After our week of research in Madison, we returned to the lush hilly farmlands of the Illinois/Wisconsin border, where our English ancestors came to mine lead and stayed to farm.
The country and towns were familiar, and no sooner had we dug into the record books in the Darlington courthouse than our newly discovered cousin said Nellie's Home Cooking Hello! He had been called in to fix the county recorder's computers.
Our search this week focussed on the Marches. A long sad obituary had told us that Jane March was born in Leeds in 1830, that she boarded a boat for the U.S. with her family in 1845, that her mother died at sea, and that a brother survived her when she died in 1901. But who were the rest of the family?
There were lots of candidate Marches in the region at this time, and we were sure we had hit pay dirt when we found a thirty-page notebook entitled "March Obituaries."
It took us a whole day to piece together this family, and when we were done we had a new computer family file with 120 descendants of George and Sarah March. We figured out that two of George and Sarah's children were witnesses at Jane March's wedding, but we could find no mention of Jane in the obituaries.
We had seen a microfilm of church records of the Centenary United Methodist Church in Shullsburg. A Methodist minister, James Alderson, had married Jane March to Richard Levitt five months after he had married a Sarah Alderson, possibly his daughter, also born in Leeds, to Richard's brother, John Levitt. John was one of the earliest members of this church as were George and Sarah March and their family. So we called the pastor.
"I've only been here five weeks," she said, "but I know there's a cupboard with old books, and I think there's some more in the office. Why don't you come by tomorrow?"
The books were stacked in heaps; everything had been saved, going back to 1858, when the church was officially founded. We carefully turned the pages and copied down baptisms and marriages and church classes. We found records of George and Sarah March, their children and grandchildren, and of John and Sarah Levitt and their children, but no mention of Richard and Jane. They had belonged to a Methodist church about ten miles East, in Apple River. But by now we were hungry for lunch.
Nellie's Restaurant Home Cooking looks like a house, with a little vestibule in front of the front door where a farmer could knock off some dirt or Downtown Apple River snow before going in to eat. The tables are covered with aged oilcloth, and the waittress is firmly in charge.
"What's the special?" she asks the regulars, and if they know it's scalloped potatoes and ham, because it's Monday, then they can order it. We thought we'd have soup and homemade pie. "We'll talk about the pie later," she informed us.
The big bowls of soup were accompanied by thick slices of warm home-baked vegetable bread smelling of herbs, so we settled down to eat and listen to the conversation around us. One smiling old farmer, probably past the age of active work, had stopped to talk to two younger friends, who tried to entice him to come back after lunch and join them inside their corn crib.
By then we had finished our soup, and the waittress cleared the table. She asked us if we still wanted pie, and as soon as we said yes, she ordered us to Wait. We would talk about what kind later. Later came after the waittress had seated one more table, collected some cash, and served two other tables their main dishes, talking constantly.
"Now, she said, we have Coconut, Peanut Butter, Custard, Pumpkin, Rhubarb, Apple, Blueberry, Chocolate. And Blackberry, Peach, Caramel." She scratched her head. "And Pecan." There might have been more, but she was running out of steam, so we had one Rhubarb and one Blueberry. A la Mode.
Nellie's is five miles East of Shullsburg and 2 miles South of Darlington, at the junction of Highways 23 and 11.
We drove to Apple River after lunch, to give its Methodist church a try. Although the door was unlocked the church was empty. We went to the post office looking for a phone to call the pastor. Turns out they are between ministers just now, but, learning we were looking for Levitts, the postmaster made a quick phone call, which resulted in our visit to third-cousin Gordon Lamont, a retired farmer who turned out to be the smiling gent we'd just observed at Nellie's.
Gordon, a widower, dug around in the basement and found a couple of books published by the Methodist Church. Staring at us on the third page was a picture of Richard Levitt's older brother, Robert, and his wife Elizabeth. Richard was a founder, too, but there were no Marches. Gordon also found us an old photograph album, with pictures dating to the 1870s.
Gordon had to meet with a young 4H member and help him refinish his lazy susan to take to the state fair, so he sent us down the street to his brother Oliver.
Oliver and his wife Ieleen welcomed us, provided large cold glasses of very welcome ice tea, and shared more albums of old photos. Looking at us out of one of the albums were Richard Levitt and his wife Jane March Levitt. If only she could talk and tell us about her family!
We inquired about the open church, and Ieleen told us nobody locks up in Apple River. It's one of the reasons they moved back here to retire; but their new home was one of only a few new houses built in this shrinking town. We swapped old family stories, and they lent us all the scrapbooks and albums they had. Lush farmland
In the past we had scanned photos for our genealogy database at Kinko's. But the nearest Kinko's was 70 miles away, and there were hundreds of photos in these albums. We were pleased to learn that good scanners now start at about $80 at Staples, and only weigh about a pound.
Tuesday morning was spent scanning in old family pictures, including a photo of a Masonic funeral in 1915, with hundreds of aproned men strung out along the road from Apple River to the West Ella Cemetery. Most of the people in the pictures are still strangers to us -- as they are to Oliver and Ieleen, that being the way with albums passed through the family -- but we love them anyway, from the young girl with braids down her back to the baby in beret and embroidered jacket to the young men in hats posing with flowers. If they aren't relatives, they are the friends of relatives, and it's easy to imagine young women and their beaux at the concerts and sleighrides and school picnics of so long ago. There's an old dowager whose photo was taken in St. Austell, Cornwall -- nobody knows her, but we think we might find out when we go to England again.
Tuesday afternoon we returned to Galena, where we investigated more March families and copied down more wills and obituaries. Still, we had no luck matching Jane March to any other Marches. The names of her parents and siblings will remain a mystery for now.
Yet these three days of searching yielded precious benefits - new friends and family, beautiful old churches, and memories of the past which turn the names and dates and begats of formal genealogy into the interesting stories of families and their lives.