Abijah Thomas and His Octagon House

 

Thomas, Abijah, picture, standing 001
Abijah Thomas 1814-1876

This week on #52 Ancestors, the prompt is Family Photo.  Last week I wrote about Thomas Thomas and Freelove Cole, my 4th great-grandparents, and Abijah Thomas is their youngest son.  That would make him my great-uncle, four times removed   I cannot find a picture of Thomas Thomas, my great-grandfather, but finding a picture of one of his sons was pretty special.  Perhaps Abijah looked a bit like his father Thomas.   I found Abijah’s story to be quite interesting and touching as he started with little and became a wealthy antebellum entrepreneur  who eventually went bankrupt and died penniless because of the Civil War.   It is a sort of “rags to riches and back to rags” story.  One of the interesting things about him was the famous Octagon House he built that still stands today!   But first let me get into Abijah’s story!

Abijah was born on May 21, 1914 on the South Fork of the Holston River, Smyth County, Virginia and was named after his father’s brother, Abijah.  He married Priscilla Cavinette Scott on June 2, 1836 and they had twelve children together.  He acquired a plantation of 400 acres and slowly began to accumulate numerous other land holdings in the thousands of acres.   He was a slave holder also as was the norm for huge plantation owners of the south.

Thomas, Abijah, portrait 001
Portrait of Abijah Thomas

Abijah is written up in Smyth County History (p. 180)  as ” a man of rare vision and enterprise, (he) was the foremost industrialist of Smyth County before the Civil War.  His developments of the iron industry in mines, furnaces, and foundries along the South Fork and on Staley’s Creek, made him a wealthy man for his day, and if the Civil War had not destroyed these properties and involved him heavily he would in all probability have amassed one of the great fortunes of the state, and have set his county fifty years ahead in industrial development.”

Abijah established the Holston Woolen Mills on the Holston River that was all water powered.  A town of Holston Mills grew up around it with saw mills, a shirt factory, stores, boarding houses, post office, schools and many homes.

Thomas, Abijah, Holston Mills, picture 001

Other industries that Abijah established included  a pig iron furnace, a tannery and a cotton mill.  All four industries spurred the growth of the county and state of  Virginia.

Abijah wanted a unique home – something representative of his progressive ideas, wealth and his social status.  He met Mr. Orson Fowler who wrote a book “The Octagon House: A Home for All” in 1848.  Mr. Fowler claimed an Octagon House would be inexpensive, give excellent views from all sides and allowed for good ventilation.  Abijah was sold and had a beautiful Octagon House built of 17 rooms, 10 closets and a storage room.  The exterior walls were made of brick which were made by the slaves on the property.   The interior featured rare painted ashlar upon plaster wall, marbleizing and  stenciling.

Thomas, Abijah, Octagon house, earlier days 001

The house was completed in 1857 for Abijah on his property of 400 acres and was assessed at being worth $5,000 in 1857.  Here are pictures of the original floor plans.

Thomas, Abijah, Octagon House, 1st floor plan 001                     Thomas, Abijah, Octagon house, 2nd floor plan 001

Unfortunately, this is what the grand old house looks like today.  The Thomas Family lost its fortune during the Civil War and the mansion was sold.  The last time it was lived in was the 1940’s and it has been neglected and has badly deteriorated over the years.

Thomas, Abijah, Octagon House, today 001

Here’s the good news – Abijah’s Octagon House, which is on Thomas Bridge Road, Marion, Smyth County, Virginia, was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1980 and the Virginia Landmarks Register.  The Octagon House Foundation, which has a Facebook page in case you wish to learn more or donate, plans to restore the historic home of Abijah.  Their vision of a completed restoration is as below.

Thomas, Abijah, Octagon house, restoration plan 001

In coming years, the Octagon House will be restored to its former grandeur and give visitors insight into the life of the Thomas family with tours and presentations.Thomas, Abijah, with grandson, picture, 1869 001

Thomas, Abijah, Octagonal House, book 001Mack Howard Sturgill wrote a book “Abijah Thomas and his Octagonal House, which tells the story of the Thomas Family including John Thomas, Thomas Thomas, Freelove Cole and, of course, Abijah Thomas.  Copies of the book are rare and may be found in Historical Societies.  I am still trying to borrow a copy.

