Thanksgiving in Cape Canaveral

Happy Thanksgiving to all!!  I hope you are in a safe and comfortable place, enjoying good food and good company.

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Like just about everything else in my new life, the holiday season this year will be completely different for me.  Typically, I cook Thanksgiving dinner at home with the help of my son Kyle, and our small family gathers, sometimes including a local friend or two.

Thanksgiving Past: Chris, Kyle and Mom
Thanksgiving Past: Chris, Kyle and Mom

This year, my family is either gone or scattered, my only home is my small RV with no oven, and I’m in an unfamiliar place.  I’m not feeling sorry for myself – just stating the facts.  It’s an adjustment.

It is, of course, a time to reflect and give thanks.  Sometimes it feels like it’s easier or even more natural to focus on the negatives in life, and all the complaints we might have.  One of the many wonderful aspects of the Thanksgiving holiday is that it reminds us to be thankful and focus on the things we do have, rather than the things we don’t have.

So I’m very grateful to my ex-in-laws, Eric’s mother and sister, for welcoming me into their home in Cape Canaveral, Florida for Thanksgiving. I’m staying at a campground which is directly on the beach, and a short walk to the condominium complex where they live.  It’s wonderful to be with extended family, and I look forward to enjoying our turkey dinner together later this afternoon.

OK, here’s the best part.  Early this morning, I walked a short way from my RV to the beach:

Beach at Jetty Park, Cape Canaveral, Florida
Beach at Jetty Park, Cape Canaveral, Florida

I walked barefoot, in shorts and a T-shirt, thoroughly enjoying the smell of the ocean, and the feel of the sand. I’m thankful for the beach.  Sometimes this adjustment thing is pretty easy to do!!

But seriously, I’m so thankful on multiple levels this year.

  • I’m thankful for my amazing children, who both live in Seattle, I’m thankful for their health, I’m thankful for their love for me, and I’m thankful that they both grew up to be bright, caring and thoughtful individuals.
  • I don’t know why I’ve outlived the rest of my nuclear family, but I’m thankful for every day that I’m healthy and able to enjoy life.
  • I’m thankful for my ex-husband and close friend, Eric, and so grateful to him for all he has done for me this year.
  • I’m thankful that I sold my house, and I’m extremely thankful that I was able to retire from my job.
  • I’m thankful that I was able to buy the RV which has been my home, and I’m thankful that I succeeded in learning to operate it and live in it.
  • I’m thankful for my passion for genealogy, because it’s one of the many things which make me excited to get out of bed every morning and start my day.
  • I’m thankful for my closest friends Carol, Denise and Cindy, and for my cousin Betsy, all of whom I love deeply.
  • I’m thankful for the amazing folks running the Bucks County Genealogical Society, and especially for Mary Butash, who happily took the baton from me and allowed me the freedom to move on. They are all second to none.

I feel like I could go on and on!  I am truly blessed.

Happy Thanksgiving, and all the best for the holiday season!  Enjoy!!

St. Augustine, Florida

Eric and I came to this area to be near our mail forwarding service in Green Cove Springs in order to establish domicile in Florida, and it just happens to be near the fascinating city of St. Augustine.

I don’t have any ancestors in Florida, but I love any historical site, as do most genealogists.  And St. Augustine is certainly full of history!  It’s the oldest city in the United States, founded by the Spanish in 1565.  There’s a fort, a charming old town area, lots of beautiful historic buildings, and a lovely waterfront.  Below is a photograph which I took from the top of the fort:

Mantazas Bay from Castillo de San Marcos
Mantazas Bay from Castillo de San Marcos

The old town area is dominated by three hotels built and/or owned by a Mr. Henry Flagler in the late 1800’s. One of the hotels, which is now a combination of City Hall and the Lightener Museum, even had an indoor pool back in the day!

City Hall and Lightener Museum
City Hall and Lightener Museum

It turned out that we were in St. Augustine for the annual “Night of Lights”, held on the Saturday before Thanksgiving for the past 23 years.  Many thousands of people gather in the central plaza for holiday music, speeches, and the lighting of the town’s Christmas tree and all the other trees as well.  It was a heart-warming family event, especially when everyone oohed and aahed in unison the moment the light switch was turned on:

Night of Lights, St. Augustine, Florida, "Before"
Night of Lights, St. Augustine, Florida, “BEFORE”
Night of Lights, St. Augustine, Florida, "AFTER"
Night of Lights, St. Augustine, Florida, “AFTER”

All over the town, the shops and restaurants were also covered in festive lights – truly a sight to see!

