Documenting my family's past for future generations. My family tree includes the Smith/Mansell families of Alabama and Oklahoma, the Castle/Day families of Kentucky and Oklahoma, the Wheat/Ming families of Texas and Oklahoma, and the Bell/Roberts families of Mississippi, Tennessee, and Oklahoma.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Smith Family ABC's

We have a gift-giving tradition in my family. Every couple of years or so, I try to give my brother something for Christmas that will make him cry.

It started with a picture of my dad, riding his Shetland pony. That year I gave my brother a shadowbox that included the picture and one of the set of spurs that came with Daddy's Western outfit.

Another year I found three photos of my brother and me with Santa and framed them. Once I had a plate made for him by our art teacher at school that pictured all the important places and events in his life. I'm not a very creative person, so I can't come up with these ideas every year. Tim never knows when he'll get one of these nostalgic presents, so if it looks suspicious he asks, "Is this going to make me cry?"

A couple of years ago my friend and I had been on a trip to Colorado and New Mexico. On the way home we started talking about all the ABC books that have become so popular recently. We started brainstorming about a family ABC book and what all the letters would stand for. When I got home, I wrote down the ones I could remember and determined that I would make my brother an ABC book for Christmas.

Here's the title page of the ABC book I made for my brother's Christmas present two years ago.

Here's the Table of Contents. Try it, and see if you can think of the ABC's of your family!

(By the way, I'm not telling what I made my brother for Christmas this year. It's related to our family history, but I don't think it will make him cry.)

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Cranberry Traditions

Thanksgiving wouldn't be Thanksgiving without my grandmother's cranberry salad. Most old recipes for cranberry salad have apples or oranges in addition to the cranberries, but not my grandmother's. It was also made in a particular way that was hard to duplicate. First, you had to crush the fresh cranberries in a food grinder. We had an old cast iron one that you attached to the counter top with a big thumbscrew. It fit on the counter top at 3319 W. 38th St. perfectly.

Jason preparing the cranberries his first Thanksgiving

Mom's Recipe (as it appeared in the Park School 75th Anniversary Cookbook)
1 pt. fresh cranberries
1 15-oz. can crushed pineapple
1 3-oz. cherry Jello
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup pecans
Put cranberries through food grinder. Add 3/4 cup sugar. Dissolve Jello in 1 cup boiling water. Add pineapple, Jello, and nuts to cranberries. Stir. Allow 24 hours to set. Refrigerate.

Eventually after my grandmother's death, that grinder was lost or broken, and for years we had to make do with a layered strawberry salad that was good, but just not the same. I even tried to prepare the cranberries with a food processor, but it didn't crush the berries and release all that wonderful juice.

I was delighted when I found a grinder just like our old one in an antique store. However, the house where I was living didn't have a lip on the counter top to attach the screw mechanism to. I managed to crush the cranberries by attaching the grinder to an old desk and made a huge juicy, purply mess. Back to the strawberry salad.

Then I found a recipe for Southern-style cranberry salad that substituted 1 can of whole berry cranberry sauce for the fresh cranberries. Why didn't I ever think of that? I had to modify it a little because it had, to us, unnecessarily added mandarin oranges. Here's that modified recipe.

Southern Cranberry Salad
1 pkg. (3 oz.) cherry Jello
1 cup boiling water
1 can (16 oz.) whole berry cranberry sauce
1 can (8 oz.) crushed pineapple, drained
1 cup chopped pecans
Place the gelatin in a large heatproof glass bowl and pour the boiling water over it. Stir the gelatin with a fork until it has dissolved. Add the cranberry sauce, pineapple, and pecans, and stir until well blended. Cover with plastic wrap or lid. Place the salad in the refrigerator and let it chill at least 3 hours, preferably overnight.

Having not had the real thing in many years, some family members had to be introduced again to my grandmother's wonderful cranberry salad, and others tried it for the first time. Now everybody loves it, especially my daughter-in-law, and it's guaranteed to be the thing I'm requested to bring to Thanksgiving dinner. In fact, I have to make some tonight to take to her grandparents' house for dinner tomorrow. Thank goodness I don't have to use the food grinder!

