Trial of Ben, a Negro Slave

Trial of Ben, a Negro Slave

Halifax County Courthouse, 1838. Vintage Postcard Image, 1970.


The Halifax County, Virginia, court records go back to 1752 when Halifax was cut off from Lunenburg County. In 2001 when I was doing online research looking for information about my Hart ancestors in these counties, I discovered the account of the Trial of Ben, a Negro slave punished for the felony of stealing a handkerchief and nine buttons. The transcript details haunted me deeply, and I wrote a poem at the time, imagining me sitting in the courtroom among the spectators and looking across to see my ancestor sitting among them. When I originally wrote the poem I see that I was somewhat vague about which ancestor it would be, and imagined Caleb present as a newly married man. Since this is purely imaginary and I am not even sure when they lived in Halifax County, John and Caleb, father and son, could both have been in attendance. Or not. However, it is easy to imagine them there, and then returning home later to talk of what they saw, perhaps making sure their slaves heard the grim tale as well. My poem incorporates wording from the trial notes presented in italics as part of the poem–a form of “found language,” if you will accept it that way. Presented after the poem is the summary of the trial from the USGenweb Archives Project for Halifax County, Virginia. James Hart 


While Browsing for Ancestors in Virginia

I Read the Trial of Ben, a Negro Man Slave

Belonging to William Hoskins for Felony, 1764


James Hart


At a Court of Oyer and Terminer, held at the

Courthouse of Halifax on Friday, August 12, 1764


They assemble under the King’s oak timbers,

roof beams raised from forests like a judgement

over them, Gents present, and Justices sworn:

Robert, Hugh, Nathaniel, Theophilus, and John

men with surnames from England’s communal pool,

someone’s ancestors, landscape we think we know.

The document I read speaks only for them:

the aforesaid Ben was led to the bar in custody

of Thomas Cobbs, Gent, Sheriff of Halifax,

I hear Ben’s chains rattle and drag the floor,

and it being demanded of said Ben if he is

guilty of said charge, and he answered not guilty.

I listen to divers witnesses on behalf of the King

as well as behalf of Ben, who was fully heard

in his own defense.  The Court finds that Ben

is not guilty of burglary, but he is guilty

of the felony in stealing a handkerchief and 9 buttons,

which the Court values at 2 shillings.  I listen to it

being demanded of said Ben if he knows anything

to say for himself, why the Court should not award

a judgement of death against him, prayed for benefit

of Clergy.  I listen to the sentence as it is ordered

that said Ben be burned in the hand by said Sheriff

here in Court, and that he have both ears nailed

to the pillory and cut off in part, and afterwards

(yes, afterwards, another timber falls) to receive

39 lashes on his bare back, well laid on, (I can hear

the Justice’s enunciation laid on here as well)

at the Public Whipping Post, and it is said to the

Sheriff that he do the execution thereof immediately.

Perhaps my own ancestor, a young man then

and maybe newly married, sits among the Gents;

perhaps he’s sitting next to me, or over there;

perhaps not. Did he take this news back home

as the example for the rest of them?  I imagine

he did, smelling burning skin as he spoke,

his remnant men and women listening to him

with gut instead of ears, a few lashing words

perhaps touching his own pale ears as he paused

somewhere in the details, remembering hammer

raised into the King’s air, nails piercing ears.

Just as I smell Ben’s skin smoldering now among

black texts of history scrolling over gray pixels

like a memory I’ve acquired, and can’t put back,

past lashed to bloodied timbers, the King’s justice

meted out under beams supporting temple sky.


July 19, 2001; April 13, 2002


Here is a link to the original source submitted

by Kathy Welder, and the text presented below it:

Trial of Ben, a Negro man slave belonging

to William Hoskins for felony – 1764.


Trial of Ben, a Negro man slave belonging to William Hoskins for felony, 1764

(The first court case occurred in August of 1764, found on page 430.)

At a Court of Oyer and Terminer, held at the Courthouse of Halifax on
Friday, August 12, 1764 for the trial of BEN, a Negro man slave belonging to
William HOSKINS, Gent. for felony. Present, Robert WOODING, Hugh INNES, 
Nathaniel TERRY, Theophilus LACY and John DONELSON, Gents, Justices.
A dedimus potestatem directed to Thomas DILLARD, Gent. and others were
read, whereupon Nathaniel TERRY and Hugh INNES administered the usual oaths to
Robert WOODING, who then administered the usual oaths to said Nat'l TERRY,
Hugh INNES, Theophillis LACY and John DONALDSON.  The Court thus being
constituted, the aforesaid BEN was led to the bar in custody of Thomas
COBBS, Gent, Sheriff of Halifax to whose custody he was committed by Mr.
Justice GREEN, and it being demanded of said BEN if he is guilty of said
charge, and he answered not guilty.  Whereupon divers witnesses on behalf of the
King as well as behalf of BEN, who was fully heard in his own defense, testified
on consideration whereof, the Court is of the opinion that he is not guilty of
the burglary, but he is guilty of the felony in stealing a handkerchief and 9
buttons, which the Court values at 2 shillings, and it being demanded of said
BEN if he knows of anything to say for himself, why the Court should not award a
judgement of death aganist him, prayed the benefit of Clergy, and thereupon it
is ordered that said BEN be burned in the hand by said Sheriff here in Court,
and that he have both ears nailed to the pillory and cut off in part, and
afterwards to receive 39 lashes on his bare back, well laid on, at the Public
Whipping Post, and it is said to the Sheriff that he do the execution thereof
These proceedings were signed by Robert Wooding, Gent.

Submitted by Kathy Welder

Halifax County, Virginia – USGenweb Archives:
Unfortunately, the Bible records at the top of the Genweb
page have been moved and are no longer current.
Reprinted with permission - March 11, 2013

Wills of Three Hart Ancestors

Hart Ancestors: Wills of John, Caleb, Nowell

Document boxes such as these, at one time hidden away in desks and cupboards, once contained the gold for which genealogists and family historians go in search of today in court house vaults and on the Internet: Letters, Inventories, Deeds of Property, Last Wills and Testaments, tangible proof of lifetimes lived and recorded. Now the boxes turn up in antique stores, their once precious contents long lost to those of us who would read them with the savor of discovery.


In 2000 and 2001, when I first started using the Internet to research family history, I was surprised at what I could unearth with some persistent searching and sleuthing and bookmarking for future reference. Resources have greatly improved in the last 12 years as I have continued with my prospecting in fits and starts. I still regard myself as a beginner in this endeavor, so I am inspired by what I see other people have accomplished and displayed through their blogs and websites. We used to think only “important people” would be worthy of such close scrutiny into their daily lives, or be the subject of “biography”; but today any American ancestor can have his or her day–if we descendants are persistent in our hunts and imaginative in our presentation. When I discovered the Wills of my ancestors John Hart, Sr., his son Caleb Hart, and Caleb’s son Nowel Alfred Hart, I will admit I was surprised to learn of the social and economic history these documents divulged through the names of slaves bequeathed as inheritable property.  James Hart


The Last Will and Testament for Three of My Earliest Ancestors:

John Hart, Sr., Caleb Hart, and Nowel Alfred Hart

~ the first three currently known generations of my ancestry ~


John Hart’s will, book 2 Page 34 (2 June 1793) Charlotte Co. VA


JOHN HART SEN Will Charlotte County Virginia


Last Will and Testament of John Hart sen.

