The following story is a chapter of an upcoming book written by my mother Priscilla H Wilson about my father Rodney E Wilson. The book is titled Zero Meridian, Five Degrees North.
Zero Meridian, Five Degrees North: Searching for Family
In July 2009, son Ben and Rodney set out on a two-week genealogical expedition across Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas. Rodney expresses excitement as they drive south.
The first stop is Arkansas City. Two cemeteries here hold graves of the Wilson and Baldwin families. They turn west off Highway 27 into Memorial Lawn Cemetery to see the Baldwin side of Rodney’s family. They walk through the four quadrants and locate Benjamin Baldwin’s grave. With plowed fields on the north and wooded land on the south, the cemetery’s grassy vista offers an oasis of comfort and solace.
In Parker Cemetery, east of town, they find Elmer Wilson, Rodney’s grandfather’s gravestone. They stand in respect at Elmer’s grave and Ben’s imagination swings to a tale he shares, “Your Great Grandfather David lost five children from 1870-1874. They ranged in age from a tiny baby to twenty-one years old. Elmer, your grandfather came along in 1877 and was their only living boy. Do you realize, without Elmer, you and I might not have happened?” This solemn thought silences them as the soft summer breeze whispers past.
In Guthrie their tour includes Rodney’s boyhood paper route, the newspaper office, his elementary school, and the house where they lived. A stop in the Oklahoma City courthouse discloses Elmer’s marriage license to his second wife, Ethel which fills one more hole in Ben’s hunt for genealogical bits and pieces.
Rodney tells tales of his time with his grandpas as they drive on to Boerne Texas. Rodney’s family is known for retelling stories dozens of times. David Wilson (Rodney’s great grandfather) has fascinated Ben since he began hunting family history. “David born in Kentucky in 1820, died in Mulhall, Oklahoma, in 1898. Your family always told the story that David rode with the Dalton Gang. However he shows up in Civil War records as a Union soldier, went to Ft. Scott, Kansas, and fought in the Border Wars. In 1863, he is assigned to Chaplin H. D. Fisher who was a ‘gun blazing, out to free slaves’ guy. Fisher sent slaves up the Missouri River in the Sam Getty Steamer with Orderly (David) Wilson in charge. The gang of Younger Brothers attack and kill most everyone on board. David lay by the cylinder timbers and the women covered him with their cooking utensils and clothing. This saved his life. We now have the real story: he hid from gangsters—he didn’t ride with them.”
In Boerne, they visit Rodney’s brother Vincent. Pulmonary fibrosis has made him fragile. They spend three days sitting on Vincent’s patio talking quietly. Vincent has a woven single sling seat that fits his diminishing frame comfortably. After a tearful goodbye, Rodney and Ben head north.
On the drive back to Kansas City, Ben blurts out, “I’ve been doing a lot of research on your great grandfather David Wilson. As long as we have time, let’s go see if we can find his children’s graves in Harveyville.”
The two arrive in Harveyville and locate the small cemetery on the west side of town. Dappled sunlight and arching oak trees surround them. They walk up and down each row looking for Wilson gravestones, hollering back and forth, “What have you found?”
In exasperation they leave the cemetery and drive down Main Street. They spot an open store, and Ben goes in and asks, “Do you know who manages the cemetery?” The man points down the street, “ No, go to the feed store and ask for the owner. He’s the new mayor.”
They track down the mayor, “The man who mows and manages the cemetery gave me a box with all the records of the graves on a spread sheet,” he says.
Ben looks through all the records and locates five Wilson names in a row. He checks the names next to these, and they return to the cemetery. A grassy plot, about twenty feet by twenty feet is empty, no stones. Five Wilson children are buried there.
As the guys drive home, their conversation centers on their experience in Harveyville. “I can’t believe there were no markers on those graves. They need to be marked with some kind of stones,” Rodney says.
“We experienced how delightfully peaceful that cemetery is. What if we put a bench where visitors can sit, and enjoy that spot. We could have Wilson printed in larger letters, with the names of each of the five children and their dates under that,” Ben says.
Rodney, always quick to admire the practical way to do things says, “Great idea. You order it and have it put in the middle of the Wilson plot. I’ll pay for it.”
At home Rodney, regales me with stories from their trip. But I understand how gratified he really is when he says, “Having Ben so interested in looking up the stories of the Wilson family really delights me. Knowing more of my family’s history connects me to my past in a new way.”
The next year Rodney and I drive to Harveyville to see the “Wilson” bench.