Archives for posts with tag: Uniontown Kentucky

Looking at my 70 year old self isn’t the most fun if you’re talking about looking in the mirror. There’s no denying the changes no matter how you’ve taken care of yourself. Thinking about who I really am is a different story. Current events make me wonder why my thoughts differ from some people around me, people who appear to have lives somewhat like mine. I’ve realized that my evolution as a person is due to so very many things that have happened to me, things are unique to me as your lives are unique to you. It’s also the people who were there that made the subtle changes along the way. When I tried to capture the change makers in my life, most of them seem to be women. I adore men and have known so many good ones who loved me, made me laugh, were such great friends and teachers and were part of this story, but, it’s the women whose images seemed to jump forward as I write this.

I was a good little girl, more quiet than shy. I was one of those who wanted to please so I didn’t argue with too many people, at least back then. I know I watched what was going around me, saving it in my mind, processing it along the years.Karen - July 1948

I never met my great-grandmothers, but I’ve been finding out about them recently. They were pretty amazing women, ones I’m proud to claim and ones who influenced my grandmothers and parents, which helps me understand who they were and who I am now.

I have a couple of great-grandmothers who were very poor. One of them lived on a farm in southern Oklahoma and another one in Kentucky. Their lives were hard and I now see how they influenced my grandmothers. There was another one who I’ve found working as a servant on a farm inTexas at the age of 14. I can’t find more about her until she met my great-grandfather, but he owned properties in and around early Ardmore, Oklahoma. As a widow, my mother spent a lot of time with her and describes her home as a place where people gathered to talk about ideas, where she kept few clothes but had a hat to wear to the Opera, such as when Jenny Lind came through town. She always wore white, which may explain my mother’s affinity for this, and ate sparsely, as my mother remembered it. She lost her husband and both her sons, so devoted herself to her three grandchildren, including her only granddaughter, my mother.

My other great-grandmother was born to people from Louisiana and Kentucky. There were slave owners on that side of the family, although my great-grandmother’s obituary says she was loved by equally by the citizens of her town, black and white. Interesting that they wrote that back in 1937. I can only admit to this part of my history with regret, understanding that it was a much more complicated an issue that I can only acknowledge and not correct.

My paternal grandmother was one of the ones born poor, one of many children in a Catholic family, who married into one of the nicer families in their hometown of Uniontown, Kentucky, leaving her religion behind to marry my Episcopalian grandfather. The churches were rigid in those days. She raised four children and watched her three sons and her son-in-law leave for World War II. They returned with honors except for her youngest son, who was killed at 22, parachuting over Germany. He is buried in Europe and she never saw his grave. As the middle of her nine grandchildren, I was born after the war and never really saw her grief. To me, she twinkled, but I learned later that she never forgave FDR for her son’s death, refusing to even have a postage stamp with his picture. Her arthritis was linked to this anger, as I heard the grownups say. They didn’t talk about much with kids in those days. From this, I can relate to the mothers of fallen soldiers and their grief, sometimes misplaced.

From this grandmother, I also learned a remote lesson about death. As she lay in her coffin at the funeral home, I watched from the door as my father stood beside her and laid his hand on her cheek. She taught me the power of a mother.

My maternal grandmother was born to poor farmers in southern Oklahoma and, at 18, married my grandfather, who was probably 40 at the time. They had three children before he contracted Bright’s Disease, a kidney disease more easily detected and cured today, and died, leaving her a widow at 27 in the middle of the Great Depression. He bought her a neighborhood grocery store, a tiny place where she could eke out a living in those dark days. My mother, the youngest and only daughter, remembered that their only dignity in those days was that they owned their home. When the gas went out due to unpaid bills, at least they had the house. My great-grandmother left each of her three grandchildren a house along with other property. I’m not sure if my grandmother was left one also, but she lived in one of the houses and rented out rooms to pensioners (I asked my mother and found that these men were retired and living on government income). There was also a big house where she rented out rooms and I remember going with her to check rooms or collect rent. I grew up staying with her and sharing a bathroom with those men, walking down a dark hall lit by one bulb, past those lonely, small rooms with their screen doors that gave me a peek inside. This quiet little girl absorbed all of this.

This grandmother taught me other things, too. I was the oldest grandchild and spent a lot of time with her since she lived alone. Her next granddaughter had cerebral palsy. There was no difference in the way she treated us, which taught me to not be afraid of those who are different or can’t do all the things we can.

