A Fireman’s Story: My great-grandfather

William D Swanson 001

This is my favorite picture of my great-grandfather, William Domman Swanson!  He was the father of my grandmother, Cammie Swanson Lyons, my dad’s mother.  (See last weeks blog!)  While browsing through Lynchburg, Virginia census records, I found his 1910 Census listing his occupation as a fireman and I thought, now there may be a story and what a story it turned out to be!  In the above picture, he appears to be in uniform with an insignia so I am guessing the picture is from about 1906-7 when he first joined the Lynchburg Fire Department.

William was the son of John A. B. Swanson, a Confederate Civil War veteran and Mary Frances Burks.  He was born 22 May of 1862, the second year of the war and was the second of 13 children in the family.  The family lived in Amherst County, Virginia in a little town of Cool Well.

He married Cora Virginia Phillips in 1884 when he was just 21 and she was 17 and they had 11 children that I know of.   They moved around a lot, mostly in the Lynchburg, Virginia area and Amherst County.  Cora and her sisters and daughters were midwives and “healers”, attending to the sick with natural herbs and such.  It is said that the Swanson and Phillips families were German, Dutch and Irish with the “healing” side coming in through the Irish!

Cora Phillips Swanson 001Cora Virginia Phillips Swanson (1867-1945)

William did a lot of different jobs while raising the family and in 1900, he was working as an iron worker.  However, the family settled for good in Lynchburg in 1906 and on the 15th of March, 1906, William became a fireman with the Lynchburg Fire Department, working out of fire station #3.  They bought a home just down the street from the fire station.   William even had a gong in his home that sounded off whenever the fire alarm went off at the station.  That way, he could jump into his suit and run out to the street to catch the fire truck as it went by his house on the way to the fire!  I really think he loved the new career and was very dedicated as he stayed with the department until his death.

William had several narrow escapes from death during his fire-fighting career.  He was suffocated twice by smoke, doctors giving up hope for his life after the Academy of Music fire in Lynchburg.  He was also suffocated when the Southern railway tunnel in Rivermont burned and caved in.  But he persevered.

On September 28, 1926, his luck ran out.  Tragedy struck!  William died as the result of a tragic accident while on duty as a fireman.  I actually found the original newspaper stories recounting his accident.  It seems, William was eating dinner at his home when a fire alarm came in to headquarters and rang the gong in his home.  He jumped up from the table thinking he could catch one of the wagons as it passed his house on the corner of Pearl and Main streets.   It was a misty, rainy night and it was difficult to see.  As William searched for the lights of the fire wagon, he was almost blinded by the lights of what he thought was the fire wagon.  Quickly he stepped out to slow the wagon down to jump aboard but it wasn’t the lights of the wagon – it was the fire chief’s car!  The car only had about 10 feet to brake upon seeing William but the car skidded in a wide arc  and struck and swept William to one side while landing on the other side of the street.  William’s injuries were serious including a broken leg, several broken ribs, internal injuries and punctured lung and he was taken to the Lynchburg Hospital when he passed away 4 hours later.

The Lynchburg News reported the next day: “The call of duty, to which he had always responded, cost the life of William D. Swanson,  64-year-old veteran fireman last night when he was struck by the fire chief’s car near his home at about 7 o’clock.   The fire chief stated,  I do not believe he saw my car…as he had his eyes on one of the trucks behind me.”  The Captain stated that William’s service with the department had been “A-No-1.  He was a good man all of the way through.”  The article ends with this:  “The firemen at station No. 3 to which Mr. Swanson was attached and where he was held in unusually high esteem by his fellow workers, were this afternoon engaged in draping the front of the station with mourning.”   A touching tribute to my great-grandfather.

Swanson_William-150x212  William Swanson, “Lynchburg Fallen Firefighters” photo gallery

The City of Lynchburg erected a memorial for their firefighters killed in the line of duty in Miller Park  in 1995 and William’s name is engraved on the memorial statue.

