Lessons in oral history

Grow Hill. Courtesy of Connecticut Day Trips

It was the stuff that dreams are made of. Novice genealogists, my wife and I had traveled from our home in Ohio to rural Windham County, Connecticut, on our first foray into family history field research, in hopes of finding a trace or two of my eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Grow ancestors, four generations of whom had owned a large hilltop farm somewhere in the Pomfret-Hampton border area.

With the aid of a map from an old genealogy, we soon located what appeared to be the original family farm – now a large commercial dairying operation – at the peak of a high elevation along a quiet, two-lane state road. Pulling our car off into the entryway to a cow barn, we got out to get our geographic bearings and drink in the details of a pastoral landscape that seemed to have changed little since the mid-eighteenth century, when almost immediately the current farm owners came out of the farmhouse across the road to inform us that we were on “Grow Hill” and to ask if they could help us. Upon learning that we were descendants of the farm’s original owners, they invited us in for coffee and a delightful two-hour conversation about the farm’s history. We couldn’t believe our beginners’ luck.

Before we departed, our hosts directed us to one of their neighbors – a former town selectman who lived at the foot of Grow Hill and was well-versed in its history. When we called, unannounced, on the gentleman later that afternoon, he, too, cordially invited us in for drinks and conversation, during which he told us stories about my ancestor Deacon Thomas Grow (1743–1824), an early owner of the Grow Hill farm and a man still remembered locally for his shrewd real-estate dealings.

The selectman also recounted a colorful anecdote about how Deacon Grow, a devout Baptist, had, through a careful study of the Bible, calculated the precise date on which “the second coming of Christ” would occur. On the morning of the fateful day, according to the story, the deacon dressed himself entirely in white and climbed to the highest point of his barn roof in order to be as close to Heaven as possible when the Savior arrived. At day’s end, he then climbed back down, informing his family members with apparent disappointment that “nothing happened.” For a budding family historian, the story was pure gold, and certain to be a featured highlight of the narrative family history that I planned to eventually write.

Flush with enthusiasm and eager to accumulate more stories about my Grow Hill ancestors, we returned the following summer to explore the area in greater depth.

Flush with enthusiasm and eager to accumulate more stories about my Grow Hill ancestors, we returned the following summer to explore the area in greater depth. Geographically, Grow Hill forms part of a triangle of three hills along the Pomfret-Hampton border – Grow Hill, Sharpe Hill, and Kimball Hill -- each of which is named for the eighteenth-century family that first settled there. Sharpe Hill, a half-mile southeast of Grow Hill, is now the site of a popular vineyard. One afternoon, while my wife and I were partaking of a wine-tasting there and happened to mention our interest in local history, a staff-member proceeded to tell us a virtually identical story about how the patriarch of the Sharpe family had calculated the date of Christ’s Second Coming, dressed in white, and climbed his barn roof, only to descend again when nothing happened. Uh-oh!

A few months later, I was reading Susan Griggs’ Folklore and Firesides of Pomfret, Hampton and Vicinity when I came across the following passage describing “two amusing incidents [which] have come down to us” about evangelical farmers along “the Hampton-Pomfret line” “who proclaimed the second coming of Christ and the end of the world… Certain members of the Kimball family robed themselves in white on the day appointed for the ‘Judgment,’ and spent the day on a shed roof awaiting the ’last Trumpet’; so, also, Reuben Eliot … dressed in white and climbed a tall pole to be ready for the ‘coming.”[1]

It was clear that I had entered the murky world of local oral history traditions – a world filled with colorful stories unsupported by hard evidence. What was I to make of the various “Second Coming” anecdotes? Did some early member of the Grow, Sharpe, Kimball, or Eliot family actually experience the events recounted in the story, and his religious foible was then later mistakenly attributed in local memory to patriarchs of one or more of the other families? Did members of several neighboring families have parallel religious experiences?

Using biblical prophecies to calculate the date of Christ’s return was a popular Sunday pastime among New England farmers in the decades following the “Great Awakening” of the 1740s. In addition, Deacon Thomas Grow and several of his eighteenth-century relatives in the Grow Hill area are known to have branded their livestock on the ear with the figure “7” – a reflection, perhaps, of the family’s belief in the “Book of Revelation” prophecy that the “Second Coming” would occur after the “Lamb of God” broke “the seventh seal” and sent “the seven angels who had the seven trumpets” to destroy all non-believers, preparing the way for Christ’s thousand-year kingdom on earth.[2] Nevertheless, only a fool would present the Deacon Grow “Second Coming” story as fact in a published family history. In the end, I buried it in an endnote, describing it as an “alleged incident,” and I now automatically treat all local oral history stories – no matter how entertaining – with a healthy dose of caution.


[1] Susan Griggs, Folklore and Firesides of Pomfret, Hampton and Vicinity (Abington, Conn., 1950), Hampton section p. 99.

[2] “Marks for Creatures,” Pomfret Proprietors Records, 1713–1788, Town Hall, Pomfret, Conn.; New Testament, “Book of Revelation,” chapters 6, 8, 9, 11.

Michael Grow

About Michael Grow

Michael Grow, a retired history professor at Ohio University and a longtime NEHGS member, is the author of John Grow of Ipswich, Massachusetts and Some of His Descendants: A Middle-Class Family in Social and Economic Context From the 17th Century to the Present (Amherst, Mass.: Genealogy House, 2020).View all posts by Michael Grow