My mother grew up an old soul with a mother who seemed to always find the joy in life even though she was faced with so much. She gave my mother her sense of adventure, always saying “Let’s do something,” before we set out to see what was going on in the world. My mother worked from a young age, telling me that she was once turned down for a job as a receptionist when she was 16 for being too pretty. The owner thought she would be a distraction for his son. My mother told me her stories of being sexually harrassed after graduating from business school and going into the workplace. When the Anita Hill case was in the news, she told me what it was like when she was young and why she absolutely knew Anita Hill was telling the truth. This was eye-opening to me since my mother was the absolute 1950s mother, the homemaker who kept everything perfect for my father to walk through the door. Her stories of what her life was like before she met Daddy taught me another side of the story I hadn’t been exposed to in my own life. My mother’s stories as I shared my experiences through my life taught me so much and brought my own experiences into much clearer understanding, even if I didn’t agree with her sometimes.

There have been so many women who taught me through the years. Sometimes, they were friends, sometimes we shared an experience, sometimes we only shared a brief moment. They stay in me, they shaped me.

Growing up, my mother always had a maid to help her with the house and her three children. There were no mothers’ day outs or day care centers, so these women stayed with us while she ran her errands or met her friends or whatever she did. All I know is that we had nothing but love and respect for these women. My mother worked right beside them, cleaning and washing. We were comfortably well off, but not extremely wealthy. We often went with my mother to drive them home when they missed their bus or the weather was bad. My mother wanted us to know that there are people who weren’t able to have the things we had.

One of the maids who worked for our family for many years was Daisy. She was from the south and taught me, just like in “The Help,” to fry chicken and pork chops. I wish I’d learned to make her chocolate pie! Daisy was my confidant and there was no messing with her. In my high school years, she counseled me on boyfriends and scolded me on anything I did wrong, although I was a good kid. In 1962, our family was taking a trip east and we drove a route that took us to Atlanta so we could put her on a bus there to go visit her family. Her nervousness and fear as we drove through the south taught me about prejudice as I had never seen it before. Her approval of my future husband tickled me and her joy at our wedding was special, although she wouldn’t come to church with us and waited at home where we had the reception. Her “ship came in” when she finally found a man and married, and quit working, only to have it end when they died in their little house after a gas leak. She shaped me in so many ways.

As a child, I didn’t know any black people outside of those who worked for us or in places like the country club. Many years later, my mother told me that she thought that my grandmother once loved a black man who shopped in her little grocery store. Of course, that would have been scandalous in the depression days in small town Oklahoma. Learning that gave me new perspective on both my mother and my grandmother. My grandmother did have one boyfriend while we were growing up. His name was Mr. Baker (I never heard a first name) and he always wore a hat. She kind of giggled when I asked about him, but they never married and he was always Mr. Baker. My mother told me she didn’t marry when her children were young because she was so afraid that she might marry someone who might abuse them in one way or another. Again, learning that in my later years taught me a lot about the reality of those times and those wonderful women I loved.

Once I was old enough to be out of the house, away from the complete influence of family, there began the parade of women who flood my memories. Among teachers, there is my high school Latin teacher, a former WAC, a Scots woman, who brought the ancient language to life and shared her no-nonsense opinions, her incredible sense of humor, and her intelligence with us. She is a friend today, still sharp as a tack in her 90s.

My first roommate in college was from a small town, graduating from a class of 6. My class was 650 in the city. She was my first small town friend. Another college friend was my first black friend. She was from Arkansas where her family owned a funeral home. To say she was a novelty is an understatement since she is the only black girl I remember from our dorm. We loved her sense of humor and her tolerance of us. I look back now and realize how hard it must have been for her, but she never showed it. Another girl in college was in the same First Aid class I was in. Since I was making an A, I had no problem, but she was struggling and the teacher made her an offer that she wisely refused and reported. I was called into the Dean’s office to talk about it since I was her student counselor. From this girl, I learned that there was such a thing as sexual harassment by those in authority.

