In the past week I visited Cherry Ridge, Honesdale, Wayne, Pennsylvania in the Pokonos, where I was welcomed by my third cousin Marcia Perry Gager whose family never left the place where our ancestors settled. Marcia and I have been corresponding about our family’s history since Ancesty.com connected us about three years ago. During that time, together with another cousin, Debra Ball, we have managed to decipher the complicated history of Henry Iloff, his two wives, and their eighteen children.
My visit to Honesdale began at John’s Evangelical (formerly German) Lutheran Church. Following a last-minute discovery that the baptism, marriage, and funeral records of the church were not in the Wayne County Historical Musem archives as I had been led to believe, I made a call to the “emergency number” of Pastor Richard Mowery the day before our scheduled visit, not knowing how he would respond to this “not-really-emergency” invasion of his personal space.
A few hours later Pastor Mowery called back and kindly offered to show us the archives after the Sunday service. Although he said he would have only “a few minutes” to spend with us, he waited patiently for over an hour while we poured through crumbling leather-bound books, attempting to decipher records written in German in Old German handwriting.
I had already known that my great-great-grandfather Henry Eiloff (as the name was spelled in the German records) or Iloff (as it was spelled on the US census forms) had two wives: my great-great-grandmother Catherina Lattauer and her twenty-two years younger niece Johanna Sweitzer, from whom Marcia is descended. I was curious to know how many months separated Catherina’s death in 1869 and the birth of Johanna’s first child in September 1870. We found the record of Catherina’s death: May 6, 1869. There was a “decent interval” between the death and the marriage.
While some of the records were difficult to decipher, the marriage records were not. The marriages for 1869 and 1870 are on only four pages and the handwriting is clear and large. Though we each examined the pages several times, we could find no record of the marriage of Johanna and Henry. Did the minister who later baptized their children refuse to sanctify Henry’s marriage to his first wife’s niece? Was their marriage considered scandalous in their community?
After I bought flowers to place on the grave, Marcia took me to the St. John’s Lutheran Cemetery where a monument to Henry Iloff and his two wives stands at the top of a hill. Below it are brick-sized flat markers for Emma and Agnes, two young daughters of Henry and Johanna. Two other markers simply say Mother and Father. These may have been placed on the graves of Henry and Catherina who died many years before the monument was erected, or perhaps on the graves of Johanna’s parents who have no gravestones elsewhere in the cemetery.
Marcia reminded me that the Iloff farm had been sold in the 1950s and that the old farmhouse was no longer standing, but she took me to the places where the Iloff and Sweitzer farms had been located. My father and his cousins fondly remembered many happy weeks “down on the farm” when they were young. As we pulled into the parking area of the farm across the road, two young girls emerged from a truck. They were sisters about twenty years old who told us they had worked three summers on an adjacent farm in order to save the money to buy the land where they were raising pigs and cows. Though their parents and the parents of most of their friends had “left the farm,” they were among a group of young people who were returning to the land. Marcia and I were pleased to learn that farms are being reclaimed.
Walking the land that had been part of the Iloff farm, we noticed some utility buildings that Marcia said looked to be over a hundred years old. Hoping to get a closer look, we held hands for balance as we attempted to cross over a low uneven stone wall. Still holding hands, we tripped over a piece of an old wire fence and fell back on the ground on our bottoms, laughing uncontrollably. Later I wondered if the ancestors wanted us to have this close connection to their land.
I was surprised to learn that Cherry Ridge, which is about six miles outside Honesdale, is more of a hamlet than a town. It had no church of its own and no town hall, though it would have had a farmer’s grange where church services could have been held. An old schoolhouse was still standing. Marcia said that one of her grandmothers told her that she had walked to school in the snow without shoes, jumping from cow patty to cow patty, so as not to freeze her toes.
My great-grandmother Catherine, who was the sixth child of Henry and his first wife Catherine, left the farm to marry George Christ, a tailor in Brooklyn. There she gave birth to five children before George died at age thirty-two of tuberculosis, only a few months after my grandfather was born. Though she was to bury a son and a daughter from that marriage, Catherine remarried and gave birth to two more daughters in Brooklyn. At the end of her life, she was living comfortably in the home of one of them in Queens.
My grandfather followed his brothers into a job with Borden’s Milk in Brooklyn, but after he married, he was employed by the insurance company where the older brothers of his wife Mae Inglis worked. This led to his transfer to California in 1935, which severed connections with the families in New York and Pennsylvania.
It was touching to meet my cousin Marcia whose family had never left the the Honesdale area. It is clear that she is “as bright as a button,” but she did not go to college “though she had the grades to do so” and currently works as a department manager at Walmart. It is entirely possible that I too would not have gone to college if Catherine Iloff had stayed in Honesdale. At the end of our day Marcia and I added up the pluses and minuses in our lives—I have more economic security and have “accomplished more” with my life, while she is very happily married and embraced by a large extended family. We each counted our blessings, while wondering at how different each of our lives could have been if our great-grandparents had made different choices.
What did it mean for me to visit Honesdale? Having been raised to think of myself as “melted into the pot,” I am finally learning about my family’s origins. I am grateful for the opportunities I have had, while at the same time I mourn the ties to land, family, and community that have been lost.
*Thanks to Joyce Zonana for driving me to Honesdale and for taking photos of the church records.
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Carol P. Christ’s new book written with Judith Plaskow is Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology. They are co-editors of Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions. Carol wrote the first Goddess feminist theology, Rebirth of the Goddess and the process feminist theology, She Who Changes.
Carol P. Christ leads the Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete. Join the 2017 spring and fall tours now and save $150.