From the late 1960s to early 1980s, every summer without fail, my sister and I would stay with our grandparents in Peru, New York. Exit 35 off the Northway, milemarker 144. Once or twice a week, my grandparents would bring us “up to the farm” or “up to the Patent” where my father’s mother, Martha (I called her Oma) was born and where her mother, Grammy Irwin, Anna, as Oma called her, still lived. Here we filled up jugs of water, “good water”, from the sink in the dining room. We then watched Somerset, Edge of Night, and Guiding Light in the parlor of “Gram’s part” of the house. We talked about crocheting, cooking, and the characters on the soap operas as if they were real people.
During the drive to The Farm, I listened to my grandparents reminisce over who lived where, who died and when, and, oddly, what the hair textures of former residents were. “Arch, remember Barney who lived here? Barney’s sister- what was her name again- had the curliest hair. Very pretty. Boy, could Barney dance.” Or, “That’s where Senator Stafford grew up. He was adopted, you know.” Or, “Down that road over there is the farm your family worked at years ago. Poor Beth.” Sometimes, I would listen intently to the life stories of family and strangers; othertimes, I’d look out the window and quietly sing “Cat’s in the Cradle” over and over again. Who knows why.
On Sundays, we would make our weekly trip to the Peasleeville cemetery. I was introduced to geneaology here, and I didn’t even know it. At the cemetery, we would all get out of the car. That’s a practice most families don’t do anymore, at least I don’t. A lost pasttime: cemetery visitation. Anyway, I wasn’t much of a fan of the cemetery- the black flies and mosquitos were annoying. And the gnats. Ugh. But, it was what we did. My grandmother would first go to her father’s grave. “Here’s Dad,” she’d say. She’d weed around the gravemarker. And then we’d move on to other family members.
“Here’s the old part of the cemetery. Gramma Irwin is over here. She came from Holland. Brought a rocking chair, a chest, and her own burial stone. She and Ruth always got along,” she’d tell us, or maybe herself, I’m not sure, as she pulled a few weeds from the ground around the stone. “I should talk to Ray about how long the grass is here,” she’d say.
From these visits, I learned that her mother was adopted, that Anna’s parents had died when they were very young, that “Gram’s family” was from a place called Swastika (for the longest time, I had wrongly assumed she meant Swastika, Vermont, but, no, it was Swastika, New York), and that genetically, my grandmother was part Irish, English, Dutch, and perhaps Native American, as well as “who knows what else.” There was no 23andme back then- only Bibles and stories handed down from one generation to the next.
I bet most folks have never heard of Black Brook, New York, nestled snugly and quietly in the Adirondacks. Swastika, New York, was at the upper right- hand corner of Black Brook, near the Peru border. Swastika had its own post office until 1953, but has since been incorporated into Black Brook, and Black Brook is part of Ausable Forks today. Over the years, hamlets have been renamed, borders have been redrawn, and residents have moved on. Today, in 2020, Black Brook has about 1500 residents who go to work and school, who decorate for the holidays, who, at this time, are probably figuring out whether they will cook dinner or go out to eat. Most if not all of these residents I do not know personally, although in this town is where my story begins.
My story, rather Lenora E. Allen Swinyer’s story, begins in 1870s, in the heydey of bustle in Black Brook, the town that mined and smelted iron in Catalan forges. 90 percent of the 3,561 town’s inhabitants settled in this area specifically for the iron industry. Families moved here from Canada, England, and parts of New England to find jobs and new beginnings in a small town in the middle of nowhere.
Lenora was born in June of 1872, to Ruby J. Allen (1854-1930), daughter of Franklin and Dinah (Watson) Allen. According to the 1870 census, Franklin (47) and Dinah (45) lived with their five children, Lyman, 21 (although Lyman is also listed as living with Martha Banker’s family whom he married in 1872), Franklin (19), Ester, (18), Ruby (15) and Elizabeth (13) in a farmhouse valued at $200, and personal property valued at $450. Franklin and his two sons were bloomers in the iron forges. They lived next to Dinah’s sister, Mary (Watson) Johnson, and other family members whose surnames include Blackbird and Hanmer. On the same road, people listed teamster, milliner, blacksmith, carpenter, and a collier as occupations. As you can see, in 1870, Black Brook was a fairly active little community.
Dinah held onto both her daughter’s hands and pulled Ruby towards her. They had been in the kitchen for four hours, and the baby’s head was crowning.
Along one wall, the stove was smoking from the burning wood and a cast iron pot containing a beef and vegetable stew was simmering on top. On the floor next to the stove was a bucket with clean rags. And next to that bucket was an empty bucket. Along the adjacent north wall, in front of the cool pantry door, a cot was placed on which Ruby lay.
“At the next pain, one more, and the baby should be here.” Dinah looked at her daughter’s sweat-drenched face once before addressing her other daughter, Esther. “Get some wet cloths and bring in some clean ‘appin, eh?” Dinah’s Yorkshire accent creeped into her speech in times like this. Childhood habits always come back.
Esther kept staring at her sister, mouth agape. “Esther, I’m talking to you, girl. Close that mouth and do as I say.” Esther darted a look to her mother, then left the kitchen, leaving her mother at one end of Ruby, and her Aunt Mary, at Ruby’s head.
Mary, anticipating the next pain Ruby would have, handed Ruby the leather strap to bite down on. With one last agonizing muffled groan, the baby entered the world. Ruby lay back down, eyes closed, silently crying.
Dinah held the newborn upside down and gave it a small swat. The baby squirmed, coughed, and started crying. She then placed the baby, covered in a whitish waxy coating, belly down on Ruby’s stomach while she cut and tied the cord. “Mary, clean up the poor bairn.” She placed the baby in the towel in Mary’s hands.
“A little more pain, Ruby, and then you can rest,” said Dinah, as she kneaded her daughter stomach and grabbed the empty bucket. Meanwhile, Ester had come back into the room with the fresh bedding and towels.
The women cleaned mother and baby, the bedding, and cleaned up all the blood. Mary handed the swaddled infant to Dinah. “Who would’ve thought my first grandbaby was gonna be old Mother Shipton? My, you’re a beautiful lass.” She then turned her attention to Ruby, who was looking out the window at a flock of crows circling overhead.
“Ruby, girl, you’re going to rest for a few days and take care of this wee bairn. That’s your job. Now I’ll help you best I can, but you must keep the baby quiet and out of your father’s way. In a bit we’ll figure out what next to do.” Dinah placed the infant in Ruby’s arms. “Has she a name?”
Ruby shifted her gaze from the birds to the bundle in her arms who started to squirm. “Lenora. Lenora…” she looked around the room, “Lenora….. Elizabeth” she whispered. “I’m tired.” Just shy of her eighteenth birthday, an unwed Ruby J Allen gave birth to Lenora. Ruby would not be long in Lenora’s life.
This ends Part One. Next week, I’ll continue the story of Lenora, or Nora, as most records show as her name. I’ll tell the story of her childhood in Black Brook, how she met her husband, Charles Swinyer, and how she died. I hope you’ve enjoyed this so far, and I look forward to reading any comments you may have.