Austin Family Pilgrimage

Today was one for the history books.

I asked my grandfather Poppy if he would take me to the Homestead, the house that his great-grandfather Nathan Austin built in Upstate New York, where Poppy used to spend his summers as a boy. He’d take the train down by himself and work on the farm for the season. There was one year that he spent the entire year there, and he has many fond memories. Mimi and Poppy have a watercolor painting in their dining room of the Homestead. Poppy’s cousin Eloise Draggett (who he says is like a sister to him) lives a couple hours away and agreed to meet us there and show us around.

So yesterday morning, Mimi, Poppy and Dad picked me up and we went for the drive!

Hitting the road!

We stopped for lunch at Neptune’s in Oneonta, where I went to college for two years at Hartwick College. I got a rice pudding for the road since Mom always likes their rice pudding and it seemed a shame to visit without having some.

When we arrived at our hotel we checked in and Poppy started talking to the front desk clerk, asking her if she knew any of the names on this old map he had. It seemed to me like a long shot, but it actually turns out she’s a cousin of our distant cousin who owns the Austin Homestead these days, and is interested in our trip.

We got settled at the hotel and then ventured out to putter around Wellsville, popping into a couple of shops. In one of them I started talking to the owner and it sounds like a situation similar to Glens Falls where the shop owners are pioneering the downtown improvements.

Dinner at Wellsville Creative Arts Center

We ended up at the Wellsville Creative Arts Center for dinner and there was a bluegrass band tuning up for that night’s gig. Poppy and I started a game of chess while we waited for our food to arrive. He won.

Mimi and Dad gave me their pickles that came with their meals. Giving me your pickles means you love me. It’s a nice feeling. My parents have always shared their pickles.

We came back and Dad napped and Mimi watched TV in the lobby and Poppy watched college women’s softball for a while and then showed me a folder of documents he brought that were about our family history, including his father’s diary from when his father was about 17 or so.

Then everyone went to bed and I went out to the lobby to see if there was a photocopier so I could have my own copy of the documents and then went to bed. I woke up at 2:30 and 4:45 to go to the bathroom and at 4:45 it was really hard to get back to sleep because my hips really hurt and Dad was noisy. At one point it occurred to me that Poppy was making some sleep noises, Dad was definitely snoring, and Baby A-A was kicking me… All the boys across the generations keeping me awake! Rascals!

Then we packed up and drove out to Phillips Creek (Poppy pronounces it “Crick”) and met up with Phil and Eloise, Lucille Austin Phillips’ children, a brother and sister. Phil had gotten the Homestead key from his brother-in-law. We hugged and piled into two cars and went to the Homestead. Eloise drove.

The Homestead is off Route 244, up Stuck Hill Road (where the school bus would drop Poppy off and he’d have to walk all the way to the Homestead, which is a ways up Stuck Hill Road and then up Austin Road). There’s an Austin Road!!!

Austin Road!

We pulled in and stood in the yard for a minute and then Phil opened the door and we went inside. I guess I expected an empty house, but there was a bunch of stuff in it from the cousin who owns it and it was rodenty and dusty and a little bit buggy, but the good thing was that there were places to sit and talk, and some old things to look at like photos, books and newspaper clippings.

Homestead living room
Poppy and Eloise looking at old pictures with Phil in the background

The first room we went into was the main living room. There was a potbelly stove that used to be in the middle of the room. Eloise said her grandmother Sadie used to sit in a chair in a corner with her feet on Jimmy the dog, and he would just lay there and she, wearing big thick old-timey shoes, would push off him and rock herself. The first bedroom on the left was Miner and Sadie’s room. Miner is Poppy’s father’s cousin, and the two cousins were very close, like brothers. Miner and Sadie were the ones who inherited it from Reuben, who inherited it from Nathan, who built it back when.

The room on the right of Miner and Sadie’s bedroom, I think Poppy said, was Lucille’s room when she would stay there? It was partially converted into a bathroom. And the next door over went upstairs, but I’ll talk about upstairs in a minute.

