I feel that we are not so far from those we love, as long as we continue to tell their stories. —Carrie Newcomer
It’s one of my earliest memories. My Grandmother Christine and I are in the barnlot at her farm in Rockford, Indiana; I’m about four years old. Maybe we’d gone to the barn to tend to the cattle, which we sometimes did together. Her “retired” workhorse Old Bill was kept in the barnlot then, and on this occasion my grandmother lifted me onto his bare back so that my mother could take a picture. It was the first time I’d been on a horse, and I still recall the feeling of his smooth coat and massive body against my bare legs. I waved timidly at my mother and she snapped the photo.
My grandmother raised Hereford cattle for many years. Cattle were part of her farm business, of course, but she also truly liked cattle, and especially the breed known as Hereford. Whenever we were near the cattle, I recall her patting the animals’ backs gently with her work-gloved hand. “They have such sweet white faces,” she would remark to me.
Yet, as a small boy, she also cautioned me to keep my distance from these powerful animals. Whenever I was with her as she moved them from one place to another on the farm, she sometimes elicited my assistance. She’d have me stand perfectly still beside the path upon which the cattle were walking and hold a stick in my hand pointing in the direction where the cattle were supposed to go. They always did–and I felt very important.
Each summer during my childhood, our family would gather with other relatives at Christine’s farm. I especially enjoyed sharing adventures with my cousins and brother that were instigated by our grandmother. These often included hiking expeditions over the farm that usually followed similar scenarios:
From our grandmother’s house we’d hike down to the barnlot to check on the stock, and then follow a winding brook through an adjacent woodland. We’d then cross an open field and climb to the top of the highest point on her farm, Hemphill Hill, from which during certain times of the year we had a good view down to the nearby White River. From Hemphill Hill we would walk along the river to a place where it was crossed by the nearby state highway. We’d then follow that highway back to her house again and complete the circuit.
Our grandmother’s goal during such excursions was to give us children “an education.” She’d introduce us to geologic and natural features of the farm and teach us to identify native trees and wildflowers that grew there. Oh, and she’d also enlist us in assisting her to move the cattle from one pasture to the next using that same stick-pointing technique. We all felt very important during this task.
Sometimes when we were with the animals she’d remark to me: “Steve, you come from good stock.” These words mean more to me now than almost anything else she said. I did understand even then that this expression was some kind of affirmation of my heritage, but I can now see its significance in a broader context. This essay explores some of that fuller meaning for me.
Hereford cattle originated in England during the 1600s. A Kentucky Congressman, Henry Clay, introduced the breed to the United States in 1817. It was awarded some prestigious prizes in stock shows during the early 1900s, which probably impressed Christine. When she and her husband John began farming, they raised cattle of any number of breeds and mixed breeds. Their son John later recalled, “If a cow could gain any weight at all, mother and dad would raise it.” After John and Christine divorced in 1928 she became the sole operator of the farm–she began raising only Herefords.
During the 1950s and ‘60s, when I knew my grandmother best, she would purchase feeder cattle and then grow them to market weight before selling. She didn’t produce calves, although she had neighbors who did. She certainly understood the fundamentals of animal breeding and what the term “good stock” meant. So when she affirmed for me that I came from good stock, she understood what she was saying.
Grandmothers and grandfathers…
they poke at me and tug my sleeve.
Listen to us; our voices are real.
These things did happen.
Tell our stories, learn from our lives.
—Pauline Brunette Danforth
My Grandmother Christine was as knowledgeable about our family’s lineage as anyone; it was important to her. Despite her divorce, she kept her former husband’s surname (Rapp) and remained close to his sister Clara with whom she’d grown up in Rockford as a child. Part of her farm had also once belonged to the Rapp family and was still known locally as “the Rapp farm.” So Christine retained interest not only in her bloodline, but also that of her husband. She informed me, for example, about his great-uncle who’d been awarded a medal for gallantry during the Civil War. She even took me to see his impressive gravestone in a country cemetery near her house. She also told me about her husbands’s mother Ella Craig Rapp, as well as his maternal grandmother Lucy Ingleby Craig. I couldn’t know then that sixty years later these women—these “good stock”—would call me to know them better. They did, and this is their story.
