The Little House with the White Picket Fence

My Grandmother Shafer, Harriet Josephine Doud, called “Hattie,” lived in Thayer, Indiana, from 1928 to 1958. It was the place where my grandfather’s life ended in 1931 and where she remained until about 1958, when she moved to the Home for Presbyterian Ministers and their Wives in Newburgh, Indiana. About 1925, Grandfather Shafer, Rollin Grant Shafer, 1868-1931, who was enduring failing health, became the pastor of the Presbyterian Church near Lowell, in Lake County, Indiana. It was about ten miles from a little town named Belshaw, where the family lived and my father and his sister Helen attended school. Since Grandfather’s family was from Pike County, perhaps this place was chosen because it was nearer to Grandmother’s family in Grundy County, Illinois. His previous churches had been in Southern Indiana and Illinois: Grayville, Illinois; Oakland City and Evansville, Indiana.

In the summer of 1928, the family moved to Thayer, Indiana, in Newton County, where Grandfather became the “supply” preacher of the Thayer Presbyterian Church, a small white-frame church, built in the frame & steeple style so familiar to the Midwest. He was also the mail carrier, a job which required him, morning and evening, to put the outgoing mail in a sack and attach it to the “pickoff frame” to be snatched into the Monon train as it sped by. He carried the sacks of mail thrown off the train to the post office, a room in someone’s home. It was early in the Depression and times were harsh.

The little house in Thayer was purchased for about $1500. This is my father’s description:

“I recall one of our trips to Thayer. The road crossed the Kankakee River about three miles north of Thayer. Going into town from the north, our house was the first one on the right. It was a cute little house with five rooms, a front and rear porch, and a white picket fence. There were five maple trees in the front yard lined up behind the picket fence. In the side yard and back yard there were a cherry tree, a gooseberry bush, a peach tree, and a small patch of raspberries. Off to the side and next to a small garage was the outdoor toilet, the first and last we ever had [ he means they had never lived in homes without indoor plumbing]. For water we had a small pump at the sink in the kitchen. It was after I left for college that a neighbor friend of mine put in an electric pump.” [unpublished memoirs of the Reverend Floyd Doud Shafer].

As I read my father’s recollections of the little house, I was saddened again to read of the decline in family fortunes. Both of my grandparents were well-educated for their time. My grandfather was a graduate of Oakland City College and McCormick Seminary in Chicago; my grandmother, a former teacher, graduated from Bloomington Normal School, now the Illinois State University. My grandfather had successful pastorates at several fairly large churches. Oil had been discovered on his family’s land in Pike and Gibson counties; that lead to speculation, land deals, and who knows what. When the dust settled, he had lost everything, telling my father, who was a small boy, “I’m ruined.” My father was born when Grandfather was 48, so this was probably about 1921-22. To support his family, Grandfather took a position as a circuit minister, traveling to preach at numerous small churches. It was during this time in the early 1920’s that his leg was injured. Then he moved his family to northern Indiana, Lake County, where he had the small church near Lowell and then the small church near Thayer. Clearly, they barely eked out a living. The little white house was not nearly as large or grand as pictures of their previous homes, nor of the homes of their parents—all large two-three story gothic design houses common to the Midwest in the late 1800’s.

My memories of the little white house are fragmented, but vivid. We visited when I was a child—a long drive from Louisville, Kentucky to Northern Indiana on the old highways. The visit when I was 8 -10, around 1952-54, is my clearest recollection. The little house sat near the road in the manner common to horse and buggy days. The living room was on the right as one entered. It seemed dark, full of heavy old furniture. An oil stove, the heat system for the entire house, dominated the living room. The wallpaper was a grayish flower design; the room had a definite Victorian feel—bric-a-brack, lace pieces. There must have been some electricity, but I remember oil lamps in use, too.Two pieces from that room, the Edison phonograph and the oak library table now reside in my sunporch, having journeyed to Louisville, Kentucky; Knoxville, Tennessee; Salem, Indiana; Yale, Michigan; Columbus, Ohio; and finally back to Salem. Everything was neat and organized efficiently.

