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Monument Mysteries

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How family history, friendly connections, misplaced real estate and the passage of time all contributed to a real-life round of treasure-hunting.

By D.T. CLARK, Staff

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TROUTDALE — There’s a progression that takes place in most of us: first, you’re a baby interested only in food and sleep, and then you’re a kid fascinated with toys and games, and then you’re a teen and discover the opposite sex, and then, before you know it, you’re middle-aged (or older) thinking: what happened?

At every stage there are new interests that come along to take your mind off the passage of the old interests, and for many middle-aged or older folks, one of them often turns out to be family history.

The popularity of television shows such as “Who Do You Think You Are?” (NBC), “Finding Your Roots” and “Genealogy Road Show” (PBS); and websites such as Ancestry.com are ample proof that it’s not just old-maid aunts or quirky uncles who live amid untidy stacks of mildewy books and ancient, unorganized correspondence who are into family histories.

Sometimes it is those characters who infect you with the condition, but often it is a gradual increase in free time and the growing awareness that you have seen the world changing and “old” things disappearing that prompts a desire to find out where your grandparents were born.

Another part of the allure of tracing family history is the sheer fun of discovery. It’s a basic human instinct that makes us lift that tab, ask one more question, try to fit that key into every lock that comes along. It makes us follow maps to find that “X” and it makes us keep looking on line to see what a fourth degree cousin from California has put in her hard-bound, self-published family history about your great-grandmother.

In any search for family history, there is also the possibility of uncovering more mysteries than answers. For example…

Rich Ballard, administrator with the Grayson County Virginia Heritage Foundation (GCVHF), recently tapped support from Vicki Hauslohner, a volunteer with the Grayson County Historical Society (GCHS), to help update the foundation’s cemetery inventories maintained on the New River Notes website (www.newrivernotes.com) and related publications. One such cemetery located on Hazelwood Road in the Grant community has been a source of puzzlement, deduction and revelation.

The initial inventory revealed three marked headstones, including those of Conrad Porter (born 1829, died 1902), Elizabeth Porter Grubb (born 1828, died 1928) and Sallie Porter (born 1800, died 1852), along with several unidentified field stones. With the help of her husband, Hauslohner was able to secure the cemetery with an electric fence and then begin the arduous process of discovering the identity of those three long-ago interred individuals.

No good mystery story is complete without a strange coincidence or two, and sure enough, the mystery of the old cemetery has one: Hauslohner happen to chat with a “Grubb cousin,” and she learned that he had been searching for information about a long-gone foremother, Elizabeth Grubb. Could it be the same person buried in the Hazelwood cemetery?

The cousin forwarded notes to Hauslohner regarding a circa 1928 obituary for Elizabeth Porter Grubb, which read, “Her request was to be brought back to be buried beside her husband in the old Porter cemetery… now owned by Mr. Frank Grubb. This was written by one who knew her, Mittie R. Young, Grant, Va.”

Deed research supported the theory that the land on which the “Old Porter Cemetery” (a relatively recent name assignment, she learned) sits was, at one time, owned by a Frank Grubb. Census data also listed the relationship between Conrad and Elizabeth Grubb as husband and wife, and “Aunt Sallie” Sarah Roberts Porter as Elizabeth Porter Grubb’s mother. Further research indicated that Sarah Roberts Porter’s husband was probably an Alexander Porter (born 1800, died 1860) who remarried after his wife’s death and later moved out of state.

Through her follow-up research, Hauslohner met the very live and lively Mildred Anderson, a resident of Mouth of Wilson, who was delighted to share first-hand memories of her maternal Porter ancestors and details about the Porter Cemetery.

Now the story became personal and irresistible, fueled by both friendship and that need to discover. Hauslohner eagerly met with Anderson, who explained that the Porter Cemetery was not at all located on Hazelwood Road (where the three headstones were found) but rather a short distance away on Porter Road. It became apparent that there were at least two “Porter Cemeteries” to account for and yet another mystery to solve. Were these two sets of Porter families related, and if so, how? And where did Elizabeth and Conrad fit in?

One more thing that drives people to investigate their family histories is the little stories, the memories that sometimes come with the mundane information, the heart-tugging or breath-stopping details that make the past seem real and connected to today. Anderson told Hauslohner why she remembered the old cemetery, though she would have been just a child of five or six at the time.