Firefighters Memorial, Lynchburg 001

Firefighters memorial Lynchburg 2 001

William was buried in Spring Hill Cemetery, Lynchburg on  October 1, 1926.  His beloved wife, Cora, joined him in 1945.  Although I live in Wisconsin, someday I want to make the trip to visit not only their graves but also to see the Fallen Firefighters Memorial.   His story touches my heart and inspires me to keep searching for the stories of our heritage to better understand where we came from!

grave markers of William and Cora Swanson 001

If any relative would like a copy of William and Cora’s more detailed family history, just contact me!  I am always happy to share my research!


A Dinner Guest! by Marilyn Lyons Pawlak


Grandma Lyons with Art 1945 001

Cammie Lyons in 1945 holding grandson Arthur Lyons, son of LaFon Lyons.

This weeks prompt for #52Ancestors in 52 weeks in “invite to dinner.”  I have so many ancestors that I would like to invite that I would be having dinner parties all year!  However, today I would like to invite my father’s mother, my dear grandmother, Cammie Lyster Swanson Lyons.  In a previous blog, I posted a picture of her with her family, minus my grandfather Clarence, who died in 1939 at age 48.  I have so many questions about the family history and what was it like when she grew up.  I would probably wear her out with all my thoughts and questions!  However, just by doing my research, I know more about her than I did before and I have tried to imagine what her life might have been like.

My grandmother died when I was a senior in high school in 1964, just 2 months before my graduation.  She lived so very far away that I did not get to see her much in my growing years.  It was pretty long between Bessemer in Upper Michigan to Mount Clemens, north of Detroit in Lower Michigan!  I will pose some questions I would have asked her if I could and try to answer them using what I have found.

Grandma, who were your mom and dad?

Grandma: My mom was Cora Virginia Phillips who was born in Amherst, Virginia in 1867 and she was the daughter of Oscar Fitzallen Phillips and Nancy Jane Burch.  The Burch family has a very long lineage in America and Europe.  My dad was William Domman Swanson, the son of John A B Swanson and Mary Frances Burks – My grandfather John served as a Confederate Soldier in the Civil War.  Around 1870, my family lived in Peddler Township in Amherst County, Virginia.  I was born on January 28, 1893 and was lived in Lynchburg, Virginia at that time.

Grandma, what was it like growing up?

Grandma: It was busy!  I was the 5th of 11 children!  I had 2 older sisters, Pearlie May and Gertrude and an older brother Bernard.  My other older brother, Vernon Edward, died as an infant in 1891.  Actually, a younger brother, Roy, died as an infant when I was about 2 years old.  But more children were to come – brothers Corry Dorman in 1896 and Ralph McWayne in 1900.  Ralph was born on my birthday exactly 7 years later!  In 1902, I finally got some younger sisters to play with and help take care of – Virginia McKinley in 1902 and Ruby Roosevelt in 1904.  In 1906, another brother, James William was born and, sadly, he was always sickly.  They said he had marasmus where his body couldn’t take up energy from food and causes malnutrition.  Mom and Dad took him to a doctor in Reading, PA but poor James died at 4 months and 9 days old.  It was sad for the whole family.  We made do the best we could.  My dad worked in a Rolling Mill at one time but before 1910, he became a fireman with the City of Lynchburg.  My mom and her sisters and older daughters were midwives and healers.  They helped others and knew a lot about herbs and remedies.  So we had a lot of people coming to them for help.  In 1908, my older sister Pearlie May went off to North Carolina with Oscar S Phillips and got married.  (Oscar was a distant cousin to my grandfather.)  In 1909, my sister Gertrude married Preston Holloran.  In 1910, Gertrude and Preston and their baby, Mildred moved in with us.  Gertrude was ill and she died of Tuberculosis in 1912 when Mildred was only 2.  It was so very sad to lose our sister and TB is such a horrible disease.

Grandma, when did you get married to Grampa Clarence?

Grandma:  We got married on March 5, 1913 in Lynchburg.  I was 20 years old and Clarence was 22.  Clarence was born in Smyth Co. Virginia and his parents were George Lyons and Susanna Virginia Ashlin.  Clarence was a carpenter and we lived at 100 Withers Street in Lynchburg.  But then we soon moved to Sugar Grove, Virginia where our first son, William Lilburn (Bill) was born in January of 1914.  Then, Eddie (Edward McWayne) was born in 1915 when I was 23.