During those summers of my childhood that I spent with my cousins and our Grandmother Christine at the farm, I don’t remember thinking very much about our inherited physical properties. If I had, I would have noticed that my brother Phil, my cousin Mary Beth and I were the only ones with blond hair. And I might have also observed that I was the only one of the ten cousins who had blue eyes. My blue eyes were especially an anomaly because neither of my parents’ had them. If I had understood human genetics then, I would have realized that blue eyes are controlled by recessive genes passed from generation to generation. And if I had traced back my mother’s family lineage—that “good stock” of which my grandmother had spoken– I would have found that my great-Grandmother Ella and my great-great Grandmother Lucy also had blue eyes.
It’s thought that everyone in the world with blue eyes descends from a single ancestor whose genes mutated 6,000 to 10,000 years ago. Before then, everyone had brown eyes. Blue eyes are relatively rare in the United States, about ten percent of the population–the same as among my maternal cousins.
The inspiration for my personal essays is a mystery to me. I don’t have the same level of interest in writing about every person in my family tree; some just seem to have a way of emerging and “calling” to me. That was the case with my Grandmother Christine who is the principal subject of at least twelve essays. Then came great-Grandmother Harriett on my father’s side of the family, who along with her mother Margery were the focus for three more. And now my great-Grandmother Ella, along with her mother Lucy, have emerged. It probably traces to my receipt of a photograph—actually four photographs—from my cousin Mary Beth. I’d seen a few pictures of Ella before, but they were rather nondescript. Yet the pictures that came from Mary Beth brought her to me in a new way. One of them depicts Ella musing about something in her hand. It’s good, from my perspective, that it isn’t clear what Ella is holding when the photo was taken. It gives me license to wonder and to delight. To me, this picture gives Ella a voice: “My life did happen and I’m ready to tell you my story, Steve” she says.
And now it’s time for me to listen.
I have a hunch this “musing Ella” photo was taken not long after the death of her husband Will (my great-grandfather). If so, she would have been just a bit more than 50 years old then—much too young to be widowed even in that time. Through the pictures I obtained from my cousin, and especially the musing one, I’ve formed a fondness for Ella—for this one of my “good stock” from whom I inherited blue eyes and a whole lot more.
Lucy was a beautiful girl with wavy reddish-brown hair and blue eyes. —remembrances of Lucy Craig’s granddaughter
My “good stock” doesn’t end with Ella, of course. Her mother, Lucy, is another early figure from whom I can trace my blue eyes. The photograph of Lucy that I received from cousin Mary Beth is a mid-1860s studio portrait that on the surface seems typical of the time. Yet I’m moved by it, and especially by the apparent sadness in her face.
In the portrait Lucy is wearing a tasselled scarf; I wonder what it meant to her. Might it have come with her when she and her husband immigrated from Ireland a few years before? She’d been reared in the town of Armagh, in Northern Ireland. As a young adult she met David Craig who had earlier immigrated from Scotland. Family lore states they met at a boarding house where David was a resident and Lucy was a hired domestic. They married in Dublin in June 1856, and in August they boarded a ship in England for the three-week voyage to New York City. They were part of a migration of an estimated 1.5 million Irish and Scots-Irish immigrants who came to the United States over a ten-year period then. Perhaps Lucy and David were, like many, buoyed by hopes and prospects of new beginnings in a new land.
I’m not sure how they happened to settle in Seymour, Indiana, although I think it was because David found work with the Ohio and Mississippi (O&M) Railroad line there. It had just been built through Seymour in 1854, and construction was continuing to the west. Family tradition says that David worked as a “section hand” laying and repairing cross-ties for the O&M and was based in Seymour. When he and Lucy arrived the new town’s population was just a few hundred people.
Lucy purportedly was an excellent cook and she operated a “house hotel” in her home where the railroad workers could come to get good meals. In the fall of 1857 Lucy and David had their first child, Ella, who may have been named for her paternal grandmother. Historian Kenneth Stampp has described the United States in 1857 as “a nation on the brink.” The President, James Buchanan, assumed office in March of that year, and two days later the U.S. Supreme Court issued its Dread-Scott decision, which ruled that Black Americans were not citizens. This plus the growing unpopularity of the new President edged the nation toward its Civil War.
