Monday, August 30, 2010

Lost in Time...and Found; John W. Thomas and Turesa Jones Thomas

This is my great grandmother. Her name was Blanche Olive McElfresh. We called her Mimmie; I thought that was her actual name for a long time when I was a little girl.

In 1919, long before I was around Mimmie married the "time study man." His name was Walter Jones Thomas. He wasn't Catholic, and he had been married before. But he was the one.

Blanche and Walter lived with Mimmie's parents in Anderson, Indiana. Everyone seemed to be working at the auto factory in one way or the other. In 1922 Blanche had a son named Wendell who would become my grandfather.

After that the family story becomes cloudy. No one is exactly clear about when Walter left. Some say it was right away. Others say it was years later. My uncle says he has a stack of letters that Walter sent home to Blanche and Wendell as he traveled around the country looking for work during the Depression. The 1930 Census lists my great grandfather as living in a boarding house in Toledo, Ohio. The 1940 Census won't be public until April, 2012 so we have a while left to speculate about what became of Walter after he left Anderson...until his death in Florida in 1960.

Because of Walter's departure from our family, we never knew where he came from or anything about our Thomas family origins. Starting with Blanche and Walter's marriage certificate, I began to unearth the clues that would lead me to discover my great-great grandparents. For years all I had was this picture.

I could see their faces. I knew that Walter had a mother, a father, and what appeared to be two sisters. But their names and where they were from remained a mystery.

Getting the marriage certificate opened the floodgates of knowledge. I learned the names of my great-great grandparents, John W. and Teresa or Turesa Jones Thomas as well as Walter's siblings, Verna (later Cottrell) and Veda (later Woodruff). AND I learned that Walter grew up only a couple of hours away from where I live! After some emails with a very helpful keeper of the Livingston County genealogy website I had reason to believe I might just find the grave site of Turesa Jones Thomas, my Great-great grandmother! And maybe even her mother Elizabeth Rachel too.

We set off on a country drive on a beautiful late summer day to Fairbury, Illinois. I love a drive in the country with Brent, so I was looking forward to the day even if our mission turned up empty I knew we would have a good time no matter what.

We found the Dominy Public Library easily and I realized that my ancestors also used this very library. Goosebumps! The librarian directed us towards reference books that listed everyone interred at the local Graceland Cemetery and told us that obituaries would be listed on the microfilms of the local newspaper. They were all labeled by year in a locked drawer, which she opened for us. I hadn't used a microfilm viewer since college and it took a while to acclimate ourselves to it. Soon we were zooming past funny ads for "formaldehyde on the farm" and other strange things, but once we had it figured out it took almost no time until we found the obituary for John William Thomas, my Great-great grandfather.

"John Thomas passed away on Sunday night February 10, at the home of his daughter, Mrs. B. L. Cottrell, in Peoria, of paralysis. ... Deceased was born in Swausea, So. Wales, January 23, 1846, and came to America with his parents when five years of age, locating in Ohio, and later lived in Danville, Ill., where he grew to manhood. ...Mr. Thomas was a man of sterling qualities, a peaceable citizen, and was greatly loved by all who knew him. He was a devoted husband and father. He was a Methodist by faith and before his health failed was a newspaper pressman for years." --Fairbury, Illinois, Friday February 15, 1918

I couldn't believe it was that easy! I was especially surprised because the census listed him as living in another town at the time of his death. But thankfully his funeral arrangements were in the hometown of his in-laws. I couldn't believe our luck. The cemetery book seemed to indicate that he was even buried in that town. That was more than I expected.

We went to the cemetery to find the grave, hoping that it would lead us to better information for finding obituaries in the microfilm later, but alas no better dates could be found. So plodding forward through the microfilm slowly was all I could do. This eventually led to the discovery of the obituary for Turesa Jones Thomas, my great-great grandmother...

"The deceased was a woman of kind personality, a devoted mother and the kindest of friends and neighbors. She was a member of the Presbyterian church and a regular attendant at its services and Sunday school." --February, 23, 1923

... and with 10 minutes to spare before the library closed, I found the obituary for Turesa's mother (my great-great-great grandmother!) Mrs. Theodore B. Jones, which revealed her maiden name, Elizabeth Rachel Popejoy. I couldn't believe it! I hastily printed the page as well as possible and reeled back the microfilm and replaced the cover so the librarians could go home, happy to have so much more information for future research, and knowing that just a little more time would have given me great-great-great grandfather Theodore Jones' obituary too.

We had a delicious lunch at a local restaurant called Lost in Time. That seemed like a fitting place to eat on a day of discovery of relatives who had been lost in time for so long.

Then we went back to the cemetery. We never did find a marker for Elizabeth and Theodore Jones, Turesa's parents, although they were listed in the book. We wondered if maybe there is no longer a marker? We put flowers on the grave of John and Turesa Thomas and took pictures so we can always remember and they will not be lost in time anymore.

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