The bedroom was behind the living room and included the staircase to the two small bedrooms upstairs under the eves. The upstairs bedrooms had slanted walls, linoleum floors, and white iron bedsteads—simple, clean, and neat. The kitchen I remember as light-filled with a number of windows. I was fascinated by the kitchen pump at the large sink, which Grandmother showed me how to use. There was also a pump in the back yard. As my father noted, the house had no indoor plumbing. Chamber pots were used in the bedrooms at night and in cold weather. Grandmother showed me how to use one and then carefully cover the pot, sliding it back under the bed. These had to be carried to the outhouse to be emptied, a trip which required walking down the path in the garden. That visit was in the summer, because I remember the spiders in the outhouse—quite inhibiting. Corn cobs and the Sears catalog were the “toilet” paper. For a city child like me, this cleaning apparatus was indeed a shock, though any child growing up in the Midwest in the mid-20th Century was familiar with outhouses, which were used in parks and rural areas, even today. When I started teaching in Salem in 1977, the view from my classroom windows was east across the football field to the back of a city street, the one I live on, called Water Street. I could see the old outhouses in the backs of the yards from my classroom.

Grandmother, like Grandfather, was a skillful gardener. She showed me her compost. I was astonished that one gathered coffee grounds, egg shells, food scraps, and buried them in the garden. The yard was lush, full of flowers, bushes, and trees, and the large vegetable garden. I do not remember neighboring houses, just fields at the edge of the yard.

I thought the house and yard absolutely delightful. In my mind, it is the ideal, a house where I would want to end my days—a simple white house, surrounded by trees and flowers—warm, cozy, old-fashioned. Of course, I would prefer indoor plumbing and air conditioning. Grandmother lived in Thayer, on and off, for thirty years. After she moved to the Presbyterian Home, the house was sold. Sadly, it burned a few years later.

The Gift of Giving

President Daisaku Ikeda, the leader of Soka Gakaii International: SGI, is a man I greatly admire. From the ashes of WWII, he took an organization called Soka Gakaii (Value Creating Society) and became the third leader, rebuilding after the wartime imprisonment of the first two leaders had devestated the group. Through Ikeda’s leadership, this Buddhist society, which works for world peace, has spread around the globe.

My introduction to SGI and President Ikeda came through my beloved daughter-in-law, Shinobu, a native of Japan, who has given me many books by President Ikeda and who has also taken me to the Florida Nature and Culture Center, the SGI conference center in Weston, Florida. It was at FNCC that I first heard the story below from Shinobu, a “fortune baby,” or birth-right SGI member. 

Shinobu’s parents, Tadashi and Yoneko Arai, who lived in Nagoya, Japan, grew up during the suffering of WWII. Following their marriage in 1957, they raised a family of three daughters and together built a prosperous business. Mrs. Arai, a loving mother and a dedicated member of SGI, loved the sound of the koto harp.

After Mrs. Arai’s untimely death in 1991, Shinobu and her two sisters presented a koto to President and Mrs. Ikeda during a visit they made to Nagoya, as a tribute to them and to the memory of Mrs. Arai. The koto was given to honor Mrs. Ikada, who, though not a public performer, often plays the koto for her husband in their home. Some time later, President and Mrs. Ikeda presented the koto to a visiting scholar of Indo-Tibetan Buddhism from India named Prof. Lokesh Chandra, Director of the International Academy of Indian Culture

In 1992, Shinobu came to United States as a “study abroad” student. Jim and Shinobu met in a Sanskrit class, which was part of the Buddhist Studies program at the University of Wisconsin, and married a few years later. After Jim received his Ph.D. in Buddhist Studies in 2001, he took a teaching position with Antioch College’s Study Abroad program, escorting a group of students to Bodh Gaya, India for a semester of study. Bodh Gaya, where the Buddha attained enlightenment, is in Bihar, a remote part of India, a ten hour train ride from the capital of New Delhi. Jim and another young professor taught the classes and accompanied the students on tours to various holy sites and cities. [Jim is on the left in the mauve shirt].