 

Abijah Thomas  and Priscilla’s children were: Charles Benton Thomas, born 1837; Virginia Ann Thomas (1839-1917); Eliza Hamilton Thomas (1841-1865); Thomas Jefferson Thomas (1843-1906); Missouri Freelove Thomas born 1846; Asenath Wilder Thomas born 1848; Mitchell Wood Thomas born 1850; Martha Elizabeth Thomas born 1852; Mary Ellen Thomas (1854-1891); Abijah Preston Thomas born 1857; Montgomery Thomas (1860-1862); Priscilla Cavinette Thomas born 1864.

Abijah Thomas died December 1, 1876 and Priscilla, his wife, died in December of 1885. They were buried on a hill above their beloved Octagon House and elaborate tombstones were erected to mark their graves.   Rest in Peace Abijah and Priscilla!

Thomas, Abijah, grave, 1876, St Clair's Bottom, Smyth VA 001

Sources:

Ancestry.com. Smyth County, history and traditions [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2005. (pages: 180,321-322)  Original Data: Wilson, Goodridge, Kingsport, TN: Kingsport Press, 1932.

Washington County, Virginia Probate Record Book, 10.  Pages 37 to 39.

Google Images related to Abijah Thomas and the Octagon House.

Southwest Virginia Today: https://www.swvatoday.com/image.

Sturgill, Mack Howard (1990); Abijah Thomas & His Octagonal House, Published by M. H. Sturgill.

http://www.smythoctagonhouse.org/about.html

Wikipedia: Abijah Thomas House.

 

 

 

 

 

Searching for “FREELOVE”

This week on #52Ancestors celebrates Valentine’s day!  Hmm – Searching for Freelove sounds like something from the 60’s and the Hippie movement!  However, this week, I actually found an ancestor whose name is Freelove Cole – Freelove Mason Cole Thomas to be exact!  52ancestors-sidebar-1

Freelove was my fifth Great-grandmother!  Freelove Mason  Cole was born on Christmas Eve, December 24 of 1773 in Ulster, Ulster, New York – then the Colony of New York in British Colonial America.  This was before the American Revolutionary War.  As a matter of fact, Freelove was the daughter of Captain Joseph Cole, III, who fought in the Battle of King’s Mountain in the Revolutionary War.  He was born in 1750 and died in 1826 so we know he survived the war.

Capt. Joseph Cole III married Remember Cole – another unusual name – “Remember” – not easy to forget that name (sorry for the pun!).   Remember’s maiden name was also Cole as she was the daughter of Israel Cole and Remember Burgess ( so that is where the name “Remember” came from!).  Capt. Joseph Cole III was the son of Joseph Cole Jr and Freelove Mason.  Now we know where the name “Freelove” came from also!   More on these ancestors from the Massachusetts Colony later.

Back to Freelove Mason Cole, my fifth great-grandmother, who was born in Ulster County, New York Colony.  Her mother, Remember Cole was born in 1751 but died in 1776 at about age 25.  Her father remarried twice after Remember’s death and he lived to 1826.  Freelove  married Thomas Thomas – his actual name was Thomas Jefferson Thomas– on 5 April of 1791 in Washington County, Virginia (I love all these names!).  At the time of marriage, Freelove was 17 and Thomas was 24.   Thomas Thomas was born December 6, 1766 in Southampton County, Virginia  and was the son of John Thomas and Mary Robinette.  

John Thomas left a will leaving land on the south fork of the Holston River in Virginia to his sons Thomas and Abijah.  At this time, the land was in Washington County but part of this county and Wythe County became Smyth County in 1832. Also, in 1821, John Thomas granted a “bargain Sale” of land for one dollar to Thomas Thomas  that was a second parcel of land on the south and north sides of the Holston River containing 315 acres.  This was land that John Thomas received as bounty land from the Commonwealth of Virginia and he sold it cheaply to his son ” in consideration of the natural love & affection” which he had for Thomas.

Freelove’s father, Joseph Cole, was a pioneer settler on Sinclair’s Bottom in Washington (now Smyth) County.  There is a deed from Joseph Cole (Freelove’s father) to Thomas Thomas, dated January 16, 1782, and recorded in the Clerk’s Office of Washington County for 150 pounds of current money, conveyed a tract of land described as follows: ” One certain tract or parcel of land containing 400 acres, be the same more or less, being the same that the said Joseph Cole purchased of Henry Bowen, being and lying in Washington County on the waters of the South Fork of Holston River.”  This part of Washington County became Smyth County in 1832.   This accumulation of so much land seems to be why the Thomas Thomas family came  to settle in Smyth County of southwest Virginia coming from Southampton County in southeast Virginia.

