The Times West Virginian

February 1, 2012

What’s in a name?

By Debra Minor Wilson
Times West Virginian

MANNINGTON — What’s in a name?

Just ask Norma Moore Wilcox.

She can tell you just about anything you want to know.

A lot of people know dates and names and maybe even places when it comes to family genealogy, but Wilcox has pictures and stories and anecdotes about her long-gone relatives that bring them back to life — if just for that moment — by opening a notebook or clicking a computer key.

Her small work room in her Mannington home is crammed with cabinets jammed with files and photos and folders on her family. Walls are adorned with those stiff, unsmiling portraits from a century or more before. A computer sits in one corner, guardian of almost 19,000 names on her database.

She’s been fascinated by genealogy practically since she could remember.

“My earliest memory is helping my grandparents clean the old Toothman Cemetery on Plum Run,” she said. “And of my grandmother, Betsy Fluharty Price, telling me stories about those people ... the funny things they did ... and some not so funny.

“This whole row was Fluharty uncles and aunts,” she said, pointing to a large black-and-white picture taken in the late 19th century at the family cemetery. “My grandmother’s mother died when my grandmother was only 10, and she’s buried back there.”

Her photos go way past the snapshots most people have in family photo albums. They’re large and hang proudly on the wall of her small, cramped research library. Some are black-and-white or sepia reproductions. Others are the real things, faded with time but alive with stories to tell.

“After my grandmother got sick, she gave me that picture of her mother,” Wilcox said, pointing to an old black-and-white portrait in an oval frame hanging on the wall.

Her daughter wanted her to “do something” with the picture because, she said, the eyes followed her wherever she was in the room.

“And it’s true. She follows you clear across the room, because of that oval frame. It looks like her eyes are going as you go.”

She points to a picture of men and women dressed in turn-of-the-century garb standing in front of a large cabin.

“That’s my grandmother’s father. His father built that house on Plum Run. He and his nine brothers and sisters were born in that house. That’s my grandmother and her sister. They were born in that house. And I played in it when I was little.”

The house is no longer there, but the people who made it a home so long ago live on every time she tells their story.

She has cards her grandparents had sent each other when they were teenagers.

That’s family history. That’s genealogy.

In high school, she had to fill out a family tree. She still has that paper. A good genealogist never throws anything away. But that wasn’t enough.

“Because I wanted the dates, I went to the cemetery where my grandmother told me those stories and wrote down every tombstone there. I was only 14 years old. I was hooked.

“My grandparents were all four living, so I asked them who their relatives were. If they were dead, I put a second line under their name (on the chart). I didn’t know how to do it. I just wanted to know if they were living.”

And now, she’s traced her family lineage back to 1705 Ireland. “And that’s just on one side,” she said, laughing.

It takes work, patience, dedication and a lot of curiosity, but you, too, can find your own roots.

“Start by asking the oldest relatives you know and get everything they know, and then you go to the courthouse or cemeteries for the rest of it. Ask the people living now, because if you wait, they won’t be there.”

At the courthouse, ferret out as many legal documents as you can: birth and death certificates, marriage licenses, tax records, U.S. Census reports.

Not all states have such easy access to records, she said. Many are available on the West Virginia Archives & History site (www.wvculture.org/vrr/).

You have to be wary of first and last names that are misspelled or spelled differently on different documents. Or duplicate names. How many John Smiths do you think you’ll come across? Or you may be looking for a relative under one name only to find that person listed in documents under a different one. Maybe last names of the same family are spelled differently.

You have to be able to decipher the often spidery, spiked handwriting of long ago.

And be prepared if that one relative you’re looking for isn’t listed anywhere.

In addition to being a sleuth, you need to know your history and geography. For example, Marion County was formed in 1842 from parts of Harrison and Monongalia counties in Virginia. Mon County was formed in 1776 from the District of West Augusta, and Harrison in 1784 from Monongalia County.

She’s got a color-coded map of the counties and when they were formed. She’s got cabinets full of information on her “closest” family. She’s got enough reference books for a small library.

Scratch and you’ll probably find blood from “most of the families in the Mannington area,” she said.

“Plum Run, the whole hollow, until the last 10 years, was relation to me,” she said.

“Half the Fluhartys married Efaws. They just intermingled and intermingled!

“I asked Russ Fluharty how come. He said, back then you took what was handy.” She laughed. “You didn’t have any way to travel but take the shanks-mare, or walk, to go courting!”

You also never know when you’ll meet an unknown cousin. She recalled one day when she and her husband Wayman were driving around Gilmer Country’s country roads looking for cemeteries. One person they asked directions from turned out to be a long-lost cousin of Wayman’s.

“He took us to the cemetery and later gave us pictures of relatives,” she said.

Every family has its tragedies and hers is no different.

“Grandfather Moore’s parents died when he was 10 or 12. They got hit by a train over in Fairview and got killed. The baby was with them and died, too. All the kids were passed out to relatives.”

A lot of names led up to Norma Moore Wilcox: Toothman. Price. Fluharty. Moore. Brown. Jones. Haught. Miner. Updike. Donley. Bare. And generations more.

If she can’t find a name in the cabinets and books that cram her small library, then it’s probably one of the 18,918 names on her computer database.

Don’t worry. She’s got it all backed up on zip drive and a CD. And in a safe deposit box “in case the house burns down,” she said, laughing.

“Take 5” is featuring local residents with interesting hobbies. To be included as a Wednesday “Take 5” feature, contact Debra Minor Wilson at 304-367-2549 or dwilson@timeswv.com.

Email Debra Minor Wilson at dwilson@timeswv.com.