Grandma’s Famous Cousin


My grandmother had cousins in the area of Branson, Missouri. One of these cousins became famous because of his role in the book, Shepherd of the Hills by Harold Bell Wright. Published in 1907, it’s a story of the lives of Ozark pioneers at the end of the 1800s. I remember pulling the book from my mother’s bookshelf to read in my teen years.
Shepherd of the Hills was made into four movies and even a television movie. For 50 years, it featured in an outdoor pageant at Branson.  How does Ruth Vining McGhee’s cousin fit into this story?

One character in the book is called Fiddlin’ Jake. Family lore says that it is based on the life of Ruth’s first cousin, Charles Augustus Vining.  His father was Erastus Charles Vining, who was the younger brother of Ruth’s father, Henry Francis Vining.

The page below, found by my 3rd cousin, Nancy Henning gives quite a detailed account of his life. It verifies his role in the book by Wright.
Picture-page 25. The History-

Another tidbit from Vining historian Karolyn Roberts gives a similar story, “He started farming, and later the railroad in 1903, and then back to farming along with different sidelines from time to time. He got his nickname of Fiddlin Jake quite early and his father had taught him to play on an old violin handed down through the generations.”

This makes me wonder about which of the ancestors had also played the violin. Was it his father Erastus Charles Vining who died in 1906? Maybe it was his grandfather James M. Vining who died in 1897. No one in the family ever mentioned those as musicians.



I was able to find some clippings that showed Fiddlin Jake playing for some folk festivals. These are from the Joplin, Missouri paper, the Joplin Globe (1949 and 1950).

Fiddlin Jake at Ozark Folk Festival -

“The above pictures show contestants “warming up” for the second annual Ozark Folk Festival to be held at Eureka Springs, Ark., October 17 through 22. At the lower right, Gussey Viney, the reputedly “Fiddlin” Jake” of Harold Bell Wright’s “Shepherd of the Hills,” and George Baize from Stone County, Missouri, are shown rehearsing for the old fiddlers’ test.”

Fiddling Jake at Folk Festival -

“Fiddling Jake” Viney and “Uncle George” Baize of the Missouri Shepherd of the Hills country play old fiddle tunes at the festival.”

Now, 70 years later, the folk festival is going strong, but the old fiddler, Jake Vining is no longer there. He died in 1951 at age 70. He’s buried at Evergreen Cemetery in Notch, Stone County, Missouri. I wonder who has that old fiddle now.

The Rumors Were Wrong


Word of mouth spread quickly in the community, even in 1905. Aaron Vining, his wife Carrie, and their 8-month-old daughter Jennie had drowned in the flooded Chetopa Creek. The family had gone to nearby Vilas to visit Aaron’s parents,  Jennie and James Vining Jr.

They were expected back on Sunday but the alarm went up when they did not arrive. The heavy rain on Sunday had made the creek very high and risky for a buggy to cross. His brother went to Aaron’s house but no one answered the door. He feared the worst had happened.

Fortunately, the rumors were mistaken, the family was safely at home in their beds and had not heard the knocking on the door. Since the creek was flooded, they had returned home by way of Chanute.

The newspapers reported on the mix-up. The Wilson County Sun of Neodesha, Kansas carried the story on Fri, Jul 07, 1905 on Page 1.

Aaron Vining family not drowned. -

The Neodesha Register featured their version of the story on that same day on page 4.

Aaron Vining family missing/found -

The family had rented the A.N. Foster farm just 6 months earlier in January 1905. Formerly the farm was called the Old Ditto Farm. They moved to the farm from Newark shortly after baby Jennie was born.

My third cousin, Nancy Henning, had this photo of the couple, her great-aunt and great-uncle. To me, Aaron is a first cousin, 2x removed.

Aaron Lee Vining, b. 1877, & wife Carrie, courtesy Ms. Nancy Henning

Aaron and Carrie Vining (I suspect this is their wedding photo, so that would make it from December 1903.)

Baby Jennie, named after her grandmother, lived to the age of 92. Here’s a photo of her as she was growing up.

Jennie Vining

Photo of Jennie Vining (courtesy of Nancy Henning)

How fortunate we are that this family did not die tragically in the flooded Chetopa Creek and instead lived long and productive lives. Ten years after this mistaken story, Aaron and Carrie had another daughter, Mary Ruth. Here’s a photo showing the whole family (thanks again to cousin Nancy for the photo).

Aaron L. Vining and wife Carrie Carson with Mary Ruth and Jennie

Aaron Lee Vining, wife Carrie, daughters Jennie and Mary Ruth.

