gay old time visiting Longfork Resort and returning to Roseland with Ron and Derwin.

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