Grandma, when was my dad born?

Grandma:  Well, let’s see.  It was August 30 of 1917 and we had moved back to Lynchburg by then.  Grampa Clarence registered for the WWI draft just before LaFon Camlyn, your dad, was born.  We lived at 410 Bay Street in Lynchburg and grampa was a carpenter for Jno P Pettyjohn & Co in Lynchburg.

What did Grampa look like and what did he do?

Grandma:  Well, he was tall and slender and had gray eyes and brown hair.  And– he was a very good carpenter.  He moved us to 2305 Judith Street in the Brookville District of West Lynchburg after your dad was born and got a job as a house carpenter.  Later we moved again to 602 Richmond Ave in Lynchburg in 1921.  We rented and found it hard to buy a house.

How did you end up in Michigan?

Grandma: We had another baby in 1922–Dreama June was born on Valentine’s Day! I was 29 years old.  She was born in Lynchburg but then we went back to Sugar Grove to work and live on a large sugar cane and tobacco farm.  It may have been once owned by Clarence’s grandfather (Columbus Ashlin) and now by his son, Sammy.  Times were hard but we were with family-Clarence’s brother James and sister Mary Ann and their families.  When June was but a year old in 1923, we decided with the family to all move to Detroit because there were a lot of jobs available in the auto industry.  So, with the families of James and Mary Ann and us, we all moved.  We found a place to rent and grampa got a job working at the Packard Motor Company in Detroit.  He was a good mechanic and carpenter and even worked for the railroad at a time.  Things were looking up for us.  Our family was growing up.

My dad talked about a sister Rosemary, what happened to her?

Grandma: In 1928, Rosemary was born prematurely at St. Mary’s hospital in Detroit.  I was 35 when that happened.  Only 2 days after that, my own father, William Swanson was killed in Lynchburg in a tragic accident.  Remember he was a fireman and he lived near the fire station. He had a fire alarm in his house and when it rang, he would go out front and the fire truck would pick him up on the way to the fire.  Well, this was a rainy night with poor visibility and as he was waiting for the fire truck to pick him up, the fire chief’s car came first, didn’t see him, and accidentally struck him.  He was taken to the hospital but died from multiple injuries.  I know they erected a memorial in Lynchburg park to honor fallen firefighters and his name is on it – I would like to see that.

How did you manage during the Great Depression?

Grandma: By 1930, we had bought a home at 357 St Aubins St in Detroit.  Grampa Clarence was working as a mechanic in a Aeroplane Manufacturing place.  We owned the home and even had a radio.  But Grampa was not real well and couldn’t work full time.  We found out later that he had tuberculosis.  The boys helped out with jobs they could do so we could get by.  In 1931, your Aunt Coralie, our last child, was born.  We had a close relationship with Grampa’s brother and sister and the family stuck together.  Grampa and the boys even helped build a house for his sister Mary Ann and her husband Ed Bruehl.  Ed and Grampa even started building an airplane at Ed’s place but it was never finished as, you know, Grampa died in 1939 of tuberculosis.  It was hard times for us.  After Clarence died, we moved to Moravian Drois and Louis Place in Clinton Township outside Detroit  and Eddie worked in a factory and your dad drove truck for the CCC’s.  Bill had married Dorothy by now.    Later, I did work taking care of an older couple and other caregiver jobs, but eventually, as you know, I moved in with Coralie and her family and lived with them.  Some summers, I would come up to Upper Michigan and stay with you and your family in Bessemer.

Grandma, you know I have so many more questions but we will save them for another visit!  Love you so much!

mom and grandma lyons1956 001

Cammie Lyster Lyons in 1956, Christmas, at the home of LaFon Lyons.

grandma lyons and baby John lyons 001

Grandma Cammie Lyons holding grandson John Frank Lyons, 1957, son of Bill Lyons.

grandma Lyons grave marker 001

Sources for this history are available upon request.  Please send request in comments section.  Copies of the history of Clarence and Cammie that I have written are available to any relatives who ask for them.  I am happy to share!   Marilyn Pawlak