Charlotte Co., Virginia, Will Book 2, Page 34-34a


In the name of God amen I John Hart sen. being apprehensive of the uncertainty of life and afflicted at this time by a disorder which may prove mortal do in my sound mind and memory, constitute and ordain this to be my last will and testament. Imprimis I do give To my son Caleb Hart and his heirs a negro boy named Ned & a girl named Jude, Item I do give to my son William Hart and to his heirs two negro boys named London and James, Item I do give to my son John Hart and to his heirs two negro boys Shadrack & Harry. Item I do give to my son Israel Hart and to his heirs two negroes a boy named Limon & a girl named Kate. Item I do give to Beasley Hart and his heirs two negroes named Tally & Nancy. Item I do give to Thomas Hart & to his heirs a girl named Eve and a boy named Emanuel, and a negro boy named Lewis in consideration of his being overseer for me several years. Item I do give to my daughter Elizabeth the wife of Gabriel Beasley a negro girl named Milly with all her increase as well those already born as those to be born and no more. Item I do confirm unto the estate of William Beasley dec. a negro girl named Fan and all her children as well as those born and those to be born, whom I gave to William Beasley in his life time and desire that the said slaves shall go to the legal representatives of the said William Beasley as if he had died having a full legal title to her. Item I do give to my Grand Daughter Mary the daughter of Cornelius Hart Dec. a negro named Isaac and no more to her & to her heirs. Item I do give to my wife during her natural life all the residue of my estate real and personal and of every nature and kind whatsoever subject to the payment if of my debts, and after the death of my dear wife I do authorize and desire my executors or the survivors of them to sell the whole of my land and all my slaves not before specifically given to there increases at a public sale to the highest bidder for the best price that can be obtained at twelve months credit taking of the purchaser or purchasers bonds with good security for the payment of the consideration money, and when such bond or bonds shall be taken. I do authorize my executors or the survivors of them to make to the purchaser or purchases a lawful title in fee simple to the land by deed and a title to the slaves. It is my desire and request to my executors to sell my land & slaves to any of my children rather then to any other person, provided they or any of them will give as much for the property as the executor shall think the property is worth, and will give sufficient security for payment of the considered money, otherwise they will devised to sell the land and slaves to any other persons. Item, It is my desire that if all the debts are not paid at the death of my wife my executors shall first pay the debt which may then be due by part of the proceeds of the sales of the aforesaid land and slaves. Item, After the death of my wife I do desire that the value of the whole estate both real and personal above given to her for life shall be equally divided with the increase amongst my following children, Caleb, William, John, Israel, Beasley, Thomas, and my daughter Nancy Beasley and their heirs, share and share alike, I do appoint Robert Bedford & John Spencer & William Hart Executors of this my last Will & Testament in Testimony whereof I do hereto set my hand and affix my seal this second day of June 1793.

Signed sealed and acknowledged in the presence of Paul
Carrington, Jr., Robert Bedford, John Hart John Hart (SS)

At a court held for Charlotte County the 2nd day of September 1793 –
This Last Will and Testament of John Hart dec. was exhibited in court by John Spencer, Robert Bedford and William Hart the executor herein named and the same was proved by the oath of Robert Bedford and John Hart and ordered to be recorded. On the motion of William Hart who made the Oath According to the Law certificate is granted to him for obtaining a probate of the said will in due form he giving security whereupon he together with Phillip King and Obediah Brumfield his securities ?? entered into and acknowledged their bond according to the law for that purpose reserving liberty to the other executors or fores to join in the probate there of when they shall think fit.

Teste Thomas Read cc

(2 Sept. 1793)
(1) Son Caleb Hart Negro, Ned, Jude
(2) Son William Hart Negro, London, James
(3) Son John Hart Negro, Shadrack, Harry
(4) Son Isreal Hart Negro, Limon, Kate
(5) Son Beasley Hart Negro, Tally, Nancy
(6) Son Thomas Hart Negro, Eva, Emanuel, Lewis
(7) Dau. Elizabeth wife of Gabriel Beasley Negro, Milly

I give to the Estate of William Beasley “Dec.” Negro, Tan

Grand Dau. Mary Dau. of Cornelius Hart “Dec.” Negro Isaac

Wife Rest of Estate during her life.
Inventory 3 Feb 1794 (Will Book 2, Page 40)

Note of explanation by Jerry Hart of North Carolina, July 20, 2001

The way I looked at the will, John had eight children. First part of will lists Elizabeth wife of Gabriel Beasley. Last part of will calls her Nancy Beasley. I think Elizabeth and Nancy are the same person. If not why would Elizabeth receive Milly in first part and not be listed in the last part. Also why was Nancy not listed in first part, but listed in last part to share in the estate after her mother’s death and Elizabeth not listed?

Caleb Hart Private, Virginia Revolutionary War.


Caleb Hart’s Will Halifax County, Virginia

 14 June 1810 Book 8 Page 318 23 July 1810

I give to my beloved wife Mary Hart, during her natural life, live stock, have a good house built on my land.

(1) I give to my son John E. Hart that part of land lying on Hico River above the Spring Branch.

(2) I give to my son Nowel A. Hart, land on Hico River below the Spring Branch.

(3) I give to my son Reuben one hundred pounds & no more. John & Nowel to pay this one hundred pounds. (1/4 part of estate)

(4) John & Nowel to pay seven hundred pounds to my daughter Jinsey Davenport & her children.

John E. Hart & Nowel A. Hart my executors.

Last Will & Testament of Caleb Hart (ca 1754 – bef 14 June 1810)

Filed: Halifax Co. VA 14 June 1810 Book 8 Page 318


Will dated June 11, 1810


Condemn by the time of aquodaunum it is my desire that my two sons John E. and Nowel A. shall have all the profit that shall arise from my mill jointly to them their heirs and assigns forever.

ITEM – I give and bequeath to my son Reuben Hart one hundred pounds and no more. It is my will that my two sons John E. and Nowel A. shall pay the said one hundred pounds which I suppose to be one fourth part of the profit coming from the mill until the hundred pounds is paid off; to him his heirs and assigns forever.

ITEM – It is my will and desire that my two sons John E. Hart and Nowel A. Hart should arise out of my Estate seven hundred pounds for the benefit of my daughter Jincey Davenport and her children and out of the seven hundred pounds they are to purchase a tract of land to the amount of eight hundred dollars more or less for the benefit of my daughter Jincy and children after the purchase of the land she is to have one third part of the profit arising from the mill until the seven hundred pounds is paid off.

ITEM – I do appoint my two sons John E. Hart and Nowel A. Hart my executors revoking and annulling all other mill gifts or bequeath by me heretofore made.

Notifying this and no other to be my last will and testament, in witness whereof I have hereunto set my hand and affixed my seal this 11 day of June 1810 my executors lived before signed.

Signed Caleb Hart SS

Signed, sealed and delivered in presence of William Chandler, Sam Eastes, Obadiah (?)

From file of Sharon Catlin Coleman, 7 June 2000

Last Will and Testament of Nowel A. Hart (ca 1776 – 24 May 1837)

Filed in Callaway Co., MO 21 May 1838


Will Dated October 21, 1830


In the name of God Amen, I Nowel A. Hart of Halifax County, Virginia do make and constitute this my last will and testament in manner and form as follows: Item – it is my wish and desire that as soon after my death as my executrix herein after named may think proper she may sell the land whereon I now reside or so much thereof as she may think proper and pay all my just debts, and if she think proper to sell the whole it is my will and desire that the purchase with the residue of the money after paying my debts such as a tract of land as she may think proper either in this county or the west and that she have the whole management and control of my Estate both real and personal during her natural life, under the following conditions, Si_?_ that she raise and support my younger children and further that she make such advances to my children as the situation of my Estate will admit on their marriage or coming to the age of twenty-one years so as that they shall not receive more than an equal proportion of my estate and finally it is my will and desire that after the death of my wife the whole of my Estate then remaining be equally divided among all my children, having reference to what may have been advanced to any of them previously. Item – I hereby constitute my loving, wife Elizabeth Hart Executrix of this my last will and testament and will that she be permitted to qualify to the same ___ the management of my Estate without being required to give security. Given under my hand and seal this 21st day of October 1830.

Nowel A. Hart
Tho Easley
Elijah Linden (Lindau?)
Allen Halliburton

From file of Sharon Catlin Coleman, 7 June 2000

Ancestry details for these men can be seen at an earlier post of February 27, 2013:

From Roadways of Memory – Part I

From Roadways of Memory - Part I


The front section of this vernacular house is a nearly exact replica

in size, style, and setting for the Ab Johnson and Braden houses.

This house has a two-story section at the back; those houses did not.


Wanderings From the Roadways of Memory

An Essay Into Memory and Vanished Time

James Hart




Composition Note: The working title of this essay, during composition and afterwards, was originally intended to be “Memorial Days: A Poem Deconstructed,” but on completion, I no longer think that is the best title. I have settled on a title that I hope is more resonant of the essay’s principal themes. What I have done here as a form of creative non-fiction is take an older prose poem of mine entitled “Memorial Days” and break it down line by line with the intention of using each line as a starting point for memory and association to explore what was going on behind my thinking over fifteen years ago that collapsed itself into this poem. Each italicized portion is a line from the poem that determines a theme for the section.

