The Old Homestead
The Woonsocket Farm, c. 1890
What has always struck me about this photo is how separated all the family members are from each other. Great distances between each person and the next. Nobody touching—or even looking at—another. No interaction. Each person sealed off in his or her own private sphere. This picture is not about family relationships. This picture is about the real estate. An inventory of possessions. Look! We have a fine house. We have two barns. We have horses and a buggy and a bicycle.
Nobody is looking any too happy about being photographed. Not my father's father Thaddeus, slouching on the porch—perhaps feeling sulky because he doesn't get a horse to sit on or a bicycle to hold. Not Thad's stepmother Julia, standing as far from him as she can and still be on the porch. She too is empty-handed and has nothing to do. Not Thad's father Charles who looks worn out from hitching the horse up to the buggy—and probably from organizing the whole photo shoot. Not the stoop-shouldered woman sitting on the tired-looking horse. The only character whose posture and facial expression suggest that he might be relaxed and enjoying himself is Thad's younger brother Syd. He's got the fun prop—the bicycle.
Now, about that woman on the horse. In the little note my mother attached to the photo, she has identified the horse as Beauty and the horse-sitter as Aunt Franc, my dad's aunt. (It would have made sense: My great-grandfather, his second wife, and his three children all together in a family portrait.)
I can see how she might have made that assumption. But with the technology available in the 1960s or 70s, Mom did not have the ability to zoom in on the photo. If she had, she would have seen that the person in the saddle was not a slip of a girl, ten years younger than her pouty brother, but a woman rather advanced in years. It is my belief that this is my great-grandfather's older sister, Sarah Hays Dixon. She appeared in the South Dakota Territorial Census of 1855, as a widow and a member of the Charles Hays household.
So where is Frances? Why is she not in this picture? I am guessing she was away at school. She left South Dakota somewhere around 1890 to attend Blairsville Women's College in the Pennsylvania town where her mother, Mattie Laughry, had grown up. When she graduated, she became a Latin teacher in Joplin, Missouri. I have searched for evidence of her whereabouts, but all I have is a big blank between the 1885 South Dakota Territorial Census and a 1909 Joplin City Directory.
My father told the story of a time when Aunt Franc took him up to Woonsocket for a visit to his grandfather's farm but wasn't able to bring him home after the visit. She put him on the train in Woonsocket and his mother picked him up at the train station in a town not far from their home in Armstrong, Iowa. My ten-year-old dad had ridden the 250 miles on the train by himself!
Decades later, after both Aunt Franc and Uncle Syd died, my father and his two sisters inherited the old homestead. I have a letter to him from his attorney outlining what they needed to do to complete the sale of the property. In the end, the 160-acre farm was sold for $12,000.
So what is left of the old homestead is a photo, a story, and this deed.