Thursday, August 9, 2012

Family Reunion Yields Writing Projects

I returned yesterday from my annual sojourn to southwest Missouri for the annual Orr Reunion.  It celebrates a group of families that came to the U.S. between 1832 and about 1890 and had the foresight to begin getting together in 1937. I've written about the many diverse descendants in Orr, Camptell, Mitchell and Shirley Families: Descendants of Paul Orr and Isabelle Boyd in Ireland and America..  The best part is collecting the stories.

The book flap notes: From linen weavers and grain mill operators of Aghadowey Parish in Northern Ireland to the cities and plains of North America came the descendants of Paul Orr and Isabelle Boyd. While some did stay in Ireland, many came to America between 1832 and 1864, some in the mid-1880s. They worked in steel mills in Pennsylvania, helped build churches in Massachusetts and Missouri, farmed throughout the Midwest, taught school everywhere, and fought in two world wars on behalf of their country. Some died in the U.S. Army or its Air Corps, others in the RAF. The grain mills on rivers and creeks became flour companies in Missouri and they moved from one-room school houses to universities. The index of nearly 2,400+ names and many locations tells you how to find them, the stories told by their descendants bring the people to life. They began life in America in Lawrence and Jasper Counties in Missouri, Allen County, IN, and the Philadelphia, PA and Boston areas. The Ozark Prairie Presbyterian Church of Mount Vernon, MO is modeled after Aghadowey Presbyterian Church.

Wilma Baker with her late husband Bill, 2004
For many years two of our our attendees have been Wilma (age 93) and Mary Isabel (97).   Mary Isabel always gets the flowers for being the oldest attendee.  Mary Isabel has identified dozens of people in unmarked photos, and Wilma has been sorting through the historical info her late sister (Mary Eleanor Coffield) collected.  Mary Eleanor was a dedicated teacher, active civic volunteer, and collector of family and local history materials.  Wilma kept telling her to sort through her many books, articles, and family history documents, but Mary Eleanor seemed to always have something better to do.  Really, who wouldn't?

Mary Lou Orr gives flowers to Mary Isabel Matteson.
Each year, Wilma gets more sorting done and brings photos and newspaper clippings to the reunion. At first she did it out of a sense of duty, but she soon saw how much some of the materials meant to others in this large family.  For the first time, after the reunion I went to her house, about forty miles away.   Laying across a double bed were neatly organized piles of historical information.  I carefully scanned a number of things, assuming she would not want to part with them.  Wrong!

I wasn't sure what she had should leave Southwest Missouri, but her final point was compelling.  She has no children and was the last of five siblings.  "When I go, this will all be thrown away."  Not on my watch.

It's more important to look ahead than behind, but it is rewarding to find out that a great grandfather and his daughters made some of the finest linens in their part of Ireland, or that a distant cousin is credited with many of General Electric's first advances in refrigeration technology.  Not that they would have used the word technology.

Much of Wilma's material relates to the Stemmons family of Jasper and Lawrence Counties, MO, and some is handwritten from the late 1800s.  It details family history back to the 1700s.  Accepting such materials creates an obligation to share it, so I see more family history books in my future -- they will be shorter!

Note: Wilma Coffield Baker died in December 2012. It appears she was right to insist that I take the materials. She was a neat woman and wonderful musician.
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