Tuesday, January 23, 2007
We spent last week gathering history along the banks of the Brandywine River. We were winding down lanes, searching the woods for ruins of old mills. Doesn't that sound romantic? I love research trips with Dee! It's like we're detectives searching for lost loved ones, and reuniting families.
Dee is writing a book about a pioneer family who started a very successful local flour mill. There's a family tradition that several generations have owned mills, dating back to Revolutionary War days in Pennsylvania and Delaware. The mill is celebrating it's 100th anniversary with the publication of their history, and we set out to discover the truth of their story.
Chadds Ford, PA, where George Washington lost a big battle, is where we started. A fabulous historical research library nearby, housed in an awesome old building, has a collection of newspaper clippings dating back to the 1700's, plus diaries, letters from Civil War days, local histories, and much more. We spent several hours at a big oak table, surrounded by handwritten accounts in spidery writing, reading, taking notes and making copies. With the dates and names we already had, we were able to find more names and locations, which led us to some old Quaker cemetaries in surrounding towns. We found graves, with more info and dates, mill sites, and evidence that this family originally came to Pennsylvania with William Penn. It was overcast, and atmospheric as we climbed over headstones taking photos to document our findings. We found an incredible bookstore housed on 4 floors of a 200-year-old barn, packed with information. We interviewed a couple who told us about Quaker marriage traditions, and explained documents we had discovered so we were able to place the families in specific congregations at the right times. With the help of old Bibles, wills, and deeds, we realized that the family had come from England almost 150 years before the Revolutionary War, establishing homes and farms, using their skills to feed and sustain communities. Unsung heroes.
The Brandywine area is dotted with plaques honoring soldiers and prominent citizens, telling stories of hardship and courage. Books are written, museums filled with artifacts, and buildings restored so we will remember their names and contributions. The only difference between a famous hero and all the others is that we don't know anything about them. When we gather the history of someone's life, they suddenly become important. They are no longer lying in the dust of graveyards or gathering dust in an archive. They are real. Their names are Levi and William and Hannah and Jemima, and we saw where they lived, and worked, and buried their babies. They knew winters without heat, sickness without medicine, hope without end. And, yes, they owned flour mills.