Happy Thanksgiving!

My grandmother, Aunt Georgia, Aunt Jessie, Big Mom

Monday, November 25, 2013

3319 West 38th Street

I can't talk about Big Mom without talking about her house. I have vivid memories of visiting her there when I was little, and then of course, I lived there myself for over 25 years. The house still sits right across the street from Park Elementary School, which was the original site of Red Fork High School, and I still visit it in my dreams.

House in the 1960's
The first census in which the Castles are living there is 1930. In addition to George T. and Florida Castle, the other residents of the home were son Goldman, son Warner, daughter Jessie, son Tommie, and widowed daughter Georgia with her daughter, Marilou. During the 1930's when Grandpa was on strike from the refinery, he and my grandmother and the twins lived in Big Mom's house. On the 1940 census Uncle Harry (Goldman), Aunt Betty, and their son John were living with Big Mom. 

House about 1928
Modifications were made to the house at different times to accommodate the family members living with Big Mom. She added a second front door and a side entrance. The two upstairs bedrooms were wallpapered with planes and cowboys for Daddy and Uncle Mack. All the family were welcome to live there when they had need, and someone always seemed to.

House showing added back bedroom
My family would move there in 1962 when our house at 2717 W. 42nd St. had to be demolished to make room for the Red Fork Expressway, but before that we were often at the house on 38th St. What I remember from that time was the front porch--almost always the place we sat to visit; Big Mom's scratchy horsehair sofa, tabletop radio, and red-letter Bible; the curtain that hung on a rod between the living and dining room; and the narrow, creepy, boxed-in stairs that led to two bedrooms with sloping walls because they were under the eaves of the house.

After one of our visits, when my brother was about 2, Big Mom called in a panic to say that she had found an empty container of aspirin in the bedroom where Tim had been playing. We were ready to rush him to the emergency room when somebody thought to unzip his snowsuit, and the pills came rolling out!

Big Mom died in 1962, and soon, by chance, my family was looking for a place to live. After looking at several houses, my grandmother decided that we would just move into the house on 38th St. We made our own modifications to the house, including the addition of a mantel and gas stove in the living room, shelving in the doorway between the living and dining room, closets and doors, opening and widening the stairs to the upper floor, and modernization of the kitchen and bathroom.

Mantel we brought from the house on 42nd St. and shelving in the doorway
According to the History of the State of Oklahoma, written by Luther B. Hill in 1909, John I. Yargee was a prominent Creek Indian whose land adjoined the community of Red Fork. He was married to Nannie Porter, who was the sister of Pleasant Porter. (See my post, "Pleasant Porter Elementary School.") He was particularly known for the quality of his land and his livestock, and the land was platted as a residential addition in 1907. The legal description of Big Mom's homestead was Lots 9, 10, 11, and 12 of Block 1 of the Yargee Addition to the Town of Red Fork.

The property backed up to Red Fork Hill, and a large area at the back of the lots was fenced for the Castles' livestock. Big Mom raised cattle and chickens there, and later my brother would raise bantam chickens, pigeons, and a particularly rambunctious goat named Sugar.

When I remember the house on 38th St., I am as apt to remember the yard as I am the house. Trumpet vines and honeysuckle grew over the chain-link fence and the stump of an old tree near the front porch. (I wrote an especially syrupy poem about the stump when I was in junior high.) We had room to play softball, designating various trees and bushes as the bases, and I remember knocking a pitch from Aunt Jessie right into one of the living room windows. We had a playhouse in the back yard that had originally been the office at one of Uncle George Beebe's parking lots in downtown Tulsa.

My grandmother and the stump
Me and the stump

But what made a bigger impression on me than the yard or the house was the hill. There was no fear in those days for kids playing outdoors, and I often climbed the hill by myself and enjoyed the woods. After I read Freckles by Gene Stratton Porter, I planted flowers on the hill in a not-very-successful attempt to recreate the sanctuary that Freckles built in the woods.