On their return journey, the group stopped in New Delhi. Before they left the U.S., Shinobu had written to Professor Chandra, telling him the story about the koto that she had given to President Ikeda, which eventually went to Professor Chandra’s institute, and mentioning that she and her husband would be visiting in India. Remembering meeting with President Ikeda and receiving the koto from him ten years before in Japan, Professor Chandra invited Shinobu and Jim to his institute. They spent several hours discussing Indian Buddhist history and iconography. Jim was able to take many photographs of Buddhist and Hindu artwork, including statues and paintings, greatly adding to his knowledge of 10th and 11th Century iconography. 

The part I love best about this story is the way the gift itself, the koto, travels and creates energy that brings people together over time and great distances. The memorial gift and President Ikeda’s giving of the gift set in motion a series of events in which eventually three scholars met in a far away land to share knowledge and fellowship, a meeting that Jim and Shinobu will always remember. Shinobu’s mother would have been overjoyed to know of her daughter’s journeys and of the happiness brought by the gift given in her name. This story is also a metaphor of how President Ikeda has sent in motion the energy and activities that have developed SGI into an international organization, empowering people to work for world peace.

After accompanying her husband to India, which interrupted her studies somewhat, Shinobu returned to the University of Wisconsin, completing her Ph.D. in Buddhist Studies in 2003. Her dissertation, Value of Simple Practice: A Study of Tiantai Zhiyi’s “Liumiao Famen,” was highly praised by her major professor, Professor Charles Hallisey, of Harvard and UW. In my family, there is a refrain repeated when a child or grandchild accomplishes a major educational or other goal, “Mamma Jeanne would be so proud!”, referring to my dear mother and her deep love of education and of her family. With the completion of her daughter’s educational journey, I think the same refrain would fit Yoneko Arai—she would be so proud!

Martin Luther King

Martin Luther King is a man I hold in highest respect. Once I wrote a letter of protest about an issue to the local newspaper and wavered for days before sending it. As I wavered, I thought about MLK, coming to understand in a small way how difficult it is to make a public protest about an issue. To lead demonstrations, marches, public protests, to encounter withering rebuke and scorn, to endanger oneself and one’s family, to sacrifice anonymity for “notoriety”—-it is so much easier to fly under the radar and let someone else be out in front. And my small protest was a tiny candle to the massive sun of King’s work for equality and justice.

As a child and teen in the 1950’s, I read about MLK and watched some of his marches on TV and at the movies. I saw marchers being hosed and attacked with dogs and billy clubs. Since I lived in suburban and then small town America, in lily white areas, the nightmare images seemed to come from some other world. Surely, this was not the America I heard about at school and church, where all humans are equal and jesus loves all the little children–red, yellow, black, white. I came to have the profoundest respect for MLK and his movement. Some of my relatives did not care for him at all, so I always heard the dark stories and comments. I cannot say I had the courage of my convictions. Since I do not like to attend large sports events or concerts where there are masses of people, public demonstrations are not my thing. Once though, back in the mid-60’s, we learned though a co-worker of my first husband, the wife of the head of the local NAACP, that MLK would be leading a protest march in Louisville. Kids just out of college, we decided to go watch the march, which took place on 4th Street in Louisville. It was rather a lark for us, though my profound respect for MLK was the impetus. We stood on the sidewalk, cheering as the protesters came down the street in the characteristic hands-linked-across-the-front manner. Not having enough nerve to step into the street to march with them, we began walking down the sidewalk alongside the march, in support. There were angry hecklers around us, some shouting venomous abuse. Suddenly I noticed that several large young black men had surrounded us, protecting us as we walked along. Realizing that we were supporters, they surrounded and stayed with us. I had not considered that we might be in danger, but I was very grateful for their protection. It was a thoughtful and love-filled gesture. To this day, I regret that I did not have the courage to march in the street.

