In The Shadow of the Babcocks


Sunday afternoon. Spring in New England. For something to do, Patrushka and I drove over to Westerly, a neighboring town where the Babcock-Smith House Historical Museum was having a little fete. It’s one of those eighteenth century mansions so beloved by New Englanders, where their prosperous sea captain ancestors copied the manners and styles they had seen on visits to England.

The Babcock part of the Babcock-Smith house is of special interest to the Pondering Pig because – well, they’re his ancestors too.

My grandma, Nana Meyer, used to tell me about the Babcocks, her mother’s people. Farmers, preachers, and wanderers, they were restless, eccentric folks who came over with the Puritans and slowly crossed America following the wagon tracks all the way out to Pasadena and San Francisco and now back to Westerly, Rhode Island all over again, at least for today.

My Nana Meyer was a no nonsense sort of grandmother, and when I was little I was afraid of her. But she improved immensely as I got older and she began to tell me stories about her girlhood on a farm in Lincoln County, Kansas. And about her family, the stock she had come from. Her Dad, Ferdinand, was a Prussian soldier who’d skipped out and caught a boat for America as soon as the Prussian army had finished beating up the French in the early 1870s. First he got a job building a waterwheel somewhere in Delaware, then he heard they needed carpenters to build the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, so he went up there. From Philadelphia he slowly made his way west, working on the railroad till he got as far as Kansas. At the end of the Santa Fe railroad line, in Ellsworth, toughest cow town on the frontier, where Wyatt Earp kept law and order with a smoking six-gun, he met pretty Amy Babcock, my great-grandmother and Nana’s Mom, and a direct descendant of the Babcocks of Westerly.

They got married in 1879 and drove a horse and wagon up to Lincoln County to homestead. First they lived in one of those sod houses. Nana was born there but later Ferdinand carpentered a rough wooden cabin from planks he bought from his railroad friends.

Nana had a picture of the cabin, just a shack really, and another of her family taken in the 1890s…Ferdinand, still young, bold and handsome with a big walrus mustache and Nana, called Mabel in those days, beautiful, 12 or 13, with thick dark hair like her Dad’s tumbling over her shoulder and sweet wistful expression. I would have fallen in love with the girl in the picture except I knew it was Nana Meyer. And there were her two little sisters – my pretty blonde great-aunt would get polio and have to make a life for herself in a wheelchair – and her brother who ran off west and was never heard from again.

Amy was dead sick. You could see it in that photo with her haggard face and dark circled eyes with the light gone out and bony emaciated face – she was fixin’ to die. Yet she was only 35. TB maybe, it roared through the country with scythe and skull’s head bared in those days. And Nana had one other picture she always carried with her – Amy’s Kansas grave.

Nana carried those pictures around with her because she had no bureau to keep them in – Nana had no home. She traveled around the country and up to Toronto, staying a few months with each of her children and sisters and then taking the train on with just two suitcases to hold her belongings. Her husband, my grandfather, had made the big bucks in LA in the Roaring Twenties, but he got shot down and she lost what was left of the fortune in the Depression. Now she was a wanderer, one more American with no home but just that restless standing on the platform listening for the whistle one more time.

I grew up with a sense of the myth-steeped history of my family. We were part of the great sweep of America. I would ask Nana to tell me about when she was a little girl and I could see it in my mind when she talked. I saw her little one room schoolhouse with its sixteen year old teacher. I saw Nana and her family riding through the wheat fields in their little buggy at dusk going to the schoolhouse for the big spelling bee. And how well Nana had done, taking second place in the whole county. My cousin has Nana’s little autograph book from that school – an album where her classmates wrote sentimental sayings and remembrances to her when she had to drop out of school. Nana kept it all her life.

Because after Amy died, Ferdinand packed up the cabin, filled his shabby battered suitcase and caught the train west to Pasadena, California to start over. He left his kids with Amy’s sister Aunt Neen up in the sandhills of western Nebraska.

Why am I telling you all this? Because it’s why we Americans are like we are, somehow. Restless, wandering Jack Kerouac Americans except years and years before he was ever born. My America. And my people have always been here. Nana was a Prussian soldier’s daughter. But she was also the daughter of Amy Babcock, whose ancestors had been original settlers in Roger William’s Rhode Island, birthplace of American freedom, and had scrabbled from there all the way out to the saddletramp cowtowns of Kansas by 1879. Her tough-minded great-great-grandfather, the Reverend Jabez Collver, had sided with the British during the Revolution and then had to fight his way to Canada with his six strapping sons on the dark forest roads of York State across the Niagara River, a damned Tory. But her grandfather Moses crossed the roaring river back again and strode on to Ohio along the forest roads preaching the gospel in every town he came to. With his little family in the wagon beside him wondering where they would ever find a home again.

Now the Pondering Pig and his princess bride Patrushka are heading west from Rhode Island – in just a few weeks, in our little gypsy cart. We aims to get to California if we can. I think I’m going to stop in Lincoln County and see if I can find Amy’s grave. If I do, I’m going to buy that girl a big bouquet of spring flowers.

And you’re all coming with us in the wagon, in a sense. I’ll be posting from the road wherever we can find a wireless connection out there in the great dark Johnny Appleseed forests of Ohio, along the wide rolling Huckleberry Finn Mississippi, in those saddletramp sixshooter cowtowns of Kansas. And down below along the great dark mesas of New Mexico and Arizona.

Once more into the breach, my friends. We’re Americans of the restless kind. It’s in my blood. But I’m glad we’ve got some friends on this journey. Makes it a little safer around the campfire at night when the coyotes are howling and Patrushka and I are singing “Bury Me Not On The Lone Prairee” and there’s a scurrying noise in the brush beyond our circle of light. Glad you’re along on this journey. Wagons Ho!

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