Sunday, 30 March 2014

Creating Family History from Grandma Gladys' Legend ~

By:  Tina Marie

My favorite part of family history is discovering a story within a story.  That unique blend of family legend combined with nostalgic photographs, historic information, sleuthing old records, and the sentimental value of a personal reflection are all quite appealing to my genealogist senses.  It takes time, effort and patience to recreate the storylines of our ancestors, but in the end it always proves to be a great formula for an amazing experience.

My paternal grandmother Gladys Wheeler Starks made sure that I knew the details about her parent’s lives.  She would say in her southern drawl, “My parents were David Isaac Wheeler and Faithie Lyons.  David was born in February 1874 in Chattooga County, Georgia, and Faithie was born in September 1884 in Tennessee.”  My grandmother’s persistence in passing on their story made me feel a special kinship to my great-grandparents, so when I began to study my family's history they were the first ancestors that I researched.

My first task was to find a photograph of David and Faithie.  I felt their picture would inspire me to stay focused on their research.  I spoke to many relatives but no one in the family had ever seen a photo of David, and my father was the only one who had a photo of Faithie.  My dad’s photograph was stored in a burgundy album on the top shelf of his closet nicely placed between two plastic photo pages.  It took me two years to get him to show me the photo and 24 years to convince him to give me the photo. Finally, on August 16, 2012, Faithie’s picture moved from the burgundy photo album in my dad’s closet into an antique silver frame that sits in my dining room in the center of the American Craftsman credenza.

Faithie Lyons Wheeler, c. 1905

My grandmother did not know the names of her grandparents so it took some research on my part to locate them.  I found them in the 1870 and 1880 census.  David’s parents were Barney Wheeler and Deliah Merrill.  They married on December 25, 1868 in Chattooga County, Georgia.  Barney was born circa 1850 in Georgia, and his date and place of death is unknown.  Deliah was born circa 1852 in Virginia, and died January 2, 1922 in Chattanooga, Hamilton County, Tennessee.  Faithie’s father was Polk Lyons and he was born circa 1860 in Tennessee, and his date and place of death is unknown.  Each of them and their ancestors had survived the brutal institution of slavery.

Pedigree Chart for Gladys Wheeler
I was unable to locate Faithie’s mother which made a lot of sense, because my grandmother had said, “I was told Faithie’s mother died when she was very young.”  I had hit a brick wall and without her name, her date of death, the 1890 lost census, and no existing statewide death registry until 1909, it may take some time to locate this mysterious great-great-granny.

In 1870 four years before David was born, Chattanooga became the county seat for Hamilton County, Tennessee.  By 1877, the city leaders decided to build a permanent courthouse.  They purchased three properties on Walnut Hill and selected A.C. Bruce as the architect.  The courthouse was designed with limestone arches and columns, and had an ornate bell tower that was visible on all four sides.  When the bells rang they could be heard throughout the city.  In 1879 the building was completed for $65,000 just in time for the booming industrial town that Chattanooga was becoming.

Hamilton County Courthouse, c. 1890

When the census enumerators came around in 1900, David was residing with his mother and siblings in Summerville, Chattooga County, Georgia.  He was 25 years old and he was farming with his brothers.  Faithie was living with her aunt at 15 Weaver Street in Chattanooga, Tennessee.  She was 15 years old and employed as a domestic servant.

David first appeared in Chattanooga in the 1903 City Directory.  The population was 56,000 people and 70% of them were white.  David lived at 814 William Street and worked as a laborer at Wheland Machine Works.  Wheland was a foundry company that was a newly established business in Chattanooga.  It was interesting to see that at a time when the world was shifting from an agricultural to an industrial economy, the historical context of those events were influencing my family’s decisions.  I am sure that the wages from David’s job as a laborer is probably what brought him from rural Summerville to the city of Chattanooga.

1903 Chattanooga City Directory advertisement

Between 1900 and 1903, David met and married Faithie.  My grandmother said they had a world-wind romance.  When I asked her what that meant, she gave a gentle laugh and said, “On December 13, 1903, they were married at the Hamilton County Courthouse.”  In celebration of their marriage, I can just imagine hearing the bells at the courthouse tower ringing throughout the city announcing the Wheeler's nuptials.  I obtained their marriage certificate in 2012 and noticed that the groom was listed as Dave Wheeler and the bride’s name was listed incorrectly as Facey Lines.  I looked up the original hand written document in the marriage registry book and it had the same incorrect information.  When I saw the error it made me think about my grandmother’s laugh.  I guess the world-wind romance that my grandmother referred to caused Faithie's name to get lost in translation.

