Sunday, July 03, 2011

Grace Dillow, A Handsome Little Woman

Grace was our maternal grandmother, a "handsome little woman", said the Portsmouth Times in 1902 when she and Jacob with the blue, blue eyes eloped to get married. According to our mother, Grace's mother, Mary Jane, disapproved of the marriage. Why, we have not been able to imagine, and the dead don't talk. It turned out to be a long, fruitful, and happy marriage, and without it I wouldn't be writing this today.

Mary Jane had been through her share of tragedy by the time Grace was born in 1883 in Lewis County, Kentucky. When people ask what part of Kentucky you are from, you give your county - chances are unless you're from the big towns of Louisville or Lexington no one would know the hollow or farming settlement you were from. So, if you're from Lewis County, I could say I'm from out on Grassy and you would know it. If you're from Kentucky, I would say I'm from Lewis County and you would know. And if you're from anywhere else, I just say I'm from Kentucky.

Mary Jane was unmarried and widowed for three years when Grace was conceived. Family legend was that William Martin married the young widow while she was pregnant in order to give the child a legitimate name, but more than a hundred years later we have learned things did not happen that way. That, and Mary Jane's tragedies, are stories for another day.

At the time of Grace's birth, Mary Jane had come back from Illinois to Vanceburg with her two surviving young children, "Sis", age 7, and Jesse, age 4. Mary Jane was supporting her family working as a seamstress, and living next door to her father, George Caseman, who at age 53 was raising six of his children as a single parent and working as a farmer.

A History of Lewis County in 1912 described the area as "its surface is much diversified by hill and dale, and watered by many creeks whose sparkling depths, clear as crystal, are filled of fish of many kinds...a hill country with fertile valleys, the nest of the eagle and the den of the fox and mountain lion". Indeed, I can recall the neighbor men gathering at our farm to hunt down a mountain lion that had been spotted before it ate one of us kids.

In the 1880's, Vanceburg was coming out of an era of being a booming Ohio River town to being a railroad town, both means to ship out the farm products and transport West those looking for adventure or better times. In 1880, Lewis County had a population of 12,.407, almost the same as today, 289,658 cultivated acres, 2,772 males over the age of 21, 4,653 horses, 306 mules, and 4,165 hogs. Chances were you came from a farming family and married a farmer.

Mary Jane had a marriage to a farmer from Fleming County soon after Grace was born but at this time we don't know how long he stayed around. Likely he had died by the time Mary Jane married again to William Martin in 1890. Almost all 1890 US Census records were destroyed in a fire, so we don't know where the family was living at that time, but by 1900 when Grace was 17, the family was living on a farm about six miles out of Vanceburg in Valley, Kentucky, so small it no longer is identified as a town or has a post office. All left identifying Valley is the cemetery. Grace's older half-sister "Sis" and half-brother Jessie had left the home by the time of this census.

Living in Valley in 1900 was a young and good looking teacher, Jacob, who would have been Grace's teacher at Clarksburg. Jacob was the first of many generations in his family to pursue a life other than farming. He was living on his father's farm while teaching, along with five siblings and two grandchildren of Abraham and Sarah Dillow. It must have been a lively place, but perhaps a pall hung over the farm as two other children of Abraham and Sarah, Dollie and Willard, had died in the 1890's.

Grace hung out with girlfriends before she was married,

but by age 19, she and the young teacher with the blue, blue eyes had eloped. As the paper said, she was a handsome little woman.

They stayed in Portsmouth for the next two years, Grace working in the shoe factory and Jacob in a steel mill, before they dared go home to Vanceburg. By that time, they had saved money to buy a 30 acre farm outside town. "We had the only brick house around", my mother said, so Jacob and Grace must have worked hard to save their money. They had the first of seven children in 1906 and the last in 1922, all born at the homestead. Mary Jane lived nearby across Dry Run Creek with William Martin, grandma-ing all these grandchildren from the marriage she had opposed, a melding of the Scotch Irish Dillows and German Casemans, and - as we may see in future stories - some English thrown in. Our mother remembers Mary Jane as "the best grandma you could want", so all those grandbabies and a settled life with William perhaps softened her up from the hardships of her own life.

Grace and Jacob raised all the children at the homestead, farming as well as Jacob going out to one room country school houses to educate the children of the hills and hollows. Our mother recalls that Grace "liked to keep the house nice" with wallpaper and rugs. The house was German style brick with five rooms downstairs and two upstairs, a potbellied stove in the living room for heat and a wood burning stove in the kitchen for cooking, and no indoor plumbing, so you know what that means. Elwood, their oldest child recalls the 1913 flood of the Ohio River, "waters were in this barn and Pa had placed planking to reach the barn. He removed some second floor boards from the barn loft, built a Jon boat in which we boated (across the flood waters) to grandparents' home".

Grace in the tobacco field at the homestead,

Grace and Jacob, a gentle couple

Grace in front of the homestead,

and in their later years.

Tragedy hit the family in 1925 when the second eldest, George Jacob, died at age 17 with complications of diabetes.

The six other children grew up and became teachers and farmers, providing Grace and Jacob with 14 grandchildren. Mary Jane lived nearby until her death in 1935. Jacob died in 1953, and Grace's letters from that time on speak of the sadness and loneliness she felt even though surrounded by family.

The homestead and farm was bought by the youngest child, Wilbur, a farmer, and one of his children tried to restore the house in the 1970's and 80's. I visited the homestead in 1984 and took this photo. Grace's gardens were gone, but the beauty of the setting is evident.

I also went out to our farmhouse on Grassy and found the one room school house where I started my education with my father as the teacher, eight grades in one room. It was those one room school houses in the hollows that kept most of the population of Kentucky from being illiterate.

Grace died in 1968 at age 85. The house was torn down to put through a freeway.

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