Family Mattters

As Main Street merchants, vendors, restaurateurs and bar owners count their losses and struggle to stay afloat, the online genealogy companies must be riding high. A right-place, right-time scenario, they are the beneficiaries of a captive audience, housebound and bored silly, that’s searching for anything to break the tedium of COVID-19 quarantine.

Count me among those using the unanticipated isolation for genealogical research. Not new to me, it never gets old, and now many of the most essential information is available at the tip of your fingers in cyberspace, necessitating fewer trips to the library.

I’ve been playing this game since 1989, starting in the weeks after my spinster great-aunt Gladys Sanderson died overnight during the summer of 1989. She was home when I left for a men’s softball game in Buckland, and dead at the hospital before I returned home. Just like that, a generation had evaporated. I then owned the South Deerfield home where this woman we called “Antie” and her brother Waldo, my grandfather, were born. The last survivor of four siblings born at the dawning of the 20th century, she came with the purchase of my home after my grandfather’s sudden 1980 death. She was the unofficial historian of my family’s substantial South Deerfield branch. Tucked away in drawers, folders, envelopes, and metal boxes, and stacked on closet shelves, were documents, correspondence, and photographs that she stewarded as precious records to be protected for posterity. Quite an assemblage of family data, the material opened a window into my Woodruff and Sanderson ancestors, plus many peripherals relating to South Deerfield and Whately.

The impetus for what has become my a 30-year genealogical chase was a 19th-century King James Bible stored atop miscellaneous papers in a large, covered Tupperware box. It was the Woodruff Bible, which displayed on one of its first pages a family register filled out in ink, most likely by my great-grandmother, Fannie Woodruff Sanderson (1865-1947), who died six years before I was born. She recorded birth, death and marriage dates for the family members under her Pleasant Street roof, beginning with her father Asa Franklin Woodruff (1817-1891) and his wife Eliza Arms (1824-1898). No, not a comprehensive, multi-generational lineage, yet more than enough to stir my curiosity. Yes, that partial family record ignited genealogical research that continues to this day.

Really, my most focused research occurred during the early 1990s, before the chasing was good – back in the pre-Google days of library visits, laptop transcriptions into Family Tree Maker files, and CompuServe Genealogy Forum queries. Few folks today have likely ever heard of CompuServe, an early search engine that appeared in the 1980s and was gone by the mid-1990s, never mind its Genealogy Forum. As for libraries, well, my favorites were located in Old Deerfield, Springfield, and Northampton, though I did occasional travel to Connecticut and eventually even Boston. When I ran into a particularly vexing snag, I’d compose a concise query in the CompuServe forum and typically receive a prompt and professional answer with a greeting of “Hi Cuz” or “Hello Cuzzin.”

Oh, how times have changed. No, I’m not saying such online forums no longer exist. They do. In fact, they’ve multiplied tenfold – with one major difference. That is, there’s now a price attached for access to interactive cybernetworks that annually generates hundreds of millions of dollars. Praise the joys of capitalism. Want family info? Pony up, fella.

Which brings us to my most recent genealogical adventure – one sparked by the eBay purchase of a 19th-century leather wallet made by relatives and their South Deerfield neighbors at the old Arms Manufacturing Co. I’m not sure where this dynamic pursuit will lead me, but it’s already brought me back to my Sanderson family’s Whately tannery and leather-working business, as well as the later leather-working industry founded and managed by my branch of the Arms family.

Now I’ve even discovered that another great-grandfather, William Fredrick Bardwell (1806-1885), was a pocketbook manufacturer, according to Whately historian James M. Crafts. Despite being left with more questions than answers at this early juncture, I’m making good progress and am confident many more answers will surface before this probe is finished. I’m sure that the many small, pre-Industrial Revolution, family tanneries and leather and shoemaking shops evolved into assembly-line, factory production.

New and helpful in this recent hunt for information was my inevitable acceptance of a frequently offered, free, two-week trial of In need of immediate gratification with libraries closed for the pandemic, I finally succumbed to an offer that seems to appear every other day online. The lords of cyberspace knew my interests well, pitched me for the umpteenth time and, finally, I accepted to gain quick, temporary access to needed census and vital records.

