Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Family Dynamics, Part IV

Kaneville, May 3rd, 1904
"And now I guess the beautiful summer time, so much talked of, has come at last. "

Kaneville, July 28th, 1904
"Mrs. Mary Downs and daughter, Pearl, of Simcoe Canada, who were called home to attend the funeral of the former's brother, William Toy, have been spending a month with the former's parents, Mr. and Mrs. Jacob Toy.

The mink is a very unwelcome guest in Kaneville. Your scribe had 40 chickens killed one night last week."

I was trawling the VCP (Venango Citizens Press), looking for an obituary on Jonathan Klotz, one of my thrice-great grandfathers, when I stumbled across these articles. They had been written by my 3rd great grandaunt, Sarah Agnes Darling, nee Toy. She wrote articles about her family and neighbors for about 9 years; none of which are particularly literary in content, but are chock-full of the comings and goings of her family, with the occasional dry comment about the weather, or a neighbor.

Why is this important to me?

For the past 6 years, I have spent a week out of every summer going up to PA to find family history data. I know my way around the Pennsylvania Room in the Franklin Library with my eyes closed. I know the back roads almost as well as my father does, and he grew up there.

One of the first cemeteries I discovered in my quest was Rynd Farm; a quiet little place that sits above Oil Creek State Park. There along with her brothers and sisters, Agnes Toy Darling is buried.

But she hasn't been completely at rest.

When I took my father and my aunt up there the following year, I could not find her headstone. We searched the whole place, but no Agnes. When I went back alone, there she was.

It occurred to me, at that time, that there was something she wanted me to do- maybe a few things.

I began the collecting of her articles that year.

I started trying to get both sides of our family to meet up there every summer.

I began the enormous task of compiling a comprehensive family history that includes all of the branches of the Toy family of Western Pennsylvania, because there was nothing like it compiled anywhere.

I started corresponding with family members of the different branches - something that hadn't been done since the branches drifted apart.

These are all things that I feel Agnes Darling wanted me to do, for her.

I learned that she was also a family historian; a cousin out in California had a journal written by her grandmother, Nevada Feely Toy, that contained information on the Toy family and where they had come from, prior to migrating to Western Pa. We both felt sure that the information in that book came from Agnes Darling.

There are no surviving pictures of Agnes Darling, other than a tiny head shot of her in a family reunion picture, taken around 1935. She's in the middle right, surrounded by her nieces and nephews; my great grandfather's brothers and sisters.

That's her, the bitty little head, off to the right, in the middle.

This is her biography:
Sarah Agnes Toy was born in 1861 in Venango County, PA. Her family had recently moved to that area, along with scores of other people, following the discovery of oil in 1858 by Colonel Edwin Drake. She grew up in the shadow of the infant oil industry, a tough place to live and thrive. While some of the prospectors did strike it rich, most of them worked hard, played hard, and died poor. The nearby city of Petroleum Center was termed "the wickedest place east of the Mississippi", and was filled with saloons and houses of ill repute. Not the most ideal place to raise children.

She was the fourth child of Jacob Toy and Catherine Goldinger. Her eldest sister, Mary Jane (1852-1922) married a man from Canada, and moved there in the mid 1880s. Her oldest brother, William M. (1853-1904), my 2x great grandfather, fell from a derrick in his 51st year, and died shortly afterwards. Her other older brother, John (1858-1872), died at the age of 14, in an accident having to do with racing horses. Her younger sister, Hannah (1864), got married and moved to California, prior to 1900. Agnes was the only child left to her parents who could take care of them in their old age.

Sarah Agnes didn't get married until she was 29 - a ripe old age for the 19th century. She married James Darling (1861), who was a driller and a well shooter in the oil fields. "Shooting a well" means carefully lowering nitroglycerin into an oil well shaft that has begun to dry up, and then dropping a piece of metal called a "torpedo" into the shaft, hitting the nitro and blasting the shaft. The blast causes fracturing of the shale in the well, allowing more oil to be pumped from the well.

A year and a half after they were married, on September 24, 1891, James Darling and another man, decided to use nitroglycerin to blow up some stumps that were in the way in a field. (the crazy shit these people did with nitroglycerin, and crude oil would curl your hair! The newspapers of the time are filled with stories of people burning down their houses, trying to start a fire indoors with crude oil, or using nitroglycerin to blow up stuff.) They were both killed instantly. She was left a widow, with an infant, born that year, to care for.

Agnes moved back in with her parents and life went on. She cared for both her invalid mother, until her death, as well as her father, who passed away in 1912, after a series of strokes. She never remarried. When her father, Jacob, passed away, he left her the farm, as payment for her years of caring for him and his wife. She outlived everyone in her family, including her only son, Floyd, who died in 1929.

The stories of Agnes Darling abound: My father used to tell us how she would pull on her hip waders to go out and clean the rocks out of her creek. Once, when some boys were throwing rocks into her creek, she came out of the house, waving her father's pistol and shot it into the air. I actually met one of those boys, one summer when we were up there. My kids were down in her creek, looking for fossils, when an old man came up and started talking about bears in the area. When I asked him about Ag he knew exactly who I was talking about, and told me the story of the rocks in the creek, and the pistol.

Tell me she wasn't standing right there, while we were talking to that man!

My father also told me how his grandmother would go out to visit Ag to buy eggs from her- she was too proud to just take money, even from a family member- and that Agnes kept bantam chickens, whose eggs she would give to my father, because they were little and cute (he calls them "banty" chicken eggs). His grandmother also obtained digitalis from Agnes, to help with her heart problems, so it would appear that Ag knew a thing or two about herbal remedies as well.

I went to the Oil City Genealogical Library this past year, to do some poking around, and struck up a conversation with the librarian working there. I mentioned Agnes' name and she perked right up. "Oh! My mother and grandmother used to talk about her all the time! They were neighbors."

After more than 50 years since her death (1955), her presence is still palpable, in that part of the world.

She is a major force in my research, and every time I encounter another person who knew her, I can feel her presence in the meeting.

Someday, I will go to join her, and the rest of the ancestors, and I will have come home, but in the meantime, it is a comfort to have her at my shoulder, whispering in my ear.


flutter said...

totally fascinating, and so beautifully written!

Julie Pippert said...

What an interesting woman!

Family history is so neat because these are the stories---not just the famous ones in history books---that made up real life.

Using My Words

Chanda (aka Bea) said...

That was wonderful! I can see why she chose you to whisper to. I think you should put this post in the back of your geneology paper as part of your anectodtal history. Great job! Can't wait for the next instalment.

VelveetaWingnut said...

I am unworthy to call you cousin...damn child, you leave the rest of us in the dust with your words. Gorgeous post. It demonstrates so clearly why some of us are so fascinated with our pasts. I think that those who have gone before us come back and whisper to the living far more often than most realize. Keep listening, they'll all speak to you eventually.