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

Jasper C Frederick: Coming of Age in a Post Civil War South



Both of my great-grandparents on my paternal side died before my father was born, and sadly, I can’t recall my grandmother ever talking about her family. This is surprising today since her early life seems filled with grief and hardship, but life in the early twentieth century could be cruel, and sadness was something to be endured, without complaint.

Jasper C Frederick was born on 8 August 1871 in Warsaw, Duplin County, North Carolina, the second child of Mary West and John Christoper C. Frederick. John was a Confederate soldier and served as a corporal with Company A  of the 38th Infantry Regiment of North Carolina. He enlisted in 1861 and mustered out at Appomattox, 9 April 1865. Mary and John were probably married shortly after the end of the Civil War and had a daughter, Emma, about 1867.

Mary’s father, Daniel West, made a deed on 12 December 1869 giving her 60 acres on Stuart Creek. Mary died shortly after Jasper’s birth because Daniel made another deed in February 1872 placing the land in a trust for Emma and Jasper Frederick. He specified that the trust be managed by his son, Joshua J. West, and was only to benefit Emma and Jasper. Daniel may have been concerned for the financial security of his grandchildren because shortly after the deed was recorded, John Frederick married his cousin, Mary Frederick on 24 February 1872. The deed made in 1869 was not registered until 1875. The 1872 trust may have resulted in some litigation between Daniel West and John Frederick compelling the late registration of the 1869 deed and overturning the 1872 trust.

Young Jasper was living with his West grandparents at the time of the 1880 census and may have spent much of his childhood with them. On 21 September 1892, just after Jasper’s 21st birthday, John and Jasper jointly sold the 60 acres for $3000. Per the terms of the 1872 trust all proceeds were to benefit Emma and Jasper. Since only Jasper is listed on the deed, Emma must have died prior to 1892, and probably prior to the 1880 census since she is also not listed there.

zachariah curtis wedding

On 11 January 1893, Mr. J.C. Frederick attended the wedding of Zachariah M. Curtis and Mary E Dunn. Other guests included niece and nephews of the groom, Nettie Curtis and her brothers. A newspaper clipping of the event reveals that guests enjoyed a “choice and bounteous feast”, midnight dessert and partied until dawn.” Just over a month later, Jasper and Nettie married February 21, 1893 in Mecklenburg County, Nettie’s home.

Nettie’s father William Carter Curtis, had fought in the Civil War. He lost an arm at Gettysburg and family lore says he had to cut off his own injured arm when it became infected on the way home from Gettysburg. He suffered pain from the injury for the rest of his life. Curtis was highly regarded in Mecklenburg where he published a local newspaper and served as county clerk for many years. After the war the family joined cousins in Marshall, Texas, but soon returned home to Virginia. It seems likely that Curtis and John C.C. Frederick were connected, perhaps having met during the war years. Both men named a son Jasper and a daughter Emma. And Curtis named a son, Christopher C. Curtis, perhaps for his friend John Christopher C. Frederick.

The young couple settled in Manchester, just outside of Richmond. Manchester was growing rapidly after the war, providing jobs and affordable homes to a population displaced by the emancipation of slaves and a new industrial economy. Jasper was working as a laborer for the railroad, but had been unemployed for four months of the previous year. The couple had three daughters, Brenda, Elaine and Ardelle when the census taker recorded the household in 1900. Two more daughters were added to Jasper and Nettie’s family, Mary Belle in 1901 and Audrey in 1902.

1900 Census Record Frederick family
1900 Census Record for Curtis and Frederick Families

Body of Mrs. CurtisLiving next door to the young family were two of Nettie’s five surviving brothers, Chesley and Thorpe. Both listed their occupation as “compositor”, another term for photographer. Chesley Curtis and his wife Mattie also had three young children. This was probably a lively family life for the two young families living together in such close association. Sadly, Mattie died in 1908 giving birth to her sixth child. Mother and daughter were buried together in Maury Cemetery.

City directories indicate the family settled at 1019 Taylor Street in Richmond and that Jasper worked as a fireman, machinist or engineer in the years between 1900 and 1910.

Nettie Frederick Death NoticeTragedy struck the family in January, 1910. Nettie gave birth to a sixth daughter, Eunice, on 10 January, 1910. Eunice died the next day of “accidental suffocation.” Nettie died an agonizing death two days later, on 13 January 1910, from “septic peritonitis resulting from ruptured gall bladder during or just before labor”. Curiously, Eunice was buried at Oakwood Cemetery and Nettie was buried at Riverview. There was no mention of baby Eunice in Nettie’s obituary.