I married during my senior year, graduated in May, and went to work the next day at the local grocery store in Stillwater, Oklahoma, as a checker. This was because I decided to take a summer job like my husband (who had to join a union to work construction that summer) before I returned in the fall to teach as a graduate assistant. My parents never understood my decision. One of my favorite co-workers was a wonderful young woman, married to a highway patrolman, who worked at the grocery store for real reasons. She was so very nice and we became friends as we tolerated our boss, a man who chided us if we leaned back during a lull. There were no computers in the summer of 1967, so we had to figure sales tax with the help of a little chart and learn the ever changing prices of the produce every day. The cash register was quite manual and our lines were long on the Saturdays when people came in from the country to do their weekly or monthly shopping. The store was probably closed on Sundays and not open in the evenings back then either. On the day I gave my notice, explaining to our obnoxious boss that I was going to be teaching at the University in the fall, I saw the change in the way he treated me and saw me. I will never get over being outraged that he would treat me differently than he was treating my new friend who would be there long after I left. I learned a lot that summer. A lot.

In the years following, I had four children, moved into our first home, became a housewife, an educated housewife, which is what you did in those days. I hired my own maid, joined the community groups, worked in my children’s schools and did the things I was supposed to be doing. Oh so many things were going to happen to me in the next years that I could never imagine then.

I had occasion to visit an abortion clinic in the mid-70s, a visit that forever changed my views. There, I observed a woman bringing her 14 year old granddaughter, a young black college couple, a woman who had three children and couldn’t afford more. These women were there for their own reasons, there at a legitimate clinic run by doctors, having to make decisions that they were obviously struggling with. I watched counselors going over their decisions with them in a kindly manner, not forcing anyone to do anything other than make sure. There was no joy in any of their faces. I had thought I was anti-abortion until that visit. I became pro-choice. It was none of my business to interfere with this difficult decision in these women’s lives.

When I was pregnant with my fourth child, I was elected the President of a group of young women working to support the symphony orchestra. It was the first big board of directors I would serve on and I was one of a few token women. The power brokers there were old, white men to this 29 year old young woman. I knew them as civic leaders who had made a huge difference in our city, but I also learned that they were nice but not exactly inclusive of the women in the room. The fact that I was pregnant made them a little uncomfortable. I don’t know if they thought I would have the baby during a meeting, but I learned from the experience. I learned from the strong, bright women who spoke out in the meetings and I learned to let my own voice be heard, even if I was pregnant and looked like a kid to them. I learned to represent the ideas of the people I was representing and stand up for them. It was a huge lesson for me and I thank those other women.

I served as a Deacon in our church during the next years and was in charge of helping people who called the church asking for assistance. I learned that there are people who call churches when they are desperate and that they sometimes take advantage of kind people. We didn’t give them money, but would buy them food or pay utilities for them. Once I took food to a woman and her children who were living in a motel where she was cleaning rooms to pay the fee. The children were clean and going to school and she just needed a helping hand. I remember that woman.

Later, I was chairman of a project to open a Women’s Resource Center, a place for displaced housewives (a new term in the 70s) to come for information on resources for getting an education, a job, a place to live, community help and whatever else they needed when they found themselves suddenly having to fend for themselves after a divorce or other life event. As we congratulated ourselves and met the press on opening day, a woman walked up the sidewalk, holding the article from the paper announcing our facility. She ignored the crowd, the press, and walked up to me. She needed help and was there to find it. I remember that woman. She taught me that we were doing the right thing and those women we had only imagined really were out there.

At that particular time in my life, my friends started facing challenges in their lives. Husbands started leaving them for other women, which rarely happened in my parents’ lives. Their friends may have had affairs, but they stayed together. Women couldn’t afford to leave their husbands because there was no place for them to go, so they tolerated a lot. A lot. Anyway, my friends, who were educated but had stayed home to raise the kids, now found themselves having to support themselves and their kids, even with child support and alimony. What they found was that the workplace didn’t automatically hire them in positions that reflected their education or their volunteer experience serving on boards in the community. They found themselves at the bottom of the ladder, having to work their way up. Not only did I have friends who found themselves in this position due to divorce, but some became widows unexpectedly. I learned from these friends that there has to be a way to raise a family and keep one foot in the work place door. This lesson is still being learned by the next generation. My hope is that the young women of today look at my friends who started late and worked their way up into positions of leadership in the workplace by pure hard work and determination. I learned so much from these women and it influenced my thoughts while raising my own three girls and my son. When I became a widow at 52, it was these women who were my inspiration while I faced those same challenges.

As an adult, I became friends with an African American woman who came to Tulsa as the director of an agency as I was serving on their board. Over twenty-five years ago, we sat at lunch while she told me of her fears of having a child. We are the same age and I had four children at the time, but she taught me the fear of a woman who did not know if she could have a child, especially a son, who would grow up in a world where he would face such discrimination because of the color of his skin. I never forgot our conversation, even as I watched her raise her outstanding son. I silently worried with her. She taught me.

