Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Forgotten Places, Remembered Tales

"Would you like me to take you to see Ikie's tomb?"

Would I! The story of the little boy who died from eating bad ice milk has been following me around for two years. I've read everything I could find on the topic and even viewed census records and cemetery records seeking more information about this strange tale.

It's not that he died. Sad enough in itself. It was his burial that haunted me. Why would a mother put her child in a concrete tomb and place his body in formaldehyde with a glass cover over the top of the concrete "casket"? And put a viewing window in the tomb? And keep his toys in there, and a rocking chair? Was it true that there were other children who died that she placed in stone jars and also covered with formaldehyde so only their faces were visible? Who was she? What happened to this woman whose grief must have turned her mind to strange avenues?

Frank and I agreed that today was the day to make the trip to Ikie's burial place. According to the legends, he was actually buried three times: once in a casket, then disinterred and moved to the tomb, and then, when the tomb was opened and vandalized, into his final grave. Frank's mother and grandmother told him stories about Ikie's tomb and he shared those with us as we drove to the site.

I knew only the name of the cemetery, and once I made a meandering journey hoping to stumble on it along the way. No wonder I did not find it; the cemetery is far back in the hills and requires a 4-wheel-drive to get there. But it was worth the trip. The beautiful, lonesome ridge had views for miles. There were steps that probably once led into a church, so long gone that only a few concrete blocks and a piece of tin spoke to its existence.
Graves were scattered over the hill, some only sunken divets in the earth with no marker to tell who rested there. Many were of young people and babies. It seemed that for every stone that marked the grave of someone who had attained an age over 50 years, there were four for those who had died younger. A sober reminder of the hardships of early life in this area that remained a frontier for years after the West was being settled. Here Frank examines a child's stone in an overgrown section of the cemetery.

The tomb itself was...how to put it? It moved me in unexpected ways. Trees broken in this past summer's derecho storm formed a casual arch across the trail leading to the tomb, and to one side we could see the remains of a campfire left, perhaps, but Halloween visitors.

So many thoughts swirled, so many questions. Why had they put it on top of this hill?

Who had put the iron around it when the concrete began to crack? Who had sealed the door with concrete? Why were there two longer trenches in the vault beside the space where Ikie was laid?

What was the truth of why his body was eventually moved to a traditional grave?

So many questions. I wondered about his family and why they had moved away, and who maintained this site. Some day I will return, and until then, I will be pondering the questions left by one little boy's death.

Frank had many other places to show us and as we traveled his stories colored and peopled the landscape. Here is where his grandfather's farm had been, land gifted to the grandfather by two elderly ladies who had no heirs. He was shocked at the gift, but it was a godsend to this man from a large and struggling family. Here is a place where Frank camped when a boy, building a fire in the fireplace and getting his deer just out the back door. Here is the church he attended as a boy, and here is a church, now abandoned, that his grandmother used to walk to for services, a walk of three miles across rugged hills. Here was where the brine plant was, a business that employed 20-25 people in its time, shipping the salty water from brine wells to places unknown for uses unknown. Here was a friend's house, and here is the friend's grave. Here is the mass grave of a family of five who perished together when their home burned to the ground. Here is the house that was featured in a movie in the 1970's. Here is a little town whose name changed for no reason. Here is where men dynamited a hillside so that a creek would flow straight instead of in its natural curvy route, and here is where they built a mill in the blasted out hole, a place now called "The Jug." Here is the mansion where a doctor lived, crumbling now but remembered by Frank as a fine home in its heyday. Here is where a slave girl drowned her master's daughter, and here is where the slave was hanged for the deed.

Stories, stories, stories. Stories of lives lived and ended, of boom days and hard times, of farms and country stores and bridges that once were and homes that still stand. This is the true stuff of history, the foundations of these hardy communities and people. I sought one story but came home with more than I can count. We arrived home as the sun set behind our West Virginia hill, and I came here to my computer to record what I saw, what I remember, and what I want to share with others. In my mind I see a lonely tomb, an abandoned church, a gnarled and twisted tree standing guard in a high cemetery, and I hear the voice of my friend, making it all come alive once again in his stories.

Copyright 2012 Susanna Holstein. All rights reserved. No Republication or Redistribution Allowed without attribution to Susanna Holstein.


Steve Ferendo said...

Great post! I always love your stories...even when they are true.

nance said...

oh . . . is this a story ? or a true story? feeling some chills! lol

Granny Sue said...

Thanks, Steve! Sometimes the true tales are the strangest.

Granny Sue said...

It's true, Nance, or at least told as true. There are many variations on the story, though, and what is actual fact and what is legend is difficult to sort out. I've been doing genealogy research on the family to try to find answers to some of my questions, but many will never be answered because those who might have known are no longer living.

Sue said...

I love how you find the stories in everything.


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