The Thomas family was closely associated with the founding of the town of Marion in Smyth County (Presently the city of Marion).  When Smyth County was being formed, there was a controversy over choosing a county seat.  According to Smyth County History ( p. 78), “This commission spent a night with Mr. Thomas Thomas, on the South Fork (of the Holston River), where a discussion arose concerning a name for the new county seat.  Mrs. Freelove Cole Thomas, their hostess, opined that it would be fitting to name it in honor of Gen. Francis Marion, which was done.”  Now that is interesting that one of my ancestors actually named a town that became the county seat of Smyth County, Virginia!  General Francis Marion served in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War and in the French and Indian Wars.  He was known as the “Swamp Fox” because of his style of warfare.

Freelove and Thomas Thomas had 10 known children and their daughter, Mary Polly Thomas, married William Porter in 1819.  Mary Polly Thomas Porter, known as Aunt Polly, lived to be 97 years of age.  She and William Porter are my fourth great-grandparents.   Other children of Thomas and Freelove included Remember Ann , Martha , Joseph , John, James, Anna, David, Sarah and Abijah.  William Porter and Mary Polly Thomas had four known children, one of whom was Susannah J Porter, my third great-grandmother.  Susannah married Thompson B James and they were parents of my second great-grandmother, Mary Ann James Ashlin. (See blog March 2018-“Portrait of a Strong Woman” for Susannah’s story)

One of the sons of Thomas Thomas and Freelove Cole was Abijah Thomas, named after Thomas’ brother, who was quite interesting and was named as a “man of rare vision and enterprise” in the Smyth County History.   See next week’s blog for his story and pictures!  Abijah was the youngest son and was born on the South Fork in the same house in which Mrs. Freelove Cole Thomas gave Marion its name.  Abijah built a large octagonal house that still stands on a beautiful location near Thomas’ Bridge and he died there on December 1, 1876.

Thomas Jefferson Thomas died on 22 May of 1838 in Adwolfe, Smyth County, Virginia at the age of 71.  According to the 1840 census, Thomas owned about 14 slaves at that time.  His wife, Freelove Cole Thomas died ten years late on 22 March 1848.  They were buried side by side in the Thomas Cemetery in Marion, Smyth County.

Thomas, Thomas, grave, 1838, Marion,Smyth VA (Freelove Cole) 001

Sources:

Ancestry.com. Smyth County, history and traditions [database on-line]. Provo, UT: Ancestry,com Operations Inc, 2005; pages; 78, 181, 320-322.   Original data: Wilson, Goodridge, Smyth County, history and traditions. Kingsport, Tenn: Kingsport Press, 1932.

Washington County, Virginia, Deed Book No. 1, page 239.

Find A Grave; Findagrave.com; Memorials 59080417, Thomas Thomas and 59080548,

Freelove Cole Thomas.Thomas, Freelove, Dest. March 22, 1848; listed in A New List of the Surviving Members of the St. Clair’s Bottom Church, April 9, 1831.

Relationship Document of Thomas Thomas to his father, South Fork of the Holstonn River by John Thomas, Washington County, Virginia, Deed Book No. 7, Pages 157-158.

United States Federal Census; Year: 1830; Census Place: Washington County, Virginia; Series: M19; Roll: 200; Page: 292; FHL Film: 0029679.

United States Federal Census; Year: 1840; Census Place: Smyth, Virginia; Page: 408; FHL Film: 0029692.

AGBI; Genealogy of the Sampson Mason fam. Part 1; by Alverdo Hayward Mason; East Braintree, MS, 1902 (V. 1): 47,94.

Yates Publishing; U.S. and International Marriage Records, 1560-1900 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA; Ancestry.com Operations Inc., 2004

Annals of Southwest Virginia; 1769-1800 for Thomas; Ancestry.com

 

 

A Surprising Resource I wish I had Found Earlier!

This week’s prompt or #52 Ancestors is “Surprise.”  I was researching in a new site that I found this week.  Last week’s prompt was about libraries and I did some searching and found a new library resource that could be very helpful!  It was the Jones Memorial Library in Lynchburg, Virginia.  This library specializes in genealogy and local history of Virginia – mostly central Virginia.  Since my father and his mother were both born in Lynchburg and many of my ancestors lived in the city and surrounding area of Lynchburg, I knew this would really be worth checking out!  Some of the collections the Jones Memorial Library has includes, county histories and court records, family histories and genealogies, land and property tax records and census records.  If your ancestry searches take you to Virginia, this is really worth checking out!