I served many years on the board of the domestic violence agency in Tulsa, starting when it was relatively new and the women who fought for it ranged from Junior League members to prostitutes, all working together. The first shelter was in a neighborhood and the only security from abusive men who would come to the door was an umbrella stand with a baseball bat. I worked with those mothers and they taught me. Once, I was at a Halloween party given by volunteers for the families in the newer, more secure, shelter. I was taking pictures with a Polaroid camera, for privacy, for the mothers. I remember one mother who held up her one year old child who was in a full body cast. When I put the camera to my eye, I had to stop. The lens took me into her eyes too deeply and I had to compose myself and start over. Another mother asked me to take a picture so she could send it to the father. I had to bite my lip. She taught me about the cycle of violence as I tried to understand how she could want to do anything for the man who had caused them so much pain. Once, we took a group to the zoo and my oldest daughter and my son went with me as I picked up a woman and her child for the trip. We spent the day together with this woman who didn’t smile much and a few weeks later we passed the woman at a bus stop and my children recognized her. I remember all these women so well.

So many women pass through my memories. There is my 90 year old artist friend who I have known for over 40 years who taught me the life of an artist as I watched her paint while raising the last of her five children by three irresponsible husbands. She is so intelligent, so independent, and such an individual. There was my friend who died of cancer before her 40th birthday, the first time I watched someone go through the horrors of chemotherapy and mastectomy and fight so hard for her family. Watching her taught me so much when I went through the cancer battle later with my husband and son. And I now remember my life-long friend who lost her mother to cancer when she was 12. The funeral was the first one I ever attended and I remember watching her during the service to this day. And now there is my college friend who is now facing ALS with such bravery,  grace and humor. I treasure these women.

There are my friends who called me through the years to tell me that they were gay, hesitant as they waited for my response. I had the same response I had to the friends who told me their children are gay. I love you and it makes no difference. Maybe I learned that from my mother who had friends who lived out of state and explained to me that they were a couple. I don’t remember what term she used all those many years ago, but I remember that it was ok with her. I have had the same response to friends who were in interracial marriages or other relationships that weren’t like mine. I don’t care. I want those I love to be happy and loved and that’s all that there is to it. And, I don’t feel threatened by it in any way. Thank you for teaching me that I feel that way.

I thank my friend who is Native American for sharing her story of growing up with so much prejudice across town from the lily-white life I grew up in. I thank the woman in the wheel chair who came to my office with her loving daughter who was starting her own non-profit at the age of 15 to help get prom dresses for girls who couldn’t afford them. These women taught me grace and generosity.

So many women’s faces I have seen in my life. The UPS delivery lady who worked so hard at a formerly male job and who took the time to come to my husband’s funeral. The woman who had lost her husband and then was sitting in a flooded trailer in the country when I came to do damage assessment for the Red Cross. Her quiet despair as she barely noticed us walking through the destruction haunts me still.

I have a high school friend who moved to Alaska and found her life as a homesteader, wife of a trapper, mother in a remote area, and now an author of many books. Her life is seemingly so different from mine, yet so much the same. I visited her the year after my husband died and we drove around her area of Alaska, near Fairbanks. She took me to visit a friend, a Russian woman. This lady had been brought to America by her husband and they were looking for a life with their five children when her husband died, leaving her in a place where she spoke no English. She ended up in Alaska and had remarried, living with other Russians near my friend’s home (although everything is far apart in Alaska). The day we visited her, she had a new baby and was in bed. Also in the room were several older Russian women, sitting in a row of chairs, dressed in traditional Russian clothing, complete with babushkas. They spoke no English, so my friend tried to communicate for all of us. I took the baby and they silently watched me, understanding that I was a mother and grandmother and knew how to hold the child. We smiled and nodded and communicated silently in the universal language of women and babies. I found out later that they were from Chicago. I remember them all well.

So many women have made me who I am and I don’t even have to speak of the friends and family who have been mentors and companions and shared so many fun and rich memories. I love my three daughters, my daughter-in-law, and my two granddaughters who taught me how to be a mother and grandmother and continue to teach me every day.

We all have our stories and each is so very unique. I only know that who I am and how I understand the world and how I empathize with all people has been strongly shaped by the women who were my ancestors and those who I meet along the way. Men have had some influence, great influence, but the women have meant so much.