The room to the left when you walk in the door was the parlor, where they would entertain. In there, Eloise said there were three big pictures hanging on the wall. The one in the middle was oval shaped and had a picture of someone in the family who was Native American.

Straight ahead when you walk in the door is the kitchen. Standing in that doorway, to the right in the kitchen was where a big wood stove used to be and they would cook big breakfasts. Mimi said since it was a farm they would get up early and go work and then have a big breakfast and use the potatoes left over from the night before (which they would store in the built-in cabinet, also to the right). There was a big table in the middle of the kitchen. When I saw it, it was outfitted with a sink and regular stove.

Dining Room of the Homestead

Through the kitchen was a small vestibule and through that was a big outdoor room that was kind of like a barn/shed. It had farm tools and other stuff in it, but Poppy said that’s where they would stack all the wood. There was another door that used to open to the outside and they’d stack it full of wood. Poppy pointed out the old gas lanterns and a saw they’d use to cut wood (but there wasn’t the two-person saw there like they would usually use) and the manure pitchfork and the hay pitchforks. The sunlight was shining through the barn board and it was really beautiful. There was a steam trunk up on the loft that seemed familiar to Poppy.

In the shed

Back inside, there was another room that was the dining room that they would only really use for special holiday dinners. In the winter they would block off that room and use it as refrigeration and hang up sides of beef. Sadie also canned beef and Eloise said it was so good. And they’d drink some kind of pretend coffee that I have never heard of called Postum.

Everyone was worried about me getting upstairs since there was kind of a spiral staircase and it was very steep. But I made it without falling! And to the right off the stairs was the room that Poppy used to stay in.

There was a long open hallway and another guest bedroom on the other end of the house, and in a closet type of space (along with some wasp nests) was some storage; a mix of old Homestead stuff and new junk from the current owner. Poppy pointed out a chamber pot that he would keep under the bed instead of having to go out to the outhouse in the middle of the night. Eloise found a list that might have been some kind of list about a wedding Sadie was planning but we weren’t sure. We went back down the stairs and Poppy and Phil talked some about the old times they used to have.

One of the stories is that Poppy and Phil would drive the… I can’t remember if it was a plow or tractor. And there was just one speed but Poppy kept saying it was too fast! And then when they switched and he drove it it was still too fast. And there was a story about saying “Woah” to the horses so that they would stop fast and people would fall forward in the buggy. Poppy pointed out the granary and hay barn.

The "three holer"

I had to go to the bathroom and we went and checked out the outhouse (a “three holer,” they called it). Poppy said I shouldn’t go there so I squatted by a log. Then I sat on the porch with Mimi and Eloise and Dad for a bit, and then we took photos in front of the Homestead.

Poppy’s grandfather was born in the Homestead. Poppy said his father (and his grandfather’s brother Frank) was born up the road a ways, but the house wasn’t there any more and Eloise said the road was too rough to go up there so then we dropped Phil off and then went to Alfred for lunch.

Austin headstone

Then we drove around Alfred University and to the Alfred cemetery. Right there in front were Eloise’s mother and sister’s gravestones. Then we went up to a big Austin headstone where more family members were buried. We looked around and I took some pictures and Eloise and Poppy walked up to see one of her friends’ headstones and Mimi and Dad and I sat in the shade by the car.

Then Poppy said Nathan Austin was buried on the other side so we drove around and found his headstone and took pictures there too, with the gravestone of the guy who started it all.

4 generations by Nathan Austin's grave - Poppy's great-grandfather

Then we went to see Alfred-Almond Central School, where Poppy went for a year and where Eloise went. They had added quite a bit on since then and it was a really big school, but Poppy showed us the track where he ran, and I took a photo of Poppy and Eloise in front of the school.

Eloise and Poppy in front of the school

Then we went back to Phil’s house to drop Eloise off and visited for a little while in the sun before driving back to the hotel. And that’s the story!