I haven’t spent too much time during this trip acting like a tourist, but we definitely did the tourist thing in this town, from riding around on the Old Town Trolley, to taking tours of the historical sites.  I’d like to come back – maybe I can time it to see the Night of Lights next year!

Research in Walton County, Georgia

I feel like I could spend a year in Walton County, and neighboring counties, and still not be done with the research I need to do here.  Thank goodness it’s a beautiful area, and I’ve found a terrific campground, because I will definitely be back!

Walton County Historical Marker
Walton County Historical Marker

Eric’s Walton County ancestors go all the way back to the formation of the County in 1818, on multiple lines.  It’s so overwhelming, it’s hard to know how to approach it.  Because Eric is very interested in the history of the land where the family cemetery is, I decided to start with deed research.

Walton County has an absolutely gorgeous courthouse in downtown Monroe, built in 1883. Unfortunately (or fortunately for some!), a new courthouse was built in 2005 which houses the land records, so I couldn’t research in the historic building.   Darn!

Walton County Courthouse
Walton County Courthouse

The first afternoon at the new courthouse, I focused on finding documentation on exactly how the Roberts family lost the property during the Great Depression.  As I mentioned in a previous post, the family story was that the land was lost due to non-payment of taxes, and the family of the current owner purchased it for pennies on the courthouse steps.

First, I searched the Grantor Index (the Grantor is the seller) to see if I could find a transaction in the 1930’s from Willoughby Roberts to someone named Thompson, the current owner’s name, but there was no such transaction.  I then checked for the City of Monroe or the County of Walton as Grantors, figuring one of those government entities might have seized the property if the taxes had not been paid, but there was no transaction to Thompson.  I did see that Willoughby Roberts had taken out a mortgage in 1923, so I looked for sales to Thompson with the bank as Grantor, with no luck.  Finally, I checked all transactions with Willoughby as Grantor, disregarding the Grantee’s name, starting with 1940 and going backwards, and nailed it.

Walton County Deed, 1938
Walton County Deed, 1938

As it turned out, the property was sold by the bank, acting as Attorney-in-Fact for Willoughby Roberts, six months AFTER Willoughby died in 1938.  Essentially, the property was foreclosed upon and auctioned off because of past due loan payments of about $511 on a $3,000 loan, representing three years of non-payment.  The Grantees paid about $4,000, and were two gentlemen whose names we didn’t recognize.

As is so typical with genealogical finds, we’ve generated more questions than answers.  Although we’ve debunked the family story that the land was sold to the Thompsons on the courthouse steps for pennies on the dollar, we wonder why Willoughby’s children, one of whom was an accomplished attorney and Eric’s grandfather, didn’t figure out a way to stop the foreclosure action.  The property had been in the family since 1822, and contained the precious family cemetery.  What were they thinking?  And how did the Thompson family eventually acquire the property?

A few days later, we met with Mr. Thompson, the current owner of the property, and learned the answer to that last question.  It turns out that the two gentlemen who bought the property at the foreclosure sale in 1938 were relatives of Mr. Thompson, who bought the property from his uncle in the 1970’s.

Have you heard the 80/20 rule about family stories which say that 80% of the story is true 20% of the time, and 20% is true 80% of the time?  That certainly seems to roughly apply in this case. The property WAS sold by auction, but not on the courthouse steps.  The property WAS sold to the Thompson family, but not to a family member with the surname Thompson.  The property WAS sold due to non-payment, but it was non-payment of a loan, and not non-payment of taxes.

I did a LOT more research in Walton County, including obtaining copies of about 75 Roberts family deeds.  These aren’t all of the Roberts deeds, and I didn’t even begin to touch the other Walton County surnames in Eric’s family.  As I’ve said before, deed research is quite labor intensive, because the digital images that I have need to be processed – I have to match the images with the book and page number in my notes so I can properly cite the deed, and then I have to abstract and analyze all of the deeds before I can move on in my research.

I’ve already made my reservation at the same Georgia campground for a month next April.  By then, I will have processed what I have, and I’ll be ready for the next round!

