Thursday, September 10, 2015

On the Trail of the McClellans

Do you ever check census records for the addresses of your relatives of bygone generations so that you can go visit the homes where they once lived?

That's one of the first things I did when preparing to visit Florida last month. After all, we were flying into Tampa, and I already knew that was where my great grandfather had moved his dental practice, once his daughter graduated from high school in rural Fort Meade.

Since my great grandfather, Rupert Charles McClellan, died in 1943, the most recent record of his address would be found in the 1940 census. We snatched that little bit of data right out of the census—2804 Jefferson Street—and ran it through its paces. We checked it out on Google Maps. We zoomed in on Street View. Ever the technology buff, my husband even plugged it into his downloaded version of Google Earth.

There was only one problem with our plan to drive by the place, once we landed in Tampa: there was no 2804 Jefferson Street. Apparently, though the house numbers preceding it and following it can be easily located, all that is left of my great grandparents' home is now a vacant lot.

That is a result over which I should not really be surprised. After all, we tried this same approach on my husband's paternal line when we visited Fort Wayne several years ago—and our route took us, among many other still-standing hundred year old homes, to a vacant lot. It happens.

It's the kind of result that also serves to put the positive discoveries in much clearer focus: for those homes we do manage to find, by all means snap the photo, preserve the memory. That building may not be standing, the next time you pass this way.

That also makes me even more grateful for those architectural angels with the know-how to refurbish those old properties. Without that redemption, who knows what my great grandparents' home in Fort Meade would have looked like—actually, according to the home's last owner, it was an eyesore slated for demolition. And look what a charming place it has become. That property's story will be preserved for at least a little while longer.

Using the decennial census records as a guide, I can tell that Rupert and Sarah McClellan were living in Tampa for the 1930 and 1940 census. Although they appeared in the 1920 census in Fort Meade, its my hunch that they left for Tampa shortly after that point. Again, going back to 1910, they were still in Fort Meade. It wasn't until the 1900 census that their whereabouts became less clear.

I've already mentioned the newlyweds—Rupert and his bride, the former Sarah Ann Broyles of Washington County, Tennessee—had shown up just across the county (and state) line from Sarah' childhood home. The McClellans—including baby Rubie, their oldest child—were boarders in Bristol, Virginia, according to the 1900 census.

A lot can happen in a short time with a young family like the McClellans. Between 1900 and 1910, Rupert and Sarah had two of their three children—William, baby of the family, was not to come along until fifteen years later—and Rupert had enrolled in and graduated from a school of dentistry, possibly at Emory University. In that ten year period before the McClellan family ended up in Fort Meade, there were several blank spots in their history. These are records that I'll need to round up via other resources if I want to know the full story.

Researching before the 1900 census is another challenge—but one that each of us has faced in researching our American families here during the now-missing 1890 census. Though a lot can happen in a young family in ten short years, even more can transpire, no matter the size of the family, in those silent twenty years.

On the other side of that twenty year divide, Rupert showed up as the nine year old son of William Henry and Emma Charles McClellan in Suwannee County, Florida. Likely, he was at the old family home in a little town in the northern part of the state, known as Wellborn.

Fortunately, there is an architectural angel up in Wellborn, as well—someone who has lovingly restored the old McClellan property. While not part of our extended McClellan family, the owner is someone who evidently cares about the meaning of our heritage and local history—someone for whom I am extremely grateful. If it weren't for people like these, where would our historic landmarks and memories be?

It makes me wonder how many of those empty lots out there have an invisible history of their own. 


  1. Where my ancestors lived is now an economically depressed area and most of the houses are also gone.

    1. Claudia, I'm not surprised to hear those homes are gone. It takes a lot of community will power to preserve those old buildings. When the economy is also working against a group, it's doubly hard.

      I was just driving through a section to the north of our city's downtown area--a neighborhood which, at one time, must have been lovely with large Victorian residences--and I recalled how, about twenty years ago, people rallied to try and revitalize the area.

      Now that our city's been in the throes of bankruptcy, though, historic preservation is not at the top of the list. Understandable, but too bad: with vision, community support and (admittedly) a lot of money, that neighborhood could have been a gem of the city.

  2. I've been on the "forgotten coast" of Florida - near Tallahassee - and the road east from there - there "ain't much" there! Some beautiful woods and some wonderful parks. (Wakulla Springs for one.) I think a trip down the road would be well worthwhile.


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