As we celebrate the first woman nominated to be President of the United States by a major party, I think back on my ancestors who couldn’t even vote and try to understand what that must have been like to live in a world where women were not treated as equals under the law. You don’t have to agree on politics to understand the importance of current events.

As we face the world today and tomorrow and the challenges each generation faces, I hope that the person I’ve become, the person I keep becoming, is passing along the best things about this world to those I love and those I meet. We are all in this same world and we need to understand each other and work together for every good thing there is in our lives, all our lives.IMG_8371








Reading about my great-grandmother living in the late 1800s until she died in 1937, I suddenly stopped at the sentence, “Mom had her fussy spells and enjoyed them.” That is followed by, “Dad never seemed to mind.” I’ve read that paragraph so many times over the years and never stopped before. Her spells?

My visit to the Filson Historical Society in Louisville, Kentucky, last week was successful as I was able to go through family papers in their collections. These now belong to the society, so, even as a family member, I went through the protocol as a researcher in order to leaf through files of old bills my great-grandfather saved from his days as the wharf master at Uniontown, Kentucky. He was also a grain dealer and the local Aetna insurance agent, the oldest in the company when he tried to retire. They didn’t let him! Anyway, I also went through a scrapbook of pasted clippings of family events beginning in 1908. On my great-grandmother’s 85th birthday, the Uniontown paper featured this article…DSC_0004 - Version 2Ella or Nellie Hamilton came to Kentucky from Louisiana (the clipping has that wrong, as she was born in Louisiana and moved to Hickman later) and moved to the town of Uniontown at the age of 19. I’m not sure what brought her there, but I know her father had died years earlier and her mother may have had relatives nearby. At the age of 21, she married my grandfather who was 34 at the time. I think it was fairly common for the men to marry younger women as I’ve seen this with others on my family tree. I’m assuming he was fairly settled by then. They were the first couple married at St. John Episcopal Church in Uniontown. I found a clipping that said he was confirmed as a member along with four of his sons years later and I know he served in leadership roles in the church after that.

My great-grandparents had 12 children. It’s no surprise that Uniontown grew quickly back then as my other great-grandparents in that town also had 12 children. The Hamiltons and Spaldings did our best to populate this little river town. Twelve children. The oldest Hamilton child died as a baby after an accident when a nurse let her fall. Two others also died young. This is the earliest picture I have of my great-grandmother, shown with her family.imageShe is holding her youngest baby while one of her daughters holds her youngest. This young mother would soon die and the son-in-law pictured behind the mother and baby would later marry one of the other girls who would raise the children. Hard to keep them all apart in my own family’s saga. My grandfather is the little boy in the grass in the middle, shown with one of the family dogs.

Here are some other pictures of her, both with my father, her grandson. The first was 1912…IMG_8886And this one must be about 1915…IMG_8887And here she is on her 50th wedding anniversary in 1922. IMG_8884What were those spells, those fussy spells? I mean, why would she have reason to act anything other than her sweet loving self with 8 children running around a huge house…IMG_3731…even though she had cooks and others to help with laundry and managing the gardens and the cleaning. I mean, really. Her mother also lived with them, so there was some help with the sewing and teaching the children manners and getting them to school. Life was easier in that she didn’t have to drive them to school since they could pretty much walk anyplace in town and everyone knew them so they were safe in that way.

Their life was easier than many others and yet there was still a lot to do. They traveled by buggy or wagon or riverboat to visit friends and relatives in nearby towns and cities. That can’t have been too easy, bouncing along those country roads for 30 miles or more. It was an idyllic life in a small Kentucky river town where they were a successful, respected family. My great-grandmother was active in women’s clubs, the Red Cross, and entertained her friends and family regularly. There were grand parties with guests from other towns at even larger homes in town and burgoos and picnics in the country. There were lots of things going on, it seems.

The Ohio River flooded once or twice a year where you had to take a raft to the store or the kids had to walk to school on stilts and then there was the awful flood in 1884 when the river raged up into their home. If you’ve ever cleaned up after a flood, you know what a nasty business that is with mud and water all through your home and belongings. They moved their furniture up a floor until the water went down, but, still…

After my great-grandfather died, Nellie stayed in the big house, inviting a family with five children to move in with her, rent free, to help them out. Her children, now grown and moved away, protested, but she was happy to share the space and the husband, a miner, helped with the yard. She insisted on staying in the house during the great flood of 1937 until the priest made her leave by the upper floor. She returned against everyone’s wishes to the damp house where she was surrounded by memories. She contracted pneumonia and died soon after.