I remember watching that glorious “I have a Dream” speech, given from the Lincoln Monument. MLK was a marvelous orator with a powerful, silky voice that soared with the poetic cadences of his dreams for America’s children. Many years later, a coach from USC called me a number of times, recruiting Jim. Coaches who are recruiting don’t call the players—they call the mothers, so I spent several years chatting with basketball coaches, one of the more bizarre episodes in my life, considering my total lack of enthusiasm for athletics. This coach, George Raveling, called a number times in 1984. He told me the story of standing with MLK at the Lincoln Monument during that famous demonstration, as a volunteer security guard. When MLK finished speaking, he turned and handed the speech to Raveling. I am sure he told that story to lots of mothers; it certainly impressed me.

A copy of MLK’s speech and long article about that famous demonstration hung in my classroom for a number of years. Some of my students read it, but mostly it just hung there, another “liberal” comment from the flakey old 1960’s era teacher. One day, one of my “graduated” students came back to visit, bringing along a friend from college, a young black man. He was noticeably cool to me, barely acknowledging the introduction. While his friend chatted with me, he wandered around the room. I watched, wondering what would happen when he saw the yellowed MLK article. He stopped, read the entire page, turned, came over to my desk, sat down, and began talking as if we were old friends. I am not so naive that I think America’s rampant racial hostility can be overcome by such incidents, but I did think how warming it was to know that once more MLK had bridged a gap, allowing two people to see each other, not as a black man and a white woman from seemingly hostile camps, but as two humans with mutual interests and admirations.

Of note, too, is the fact that my mother, my role model for all that is good, loving, and gracious, one of the most devout Christians I have ever met, was a devoted admirer of MLK.

Southern Indiana

Recently I read on a political blog written by someone on the East Coast that Southern Indiana, a Red State, hotbed of rednecks and KKK members, was a dangerous place. I could understand the “rednecks” part; it is rural in Southern Indiana and Indiana is a “red” state. However, the 9th Congressional District just dumped its Republican rubber stamp congressman Mike Sodrel and re-elected Democrat Baron Hill, who had served three previous terms before being beaten by Sodrel in 2004. It’s not all “red” out here.

The KKK was rampant in Southern Indiana—about 100 years ago. There are remnants, I hear, though they are a disrespected fringe. In my small town, a christian-hate group from Campbellsburg called the Old Path church annoys the community with anti-abortion, anti-fag protests on the town Square, complete with placards, chanting and taunting, and gruesome pictures of fetuses. This year the Old Path church group taunted children who were lined up to talk to Santa at Salem’s Santa House. When I was teaching, I read numerous student essays about the horrid protesters; the students were appalled at the demonstrations, especially the large posters of aborted fetuses. There is limited local support for this group’s point of view.

Salem, like many small towns across Southern Indiana, Ohio, and Illinois, was settled in the early 1800’s by Quaker families, among other Protestants, many of whom came up from North Carolina to escape the developing problem with slavery. The Quaker or Society of Friends church in Salem still meets, as does the one in Orange County. Salem is the site of the Blue River “Hicksite” church, a “liberal” group that pulled away fromother Quaker groups. The late Dr. Elton Trueblood, a famous Quaker scholar, grew up in Washington County, part of the local Trueblood family. Many local families are descended from these early Quaker settlers, including my two sons. I will point out the obvious by saying that people of Quaker persuasion and descent do not join groups such as the KKK. 

Other religious groups that settled early in Southern Indiana include the Presbyterians and Methodists. The Salem Presbyterian Church was founded in 1817 and the Salem Methodist in 1816; the Baptists were here early, too. These churches were served by circuit riding pastors who were out on the frontiers very early in the foundation of the country. Pointing out the obvious again, members of such churches do not join the KKK. Mega churches are making their way into Southern Indiana life, but again, their members are not inclined to violence. It’s really quite safe out here.

Back in the late 1980’s and the 1990’s, every summer Max and I used to travel to Maine and New England. We found rural Maine to be very similar to rural Indiana. However, in conversations with the Maine locals, we discovered people who thought we lived in log cabins in Indiana and still had problems with the local Indians. Sadly, the Indians were run out of Indiana by the U.S. Army shortly after the time of Lewis and Clark—and log cabins, while featured at many state parks, are not used for habitation. Well, that is not exactly true—lots of people now build expensive log cabins with trees hauled in from places like Georgia.

