Founding member of the El Dorado Hills Genealogy Society Trevor Thomas recently made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. He volunteered to dig into my family past in exchange for a little publicity about the society’s monthly mentoring sessions.
My mother’s side of the family hails from rural Tennessee and is full of interesting characters I’ve often wondered about, many bearing peculiar names. I fed him may grandparents’ names and told him I’d try to mention the mentor sessions, held on the first Tuesday of each month, where anyone can show up for help with their family research. See how easy it was to slip that in?
Thomas spent a couple of hours on Ancestry.com and came back with some answers, but even more questions.
“That’s sort of the way this works,” he explained. “You learn one thing and two more interesting bits jump out at you. Before you know it you’ve spent a year delving into your family’s past and have met family you never knew you had.”
My mother was born Martha Willene Hopkins in Henry County, Tenn. She and her twin, Mary Ludene, were the youngest — by far — of seven children in their family.
Only six survived to adulthood, a fact that Thomas informed me was sadly typical up until the middle of the century, especially in rural areas.
At 41, my grandmother was already a mother of five when the twins came along in 1925. Her next youngest child, Sue Labrie, was already 10 and wouldn’t be much of a factor in the twins’ early years.
My mother doesn’t remember missing electricity or indoor plumbing, and said she never realized they were poor. But she recalls disliking farm chores and the isolation.
She also remembers being embarrassed by her mother’s unusual first name, “Monie” — a fact the late and beloved El Dorado Hills Fire Board member and senior advocate Moni Gilmore would scoff at.
Thomas showed me how, using Ancestry.com, anyone can easily pull up the old census and marriage records that form the roots of most family trees.
Thomas discovered that my curiously named grandmother Monie spent the last 30-plus years of her life as “Mona.”
When I asked my mother about the name change, she had a ready explanation. “Every chance we got, we changed it to ‘Mona’.”
Thomas also found references to my grandmother as “Morrie.” Thomas pulled up an old, hand-written census record on Ancestry.com, zoomed way in and solved the mystery. Volunteer genealogists
, many of whom are Mormon, have transcribed a high percentage of the census roles and marriage records into a computer searchable format, he explained.
One such volunteer transcribed “Monie” as “Morrie” on the 1920 census.
Until recently the census was a door-to-door affair. Current or even future family members can often be found on the same original census document.
Genealogical evidence can explain long-standing family mysteries, but often refutes simple explanations. Upon closer examination, my grandmother’s eventual name, Mona, first appeared in the 1930 census, which also lists my mother “Willene” and her twin “Ludine” (their middle names) as twin 5-year-olds.
Those twins must have been particularly bright and devious farm girls to manipulate census records at age 5. Mystery unsolved.
Going back 10 more years, the 1920 census reveals that other family names would become more refined in subsequent years. My grandfather was “Willie” in 1920, and “William” in 1930.
My Aunt Sue was listed “Suelabrie” in 1920, her first and middle names crunched into an odd mouthful. “Labrie was her middle name but she never liked it,” said my mother. She became “Sue B.” in 1930 and thereafter.
A phone call to Aunt Sue’s daughter refuted that story as well. “She was fine with Labrie, it was Sue B. she hated,” said my cousin Joanne McAdoo-Vincent, who I spent summers on the farm with, but hadn’t spoken to in years.
We both loved our great-aunt, Monie’s sister, the even more oddly named “Onie,” pronounced “Oh-knee.”
She lived 98 years, and reportedly dipped snuff right to the end. I vividly recall a dark streak of the vile stuff running out the corner of her mouth like Alice Cooper’s makeup. She carried a handkerchief and frequently wiped it off her chin.
I can close my eyes and feel her hugs, her wiry frame pressing against me through the thin and faded cotton farm dresses she wore.
Another image that’s survived almost 50 years in my scattered noggin is Aunt Onie out on her rickety porch, squinting her eyes through a cloud of road dust that accompanied our arrival in my father’s prized 1964 Buick Wildcat.
Aunt Onie and her clan were relocated by the Tennessee Valley Authority during the New Deal, when remote canyons were flooded to bring electricity to the rural south.
To keep her nearby as she got older, her family built Onie a tiny house on blocks that could be trucked from one yard to another whenever a supporting son or grandson died or got sent to jail. My mother lost count of the number of husbands and grandchildren Onie buried.
On another visit I was ordered to go play with Onie’s grandson “Glen Ray,” who terrorized me with his new BB gun. Mom said he found religion, but nonetheless died in prison.
The last time I saw Onie I was about 12, which put her in her early 80s.
We pulled up in front of the little house during her lunch, which that day consisted of fried squirrel — yes, squirrel — accompanied by a “mess” of greens, which looked and smelled like something off the bottom of our family lawn mower on a wet day. As a boy, I was a notoriously picky eater. I credit my dear mother for somehow convincing me to accept a fork full of squirrel that day. I’m ashamed to admit that I can’t remember what it tasted like. They couldn’t get me to taste the greens.
El Dorado Hills Genealogy Society members revel in helping people solve meaningless — except to us — family mysteries. At the mentor sessions they provide free advice to anyone interested in learning about their own Monies, Onies and Glen Rays.
Thomas also traced my uncle Cecil’s service under Gen. Patton in North Africa, and my grandfather’s draft records from World War I.
The results of his effort stirred a flood of memories in my mother, who is now 86.
The census records frame the research, augmented by marriage, birth and death certificates and military service records, all just a click away on Ancestry.com.
Thomas’ passion, however, is reaching deeper, fleshing the characters he’s researching. “I want to know why they did the things they did,” he said. That level of detail requires family records, interviews, records of property transactions and other legal records that aren’t readily available to the novice genealogist.
Marilyn Peters is the society’s director of publicity and programs. She has traced her family back to the ships they crossed the Atlantic on, and then learned German to take her research back couple more generations. “And I’m not done,” she said.
The El Dorado Hills Genealogy Society consists of roughly 30 active members. Peters invites a speaker to address the society on the third Wednesday of each month from 6:15 to 8 p.m. at the El Dorado Hills Library community room. The mentor sessions are held on the first Tuesday of the month in the library’s children’s section, starting at 5 p.m. The next session is on June 7. For more information e-mail [email protected].