I have so many questions about my family, more all the time it seems as I uncover new branches and stories. My visits to Kentucky have let me walk in their steps and envision their lives in another time.

This grandmother with her “fussy spells” makes me smile. I bet she had her spells when she needed a few minutes to herself, a few minutes of quiet to rest and recharge. I’m guess this because I can remember needing those times myself. Of course, her story was written by one of her daughters who never had children of her own and, at the age of 55, was looking back at her childhood. I wonder if she and her brothers and sisters snickered at Mom’s spells and stayed out of her way during those times. I’m picturing Mom in her room, quietly taking a nap or reading a book or looking out the window at all those kids at play. Enjoying her well deserved spell in a well lived life.


Most of us learn about life in a small river town through the stories of Mark Twain, but I’ve also learned through my own family history.  Focusing on my family’s stories from Uniontown, Kentucky, I’ve absorbed so much information that brings it all home to my heart.  Founded in 1840 by an act that merged two existing communities into one, Uniontown flourished along the Ohio River due to the surrounding rich agricultural lands and the mining industry.  Here’s a picture taken by one of my relatives of one side of Main Street back when there were still horses and buggies with new fangled cars being introduced to the dirt streets.imageThanks to Mike Guillerman, author of “Face Boss:  The Memoir of a Western Kentucky Coal Miner,” who was nice enough to send me a copy of the June 12, 1903 special edition of The Telegram, Uniontown’s newspaper, I’ve learned that this little town at one time or another had three hotels, a bank, a distillery, granaries, confectionery, millinery, dry goods, and furniture stores, along with a saloon and a wagon works.  There was a livery stable, a saddle store, and a tobacco and cigar store, along with a grocery story, a meat market and a fish market.  This little town of 2,000 had a fire department and a fairgrounds with a paddock (Kentucky does have horses, you know), an amphitheater and floral halls.  There was a Cooper Shop, which I surmise was a brewery for local beer.

My great-great-grandfather arrived in Uniontown as a doctor.  There were doctors, a dentist, and lawyers.  My great-grandfather, who bought and sold grain with an office on the river, also sold insurance for Aetna.  What didn’t they have?

Uniontown had lovely wide streets lined with lovely homes with tall trees and schools for both white and “colored” children (The Telegram reported a scholastic population of 820 with 520 whites and 250 blacks in 1903).  There were at least 6 churches, including Catholic, Episcopal, Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist and Christian.  Ferries crossed the river for those on the Indiana side and riverboats arrived to pick up grain and coal and bring visitors to town. Riverboats also brought entertainment with special shows that everyone would await with excitement.  There was a town band, whose members met twice a week to practice and learn the latest tunes.

And there were the Kentucky “burgoos,”  which I learned about from my great aunt in her book, “My Sun Shines Bright.”  My Uniontown friend, Treva Robards told me more about burgoos, which are a Kentucky tradition, a get together where everyone brings something to contribute to the burgoo, a kind of stew.  There were all kinds of vegetables and meats, everything from Kentucky hams to wild game, all thrown together into a wonderful meal for all.  Each time had to be different since you never knew what people would bring.  Treva shared this older photo of a burgoo.  She said it is always good!Scan 268This was as good as it gets anywhere, I would imagine.  I’ve read the stories of my grandfather being sent on errands when he was only three, watched over by the whole town along the way.  I’ve read of my grandfather and his siblings playing with the black children who lived across the street, riding their horses together, at a time when the town was growing away from the days of slaves and slaveowners in the post-Civil War years.  Children played along and in the river, went hunting in the lush forests nearby, and feasted on Kentucky hams, fried chicken, biscuits and peach pies.

On the other side of town, my grandmother’s family were farmers, working hard in their tobacco fields, the children picking the worms off the tobacco plants. The town had its other side as all towns do, all part of the Uniontown story.   And the town has changed through the years, victim of nature and the times.

My family wrote of the floods, when the Ohio spread across the town and people moved their furniture to upper stories and stayed in the homes of family and friends on higher ground.  Here’s my family’s home with high water.imageIt was fun for the kids to walk on stilts to school or ride in a boat to the store.  I’ve cleaned up after flood waters and it must not have been as much fun for the adults.  Here’s a stereoscope photo I found of one of the floods.ajaxhelper

But, the river was a part of the town, a huge part.  Treva shared some photos with me of a day’s catch…

Scan 267…and the river when it was frozen.  Her father and brother walked across the ice.  Scan 269There were huge floods in 1884, when the entire Ohio River flooded, devastating towns all along its banks.  Clara Barton and the American Red Cross used their new network of helping others to bring relief to the flooded areas.  I found a later newspaper clipping of my great-grandmother attending a Red Cross meeting in nearby Morgansfield.  The 1937 flood did much damage to my family’s home and my great-grandmother’s insistence on staying in the dampness led to the pneumonia that caused her death.

