Priceless Moments

I have hundreds of pictures of my children and like most young parents today, they will have thousands of photos of my grandchildren by the time they are teens. Technology has made photography affordable and accessible, documenting the ordinary and priceless moments of our lives. But for my father, those pictured moments were few.

Bobby SykesSeptember 22 is my father’s birthday, and this year (2016) is his 93rd.  He passed away eleven years ago and the photos I have of him are precious to me, especially since I only have two of him as a boy. I’ve checked with all of our family, and it appears there are only these two photos of Robert Kenneth Sykes (Bobby).

Daddy looks about ten in this photo on the left. His eyes were blue like mine and I think I have the same smile.

A delighted five year old Bobby holds the reins of the goat cart below. Daddy told me the photographer roamed Richmond with the goat cart and every kid wanted a photo and ride. Now I have this joyful, priceless 1928 moment in my father’s life – 88 years ago – to share with friends and family around the world.

Bobby Sykes

How Jesse Got His Name

Jesse Van Crews. My husband has a quite a name, doesn’t he? The first name is easy. He was named for his maternal grandfather, Jesse Sands, a beautiful classic name. Jesse’s family never called him “Jesse”. It was always Van or Vannie. When Jesse started school he decided that Vannie was a sissy name and asked the teacher to please call him Jesse. So he has always been Jesse to friends, schoolmates and colleagues, but Vannie to family.

Jesse’s father was George Van Crews and gave Jesse his middle name. I asked Joyce, Jesse’s mother, how George came to be named Van and she explained, “Honey, my mother-in-law, Minnie, said she named him for Van Cliburn.” Years later when I thought about this response it didn’t seem logical. No one in Jesse’s family listened to classical music. His grandparents, Joe (aka Peter) and Minnie Crews, were not sitting around the radio listening to Van Cliburn play Rachmaninoff. Especially since his father George was born in 1923 and Van Cliburn wasn’t born until 1934. So, where did the name Van come from?

Van Short and Sallie Crews Short                 Photo provided by Ed Quinn

Jesse’s great-aunt Sallie Crews married Van Short in 1916. Aunt Sallie and Uncle Van were kind and generous with Sallie’s ten siblings and their many children. Van had a good job with American Viscose in Roanoke and Sallie was a realtor. When times were hard, Van and Sallie often lent a helping hand. Their daughter, Virginia, was close to her cousins in Richmond and the Richmond family members were always welcome at the Short’s home in Roanoke. It’s almost certain Jesse was named for Aunt Sallie’s beloved husband, Van. I believe Jesse has lived up to his namesake’s reputation for industry, kindness and generosity.

A Very Poor Apology for a Wife

samuel-thomas-millerIn the dispositions and characters of my uncles and aunts there was, I presume, a considerable difference; some were openhearted, affectionate and generous, others were close and selfish. Some were frugal, others were loose-handed. Those most cherished by my mother were Uncles William, Daniel and Archer and Aunt Betsey. For my uncles, James and Valentine, she retained neither respect nor affection. For Uncle Isham she had more regard for his good management than love for his generosity; for in the latter quality he was singularly deficient.  Life of Samuel Thomas Miller, page 17

Most of what I know about my ancestors is derived from dry courthouse records like wills, deeds and chancery causes so I was delighted when I recently came across a beautifully written memoir by Samuel Thomas Miller, son of Ann Ball. Ann was sister to my 4x great grandfather Isham Ball of Powhatan County, Virginia. Much of Miller’s childhood was spent shuttling among his Ball aunts and uncles, and his memoir is surprisingly frank. Miller calls Sally Hendrick Ball, my 4x great-grandmother, a very poor apology for a wife (page 17).

Even if I weren’t related to all the Balls in this book, I would still find it fascinating reading. It provides a first hand glimpse of life in Chesterfield and Powhatan County in the 1800’s. Some things apparently never change; there are abused wives, alcoholics, mischievous children, gamblers and scholars who worked, played and loved very close to where I grew up. There was even a Ball race track at Broad Rock. Written in 1911, the book has no copyright and you may download it here. Happy reading!

Death of a Steelworker

raymond-harris-sykesI never knew my grandfather, Raymond Harris Sykes, as he died ten years before I was born. I always heard stories that he was killed in a construction accident while building a bridge. Or that’s what I thought I heard. A newspaper account from the Richmond Times Dispatch (dated Sunday, August 1, 1943) reveals that Raymond was injured on July 31 when a board fell from a scaffold and struck him in the head. His death certificate indicates that surgeons at MCV operated and removed fragments of skull. My grandfather lingered until the afternoon of August 3 when he died from his injuries. Raymond was only 45 years old when he died.


Dutch Gap is a large power plant on the banks of the James River in Chesterfield County. When it opened in 1944 it was one of the largest in the country and today its towering smokestacks still stand impressive on the skyline. Raymond Sykes was a steelworker, a dangerous occupation under any circumstances.



screen-shot-2016-09-08-at-7-52-18-pmRaymond’s widow, Mary Belle and daughter, Jean, were devastated. Sons Tommy and Bobby were at sea on active military duty. Jean was only 14 so Mary Belle was left to deal with grief, funeral arrangements and the hundreds of consequences and details of a sudden death. Mary Belle sent telegrams to her sons to notify them about their father’s death. Bobby , my father, was aboard  liberty ship SS Andrew Briscoe in the Mediterranean. It would be months before this telegram (pictured below) would reach his hands. The absence of sons and delayed notifications were among the many hardships and sacrifices made by families during World War II.




A Dangerous Job

Labor Day prompted me to think about three tragic workplace deaths suffered by family members I’ve researched. Following the Civil War occupations in Virginia transformed radically. Farming declined and people moved to town looking for work. Lacking skills and education, some found work in dangerous occupations without the protections of today’s labor laws.

reuther-bixlerMembers of the extended Crews family moved from Buckingham County to Richmond around 1920. Several of them became window washers and this occupation can be seen on Julian Hague’s census records for 1930 and 1940. Julian married my husband Jesse’s great aunt Myrtle (Myrtie) Crews in 1920. Myrtle’s sister, Martha (Mattie) married William (Willie) Bixler in 1920. Julian Hague worked washing windows and soon Willie Bixler’s younger brother, Reuther, came to town looking for work. Like many he started working at one of Richmond’s many cigarette mills, but later he decided to try window washing.

Reuther married his Buckingham County sweetheart on 23 July 1924. Just one week late Daisy was a widow. The Richmond Times Dispatch reported the following:

“Losing his balance, while washing windows on the second story of the First National Bank Building, R.E. Bixler of 3810 Lawson Street, South Richmond, plunged to his death yesterday afternoon.

Falling less than fifty feet, Bixler struck his head on an iron spike and his skull was crushed. He was dead when the city ambulances reached the scene. 

Hundreds of Richmonders, off for their lunch hour, witnessed the tragedy. Several attempted to render assistance, but Bixler died a few minutes after striking the concrete.”


julian-hagueJulian Hague was supervising Reuther that day at the job site. Years later, on 12 May 1942, Hague was washing windows when he fell from the second floor of a building at Sixth and Cary Streets. He suffered a “fractured pelvis, a concussion of the brain and a punctured bladder. Hague lingered in the hospital until July 12 when he succumbed to heart failure and pneumonia as a result of the injuries he sustained in the accident. His two teen-aged sons were left orphans as his wife, Mattie Crews, had died of TB in 1932.

Tomorrow: Another Workplace Death in the Family