Eli English: a few more thoughts

Jerry and his grandmother's adopted daughter, Gladys

In my previous post about Eli English, my great great uncle and Hannah's brother, I wrote about how I came into contact with a man named Jerry through Ancestry.com. Eli's generosity and kind heart left a huge impact on Jerry's life, and I couldn't be happier Jerry shared his story with me.

During the course of our emails, Jerry mentioned an old video I might be interested in. Created in 1967, Beyond These Hills shows the North Carolina Fund and WAMY Community Action bringing water to Blevins Creek, where Eli lived with Minnie and Jerry. Until this time, residents would walk miles to fetch water every day from a nearby spring for their basic needs. At about 10 seconds into the video is Jerry's grandmother's house: a white house with a storage shed in the foreground with a board walkway leading to it. I really love how this video captures the dialect of the region. The North Carolina Fund celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2013.


Ancestry.com Connections: Eli English and Finding Friends Beyond Your Tree

One of the great things about joining Ancestry.com has got to be finding other members to connect with. I've found distant relatives, photos, stories, and all sorts of information from other contributors who are related to me in some kind of way. And sometimes you find something extra special.

Eli English

Eli English

My paternal great grandmother, Hannah, was the oldest of 10 children. I've written about her brother, Fate, and I've often wondered about her other siblings. When I traveled to Bakersville in the spring of 2014, I took as many pictures of the family grave sites as I could. Many, many of my relatives are buried in the Bear Creek Baptist Church cemetery, and they weren't difficult to find. I took a picture of Hannah's brother Eli's tombstone and put it on my Ancestry.com tree.

A man named Jerry Hartley saw the picture and left me a comment. Jerry knew Eli and had some great stories and wonderful things to say about him. I am so grateful to put together the picture of who Eli was and what kind of impact he had on others.

Born in 1882, Eli English grew up as the third born child to David J. English and Susan Sparks. In the 1900 census he lived with his parents and siblings . But 10 years later, the 1910 census lists him as widowed and living with his parents in Bakersville, NC. I discovered Eli married a woman named Elvah Dellinger, but she succumbed to tuberculosis in 1907, as did their infant child. Looking at all the censuses, it doesn't appear he ever married again. He lived with his sister Dolly's family in 1920 and then moved to Avery County, where he's listed in 1930. In 1940, the census shows he lived as a lodger with a woman named Minnie Holtzclaw (Jerry's grandmother) and her family near Cranberry, NC. Eli lived in a room under the garage, unless it was too cold, and he then joined the family in the main house. The area, known as Blevins Creek, had a shrinking population due to the closing of the nearby iron mines.  Jerry doesn't recall Eli ever paying rent but working on the farm to earn his keep, as well as driving Minnie to different places since Minnie didn't have a driver's license. Jerry remembers the car being a shiny black Chevrolet with lights sticking out of the fenders. 

Jerry and his grandmother's adopted daughter, Gladys

Jerry and his grandmother's adopted daughter, Gladys

When Jerry was five, he and his mother went to live with his grandmother, Minnie, in North Carolina. Some time after, Jerry's mother had to move to Kentucky to care for a sick aunt, but soon became sick herself. Minnie then had to leave North Carolina and take care of both of them in Kentucky, and unfortunately, no adult relative lived in the area to look after Jerry. The family made the decision to send Jerry to an orphanage called The Grandfather Home in Banner Elk, NC (still in existence today). Jerry remembers this as a very traumatic experience; he cried for much of the time there and refused to play with any other children.

Jerry spent nine months at the Grandfather Home. For the first several months, the only familiar face he saw was Eli's. Every Sunday, Eli would bring Jerry fresh eggs from the farm so Jerry could enjoy some extra food for breakfast. Eli came to visit Jerry every single Sunday for those nine months, often leaving with tears in his eyes when it came time to go. Jerry remarked again and again at how touched his life became because of Eli's kindness. Just the small act of visiting him once a week made an enormous impact on a nine year old boy.

Eli died from bronchial asthma on March 18,1956 when Jerry was nine years old. Eli is buried in the Bear Creek Baptist Cemetery in Bakersville, NC, close to his siblings and other relatives. 