I wondered why they didn’t build levees and finally realized how much work and money it costs to build such a structure for a town.  Uniontown continued on with a flood about every year, finally building a levee in the 1960s, I believe.  Here’s a later flood photo.Dorothy Deboe - town streetwalker in Uniontown after floodBy then, the riverboats were gone, leaving only barges to transport goods, and life was changing.  The town continued to be a great place to live into the 70s.  Now the town is down to a population of just over 1,250.DSC_0292The prosperous Main Street is virtually non-existent, with only this former movie theatre…DSC_0295…and this building left from the past glory days.

DSC_0296This building still stands by the levee…DSC_0199There’s still a granary…DSC_0303…and the miners keep mining coal to transport to the river…DSC_0291


DSC_0306Men still hunt and gather at the Uniontown Coon ClubDSC_0293to eat, drink and tell their stories.DSC_0294Druggies inhabited Toon Town on the outskirts of Uniontown during a past time but now it’s a family camp and young people are trying to bring the town back.  There’s a new market, a restaurant, and people who love this river community.  The landing is busy with fishermen loading boats onto the river.DSC_0236And there are people like my friend, Treva, who treasure the memories of what life on the river used to be.  Here we are by the levee.DSC_0305I feel connected to the town and the river through my family who lived there when it was the best of all places to be for the times.  At least that’s how it feels.  I dipped my feet in the Ohio, linking me to the river and my people who settled in Kentucky so many years ago.  DSC_0307I came from people who settled in many places through the years as this country grew.  There are quite a few who link me to Kentucky, especially Uniontown.  As long as I can, I’ll help preserve the stories because they help me understand them, this country and who I am.

Last year, I traveled to Uniontown, Kentucky, where my father and grandfather were born, curious to see the place I had read about in a book, “The Sun Shines Bright,” written by my great-aunt Sue Hamilton Jewell about her life growing up there.  I also had photos from an album I collected when my grandparents died that showed the family when my grandfather was a child, a young man, and a father.  I wrote a blog about the trip, “My River Kinfolk,” that covered the visit.

That simple blog opened up new information I hadn’t expected.  I heard from several people who lived in the area, including someone who is distantly related, an author of a book about coal mining in the area, a young woman who lives in Uniontown, a man whose mother purchased the house my family lived in after they had all gone, and a woman who actually lived in the house at one time.  I hadn’t expected that kind of response at all.  All of that information centered around the lives of my grandfather’s family.

Over the next months, I opened a file box that was sitting on a shelf and found another recounting of life in Uniontown from my great-aunt on my grandmother’s side.  I was getting more and more of a picture of life on the river in that town.  I read about the great Ohio River floods, which devastated the towns along its banks, especially in 1884 and 1937.  I started getting more interested in the history of the area. Through another book of the history of the Hamilton family, I traced my grandfather’s family back to Scotland, which they left for Maryland due to religious persecution.  The box from my grandmother’s side showed that her family, the Spaldings, left England and landed in Maryland also.

Though they didn’t know each other, the Hamiltons and the Spaldings both migrated to eastern Kentucky in 1792, the year it became a state and opened up as the country expanded west.  My ties to Kentucky were deepening.  And branches of both families ended up in Uniontown, a growing community on the banks of the Ohio with commerce from the river traffic, coal mining, and agriculture.  There was even the ubiquitous Kentucky distillery.  From what I can tell, my great-great-grandfather on my grandfather’s side was a doctor who ended up in Uniontown.  My great-great-grandfather on my grandmother’s side was probably a farmer.  They were both part of the growth of the area.

My grandfather was born in 1885 and had an idyllic childhood, raised in a large, loving family.  His father was a grain dealer with an office at the river for shipping.  He was also an insurance salesman for Aetna, so respected that they made him an honorary member of the Aetna family rather than let him retire.  He owned a farm in the area, also, which is probably where he was born.  He and my great-grandmother were the first couple married in the Episcopal Church in Uniontown and he served as Senior Warden for many years.  He was also a charter member of the Masonic Lodge in nearby Morgansfield.  They were pillars of the community according to his obituary.Scan 44My grandmother’s childhood was not quite so charming.  One of eight children, her father was a blacksmith and he drank.  He was also a farmer, tobacco mostly, and my grandmother picked worms off the tobacco along with her brothers and sisters.  Their mother died young and the children took care of each other and all of them worked.  Most of them got out as soon as they could.  My grandmother’s older sister opened a millinery shop in town and married into another more prosperous family.