Grade School Acrobatics


My mother spoke a number of times about learning acrobatics when she was in school. Their teacher Brownie Dillman taught the students. Recently, I scanned some stamp-sized photos that showed this teacher and some of the students.

acrobatis - Noller school

It seems that the acrobatic team had the opportunity to perform at the Kansas State Fair. It lists the names of the students, but not Gail McGhee. I don’t know if at age 13, she had already moved on to another school or if some other reason kept her from attending.

The Hutchinson News (page 13, Sept. 16, 1937) wrote about the free day for school children that expected 7,000 children and teens to attend. Here’s the schedule for the entertainment in the grandstand at 10:30 am on the free day.

  • Short speeches by some school officials
  • A clown from the state fire marshal’s office
  • Rover the mathematical dog
  • A troupe of juvenile acrobats – The acrobatic team originated from the Seeley Grade School of Madison, Kansas. Members of the troupe are Dixie Jean Falk age 7, Edna Mae Laird age 7, Marilyn Ruth Dettcr (spelling?) age 7, and Dorothy Rose Laird age 12.
  • Dancers from local schools and Clyde S. Miller’s Wild West Show
  • Music by the Hutchinson High School band directed by S. Allen Watrous.
  • Also music by Turkey Creek, Wakeeney and Pawnee Rock bands.
gail's school chums acrobats

Two of Gail McGhee’s school chums show off their acrobatic skills.

browning Dillman school teacher (1)

Browning Dillman, the school teacher who taught Gail and her friends to perform acrobatics.

The Seeley School was built in 1924. I found a few mentions of the construction progress. It closed in 1959.

  • “J. F. Ridenour has finished wiring the Seeley school house.” ¹
  • “William Crawford of the Crawford Hardware Company, hung the drains at the Seeley schoolhouse this week and is putting the plumbing in. The schoolhouse will be finished this week.”²

Seeley school

¹The Lamont Leader, Madison, Kansas  06 Oct 1924, Mon • Page 1

²The Hamilton Herald, The Climax Chronicle, The Virgil Visitor, The Quincy Quill, and The Neal News of Madison, Kansas. 14 Nov 1924, Fri • Page 5

(A shorter version of this story appeared on Finding My Mom, a blog about Gail Lee Martin)

My Ancestor Was a Cooper


Before the Civil War engulfed his life, my great-great-grandfather labored making barrels. In the 1860 census, Abraham Bates Tower, age 22, lists cooper as his work. It shows him as living in Jennings Township, Crawford County, Indiana and I’m guessing that he wasn’t very many miles from Leavenworth, an active shipping point on the Ohio River.

barrel making

A cooper’s workshop at Strawberry Banke in New Hampshire.


He was not the only one, many other coopers worked in that township. Other occupations in the census included river pilots, wagon builders, river loaders,  skiff maker, carpenters, merchants, and farmers. Probably, the local farm produce was packed into boxes and barrels for shipping on the barges that plied the Ohio River.

settler's supplies barrels

Barrels at a museum in St Louis showing how goods were shipped in the early days.

Abraham had married Nancy Angeline Long two year earlier and they had an 8-month-old child named Laura Ann born 29 September 1859. Their son, Erastus was born August 7, 1861.

The household included Abraham’s mother-in-law, 55-year-old, Nancy Ann (Daggs) Long who was separated from her husband. Six years later, she and Thomas Long divorced.

The family shared the house with another cooper who had a wife and child. His name was T.J. Linn (age 22) and his wife was Rebecca Z. (or J) Linn (age 21). The age of this Rebecca isn’t right to be Nancy Angeline’s sister Rebecca Bolton Long who was born January 14, 1829. None of Abraham’s sisters or nieces were the right age to be Rebecca Linn. Perhaps the two families just shared housing and were not related.

Before long, Abraham Tower would go off to the Civil War as part of Company G, 93rd Indiana Volunteer Infantry. He barely survived starvation and disease in the notorious Andersonville Prison and at the end of the war reunited with Nancy Angeline in Missouri where she’d moved to be with her sister’s family.

Despite long-term health issues, he farmed and there was no mention of being a cooper again. I imagine that it’s a skill that you can put to use on a farm if you have the tools. There’s always a need for barrels and wooden containers.

The Tower family traces its ancestors back to Hingham, Massachusetts. Apparently, there’s a long history in that town of coopering. Recently, I found an article called Bucket Town: Four Centuries Of Toymaking And Coopering In Hingham.

