A Memorial Day Tradition

By Jasmine Willis

Once the journey started there was no telling where it would end.

That is how we have always done things when it comes to our family adventures. It is about the journey, stories, and paths we take along the way. It is about discovering a piece of something we lost in the rubble of our past.

Normally I venture out for my traditional Memorial Day adventure alone. I visit my grandfather, PFC Donald M. Willis’ graveside. I often leave him beautiful flowers and a flag to tell him how much he is loved and missed. It is how I honor a soldier who fought in WWII. He is my soldier.

This year was different. This year we had three generations on the adventure. I had my mother, Lisa Yvette and my grandmother, Verna Jean on the journey with me. We had a much more meaningful result this way.

This is where our story begins…

Cemeteries hold the remains of those we have lost and loved along the way. They are the keepers of a life well lived. They have echoes of the mourners, evidence of the caretakers, and sadly neglect of time. Often you will see ancestors’ stones crumble to dust, and the names will fade until you are the only one left to recall the story of a faceless stone.

That is why I am lucky to have brought two genealogists along for the ride as we had to visit three cemeteries. We went to Woodlawn in Wellsville, Fulmer Valley in Independence, and Until the Day Dawn in Angelica.
First, we went to Woodlawn Cemetery for my grandfather, Pfc. Donald M. Willis and my great-grandparents, Martin B. Willis and Ernestine A. Willis.
It is here I left my grandpa, who has always been the reason for my passion to keep veterans’ stories alive, a Primrose, heart marker, and American Flag marker.

I spend several moments there telling him how much he still means to me.
Afterwards, we soldiered on to the bending roads of Hallsport, past the weary old homes, and up the tired green hills of Independence, to the quiet Fulmer Valley Cemetery.

It is here that my grandmother shares the story she holds close to her heart. The story of the Adams’ and the Church’s who rest among the big green trees that offer it shelter.

Verna Jean points to a small stone with a lamb etched into it so carefully, “That’s my baby, and your uncle Jamie.” James Bruce was a day old when he died, and he has a small stone placed next to his grandparents. This is where my grandmother, Verna Jean plans to make her final resting place. She wants to be buried with her baby boy.

Ina and Raymond Church are right next to Baby James. On the other side of Baby James is my great-aunt Christine Edwards, Verna Jean’s little sister who died in 1995. Little James Bruce is surrounded by family in his little plot sheltered by trees.

On the other side of the cemetery is the Adams. Simon Burrill Adams, my great-great-great grandfather who died in 1919 had built a homestead on a hilltop that would withstand the test of time. More on that later. Along with him are his family buried next to him. Sally, wife, and children; William, Herbert, Cora, and Addie Geneva. Addie Geneva married William Henry Church and are my great- great grandparents. They are parents of my great grandfather Raymond Church.

The next cemetery would bring us to the sleepy town of Angelica were much of my family can be found.

Until the Day Dawn Cemetery holds my warriors from the Civil War Era. My mother, Lisa Yvette had to break this part down for me since at first, I was very confused.

We had several roots dig deep into the soil of this resting place that had raged against the dying of the light.

It starts with three brothers; George B. Willis, Araunah Frances Willis, and Daniel Willis who all fought in the Civil War. Araunah and Daniel fought in Virginia. George B. was part of the only Calvary Unit who held back the south from getting into Gettysburg. They all fought bravely and were brothers to my great-great grandpa Martin Grover Willis. They were all sons of Araunah Shaw Willis who is said to have fought in War of 1812 and helped provide horses for the Civil War. A proud father he must’ve been to have his boys fight the good fight and come home to share stories of victory.

Col.6th Cal. Araunah Phippen, an ancestral cousin, son of Lydia Willis Phippen.
He fought in the Civil War with such perseverance that runs fluid in our bloodline. He had three horses shot out from under him in the heat of battle, and never gave up the fight. Once he came home, he was Sheriff of Angelica.
Col. 86th Regt. Simpson Travis, brother-in-law to Araunah Phippen, fought the heated battle in the Civil War only to come home and be a judge.
Several other members of our family line rest in this cemetery and have many stories to tell of a life well lived. However, these are the ones that provide me with the inspiration I needed most.

Now before this journey can end, we must take you back to the Adams Homestead. In the lush green valley, there is an old house that has withstood the test of time. It was built in the 1800s by my great-great-great grandfather Simon Burrill Adams for his growing family. He was a simple potato farmer who lived off his land and raised his sons and daughters the way he knew how. He was a gentle man with an open heart for those who called him a neighbor and a friend.
Simon and his sweetheart, Sally raised three sons; Anson Abyram, William, Herbert, and two daughters Cora and Addie on this land.