March 8, 2013


Time eats them all eventually, the houses of my memory gone year by hungry year.

I believe I inhabit a cemetery state of mind, and melancholy is my muse. For as long as I can remember, I have found cemeteries a welcome landscape for a living soul. I may go to leave flowers on family plots as a token of my annual pilgrimage, but so often in my life I have found myself in a cemetery communing with the resident dead with some silent understanding that I never try to define. I walk as if I belong there. It is comforting. I do admit that a barren plot without trees I find less heartening—my family’s forebears are buried in a treeless triangle of acreage, bounded by a junction of two roads and a side lane, known as Ebenezer Cemetery, in Carroll County, west of Bogard, Missouri.

I share my mother’s silent desire that we might rest eternally among the ancient oak trees and rolling slopes of Oak Hill Cemetery in Carrollton, Missouri, where her parents and grandparents rest, but that did not become our reality. She followed my father into the earth of his ancestors on a treeless rise overlooking miles of rural calm, no matter which direction one looks out from Ebenezer. The surrounding countryside is beautiful in late May when green timothy and brome have reached their early maturity and the wind’s endless motion sweeps a sea of long grass over meadows toward a shoreline of trees. White clover carpets our feet wherever we stand looking out. Beauty rises to be found in every prospect, and we need not rely upon Keats and dreams of Grecian urns to know its truth, nor walk with Gray when “the curfew tolls the knell of parting day.”

I began this essay from the devouring jaws of time, recalling then how each year when I make that pilgrimage toward homeland and the haunted heartland of my own making, that like marks on a chart of progress, I notice another house or barn has gone down to its timbered darkness. Sometimes I may recall the farmers’ or families’ names of the people who once lived in the spaces these vanished walls bounded. Sometimes the names have slipped off as well with memory’s easy releases of too much detail after six decades. It always comes to me as a conscious wince, the horizon missing another familiar roofline and chimney, the valley below a hilltop missing another weathervaned barn like a molar fallen from an open jaw. These are my pains of passage because I am as powerless as the next man to halt their decline, decay, and ultimate demise.

Another piece of memory that has vanished is trying to recall a cemetery I visited with my parents on a summer Sunday afternoon before I was twelve years old. I no longer recall what ancestors we were seeking, the name of the plot of ground, or its exact location, except to know we were somewhere in the countryside near Braymer, Missouri. What I do recall of that day was my enjoyment of traipsing around in the tall grasses looking for uncommon monuments, touching lichen lined names on old marble, looking for ornamented tablet surfaces of scrolls or praying hands, and treading upon the whispering dead without feeling as if I were the invader. Yes, I know my thoughts are now today’s peace of mind placing words into a glimmer of time I barely recall the real details from, but what I firmly remember is my sense of happiness at trekking over the grassy land of a cemetery, perfectly at peace, inherently at home, and not regretting missing an afternoon of child’s games with friends or the towered bastions of imagination I had already begun to inhabit in books. Yes, happiness, not melancholy, makes the earliest remembered thread I might pull from a skein of cemetery memories. I use no skulls to mark my memento mori.

Most of them just slowly fold, disappearing into omnivorous earth marked by weedy drives and hollow stands of trees where a barn and asymmetrical emptiness hold the harvest of the years.

Victor Ball, Charlie Vaughn, Ray Braden, Ab Johnson, Ben Forrest, these are men’s names once attached to houses or barns that slowly folded into the earth, a few timbers at a time until they fell or someone burned the remains among dead trees bulldozed up into a pile of brush or made into its own pyre of sweet, consuming fire. Actually, Ben Forrest’s house still stands a sentinel on a rise across the road from a farm belonging to a man named Jones, but his enormous barn, a true cathedral of barn design, is long gone to the willpower of rain, ruin, and slow collapse. The Forrest barn was huge, weathered red, and L-shaped, and in the long wing to the east of its main section, rose a long ascending wooden slope that teams of horses pulling hay wagons could slowly mount into the hayloft overhead. This is the only barn I know of from my youth in this part of mid-Missouri that possessed such an architectural feature built well over one hundred years ago. It is quite a feat to imagine a team of horses pulling a loaded wagon of loose hay up into the loft, and then see the farmer and his sons roll the wagon back down by hand, for there was ample room to work and unload the hay but not to turn the wagon around, and then lead the patient horses back down the wooden slope to the work of sunlight and sky.

When I recall Ab Johnson, I remember two impressions years apart from one another: a slim, gray taciturn man in a black pickup truck, and the first ruined house that I loved for its weathered truths.  Ab was gone from the neighborhood before I got out of grade school at Bogard, so if he died or moved away I don’t recall, and I’m not sure anyone of my generation who still lives nearby could tell me now. The elders who might remember him, well, they’ve followed Ab on the same path to the past that is lost to us living now. Among my earliest childhood memories then are the “Nutman” and Ab. I could not swear to you if Ab’s truck was a Ford or a Chevrolet, but it was a black and rusted remnant from the 1940’s with ample rounded fenders and it was still out on the road after 1960. From time to time, Ab in his truck rattled up the gravel driveway and stopped under the elm tree between the house and the barn. I don’t believe he ever stopped to talk to my father unless he first noted that our 1953 Ford truck was also parked in its spot under the elm, and then he’d stop, knowing my father was at home.  I don’t remember the sound of the man’s voice at all; I just recall how quietly he muttered his conversations to my dad—usually a request for help he needed, or maybe he’d offer to help us with hay or harvest. In my earliest years, I know my father often shared work with neighbors of a similar age who helped each other out when needed. Later, he started to hire teenage sons of neighbors to work, and eventually my brother Donald and I were old enough that we became his work crew and he allowed us to hire out to neighbors as well. But in those early years Ab motoring past our house in his decrepit truck was a fixture of the neighborhood, so by the time I was an older teenager and would go hunting up in the hills north of our farm, I remember the shock I felt when I happened onto Ab’s house in a clearing in the woods for the first time.

By the time I would go walking up in the hills to get away and think or to hunt in the fall and winter in the late 1960’s, Ab Johnson’s house was already well advanced in ruin. The two township gravel roads that led to his place in a clearing were no longer maintained, the house sat back in an open space surrounded by woods on all four sides, and the road that ran past the entrance to the yard was overgrown in grass and weeds—only a ghost of gravel remaining in the turf that increased with the seasons. The house itself—the vernacular Civil War era frame house with two rooms down, two rooms up, a center chimney, and stairs tucked into a corner closet somewhere—sat crooked and leaning, weathered dark, dark gray, almost charcoal in color, so long ago had it seen its last paint. Not a flake remained. The door was fallen in onto the floor, the windows were empty of glass in the sashes, and the floor had up-heaved itself in ripples of boards and rotted joists settled into the earth, and several broken places exposed the openings of dens dug by ground hogs that made their homes underneath it. This house looked as if it had advanced for fifty years or more into its slow consummation with the soil, yet Ab had last lived there within the earlier of my first twenty years on earth.  As a young man, I realized looking in on the ruined house in that first visit that Ab must have lived in poverty, perhaps in his ancestors’ home, but that his house had declined as his life had declined—into a cascade of wreckage that eventually fell down and disappeared, just as Ab disappeared from our daily details, and then from our memories, and then . . . the “rest is silence.” Somehow, it’s a sadly fitting end for a taciturn man whose name I hold onto for a few moments today, because no amount of recall will let me remember Ab Johnson’s face. It has eroded from my memory with the same finality as his pioneer house I once loved because it gave me a view into the ruins of time more real to me than any book could ever make me see.

That other shadow man from the past, the “Nutman,” lived at Tina, Missouri, and would go driving around the neighborhoods in the autumn, inquiring at farms if we had any “wahnuts” he could pick up, and which I assume he later sold somewhere. The Nutman was thought by us to be a little “crazy,” and I clearly recall my mother kept handy in the kitchen her longest butcher knife with at least a 10-inch blade on it which she would have in hand if he showed up at our door while my father was away working. My mother could fearlessly drive runaway bulls back to a neighbor’s pasture, if need be, but this poor soul was one man she did not trust when home alone with two small boys. I don’t know that I ever knew the man’s real name, and I have no memory of his eventual fate, but I do remember glimmers of this man at our kitchen door from time to time: he possessed one roving, spastic eye that he could not control and one normal eye fixed on whomever he faced, he was overweight and shirtless in blue overalls in the summer, with close cropped dark hair, and he generally needed a shave for two or three days’ worth of stubble. Memory claims that he probably smelled potently unwashed, but I will not swear to that. But among the remnants of childhood that left their indelible shadows on my imagination—the Nutman lives, and my mother still wields her wicked knife.