When Jim played basketball at William and Mary, we had similar conversations with East Coast basketball parents, who regarded us as total “hicks from the sticks.” It suited me to let that judgment stand; I certainly did not want to be like some of them. Conversations about possessions and status bore me to tears. W & M team players who came out to be groomsmen in Jim’s wedding enjoyed driving around the county, shouting “cows! horses! pigs! sheep!”—as they viewed the local farms. City boys from places like New York City, they had never seen rural settings. Several East Coast basketball recruiters were astounded at the beauty of rural Southern Indiana, in contrast to the over-populated coast. Washington County has 27,000 citizens and seems fairly well populated to me, especially in contrast to areas in Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, Montana and other Western states. 

Perhaps the uneven media reports play a part in making Southern Indiana seem dangerous to East Coasters. Nutcakes like John Lewis of Old Paths church receive lots of press [his activities Google right up], while the peaceful daily life in our area goes unreported. Oh…..scary things happen. My mother once tracked Max and me down in Clarion, Pennsylvania, where we had stopped for the night in route to New England. [She never would admit to how many motels she called]. We arrived at our motel to be handed a message to call home immediately—-rather startling since we did not have a reservation. When we did, we discovered that bombs had been planted all over Salem and things were in an uproar. We watched the news reports on national TV that night, called our children and ascertained that they were safe, and decided to proceed on to Maine. When we came home two weeks later, the ATF were still camped in Max’s office.

Several of my former students are now living and working in New York City, Philadelphia, Washington DC, Indianapolis, Chicago, and other urban places. They seem to be thriving, able to move from small town life to urban areas with aplomb. Maybe some of the “coasters” should visit the Heartland. The people here are fine folks—and it really is quite safe out here.

Father Riner

One summer day in 1999, I decided to clean the upstairs closet where I had deposited boxes of my mother’s papers, as well as stored my college clothing from the early 1960’s and other treasures. The closet runs the depth of the house–22 feet–and is four feet deep; it holds LOTs of stuff. After my mother died in 1996, my father divided her papers and possessions, rather randomly, and gave some to each of the three children. My brother is the music teacher, but I ended up with her organ and piano music. However, I set the box of music aside and dragged out several boxes of old letters. As I examined each paper, slowly working my way through the large box, I came upon a large manila envelope from my great-aunt Mattie Lewis Grubbs in Kansas, postmarked 1974. Inside were two large cardboard pages, pasted front and back with newspaper clippings. I drew them out and casually read through to see if I recognized any names. Grubbs was the most familiar name, but what caught my eye was the yellowed obituary for “Father Riner,” which was centered on one page. Daniel Riner was born in 1796 in Harper’s Ferry, Berkeley County, Virginia and died in 1885 in Burr Oak, Jewell County, Kansas. The name tugged at the edge of my memory; my grandmother’s maiden name was Hazel Lewis and my grandfather was Ralph Parsons. The name “Riner” was not familiar—and yet, it was.

I laid the page aside and walked downstairs to find the Kansas trip pictures. I had taken my mother to Kansas in 1992, where we visited her cousins in Jewell County. We visited Formosa, the town where she was born in 1918 and Randall, the town where she grew up, as well as Burr Oak, where her mother Hazel was born in 1895 and where her grandfather Calvin Lewis had homesteaded in 1871 after the Civil War. We also visited the homesites of her father’s family, the Parsons. We visited several family cemeteries and I had taken pictures of the gravestones. Rummaging through the pictures, I found the one I was seeking: the gravestone of Mary Riner Clayton [1838-1889]—the grandmother of my grandmother Hazel Lewis. I took the picture and ran up the stairs to compare it with the news clippings. I could hardly believe what I saw. Daniel Riner had to be the father of Mary Riner. The room absolutely spun as I realized I had found the obituary of my grandmother’s great-grandfather—six generations from Daniel to me. I began to read the rest of the obits and down in the right hand corner of the page was an obit for Mary Riner Clayton, who died five years after her father. After I searched through my desk, I found the family tree I had written down on the Kansas trip. It did not go back to Daniel, but did identify my grandparents’ brothers and sisters, many of whose graves and former homes we had visited.