Domicile

As a full-time RVer, I love the feeling of freedom that I have, not being tied to one place.  Like a turtle, I take my home with me.    RV supply stores have a sign you can buy which says “Home Is Where You Park It”, and that’s exactly how I feel!

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Still, I have to be a resident somewhere in order to have a driver’s license, register to vote, register my vehicles, pay taxes, and so on.  I’ve been a resident of Pennsylvania for twenty years, but it doesn’t make sense to retain my residence there now.  Since I have a choice, I want to find a state which has no state income tax or inheritance tax, and one which I could conveniently visit to take care of business (for example, Alaska would NOT be convenient!).

Other considerations include whether or not the state requires a vehicle inspection (which would mean an annual trip to the state of domicile), and remote/online flexibility for renewals, absentee ballots, and so forth.

After doing some research, I found that the three states which are the most “full-time RV’er friendly” are South Dakota, Texas, and Florida.  For me, it made the most sense to choose Florida, since I have ties in the state and it’s possible that I might buy a house there eventually.  So, when I was considering which mail forwarding service to use, I chose one in Green Cove Springs, Florida.

Over the past three months, I’ve been in domicile limbo.  My mailing address is Florida, but my driver’s license is in Pennsylvania.  This created complications in all sorts of ways, so I was very happy and relieved to finally arrive in Florida last week, and become a Florida resident!

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I was absolutely amazed that the whole process took about an hour and a half.  Interestingly, the first action was to go to the Clay County Courthouse and file a domicile intention form, which is actually recorded and becomes public information.  I definitely thought about future genealogists tracking down this document!

I wish I could post a photograph of my driver’s license, because it’s very unique – my address is the license plate number of my motorhome!  Now THAT’s an RV-friendly state!!

Small Town America

Being here in Monroe, Georgia with Eric has given me such insight into what it was like growing up in a small southern town in the mid twentieth century, that I just had to write about it.  It really struck me when Eric and I attended the open house of the Monroe Cultural and Heritage Museum last week.  It’s such a contrast to my New York upbringing.

The population of Monroe in 1950, the year Eric was born, was about 4,500.  That’s small enough for everyone to know almost every other family in town.  Case in point:  the big event of Eric’s birth literally made front page news!!

1962 Christmas Parade, Broad Street, Monroe, Georgia. Photo Courtesy Monroe Cultural and Heritage Museum.
1962 Christmas Parade, Broad Street, Monroe, Georgia. Photo Courtesy Monroe Cultural and Heritage Museum.

Eric and his older sister Shannon have deep roots here: their great-grandfather, grandfather, and father, were all born in or near Monroe, and they’re all buried here.  Their grandfather, Erastus “Ras” Roberts, was the city’s youngest mayor, taking office in 1907 when he was 27, and serving until 1915, when he was appointed City Solicitor.  His wife, Norma Shannon, was a Sunday School teacher at the First Baptist Church for decades.  So EVERYONE in Monroe knew the family.

Eric lived here until he was 5, and then spent a couple of months here staying with his grandmother when he was 8 years old.   After that, there were frequent visits until his grandmother died in 1975.  His grandmother lived in a beautiful old home, and Eric remembers the large dining room, always filled with people, and the original bathroom with the cast iron clawfoot tub raised up on a platform.

Eric told me stories about walking down Broad Street with his parents, and only taking a few steps before being stopped by friends and neighbors along the way.  His mother would introduce him by saying, “Eric, you remember Mr. and Mrs. Smith…,” and Eric would nod and say something polite, not having a clue who they were.  This went on and on as they made their way down the street.  It was clearly a social opportunity for everyone!

Eric also remembers hanging out at the corner drug store/soda fountain on Broad Street, which you can see in the picture above.  Classic Americana!

We had such a great time at the opening of the Monroe Cultural and Heritage Museum.  We were admiring the exhibits, when a woman looked at Eric and said, “Are you a Roberts?  Was Winn Roberts your father?”, and it turned out that the woman was a childhood friend of Eric’s sister Shannon!  She said she recognized him because he looked like a Roberts – where does this happen??  She then called over several other folks who were a few years older than Eric, and they reminisced about all the families in town back in the 1950’s.