Sometimes they fall to predatory storms, scavengers nosing their bony remains.

My wife Denise knows the nearly physical pain I endured for a few seasons as the last remnants of my boyhood home marked the yard where Cora Smithpeter built her dream home in 1905. Within a year or two after my father’s death, my mother had sold our farm and moved to a house in Carrollton, and just in time to avoid an episode that I’m sure would have been her death. I think it was in the early summer of 1982, but some months after she had left the place, the neighborhood was hit by a tornado. When I drove down there later to see the damage, the region looked like a ragged war zone: as if treetops had been twisted, savaged, and shredded by cannon bombardment—the hail storm afterwards—and it took those surviving trees three or four years to heal the signs of their near destruction. The house (large, plain Queen Anne style, eight rooms, two stories and a kitchen wing) had been set slightly askew on its foundation, but it stood; the barn had been flattened into a heap inviting fire. One minor detail I have always remembered from this visit: the weathervane on the  lightning rod from the center of the barn roof was nowhere to be found. Had a neighbor retrieved it first, or the wind carried it into the fields, I never knew. Every window had imploded into the house—shards of glass littered floors everywhere. And I will never forget the mosaic stains of shredded bluegrass stems and pear tree leaves plastered across the wall tiles in the bathroom we had made from the old kitchen pantry. Every room on the western side of the house, the direction from which the storm hit, looked as if the wind had clawed loose surfaces of turf and flung them after the windows’ vanished glass. Why I said this event would have marked my mother’s death is my assurance that she probably would have thought she could sit out the storm in the bay window of our dining room on the west side of the house. She and I so often had sat in rocking chairs there and admired lightning and other shows of nature over the years. By the time my mother might have made herself go outside to seek shelter in the root cellar a few paces south of the kitchen door . . . well, I can see no happy ending here. To be swept up by the arms of the wind and set down somewhere distant like a battered doll, or to be sliced by flying glass when those three windows in the bay descended into the room . . . neither of those scenarios, to recall Shakespeare, is a “consummation devoutly to be wished.”

So from the ruined house Ted Lock, the man who had bought the farm from my mother, began a salvage operation and took out doors, Victorian woodwork and baseboards, and the cherry wood staircase from which my mother and I had scraped by hand with pocket knives all the old, blackened, alligatored varnish on it when I was fourteen. That was my first true labor of love, because I led my mother into helping me restore the staircase—not the other way around. The staircase was unlike any other I have seen in a rural farmhouse. It was Cora Smithpeter’s singular ode to grandness—that staircase. How she built the house was overall modest for its large size and style and country placement, but the staircase hall was a triumph of millwork—newel post, hand rails, spindles, rising in two turns and landings, and a large landing the length of the hallway overhead, ending at a window under a truncated tower—all in native cherry wood. After we scraped it and varnished it anew, that clean wood had such a reddened glow that I can see in my memory, along with the ghost of its treads going up the exposed hallway’s plaster wall after the house was half torn down and stood that way on the landscape for several years, causing me the admitted anguish that I alluded to earlier. In time pounding rains prised loose remnants of my mother’s pink stained hall wallpaper that bubbled and fluttered in the wind, waving in jocular gestures at passersby in their cars.

I remember taking my sons when they were very young to poke about the ruins of the house once or twice, and we brought home a few unclaimed ornaments from the door and window woodwork, which I still have around here somewhere. The corner pieces above each door and window in the kitchen had the older molded circular bulls’ eye design, but the larger front rooms and bedrooms upstairs had rectangular pieces with piecrust cuts along the top and an incised daisy shape on a stem rising from between two leaf fronds arcing to right and left of it. Other than the attempted grandeur of the staircase, these woodwork ornaments were the house’s only other Victorian detail that one might call “frilly,” or my wife would say—“silly for woodwork.” But Denise is the one who mentioned in passing to Glaphy O’Neal, the mother of the farm’s owner at that time, at a funeral visitation for a neighbor if she would ask her son to burn the remains of the house instead of letting them slowly rot and fall a few timbers at a time. By that time it was a mournful, broken wreck: the living room’s outer walls gone, revealing the exposed hallway wall with the ghost stairs ascending to the sky where no floor remained, and beyond that the floors of the bedrooms my brother and I slept in were open to the sky—no walls up there to contain a thing, and the empty boxes of my parents’ bedroom and the dining room below them. By that time it looked as if a giant child’s hand had deconstructed a toy house one block at a time, casting away a few, and leaving a few blocks stacked haphazardly to buffet whatever the wind had left to throw its way. In truth, I will share that the only other comfort from this memory would have been the gift of tossing a lit match onto the accelerants of straw and gasoline I might have used if I’d been allowed to do the burning myself. Because, like Nathaniel Hawthorne who loved to see a good blaze in Salem or Concord, there is in me the spirit of a pyromaniac who has played with fire, as a child, and to my great fortune, I ignited no discord with my father when I used to set tiny fires in pretend houses made of piled up sticks and bricks behind the tractor shed at the end of our vegetable garden. Yes, my sons reading this now, I did this, and I am not ashamed.

From Roadways of Memory – Part II

From Roadways of Memory - Part II


Though it is missing the kitchen wing behind it,

this house is very close in style to the Daugherty house that I loved.


Wanderings From the Roadways of Memory

An Essay Into Memory and Vanished Time

James Hart




A few find grace in salvage taken somewhere further down the road.

In Chapter 2 of Walden, “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For,” Henry David Thoreau makes this observation about imaginary ownership of other men’s farms:  “I have frequently seen a poet withdraw, having enjoyed the most valuable part of a farm, while the crusty farmer supposed that he had got a few wild apples only. Why, the owner does not know it for many years when a poet has put his farm in rhyme, the most admirable kind of invisible fence, has fairly impounded it, milked it, skimmed it, and got all the cream, and left the farmer only the skimmed milk.” I feel that way when I salvage the fallen ruins of Ray Braden’s pioneer home which stood on the hill above our farm to the west of us, and when I recall the house that belonged to Herman Daugherty’s grandfather that stood on an abandoned road a mile south of our farm. Both of these houses shared the same construction features as Ab Johnson’s house; they all three stood in the neighborhood in the days of the Civil War, or were built shortly afterward, with the exception that both houses had an added single-story wing on the back of the house for the kitchen. The Braden house was only slightly different yet in having a roofed, and partially closed in, dog-trot feature connecting the kitchen to the house. And I recall numerous times as a boy walking up to Ray’s house and climbing the sloping, rocky driveway into the pasture around his house at the top of the hill. Always, as I approached the house I slowed with temerity and caution because I knew that dog-trot would be infested with some of Ray’s sleeping hound dogs that rose up and lumbered into the lawn to bark and nose and nudge about my face and shoulders. They never offered to bite me, but coming face to face with a pack of baying hounds was still enough to make me cautious no matter how many times I’d been reassured of safety.

I can recall Ray Braden more vividly than some men from my childhood because I don’t think any one man had a stronger influence over my Romanticist’s imagination when I was a child than he. Ray was the son of pioneers who lived as pioneers lived for the entire time he was a part of my youth. Often when he shared meals at our kitchen table, Ray told us tales about his ancestors coming to Carroll County in a covered wagon and building the first house in the neighborhood—his house—up on its hill commanding one of the best views in the region between his house and Bogard Mound a few miles south of us. Ray was the man who knew the kitchen we sat in at my house had formerly been a single-room house and lean-to on the north hill of our farm, and he remembered how the men working for Mr. Smithpeter had hitched several teams of horses to skids placed under it and dragged it down the hill to its present position before building the large house in front of it. That history accounted for why the kitchen had bead board wainscoting and different window woodwork than the rest of the house.

