Discovering an Ancestor’s Memoir

Cover of William Stone's spiral notebook

After my grandfather died, my dad took on the task of cleaning out my grandfather’s closet and saving items to share with the family. Like many closets collecting junk over the years, it contained a mix of useful and useless items, but one unexpected gem caught my dad’s attention. It was a spiral notebook filled with the handwritten musings of a man named William Cleston Stone, my third great-grandfather from my grandmother’s side. My grandmother has saved many old documents from her family, but this particular journal came as a surprise.

In addition to my research at American Ancestors, I’m considered our family’s genealogist, so my dad got permission from my grandmother to have me transcribe the journal. Last summer, I was able to get my hands on it for the first time.

In the span of thirty handwritten pages, William Cleston recorded many of his memories from childhood to old age. Right away, I was amazed by his level of description. He began writing on 30 January 1939 in Hammondsport, New York:

“I am going to jot down what happened along my life's trail. This writing may not interest any one but I thought it would be a good test of my memory. It is quite difficult to set down the exact dates, but my mind is perfectly clear as to what took place from the time I was five years of age until the present times. At this writing, I am 83 years of age, 5 feet, 5’’ tall, weigh 147 lbs., am in good health, feel like a man at 50 years. Never was sick but very little. Never had a bad accident. Never was arrested. Never was sued. Never had a broken bone. I have always observed the first law of nature and trusted in God.”

Born in Scott Township, Luzerne (now Lackawanna) County, Pennsylvania, William was only educated to about a third-grade level. Much of his spelling and grammar was difficult to decipher, especially combined with his writing style. I worked my way through the journal over several months, typing up his story so that I could share the document with my family. There were a few words and sentences I wasn’t sure about, but I was able to finish the work during my Christmas vacation.

Many of his descriptions revolved around the details of farm life, telling stories of cows that wouldn’t milk well and describing the types of crops they grew. But he also told many stories of “troubles,” such as losing his brother to diphtheria at the age of four. One particularly striking passage described his father being excused from the Civil War draft:

Photograph of anecdote, transcribed below

“One day we saw a horseman riding up the lane. When we saw him, our hearts sank for we thought we were to lose our father. The officer dismounted, saluted us, took off his cap, and hung it on the saddle pommel, took some papers from his pocket, and said to my father, ... I have here your exemption papers, the quota is full, and you can remain with your family.’ We were so happy that we had a good cry.”

Shortly after 1880, William moved to Cicero, New York, to work at a canning factory belonging to a friend’s uncle. During a trip, he and his companions got off the train in Corning, New York—it was there that William met his wife, Mabel Leonard. “I have never been sorry that I made that stop,” he wrote. He didn’t write about his three children or life at home, instead focusing on his work, but I filled in the missing information with some additional research.

He finishes his writing with a brief note: “Please excuse bad spelling and all mistakes. If you rewrite this, please correct all mistakes. You will see by the writing that my hand was not steady sometimes. But if you have lots of time, you may be able to make it out.” Well, that’s exactly what I did. I’m so happy to have saved this family heirloom and to be able to make it accessible for the current and future generations of my family.

Portion of William Stone's obituaryObituary for William Cleston Stone


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