4th of July: Forefathers

We’re visiting my folks for the holiday, and right now we’re about to go out in the country to Red Oak to try and find the cemetery on what was the old Ficke farm and to check on some ancestors. My great-great-grandfather, George Marion West, married Henrietta Ficke in 1878, but she died of complications after giving birth to my great-grandfather in 1881. George would outlive two more wives (the second, Martha Brown, bore him 11 children) and is buried beside Henrietta and Martha at Ficke. I have a picture of him that I’ll scan and post in the next day or two.

George died 18 years before I was born, but my grandfather would tell stories about him. One of the things my grandfather often talked about was how his grandfather George could remember being five years old and his father, John, waking him up to say good-bye because he had enlisted in the Union army to fight in the Civil War. Great-great-great-grandfather John West died of pneumonia at Vicksburg, and George never saw his father again.

In his later years, my grandfather (another John West) would write a brief memoir of his grandfather. In thinking back over the hard times and trials that have made this country, it seemed like a good day to share a slice of a long ago life and death.

George Marion West
by John West

Grandpa George was nearing the age of sixty when I was born. From memory he was a large, robust man. Circumstances played a role in my getting to know him in his later years. The last days of his life were spent in our home.

On rare occasions he would engage in conversation about his boyhood life. It was seldom that he discussed events that pertained to himself and never in a boastful manner. He was a congenial “man’s man”, however children were not drawn to him for reasons that cannot be explained. He never showed anything but kindness toward children. His father left home to enlist in the army when he was about five years old and he never returned. Grandpa George never forgot the experience of his father’s leaving their home on the Bourbeuse River to go away to war. He spoke with sadness of the memory even in his last years. He had memories of the war as it affected the home life of the people in the community where he lived. There was conflict between neighbors and frequent raids by Bushwhacker elements resulting in the loss of livestock and anything of value in the homes. There were frequent skirmishes that resulted in loss of life.

In the early years of his life most every family experienced hardships in everyday living. Grandpa George perhaps suffered more than a fair share of such experiences. He grew up fatherless in a period of extreme poverty that was made worse by the long-suffering that was brought on by the war. In his words, he was “kicked from pillar to post,” living and working hard wherever food and shelter were available. He worked during all seasons clearing land and planting crops on the Bourbeuse River. His rewards were food and shelter.

In the year 1941 through coincidence I met a gentleman in Owensville, Missouri who grew up from childhood with Grandpa George. The gentleman’s name was Homer Michel. Mr. Michel was in his late 80s and very alert. He and Grandpa George were near the same age. They were from the Bourbeuse River communities of Walbert, Strain and Champion City. Mr. Michel described Grandpa George as being a rough and crude young man in his teen years. He was large and robust with extraordinary strength. Typical of the times, many disagreements were settled by fist-fights and Grandpa George always accounted himself well in such fracases. He could be a mean man physically when circumstances warranted it and the “bullies” of the community were content to let him be. At the same time he was respected throughout the community for his kindness and honesty.

In a rare exchange with Grandpa George I recall asking him if he had ever had a fist-fight and, if so, had he ever been whipped. He told me that everyone had fist-fights when he was a lad. He seemed proud to admit that he had been whipped once. The story, as he related it, was that he had got the better end of fights with two grown men in separate fights. He was no more than 18 or 20 years old at the time. The two of them together teamed up on him at night and beat up on him. he did not think they fought fair. They used “lap” rings for knucks and managed to pull his shirt up over his head and one of them held him while the other poured it on. He carried and wore with pride several scars on the back of his head that he used to remind himself that fighting was poor business.

Unusual circumstances prompted Grandpa George to move his family and home from Franklin County to Crawford County. Legend has it (Grandpa George never related the story to me), that a farm trade was made between Grandpa George and a friend wherein the exchange was made on an even-up basis with no money or other consideration involved. The reason behind the exchange was that the friend who owned and occupied the farm in Crawford County was involved in a serious feud with his neighbor on an adjoining farm and the problem had become so acute that lives were in jeopardy. The feuding neighbors were more than just neighbors, they were also brothers and each was a friend of Grandpa George. The exchange of farms solved the problem. Grandpa George was rewarded by acquiring a farm that was considered much more valuable than the one he exchanged for it.

Lengthy conversations were not a habit and were always to the point, using a minimum of words. He appreciated humor in moderation when circumstances were better served by it. He was not an emotional being. Happiness or sorrow were seldom expressed outwardly beyond a stoic acceptance of the situation at hand. He was an orderly individual. His home, farm equipment and farm animals were well cared for. Neatness was a virtue.

In spite of being handicapped due to a lack of formal education, Grandpa George progressed from poverty to prosperity during his active years. His compassion for ungrateful members of his family reduced him to poverty again before his death. His last years were spent in declining health and, against his independent nature, he was forced to depend on others for daily care. During this period of illness he never complained and displayed quiet dignity. He died January 12, 1940 and is buried in the Ficke Cemetary at Walbert, Missouri.

Next: the hidden and unnoticed past.

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