Ray was already “old” in my view when I was a boy. He was of my grandparents’ generation, meaning born in the late 19th century, and he was probably a boy or youth when he witnessed our house being built. His brothers Walter and William had served as soldiers in the Great War—World War I—and they often wanted my father to share his memories of World War II with them, but that never happened.  My father was increasingly silent about his war experience as we matured, and I often wonder if he would have lived longer, could I have gotten him to talk to me about it as an older man, but I believe I’d have witnessed the same taciturn silence from him on that point. But to return to Ray, the man always sported an untidy sprouting of graying hair usually mussed about his head by wind and his own hand, a few gnarled teeth with gaps for those gone missing, and kind hearted, pale blue eyes the color of chicory that grows by the roadside. Ray punctuated his stories with guffaws of laughter that rocked his head with ragged nods and agitated jerks of his shoulders, and he entertained us with the past that lived in his mind whether we were at table, or riding on a hay wagon, or standing around the barnyard after work was done until the time later in his life when he became a danger to himself and to the neighbors and was sent away to Fulton by his family.

Even as a youth, I knew that walking up the hill into Ray’s meadow surrounding his house was to step into another time. When I said Ray lived as pioneers lived, I meant it somewhat literally. His house, which we were never invited to enter, may have had the electricity of a single bulb suspended from the ceiling in the three rooms downstairs, but he had no telephone. Throughout my experience of him in the 1950’s and 1960’s, Ray did all of his farm work with a team of draft horses. He mowed hay with a horse-drawn mower, he put up his hay loose with a pitchfork on his father’s flatbed wagon with spoke wheels, and if he grubbed weeds from his fields, he did so on hands and knees, wearing a straw hat with a ragged brim. On numerous occasions Ray’s team might escape the wire gate pulled across his driveway entrance and go gallivanting about the neighborhood until someone among us drove them home. Eventually, his team produced a colt that grew up alongside its mother, and once when it was about a two-year-old, all three of Ray’s horses escaped on a Sunday morning when I was fifteen, broke through the wire gateway into a pasture where our two horses were penned and lured them away for a long adventure that resulted in my horse Lucky receiving a hoof injury that marked him as not so “lucky” for the rest of his days.

Ray’s house was shaded by a thick stand of older trees around it, and in the regions behind the house an imaginative boy could find himself far away in time. His outbuildings included a barn as old as the house, and it featured hand hewn posts and beams and wooden pegs holding them all together. Numerous older barns in our neighborhood were leftovers of pioneer construction with adze marks in the beams made by men who planed them by hand and then hand-whittled pegs that pinned these barns together, solid for a century or more if the farmers kept their roofs in repair. Adjacent to the barn were an ancient chicken coop and a log-wall stable with handmade wood shingles—used for his horses in the summer time when they did not need the barn’s better cover. The stable was constructed of three walls and open on the long east side of it, providing the horses some shade from late afternoon heat. Somewhere nearer the house was one of those ancient underground root cellars, such as we had one also on our farm, but Ray’s was a step up in design by having one of those barrel-topped concrete and stone bunker-looking entrances with a handmade door opening to the stairs descending to the darkness below. Our cellar, on the other hand, featured a large door resting at an angle on slanted foundations, and it had to be heaved up and leaned against a post to reveal the stairs at our feet. I always envied our neighbors’ cellars and their little concrete entrance huts.

Beyond this medley of buildings scattered among the trees and the wildflowers that dotted the long grasses, for Ray never owned a lawnmower unless he had one of those old fashioned push mowers with a barrel of whirling blades, or he used a hand sickle, rested Ray’s true little piece of Eden—a sizable orchard with a variety of apple, peach, and plum trees planted by his ancestors and still producing delicious fruit summer after summer despite the bent and gnarled nature of his trees.  To wander here where bee song filled the summer breeze and birds sang from the trees was to enter a corner of paradise planted by pioneers and tended then by their son who shared a shepherd’s spirit with the will of the wind and the soul of the sunlight. Looking back on the Braden farm now, I know I have for a brief time in my life experienced the grace of former days that Thoreau describes so ardently in Walden:

At a certain season of our life we are accustomed to consider every spot as the possible site of a house. I have thus surveyed the country on every side within a dozen miles of where I live. In imagination I have bought all the farms in succession, for all were to be bought, and I knew their price. I walked over each farmer’s premises, tasted his wild apples, discoursed on husbandry with him, took his farm at his price, at any price, mortgaging it to him in my mind; even put a higher price on it — took everything but a deed of it — took his word for his deed, for I dearly love to talk — cultivated it, and him too to some extent, I trust, and withdrew when I had enjoyed it long enough, leaving him to carry it on. . . . Wherever I sat, there I might live, and the landscape radiated from me accordingly. What is a house but a sedes, a seat? — better if a country seat. I discovered many a site for a house not likely to be soon improved, which some might have thought too far from the village, but to my eyes the village was too far from it. Well, there I might live, I said; and there I did live, for an hour, a summer and a winter life; saw how I could let the years run off, buffet the winter through, and see the spring come in. The future inhabitants of this region, wherever they may place their houses, may be sure that they have been anticipated. An afternoon sufficed to lay out the land into orchard, wood-lot, and pasture, and to decide what fine oaks or pines should be left to stand before the door, and whence each blasted tree could be seen to the best advantage; and then I let it lie, fallow, perchance, for a man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone.

The Thoreau Reader. Annotated Works of Henry David Thoreau. The Thoreau Society. 3 Mar. 2013

Ray Braden was indeed a man “rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone,” and though I can not claim knowing if he read Thoreau, if I ever knew a man who lived inherently the wisdom of these words, it was he. I too claim the rights of Thoreau’s imaginary ownership, looking back now on Braden Farm and I help myself once more to a few wild apples glowing so temptingly red on trees gnarled by the rigors of time.

Tabulating these former houses, another one down and gone, makes a mental calendar, a way of giving annual form to formlessness, as I drive out country roads to decorate my family’s dead where they lay in cemeteries bearing family or biblical names: Braden, Mt. Zion, Appleberry, and Ebenezer, my favorite name for its hard meaning: stone of help.

I have no clear memory of when the Daugherty house south of our farm disappeared from the landscape, although I know it was in the years after I moved away from the farm to go to college and to begin a life that would not be dependent on the vagaries of crops, herds, and weather—for that was how I viewed as a youth my father’s captive duties to farm life. This house stood a half-mile down an abandoned road—in the sense that the township no longer “maintained” it with gravel and road grader—that varied from slippery mud to powdery dust and dandelions, depending on the seasons we used it. Eventually the road passed beyond the Daugherty farm and some edges of other farms that had back field access to this road, and it emerged as a graveled quarter mile that ran past Cecil Isaacs’ farm and connected to the gravel road that led us to Ebenezer Cemetery, skirting the edges of the other Smithpeter farm along the way. In those youthful years, how many ways did I experience this maze of country roads leading to various farms in that corner of Carroll County, and unlike Theseus, I need no thread now to guide me from their maze these forty-plus years later. Today, I believe I could guide my sons to drive me through them with my eyes closed, relying on my body’s memory of hills, curves, and necessary stops. My earliest navigations of them were from the backseat of my father’s 1949 Ford coupe or his 1953 Ford truck (which he bought the year I was born and it transported him, my mother, and me to various places we lived in Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, and Indiana during the years he drove a bulldozer for pipeline work). Later, I wandered those roads by bicycle and horse back, and then by tractor as I worked for various farmers during my teenage years. So, I had many opportunities to drive past the Daugherty house and wonder what was within its weathered, unpainted walls, because Herman’s mother had moved from it long before I was born and lived in a smaller house across the road from his farm.