Once I learned to navigating around the program, I was able to glean much new information about South Deerfield ancestors and relatives long ago entered into my Family Tree Maker program. However, with that project ongoing and far from finished, why bother piecemealing it out so early in the process, and chancing errors? I’d rather continue piecing together the puzzle for a future narrative. So, bear with me, please, and allow me to switch gears to a related diversion – one that came to me in timely fashion by email from old friend Dereka Smith. A Whately Historical Commissioner and professional genealogist, she’s working on a book about old Whately homes and families and, out of the clear, blue sky a few weeks ago, decided to pick my brain about the Elijah Sanderson farmstead on the southern foot of Mt. Sugarloaf.

Razed in the summer of 2013, this Whately building represented the last standing of four consecutive Sanderson homes on the west side of the River Roadconsuming more than a half-mile of frontage on the 1871 Beers Atlas map. All that’s left of that family compound today is a decaying old leather and shoe shop that’ll likely soon be reduced to a pile of rubble. The worn, grey building stands diagonally across the road from Paciecnik’s Creamee.

Although Smith’s query opened a vein that loves to be bled, it forced me to double-check many details pulled from memory, first going to Crafts’ History of Whately, then cross-referencing with files and local newspaper reports gleaned from a cumbersome online archive without search capabilities. If you know the date, you’re OK. If not, well, it could take a while.

Surprisingly, the cooperative sources confirmed much of the information I had stored away in grey matter and, yes, brought in many interesting new twists. The bottom line is that there’s still a lot more to learn. It’ll take weeks, maybe months, of research to connect all the loose ends for an accurate reconstruction picture. So, why rush it here and now and risk nagging corrections?

Now, bear with me. I’ll conclude with an interesting little peripheral outtake: the tragic death of Rudolphus Sanderson, struck in his buggy and killed by a Connecticut River Railroad “express train.” He was at the old North Main Street crossing now spanned by the “Dry Bridge” in South Deerfield. The accident occurred on the evening of Wednesday, December 4, 1867, and is titled “Fatal Accident” in the December 9 Greenfield Gazette. The sensational story got big play in a newspaper full of short local-news blurbs. I guess, messy accidents have always sold newspapers, huh?

Anyway, Mr. Sanderson, married with an adopted daughter, was at the time sharing the original Sanderson homestead (built ca. 1765) with nephew Thomas Sanderson’s family of eight. The home was owned by Rudolphus’ brother and Thomas’ father, John Chapman Sanderson (my third great-grandfather), who had followed his father and grandfather into the tannery/shoemaker trade, and had built a home just north of his childhood home before 1860 to accommodate a growing extended family with two adjacent farmhouses. It was a way of life. I have in my many searches discovered many similar extended 19th-century families existing under one roof. My family was no exception.

The Gazette story reported that Sanderson had traveled from Whately to Meadow Mills for a “grist” and was killed on the return trip. The rest of the story (with minor editing) read like this:

“Although the train whistled at all crossings, Mr. Sanderson for some reason evidently did not hear the whistle. The engine struck his buggy and threw Mr. Sanderson several feet to the side of the railbed. The first the engineer saw of Mr. Sanderson or his buggy, was Mr. Sanderson’s body thrown up several feet in the air. The train was immediately stopped and backed down to the crossing and Mr. Sanderson was carried into Mr. Billings’ [home]. He was insensible and had a bad cut on his chin. He lived about an hour and a half.

“The horse, released from the buggy, was uninjured. The buggy body was cleared from the running part, and all the wheels, springs and shafts were broken. A buffalo robe was found on the top of the engine’s flagstaff and one bag of meal on the cow catcher. Two of the cow-catcher bars were broken by the collision. About 60 years old, Mr. Sanderson was a much-respected farmer. Deacon D.W. Childs of Deerfield insured his life a short time since for $1,000.”

Hmmm? Interesting. Was there double-indemnity back then? Could it have been suicide? Homicide by horse? Drunk driving? Let’s not go there. Long ago.

Here today, gone tomorrow, Rudolphus Sanderson was my third great-granduncle. For those unfamiliar with old railroad jargon, “cow catchers” were iron grills sturdily installed on the front of trains to protect the engine, clear obstructions and prevent derailments. Apparently, roaming cows were a constant concern. Thus, the name.

Buffalo robe? Yes, totally appropriate for the day. Warm, too. Likely a retail product straight from the Sanderson leather and shoe shop in East Whately by way of the Great Plains.

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