Now, about the information in those folders Poppy had:

One thing that’s lasted generations is helping the neighbors out. It’s nice and old-fashioned and something that was very common in Poppy’s father’s diaries and is something Poppy has always done, helping his neighbors out.

But the main thing about those papers that has stuck with me is about how I learned how to run a business from watching my Dad and his dedication, goodwill, integrity and honesty, and a creative and natural sense of entrepreneurship – but he didn’t just come up with that out of nowhere.

Nathan Austin used this in 1857; I use QuickBooks in 2012 - 155 years later!

Reading about Roofer’s Supplies and how it was started makes me realize that my Dad learned it from his Dad, and Poppy learned it from his family. If you go way back, they were all farmers and carpenters and running businesses – with dedication, integrity, goodwill, honesty and a creative and natural sense of entrepreneurship.

Mimi talked right before bed last night about Keswick and her early childhood and religion and her sister and family. And I realized something that both Mimi and Poppy have in common.

Poppy branched off from Roofer’s Supplies because he didn’t like being in sales. So he went into construction, which was how the folks who started Roofer’s Supplies got started in the first place, anyway.

It’s funny because it’s a similar story with Mimi – her family was very religious and many of them were missionaries and really pushed that lifestyle and Mimi decided that wasn’t her thing. But she went into counseling and is a very spiritual person.

They both decided not to do what their family trade was, but they didn’t stray very far from the essence of it, either. I like being a part of the rebel branch of the family! And while I have some regrets about not going into building and carrying on the business that Poppy passed to Dad, I am also not straying very far from the essence of it as I run my business with those same core values that have been passed along by example.

My Dad went about as far as he could once he graduated from high school, taking a cross-country meander and landing in Tennessee for a while, but ultimately landed back near his folks and worked with Poppy in the family business. There’s a fair amount of rebellion in our family tree, but it’s not angry and it doesn’t ultimately go very far from home base.

And to think, nobody ever told me about this legacy and I just ended up here on my own! This trend runs in the family. I hope to, as the parent-to-be, have the strength to let go enough for my children so that they can naturally land in that place themselves.

That’s a nice feeling, to really know that you have somehow ended up exactly where you are meant to be, and as the product of many generations – happily doing your own thing, but with the good roots that you were given.

Four generations in front of the Austin Homestead

Climbing through the branches of the family tree

this is for the grandmother who walked a thousand miles on broken glass
to find that single patch of grass to plant a family tree
where the fruit would grow to laugh
– Andrea Gibson, Say Yes

This weekend I am going to Alfred, New York, with my grandfather Poppy. Mimi and probably my Dad are also coming to help with the driving. Poppy’s going to show me the Homestead; a house built by his great (great?) grandfather Nathaniel Austin and where he spent his summers as a boy. It’s still in the family, but in another branch. We’ll meet cousin Eloise, visit some family graves and see Poppy’s old school.

A few of my family members have expressed their disinterest in all this genealogy stuff. I thought I’d write about why I care.

Mom and Dad uncovering their 25-year-old love letter written in cement at the West Bridgewater house
Mom and Dad uncovering their 25-year-old love letter written in cement at the West Bridgewater house

To start at the beginning, I’ll tell you that I wrote my name on the inside of my closet doors at my parents’ house when I was a kid. It didn’t occur to me at the time that closet doors can be replaced. I didn’t want whoever lived in the house after me to never know that I existed and that I had lived there. It was something I did very young, and wished I did in our old house before we moved when I was five. My parents wrote their names on a cement block out in the backyard of that old house, though, and maybe I thought that was enough. We went and uncovered it from beneath overgrown bushes before they finally sold it in 2008.