It sat there for years harmed only by the vandals of time and weather, shaded by maples, and looking so inviting. I recall one summer day when I was baling hay for Herman, and taking a rest under the trees, I soon summoned the courage to see if the door were locked. It was not. It took me very little time to debate—would I trespass or pass on by? Well, I was sixteen and I could not help myself—and in I walked. I know now that I could have asked Herman to let me see the house and he might have laughed, but he’d have said, “Sure, but I can’t imagine what’s in there of interest.” But that would be the expression of someone who did not understand the Romanticist’s attachment to ruins and follies—no matter what architectural form they take in a more modern age. For me, here was a pioneer home, an open door for entry, and an invitation to another time, and I accepted. The house had never been modernized—ever. Its wood kitchen cupboards were the same hand-made ones built by the original builder. These stood across the room from the house’s central chimney that offered a flue hole for a wood burning cook stove. The kitchen sink was a built-in zinc-lined wooden affair under the east window of the room, with an iron pitcher pump mounted in it to bring up water from a well under the kitchen. This was a convenience often unheard of in those early days when this house was built—our own farmhouse had a sandstone well curb and a deep well outside the kitchen door. In our early years there—pre-1960 and before we had plumbing in the house—my brother Don and I would quarrel about who had the last turn pumping a bucket of water for the kitchen when it was raining, sleeting, or snowing and was completely uninviting to go out to grip an icy, slippery pump handle. Wandering into the two front rooms, I looked around, admired what remained of fifty-year-old wallpapers from early in the century when my father was born in 1910, noted the parlor side of the chimney also missing its flue cover, stove pipe, and wood stove, and then I opened a cupboard door in the corner to discover the staircase rising to the upstairs. After a short look at the two rooms upstairs, I was ready to go back outside and return to the reality of a sunlit hayfield. I know now with the right selection of primitive antique furniture—the kind my wife has collected for years—I could move into that house today, imagining  myself an older  Henry Thoreau, and I would be supremely happy, I’m sure—in my “country seat” that I have imagined in so many houses, in so many ways, over so many years.  Such are the fractures in time, allowing us to imagine something that would be perfect for us, even if we are powerless to make it happen in reality.

Now, in wandering these old roadways of my memory, I could never go very far in any one direction without arriving ultimately at another Smithpeter house—the dream house of my youth and the object of my mother’s deeply felt veneration. For if Scarlet O’Hara’s Tara were ever to stand anywhere else, its likeness surely stood here on a hilltop a quarter-mile off the road, surrounded by venerable oak and hickory trees, and reached by a gravel lane that curved down a slope, ran past a duck pond, and climbed back up the hill to lead visitors to a stone mounting block used for horseback and carriage arrivals and departures from the time the house was built ca. 1854 by William Smithpeter until over one hundred years later when I would ride a school bus up to this house to pick up the Starnes girls when they attended high school at Bogard.  Always painted white in the years I saw it, the Smithpeter house was one of Carroll County’s true ante-bellum survivors into modern times. It featured two square two-story columns supporting a front portico centered between pairs of windows to the right and left, with a smaller inset portico supporting a balcony over the front door. Green roof shingles and green shutters, white paint and pillars, this house looked like a remnant of a southern dream time placed a little too far north of Dixie. It looked out from its hilltop among oak trees that must have been twice as old as the house itself, and though it would not rival Oak Alley at Vacherie, Louisiana, it was a worthy substitute for southern grace and grandeur transplanted to a hilltop overseeing rolling Missouri farmland. The builder of the house rests among my ancestors at Ebenezer, and in 1905 his son John G. Smithpeter with his wife Cora Estelle Powers Smithpeter built the house I grew up in on our farm three miles northeast of this grand setting. Born in 1904, their daughter Zelma Evelyn Smithpeter grew up in the house and eventually became a coloratura soprano with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and later, by some reports, with the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Regrettably, the William Smithpeter house burned one night in the early 1980’s, ironically, in a fire caused by a modern woodstove burning too hot for its old chimney, though I have to say that dying by fire is perhaps a more fitting end for a proud old house than falling victim to decades of damp and decay.

From Roadways of Memory – Part III

From Roadways of Memory - Part III


Though not truly the same style, the scale and presence of this

house will serve to illustrate the Smithpeter House, 1905.


Wanderings From the Roadways of Memory

An Essay Into Memory and Vanished Time

James Hart




Out of touch with generations, my fingertips trace their vanishing names eroding the older stones, victims of discerning water and digestive weather.

Throughout this odyssey of the mind roving over the countryside of the dead, I’ve alluded to cemeteries and the deaths of houses and barns remembered and admired in my youth. Among the cemeteries of Carroll County, I’ve described my feelings for Ebenezer and Oak Hill, but another burial ground I admire for its serenity lies at the top of a hill reached by a steep, curving gravel road. Braden Cemetery, surrounded by woods, holds some of the earliest settlers of the neighborhood at rest there, principally ancestors of Ray Braden’s family, and it lies no more than a mile east through the woods and clearings from the site of Ab Johnson’s house.  Among the tombstones there visitors will find a half dozen or so primitive slabs of limestone dug up from the earth long ago by practical men who needed to mark their loved ones’ graves, but they either had no money or no resource for purchasing cut and polished white marble. The shapers of these stones placed them vertically in the earth after having used something sharp, a chisel point or a hand-forged nail, to laboriously scratch into them the names and dates they bear. Seeing them over a hundred and fifty years after they were made, one can barely make out any of their details with the aid of penetrating sunlight and close peering and touching to discern the letters under lichens. These names and numbers, at the hands of time and ungenerous weather, now bear the mystery of ancient runes more than the names of men and women who once armed themselves with axes and hammers and needles and thread to forge a life from the frontier that lay before them. I could never return to visit Braden Cemetery without searching out these special stones to ponder their connection to the primitive imperative that bonds the human in us to the silent afterlife with the same assurance that first led Paleolithic men to bury their dead with ritual and ceremony.

My parents’ names more newly hewn will someday feed the cravings of a distant wind.

Though I belong to the landscape of the living, my spirit often dwells in shadows and in a glimmer land that is something like a mirage rising from a noonday roadway crossed with imaginary flickers seen from the corner of one’s eye. In moments of deep peace and restful silence I can be roused suddenly by the assurance I’ve heard my mother’s voice calling out to me from the corridors of time. I’ve never actually felt I was “hearing things” as a signal of some kind of mental disturbance needing professional advice, but yet I’ve felt the calm assurance of that voice multiple times in my life and it gives me peace and connection to something unseen, and it eases the rigors of sorrow better than any other restorative I could name.

I find in these thoughts the same bountiful guidance I receive from reading this noble poem by Emily Dickenson:

There's a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons – 
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes – 

Heavenly Hurt, it gives us – 
We can find no scar,
But internal difference,
Where the Meanings, are – 

None may teach it – Any – 
'Tis the Seal Despair – 
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the Air – 

When it comes, the Landscape listens – 
Shadows – hold their breath – 
When it goes, 'tis like the Distance
On the look of Death –

I feel reasonably assured that Emily inhabited the same shadowscapes and glimmerfields that house my spirit with a calm fortitude that I can not explain. How does one who endures without the traditional founts of faith begin to explain to anyone else the stony stamina that arises from pure intangible nuance and dreamscape? But like Ralph Waldo Emerson, who thrived on strong imagination wedded to resolute intuition, I believe I place as much faith in my airborne specters of a truth unseen as he placed in his benevolent Over-Soul. When I consider that my father has been gone from my life for nearly thirty-five years—now over half of my life—and my mother’s passing occurred twenty-three years ago, I should be able to consider these losses with some objectivity. But, truthfully, that is one of my failings; and if I say that “melancholy is my muse,” then my parents have become my guardians of memory, my mentors of loneliness, my shamans of my own shadow land. We humans place our faith in many forms of unseen trustees of truth, and I believe my rather abstract appreciation of my parents’ role in my life is as reassuring for me as placing faith in a holy man who died on a cross is sustaining for all true believing Christians. And a revelation to me is the awareness that when I set out to write this piece about finding solace in cemeteries and abandoned houses, I had no clear sense of where might my destination lay or how my roads of imagination might diverge into a yellow wood of time regained.

My sons endure their strange pilgrimage across the countryside of the dead, requesting favorite family stories to help the car move more quickly along the miles as I tell myself I serve the replenished past for them.

The bonds I hold in my soul for the old Smithpeter house where I grew up are two-fold. One is the spirit of the house itself, which I admired as a youth because I knew it was unique in our neighborhood. No other house within a five-mile radius was commensurate in size or style; in fact, it takes little imagination to see that my present home in Brookfield, Missouri, was purchased by my wife and me because of its general similarities of style and layout (for me at least) to my childhood home. With one exception—the Brookfield house is larger and has more rooms. The other bond is the knowledge that my father James M. Hart bought the house and farm for his home in 1955 because he had lived in the Smithpeter house as a youth himself, from the time that he was sixteen until age twenty-two (about 1926 to 1932), and so for him it was as close as he could get to living on a “home place” because his father Robert Thomas Hart never owned a farm of his own. From the time of my father’s birth in a large farmhouse northeast of Norborne, Missouri, that I recall being driven past once as a child, until he bought a house in Carrollton for his parents to live in when he went to serve in World War II, Robert Hart’s family had moved from one rental arrangement to another, living on a variety of farms for about thirty years. The time in the Smithpeter house may have been one of their longest stays in one place, but I can’t state that as an absolute fact. What I do know is that any family stories from my father’s youth regarding his relationships with his four siblings are associated with that house—perhaps because it was so easy for him to point to locations in the house while telling stories at the kitchen table or from his favorite chair in the living room.