“I remember when my grandfather took up and moved those graves,” she said. She was referring to the graves of his wife, Anderson’s grandmother, and seven of their children — “mostly infants,” though there was a pair of twin girls who lived to be teenagers — to be re-buried in a larger community cemetery in Grant.

She has a clear image of the boxes he made for each of his beloved family members who had passed: “wooden boxes, about so big (measuring with her hands something roughly the size and shape of a large shoebox) and finished nicely, smooth, you know.”

Anderson, 92, explained that in those days — the late 1920s — embalming and coffins were not what they are now, and after a few years in the ground, there would not have been as much physical remains as there would be now.

Today a headstone marks the site of the seven re-burials located in the Grant Community Cemetery just behind the Fox Creek General Store at the intersection of Virginia 16 and Flatridge Road. Along with those infants, Anderson’s grandfather re-interred his parents, Clark and Caroline Porter, and those graves are also clearly marked.

And, at last, some of the original puzzle pieces fell into place. It turns out that Clark Porter had a sister named Elizabeth, and that their parents were very possibly the aforementioned Alexander and Sarah Roberts Porter. Only time (and a great deal of additional research) will tell for sure.

So there are mysteries galore concerning these cemeteries (and probably any, in any neighborhood).

Which one is the “real” Porter Family Cemetery?

What bodies were left behind when Anderson’s grandfather disinterred his family?

What family established the cemetery in the field off Hazelwood, and who was buried under those unmarked field stones?

And can we be sure that the Elizabeth Grubb buried beside – we assume – her husband, Conrad, is the same Elizabeth Porter about whom Mittie R. Young wrote nearly 90 years ago?

Get out your deerstalker hat, magnifying glass and county cemetery records!

Digging Into County History

Grayson County is a treasure trove for people interested in the histories of local families, regional history and of national and pre-national history from an easily-accessed perspective. Just a few of the numerous local resources are the Grayson County Virginia Heritage Foundation, located in the Food City Mall in Independence (www.graysonheritage.org); the Grayson County Historical Society, located across from the Historic 1908 Courthouse in Independence (www.graysonvahistsoc.com); the New River Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR); and The Historic 1908 Courthouse of Grayson County in Independence (www.historic1908courthouse.org).

Information about cemeteries in Grayson, Carroll, and Galax can be accessed on the Newrivernotes.com website (www.newrivernotes.com/grayson-cemeteries-index.htm).

Rich Ballard, Administrator of the GCVHF, said that the three-volume “Those Who Slept Here: Grayson County, Virginia, Cemeteries,” is available for perusal or purchase. “These [books] were produced with the work of many volunteers. Much of that work was done between about 2002 and 2008. Some of the cemeteries listed are so difficult to get to our find that we depended on surveys done at previous times.”

There were at least two earlier efforts to survey cemeteries. One was organized by the local DAR when many of the cemeteries were threatened by the dam project. Another was lead by a member of the GCHS in the 1990s.

“Our books can be of great value to people trying to understand where their ancestors in the community who would like to use them in our office or purchase a set since so many of the cemeteries started.”

Ballard also asked for community support for the preservation of these old cemeteries. “They are being lost to cattle, forest, overgrowth and general neglect,” he noted, and suggested that any community organization could commit to maintaining one or two old cemeteries.

The public library offers a large collection of local history reference books including birth records, death records, deeds, and gravestone information from cemeteries around the county. Another valuable service available to history hunters at the library is access to the information at Ancestry.com. An individual has to become a member and pay fees to use the site. The library has a membership, so anyone using the in-house computers can use the site without an individual membership (using the library’s computers requires an active library card, available without charge to all Virginia residents.). A number of personal family histories and photographs have been scanned into the library archives, and can be viewed online. David Dunlap, speaking on behalf of the library, said that while the library is an excellent source of information, some members of the local historical organizations are professionals who can help with research issues. Dunlap notes that there may be fees charged for that assistance. You can go in person to the library in Independence, or discover what resources are available at the library by checking out its website.

The Grayson County Courthouse contains records of deeds, marriages, divorces and similar legal transactions, some dating all he way back to 1793. This information can be accessed in person during regular business hours, starting at the office of the Clerk of Court.

Don’t forget the U.S. Census Bureau, and a Google search will turn up several find-your-ancestor web sites in addition to Ancestry.com (including genealogy.com and Family Search, a site operated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, or Mormons). All of these charge a membership fee to access the bulk of their archives.