He would make his own maple syrup and tend to the animals in the barn as the children did various chores keeping the homestead busy with life.
Upon his death in 1919 his son, Herbert and daughter-in-law, Margaret, took over the farm. It regained its busy hum of chores and farm life as life soaked in the sweet sounds around the home a father built.

My grandma, Verna Jean, loved her great uncle Herbert and told us stories as we walked around the echoes of what remains.

It was last owned by my grandma’s cousin Bill Church who passed away recently. Now the future of the Adams Homestead is going to be in the hands of The Amish. We hope they will respect the history of the family homestead, and not do too much change to its old bones.

There are in fact four family homesteads still standing, and yet none are in the family anymore. The Adams Homestead, Church Homestead, Sherwood Homestead, and Vossler Homestead are perched at the locations of family ties now owned by strangers. However, grandma told me the Church Homestead is still part of the Bill Church estate, but who knows the future of this family home.

The Church Homestead is a true gem indeed since it once belonged to William H Church and Addie Geneva Adams. My great grandparents Ina and Raymond Church were married and lived there having their first four children; Lytle, Clair, Muriel, and Lenna. Once they moved to a 50-acre farm down the road they had Hilda, Verna Jean, and Christine. This was the quiet life of a farm community in those days.

In the old days you would pass down your homestead to your son or daughter, and it would live on for several generations. Those wooden boards would hold true for children, grandchildren, great grandchildren, and so on. It was not just a home for those in the time, but a home for the ages. Once those children grew, they would move down the road to build homesteads of their own to create legacies that would last like their fathers.

This is how it was and how it came to be that three generations found themselves on a Memorial Day adventure through the bending and quiet roads of towns long forgotten.

Coming home 

The Adams Homestead on Memorial Day. Photo by Jasmine Willis

Hello my fellow bloggers, friends, family, and any other readers I still have.

I know it has been ages since I wrote anything on here.

It has been a long journey.

I found my way back home … Well close enough!

I spent much of my childhood in a sleepy village, and for a long time I just wanted to go back.

It’s funny how life turns out.

We all have someplace we are striving to get to, and the whole time all we want to do is go home.

I am a reporter in Dansville Ny now, and I have discovered something about myself here.

We are all put on this earth to accomplish something.

I have always felt like my job is to dig up the lost stories, and breath new life into them.

This has been a beautiful journey.

I have written stories about abandon, broken, lost, and forgotten moments in time.

The freedom I have in embracing all the rich history that rests in this valley is inspiring.

It has awoken  the historian in me, and as I said once before they are the keepers of our past.

Here is to a million more stories that capture the heart and soul of the world.

I will try to send you more thought provoking stories soon my dear readers.

Familiar paths of a hometown


Familiarity in the historic village of Sinclairville. photos by Jasmine Willis

By Jasmine Willis
As we come to the start of a new year it is nice to reflect on what still stands and what has been lost.
When I walked along the small town roads there were businesses scattered along the path … businesses owned and operated by people who dared to dream.
As a child I grew up in small towns and talking with these people in Fredonia Ny on Small Business Saturday in November made me think of my hometown.
Now that we have established a new year I think of those small businesses again, particularly the ones I spent some time in.
Growing up we never had much money so Wellsville NY was a great place to live. It was filled with lovely small businesses, and operated by good family oriented people trying to survive in a small town.
I got all of my toys from these little used toy places, treats from the hometown bakeries, used books from the local book stores, and an ice cream cone at Byrne dairy.
It is sad when most of your childhood disappears and is lost in time. Memories and stories keep them alive long after they are gone. Human beings hope to keep these treasures alive to share with their children someday, but sometimes they are just gone before you get a chance.
I say take photos of things you wish to remember,and that way you can at least show them places that made your childhood home special. If they are already destroyed than try to keep the stories close to your heart.
Next time you walk into a small business try to get the story so you can share it. All good things start with a dream and people’s determination to see those dreams come true.
Some of my childhood is still there like footprints guiding me down familiar paths. The tiny green bridge across the creek I would swim in as a child by my old house stands strong. The pink house that remains a mystery I have yet to explore stands tall. Some family homes remain and family members keep them safe. The deer park I adored as a child stands firm. The arch across the road to the island park stays still. Things remain and things are forever lost, but in my heart it all lives on.
I have collected more of these treasures in my lifetime and am often reminded that it is in these small town gems we find the heartbeat of America.