Numerous settlers became coopers and the streets were lined with bucket-making shops. Thomas Lincoln, who arrived from southwest England, was considered the first cooper in the town. In 1636, he called himself a maltster and an occasional carpenter. Coopering developed into a major trade by the mid-1600s, with 30 craftsmen joining Lincoln in the trade by 1700. Unlike their peers in Boston, who were making barrels, casks and kegs, the Hingham coopers were skilled in fabricating pails to transport milk and water; tubs for curing meat, dyeing fabrics and laundering; churns for making butter; strainers and hoops for cheeses; boxes to store spices; and a number of different woodenware to carry related goods.

Since these woodenwares were a necessity for settlers, Hingham craftspeople rose to the occasion. It was not until the mid-1800s that these products were sold in wholesale stores in cities like Boston. Earlier, they were purchased onboard the Hingham Station packets at Long Wharf. “The shipping records in Boston,” explains Bray, “were loaded with woodenware that was going up or down the coast, overland, to Canada or the West Indies.” Jackson adds that the Hingham buckets also traveled with prospectors out to the Gold Rush and even with the missionaries to Hawaii.

So, even generations later and a third of the way across the country, a Tower descendant carried out the tradition of coopering.


In visiting historic villages in Kentucky, Maine, New Hampshire, and also New Brunswick (Canada), I had the chance to see coopers at work and admire the useful buckets, washtubs, and barrels they created. All the photos are by Virginia Allain and are from those trips.

Lillian Belle Vining


My Grandmother’s Sister – Belle

ruth on left and sister belle vining
The photo shows my grandmother, Ruth Vining, in about 1918 with her older sister Belle (on the right). Belle’s full name was Lillian Belle Vining.
Belle was born on September 14, 1884, in Kansas City, Missouri. Her father, Henry, was 46 and her mother, Nancy Jane Babcock, was 33. Lillian Belle had seven brothers and eight sisters. Three of those were half-siblings from her mother’s first marriage to Burr Ashlock.
When she was 12 when her youngest sister, Ruth, was born. A month later, their father died of typhus, leaving the family on hard times.
The 1900 U.S. census shows when Belle Vining was 15 years old, the family lived in Independence, Kansas. Before that, they are in Thayer, Neodesha, and Chetopa, Kansas. I don’t know what reasons led them to move around.

Belle’s Marriages

In researching her life, I found she was married 3 times. The first time to Charles Williams, then to Orville Espie Brock, and lastly to Monte Scollins.
Charles and Belle Williams had three children; a daughter, Jesse, and sons Leonard and Francis.
belle marries windy williams

Charles “Windy” Williams and Belle Vining marry in Independence and will live in Neodesha. He is working at Gudge s confectionery store.

In my mother’s notes, she said the family thought Belle had divorced Charles Williams. After sleuthing about I found this November 1907 story.

WILSON COUNTY, Big Hill Murderers Captured.

The bandits who so brutally shot down Otis Taylor and O. J. Brown on the morning of July 16 while all were on a Frisco freight train near the Big Hill station have been caught and are now in jail at Independence. One is a negro named Charles Scott and the other a white man named Williams. The capture of these criminals is due to the vigilance of Sheriff Paxson who has been working continually on the case since the crimes were committed. Scott, the negro, has been in Independence for about six weeks. Three weeks ago this morning Paxon arrested him and he has been in jail ever since.

He has been severely “sweated” and finally divulged the name of his companion and Paxson got a line on him, Williams, nearly a month ago. He was finally run down and arrested in the Glass Mountains of Oklahoma by Paxson Saturday. Paxson rode 40 miles with him to a railroad station and came to Independence reaching there early this morning. Williams confessed the whole story to Paxson and related the details of the murder of tbe two young men who were returning from the Western Kansas harvest fields. According to Williams, he and Scott took the train at Neodesha and held up a number of harvesters on the train between. Neodesha and Oherryvale and after the train left the station here they attempted to take the money belonging to Taylor and Brown who put up a fight and Williams and Scott shot them down, alighted from the train and escaped.

They headed for Independence, passing Cherryvale below the Union Brick Plant. They look a Mo. Pacific train at Independence. Scott went to Little Rock and Williams to Oklahoma and they have been fugitives ever since until their capture as stated above.

Sheriff Paxson will receive $700 reward for the capture of these desperate men. The reward is made up as follows: $400 by the state, $200 by Labette county and $100 by the father ot Otis Taylor. Sheriff Holmes passed through Cherryvale Monday enroute to Independence to get these criminals Warrants charging each with first degree murder will be served on them and they will be given trial in the district court at Oswego. No small measure of credit is due Mr. Paxson for capturing these desperadoes. The crime was committed in Labette county but the officers of that county failed to capture the criminals, this work being done by Paxson and to him belongs the credit of capturing two desperate criminals.