Of even more immediate concern to the Craig family may have been the financial crisis sweeping the nation at the time Ella was born. Several railroads went bankrupt and grain prices for farmers plummeted. These developments surely heightened anxieties in fledgling communities like Seymour that depended heavily on agriculture and railroads for their economic well-being. In February 1860 Lucy and David had their second child, a son Robert named for his paternal grandfather.
The sadness in Lucy’s face in her portrait surely reflects more than just these national and economic hardships. In 1864, when she was 30 years old, her husband David died of a ruptured appendix; he was just 32 years old. She was a widow with two small children in a time when there were no life insurance policies or social services for women and dependents in communities like Seymour. Neighbors or other Irish immigrant may have offered some support, but her face in that early portrait suggests it was a terribly sad and uncertain period for her. Even though I don’t know for sure, I think it’s very possible that this picture was made soon after David’s death and a copy was sent back to her family in Ireland to show them that she was well. And the distinctive scarf she wore in the picture may have had meaning to her family. There’s no record that anyone from Ireland ever visited her in Indiana or that she ever returned to her Irish homeland again.
Lucy may have received a small widow’s pension from the railroad; but I don’t know how she made ends meet after David died. Family lore again suggests that she continued to operate her “house hotel.” In 1868, Lucy married William Montgomery, a man seventeen years her senior. He was a bachelor farmer who owned land about six miles northeast of Seymour. Lucy and the two children were living with William at his farm at the time of the 1870 U.S. census.
In 1876 Ella graduated from high school; she was possibly the first person in her family’s history to do so. Sometime after she moved to the country, Ella became acquainted with a boy whose family lived on a nearby farm, Will Rapp. Will was five years older than Ella, but somehow they got together and subsequently married in 1879. Her mother Lucy died just nine years later at age 53.
I know little of Ella’s and Will’s lives after they married and moved to the Rapp family farm. They lived in a house near his parents’ home. Will continued to work with his father John on the family’s farm. Their lives, like most other farm families then, consisted mostly of domestic chores (Ella’s occupation in the 1880 census was listed as “keeping house”), church-related activities at the local Rockford Methodist Church, and farm work. Their son Garfield William was born soon after the census of 1880 and another son John Craig (who would become my grandfather) came along in 1883. Ella’s mother Lucy died the same year that she and Will’s third child, Clara, was born.
Considering all the sadness and difficulty that Ella and her mother had experienced together after David Craig died, I’m sure that she was deeply affected by her mother’s passing at such a young age. And yet she, like Lucy, was a resilient one and drew deeply upon her faith–and life continued.
The only photograph I have of Will and Ella Rapp together with their family was taken in about 1900, twelve years after Lucy died. In this picture Ella’s face and eyes still bear a hint of sadness. By this time her elder son Garfield was planning to marry and move to the opposite side of the state. The younger son John had decided to terminate his schooling after 8th grade and begin farming with Will. Daughter Clara was entering high school and would subsequently graduate from Indiana University. She then also moved to another part of the state to take a teaching job.
Ella and Will’s life after the children left home is revealed to me somewhat through a letter written by Will to his daughter Clara early in 1908 while she was away at college. It’s dated just nine months before Will himself died of an illness:
“Well you can imagine how comfortable we are sitting before a blazing fire toasting our shins. Your mother is reading the fashion page in the paper just now while I am writing. I haven’t been feeling well this week…I went to town Thursday and had my [prescription] filled and am nearly over my cold or grippe as I think of it as. Lots of sickness about Rockford…not so many at Sunday School today as the river is all over the bottoms and people could not get there…Had the biggest river yesterday of the season—no land visible anywhere in that direction.”
Will’s mother Margaret had just died the year before and times were difficult for them. He concluded his letter to Clara by alluding to the possibility of them selling the farm: “We have about given up the idea of selling [the farm] out, so if you don’t hear anything to the contrary, come on here to spend your vacation.” He died on the last day of October in 1908; he was only 56 years old.