When my sons were young boys, I told them some of these memories along with stories of my own childhood while we were driving down to Bogard and Carrollton for our annual Memorial Day visits—and it is this habit of being that first led me to write the poem that I’m using for the structure of this essay. When I look back into memory, I realize some of the stories I remember hearing did occur at other houses in other rooms; but some of them were indelibly linked to my memories of Elmwood, for this is the name my mother Alene Wagaman Hart gave the house one summer when she had been inspired by reading some novel about southern plantation life. Whose book it was I can’t recall now, but my mother liked the “fancy” of Elmwood well enough to put it on some stationery and address labels that she used throughout my youth. One tale involved my uncle Charles Hart, the youngest of the five who was ten years old when they moved to the house, and a prank he played on his older brothers. I can’t recall what Charles was “getting even” for, but he decided on his way up to bed earlier than his brothers to dribble molasses up the stair treads so that they would mess up their socks when they came up later in the dark. During their time in the house it did not yet have electricity, so the boys probably were in the habit of scooting up the stairs in the dark very quickly to get to bed. When I lived in that house we often did not heat the upstairs, although it was possible with a small coal-oil heater in the central hall, but in those days I’m sure my father and his brothers slept in cold rooms. I never knew if the molasses story was a summer or winter story, but I do recall many times my father and uncles erupting in laughter at re-telling the story—mostly for the sake of recalling the “skinning” Charles got from his father as punishment for such wasteful foolishness. For modern readers who don’t know what homemade “blackstrap molasses” looks like, well suffice it to say that it would be no easy clean-up in a house without hot running water and with only the aid of candles or kerosene lamp to cast some light on the offending mess.

Looking back on how protective my father always was of his younger sister Gladys, one story surprises me. This happened in the kitchen around their kitchen table which stood in the same corner of the room that our table occupied thirty years later, the only difference being that when they lived in the house, there was no doorway in that corner passing into the room north of it that we used for a formal dining room. There was, however, a window in that corner looking out onto what had become a covered porch between the pantry and the larger block of the house. Again, I am unsure what exact behaviors led to the remembered event, but Gladys had been teasing her older brother James up to a point where he was suddenly tired of it, and he reached out carelessly to shove her away from his chair with his elbow, and she lost her balance backwards and came within inches of falling through that closed window. It was my father’s quick wit and firm grasp of her dress front and snapping her back upright that saved her from falling through the window and being cut up by the glass. I think the point of this story, from Gladys’s telling it over the years, was to demonstrate that no matter what a little “shit” she might have been at times, her big brother always loved her and looked out for her. And that part is true—my father dropped out of school after the ninth or tenth grade in order to go to work and help his father support the family, but most especially to help make the money that paid school tuition for Gladys and Charles to graduate from high school at Bogard. As a teenager going to school there, I remember killing time in the big upstairs hallway where class pictures dating from the 1920’s to the present time were on display on the walls and in both stairwells up to the top floor. Memory fails me at the moment if Cecil and Vercil were in any pictures—they may have graduated somewhere else. Gladys and Charles were in class pictures. James was not. When he was an old man, his not graduating from high school was probably my father’s severest regret—yet he also felt some pride that he had made it possible for his younger sister and brother to finish school. Over the years I heard them both repeatedly praise my father with sincere and genuine words spoken to me for what he had done for them; and if they did feel a bit of shared guilt—we did not dwell on that.

One more tale I’ll share is Gladys’s story involving a “play party,” a violin, and the wickedness of dancing. It also shows the moral character of my grandmother, Lovie Glenora Bowles Hart, who was called Nora, and who died when I was twelve years old. I don’t believe a birthday was involved, but for whatever the cause, Gladys had talked her mother into allowing her to have what she called a play party and to invite some young friends to the house for a party on a Saturday night. My grandmother must have outlined to her what behaviors and entertainments would be acceptable, and which games would not. Parlor games, yes. Card games, no. Music and singing, yes. Dancing, no, no, and again, no. One thing I remember hearing told about my grandparents Robert and Nora is that one was Baptist and one was Methodist, although sadly now, I do not know which one observed which faith. But Nora was staunch in her beliefs and dancing was the devil’s own wickedness, to hear Gladys remember this story.  So the friends were invited and assembled at the house and the party was successfully underway—in the kitchen. My grandparents and any other adults that were present were in one of the two front parlors of the house, and they were out of hearing was my aunt’s assumption.

Now to understand how the young people thought they might sneak in some dancing—because one young wag had brought along his violin or “fiddle,” my aunt’s word, and one thing led to another with the grownups out of the room—one needs to see the configuration of the rooms in those days and how it differed by the 1960’s when we lived there. The one door in the northeast part of the wall of the kitchen led into the dining room on the east side of the house (the room my parents used for their bedroom downstairs), and west of that through a doorway was one parlor (which we used for a dining room when my parents put another door in the north kitchen wall to connect the two rooms), and to the north of this room, through a pair of sliding pocket doors, was the room that would have been the best parlor (my parents’ living room) which had a door to the hallway and the front door onto the front porch facing the road. Both parlors had large angled window bays across the end that let in abundant light and air, and they gave the house part of its distinctive external character. With the grownups in that far front parlor, and two rooms intervening with no connecting door to see or hear through it directly, the young folks thought they could strike up some fiddle music and have a few dances. Not for long. Nora soon appeared at the door to the kitchen, brows knit, lips tight with disapproval, and announced in her firm, quiet voice, “We’ll have no dancing in this house, young lady, or this party ends now.” And so the younger set returned to their tamer games, Nora returned to her parlor, and the last strains of violin music chased the threat of wickedness into the night’s quiet air.

From Roadways of Memory – Coda

From Roadways of Memory - Coda


American Vernacular.
House near Millard, Missouri


Wanderings From the Roadways of Memory

An Essay Into Memory and Vanished Time

James Hart




But I know it’s only my lonely hopefulness that these stones might flesh familiar bones, that houses might home us again, that time’s insatiability might turn to stone before it swallows my fading name.

A man named Pierre Lagacé, who lives in Quebec and who has made my recent acquaintance by commenting on my writing in Harthouse on Main, shared this thought recently about information I had posted about my great grandfather Benjamin Johnson Hart: “Some people wonder why some people are interested in dead people. Simple . . . . Dead people are really dead when no one remembers them.” And there, poignant and plain spoken, is the force behind my writing this essay. For several years now, my sons, Ethan especially, have asked me to “write this stuff down” so they will know our family’s history. And so, whether I call my effort an “essay” or “creative non-fiction,” I now comply. One of the ironies of life that plagues me when I think of it is this:  Because my father married late in life (he married at age forty-one and he was forty-three when I was born), this positioned my brother and me to be much younger than most of our first cousins. I have just turned sixty this year, and most of my cousins are in their seventies or their eighties—or they too have died. At this time I am one surviving aunt’s life away from being among the “oldest living generation” of my family. It is conceivable that if I live a long life, I will outlive all of my first cousins and many of my second cousins as well—among them only one that I can name is younger than me, one or two of them are the same age, and the rest of them are older than me, or I do not really know who they are. One of the truths of our time is that families grow distant from one another, and they spread out across the continent to different parts of the country with such ease and nonchalance. The further away we go, the less likely we return, even for short visits.

