When we look at genealogical records and see a date of birth flanked by a specific place, then view the date of death and see that same location listed at its side, we presume we are considering a person who lived and died in his or her hometown.
That is not always necessarily so.
My grand-aunt, Mabel Eugenie Davis, was born August 16, 1888, in a tiny place called Erwin, Tennessee. Ninety six years later, on September 1, 1984, she died in the same town.
As far as that little dash in the middle of those two dates goes, Mabel was anything but a homebody. In fact, she wasn’t even a resident of her home state for most of her adult life.
Where she did live during those many years is not entirely clear to me—yet. Thankfully, decennial records pinpointed her whereabouts, after her marriage, for 1910, 1930 and 1940—but as for the rest of those years, there is no guarantee she remained in the same location.
The Unicoi County census records for 1900 captured her name in the household of her parents, William D. and Martha C. Davis, along with her siblings, “Lumie B.,” Mary Chevis, and “Robie J.” (my grandfather, Jack).
That was the last time that family unit would be registered together in the same household. On October 28, 1906, Mabel married LeRoy Okeson Hines, a man from Virginia, and shortly after the November 17, 1907, birth of their daughter, Stella Mabel Hines, the new household had moved out of the state of Tennessee.
Thankfully, online resources helped me pinpoint the family in the 1910 census. Listed as lodgers in a boarding house in the Adkin District of McDowell County in West Virginia, the civil engineer and his wife were entered in the record as Leroy and “Mable Hins.” With the addition of their daughter’s entry as Stella M., as well as correct entries of states of birth, approximately correct ages, and LeRoy’s occupation, I can say I’m fairly certain I have the right family.
It all disintegrates from that point onward. Come 1920, I can find LeRoy and his daughter Stella living with his mother, sixty seven year old Sarah M. Hines, in Norfolk, Virginia.
Where was Mabel?
I have my guesses—thanks only to digital records and online search capabilities at our fingertips nowadays—but I would have been hard pressed to come up with this possibility only a few years ago. And I’m still not certain this is a valid possibility.
Listed in the 1920 census in a boarding home in Detroit, Michigan, there was a single woman by the name of Mabel Hines. She was working as a saleswoman in a local shop. Of the right age, born in Tennessee with both parents from that same state, this entry looked promising—but I can’t yet be sure it was the correct one. What would she be doing in Detroit?
Looking back at LeRoy’s entry for the same census, he listed his marital status as married—which indicated some problems, since his wife was obviously not listed in the same household.
Putting life’s little mystery for the 1920s aside, I moved on to the 1930 census, where Mabel Hines had advanced to buyer for a department store in Baltimore, Maryland. By the time of this census, she was brave enough to declare her marital status as “divorced.” She was living alone.
Meanwhile, by 1930, LeRoy Hines had left his old position as a civil engineer for the City of Norfolk, and was now living—along with his daughter Stella and his new wife, Louise—in Virginia Beach. He was still employed as a civil engineer, this time for the County of Princess Anne. (Apparently, the information for this census was provided by LeRoy’s second wife, who either neglected to ascertain where her step-daughter was born, or proved by her answers that there are two civil engineers in Virginia named LeRoy Hines with daughters named Stella.)
By the time of the 1940 census, things had changed for Mabel—well, that is, if you can believe in mis-entries in governmental records. Mabel had shown up in South Orange, New Jersey, as the wife of a railroad agent. The only drawback was that her first name was entered as Joan, rather than the shortened form—“Jean”—of her middle name. Fortunately, I can say that I’m fairly confident of the entry, though, thanks to other records the family had of the Martins’ residence, and Mabel’s second husband’s name: Horace L. Martin.
How long Mabel lived in New Jersey, I can’t yet be certain. I do know, thanks to my grandmother’s address book, that she had returned to Erwin by the late 1970s—long after her husband’s passing in 1959. I am beginning to find hints of what life was like for Mabel in New Jersey—living an easy twenty mile commute (no doubt by rail) from downtown Manhattan—as I go through family papers left behind by both my mother and my aunt.
If I had only assumed, from the vital statistics given for her birth and for her death, that she was a Tennessee native who never left home, I would never have gotten any idea of the collage of experiences that were represented by that tiny dash separating those two all-important life dates. Even now, I’m not entirely sure, despite hints of a career in the fashion industry (including, possibly, a stint as a model in New York City).
People have likened the difference between “genealogy” and “family history” to the difference between knowing the dates—in Mabel’s case, 1888 and 1984—and knowing the stuff squeezed into that dash in between those two dates. Just like the well-known poetic description of that concept, aptly entitled, “The Dash,” I often wonder just how it was that my grand-aunt Mabel spent her “dash.” There is just so much more of her story yet to be discovered.