It did not occur to me that had they lived to be old, they would have been a part of my life the same as my Grandma Walters. At some point in my adult life, I began to wish they had lived longer just so I could have known them. My grandfather was an East Texas lawyer, and in spite of that, he was a man of high principles, known for his honesty and well respected in Marshall, Texas. Leisure time was spent in fishing and hunting at his beloved Caddo lake, and he was an environmentalist before his time, fighting to preserve the Caddo Lake environment against encroaching developments.

Grandfather Bibb’s very face in the old photographs is to me a perfect representation of the man. Had I never seen a photograph and had to choose an actor to portray him, that’s just the sort of face I would choose. His was a visage of high forehead and straight lines. Direct look in his eyes. Brushed back, thick brown hair. Held himself like he was somebody, as we say down South.

My sister Connie is seriously into genealogy. With her down for a visit, we decided to take a day trip up to western Kentucky, to a spot she had long wished to visit. A great-great-great-great (count them, four greats) grandfather on the Bibb side had made his home in Russellville. He was a Major in the Revolutionary War. Something penned decades ago told us that there was a house in the area; whether it was still standing or not, we had no idea. Thinking of that brought scenes of ruins rising out of tall grass in some desolate place outside town, long forgotten by all but grazing cattle.

Among my Grandfather Bibb’s papers is a letter to his brothers and sister recounting a trip he took to Kentucky as a young man in 1905. He wanted them to know the results of his research on family history. Being the sort of man he was, he first cautioned them in exactly this way: “If they (his younger siblings) find in this anything that will tend to create vanity, I hope that they will realize that though a just pride in the deeds and breeding of our ancestors is not only permissible but is to be admired, yet at the same time we must realize that no credit is due us and the world owes us nothing for their qualities, and that the man who attempts to rely upon his ancestry for a place and position in life, or who appears to demand recognition and expect subserviency from others by reason of his ancestry, is generally the most contemptible specimen of humanity.”

On that trip he had visited relatives in both Frankfort and Louisville, but never made it to Russellville. Discussing it, we wondered why he had not just zipped down through Russellville on his way home to Texas. No doubt it was not so easy with train schedules to reach all the spots he would have liked. In that letter he gave the basic facts of Major Richard Bibb. That was about the extent of our knowledge.

With the admittedly irrelevant tune of John Prine’s “Paradise” running through my head, we set off. I had the odd yet comforting feeling that we were taking Grandfather Bibb along with us, that this time he would make it to Logan County and sniff out family history right beside us. He rode in the back seat, sitting straight and alert in spite of advanced age, sometimes leaning forward in expectation, eyes bright with anticipation.

Russellville isn’t backwards like Prine's "Paradise," but a pretty little town with historical markers and statues taking advantage of the shady square. Here it was evident we were in a town deeply into its history, although we didn't recognize any names on the square. Our stop at the Chamber of Commerce almost didn’t happen, because Connie’s experience is that the chambers are interested in business, not history. There was a sign on the window reading “Tourist Info,” and I, a novice to ancestor hunting, persuaded her to go inside. Upon telling our business, the woman at the counter asked for a name. “Bibb,” Connie told her.

“Major Bibb?” was the quick response. That was all it took. Major Bibb, it seemed, was as well known in Russellville as the current mayor. She whipped out brochures about his house, which, it turned out, is not only still standing but is a museum and one of the town’s chief historic sites. She brought out books and helped in every way she could think of but was sorry to inform us the historical society did not currently have funds to keep the museum open to visitors. When we asked if there might not be a chance of calling someone who just might show us through anyway, she jumped on the phone until she found someone who would indeed meet us there.

This woman proved to have once lived in the house herself for a short time so took a personal interest in it. She hailed from Monroe, Louisiana, just down the road from Marshall, Texas, which my mother and Grandfather Bibb called home. Like the Chamber of Commerce worker, she could not have been more congenial. She showed us through every room and told us much we did not know. In the Greek Revival style, brick originally red and now painted white, the house on Eighth Street is large and wonderful, as such old houses always are.

