Gardens to Gables

For the Living and the Dead: The Historic Tradition of Family Reunions

I’ve never shied away from “purple prose” in my own writing, and I find the language in the historic newspapers to be the heights of delightful floridity.This past weekend, my family celebrated its 123rd annual (or 122nd, we’re not exactly sure) reunion – a long-standing tradition full of history, but to many folks today, as much a relic of the past as the bombastic writing of early 20th century journalists. A newspaper account of the 1894 reunion included these lines: “We admire these family reunions; they serve a double purpose; while they keep alive and fresh the memory of the dead, they bring the living into closer touch and into a sweeter and more social connection with their kindred.” Though this expired style of writing may cause giggles these days, the sentiment is one that I endorse, and think is as relevant today as it was in 1894 – perhaps even more so given our mobile lifestyles.

The 1916 Prewitt Reunion at Breeze Hill (now demolished) in Clark County, Kentucky.

Central Kentucky – and the world – do not exist in same sphere as that which my ancestors inhabited in that 1894 newspaper article. Those family members were paying homage to the first Virginians of our branch of the family to remove over the mountains and settle in the Bluegrass. “Most of them were born farmers, loved the quiet comforts of domestic life better than the plaudits of the multitude. They were real overs of nature, whose varied woods spoke to them of a hand divine, and they delighted to wrest from her the hidden secrets of her treasury, counting her a generous mother who would yield her gold to those who would dig for it: here’s honor to their memory and peace to their ashes.” Most of those people would live and die within five miles of where they were born. They wrote letters, not text messages. And they visited with family  – and the reunions, which were then all-day affairs, were the penultimate in socializing, catching up, and eating.

The 1911 Reunion at Oil Springs, Clark County, Kentucky.

The 1911 Reunion at Oil Springs, Clark County, Kentucky.

Reunions, if not held at the “Robert Prewitt graveyard” in Fayette County, were held at people’s homes – even if some descendants were no longer farmers,  they still had farms, and large homes to welcome a multitude of cousins. All of these farms had evocative names: Breeze Hill, Stock Place, Cherrywood, Vergeland, Mound Hill. When I began pursuing historic preservation and architectural history as a career, I poured over these photographs, keen to discern whatever I could from the buildings in the background. Sometimes the reunion was held at a local resort, such as Oil Springs, which opened in southeastern Clark County in the late-19th century and was a popular place for parties, courting couples, and vacationeers.

A notice about the forthcoming opening of Oil Springs, in the June 10, 1908 edition of the Mt. Sterling Advocate.

A notice about the forthcoming opening of Oil Springs, in the June 10, 1908 edition of the Mt. Sterling Advocate.

Five years ago, it looked as our family reunion tradition, which has linked cousins upon cousins since the 1890s, would cease to be. No one seemed to be interested in stepping up, and previous hosts deserved a rest for their years of organizing and opening their home. My middle sister and I concluded that we simply could not let this happen – because what would our grandmother, gone so many years now, say?

Even though I was just 13 years old when my grandmother died, I hung on every family story she related, and marveled at the wealth of cousins that were mine, scattered all across Kentucky and the country. Since my father was an only child, I grew up with no first cousins close-by, but everywhere we went, it seemed, there were cousins of all ages – and thanks to careful genealogists from decades past, I could look these people up in “the Prewitt Book,” the first and last word on family connections.

I dsicovered a new photograph of my grandmother at a reunion this past weekend - she and her sister on the 2nd story of a porch, sometime in the second decade of the 20th century.

I discovered a new photograph of my grandmother at a reunion this past weekend – she and her sister on the 2nd story of a porch, sometime in the second decade of the 20th century.

Attendance at the reunion is not the same as it used to be – and finding a place to hold it becomes increasingly difficult. I am a minority in my generation as a farm child, and most cousins are far removed from our agricultural heritage, so there aren’t the number of family homes where parking is achieved by a field next to the house, and ample sized rooms can provide shelter if the weather turns inclement.

I don’t know what the reunion means to some family members, especially the younger ones, and those without a vested interest in the past like myself. For me, it is my way to contribute to the efforts of those who came before me – to be a part of something historic and meaningful – and to play a role in encouraging people I might see only once a year to sit down, sans smartphones and talk about our lives, and the loved ones we wish were still in attendance with us. We might have a Facebook page for the family, and send out electronic reminders, but some things simply can’t happen virtually. And there is no purple prose necesssary for me to convey how thankful I am for that.

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2 Thoughts on “For the Living and the Dead: The Historic Tradition of Family Reunions

  1. Naomi Justice on September 25, 2016 at 12:52 am said:

    I have no purple prose to reply, but I loved the photos and sentiments from this articulate composer. Having attended a family reunion recently, I could relate to each and every word. Thank you for this page.

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