Wilbur Family History Trek 2021
Do you know anyone who’d travel 3,500 miles to attend events aware they wouldn’t know anyone there? Welcome to my world.
In late 2019 a distant cousin shared tragedy. My great-grandmother, Ida Bell Hayden Wilbur Durfee was widowed with four children. Eventually she would marry my great-grandfather Thomas Durfee.
Cousin Eric said the Wilbur family reunion that’d originated in 1953 was still going! I remembered my Dad mentioning he’d attended the “family” reunion and my Mom had too, when she and Dad were married. My interest in attending had been piqued.
I had never gone to either of my Dad’s family’s reunions before. Was mid-pandemic the time?
Family History Adventure
There were decisions to make if I was serious about attending. Cases of Covid were surging in many of the states I’d be pass through.
After so much loss in 2020, I decided to risk it. I would be part of the 67th Wilbur Family Reunion.
I cleared my calendar, making arrangements for the trek. From Florida, up I-75 and across Michigan I’d be zigzagging north, then heading back south to conclude my 3,500-mile trek. I’d complete the circuit in 21 days, spending most of the month driving. During the first two weeks I’d be visiting friends, enjoy old home week and visit cherished haunts around Michigan.
Touring The Past
Two weeks into my road trip came my 11th stop in Evart, Michigan to visit relatives who would welcome me with open arms.
On day one I slid into cousin Bob’s passenger seat and set off for a drive to the local cemetery. Bob’s lived in the area for more than 20 years, driving by the cemetery thousands of times. He’d never stopped before. I hoped to find relatives headstones there. He was a good sport, clearing leaves, tromping through rows of headstones with me, calling out names and dates as we searched for evidence of relatives nearby.
It remains to be seen if any of the Wilbur’s we found are related. That’s for the family genealogist to discover.
Bob’s brother lives down the road. The three of us spent the next afternoon looking through family photo albums splayed on the counter. Those pictures dredged up memories and streaky tears. Over the old photographs we talked about the past, our parents, a brother lost to COPD, our halcyon days (including how we lived to tell the tale.)
One star of our reminiscing was Aunt Edie, a costume jewelry-laden aunt whose clutch of husbands, a habit of fine dressing, and delightfully small dogs were the stuff of family legend.
I’d only sorted out how she was related to the family a couple of years ago. So I wasn’t surprised when neither of my cousins knew how she was related to our family. (my paternal grandmother’s sister).
I was glad I had taken a few days to linger with my cousins. I was thankful for the memories we’d shared. Especially once Bob admitted he’d rather not attend family reunions because he won’t know anyone there.
How Are We Related?
The next morning off I drove to Flushing, Michigan ready to meet shirttail cousins and attend my paternal grandmother’s family reunion.
To break the ice when I walked into the pavillion I introduced myself, jokingly saying “I am here for the pictures.” Guess it worked! I was promptly handed a tote of old photo albums to look through.
I’m the family sore thumb at the reunion. My own family surname was a far-off memory for most who are at the reunion. Except for Scott, the reunion glue. He’s keeper of the albums, journals, and reunion history for the past 12 years. He recognizes my family name. He’s seen it in the journals and in some photo notations.
The photo albums were handed down to him from his aunt’s effects after she’d passed on. His bounty also includes “The World Book Of Wilburs”, papers, curling images of family crests, and Mead binders filled with reunion journals.
The Last Picture Book
My contemporaries’ parents, grandparents and great-grandparents are in the oldest albums, lives reduced to a few photos. Except for lovingly labelled photos, the majority of the oldest album is full of kin unknown to most of us. Their stories are fading from memory, their personalities are remnants captured in these photo albums.
A family legend, found!
Looking through the final album, photo by photo, a picture jumps off the page at me.
Here is a picture of Aunt Edie, the eccentric thrice-married aunt my cousins and I had talked about a day earlier: In the 1964 photo Aunt Edie is dressed in a summer suit, gloved and resplendent in costume jewelry. She is standing beside her brother-in-law, my paternal grandfather, Jesse Lee Durfee. Jesse has a hat perched on his head and a slight grin. (I had never seen him smile, just a dour grunt that I shrank from as a young child). This grin was one he’d kept hidden in every memory I had of him.
Photo Albums, 1958-1964
Inspired,I look closer at the pages in the oldest album and find more of my own family in several other pictures.
There are photos of my Dad standing beside my Aunt Phyll. I see my oldest brother’s silhouette. I see a cousin peeking out from behind my dad’s knees.
There are several more pictures taken over the years of my Dad. In most of the pictures he is hovering near or perched on assorted picnic tables.
It’s a delight to pore over this old photo album. A few pictures have names or dates.
Scott says I can remove photos from the albums and take pictures of them. I used my phone to snap pics of my immediate kin. I am a pushover for older photos so I include pictures of unknown relatives from the late 1950’s batch. I know I’ll be able to see more detail in them when I open them on my computer screen.
After the last photo album, I paged through the journals starting in 1953, year one. The first few journals are aging, pages yellowing and growing fragile. The journals record attendance, who won the sack race and the horseshoe competition, how many watermelons and the cost of hosting the event. Meeting notes include officer appointments to the next year’s committees and tabulations of expenses.
An unexpected surprise
I found my Mom’s name in the 1959 journal. Acting secretary!
There are nine or ten pages filled with her handwriting about the gathering and family: how many guests from each clan attended, menus, winners and losers, oldest, youngest, who was sick and couldn’t come. Likely she only held the role for a few years before she and my Dad divorced.
I turn the old pages gingerly and snap photos of the handwritten pages from 1959-1961 to show to my Mom later.
She doesn’t remember being the secretary during those year. At 90 years old, memories from 60 plus years ago are understandably fuzzy. Still, she’s one of the few people I know who recollects fragments of family history from that era.
Someday I’ll transcribe the handwritten journal entries and post to the Reunion’s Facebook Page after I return to Florida. I have a few tips up my sleeve for transcribing handwriting. Ask me about that process if you want to learn how to do that yourself.
Reunions And Family Legacy
Before I leave the reunion Scott and I talk about scanning the albums and journals for safe keeping. His interest in preserving this history has been piqued by me, a distant cousin. Come to think of it, isn’t that the same way I wound up at this particular reunion?
My name might deserve a notation in the journals for travelling 3,500 miles to recover family tidbits. Or I can head the category: recognized kin beginning in 1958.
Some day a distant family member might pore over the reunion albums and journals. Maybe they’ll recognize an eccentric road-tripping older cousin who’d zigzagged 3,500 miles in 2021 to attend the 67th Wilbur Family Reunion searching for family history treasures .
(2020 was the first time it was cancelled in the entire history of the reunion).