Thank you, Jerry, for sharing your story. May Eli's kindness and generosity always be remembered. 



Amanuensis Monday: Part 2: Vickie and Harry Buerer Wait for the River Boat

Below is the second part of the first letter my grandmother, Vickie Prinzing Buerer, sent home to her parents. The first letter about my grandparent's journey from Chicago to the Belgian Condo in 1945 talks about the initial steps in their journey.

A Little Golden Book from 1945, probably similar to the ones my grandmother bought my mother and aunt at the bookstore in Leopoldville.

A Little Golden Book from 1945, probably similar to the ones my grandmother bought my mother and aunt at the bookstore in Leopoldville.

Part 2

I can’t seem to get this letter finished. We haven’t done much but it’s so hot and there are always so many people around talking. There are two English missionaries here and one especially is always razzing us about America. He’s always asking about the strikes and about the gangsters in Chicago. He raves about Dillinger and says there are 3 kidnappings a day in Chicago and everyone has to carry a gun in his hip pocket to protect himself. He believes it too. I guess yesterday he said, “I heard that Life is the most widely read magazine. You can’t tell which is an advertisement and which is serious matter. In England we have our advertisements in the front and in the back of our magazines so they don’t interfere with the reading matter. America has a dreadful mania for advertising.” Someone asked him something about Paul Revere though and he never heard of him so we teased him so much he kept still.

We can’t get a river boat until Monday morning. It takes five days to get to Mangai and we wired Angus to meet us. When we got here there were letters waiting for us from Charles and Pearl, Arthur & Evelyn, Lena, and Louis and Ruth Zelle who passed through here last week. Ruth is Mrs. Feleen’s niece. Then the day afterward, we got a letter from Angus saying he received Grandpa’s cable. We took some pictures of our family for Grandpa and will send them if they turn out all right. We are buying lots of canned goods and supplements to take to the station with us.

The bookstore here has the Little Golden Books for 12 fr. each. I bought one for each of the kids and one for Nancy’s birthday.

The children are getting along fine here although Nancy has prickly heat. There is a swing in the back yard and they have lots of fun on that.

We have bananas for breakfast every day and the girls really love them. We have lots of canned fruit, too. The peaches, apricots, and pears are really delicious. We have found some very good friends in Nolan and Ruth Balman going out under the Scandinavian Alliance Mission who are staying here. They are Baptists, too, and have two small children. They went to Moody and Northern Baptist and know Art Brower, Bob Shermer and Bob Prinzing.

We are going to town now so I will close and mail this.


Please let Grandpa read this and the rest of the family, Aunt Viola and anyone else that might be interested.


Amanuensis Monday: Vickie and Harry Buerer Journey to Africa

When I look at the wealth of photos and information my grandmother left behind, I'm incredibly grateful. I believe (and I think a lot of people who knew her would agree) that she was a very difficult person to know on a personal level. But I'm hoping that through her letters and diaries, I can understand this person better. And it's fascinating to read her writing when she was a young woman.

All her life, my grandmother longed to go to Africa as a missionary. Her relatives ran the Belgian Congo Mission, and she made it her life's intent to join them. But I don't think things turned out the way she wanted. In her life story she wrote for my cousin, she explains a lot of things in detail. But when she gets to the part about Africa, she basically accounts that they went and only stayed three and a half years. And after reading her letters and diaries, I think I can make a bold statement.

The experience really sucked for them.

But I would like to share the letters and diaries for many reasons. Posterity. To delve into a story about a couple taking two young children to Africa in 1946, an experience I can honestly say I would never, ever do. And to hopefully understand Vickie more. (And let me tell you a lot of what my grandmother says in her diaries and letters does not translate well to our current time. You'll see what I mean.)

Vickie's first letter to her parents about their journey. Part 1.

Harry, Peggy Ann, Nancy, and Vickie Buerer in the airport before boarding the plane to Africa.

Harry, Peggy Ann, Nancy, and Vickie Buerer in the airport before boarding the plane to Africa.