I have a few glimpses of Ella’s life immediately after Will’s death; they come through letters of condolence written to her by relatives. Some also offered her advice regarding how she might proceed with her life. One such letter written to Ella by Will’s sister Mary (who lived in Oregon) suggests that she might have been thinking of buying out the rest of the family and consolidating the family’s farmland in her name. It states:
Dear Ella—I enclose a few lines. I will sell my share of the farm to you at $75 per acre if the rest are willing…[sister Emma] has always said she would not sell until there was a test made for coal on the land. I hardly feel like going to a big expense to sink a shaft. It might be well to have the state geologist come and examine the surface indications…
I wonder how you are dividing your property among the children and what you are keeping for yourself. You are almost as old as I [Ella was 51 then] and likely have observed as much. I believe your children are so good and true as any living but I do believe it is the right way for parents to have a competency both for their sake and the children’s—and I hope you will keep enough in your own right that you can always have your own home with plenty of your own money sufficient for you to live as you wish. It does seem so very sad that Will could not have talked and advised [you] before he went… —Mary Bowers (1908)
However it happened, the “home” farm eventually came to be owned by son John. Garfield had moved by then and he continued to operate his own farm in western Indiana. John eventually married Christine in 1913 and they moved into the Rapp family house on the farm. Ella went to live in another house at the farm while John and Christine became established.
I especially cherish a 1915 photo of Ella with her sons and her only two grandchildren at that time (Earl and Mary Ruth). They’re sitting in a car, possibly on a Sunday after returning from a drive. The shadow of the photographer (who was also likely the driver) is in the foreground. The expression on each of the faces is priceless. Ella was in her late 50s by this time, and although they could not know it she had entered her final decade of life. She was certainly proud of her sons and daughter; all had married and become established. She loved Garfield’s two children at the time, and her third grandchild Margaret (Christine and John’s eldest daughter who later became my mother) followed in 1918.
Anne longed to get home to read her precious letters…she hastened back to Mount Holly, shut herself up in her room, and read the letters…[they] were yellow and faded and dim, blurred with the touch of passing years. No profound words of wisdom were traced on the stained and wrinkled pages, but only lines of love and trust… —Lucy Maud Montgomery from Anne of the Island (1915)
The closest I come to being with my great-grandmother Ella is reading the only letter I have written in her hand. It is filled with lines of love and trust. It was sent to Clara in October 1922, and it probably survived as one of her daughter’s most-treasured keepsakes. It certainly is one of mine. The letter reminds me of those described as being received by protagonist Anne Shirley, an adopted orphan, in the Lucy Maud Montgomery novel titled Anne of the Island. Anne’s letters had been written by her parents before she was born. My letter was also written before I was born, and like Anne’s it contains “no profound words of wisdom.” Yet the words are my great-grandmother’s words, the only ones I have. And they offer a glimpse into the interests and activities of this elegant lady. Here’s a sample from the week she lived just prior to writing my letter:
Last Monday Jen phoned to come and go to [James Whitcomb] Riley meeting Monday night at the Majestic [Theatre] as she had an extra ticket.
Wednesday afternoon, I went in and had the last fitting of my dress. I believe it is going to be very pretty.
Ruth came after me to quilt Thursday afternoon…
Went to Sunday School after dinner. [Granddaughter] Margaret and I walked home…
From this letter I sense that Ella’s life at this time was a relatively simple one and focused almost entirely upon her family, church, friends and community. Yet one scene in her week rises above all the others for me. It’s the picture of 64 year-old Ella, arrayed in her Sunday finery of the day, walking with her four year-old granddaughter Margaret down a lane that led them back home after Sunday School at the nearby Rockford church. It is an image of “good stock.”
Two years later, in 1924, Ella died at age 66 while visiting daughter Clara at her home in western Indiana.
And I leave it at that,
Not pressing to know
If the story was real
Or merely true.
—Carrie Newcomer from “The Stories We Tell”
This personal essay was written by Steve Robert Simmons in 2017. All rights reserved.
I dedicate this essay, with fond appreciation, to my cousin Mary Beth Mitchell Schneider. She provided me with the photos of Ella Craig Rapp and Lucy Ingleby Craig that inspired the essay. Thank you, cuz!