While my grandmother’s family didn’t have the luxury of a camera or a photographer, I have a picture of some of the tobacco farmers, ready to meet the revenuers coming onto their land.  One of them could easily be my great-grandfather.Scan 265My grandparents married and had their first three children in Uniontown before leaving for other opportunities.  I have these photos of my grandmother with my father (with curls), his brother and sister as babies, sitting on the lawn of the Hamilton house.  I note here that my grandfather was Episcopal and my grandmother was Catholic, not such an easy marriage in those days.  They were married for 55 years.  The story my grandmother told my mother was that they took a trip when they first got married, leaving on a train.  My grandfather gave his new bride a fur muff.  She was so poor that she didn’t even have underwear and now she had a fur muff.  That’s how I heard it, probably close to the truth.Scan 93And this photo is of my great-grandparents with their grandchildren, my father on the right.  I’m lucky to have many more precious photos.Mom & Dad Hamilton with J. C., Ed & SaraThe town was changing as the river changed and the riverboats became more obsolete.  I love this old picture of one of the riverboats that stopped in Uniontown, delighting my grandfather in his childhood.ajaxhelperAnd I realized that this photo of my father and his brother was with a sailor on one of the riverboats.  Somebody drew in the head that was cut out of the picture, making it even cuter.  Daddy was born in 1912, so this must have been around 1915 or so.Scan 248And here’s one of the ferry at Uniontown, one my father probably rode to cross the Ohio.Scan 266As I found myself with even more information, I decided to return to Uniontown, especially since I now had some people to talk to while I was there.  My new friend, Treva Robards, spent a delightful afternoon driving around the area with me, filling my head with stories of her own childhood in Uniontown and pointing out the locations of long gone buildings along with local gossip.  I was beginning to get a bigger picture of this area and how it shaped my family.

Treva’s interest in my family grew from living in the old Hamilton house when she was younger.  The house that held our large family was flooded badly in 1937 and my great-grandmother died soon after from pneumonia contracted because she refused to leave.  It was purchased years later and became home to two or more families at a time.  Treva told me that the house was haunted and she could hear the cries of babies and the clanking of chains every night.  We think the cries could be from the three babies who died as infants or toddlers, my grandfather’s siblings.  She thinks the chains could be from slaves who were kept in the attic long before my family purchased the house.  Those are our theories anyway.  I have no doubt she heard them when she lived there.IMG_3731

She also told me that she was fascinated by a room that was kept locked upstairs.  She would look through the keyhole and see the antique dolls and dress forms with wonderful clothes and trunks piled around.  I know these are the things that my great-aunt wrote about in her book that delighted her as a child.  The roof fell in, the house was deserted, looters came.  Who knows why none of the family came to retrieve those items, some priceless treasures.  The family had scattered by then.  It gave me an answer to what came next in that wonderful home.

This trip I visited both cemeteries, the Uniontown cemetery where I went last year, and the Catholic cemetery, looking for my grandmother’s family.  The Catholic cemetery had lots of Spaldings, but none that matched the names I knew.   Many of the headstones were worn bare.  I also think my great-grandmother may have been buried in the potter’s field, so I paid my tributes there in the clear area by a pond at the back of the cemetery.DSC_0288The Hamilton sites were as I left them, although the cemetery was surrounded by corn last year and soybeans this year.DSC_0299There has been so much new information for me to think about this year, so much more to learn about life on the river and how my family was shaped through the centuries.  My greatest regret is that I didn’t ask my grandparents and parents to tell me stories of both sides of my family, because now I want to know and find myself searching for more clues.

We don’t tell our stories enough because we don’t realize the importance sometimes.  I think my childhood was pretty ordinary until I look back and place it in the times.  Maybe this is why so many authors tell their stories when they are older.  When we’re young, we’re busy looking to the future.  When there is less future time left, we turn back to put the past in perspective.

This is so much to take in and I share these stories for my children and grandchildren, my siblings, nephews, cousins, and all those to come.  More Uniontown stories to come…

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…