The hill was also the scene of the most terrifying experience in my life as a mother. When my son was about 4, we were living in a house in Carbondale and came over to visit my grandmother one Saturday. Jason mentioned the hill as we drove up to the house, but I told him to stay in the yard while I went in to tell my grandmother we were there. Four hours later we found Jason a mile up the hill, sleeping in a dry creek bed with my dad's dogs. In his interview with Channel 8 News, he explained, "I was jus' chasin' the dogs." And taking ten years off his mother's life.

After that brief excursion into independent living, I moved back home with my grandmother and dad, and Jason went through 5th grade at Park Elementary School--sent every morning and welcomed home in the afternoon by my grandmother. After she moved into a nursing home in 1990, it got harder and harder to maintain the old house. My brother and I finally sold it. I drive by now and then, but it's just not the same.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Gimme That Ol' Time (New Age) Religion

On my mother's side of the family the predominant religious denomination was Primitive Baptist. For years I considered it out of the mainstream, until I found out how numerous Primitive Baptist churches are in Appalachia and the South. The Primitive Baptists believe in predestination, but at least they don't handle snakes or drink poison.

My dad's family were mainly Methodist and Christian (Disciples of Christ), with a few Catholics thrown in for good measure. I myself have belonged to both Southern Baptist and Methodist churches. All these are common and numerous where we live. So how in the world did the Day sisters, Emma, Florida, and Retta Lee, come to be members of a weirdly New Age religious movement called the I Am Activity?

I blame Retta Lee, the youngest of the Day sisters, although I don't really know if she was the first to convert. I suspect her because she lived most of her life in Mt. Shasta, California, where the I Am movement began. Mount Shasta is a sacred place to many groups, and it was there in the early 1930s that a man named Guy Ballard claimed to have met the Count de St. Germain, an alchemist (and probable con man himself) who, incidentally, died in 1784.

Guy Ballard was a student of Theosophy as it developed in the late 1800s under the leadership of Madame Blavatsky who synthesized Western and Eastern religious ideas and originated the idea of Ascended Masters, ordinary human beings who have achieved God-like status through reincarnation. Guy Ballard furthered these ideas, identifying many Ascended Masters (including St. Germain and Jesus), and claimed that they spoke through him and that he himself would experience ascension at the time of his death. Because they recognize Jesus as an Ascended Master, many members of the I Am movement consider themselves to be Christian.

Madame Blavatsky
Guy Ballard

I could go on and on about the history and beliefs of this group, but you can research that for yourself if you are interested. What I want to understand is how the Day sisters fell under the sway of this (what else can you call it?) cult. I wish I knew when they joined so I could identify the historical or family context. Was it in the 1930s when the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl made the future seem a scary prospect? Was it after the death of their beloved father? 

Sisters Ida, Florida, Zedda, Emma, Margaret, Minta, and Retta Lee
Grandma and Grandpa Day
I know they all attended meetings in the 1960s. Were they new converts or had they been members for years?

I know that their mother, Grandma Day, was highly religious. It's possible that Emma and Retta Lee felt that their mother's religion was too constraining and prided themselves on their free thinking. I found this reference in a letter Aunt Emma wrote to my grandmother in 1968, not long after the death of her sister, Ida Day Norman. Emma wrote, "She (Ida) was so sincere in her religious convictions & wanting all to believe like her. So did my mother. I say let all be free. No one could believe any religion more than I believe the Ascended Masters' teachings of the Great 'I Am' God. The Bible says: 'He that Christ made free, is free indeed.'"

In Big Mom's case, I suspect that the appeal for her lay in having some control over her circumstances. Her little I Am book gives evidence for this. The Violet Flame on the cover of the book is the movement's symbol of the healing power of positive thinking--that by repeatedly reciting the affirmations in the book, one could make desired change happen. She has written in the margins: "Read over & over," "Read 9 times," "Accept." 