The killing of Taylor and Brown in an attempt to rob them of their hard-earned. money was one of the most wanton murders ever committed in Southeastern Kansas and the penalties should, and no doubt will be, severe. – Cherryvale Republican.

We are informed that the Williams above mentioned as being one of the Big Hill murderers is “Windy” Williams, son of C. P. Williams, who some time ago ran the Frisco restaurant in Neodesha, but who, it is said, now lives at Hanna, Mo. .

A Nov. 20th article yielded a further tidbit of information. I’d wondered if the claim mentioned was the Vining frame/sod house in Woodward County, Oklahoma. A later article said he was apprehended in the Glass Mountain area.
“Windy” is married and has several children. He was living with his family on a claim in Oklahoma when arrested. The negro, Scott, is a well known Independence tough character who has had a police court record there since he was a mere lad. “Windy” got acquainted with the negro while a member of the Salvation Army at Independence. Both Williams and Scott are sure to go to the penitentiary for life.
The newspapers took an interest in the crime and kept providing more details. Here are some excerpts from a Nov. 28th article.
The confessions of both men tell of the cold-blooded crime from a criminal’s standpoint and in the language of a criminal. Not a single detail of the mur der near Cherry vale was left out They told of their start at Neodesha, when Scott proposed that they “ride the deck” of the freight. They tell of -meeting the two men on the train, of the conversation, of the hurriedly laid plot to hold them up and if need be shoot them. They tell of the quarrel and how when Williams was being hard pressed by Brown, he called for Scott , to shoot him.
To see him (Williams) in his cell and hear him talk, the average man would never dream of his having been a murderer and desperado. He has a dissipated look, but his size and attitude would not lead one to believe him a desperate man. Williams jests when the story he is telling is one of horror. He is a criminal and bears all the earmarks. Of the two confessions Williams’ seems to be the more cold-blooded.

The Evening Star Independence, Kansas 20 Nov 1907, Wed • Page 4

Williams was convicted and went to Lansing prison. After five years, his father petitioned for his release. Apparently, that was unsuccessful as he was still there in July of 1914 when he and 3 others escaped from the prison. The men made their escape by crawling through a seventy-yard tunnel into the enclosure of the women’s ward and then over the 40-foot wall with the aid of a rope and grab hook.” The article called him Charles Williams #2, so there were two men of the same name in Lansing at the same time.
I’m still searching for any information on a divorce by his wife. His date and place of death are also unknown.
By 1910, Belle is married to Orville Espie Brock and they have a son, Albert Ernest Brock, born in August. Her three children from the earlier marriage are there as well. Belle and Orville are together it seems until 1918 as she is listed as his contact on his draft registration form.
He is described as a farmer, with brown hair and eyes, tall and having a medium build. They lived in Woodward, Oklahoma.
I don’t have a photo of her second husband, Orville, but do have a picture of baby Albert.
albert brock son of belle vining
By 1930, Orville and Belle are divorced and she is married to her last husband, Frances Montgomery Scollins. They are living on a farm in Woodward, Oklahoma. The children are grown and out of the home.

Lillian Belle and Montgomery Scollins

Belle died July 25, 1960, in Wichita, Kansas at the age of 75. Monte had died 8 years earlier.


  • “Charles “Windy” Williams marries Belle Vining” – Neodesha Register, Neodesha, Kansas, Fri, Nov 07, 1902 · Page 1
  • “Big Hill Murders Captured” – Neodesha Register, Neodesha, Kansas, 22 Nov 1907, Fri • Page 1
  • “Confess Murder” – The Altamont Journal, Altamont, Kansas, 28 Nov 1907, Thu • Page 1
  • Reward Raised after Escape of 4 Men – The Leavenworth Post, Leavenworth, Kansas, 01 Aug 1914, Sat • Page 1

Reunion – 71 Years Ago


Seventy-one years ago in July, the McGhee family gathered for a reunion. Thank goodness, someone labeled the photos or I never would have figured out the people in this photo.

1948 mcghee reunion ruth dora

July 1948 – McGhee family reunion

Even with the names, I’m hard put to match them up. I’ll have to put our Facebook cousins group to work figuring out this one.