It seemed to me that they could recite who lived in every house on every street, along with a brief family history.  Eric mentioned the house he lived in from 1950-1955, and they went on to tell him who lived next door, across the street, and so on down the block, and there was a story about each family.  Many of the people we spoke with had lived in Monroe their entire lives.

They told us that Eric’s grandparents were known as “Ras and Miss Norma”, and it seemed everyone at the Museum knew who they were, which is pretty amazing considering Ras (pronounced “Raz”) died in 1939, and Norma in 1975.

Erastus Winn Roberts and Norma Shannon, aka "Ras and Miss Norma"
Erastus Winn Roberts and Norma Shannon, aka “Ras and Miss Norma”

Understandably, Eric feels very much at home here, and finds the cotton fields and the southern accent comforting and reminiscent of his youth.  He’s able to recapture a real sense of belonging.  The pace is slower here, the people extremely friendly, and the whole environment more relaxed.  It seems like he could just move here to Monroe and pick up where he left off!  I’m somewhat envious, but soaking it all up vicariously.

It’s a different world from my perspective.  Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in New York anymore….

Roberts Family Cemetery

Before actually confirming anything with land records at the courthouse, the family story is that the Culbreath family obtained 220 acres in Walton County, Georgia around 1820.  When Absolem Roberts (1809-1893) married Mary Culbreath in the 1830’s, the land was transferred to Absolem, and then later to Absolem’s son Willoughby (1859-1938), who is Eric’s great grandfather.  Willoughby lost the land due to non-payment of taxes during the Great Depression, so the land was in the family for about a century.  That is the family story.

We do know that Absolem and Willoughby were farmers, and the 1860 Slave Schedule showed that Absolem owned twenty slaves.  The 1860 Agricultural Schedule indicates that the farm was prolific, producing 1,000 bushels of Indian corn in addition to wheat, oats and cotton, and 850 pounds of butter.

On the farm was a family cemetery, which currently holds nineteen graves in two areas with traditional tombstones, and at least another fifty which are marked by small, upright stones, many of the them pink-toned.  They definitely appear to be placed intentionally and not naturally occurring.  We don’t know for sure, but we suspect that the small stones indicate the graves of slaves.

One of many small, upright stones at Roberts Family Cemetery, Walton County, Georgia
One of many small, upright stones at Roberts Family Cemetery, Walton County, Georgia

A chain link fence was constructed around the cemetery; some of the smaller stones are within the fence, but most are outside of it.  According to the tombstones, the earliest burial was 1877; the latest was 1935.  If the smaller stones are slave graves, they must be earlier burials.

Absolem Roberts and Mary Culbreath, Eric’s second great-grandparents, are buried in this cemetery, along with several of their children, grandchildren, and other collateral relatives.  Several of the surnames are unfamiliar to me, and it’s my mission to identify the relationships of all the people buried here.  In addition to that, I need to photograph all of the headstones and add them to FindaGrave so others can benefit from the information on the stones.

The property is currently owned by a delightful elderly gentleman whose family purchased it in the 1930’s from the Roberts family.  Eric has been in touch with him in the past to obtain access to the cemetery.  Eric visited in 1999 with our two children and did some clean-up, and then on his own for a quick visit in 2010 and 2015.  This time, it was a bit more difficult to contact the owner in advance, and when we arrived, we found a locked gate across the property.   Even though we couldn’t initially drive in, we walked in to the cemetery, and this is what we found:

Roberts Family Cemetery, Walton County, Georgia, before 2016 cleanup
Roberts Family Cemetery, Walton County, Georgia, before 2016 cleanup
Small Section of Roberts Family Cemetery, Walton County, Georgia, before 2016 cleanup
Small Section of Roberts Family Cemetery, Walton County, Georgia, before 2016 cleanup

Painful to look at, but it had not been tended to in seventeen years!  We found a local Home Depot, bought a rake and loppers, rented a chain saw, and got to work.

Eric Roberts chainsawing at Roberts Family Cemetery, November 2016
Eric Roberts chainsawing at Roberts Family Cemetery, November 2016

We worked a couple of hours the first day, and then five hours the second day; this was the result:

Roberts Family Cemetery, Walton County, Georgia, after 2016 cleanup
Roberts Family Cemetery, Walton County, Georgia, after 2016 cleanup
Small Section of Roberts Family Cemetery, Walton County, Georgia, after 2016 cleanup
Small Section of Roberts Family Cemetery, Walton County, Georgia, after 2016 cleanup

It felt really good to get it presentable again!  In the process, we uncovered pieces of broken headstones which had been buried beneath layers of leaves and dirt. Although we couldn’t repair them, we cleaned them off so they’re now legible.

