carolbuckles (carolbuckles) wrote,

The New Newport News News: Family Tree edition


My big brother, Robert E. Kerr*, took up genealogy a few years back.  He found some software that he liked and buckled down (a little name humor there) to trace both sides of our family.  He keeps telling us that he can’t remember it without the software, but he does—quite amazing.  Well, turns out our second cousin Martha Joe also got bit by the bug—and she lives on the old Kerr farm in Hartsville TN, near Nashville.  Meanwhile, our first cousin-once removed returned to Hartsville after a long sojourn in Oregon and invited a whole mess of us to her house for a dinner reunion.  So Robert, being retired and I, being a housefrau, set off together on an epic journey, not knowing whether we could get along for that length of time or not.

But we did.  In fact, it was fantastic.  Blood really is thicker than water.  Also, if you cross your eyes, they will get stuck that way.  Furthermore, do not run with scissors.  A bird in the hand really is worth two in the bush.  But enough wisdom, on with the story.

When my brother travels in his giant Suburban Adventuremobile, he drives.  He has the patience of Job, although he does mutter “dodo” at other drivers betimes.  And he crams as much in as humanly possible, both in the luggage sense and the adventure sense.

We traveled to Sparta TN, where we knew Catharine Hill Kerr and her husband, Levi Jarvis Kerr lived during the War Between the States.  Theirs is one of the most romantic of the stories told in our father’s family.

Both the Hill and the Kerr families had crossed the mountains from NC following the War of 1812.  Levi’s daddy had died of a fever in the Battle of New Orleans and left behind his pregnant wife.  As we began to learn, there were many family members traveling together for a new beginning.  Catharine and Levi had 11 children.  Some died as children; as the War loomed, Levi told his older sons to choose their own side in the conflict.  He himself was a staunch Union man, but White County was a paradigm of the nation, split 50-50.  Alexander Kerr went for the Confederacy; Bill went for the Union.  In 1862, they had both come home for Christmas, and set out to rejoin their units, when they were beset by “bushwhackers.”  Alex was killed outright and Bill dived for the bushes.  Bill never returned to the army; he hid out in the basement of the family home and spent the next 20 years hunting down every one of the bushwhackers that survived the war and/or justice.  He once shot a man over the heads of a corral full of panicked horses, and killed him. 

Throughout this time, he kept an open grave in the woods where he dumped the bodies.  At the end of his vendetta, he went to the sheriff in Sparta and asked if there were warrants out for him.  The sheriff said no, so Bill told him what he had done and turned in his guns.  Then he went west.

This is the story we had to work with.  When we reached Sparta, we went to the police station, on the off chance that Bill’s guns would be there over the desk.  No, but the Police Chief told us of the new Heritage Museum in town.

We found that Levi had founded the local Loyalty League after the War, to counter the KKK.  We found many references to the bushwhackers, and maps, and who to contact at the Courthouse the following Monday.  We then went to downtown Sparta to a restaurant owned by Jongee Kerr.  Turned out that she was divorced from Mr. Kerr and it was a store, not a restaurant.  I did have to buy a bronze statue of four dancing rabbits, a la Rockettes.  Had to.

We arrived at Martha Joe’s at sunset.  The farm is currently about 100 acres, grazing maybe 100 head of cattle, barely visible in the dying light.  Martha Joe’s husband is a professional photographer, watercolor artist and Harley Hog enthusiast.  He looks like Santa Claus and collects all manner of goodies from estate sales.  Martha Joe teaches 3rd grade; she was very active in 4H as a girl and told everyone at the conventions that she was raised on an acrylic farm.  She told them all about feeding and caring for the little beasts.

Next morning, our 2nd cousin Gordon and his wife showed up to give us a tour of the farm.  Gordon is a professor and very dignified, but everybody has always called him Buddy.  He loves the land of the farm and told us many fine stories of growing up there, like skimming cream off the milk without being found out.  Apparently I’m not the only Kerr who could eat butter with a spoon.  [As the weekend progressed, I discovered it to be a shared trait, including one of the cousins who would climb into the refrigerator and eat the butter while sitting there.]

In addition to the cattle, the farm boasts some forest land, a small lake and a couple of blown-down deer stands, of unknown ownership, as well as a stunning variety of wildflowers and bare rock, unevenly distributed. 

That afternoon, we visited another relative who had some references to show us.  Heart-breaking was the copy in a book of the undertaker’s bill for a coffin for 2 year old Gladys Kerr, who would have been my aunt.  My father lost 2 other siblings in babyhood as well.

Now this is what I mean by blood thicker than water.  In addition to the butter addiction, we felt very comfortable with each other.  Many of these folks I had never met and the ones I had met I hadn’t seen for 35 years.  But we all found the same things funny and we all described ourselves are “weird.”  When we went to church with Martha Joe on Sunday at Philippi Church, I asked her, “Didn’t St. Paul write you folks a letter?”

She answered, without hesitation, “Oh yes, but we keep the original locked up in the office.”  She handed me a Bible. “Here’s on of the copies we give out to people.”

Sunday late afternoon we gathered at the home of my father’s favorite cousin, Pat.  We met up with Buddy again; Donna, whom I knew in college and her 2 sisters, whom I hadn’t met; her brothers Johnny and Joe Pat; Joe Pat’s two little girls, the elder of whom looked like my grand niece in SC and the other like my sister.  After we had all said a variation on “Meeting new people is very difficult for me” we had a lovely, lively dinner.

Monday, Robert and I stopped in to Martha Joe’s school and wound up teaching for 20 minutes, showing on the map my move from CA and our current journey.  Much hilarity ensued when I said we were going to Sparta.  “Isn’t that in Greece?” I asked. [There’s Athens, Sparta, and Carthage all nearby.]

We went to the White County Courthouse and found more of the story.  We found Kerrs in several cemeteries; deeds to the old Kerr place; marriage certs for both Alex and Bill, making that story even more sad. An hour before sunset found us prowling a cemetery out in the rolling farmland.  And there we found Catharine and Levi; their son Noah Lafayette; their baby Georg; and a dozen of the Hill relatives.  The earlier graves were built from two 6’ slabs of limestone, propped up with triangles at the ends to form a kind of pup-tent tomb.  Georg’s was half size; poor baby.  Catharine and Levi shared a stone, with carved drapery and marble flowers.  She d.1891 and he d.1897.  [And here we learned she spelled her name CathArine; one of her cousins, too.]

Ironically, the next field over was full of asses.  Not mules, not donkeys, not burros, but asses.



* I grew up thinking that Roberty was a name.  After all, there was Roberty Kerr and Roberty Lee.

c Sept 2009 Carol Kerr Buckles



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