Nettie Curtis death certi.jpg“Maternal mortality is the result of any number of complications that beset pregnant women worldwide. The most common direct causes of maternal death are severe bleeding (25%), infection (15%), unsafe abortion (13%), eclampsia (pregnancyinduced hypertension, often accompanied by seizures, 12%), and obstructed labor (8%). Maternal mortality ratios were over 600 until the early 1930s, when decline commenced.” Some contemporary writers theorize that the high death rates in the first thirty years of the turn of the century were the result of the transition of labor management from midwives to inexperienced physicians. A ruptured gall bladder during pregnancy is extremely rare and it could be that Nettie Frederick died of eclampsia or infection at the hands of an inexperienced physician.

Eunice Frederick

Eunice’s death must have posed a dilemma for the doctor who signed the death certificate. There is a mostly illegible annotation along the side of the certificate. It appears to state that the certificate was signed after consultation. The accidental suffocation of a day old infant raises many questions and leaves a mystery for this family. Additional research such as checking coroner’s records and Richmond court cases could reveal further information. Eunice’s death certificate incorrectly identifies her mother as Mary Williams, a bizarre mistake when better information was readily available. This may further indicate official discomfort with the death.

Jasper had five daughters and decided he needed the help of a wife quickly because he next married Sudie Bruce Mitchell in Wayne County, North Carolina on 25 February 1910. Jasper probably regretted this hasty marriage. Directory listings show separate residences for the couple in 1916 – 1919, the year Sudie (also known as Susie or Sarah) died. Her death certificate shows a cause of death as “atypical pellagra”. This condition is a basic niacin deficiency, but without the typical skin lesions. Pellagra was very common in the rural south among poor people in the early twentieth century. The most common cause was a lack of fresh vegetables and meats, although pellagra is also common among alcoholics. Pellagra is classically described by “the three Ds”: diarrhea, dermatitis and dementia. Sadie’s condition would have made life with her very challenging for Jasper and his daughters as she could have had an array of  emotional disturbances including restlessness, a desire to quarrel and many other unpleasant symptoms.

The girls may have been close to their maternal grandmother, Azelia Curtis. Brenda, Elaine and Ardelle were living with her in Boynton, Mecklenburg County, when the 1910 census was recorded the summer following their mother’s death. There is no record of Jasper, Mary Belle or Audrey in the 1910 census. Perhaps Jasper had left the girls with relatives while he settled in with his new wife and life. Azelia, 69 years old, may have not been up to the care of all five girls.
Jasper Frederick Death CertificateJasper Frederick died of pulmonary tuberculosis on 8 November 1920 in Richmond, Virginia. He  was 49 years old and may have been ill for years before his death. TB can linger and cause wasting of the body over a long period of time. A research report on TB in Virginia notes, Few diseases influenced American life as much as TB…” In 1915, the newly founded Virginia State Tuberculosis Commission noted with alarm its estimation that more than twice as many people in the state died of TB as from typhoid, smallpox, measles, scarlet fever, diphtheria, whooping cough and malaria combined.”

By now Jasper had three grandchildren but it is unlikely he saw them as by 1920 people were concerned about catching TB, an incurable disease. Many patients were sent to sanitariums in the mountains, but the address provided on Jasper’s death certificate indicates he may have been residing in a private care home.

Jasper’s daughter, Ardelle, provided the customary details for Jasper’s death certificate. She gave his birthday as 8 August 1872, but Jasper was almost certainly born a year earlier as his mother was dead by February 1872 when his grandfather recorded a deed gifting property to Jasper and his sister Emma. It is fairly common for the bereaved to make errors when reporting information or for clerks to record information incorrectly.

Ardelle recorded that Jasper was a painter for the Burton Systems, and that he was married. She didn’t know his mother’s name, but knew that Jasper was born in Warsaw, North Carolina, son of J.C. Frederick. Jasper was buried in Riverview Cemetery and no obituary or funeral notice has been found. The Burton System did outdoor advertising (billboards) in Richmond. There are indications Jasper’s daughters were fond of him. Ardelle handled the death arrangements and named a son Richard Frederick. Elaine named a son Jasper Frederick.

Jasper Frederick’s relatively short life reflected may of the changes that happened as the South struggled to recover following the war. The son of a comfortable farming family, Jasper inherited a relatively valuable piece of farmland from his grandfather. He made a choice to sell the property, and like so many others of his generation, leave farming for more urban opportunities. He worked in manufacturing jobs and appears to have successfully supported a family of five daughters. Jasper suffered the tragic loss of a young wife following childbirth and the mysterious death of an infant daughter. Childbirth even at the turn of the century was especially fraught with danger and his loss was not uncommon. Oldest daughter Brenda died two years after her father’s death from an undiagnosed illness, bringing more sadness to the family. Jasper’s own death from tuberculosis was very common. The new residential closeness of cities made the spread of communicable disease much easier than in rural communities. Pellagra was also endemic in the postwar South and the disease wreaked havoc on families, including the Frederick family.