Once we had the fenced-in areas cleaned up, we thought about all the souls buried under those smaller stones around the area.  If the descendants of those slaves knew they were buried there, they would be doing the same thing we were doing:  taking care of the graves of their ancestors.  I’ll be writing a separate post about the slave graves soon.

We did finally make contact with the property owner, and brought folding chairs to the cemetery where we sat with him for two hours and talked about the history of the property and the town.

Before we leave the area, we’re going to make the cemetery more official looking by putting a sign on the gate saying “Roberts Family Cemetery”, and providing our contact information.  And we’ll plan to come back here more often to take better care of it!

South for the Winter

My first cousin lives near Richmond, Virginia, which is conveniently located along I-95 and a perfect stop on the trip south.  So I left my BFF in Suffolk County, Long Island at 4am on the 27th, headed to Jackson, New Jersey in the Mini Cooper to pick up the RV from the shop, hooked up the car, and drove to Richmond.  It took me about 11 hours from start to finish.  I knew that the Baltimore Tunnel doesn’t allow propane through it, so I had to plan a detour around that.  Otherwise, there were no issues, but I was really surprised that the tolls between New Jersey and Virginia for the rig totaled $54.45.  Ouch!

I just loved the few days I spent with my cousin.  Betsy and her husband have a lovely home and sheep farm.  Among many other subjects, we chatted about our mothers, who were very close sisters.  I found it very comforting to be with family and talk about family.

We spent a terrific day in Williamsburg and Jamestown, including lunch at a colonial tavern.  It was fascinating to see the authentic homes and shops in Williamsburg, and the ongoing archaeological dig in Jamestown.

Scene in Williamsburg, Virginia
Scene in Williamsburg, Virginia
Outline of first church in Jamestown
Outline of first church in Jamestown

Archaeologist William Kelso discovered the location of the Jamestown Fort in 1994, and the dig is ongoing.  Mr. Kelso was actually present at the site when we were there!  And there’s a fascinating museum filled with artifacts found there over the last 22 years. If you’ve never been – I highly recommend it.

Leaving Betsy’s on Sunday the 30th, I had another long driving day.  I like to leave really early in the morning so I can get a few hours of driving in before everyone else is on the road.  So I left Virginia at 4 am, and arrived in Monroe, Georgia at 3 pm, much earlier than planned.  550 miles in 11 hours is very good time for an RV towing a car!  I found that I was comfortable going at least the speed limit (which was often 70 mph), and was even passing slower vehicles.

About halfway through the day, I had my first road crisis.  I heard a big thud against the truck, and then a tinkle – the right side mirror had shattered.  I pulled over to have a look, but could see nothing that might have caused it to break.  It seemed almost as though a rock had hit it.  That mirror is extremely critical when driving the rig, and I debated whether to stop somewhere to have it fixed.  But I limped along, hugging the edge of the road to minimize merges to the right, and I made it to Georgia with no other incidents.

The plan was for Eric and I to meet up at the Roberts Family Cemetery, where we intended to boondock for a few days while we cleaned up the cemetery.  But when I got there, I found the entrance locked:

Locked Entrance to the Roberts Family Cemetery, Monroe, Georgia
Locked Entrance to the Roberts Family Cemetery, Monroe, Georgia

After a quick phone conversation with Eric, we decided to meet at the campground where we had intended to go after boondocking.  Thankfully, the campground had space to take us early, and we settled in for the night.

View from my campsite near Monroe, Georgia
View from my campsite near Monroe, Georgia

After being away from the RV (aka “home”) for about 10 days, I really missed it!  It felt good to be camping again, and also felt good to be back with Eric, my RV buddy.  And, it’ll be relaxing to be in one place for two and a half weeks.

It’s very exciting to be in a place where Eric’s family has lived for 200 years!  Eric has fond memories of the town of Monroe, where he was born, and I can’t wait to hit the courthouse and bury myself in the records there.  But our first mission is to visit the cemetery, which is in the middle of private property formerly owned by the Roberts family for over one hundred years, and lost in the Great Depression.  Next post will be all about the cemetery!