April 2, 1946

Dear Mamma and Daddy,

We should have written sooner but it is so hot here in Leopoldville that one doesn’t feel much like writing. We are getting along fine here except that almost no one speaks English and my French is pitiful. I can sometimes make myself understood but can seldom understand anyone else.

The night before we left New York, there was a bad rainstorm and Pan American called to say the plane would be delayed until 3 P.M. Wed. After that they kept delaying the flight until 5 and then 7. When we got to the airport, the plane didn’t leave until 8:45. We got to Newfoundland about 2 o’clock (EST) Thursday morning. That was the worst part of the trip for me. There were several rough spots and the landing was very rough. Harry got air-sick and I felt awfully nauseated. There was snow on the ground and it was very cold there. We had to sit in the waiting room for six hours there because the weather was too bad to go on. Soon after we left there Peggy Ann became sick and didn’t eat anything from Newfoundland to Lisbon. During that time she vomited 10 times and was a very sick little girl. She was very good though and never cried or complained. She slept or just lay there looking at us. Nancy was very good too. Every so often she wanted to get off the plane because she got so tired riding, but we didn’t have any trouble with her. We landed at Shannon Airport in Ireland at 11:15 P.M. (6:15 EST), had supper, and sat around waiting for a couple hours. Finally they decided to take us to a hotel for the night in Ennis. It felt good to sleep in a bed for a few hours even if they did wake us up at 5:30 a.m. There were stone jug footwarmers in the beds and they really felt good. After we got back to the airport we had to wait until 10:30 a.m. before they got started. One rumor was that the crew was on a spree in Limerick and they couldn’t get them together. We had a lovely ride through the Irish countryside just at daybreak and it was very quaint and picturesque.

We landed in Lisbon that afternoon (Fri.) about 3:00 P.M. (EST). We were there for about two and a half hours. While there Pan American took us for a bus ride around town and to a ritzy restaurant to eat. The meal was delicious, although we turned down all the wine. We refused the whiskey in Ireland, too. Lisbon was very colorful. Everything was in bloom and the houses were shades of pink and peach stucco with red or orange tile roofs. In Ireland they had grass (illegible until the next page)…better after that. We arrived in (illegible) about 2:15 a.m. Saturday. It was our first glimpse of Africa and it wasn’t anything encouraging. It was an army post as Newfoundland was. We were served a buffet lunch by natives and even the air had an African odor. We took off again in 45 minutes and landed at Roberts’ Field in Liberia at 7:00 a.m. (EST). That was the filthiest place I’ve ever been in in my life. We slept in the army barracks and ate in the mess hall. I couldn’t find a clean spot on the tablecloth. The food was really unfit for children and was served by dirty natives. The only good thing was that the water was cold which we haven’t been able to say since. The sheets we slept on were filthy and when I put down the mosquito netting, bugs rolled out. In the room next to ours the stewardesses entertained army officers all night but it was against army regulations for our husbands to sleep with us. They had to be in the officers barracks and one stewardess spent the night in a room near Harry’s. There were 10 missionaries and 7 missionary children on our plane. Another couple got on there with two children. The heat there was terrific and the very sticky kind. We didn’t leave there until 3 a.m. Sunday morning, so were there almost 24 hours. While there, they took us on a tour of Firestone rubber plantation which was very interesting. We also went to a nature village which was also very interesting. We bought bananas for a penny a piece from the natives.

The trip from there to Leopoldville, I mean the last part, was very rough. Most of the dinner fell off the table all over the floor before they got to serve it but we didn’t feel like eating anyhow. At one time, Harry, Nancy, and Peggy Ann were all vomiting at once.  Nancy and I were in one seat and I was holding a paper bag for her but couldn’t reach the others to help because we were all strapped in. They were each using one side of the same bag so got along O.K. I’m the only one of our family that didn’t get air-sick but I didn’t feel very comfortable. It won’t bother us if we never fly again.

We landed in Leopoldville Sunday afternoon about 2 o’clock. It is a very lovely place and the mission home where we are staying is nice and clean and serves delicious meals.