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.

Notes

[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).

16 thoughts on “Lessons in oral history

  1. I know what you mean, Michael — I have a couple of these stories. A great grand uncle in Baltimore who, by an article in the Sun, had a violin which an expert proclaimed a Stradivarius, and a maternal grandfather who had $400 for buying a team of horses, but lost it all in a tavern poker game. Cute stories, but not published genealogy-worthy.

  2. Your story provides one more reason for us all to read the endnotes. They often contain a wealth of entertainment as well as facts.

    1. Hey, Chris — It’s a lovely area of New England, part of Connecticut’s aptly named Quiet Corner. FYI: my newly published family history, JOHN GROW OF IPSWICH AND SOME OF HIS DESCENDANTS, devotes three-plus chapters to the Pomfret-Hampton area, with a focus on social, economic, and religious history.

  3. Michael – in 2010 I went to my grandfather’s home in Massachusetts hoping to be allowed to take outside pictures. The owner came out, was very nice (her parents had bought the house from the estate) and said to go ahead taking pictures. As I was finishing she appeared and told me that two years ago she had cleaned out the attic and found some pictures that she thought were of my grandfather. They were and did I want them? I, of course, took them all; one was a collage of Harvard Medical School buildings, the professors and the graduating class of 1904 including my grandfather.

    1. A memorable anecdote, Howland. I was raised in the Midwest and my wife in California. When we traveled to Connecticut on our first research trip, we assumed that the New Englanders we encountered would be aloof, taciturn, and suspicious of strangers. The reality was just the opposite. As soon as we expressed interest in their local history, everyone we met was cordial, welcoming, and helpful.

      1. Michael – a quick comment. I was raised in NYC but my mother was from Boston. And I am now in Akron OH with a grandson at Ohio University

  4. My ancestor, Deacon William Elliot (d. 1822) and his wife Sibbel Hebard/Hibbard 1743-1815 are both buried in Grow Cemetery, Pomfret and my husband and I have visited the graves. I assume this is on your ancestor’s land? Since I have been unable to find out who William’s parents were and where he came from before arriving in Pomfret, I’m hoping that your story may provide a hint! To your knowledge, was there a group of families who came to Pomfret from Ipswich, MA? One of the possible Elliot families I have been looking at was also in Essex County, MA. In your Grow research did you find other references to an Elliot besides Reuben who climbed the pole? Thanks for any hints.

    1. Hi, Sarah:

      Yes, the Grow Cemetery is located at the eastern foot of the ancestral Grow Hill farm that was first settled in the 1740s. At least 16 Grows and 8 Elliots (or Elliotts) are buried there. According to an old list of gravestone transcriptions in my possession, the Elliots/Elliotts include:
      David Elliott, died March 22, 1853, age 85 years
      David Elliott, March 16, 1888, age 76 years
      Dea. James Elliott, died September 18, 1841, age 64 years
      Lydia Elliott, died February 12, 1841, age 77 years
      Molly Elliott, wife of Dea, James, died March 11, 1852, age 72 years
      Nabby Elliott, died February February 24, 1835, age 35 years
      Sybil Elliot, wife of Dea. William, died October 4, 1816, in 72nd year of her age
      Dea. William Elliott, died June 19, 1822, in 78th year of his age

      I haven’t come across any direct migratory links between Ipswich, MA and Pomfret, CT, but a substantial number of early Pomfret settlers came directly from Andover, MA, 15 miles west of Ipswich. Ellen Larned’s HISTORY OF WINDHAM COUNTY, CT contains numerous Elliot/Elliott references and may be useful.

      Michael Grow

      1. Thanks, Michael

        The first David and James were William and Sybil’s sons.

        That’s interesting about the settlers from Andover — I will see what I can find there!

        I notice that I do have a copy of Ellen Larned’s book on my computer (which I must have looked through at one stage and forgotten) so I’ll give it another look.

        Thanks again!

        Sarah

  5. Great story about white robes on second coming Sunday. As oral history, I imagine that it’s based on a real event that was then joyfully embellished over time but cannot be completely dismissed. These are the tales that bring the past alive and reveal as much about the protagonists as they do about the storytellers.

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