What they all passed along to my grandmother was this belief in positive thinking. My grandmother was a great adherent of this principle--but hers was more the Norman Vincent Peale variety. In a letter from Retta Lee, written in 1970, it is obvious that my grandmother had been tactful and careful in her comments about "the Ascended Masters' teachings." Retta Lee had written, "Glad you enjoyed reading the things I sent you, and your remark 'thought-provoking' is applicable, for when we begin to think outside of ourselves at the Great Universe and Its Laws it does require an expansion of consciousness from the monotony of routine thinking."

I do admire these women for their ability to think outside the conventions of their day. I just wish they had believed in something that was a little more, well, believable. I'll remember that the next time I watch the weekend marathon of "Ancient Aliens" on the History Channel.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013


I was "on the hunt" this weekend, as my grandmother used to call it. As a kid, my family was always looking for a piece of paper, a piece of clothing, somebody's car keys. This weekend it was something I knew I had had in my hand within the past couple of years, but there were several places I could have put it. The object was a small paperback book, almost a pamphlet, of responsive readings from the I AM meetings that my great-grandmother used to attend. (See my last post, "Big Mom.") I had planned to write a post about the I AM movement, and I really needed that little book. However, now I'm going to hold off on that for a bit, while I describe some of the other treasures I found this weekend.

Keepsakes are like mitochondrial DNA, passed down from mother to daughter. In my grandmother's case, she inherited her mother's keepsakes, collected a mighty number of them herself, and kindly preserved a few of my mother's. When, in her last few years she began a project to create scrapbooks for her sisters, her remaining brother, nieces and nephews, and her grandchildren, I remember being confused about why I was angry with her over this magnanimous gesture. I still don't know if I was mad that she was giving our family history away or if I knew that she was disposing of an excess of memorabilia because she was nearing the end of her life. I shouldn't have worried about all the stuff she gave away. Lord knows there were plenty of photos, clippings, and keepsakes to go around, with plenty left over for me. In fact, they have been in two big storage bins that I have lugged around with me to the 7 or 8 houses I have lived in since my grandmother died in 1992.

I kept thinking I would go through them, but I just never got around to it. This weekend was it. It started out as a hunt for Big Mom's little I AM book, but it became a whole afternoon of laughter and tears. 

I found:

  • The original clipping from the Tulsa World that declared my dad and his brother as the first twins born in Tulsa in 1928
  • My grandmother's original application for teacher's retirement when it went into effect in 1942. It listed every teaching job she had had up until then, including how much she was paid. Her first teaching job in 1915-16 was in Owasso, and she was paid $250 for 5 months of work.
  • A short sketch she had written, describing what she and grandpa wore at their wedding and what their first years together were like.
  • Newspaper and magazine articles about her innovative teaching techniques, including having her class measure 1 acre on the school grounds and re-enact the Land Run
  • A map she had drawn from memory of West Liberty, KY, and the surrounding area, including the names of residents that she remembered from her childhood. On a few sheets of old stationery she had listed all the residents of Red Fork that she could remember from the years when the Castle family first lived there.
  • Postcards, letters, and greeting cards from as far back as the 1930s. Letters from her aunts Emma and Retta Lee in California backed up what I thought to be true--that they were the original I AM members and had encouraged their sister Florida to join the group.
  • A list of my grandfather's kind gestures and funny sayings that my grandmother had written down after he passed away. I had forgotten that he was always looking for his "goood hat."
  • The tag from my brother's hospital crib that read "Smith boy"
  • A note that my mother wrote to her mother when she was still in the hospital after giving birth to me. I don't know why my dad's mother had this little note, but it meant a lot to me to get this glimpse of my early days with my mother. I was breast feeding just fine, thank you very much, and was gaining weight every day. Story of my life.
I could go on and on. It was amazing how much I found that would have enhanced the blog posts I've written this year, not to mention my vacation to West Liberty. I knew there was a clipping from the paper about the twins' birth but I hadn't seen it in years. When my brother worked at the Tulsa Public Schools' Service Center, I asked him to look up Mom's teaching records but they don't keep them. In my own garage I had the information I was looking for, and I didn't know it. Just a couple of weeks ago I wrote that I didn't know what my grandmother wore at her wedding, and I possessed a description of her dress in her own handwriting! It just goes to show that the suggestion from veteran genealogists about searching for records in your own home is true. I don't think I found any new genealogical information, but if I didn't know anything, these two bins of memorabilia would be a gold mine. 