Survivor Trees Offer Hope

By Jasmine Willis

The idea came to me after watching a great film a few years back, and in it they spoke of the Oklahoma City Survivor Tree.
According to the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum website this tree is an American Elm, which stood firm during one of the worst attacks America has ever seen. It states this tree once provided shade in the downtown parking lot, and now it means much more. Folks all over journey to see this tree, and be reminded that even in the worst of times something beautiful survives.
We did the same with the National September 11 Memorial, to honor the survival of another tree.
Recently I was part of a historical dedication to yet another elm tree that survived the course of four centuries before being struck down.
The historian said this and a 600 -year -old black walnut tree were his favorite trees in the world. He noted they are like humans.
I can agree with this concept.
Aren’t we all survivor trees? When I travel along the roadways I look for those trees, the ones that stand alone in a field or near a structure. I think of how many storms tried to knock them down and how much the tree has seen.
I think we all should take time to appreciate survivor trees, and to allow them to inspire us to enjoy the freedom so many have sacrificed for.
America is filled with survivor trees, and maybe one day we will realize that we as human beings are capable of showing just as much strength and courage as these keepers of time.
My hope is you never look at a tree again and think it is just a tree, but to embrace what poets, authors, film makers, and historians have for years. Trees are something we use for shelter, and something we climb. After all it was Robert Frost who once wrote about his carefree youth, saying one could do worse than be a swinger of birches.

Pictures of a beautiful life (Part One)

Sherwood Homestead

My Grandmother’s fond memories of her childhood


“Childhood is not from birth to a certain age and at a certain age the child is grown, and puts away childish things. Childhood is the kingdom where nobody dies” Edna St. Vincent Millay

After an inspirational road trip to our old hometown my grandmother was gracious enough to share some family treasures with me. Some of which I would like to share. Verna Jean Willis grew up on a farm in Wellsvile.

My grandmother shared some insight on what it was like being a child in the Great Depression.

“We lived on a farm and we were poor,” Verna said. “We had things from the farm to eat. My mother made almost all our clothes, and we went bare foot a lot. I remember placing cardboard in the bottom of my shoes when they would get too worn down.”

Verna recalls all the local farmers helped each other.

“We were a close knit group,” she said. “We helped each other harvest. That was our social life in the farming community, other than going to church on Sundays.”

We visited the old Sherwood Homestead. It was there my Great-Grandmother Ina Church had an emergency appendix surgery on her mother’s kitchen table in 1908. The Sherwood cemetery is nestled in the wooded area that slopes down the hill. My grandmother’s Uncle Abram Slocum lived there the whole time she was growing up.

Off to the Great- Great- Grandmother Addie Adams homestead, Verna pointed out some other cherished childhood memories. Her uncle Herb Adams owned the farm and grew potatoes.

“We would come up here from the school house down the road and after being very tired and hungry we would visit our uncle,” Verna said.” Aunt Maggie had marshmellows, which were a great treat to us. We would stop there to get warmed up.”

Our ancestor Henry Adams from England used potatoes in the 1600s to make beer.

“This is a very old family tradition,” Verna said about potato growers in the family lineage. “Farming was hard work but lovely. We made our own play time. We made fur hula skirts and tied them around our hips with belts. We picked berries, played house, and walked in the swamp collecting frogs and polly wogs.”

Baby animals were part of the turf growing up on the farm. This was true on the Ray Church Homestead. My great grandfather purchased the farm in 1916 from his uncle Abram Slocum and owned it until his death in 1966. His nephew Alan Kruger bought the home and rebuilt it. My grandmother was born in the house with help from the mid-wife who lived next door.

“We had fun with a baby lamb,” Verna recalled. “Our neighbor had three lambs, and could only keep two, so he let us have one. We raised it on a  bottle and she was with us a long time. She had babies and for a long time my father had sheep on the farm. My father wouldn’t let us milk cows, because he was afraid we would get stomped on.”

At what was once my grandmother’s childhood home she got teared up seeing most of her childhood gone.

“It is sad for me to see the barn gone,” she said. “We would jump in the hay piles and feed the horses. I loved watching the large forks lift the hay into the barn. My siblings and I were in there to spread the hay around so it wasn’t in a huge pile. I really loved this place.”

(This is the first part in a series on my grandmothers stories during a Mother’s Day road trip to Wellsville Ny)

Barcelona Harbor Lighthouse: A Safe Passage in time


Lakeside Bed and Breakfast in Barcelona Harbor. Photos By Jasmine Willis

By Jasmine Willis

As summer winds down, and fall approaches around the bend it is time to reflect on the beauty around us.

On what was meant to be a simple drive to Barcelona Harbor to take in the sun and fresh lake water became so much more.

I noticed a very old lighthouse resting on the hill.