“But what does that mean–‘ephemeral’?” repeated the little prince, who never in his life had let go of a question, once he had asked it.
“It means, ‘which is in danger of speedy disappearance.'”
“Is my flower in danger of speedy disappearance?”
“Certainly it is.”
“My flower is ephemeral,” the little prince said to himself, “and she has only four thorns to defend herself against the world. And I have left her on my planet, all alone!”
– Le Petit Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupery

I remember thinking as an elementary school-age kid I wanted to carve my name into rocks; to send time capsules out into space; to do something extremely horrible or extremely great to go down in history books.

Le Petit Prince and his flower
Le Petit Prince and his flower

My point is that I was never okay with the fact that life is ephemeral and that I might be forgotten about in a few generations’ time. In high school I bought aephemera.netand still own it (and the username “aephemera” in a million different places) to this day, more than 10 years later.

It’s always been something that bothers me. So it has been a long time that I’ve been aware that life is fleeting.

Certainly your friends and family will remember you after you’re gone. But likely only for a generation or maybe two or three if you’re lucky. Then you might just be a photo that’s found somewhere; maybe a recipe or a jumbled version of a funny story – a name on a genealogy project at your great-grandchild’s elementary school, and nothing more. Your whole life, just reduced to that. What I actually remember about my great-grandparents or even my grandparents’ childhood is limited and blurry. When I try to retell the stories, they swim together in my brain and it comes out like “My grandfather’s parents owned some kind of… well, a… It wasn’t like an inn, but it was a place where people stayed. I think the people who stayed there were ex-alcoholics and it had something to do with their religion why they were there. And his dad was really into the garden and helping these people out.” I’ve got crummy recall. This was a person’s whole life, and that’s all that’s left to pass to future generations!?

It doesn’t sit well with me.

So I’ve been trying to iron it out and nail it down and to get my parents and grandparents and Cory’s parents to write this all down so it’s not completely fudgy for my kids and great-grandkids and great-great-grandkids and so on. So it’s not just completely lost or garbled.

Excerpt from Lois Wyse's "Funny, You Don't Look Like A Grandmother"
Excerpt from Lois Wyse's "Funny, You Don't Look Like A Grandmother"

There are generations upon generations of my ancestors that lived their lives so that they could offer something better to their children, as in the Andrea Gibson poem I quoted at the top of this post. I want to honor them with more than just that better life for myself. I want to pass along some recognition of them. Not only their legacy and sacrifices made flesh, but their story as well. Not because I’m so into old stories, necessarily. But because it’s my duty if I want my children and my grandchildren and my great-grandchildren to make sure I’m not forgotten, either. There’s more to pass along than just my own generation’s story.

This is bigger than me, too. There is so much to be learned about the past (and not just the boring stuff you cram in your brain in high school) that has already been done, studied and recorded. I think that my generation and the future generations sometimes reinvent the wheel. I realize that there’s some of that to be done anyway; that we need to learn from our own experiences. But how much further along would we be if our children and grandchildren could instantly upload our entire lives of learning into their brains and start from that launching pad into a whole new lifetime of learning rather than starting from square one?

Internet meme that's been bouncing around
Internet meme that's been bouncing around

Of course, when my mom tried to show me her poems from the tough times she went through in her teens and early twenties I wanted nothing to do with it, saying I’m sorry she had a rough go of it but it was nothing like my own personal misery. Which is and isn’t true. So why am I saving mine for my children? I guess I have hopes that my kids will somehow realize that we have gone through all this before, and hopefully so they won’t have to. That they can take the things that their parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and so on have already gone through and avoid that path on their way to even more glorious things.

And I know that the success I have is a result of my ancestors caring about their offspring and the future generations. Why else did they come to America, in some cases alone and young and at great risks with only $15 in their pocket? Why else did they work so hard at their many jobs? Why else did they raise families? Why do I work hard at my jobs? Why do I care about the future and try to make the world a better place?

I can only think that it was to offer their children and future generations a better life than they had. I owe them for that. I can at the very least learn about who they were as a thanks for the upper-middle-class upbringing and great childhood I had, and try to pass that to my children too. Nobody else is going to do it.