The casual pose captures the relaxed camaraderie of siblings and their offspring gathered together.  Boards resting on barrels serve as tables with a checked table cloth to dress them up. The glass pitcher is probably filled with freshly-squeezed lemonade. The plate on the grass appears to have sandwiches on it. I’m sure there was fried chicken, potato salad, and baked beans too.

1948 mcghee reunion1948 mcghee reunion 2

The women are wearing dresses and the men have slacks and long-sleeved shirts. This is probably Kansas and therefore quite hot in July. It was a more formal time and the attire is what was appropriate in that era for a special picnic with the extended family.

Chairs were brought out from the house and impromptu seating concocted as well. Blankets were spread on the ground under the shade of a big tree.

1946 Reunion

Two years earlier, this 1946 reunion photo captures some of the McGhees. Neatly lined up, the names are more readily attachable to individuals. Left to right: Treva Mae Davidson, Viola McGhee (back), Frances McGhee, Nita Cleo Davidson, Melba McGhee (back), Viola Matilda Tower McGhee, Roy McGhee (back), Bertha McGhee.

Treva Mae, Viola, Frances, Nita Cleo, Melba, Viola Matilda, Roy, Bertha; 1946.

1946 McGhee Reunion

Although not as candid, it does give us a better view of people’s faces.

Let this be a reminder to us as we gather with family this summer. Take lots of photos and label them with names and dates. Future generations will appreciate your effort.

2000-03-01 gail martin celebration of life 001

1946 McGhee Reunion

Independence Day 1861


My mother, Gail Lee Martin, wrote this story in 2006 for the Our Echo website. We are so lucky that she instilled in us an appreciation of our family’s heritage and that she worked so diligently to research and preserve it. I’ve added some vintage graphics and a newspaper clipping to her written account.

1861 – Our Family’s Patriotic Heritage

Have you ever wondered how the early settlers celebrated the 4th of July in Kansas for the first time after becoming a state? I traced my Mother’s family from Connecticut to Iowa, through Missouri to the Kansas territory in 1859. I always wondered how my great-grandparents, James and Almira Vining, celebrated that special occasion.

The Vining family settled on a small homestead near the Verdigris river three miles east of the tiny community of Madison Centre in April 1857. At that time the family consisted of James and his wife, Almira; their children: Henry, my grandfather, 21; Erastus, 19; Isreal, 15; Charles, 13; James Jr. 11; Franklin, 6 and their only daughter, three-year-old Jane. When Kansas became a state the four older boys had already enlisted to serve in the United States Calvary and were away fighting in the Civil War. With four sons in the service of their country, I’m sure the Vining family attended the patriotic ceremony that was held in their neighborhood that July.

In July 1861 Madison Centre was in Madison County twenty miles south of Emporia. The Emporia News, the only newspaper in that area at that time, reported the following:

Madison Centre, Madison County
Mr. Editor: Early in the day, a number of citizens of this township assembled for the purpose of raising a Union flag, which was accomplished to the satisfaction of all present. The Declaration was then read by John J. Greenhalgh, in a loud, clear distinct tone. He did justice and honor to the memories of the great and good men who made it.” Then the news report went on to tell about the bountiful dinner everyone enjoyed. “The meal was furnished by the ladies of the community including roast mutton, roast and boiled chickens, chicken pies, cakes, tarts and other ’knicknacks’ too numerous to mention.”

How proud I am that my ancestors were there to observe the raising of the first Union flag in Madison Centre, Kansas.

Our family still celebrates July 4th with lots of good home cooked food and a few fireworks, mostly sparklers. For many years we had family picnics at Peter Pan Park in Emporia on the 4th of July. We still remember the lovely rose garden and who could forget the funny antics of the monkeys on Monkey Island?
1948 reunion clipping

In 1948, the Martin family reunion was delayed until July 18th.

My husband’s grandmother, Marie Joy, always made a big heavy crock full of “thick fruit salad” because invariably the weather was hot and we didn’t have ice available on almost every corner as we do now. Grandma Joy would use twice the amount of Jell-O that the recipe called for then added lots of fruit with bananas and marshmallows until it was almost solid. But we loved it! Since we raised our own chickens, we always had big containers of fried chicken with all the pieces including the neck, liver, heart, gizzard, and the coveted wishbone. As a special treat, we sometimes had store-bought “pork & beans.”

High flying flags always arouse my patriotism and I see them flying in so many different places. For instance, postage stamps through the years have been one way of showing patriotism for our country. I delight in sending my mail with stamps showing flags or eagles. Every year the postal department issues new designs. I recall one I especially liked. It had the flag flying briskly over the words, “I pledge allegiance …” I guess I thought flags could only fly briskly in Kansas.