Marriage Certificate, 1903

David and Faithie had their first child Lovie Wheeler in 1906.  According to the 1907 City Directory, they owned a home at 1205 Walker Avenue in the Centerville neighborhood.  My grandmother Gladys Wheeler was born in the home on May 20, 1908, and Daisy Wheeler the youngest daughter was born in 1910.  Both Lovie and my grandmother were born before 1909 when Tennessee law did not require a statewide registry of births, so they do not have a birth certificate.  However, a deed for the property does exist because David and Faithie returned to the Hamilton County Courthouse to register the deed for the property.  They must have returned prior to May 7, 1910, because on that date, the Hamilton County Courthouse was struck by lightning and a fire erupted.  The bell tower was destroyed and the building had to be demolished.  Fortunately for me, the records inside the building escaped the fire.  A new courthouse was designed by architect Reuben H. Hunt and it was built at the same location.  It cost $350,000.  The building was completed and dedicated in 1913.

Hamilton County Courthouse, 1913

According to the Chattanooga City Directory, David and Faithie were living at 2105 Walker Avenue in 1921.  The change in address from 1205 to 2105 was a little confusing.  I had always known my grandparents lived at 2105 Walker but never knew anything about 1205 Walker.  According to the staff at the Addressing Department at the Hamilton County Courthouse, there has never been a 1205 Walker Avenue.  The staff believes that the change in address in the city directory was caused by a typographical error.  The 1910 and 1920 census disputes this theory.  Both census have the house number listed as 1205.  In the 1930 census it has 2105.  On my research trip to Chattanooga in 2012, I went to see my great-grandparent’s old home and a church occupies a portion of the land today.  I looked for the address 1205 Walker Avenue, but it did not exist and Walker Avenue had become Walker Street.  My theory is the house numbers were reorganized around the year 1921.

My grandmother married my grandfather LaGrant Starks on June 23, 1930. They lived in the home with my great-grandparents.  My great-grandparents died eight months apart.  Faithie died on June 10, 1936 and David died on February 12, 1937.  They are both buried in the Highland Memorial Gardens Cemetery in Chattanooga.  David does not have a grave marker, but he made sure that Faithie had one upon her death.  Her marker says, “Faithie wife of Dave Wheeler, Sept 13, 1884 - June 10, 1936”.    

Faithie Lyons Wheeler's grave marker

Like my grandmother my dad did not know his grandparents.  He was born almost two years after their death.  My grandmother Gladys Wheeler Starks died on September 22, 1988 in Chattanooga, Tennessee.  I feel fortunate that I got to know my grandmother and was able to experience her love of oral tradition.  In August 2012, after years of family research I returned for a visit to Chattanooga.   To help me bring this story to life, I traveled the streets my ancestors walked, visited the land they owned, sleuthed the documents they left, and touched the ground of their final resting place.  A story that once seemed abstract and distant now felt very personal.  All because of a grandmother’s persistence in telling the legend and a granddaughter’s love for family history.

Information contained in this story can be proven through source citation.  Please feel free to contact the author if you have questions


  1. Hi Tina - I enjoyed the story.
    Street numbers were changed in my home town of Ballarat at the turn of the twentieth century - it is a logical explanation for the discrepancy. It could also be a transcription error with the one and two being transposed. Since two censuses listed 1205 and then in the 1930s it was 2105 it seems likely the numbers changed. I suggest checking out the neighbours and seeing if they stayed the same. Especially comparing the 1920 census to the 1921 street directory. Best wishes Anne

    1. Thank you Anne. I appreciate your suggestions. I will definitely check into the neighbors since the city directory has two listings one by name and the other by address. I hadn't thought of that.

  2. Hi, Tina, Your best bet for finding a picture of David would be to study the places he worked. Find out if any of them still exist in some form or possibly the main library or historical society has any photo archive. Look at groups investigating working conditions too. These photos will most likely not be identified, but hopefully he will look enough like a living family member that you can identify him. Good luck.

  3. Tina, yes, many cities changed the street addresses in the early 1900's. If you have not done so check out Sanborn Fire Maps, there may be some online, or at libraries. They are fun resources and will clearly show the difference in the numbers on the streets.

    Really enjoyed this post, well done. Faithie's photo is stunning. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thanks so much Carol. I have used Sanborn maps before but didn't think to use them for this. Next time I'm at the Newberry Library (my second home) I will check them out. Thanks for the tip!!

    2. You are welcome Tina, hope to hear you found something totally fascinating and wonderful on your next trip to the Newberry. I find myself rather full of library envy, I have never had the pleasure of researching there. I hope to some day.

  4. Lovely story, yes I agree with you when you actually go to where your ancestors lived, and walk around the streets they did, visit the church they attended their story seems to come alive and becomes even more personal, gives your more of a connection.

    1. Thank you Diane. I'm sorry for just now getting back to you.

  5. A fascinating research tale, with the love of your grandmother shining through. Like you and Diane,I too feel that to walk in the footsteps of our ancestors has such special meaning.

    1. Sorry for the delay. Thank you ScotSue. Writing this piece made me wish I could go back in time with a list of questions. :)


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