Surviving daughters Elaine, Ardelle, Mary Belle and Audrey settled in or near Richmond where they raised their families and enjoyed comfortable lives, always maintaining warm connections with their sisters.

Children of Jasper C Frederick and Nettie James Curtis

  • Brenda May Frederick. 2 May 1895 – 28 April 1922. Married Raymond Thigpen 17 May 1917 in Lenoir, NC. One child: Barbara E. Thigpen.
  • Elaine Doreen Frederick, 18 March 1896 – 22 January 1981. Married Leroy O’Rork ca 1921. Four children: Jasper Frederick, Mary Jane, Doris Elaine and Leroy Morton.
  • Ardelle Curtis Frederick, 12 September 1897 – 8 September 1965. Marriage ca 1917 to Douglas Thaw. Two children: Douglas Jr and Richard Frederick.
  • Mary Belle Frederick, 17 January 1901 – 19 December 1979. Married 1: Raymond Harris Sykes, 1 Feb 1919. Three children: Thomas Leonard, Robert Kenneth and Arielle Jean. Married 2: Whit M. Roudabush, 24 March 1951.
  • Lillian Audrey Frederick. 1 September 1902 7 November 1979. Married Walter Ernest Stewart ca 1919. Four children: Audrey Anita, Ernestine, Carolyn, Patricia.
  • Eunice.10 January 1910 – 11 January 1910

The Seven Daughters of Isham Ball

7 daughters isham ball_edited-1Isham Ball’s will and his obituary reveal Ball to be a man of strongly held religious beliefs who cared deeply about his daughters and their children. He was careful in the wording of his will, clearly stating that the husbands of his daughter, Harriett, and granddaughter, Elizabeth, were not to benefit from their inheritances. Why did Ball feel so strongly about this? Were there questions of character?

Harriet Ball and her husband, Peter Ogilby, moved west and by 1843 were living in Union County, Kentucky, where Ogilby was a leader of the Zion Church. A church history indicates that Ogilby had differences with another member and in 1844 this “finally resulted in the exclusion and publication of Peter F. Oglesby as an impostor.” The 1850 census lists Ogilby as a clergyman in Caldwell, Kentucky where he died in 1866. Like Isham Ball, Ogilby was a deeply religious man with strongly held beliefs, and it is likely the two clashed over theological differences, leading Ball to put Harriett’s inheritance into the care of a trustee.

Sarah Elizabeth Taylor was the daughter of Isham Ball’s deceased daughter, Martha. Martha had married Richard Taylor and lived just a few miles from her father. In 1850 Elizabeth married her cousin, Joseph Taylor, son of Daniel Taylor. They lived in Powhatan County and Isham would have known the couple well. There is no direct evidence to explain why Isham felt compelled to exclude Joseph in his will, but it is noteworthy that Daniel Taylor passed over Joseph and  chose his youngest son George as executor of his estate.

Joseph Taylor went to court in 1861 and 1868 to compel the trustee, his cousin, William D. Taylor, to release the inheritance to his family. Sadly, the funds were invested in Confederate dollars in a Richmond bank and by 1868 the Confederate money was worthless.

Ball’s daughter Susan is not mentioned in his will. Susan married a neighbor, Archer Stratton in 1827. The 1850 census shows Stratton in Rankin, Mississippi and married to Eliza. Presumably Susan Ball died without children as Ball does not list any Stratton grandchildren in his will.

Ball divided his land between his three youngest daughters. It is likely that he had already given the older girls property when they married. Julia died in 1856 of a brain inflammation. Her husband, John and their children lived next to Isham. Daughter Emmaline and her husband James Eggleston also lived in Ballsville.

Sarah Jane Ball’s husband, Samuel Drake, died quite young and the Drake family lived with Isham Ball. The Drakes were closely allied with the Taylor family in many ways, including marrying the daughters of Isham Ball. Samuel Drake’s grandmother was Martha Taylor, sister to Robert Taylor. The Drakes and Taylors were neighbors on Bell Road.

I’m reading The Home Place by Robert Drake, great-grandson of Sarah Jane Ball Drake, great-great grandson of Isham Ball and Taylor descendant. This branch of the family moved to Tennessee after the Civil War but never forgot their ties to Ballsville, Virginia. Robert Drake shares his family tales and memories with great style and charm. Look for the 1998 version on Amazon.

Thank you great-great-great-great grandfather Isham Ball for this interesting will and legacy. I’m glad I found you and your seven daughters.