Ancestral homes

Alumni Chapel of Wilbraham & Monson Academy, designed and built by Porter Cross.

I recently drove from Maryland to New England for a week of genealogical research with the NEHGS Research Tour in Hartford. I went up a day early to start my week with a day in Wilbraham, Massachusetts, where my great-great-great-great-grandfather, Porter Cross, had lived. What a day it was!

A year ago I discovered Porter Cross’ obituary while researching in the archives of the Museum of Springfield History. According to the obituary, Porter “was a trustee of Wesleyan academy at Wilbraham and while living in that town designed and constructed the Methodist memorial church.” Shortly thereafter, I emailed the Wilbraham town clerk to find out exactly which church that would be. The Town Clerk referred me to Marjorie Trimble, who was born in Wilbraham and spent most of her life there. Not only did Marge tell me which church it was, but she offered to show me around the town when I was next in the area.

In preparing for my visit, I found an inventory of historic buildings on the website of the Wilbraham Public Library, and reviewed it to find other buildings that Porter Cross might have built. What I did find was a complete surprise. Another one of my great-great-great-great-grandfathers, James Luke, also had a Wilbraham home that is listed in the inventory, which indicates that he built it himself in 1849–50. The description of the James and Maria Luke House included a photo. I let Marge know that I wanted to go by the house to take some pictures. By the time she replied to my email, she had already contacted the owners of the home, Liz Pacosa-McEvoy and Brian McEvoy, and made plans for us to go inside. I was speechless!

The connection between my two ancestors, Porter Cross and James Luke, is that Porter’s daughter Lauretta married James’ son William.

Once in Wilbraham, I met up with Marge, my guardian angel for this part of the trip. Our first stop was the church built by Porter Cross. It had become part of Wesleyan Academy, which is now Wilbraham & Monson Academy. Marge also contacted the archivist of the Academy, Janet Moran, and arranged for her to give us a tour the church. Janet didn’t have any record of Porter Cross, so I compiled all my research to leave with her. I had found several publications from the late nineteenth century that mention Porter Cross and further identify him as the designer and builder of the church, as well as a selectman of the town and trustee of the Academy.

The exterior of the church is brownstone, which was quarried right in Wilbraham. The inside is beautiful, but Janet told us that much of the original detail had been covered up when heating was added to the building in the 1940s. She provided me with a photo of the inside of the church as it looked originally. It was gorgeous! Janet introduced us to the headmaster of the Academy, who said that they are planning to restore the inside of the church to its original state. He also said he’d like to hang a portrait of Porter Cross once the building is restored, and asked if I’d like to attend the dedication. Just try to stop me!

The James Luke house is next to a playing field of the Academy; James was also a trustee of the then-Wesleyan Academy. The owners, Liz and Brian, welcomed us inside to show us around. What a beautiful home! It had previously been owned by Liz’s parents, so she had spent time there growing up, and she is now raising her family there. It warmed my heart to learn that the current owners of the house appreciate its beauty and history so much that they’re determined to preserve it and restore things that had been changed over the years.

[My] favorite part of the house is the huge brick wood-burning stove in the kitchen.

I love the front entryway, which includes a beautiful curved staircase, but my favorite part of the house is the huge brick wood-burning stove in the kitchen. I’ve never seen anything like it, and it is original to the house. To be standing and looking at the place where my ancestors prepared their meals was a little overwhelming. Brian and Liz still cook on the stove and said it really warms the whole kitchen.

Detail of photograph of the James Luke house ca. 1860-65.

While we were chatting, Liz took a large framed photo off the wall to show us. It was an old picture of the house that was apparently taken in the 1800s and had stayed with the house over the years as it changed hands. Looking closely, she showed us that there were four people on the front porch. Could these be my relatives? I was sure the photo was taken in the nineteenth century, but I had no idea exactly when. I did know how I could find out, though. When I got back to Maryland I made an appointment for a video consultation with Maureen Taylor, who is known in genealogy circles as The Photo Detective. She is able to ascertain when a photo was taken by evaluating the people in the photo, their style of clothing, and their surroundings.

Maureen evaluated everything in the photo, including the style of the women’s dresses, particularly the fact that one of the younger women was wearing a hoop under her skirt, the outline of which could been seen through the fabric, and the design of the bodice. Maureen’s conclusion was that the photo had been taken likely in the early to mid-1860s. This was exactly the time period I was hoping for! I had found a newspaper article from 1875 saying that James Luke had just sold his home in Wilbraham, so I knew that the Luke family owned the house from 1850 to 1875.

Because I know the birth and death dates of James and Maria Luke as well as all four children James had with his first wife Sarah (who is my ancestor), Maureen felt that the gentleman in the photo could be James Luke;  given the apparent age of the woman behind him, she could be his wife Maria. Based on the way the young woman to the right is standing closely to the couple, and the fact that James’ daughter was 30 years old at the time, she feels that that woman could be their daughter Susan. A second woman is standing to the left in the photo, farther away from the couple and posed a bit awkwardly. Given the fact that James had three married sons at the time, we are speculating that the second younger woman could be a daughter-in-law.

I have been hoping to find a photo or portrait of James Luke. Unfortunately the detail of his face in the picture of the house isn’t very clear. But because newspaper clippings reveal that he was a well-respected man in both Wilbraham and Cambridge, Massachusetts, as well as a prominent member of the Methodist church, I feel certain that there must be a good photo of him out there somewhere. This photograph of the house is the first glimpse I’ve had of the family, and it has deepened my interest in finding a portrait or photo of James. The search continues.

The town of Wilbraham is now a place I am proud to call one of my ancestral homes, and where I now have some wonderful new friends. I know I’ll be back to visit again before long.

Patty Vitale

About Patty Vitale

Patty Vitale lives in Germantown, Maryland. Born and raised in Massachusetts, she has lived in the Washington, D.C. area since 1986. She has a B.S. Business Administration from Boston University and a J.D. from American University. Patty is a member of the Society of Mayflower Descendants as well as the Daughters of the American Revolution, Hungerford’s Tavern Chapter, where she serves as the Chair of the Women’s Issues Committee.

8 thoughts on “Ancestral homes

  1. Wow, that was a family historian’s dream trip! Your story shows how important doing your homework and preparing for a trip can be, plus how kind and interested others may be about preserving history for all.

  2. I love stories like these! Some time I will have to visit some of my ancestors’ homes but most are on the opposite coast. I did have an offer from a lady who bought the home of my 3x great-grandfather in the Philadelphia area to have a tour sometime. When I get there, I plan on taking her up on the offer :-).

  3. Wonderful story Patty and I was so delighted to assist a wee bit and to learn about your Wilbraham heritage. I look forward to your returning in the future and maybe a bit of news for me on my Mayflower connections. Marge

  4. I am from Wilbraham & live on Deep Creek Lake In Western MD. Photo Historian. Researched the Academy Daguerreotype,

  5. Hi Patty, I’m from Wilbraham also. We live on Deep Creek Lake in WEstern MD. Long time (60s+) Photo Historian. Researched the wWilbraham Academy ( Minister) Daguerreotype & got the article in Spflad Newspaper many yrs ago! I could qualify for DAR on my moms side, but no good reason to! Hi More info if needed. Grad from Spfld Tech HS in 57 & grad from WNEC several times! Hi

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