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A Pocketful of Treats



Generations overlap. The elders you met in your childhood are completely unknown to your children and grandchildren. While your children can learn about your elders through records research, personal stories are so much more illuminating. Yet, our fleeting childhood memories of older relatives often get left unexplored and – crucially – undocumented.


I never met my great grandfather Caleb Joshua Whitacre, known as Josh. Josh was born before the Civil War and was already 70 years old when my father was born in 1927. By the time my dad was old enough to remember Josh, the country was in the depths of The Great Depression. My dad recalled fondly that Josh owned walnut trees. Walnuts were an expensive commodity and therefore a rare treat during the Depression. Whenever Josh saw my dad, he’d reach in his pocket and hand him a walnut.


One of my dad’s favorite summer memories was when they went to Josh’s house and made maple walnut ice cream. For 25 cents they could buy 50 lbs of ice and make two- and one-half gallons of summer scrumptiousness. The aunts cooked a custard base and then


…we’d chip in the ice, add salt, and turn the crank until it was hard to turn. By this time, it was dark. We’d sit around the porch and eat ice cream and talk. After eating our ice cream, we kids, who were still without shirts and shoes, would begin to get cold. We’d curl up on the porch swing under any cover we could find. My sister’s little black dog, called Snowball was a welcome bed fellow.[1]

Along with my happy memories, there were lingering family resentments my father gleaned as a child. Some of Josh’s six sons resented that he often left them to do the hard work of farming in the rocky soil of West Virginia. Instead, Josh drove around the county renting out his best horse to stud.


While Josh was on one of his trips, the boys were left to pull stumps out of the ground using a horse and wagon. The oldest son Austin was 18 and the youngest Edward, was 11. The boys were using a horse and wagon to pull a tree stump out of the ground. The local newspaper tells what happened next.


The older brother was driving, and the two younger ones were attaching the chains to the stumps. Little Edward Whitacre fastened the chain he had been holding to the stump and called to his brother to “go ahead.” The horses made a sudden and unexpected surge and caused on the rear wheels of the wagon to rise about three feet from the ground.
Without thinking the little fellow ran to the wheel, caught the [wheel rim] to pull it back to the ground, when his feet slipped beneath the ponderous wheel just as the stump was torn loose from its stronghold.
The heavy wheel, with its extra force came down on the lad’s chest and face, knocking out one tooth and breaking his callar bone [sic].
The two brothers of young Whitacre hurriedly took him from under the wheel in an unconscious condition, and after shaking and rubbing him for some minutes he regained consciousness…
It was then about 6:30 o’clock in the evening, and the child seemed to brighten up and appeared to be getting along nicely, continuing so until about 10 o’clock last night, when he asked his brother, Holmes Whitacre, to come and lie in bed with him, remarking at the time that he was about to die. The little patient expired in a few minutes — just seven hours from the time he was injured by the wagon overturning.[2]

My grandfather, Holmes, was lying next his eleven-year-old brother when he died.



While the records Josh left behind can tell me things about his life and the tragedies he endured, the nuances of his relationships with his sons and the impact of Edward’s death is only available through family stories.


Your experience with older relatives is the connection between your grandparents and your grandchildren. You are the bridge. Tell the stories.


I still remember the twinkle in my dad’s eyes when he’d talk about his grandpa Josh reaching into his jacket pocket and sharing walnuts with him. My dad’s stories help me connect with my great grandfather in a way that wouldn’t happen through records research alone.


When my oldest child was a toddler, I remember the day he ran to his Gramps and their eyes locked in conspiratorial glee. I couldn’t figure out what they were up to until I saw my dad reach into his jacket pocket. I don’t know how long my dad had been filling his pockets with treats, but it was clear, Josh – born in 1858 – had just touched the life of his great, great grandson.

[1] Whitacre, C Glenvil, Come Back and See Us: A Childhood in Depression Era Virginia, 2016, p. 96. [2] Winchester Evening Star, [West Virginia],June 15, 1907


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