Some members of my family that I saw regularly at reunions when I was a youth I have not seen in thirty or forty years. Some have returned infrequently for funerals. Those of our previous generation—my parents and my aunts and uncles—were the glue that held our family bonds together. They are gone, and we are going—further and further into distance and forgetfulness. The world we live in today is so not the world I was born into or lived in for the first twenty years of my life. I used to look back on my father’s life and conjecture how much change he’d seen from his birth year of 1910 (the year of Halley’s Comet and Mark Twain’s death year)  until his death year in 1979. He watched Neil Armstrong walk on the moon in 1969—the only sunny summer’s day I can recall from my youth when my father did not make us do needed farm work that day, but instead we hovered around the television to see that “one small step for man” because my father knew it was perhaps the most momentous peace time experience of his life. What giant strides we’ve taken since then and where we are going tomorrow is impossible to determine, but just in my working on this piece of writing have I begun to consider the range of change that has occurred in my own lifetime since my father’s death. Some days, if I let myself think negative thoughts, I begin to fear we are hurtling onto a trajectory of doom, I just don’t know if it will be political or environmental. Sometimes I wonder if the “American Dream” we all desire but can not clearly define is flirting with obsolescence. Sometimes I wonder if the doomsday prophets of global warming won’t have the last laugh. Many times I’d like to join Ray Braden’s pioneer ancestors in their covered wagons and begin again the long journey back into the grassy hinterlands that thrived behind his cornflower blue eyes and move on ever westward toward some perfect evening star to capture a lost dream redeemed.

And so we take the fast road home under darkness sifting down from stars: my sons sensing this rhythm in their sleeping breathing, their heads resting and rocking with the car’s urgent pace, dreaming their ancestors’ feasted dreams.

The ending of my prose poem recalls my sons from their youngest years when they used to go with me on my journeys into “the countryside of the dead.” After a long day of traipsing about cemeteries, and visiting my mother and aunts in Carrollton until they started to pass away into the eternal silence, and usually including a stop in the city park with picnic food from Sonic, by day’s end when we would set out onto Highway 24 to come home by way of Brunswick and Mendon, my sons would soon nod off and sleep the whole way home. When they were older and still went along we may have talked of topics brought up by the day’s visits, or I might have humored them with silly talk. It varied from year to year. I know one year I alarmed them when they were younger by asking them to imagine a huge hand coming down out of the sky and squashing the car flat in the road like a hapless bug. I still don’t know what mood prompted that foolishness, but it’s true. It made me laugh then, and it still provokes a smile now. What I would wish for my sons now is that they too will assume the mantle of family and help me keep mine alive by encouraging my words and passing them on when they have the chance.

Among my many collections of things I’ve packed into my house over the years is an extensive collection of photographs of people from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—what Denise calls my “instant ancestors” and one of my sons calls “boxes of dead people.” I have several fine photographs of my own early family members—more from my mother’s family than from my father’s—but there is urgency in my soul that seeks to rescue these mostly unknown people who are now just sepia specters on paper and card stock. Sometimes they have names, but that is of little consequence today when they are barren echoes lost to a world that does not value them. I have to wonder what passage of circumstances allows them to be abandoned by their families and to end up in a box sold for a few dollars at auction, or to be tagged and sold at flea markets to ornament someone’s wall or to indifferently populate a collection of pictures amassed in a box. If they are “lucky” like paper denizens of some city of the dead, they get to come out of the box’s darkness and share in the light of day. They are redeemed for a moment and lifted from the darkness to shine for my eyes with their paper surface’s pale, ghostly glow. Even if their names are lost, to see them is “to live them again,” and if only for a moment, to defy that death that comes when no one remembers them. That would be my legacy contained in these words for my sons or for my readers, and to leave them with this thought by L. P. Hartley: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there,” and I am their determined ambassador.

Poems of Related Interest

John Keats, “Ode on a Grecian Urn”

Thomas Gray, “Elegy Written in a Country Church-Yard”

William Cullen Bryant, “Thanatopsis”

Benjamin Hart’s Family Bible Record

Benjamin J. Hart's Family Bible Record

Antique Bibles – beautiful to behold.
Open them for family treasures – words of gold.


In addition to the text of the records in Benjamin Hart’s Bible,

I have added some notes afterward listing people from this record

who are buried at Ebenezer Cemetery in Carroll County, Missouri,

along with descriptions of their tombstones.



Hart Family Bible

Baptism, Birth, Death, and Marriage Entries

for the Family and Descendants

of Alfred Evans Hart and Nicey Pullium Hart

Recorded in the Bible of Benjamin Johnson Hart

Carroll County, Missouri


Alfred Evans Hart and Nicey Pullium were married January 17, 1833.

Samuel Cole was married to Agnes Pullium on October 8, 1851.


Alfred Evans Hart was born July 29, 1805.

Nicey Pullium was born January 1814.


Mary Ann Hatcher Hart was born June 2, 1834.

Susannah Gilliam Hart was born July 17, 1836.

Henry Adkinson Hart was born August 25, 1838.

Thomas Jefferson Hart was born October 9, 1840.

Benjamin Johnson Hart was born July 25, 1842.


The following are the children of

Benjamin Johnson Hart and Amanda Lou Hart.

James Alfred Hart was born October 29, 1867.

Emma Willard Hart was born March 5, 1869.

Lenora Hart was born June 1, 1871.

Ann Eliza Hart was born April 4, 1873.

Keturah Sena Hart was born February 1, 1877.

Mary Lizzabeth Hart was born June 9, 1879.

Robert Thomas Hart was born March 21, 1882.

Grover Benjamin Hart was born March 10, 1885.

Joseph Yuen Hart was born May 10, 1890.


Mary Ann Hatcher Hart,

Susannah Gilliam Hart, Henry Adkinson Hart,

Thomas Jefferson Hart, and Benjamin Johnson Hart

were baptized June 9, 1844, by B. R. Johnson,

the Circuit Preacher of the M. E. Church.


James Alfred Hart, Emma Willard Hart,

Lenora Hart, and Ann Eliza Hart

were baptized by S. W. Cope, P. E.,

January 11, 1875.


Keturah Sena Hart was baptized

by J. P. Nolan, May 6, 1877.


Mary Elizabeth Hart was baptized

by M. G. Gregory, August 14, 1880.


Robert Thomas Hart and Grover Benjamin Hart

were baptized by Rev. John Averson

in the year 1885.


Joseph Yuen Hart was baptized

by Reprant [sic] Hunt

on March the 6, 1891.


Nicey Hart died August 22, 1843.


Susannah Gilliam Pulliam died February 3, 1848,

aged 71 years, 3 months, and 3 days.

Her Funeral sermon preached by the

Rev. James M. Green, Circuit Preacher, March 5.

Numbers 23:10.


Samuel Cole departed this life on Sunday  4 o’clock p.m.

February 5th, 1860.  Aged 66 years, 2 months, and 11 days.


Agnes Cole departed this life June 26, 1880.

Aged 80 years, 11 months.


James Alfred Hart departed this life

July the 26 in the year 1890.

Aged 22 years, 9 months, 2 days.


James Alfred Hart’s death is the final entry

in this Bible record.  JMH. July 2001.


Ownership of this Bible passed from Benjamin Johnson Hart

to his son Robert Thomas Hart to his son James Martin Hart

to his son Donald Ray Hart who named his son

Benjamin Shane Hart who was born in 1980.



To my knowledge, everything from the Hart Family Bible

is transcribed as closely as possible to the original text that I first

copied over 40 years ago, with these known exceptions:

Mary Elizabeth Hart’s name is shown two ways until I can recheck

it with the original.  I believe it is presented both ways, and the

“Lizzabeth” spelling is presented that way for her birth.

The names of the sisters

Emma Willard Hart and Lenora Hart

have been presented as corrected—my original notes

had questions about handwriting.  This is based on knowledge

since learned from Lenora’s great granddaughter Bonnie Arnold

and from Emma Willard Hart’s tombstone

in Ebenezer Cemetery, Carroll County, Missouri.

JMH, great grandson of BJH.  July 25, 2001


At Rest in Ebenezer Cemetery

in the same family plot are

Benjamin J. Hart

July 25, 1842 ~ Oct. 26, 1924


Amanda L. Hart

Aug. 5, 1846 ~ Dec. 27, 1926

a large pink granite stone


James A. Hart

died July 26, 1890

22 yrs. 8 mos. 27 days

a weathered white marble column


Emma Willard Hart

Mar. 5, 1869 ~ Aug. 2, 1949

a gray granite pillow stone


Lenora [Hart] Dodson

June 1, 1871 ~ Jan. 6, 1931


John W. Dodson

Aug. 22, 1872 ~ Aug. 29, 1949

dark red granite sloped pillow stones


Ebenezer is a male given name:

from a Hebrew word meaning “stone of help.”

May their days pass always within these peaceful fields.