“Father Riner” married Mary “Polly” Starry in Berkeley County, Virginia [now WV] in 1826 and in 1829 they moved with her parents, Daniel and Hannah Smith Starry, and some siblings, to Warren County, Indiana, where Daniel Riner received a land patent and they raised a family of nine children. In 1850, the family moved fifty miles northwest to Iroquois County, Illinois where by 1867 Daniel owned 520 acres of land. Tragedy began to strike a few years after the move to Illinois as TB infected the families crowded in small cabins. The third son, Samuel, died in 1857, age 20. Then Mary Starry Riner died in 1861, followed a few months later in 1862 by the second son Daniel, age 29. Daughter Elizabeth Riner Kennison Kizer died in 1872, leaving a family of children. The oldest Riner son, Jacob, having served as a lieutenant in Company M, 9th Illinois Cavalry and having resigned six months later due to ill health, moved his family to Lebette County, Kansas in 1868, where his wife died in 1870, and he died in 1874, leaving three underage orphans who were cared for by their older brothers. Daniel Riner married his sister-in-law Rhoda Starry in 1862 and she died in 1867. Afterwards, he married Penny Wilcox in 1867 and divorced her several years later. On the 1880 Census, Daniel is living in Onarga with his granddaughter Martha Drake Duncan, next door to John W. Grubb, the grandfather of Mattie Lewis Grubb’s husband Homer Grubbs. Around 1883, the surviving children brought Daniel to Burr Oak, Kansas, where he lived with his youngest daughter Susannah Riner Skeels and her husband Robert. Daniel died in 1885 and the family took his body back to Onarga, Illinois where he is buried next to his first two wives, Mary and Rhoda Starry. The five surviving Riner children all died in Burr Oak: Mary Riner Clayton in 1889; Susannah Riner Skeels in 1892; Roseanna Riner Pangbourn in 1893; Hannah Riner Drake in 1899; and William Riner in 1907.

My grandmother Hazel had talked often of Onarga and a couple of years later, well into my genealogy research, when I finally looked up Onarga on the map, I had another head-spinning moment. Many times on my way home from visiting son Jim in Madison, Wisconsin, where he was in graduate school from 1993-2001, I had left I-39 and driven across Illinois on Highway 24, coming out north of Lafayette, Indiana and driving on down I-65 to home. Highway 24 goes through Iroquois County, Illinois. About two miles north of Onarga, the road jogs north and then goes through Watseka, the county seat. Every time I took this not-short-cut, I would wonder why, but I was drawn to drive across that stretch of land again and again. Years later, I understood. Unknowingly, I had been driving through the farms my family settled in 1850-1855. Onarga is directly east of Peoria on the eastern border of Illinois. To travel to Burr Oak in Jewell County, Kansas, one would go due west, dropping south a slight angle of less than fifty miles….i.e. point the oxen west and start out. Today the route to Burr Oak takes one on Highway 36 which is 20 miles south of the Nebraska border and runs parallel to the northern border of Kansas. Burr Oak, Kansas is twenty miles from Red Cloud, Nebraska, home of Willa Cather and the setting for some of her novels.