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You can find the Jones Memorial Library on-line!  Here’s some of their offerings!

I found some surprising discoveries on this site and will write about a few.

My great- grandparents, William Domman Swanson and Cora Virginia Phillips Swanson, lived in Lynchburg City, Virginia as well as many other relatives.

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William D Swanson in fireman’s uniform about 1910.

My great-grandfather, William Swanson was a fireman employed by the City of Lynchburg from 1909 to 1926.  (See blog “A Fireman’s Story: My great-grandfather”, posted January 2018, for his story).  I knew that he was killed in the line of duty on September 28, 1926.  He lived about a block from the fire station and had a gong in his home that would go off when ever a fire alarm came in to the station.  On this site, I actually found an article about how all the firemen had gongs in their homes when working for the City of Lynchburg in the early 1900s.  William just had to jump into his gear and wait outside to catch the fire wagon as it passed his house.

On the night of the 28th of September, the gong sounded at supper time and William got on his gear and ran outside to await the fire truck.  However, it was dark, rainy and the vehicle lights were blinding.  He went into the street to wave down one of the fire trucks but, unusually,  the fire chief’s car sped ahead of the fire wagon and didn’t see William and struck him.  The force of the impact was evidenced by the fact that the radiator of the car was crushed in and one of the head lights knocked off.  William was rushed to the Lynchburg Hospital in critical condition with a broken leg, broken ribs and internal injuries.  He passed away about 5 hours later.  This was a tragic story!

I found a map of Lynchburg in the 1920’s on the Jones Memorial Library site that shows the corner of Pearl Street and Main Street where my great-grandfather was hit.  I also know he lived on 408 Pearl Street.

Swanson, Wm D, death, Lynchburg, VA, map, 001 (2)

I also found a picture of the Lynchburg Firefighter’s Memorial Statue and Fountain that was dedicated to fallen firefighters.  One of the names on the plaque is my great-grandfather, William D Swanson.   This is definitely on my “want to visit” list!

Swanson, Wm D, Firemans Memorial, Lynchburg VA 1

This was an exciting find and more was to come.  When researching surnames, I entered “Phillips” and it came up with a picture of a home in Lynchburg on Federal Street in the 1930s that belonged to O. S. Phillips.  I knew right away that was the home of Oscar Stephen Phillips who married, Pearl Mae Swanson, the daughter of William D Swanson and Cora Virginia Phillips Swanson, my great-grandparents.  Sure enough, after checking census records, I saw that Oscar and Pearl did indeed live at 56 Federal Street in Lynchburg at that time!

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Cora V. Phillips Swanson

Actually, Cora Virginia Phillips was the daughter of another Oscar Phillips – Oscar Fitzallen Phillips, my 2nd great-grandfather.  The two Oscars were cousins.   When checking my family records, I discovered that Cora Phillips Swanson never remarried after William’s untimely death and she actually passed away in this house at 56 Federal Street on 26 April of 1945.  She was living with her daughter and son-in-law at the time.

 

 

 

Phillips, Oscar S, home at 56 Federal Street, Lynchburg VA
56 Federal Street, Lynchburg, Virginia.  Home of Oscar S Phillips on right.  Circa 1935

I discovered even more!  Here is a picture of the Box Factory that my grandmother, Cammie L Swanson, daughter of William and Cora, worked in when she was 17 in 1910!

Swanson, Cammie, Box Factory picture 1 001 (2)

Some days researching genealogy are not always productive but sometimes you can hit a bonus — Thanks to Jones Memorial Library!  I’ll be back!

Who Would Have Guessed? What I Found in the Library!

Week 5 of #52Ancestors        The prompt this week “at the library. ”

52ancestors-sidebar-1

Immediately this prompt brought me back a couple years when I had the great fortune to go to Salt Lake City, Utah and research at THE  LIBRARY!  Of course I am talking about the Family History Library which has became my most favorite library of all time!  I traveled there with my daughter, a dear cousin and a friend for an adventure that sparked my genealogical journey.   We left Chicago on a flight to Salt Lake City for a week of intense research.  We were in awe of this immense five story library and all the resources – just overwhelming!  If you have even been there, you know what I mean!  If you haven’t been there, you really should go!

