Archives for posts with tag: Kentucky

The Ken Burns series, Muhammed Ali, reminds me of a family story about my cousin and Ali. I had heard this story through the years and had seen photos, but it really came home to me when I traveled to Louisville, Kentucky several years ago to look at some family papers kept in the Filson Historical Society.

Driving through the streets of Louisville, I began to picture my family traveling there by carriage from Uniontown on the Ohio River to visit family and friends. I loved the elegant old houses that are being restored and the buildings that were standing as they arrived in downtown. While walking around the downtown, I found a statue of Mother Catherine Spalding, known as the first social worker in the area. My grandmother was a Spalding and easily could be related to Mother Catherine, which made me very proud to think about.

My grandmother was raised Catholic but converted to the Episcopal Church when she married my grandfather. We had many Catholic relatives on her side, including many priests and nuns, who we only saw occasionally. The one we did know was my grandmother’s niece, Susie Huff, who became Sister James Ellen as a member of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth in Louisville, the order founded by Mother Catherine Spalding. Susie was my first cousin, once removed.

Sister James Ellen (I understand she was sometimes called Sister Jimmy Ellen) was known to be a lively woman. She corresponded with my brother for years and I found many letters between them in his papers when he died a few years ago. She was very special to him as evidenced by the personal nature of the letters.

We had heard the story of Sister James Ellen’s friendship with Muhammed Ali, who is such a great figure in this city. I happened to be in Louisville in July, 2016, a month after Ali had passed away. I visited the Muhammed Ali Center, where his fans were still celebrating his life.

I left very touched by the greatness of his life and the effect of his words on the people who were there with me. I purchased a copy of his memoir in the gift shop, where I found that he had mentioned my cousin.

Sister James Ellen first met the young Cassius Clay when he was boxing in the gym across the street from the library at Spalding College where she worked. Here are his words.

I found a story in the newsletter of the Sisters after the death of Sister James Ellen in 2001.

“As a teenager attending Central High School, Ali, and James Ellen Huff, a Sister of Charity of Nazareth, developed a close friendship. Sister James Ellen ran the library at Nazareth College (now Spalding University) across the street from the gym where Ali spent his days boxing. Sister James Ellen hired Ali, who at that time used his birth name of Cassius Clay, to work in the library so he could earn a little money. She said she liked his “zest.” She was known to often give Ali encouragement, frequently share laughs, and even return from dinner with snacks for him before he went to train. Once she found him asleep on a long library table! After the world came to know him, she put a sign over the table that read, “Cassius Slept Here”

Ali and Sister James Ellen are described as kindred souls and when Ali won the gold medal in the Olympics, she was one of the first people to whom he showed his medal. The two would remain lifelong friends exchanging letters, and phone calls, until Sisters’ death in February 2001.”

When Ali arrived to show his Olympic gold medal, Sister James Ellen (shown here in the front) sent word to the other sisters to come see their young friend. The absolute delight is shown in all their faces. The photos and story were featured in a story in The Washington Post at the time.

Muhammed Ali and Sister James Ellen remained dear friends until her death and I found these sweet photos of the two of them.

Ali and his wife sent a large bouquet of white roses to Sister James Ellen’s service when she died.

I searched for the site of this friendship and found Spalding University and the library where there is now a Huff Gallery, named for Sister James Ellen. The University has now purchased the building where Ali trained and also has several Muhammed Ali scholarships.

This special story makes my heart happy knowing that these two people from very different worlds formed a lifelong friendship as each had a lasting impact on the world. I love that I can claim even a touch of connection to these two incredible souls.

I traveled to Louisville, KY to visit the Filson Historical Society where I had learned some of my family’s papers were stored. One of the items that had been donated was a scrapbook assembled by a cousin of mine, probably 2nd or 3rd cousin or 2nd cousin once removed, however that goes. The scrapbook was full of clippings glued to the pages, overlapping, and dated from 1908 to around 1945. I found all kinds of treasures which I was allowed to photograph. I went through a lot of materials quickly that day and hope to go back to spend more time someday. If not, I learned a lot of interesting things about my Kentucky family.