William Riner and his wife Jenny Lewis Riner were the first of Daniel Riner’s children to arrive in Burr Oak, coming in 1872. By 1882, Daniel’s daughters Roseanna Riner Pangbourn and Hannah Riner Drake had arrived with their husbands and children. The youngest daughter Susannah and her husband Robert Richland Skeels came in 1872, left in 1874, and returned in 1881. Mary Riner Hunt Clayton, my great-great grandmother, and her second husband Ben Clayton homesteaded in Franklin and Coffey Counties in Kansas in 1868, and later settled in Yates Center in Woodson County. Ben Clayton’s obit was on that cardboard sheet, as was that of George Fry, first husband of my great-grandmother Belle Hunt Fry Lewis. Ben and George died within a few months of each other in 1883-84. Their widows, Belle and Mary, mother and daughter, along with Belle’s two small daughters, soon moved to Burr Oak to be with Mary’s family. Thus, the five surviving children of Father Riner were living in Burr Oak in late 1884 when a family portrait was taken showing the white-haired patriarch surrounded by his four daughters and one surviving son.

In the spring of 1871, after his wife and son died, my great-grandfather Calvin Lewis, and his older brother Tom, left their home in Onarga, Iroquois County, Illinois and homesteaded in Burr Oak, Kansas. They were the third homesteaders in Burr Oak. The first winter they lived in a dugout along the creek, afraid to build a fire because the Indians would stuff grass in the stovepipe. In the fall of 1872, Calvin’s brother William Lewis and his wife Phebe Brown Lewis, Calvin’s sister Jenny and her husband William Riner [son of Daniel] and their mother Lydia Patton Lewis, along with their aunt Elizabeth Lewis Miller and her sons Thomas Miller and Washington Miller, came to Burr Oak from Onarga in a wagon train and settled on farms near Calvin and Thomas Lewis. William Riner, Calvin Lewis, Thomas Lewis, and William Lewis, along with other Riner cousins, had all served in Company M, 9th Illinois Calvary in the Civil War, fighting engagements along the Mississippi. Thomas and William Lewis were captured and spent 18 months in Andersonville Prison. After the War, the younger generation was looking for land and many families from Onarga saw their children leave to pioneer in Kansas and the West.

My great-grandmother Belle Lewis’s obit was not on those sheets and I later wrote to the Kansas historical society for a copy. Whoever wrote Belle Lewis’s obit, when she died in 1938, did not know the story of the second Lewis-Riner marriage. Of course, it took me several years to piece it together. In 1878, having homesteaded a few years in Burr Oak, Calvin Lewis married Sue Biggs. After having two sons, James and Earl, Sue died in childbirth with her third child in 1883, widowing Calvin Lewis for the second time. His sister Jenny Lewis Riner raised one son and Tom Lewis and his wife Lydia took the other. Belle’s obit states that she met Calvin while visiting her brothers in Iowa in 1886. Well……not really. On the 1870 Census in Onarga, Illinois, Calvin and his first wife Tillie Denning, and their daughter Hattie, are living next door to Daniel Riner. Belle, Daniel’s granddaughter, was born in 1861 in Onarga, and obviously would have known her grandfather’s next door neighbor when she was a child. Her family moved to Kansas in 1868, but since her uncle William Riner married Calvin’s youngest sister Jenny Lewis in 1867, the families clearly knew each other quite well. There were only several hundred people in Onarga in 1870. Odd how the stories are forgotten or confused by later generations. The U.S. Census is an excellent means of straightening out misconstrued family chronology.

When I took my mother to visit in Kansas, we visited the Burr Oak Cemetery, which is set on a hillside southeast of town. Over the years, evergreens have grown to surround the graves. It is a lovely place, a windswept hillside on the prairie. We visited Great-grandmother Belle’s grave, and that of her mother Mary nearby, and saw the tall monument erected for Belle’s brother Daniel who was electrocuted while serving in the Army in 1907. I still think about the visit to that cemetery where I heard the friendly spirits of the family call to me that day. A few dozen people buried in that cemetery are blood kin and I felt at home there, surrounded by many loved ones. I heard their call and pondered on it for some years, until the day I found Father Riner’s obit. Discovering Father Riner was a life changing moment for me. Within a few days I had bought a genealogy program and begun a serious family genealogy research project. I have traced many family lines, but the Lewis-Riner line that met in Onarga, Illinois about 1853 and pioneered in Burr Oak, Kansas in 1871 is especially dear to my heart. I hope the family spirits who called to me that day approve my bringing forth their stories for yet another generation to read.