Last month, being Family History Month, seemed like a good time to head for the ancestral homelands in central Texas. The fact that I was speaking at an American Bar Association thingie in Austin was completely coincidental.
Longtime readers of this journal (if there are any out there!) will recall that in 1884, my great-great-grandmother and her son Otis went from Hootenville, Upson County, Georgia, to Rockdale, Milam County, Texas. An elaborate family myth was constructed around this move. See, for example, She’s Spanish. In a number of posts, I’ve de-bunked the myth and developed an hypothesis about the reasons for this move. See Debunking a Family Myth. I’ve also written about the other side of the family, the Sanfords, and how they got to Milam County from Tennessee. See William “Billie” Sanford, 1809-1916 .
Although I went to Upson County, Georgia, seven and a half years ago, I had never been to Milam County, Texas. Nor had my father, whose father had been born there. I had been in touch with a few relatives in central Texas and I had corresponded with the county clerk’s office. But there’s nothing like actually being on the ground.
I arrived in Austin at nearly midnight on a Sunday evening. American Airlines had delayed my flight by almost four hours. The next morning, I hooked up with my cousin Hope and her uncle Matthew, who live in Austin. I had spoken on the telephone before with Matthew and exchanged emails with his daughter Angela. I had “met” Hope through a social media site. Cousins Hope and Matt are from the Sanford line.
Along with Matthew’s wife, we set off for Rockdale, a drive of about 65 miles northeast of Austin. Rural areas seem to sprout immediately beyond the city limits of Austin. We drove through places that I had come to know in the course of my research, like Taylor and Manor (pronounced MAY-nor by locals). Manor is in Travis County (of which Austin is the county seat), and Taylor is in Williamson County, adjacent to Milam County.
This is, broadly speaking, is the eastern part of the Texas Hill Country. I took a liking to the landscape immediately. For some folks, it’s a taste to be acquired if it is to be appreciated at all. I had no need to acquire it; it just felt right at the beginning.
Rockdale is on U.S. Highway 79 at Texas FM (“Farm to Market”) Road 908. The city limits extend northeast and southwest of the enter of town where these thoroughfares meet. US 79 is also FM 487 and is known as Cameron Avenue through town.
On the western edge of the city, there is a large Wal-Mart, the consequences of which might be explained by the rather sparse downtown area not very far away. There are a number of fast-food restaurants on that side of town.
As we drove into the center of Rockdale, Hope said, “Our folks literally lived on the other side of the tracks.” She turned right off Cameron Avenue onto South Main, the name that FM 908 takes in that part of town.
And indeed, we crossed over railroad tracks originally laid by the International & Great Northern railroad in 1874. The decision to put the tracks through Rockdale instead of some other town, was a great boon to Rockdale’s economy. Today, Rockdale’s IGN depot is a museum.
Hope turned left at East 1st Avenue, which near Mulberry Street, splits into East First and East 2nd Ave. We took the 2nd Avenue fork. We passed a place called “Sho ‘Nuff Soul Food” on Mulberry. It appeared to me to be a quite sizeable establishment; and unfortunately, it was closed. We turned onto Plum Street, which after slight jog becomes Martin Luther King Drive. Eventually we found ourselves on Oak street, which is what the lower portion of FM 908 is called. A block or so up Oak is White Street.
Rockdale’s Old City Cemetery sits near Oak and White Streets, not far from the old train depot. Of course, we had to explore it. The cemetery is really three cemeteries stitched together. There is the Jewish cemetery, the “white” cemetery and the “black” cemetery. The Jewish cemetery, which appeared to me to be the best kept-up part of the place, is gated and fenced off from the black cemetery. The black cemetery lies roughly between the Jewish and the “white” cemeteries. It is fenced off, sort of, from the “white” portion, but has no fence along the street. As we walked about, it became clear that in both non-Jewish sections, many of the headstones were too old to read. We found a few readable ones, but none that I particularly recognized.
One online source asserts that the black portion of the cemetery is also known as the Fulcher cemetery. This fact was of intense interest to me because I have Fulcher-surnamed ancestors and cousins. But I don’t think I saw any Fulcher headstones. Of course, one realizes that many graves were left unmarked because some families couldn’t afford the costs. I was hoping to find the grave of Billie Sanford, my gg-grand father, 106 years old when he died in the early part of the 20th century. A slave of the Sanford family since his birth in Virginia, he is said to be “the oldest colored person” ever buried in the Rockdale Old City Cemetery.
After tromping around the cemetery for awhile, it was time for lunch. There were more discoveries to be made yet.
Coming up: Searching for People and Records in Milam County, Texas
November 16, 2012 Friday at 2:16 pm