She told us about two tunnels, now sealed off, beneath the house, the purpose of which no one is certain, but most suspect to have been used to hide runaway slaves. For Richard Bibb was known first not for his military service nor for his wealth, but for being an emancipationist.

As an old man in 1829 he stood on the shaded lawn of that very house (the event included both tears and singing, according to the words of a young black lad who saw the whole thing and was so overwhelmed he ran inside and hid under a bed), asked a divine blessing on them and freed twenty-nine of his slaves, sending them to Liberia. It is recorded that the ones chosen for this journey were those without spouses and those he deemed to be troublemakers. Sending freed slaves to Liberia was being attempted at the time by others, with results varying.

The remaining fifty-eight were to be freed at Mr. Bibb’s death, which occurred ten years later. From all accounts, it was a long cherished dream, a carefully thought out plan, a response to a moral imperative. He did not leave them unprepared to fend for themselves. He left them some 1,500 acres to farm, with all of his livestock, tools and wagons, as well as a trust fund to be doled out over time by executors. The rural area where they settled is still known as Bibb Town, many having taken his surname. The will laying out his wishes for them can be seen in the Logan County courthouse.

Now much could be said about the details of the whole thing. Once having decided to free slaves, why pick and choose some to go and some to stay, why make some wait until after his death? Why own slaves in the first place? Considering the time and place, the society and culture and upbringing involved (many were inherited from his own father), we can only say the decision must have taken much initiative and courage. In such a setting, even if one began as a child thinking to himself the original thought, “It is not right to own slaves,” it must have taken many years to reach that point at which he would actually take steps to revoke slavery in his own family. He had several children of his own and left them a good inheritance as well. The best thing he did for them was to leave them no slaves.

We went to the library next. A small woman in a crisp, plaid cotton dress with full skirt and sensible shoes came over to the genealogy section to ask if she could be of help. With her soft voice and neat gray perm, she put one in mind of home-baked pies and iced tea, front porches and newly mowed lawns with flower beds. She bore the scent of genteel small town life. Her volunteer librarian’s name tag said “Helen Mayes.” She produced a whole file on our man, but in the library, as with the house, there was no picture of him. The only one known to exist, a portrait miniature, belonged to our brother. Connie had once taken a photograph of that and offered to send a copy to the library, to Mrs. Maye’s delight. She volunteered to drive us herself in an attempt to find the old cemetery which was next on our agenda. Major Bibb was not buried in the town cemetery but in a small family graveyard on his farm and near the chapel he had built, for he was also a Methodist minister, a dissident in a long line of Episcopalians.

The graveyard had apparently not been kept up over the years, and no one seemed to know the exact spot. It was thought a sign had recently been put up, but even that was uncertain. Helen Mayes, though, knew both the area and the people and was most interested in the history of Logan County and Richard Bibb in particular. This brave woman had no hesitation about taking into her nice automobile two strangers (and one she could not be aware of, for Grandfather Bibb climbed into the back seat with me). To her credit, there was an unmistakable hat pin ominously stuck in the driver’s seat by her, on the side next to the passenger seat. She drove us down more than one country road and inquired of more than one local before we happened upon a small green sign on Echo Valley Road, reading “Bibb Chapel Cemetery.” It was hard to tell who was more excited, our driver or ourselves.

The people who farmed there turned out to be former next door neighbors of hers, who informed us it was “just right down that way.” We walked down a lane until we finally gave up and turned back, not finding any semblance of a cemetery. While Helen walked back to ask more specific directions, Connie and I decided to enter a wooded area we had at first passed up, enclosed within a rusty and leaning fence and gate which were barely visible for the foliage. It certainly looked like a place for a graveyard, but it was so overgrown that one could see nothing but trees and high weeds. Poison ivy quite literally carpeted the ground. Only after walking a while could a trail be made out. Even then there was no sign of headstones.