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Family History Library at Salt Lake City, Google Images

My daughter and I arrived knowing very little about our roots, especially my father’s ancestry.  I knew he was born in Lynchburg, Virginia which was quite far from where he finally settled and raised his family – the western end of the Upper Peninsula  of Michigan where my mother grew up!  I spent my married life in southeast Wisconsin- still far away from Virginia.  I wasn’t even sure of the name of my father’s father – my grandfather who died, as I later found out, in 1939 of tuberculosis in Detroit where he had moved his family in the 1920s.   Both my parents had passed and I had no one to ask!

But all that was about to change as we immersed ourselves in our family history with the help of so many volunteers.  We learned how to search and find microfilm numbers and to use the microfisch machines.  We did this for a couple days then decided we needed more – we needed to find stories to go with the names of ancestors we discovered!  We spent the rest of our time there doing just that by searching periodicals and books and more books.   We had discovered more and more surnames we had never known – it was eye-opening!  There were surnames of James, Swanson, Dudley, Lyon, Smith, Ashlin, Cloud, Porter, Campbell, Catlett, Taliaferro, Madison, Mason, Underwood, Phillips and many more!    AND – we found stories and family histories!  What an awesome library – we really needed more like a month that just a mere week but we gathered as much as we could and delighted in our finds!

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Here is where we spent most of our waking hours!

One very amazing and memorable experience happened to me while there.  First I must tell you that my maternal grandmother, Alma Tusa Knihtila, died when I was but six years old.  My mother’s parents lived “just across the alley” from us and I remember a few things about her.  She had immigrated from Finland in the early 1900s.   I had one picture of her when she was older, probably about age 60 as she was 65 when she passed.  My mom told me once that she lived in a little tiny town of Amasa, Michigan when she came from Finland because she had relatives there.  We spent a lot of time in the “stacks” where the books are shelved by states and then by counties in the state.  Each row of stacks seemed a half mile long!

FHL, book stacks 001

Of course we spent a lot of time in the Virginia stacks.  One day, I wandered to the Michigan row of stacks and perused the counties, finally finding Iron County, Michigan books – the county where Amasa is.  I really didn’t expect to find anything about this tiny town but, to my complete surprise, there it was – a book on Amasa!

The book was titled simply, “Amasa, Michigan” and was published by the Amasa-Hematite Centennial Corporation printed in 1992.  I glanced through the thin bound book hoping to find some clues about my grandmother’s past.  What I did find was so unexpected – a picture of my very own grandmother, Mrs. Richard Knihtila, in the early years of her marriage – about 1914 or 1915!  Granted it was a small picture as she was with a group of people but there it was and she looked so beautiful!  A young woman with her long hair braided and woven around her head just as I remember how she wore her hair when she was my grandmother!

Here I was 1500 miles away from my home and almost on the other side of United States  and I open this book and there is a picture of my grandmother that I had never seen – a grandmother who died when I was six!  I would have never dreamed that I would find a book on little Amasa, Michigan in Salt Lake City, Utah!  It was so exciting and in that little book were more surprises!  I found pictures of two of her brothers who lived in Amasa and stories about their lives!  They stayed in Amasa and were a part of the community.   Now I knew their names and their children’s names and their stories.  So this is why my grandmother went to Amasa upon arriving in America – her brothers had gone before her and settled there.  Of course I copied the stories and pictures – pictures that I treasure.  It was an amazing find!

Alma in Amasa
My grandmother, Alma Tusa Knihtila, is the third from the left in the back row.  The picture I found in the Amasa  Book!

Later, my brother found some old family pictures of my grandmother with her mother and two sisters when she was a young girl in Finland before she came to America and gave them to me.   More pictures to treasure!  You can find the story of her coming to America in the blog “Mother’s Day” published May 2018.

Grandma K with mother an 2 sisters 001
Alma, my grandmother is seated next to her mother, Sanna Puirola Tusa, and her two sisters, Hulda and Hilja are standing behind.    Circa 1908.

This is just one of the very many reasons that the Family History Library is so special for me.  It was an experience like no other.  If you are lucky enough to go, absolutely prepare your research plans ahead of time as it is easy to be overwhelmed by the massive amounts of information and resources.  We were happy to have so much assistance by staff members that we were able to focus our research to areas we wanted to cover.  We can’t wait to go back!