My father, grandfather, great-grandfather, grandmother and others were all born in Uniontown, Kentucky, a small Ohio River town that flourished during the 19th century and into the 20th until the mighty Ohio River overflowed its banks and into town one too many times. Most of my family was gone by the major disaster of the 1937 flood, but so many good things happened to them before that one caused so much damage to the family home.

A little family history is that my grandfather was one of 12 children, 9 of whom survived infancy and toddlerhood. One of his sisters married a local man, Virgil Givens, but she died soon after the birth of one of their children. Several years later, he remarried – to one of my grandfather’s other sisters. Basically, he married his sister-in-law, and I think the family was very happy about it. In the Uniontown cemetery, you find the graves of the three of them all together, which I think is a sweet story.

In the scrapbook were several clippings about this second marriage, describing the wedding and several bridal showers. I had never thought much about the history of bridal showers although I had several when I got married, as did my daughters and daughter-in-law. When I looked it up, I found that bridal showers date back to around 1890 in this country, beginning in the urban areas and spreading to the rural areas by the 1930s. Since the showers I’m talking about took place in Uniontown in 1908, I think that makes this little town a definitely sophisticated place for its time. I know my relatives traveled to nearby Morganfield, Evanston, Il and Louisville, so they had been to the city!

Here is one clipping from the Morganfield paper, although there is a typo on the date where it says 1808 instead of 1908. The first thing that struck me was the similarity of these events then and now, although we don’t have society pages to post the details like we did in 1908 and back in 1966, when I got married. Note the space given to the list of names of the guests.

IMG_8680I thought the description of the decorations for this Halloween shower were right up to Pinterest standards today as they used jack o’lanterns filled with flowers placed over the doorways. More details show that the guests were served punch before lunch, assisted by young girls, including the soon to be stepdaughter/niece of the bride. IMG_8684We may not dress in blue satin and silk these days and we don’t really have parlors anymore, but the rest of the details are so very familiar to those of us who have been to many bridal showers in our lifetimes.

In these clippings published after the wedding, we get the description of the ceremony along with other shower details. My grandfather gave his sister away at the wedding, so I can picture that ceremony. In details of the other showers, the guests brought recipes, each of which was tried at the shower. At my kitchen/recipe shower, we didn’t get to try the dishes, so I thought this was a nice touch. The gifts were brought into the room in a child’s wagon, something I have done myself. Brick cream and cake were served. Yum. That doesn’t change at all. Ever.

IMG_8683You will notice that six-handed euchre was played at two of the showers. I had to look this up, although I knew it was a card game. Euchre was very popular at this time and was the game that introduced jokers to the deck. I can’t give you many details other than it involves taking tricks, so maybe it’s close to Bridge. I guess the practice of playing cards at bridal showers has gone by the wayside, although I think it sounded like a fun thing to do.

I don’t know if I have a point to this story other than to show that there are some things that change a little, but stay enough the same in order to give us a sense on continuity and community. I don’t know if bridal showers will go by the wayside by the time my great-grandchildren are getting married, but, so far, this little tradition seems to have endured for over 100 years without changing too much. I don’t think they’re the most most important event in a bride’s life, but they do give those who love the couple a chance to share their happiness and present them with something to start their new life.

I bet there is a similar experience in many cultures, but this one is sweet enough to continue in its simplest forms. I will say that I doubt either of my grandmothers had bridal showers since they came from poor families. Anyway, it was nice to find this common experience that tied me and my Oklahoma family to our long ago Kentucky family in ways that haven’t changed all that much in a world where so many things have disappeared or changed so quickly in my lifetime.

It was fun to open a book and find a family thread that made me smile, a precious family link.