We were quite a ways back into the place and wondering if our guide would think us lost, when she came ploughing through the undergrowth behind us for all the world, as if she were dressed in full hiking gear instead of dress and hose. She had done this before. We were impressed. And, she had been told, in the right place. Bibb’s Chapel had been right in here until burning down. Somewhere in the area had been a house. We later found only a few ticks, it being May and too early for them to be out in full force. Mrs. Mayes said her hose could still be worn under pants in the winter, but Grandfather Bibb fared the best, being unencumbered with such mortal concerns. After we branched out from the trail, delving into deeper and deeper brush, we began to find the old stones like children hunting Easter eggs, first one and then another, never more than two or three in sight at one time and usually no more than one. But no matter how many we found, there was not one Bibb name to be found. We finally left, after having searched the area quite thoroughly.

Back at the library, we discovered there were actually two cemeteries, the second described as being “across the pasture” from our find. (That could be in either of several directions.) It was too late in the day for Mrs. Mayes to continue with us, so we parted and after eating a bite in town, decided to go back and hunt for the second cemetery on our own. This one is called the Bibb-Lewis or the Bibb, Lewis, Slaughter Cemetery. A newspaper article had given directions, but the writer who had researched both had never been successful in finding the Major’s stone. She did give specific road names and a mailbox number, as well as the name of the people who had lived on the farm.

Again on Echo Valley Road, all we found was the rusty skeleton of a mailbox at a lane where by rights that number should have been. There was no sign of a house, only an old barn in the distance. It looked as if any residents might have long since packed up and moved away. We drove up the lane anyway, and on the other side of a curve and a hill was an old, two-story farmhouse with a three-year-old boy playing in the yard. In spite of his young age, he seemed to size us up with a dubious eye, totally unafraid, but not about to be taken in by anybody.

His grandparents answered to the name given in the directions, Mr. and Mrs. Earl Slaten. They were pure country and as different from the people we had been meeting all day as might be imagined, but they were every bit as hospitable and more than willing to help. They not only knew the exact location of the cemetery but had themselves cleaned up some of the stones at one time. An extra thrown in at no charge was first being shown their Watussis, a wild looking African breed of cattle with enormous horns, recently purchased, apparently just for the novelty of it.

They took us there (directions for future generations: just up from the old barn, past peacocks on a fence and red, horned cattle—not Watussi—on the hill in a grove of trees). Mrs. Slaten said the peacocks’ nocturnal cries often sounded like they were calling her husband: “Hey, Earl! Hey, Earl!”

The stones here were mostly visible, but many were flat on the ground, broken, and strewn about. Here was my scene of ruin and desolation, complete with cattle. The four of us dug through weeds and bushes, finding more hidden stones, brushing off mud with our hands and rubbing on flour Mrs. Slaten had brilliantly brought along, to bring out inscriptions which could not have been otherwise read. Some still could not be read. The cows joined us, curious and shoving their way around through the bushes as if trying to help. Mr. Slaten in gray khakis was lying prone on the ground at times, giving his all to pulling away growth from fallen stones. Amid her own efforts, his wife kept passing out flour and yelling at the cows to shoo. Connie and I were standing, balancing in see-saw fashion, on top of the lids of the box-like tombs, many half off and revealing empty tombs.

Here there were many Bibbs, but try as we might, we could not locate Richard, only his two wives (on the old tombstones the wife was sometimes referred to by the curious term of consort) and several children. The Slatens, however, had seen the Major’s grave with their own eyes, when they first moved to the place and did some brush clearing. They thought to find it again but could not on this day. It was reassuring to find someone who had actually seen it and to be able to know for certain we were in the right spot. It was getting late in the day, and we finally separated to go home. We’ll be back.

Grandfather Bibb, in that aforementioned letter, quoted an elderly cousin in Frankfort. “Dear Joe,” she had written. “I have copied out the record from the family Bible for you, so you can see what nice people you belong to. I think it is very well to know these things; not to depend on them, but to make us wish to live worthy of those who have gone before.”

So it was the next county down from Muhlenberg, and it wasn’t, thankfully, hauled away by anyone’s coal train. But there’s a similar longing to go back in a lot of us, and something deeply satisfying about retracing the steps of those who came before us, of finally seeing with our own eyes the scenes of all the old stories. And it just might in some way inspire us to be better people.

Charlton Walters Hillis has a fine arts degree, but her first love is creative writing, primarily the short story. By day she is a graphic artist for the Chattanooga Times Free Press.

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