The Free Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines a keepsake as "something that you keep to help you remember a person, place, or event." My grandmother's keepsakes certainly were meant to do that.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Big Mom

Today is the birthday of my great-grandmother, Sarah "Florida" Day Castle, born in 1878 in White Oak, Magoffin County, Kentucky.  "Big Mom" was my paternal grandmother's mother and the center of my family's life when I was a child.  She lived in a 1-1/2 story house in Red Fork, a community that was annexed to Tulsa in 1927.  After her death in 1962, my grandparents, my dad, my brother and I moved into her house at 3319 W. 38th St.  

That house was as much a part of my life as Big Mom was, and it still shows up often in my dreams. Big Mom and her dad built the house themselves, modeling it on another house in Red Fork.  She was working on the roof when family members came by to tell her that her first grandchild, Aunt Georgia's Marilou, had been born.

She had come to Oklahoma from Kentucky in 1907 with her husband, George Turner Castle, and her six oldest children.  They settled first on a farm between Davenport and Chandler, where her youngest two, Jessie and Tommie, were born in 1909 and 1914. Their first home in Red Fork was a farmhouse rented from Dr. Fred S. Clinton on the site of the future Clinton Middle School.

Sarah Florida Day, known as Florida (or more commonly, Flordy) was the second oldest of seven daughters of James Thomas and Nancy Emily (Reed) Day.  The other sisters were Ida, Zedda, Emma, Margaret, Minta, and Retta Lee.  Their only brother, Cassa, died at the age of 4.  Florida married George Castle in January 1896 after the death of his first wife, Frances Nickell, in childbirth. She was 17 and he was 32.

George T. Castle had been a leader of the community in Kentucky--a postmaster and county court clerk--but became increasingly handicapped with arthritis. Florida worked hard to support the family, working as postmistress of the Red Fork post office and making salads at the Mayo Hotel kitchen.  She also started the first Methodist Sunday school in Red Fork and was president of the Park Elementary School PTA.

Her newly built house on 38th St. backed up to Red Fork Hill and the family kept livestock and chickens in the lot behind the house. Her older sons, who were in their teens and 20s, pretty much came and went as they pleased, which was a trial to Florida.  Sometimes she would wait until they were asleep and then switch them before they were awake enough to defend themselves.  One night as some of the boys stumbled in, they found their mother in the kitchen plucking and cooking a number of chickens.  She had discovered robbers stealing them and had run them off with a shotgun. Upon discovering that the chickens' necks had already been wrung, she proceeded to pluck and cook them in the middle of the night.

The Big Mom I remember was a big-boned woman with lots of wispy white hair twisted into a knot on the top of her head and held with tortoiseshell combs.  By the time I knew her she was blind with cataracts, practically deaf, and still an indomitable presence in the lives of her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.  I remember her sitting with quiet dignity on the front porch of the house on 38th St., head held high, looking into a distance she could not see. Blind and deaf, she lived all by herself in the house on 38th St.

Although she became a Methodist again at the end of her life, when I was a very young girl Big Mom was a member of the I AM Church. The I AM Church was very "New Age" for the time, using crystals for healing, and perhaps she felt the need to be healed from the disabilities of old age.  I remember going with the family in the car to take Big Mom to I AM meetings downtown and waiting for her in the car until the meeting was over. 

She developed what was probably cancer in her 80s, refused to go to the hospital, and announced her intention to die at home. Somebody from the family was always keeping vigil at her bedside, and I remember being there a lot, taking our turn. She is buried at Rose Hill Cemetery in Tulsa, next to her husband and surrounded by many of her children and grandchildren, as she was in life.