I have my first offer of a guest post. Christopher Doyle of Indianapolis found my blog by searching the Patoka River and Oak Hill on Word Press. He has family ties to the area. He enjoyed reading my stories and it turns out he is a storyteller also. We communicated several times last week. So although his family history is a hop skip and a jump down the Patoka River to the Wheeling area, I decided he deserved a post as I enjoyed reading his story also.
The oldest living relative I can remember from early childhood is my maternal great-grandfather, David Dunning (1883-1977). Grandpa Dunning passed away just a couple weeks shy of my ninth birthday. He was 93. I can remember going to his funeral. It was my third family funeral of the year, due to my father’s parents sudden passing in Florida during the spring.
My only other remembrances of Grandpa Dunning include visits to his farm in rural Francisco, Indiana. I can recall Grandpa sitting in his recliner, watching 1970’s-style wrestling on a black-and-white television in his living room. He kept a rolled ball of chewed gum—Juicy Fruit, I believe—on a small table next to him. He also chewed tobacco, as evidenced by the brownish trickle line down the creases next to his chin. As if those things weren’t odd enough, a severed ring finger made him quite a curiosity to a young boy and somewhat frightening. The story goes that grandpa had an accident while cutting grass on his farm, the mower blade taking off his left ring finger nearest the middle knuckle.
I was equally fascinated with the well and outhouse behind the west-facing farmhouse and the chicken coupe on the south side. I don’t remember ever venturing into the chicken coupe or the outhouse. The smell from both probably deterred me. There was a second well in the front yard with a red pump perched upon a concrete slab. The long front yard hosted many a family reunion football game. We continue to hold an annual reunion on the property to this day.
Those family reunions are some of my best childhood memories and the reason I grew up much closer to my mother’s family than to the Doyles.
Grandpa Dunning was fourth in a line of seven children born to Albert C. Dunning (1851-1932) and Sophronia Morrison (1854-1935). Albert, his father, was born in England and immigrated to Gibson County, Indiana, sometime in the late 1800s. According to Uncle Les Dunning, Albert’s sponsor was a man named George Smith. He was the namesake for Albert and Sophronia’s eldest child. They had seven children, all born in Gibson County. Albert and Sophronia were married 18 November 1874 at the home of David Morrison.
At this time, I don’t have much information on the Dunning side of the family, only that my third great grandfather John Dunning was born and buried in Dorsett, England. There is quite a bit more family history for my third great-grandmother Sophronia (Morrison) Dunning who is buried in a family cemetery in White River Township, between Hazleton and Patoka.
The Morrisons hailed from Yadkin County, North Carolina, which is situated between Wilkesboro and Winston-Salem. In the mid-1800’s, their county of residence was known as Surry County, South Division. Sophronia’s parents, David Alexander Morrison (1818-1892) and Jane Swaim (1819-1888), were from Surry County. Although their roots were deep in North Carolina, they moved to the farm-rich soil of Gibson County in 1856. I’ve written an account of their migration in another file.
Grandpa Dunning married a Scot-Irish girl named Ruth McEllhiney (1887-1974) of a prominent Gibson County family. Three generations of their history are chronicled in Gil R. Stormont’s History of Gibson County, published in 1914. David and Ruth Dunning married at the home of my second great grandfather Thomas J. McEllhiney (1863-1932) on the day after Christmas, 1907. Thirteen years and five children later, Ruth Dunning gave birth to my grandmother, Alice Kathryn (1920-1990), who was sixth-born of their nine children, and namesake for my oldest daughter, Merikathryn.
David and Ruth were given family land on Wheeling Road (County Road 550 E) where they built a modest home and began farming. The homestead overlooks the Patoka River bottoms to the north and east. It provided the means for a comfortable lifestyle for David, Ruth and their nine children.
After 30 years of marriage, Grandma Ruth decided to leave David and take up residence with his recently widowed brother-in-law, Edward Williams (1881-1964). Uncle Ed, as he was known, had married my Great Aunt Bessie (1882-1938) in 1900 and served as the area’s postman. Ruth was then 50 and ready to start life anew, I presume, as she left her youngest children—Les (15), Virginia (12) and Carl (6)—on the farm with their father. Understandably, Uncle Carl took her departure the hardest.
By the time of her death, Ruth (McEllhiney) Deffendall had married a third time to an Otis M. Deffendall. I knew her for only six short years of my life as Grandma Deffendall. I vaguely remember attending her funeral in Princeton in October 1974. It is probably the earliest memory I have of a death in the family. And because I didn’t get to spend nearly as much time with her, I don’t have the vivid memories like I do of Grandpa Dunning.
I remember childhood trips to Princeton and Francisco well. When I would spend a week at Grandma’s house in the summertime, we would usually make a trip out to the Dunning farm to tend to her sizeable garden and to pick fresh beans for canning. The farm was immaculately maintained by Uncle Carl, who worked at Francisco Elementary School and lived about a 10 minute drive west on Highway 64. Grandma worked tirelessly in that garden every year, growing corn, beans, berries and tomatoes. Rarely did we enjoy a summer meal at her house that didn’t include fresh cut tomatoes, right off the vines of the Dunning farm.
Grandpa Dunning lived to the ripe old age of 93. I felt lucky to have living great grandparents in my family. While he remained a somewhat frightening mystery to me, I saw the way he interacted with his grandkids. Their response made me more comfortable around him. He finally succumbed to old age 30 August 1977 and I can remember his burial in nearby Fairview Cemetery. The family reunion held at his farm took on a more somber tone the next couple of years, and we lit a candle in his memory.
The old white farmhouse that held so many great family memories was becoming more structurally unsound due to the blasting in the nearby coal mine, and Uncle Les made the decision to raze it in 2007. He immediately set to building a larger replica of that old house, which still stands on the hill just above the river bottoms and now a strip mine. We just held our family reunion there in October of this year, and I look forward to many, many more.