A Visit to Old Haunts
It was a beautiful sunny late summer day, a bright contrast to our sad mission while visiting family in Ohio last month. My sister Carolyn, who has spent a lot of time on genealogy research, wanted to show us old family graves in a small cemetery in Vinton County, Ohio, in the part of southern Ohio that lies in the hills of Appalachia. Not all of Ohio is flat farmland.
We saw the worn limestone tombstones standing in a row, marking the graves of five children of Mary and Robert Hewitt, who all died within a 10 day period in early November, 1859. A few years ago, while going over some old family papers, I found an invoice from 1859 from a stone mason for five tombstones, for five children from the same family, four girls and a boy, ages 4 to 14. The old phrase “my blood ran cold” came to mind as a chill went through me.
Can you imagine having to watch five children die, essentially suffocating, of what they called putrid sore throat in those days? Yes, this is what life was like before modern medicine made it possible to inoculate our precious children against ghastly, fatal diseases. Even in the early 20th century, diphtheria was the number three cause of child deaths; measles was number one.
It was touching to see that someone else had visited these graves, leaving plastic lilies and daises. These tributes were now faded, so they had obviously been there for some time. But it was nice to know that some other Hewitt descendants, people we don’t even know, kept this poor family in mind all these years later. Robert and Mary had four other children who survived, including one named Hulda who would become my grandfather’s grandmother in later years. She, her son Clarence, and my grandfather also had more than their share of tragedy but that’s another story.
The Hewitts had another baby after this tragedy but the Civil War started shortly after and Robert enlisted in the Union Army. Like so many others, Robert returned from the war in poor health, with lung problems, and eventually died in the 1870’s. Mary survived him by a few years. We wondered how she managed the farm by herself during the war. How did she get through it all?
What hard lives our ancestors lived! No wonder stoicism was considered such a virtue, that and their faith in the hereafter were probably the only things that kept people from completely falling apart. Indeed, then as now, not all people could cope with life’s tragedies and many gave into despair. Mary Todd Lincoln comes to mind.
Mary Hewitt’s tombstone was the only one in this family grouping with a carving on it, of a hand with the index finger pointing towards heaven. She certainly saw enough of hell while on earth. Not knowing what else to do with the sadness I felt, I put my hand on top of the old tombstone and murmured, “I’m sorry.”
But all was not doom and gloom on our visit. Next to Vinton County is Hocking Hills, an area of state parks filled with caves, caverns, waterfalls, and trails through gorgeous gorges and ravishing ravines. The stunning geography was created by the retreat of the glaciers after the last ice age. It’s a great place to visit, though on the Sunday of Labor Day weekend the place was more crowded than I had ever seen it. In the parking lot at Old Man’s Cave you could see license plates from as far away as Florida and Ontario.
The Hocking Hills area in southeastern Ohio is a bit off the beaten path, but it is well worth a visit if you are driving through the lower Midwest any time. Counting parks and state forests, there are a dozen different attractions in the area. On this visit, we walked through Conkles Hollow as the late afternoon sun cast a golden glow on the cliffs and towering pines.
If you’re interested in prehistoric civilizations in America, other attractions in southern Ohio include Mound City, outside my hometown of Chillicothe, a national park featuring burial mounds of the Hopewell people, and Serpent Mound, the prehistoric effigy mound shaped like a giant snake, outside Peebles, Ohio. Early civilizations flourished in the Ohio Valley. Of course, New Englanders might note that this part of the country is far from the ocean, but after all the hurricanes wreaking havoc lately, this might be considered an advantage.