Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Connections to David

Two small pieces of coal sit on our kitchen window sill. Gleaming black ebony, they're a good reminder of our past, present and future search for energy - difficult labor, lives, and decisions. They have an even more personal meaning for me.

Dad's Parents

Never knowing any of my grandparents - my father’s parents died before I was born; my mother’s died within a week of each other the year I was seven - I grew up hearing about each of them. I must have perked up my ears back then, as stories of them still swirl in my brain. A few details I remember came in handy when I began researching my family’s history a few years ago.

Mom's Parents

Some years after both my parents were gone, I discovered a small slip of paper in Mom’s handwriting among some of their paperwork which pointed the way. On it she’d listed her parents’ and grandparents’ names, birth dates and places. For her grandfather on her mother’s side she'd added: “Timberline, Mont, family moved - train, 1880 (David buried)?” Thus began an interesting journey for me. Searching genealogical web sites, talking with my two sisters, and communicating with distant relatives, I learned much that I had not known about this mysterious David Johnson. Today, I even correspond with one of his (and my) shirttail relatives in England!

My great-grandfather, David Johnson, was born in the coal mining area of Warwick, England in 1850. One of 13 children, he was born into a family of coal miners, silk spinners, and weavers. Probably beginning work at a young age, as was common back then, he also became a coal miner. In 1873, he married my great-grandmother, Elizabeth, and together they pursued the “Great American Dream”.

A Boarding House near Timberline

1880 Census records show them in Belleville, Illinois with their two young daughters, the oldest of which was my grandmother. A coal company train took them west to the small coal mining community of Timberline, Montana. During its heyday, Timberline, and other nearby mining communities, supplied tons of bituminous coal to fuel householders’ stoves, expanding railroads, and smelters for the emerging copper industry in Butte and Anaconda. Both David and Elizabeth toiled long and hard there. After he died, Elizabeth supported herself and daughters by working in a boarding house. By 1900, she and the girls had moved to Helena, where they remained for the rest of their lives. There seems to be no record of where, when, or how David died. My mother’s note leads me to believe he was buried in Timberline.

Old Coal Mining Community Near Timberline

Today, Timberline no longer exists and there is no trace of its cemetery. Several summers ago we visited the area and connected with a niece who lives near there. She graciously consented to drive me out to the site of the former mining community, so I do believe I’ve walked where my great-grandparents once lived. Old photos from the mining era show a ramshackle town strewn across barren, denuded hills. Today, it is lush and green with vacation homes scattered throughout the acreage. We drove down a gravel road where the old railroad once traversed and to the site of the former cemetery, now private property. Nothing of the "old days" remains there, except for the aura I felt in my bones and my soul. Although my goal had been to visit David’s grave site, I felt a peace simply being there. As we passed coal tailings on our way back, my niece thoughtfully jumped out and grabbed a piece of coal as a remembrance for me. When I got out of her car at our motel I accidentally dropped the coal and it broke cleanly into two pieces. Quite appropriately I think - for then and now; for past and present generations; for what they gave and for what we received.

I look at that coal in my window and remember - we are where we are today because of those who came before.

Then I realized that it is good and proper to eat and drink, and to find satisfaction in his toilsome labor under the sun during the few days of life God has given him - for this is his lot. Moreover, when God gives any man wealth and possessions, and enables him to enjoy them, to accept his lot and be happy in his work - this is a gift from God. He seldom reflects on the days of his life, because God keeps him occupied with gladness of heart.
Ecclesiastes 5:18 - 19

All photographs of Timberline mining area from the book
 Photo History of Livingston - Bozeman Coal Country
By Bill and Doris Whithorn - Pray, Montana


  1. very interesting...the history of where we came from...who made us who we are...the struggles of our ancestors. >>i was adopted...my adopted family have all passed away...and i sometimes wish i had been more interested in hearing the 'old stories' when i was younger. NOW i want to listen...

    i love your pictures...story...and travelling with you...back in time...

    thanks! :]

  2. Thank you, Laura, for your kind words. I think most of us could be better listeners - unfortunately, we nearly always recognize this too late. My parents shared a lot of their own history and were always willing to answer questions. Trouble was, I got bored with it all; it seemed a bit too irrelevant to me at the time. I've since realized that we need to gain a bit of age & experience to truly appreciate what past generations went through & how it IS relevant to our lives. Our son is adopted also, Laura, so I do know how that opens up another whole "can of worms". I am, however, a firm believer that family is where & what we make it, so we are all deeply influenced (for better or worse) by those we share our lives with AND by those who came before THEM. Peace to you, wherever you are with all this.

  3. I'd heard bits and pieces of the story but not as well constructed. I certainly was missing my great-great grandparents names, too. The photo of the scrap was fascinating.