Barcelona Harbor Lighthouse. Photos by Jasmine Willis

A nice talk with one of the harbor staff members led me to a brief story of it’s history.
The lighthouse itself was built, along with the lighthouse keepers home in 1828. It was erected by the Federal Government in 1829.
The Lakeside B&B was originally built in 1830 for the Underground Railroad. The home had a secret tunnel in the basement , which emptied out under the lighthouse buried deep under the hill.

Barcelona Harbor Lighthouse Keeper’s Home. Photo by Jasmine Willis

This allowed slaves to be taken across the 27 mile stretch of Lake Erie to Canada.
Now the home that gave so many people a safe harbor is a lovely B&B, and the lighthouse that offered it’s guiding light across the dark waters is a stone structure of hope. It offers us a glimpse of history and reminds us that in this seemingly dark world light does prevail and freedom continues to ring.
Barcelona Harbor had felt like a special place since the moment I set foot on her shores, and now I understand why. It truly is a safe harbor … a refuge for the lost.
When I look at these pictures or stand by these profound structures I will remember the stories, and I will imagine how those slaves must of felt seeing that beacon of light, and the door opening at the bottom of a hill to offer them shelter in the storm.

A Soldier’s Journey

Pfc. Donald M Willis WWII US Army

By Jasmine Willis

Before he was a husband, a father, a grandfather,and a carpenter he was part of what is known today as the greatest generation.

Donald M. Willis joined the thousands of other young soldiers in the journey to bring back their countries freedom in the second great war known as World War II.

He was trained in Camp Upton, New York and Camp Eustis, Virginia, before sailing across the choppy ocean waters to Germany, where he feared he would have to fight his own family.

The 18 – year- old from Wellsville, NY came from German lineage. He thought he may still have cousins who lived over there, and told his commander this on the boat ride over. His commander told him ‘Believe me son, when they start shooting at you, you will shoot back.’

This was the story I heard growing up about my grandfather and his war. He had come from a long line of patriots, so maybe he felt it was his duty to be part of the ranks. Although he was drafted like many others in that time period it always seemed like he was proud to be part of this journey with his fellows.

Every year our country honors these men for their sacrifice, along with all those before and after them. I have been wanting to honor my grandpa’s story for a long time now. Recently I got my hands on some of his war letters to his family. In them he talks about the “frozen tundra” of the Upton Camp; the eagerness to be a pilot and the every day routines of training.

Most of these letters are to his mother to ease her mind her oldest son was well and staying out of trouble.

They haven’t made any films about my grandfather, or honored him in any legions, but whenever I see anything to do with World War II I stand proud and call it grandpa’s war. We honor him as his family, and we know the stories. We tell these stories to others in hopes of keeping them alive.

Donald M. Willis didn’t belong to the world, and that is quite alright. He belonged to those who loved him and those who fought beside him; he belonged to those fellows in his barracks who were just as honored as he was to fight for the country they all loved; he belonged to the stories we tell ourselves.

For the sake of his privacy I can’t publicize all 600 pages of his thoughts on the war, family, friends, and my grandma Jean. However, I can give pieces of it to those who wish to know another person of the greatest generation.

While in training to be a radio operator, Don worries about his little brother Fredrick getting a job; his father working very hard at the plant; his aunts and uncles and cousins; he even talks about the pride he takes in the special duties he performs for his platoon.

“Our platoon is always the first one to fall out in the morning,” he writes proudly to his mother. “I wish dad could have come down to see me, but it would have been difficult.”

“I get along fine with the fellows in my barracks,” he continues to write to his mother.” After I get out of here I will make some girl a nice husband.”

That girl was Verna Jean Church. After he was honorably discharged in April 1946 he came home to marry his sweetheart  he lovingly called Jeanie. They had seven beautiful children, and he had two other beautiful girls from his second marriage many years later.

Don was a church goer and a big band player. He loved the heartbeat in music.

“I have a chance to go to church every Sunday, but they are just general services. I don’t like those too well,” he writes. “This morning I was playing my Touette for the fellows, and the sergeant heard me. He asked me to come in his room and play for him. He said he knew some of the fellows in the band and he could get me in OK.”

Willis fought at the Rhineland and East Europe Battles, as well as being stationed in Japan at the end of the war. He received the American Theater Ribbon, two bronze stars, Victory Medal, and Good Conduct Medal.

Grandpa’s story may never be a movie, or spoken out to giant crowds by his fellow comrades on Memorial Day Parades, but that is OK. He passed away on June 4, 2002 and there was a 21 gun salute. There was a flag draped over his coffin and folded by two veterans. This was his ‘thank you for your service’ from his fellow soldiers.

This is my way of honoring his memory and being the keeper of his stories.

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