By Jasmine Willis
Verna Jean and Lisa Yvette at the graveside of Pfc. Donald M. Willis. PHOTOS 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.