Knowing where your relatives came from is intriguing, at the very least. Maybe it will explain something, anything about us. All those questions…

The family member I know the most about is my father. I have pictures of him from baby to the end of his life. He was born in 1912, so way back there. I have a book someone did of Hamilton genealogy that goes back to Thomas Hamilton leaving Scotland for Maryland and then joining a group that moved to Kentucky.

The greatest source I have is a book, “The Sun Shines Bright,” written by my great-aunt, Sue Hamilton Jewell, a book of stories about the family in Uniontown, Kentucky in the late 19th century into the early 20th, including a few about my Daddy as a child.

My great-grandfather, grandfather, and father were all born in Uniontown. Here’s a photo I found that must be the Main Street that she wrote about, where even a 3-year old could be sent on errands.


Last week, I journeyed to Uniontown on the Ohio River, near Illinois and Indiana. I had no idea what I would find. Getting closer made me very emotional as I drove past fields of corn in rich agricultural west Kentucky, called the Upper South.


My great-grandfather was a grain dealer with an office in the warehouse on the river. My great-grandmother was from a plantation near New Orleans…another story to find. How did they meet? They had a great love story. Nine of their 12 children survived to adulthood, living a Tom Sawyer childhood along the river, “Our River,” as they called it.


…and later…


They had a staff of servants to help with the large home they finally moved into. Their land covered about half a block, with a diversity of neighbors on each side. There were 14 rooms with a 40 foot hallway the younger kids raced up and down on velocipedes pulling wagons. My great-grandfather was never bothered and must have been the kindest of gentlemen.


So, I drove to Uniontown with this info, along with the knowledge that the town had suffered greatly from the Ohio River floods of 1884, which brought Clara Barton to town for the first Red Cross relief effort as the river raged for weeks through the Ohio River Valley and all the river towns in its path. The 1937 flood left my widowed great-grandmother to be rescued from the second floor balcony by rowboat. The damage to the house and the remnants of the flood led to her death by pneumonia. This must be just a regular flood in this faint photo…


I knew the latest population was 1,000 and I found it on the map, but it was missing from my iPad map. How do you lose a town in an aerial shot? Scary. What would I find?

There was a town still. A levee keeps the flooding away, but the river has changed. I first looked across, imaging a shore where kids could swim across, barges and riverboats coming ’round the bend with my relatives waiting.

There was more than I expected actually. No old buildings, but a post office, VFW, cafe, two grocery markets and a marine store for the boaters who launched their boats on the river. I drove around enough to get a feel for where the house might have stood, picturing what I could from stories…the family eating fried chicken, Kentucky ham, homemade peach ice cream, and asparagus they grew in the yard. They gathered with their friends for burgoo, a community stew of whatever was brought. Such an isolated little town, a river town.

A young girl with a Kentucky drawl at Floyd’s Food Market gave me directions to the cemetery and I hurried before dark to a small cemetery surrounded by cornfields ready for harvest. Where to look? It was all very clean and well kept, divided into about four areas. In frustration, I parked and walked up the little hill. I remember Aunt Sue writing about the babies buried on the hill.

Suddenly, there it was…


…my great-grandparents. And the babies were beside them, touching little headstones for Annie, Nell G. and Merritt.


Behind them were my great-great grandmother and their oldest son, who I actually remember. Then I found two of their daughters. One died after the birth of her second child and her sister married her widower. All three of them, Verg and the two sisters he loved, all buried together. There were some others near, too. I looked and looked for any of my grandmother’s people because she grew up here, too. I didn’t find anyone…another story.

In the end, I stood by the gravestone and put my hand on it and my eyes were overflowing with tears. I thanked them for all the love they passed down. I thought of all the generations that have followed them…

One last look at the wide Ohio River, which is now kind of My River, too.


Then back to Floyd’s for a souvenir…


What did I find out? Lots more than I ever dreamed, but I’ll leave it with this…some of the best things about my family were born in a little town on the Ohio River. No flood will ever take that away. And now that river runs through me…