"A Child’s Heart Reaches Out"

by Mary Joyce Loftis-Hammett

Copyright© 2003, All rights reserved

It all began a long time ago.  In the spring of 1902 to be exact.  A little seven year old girl named Elizabeth watched her daddy get aboard a train that would take him to Knoxville, Tennessee.  He planned to earn some money working in the coal mines.  When he got enough money he was going to take little Elizabeth and her baby brother, Phillip, to meet their grandma and grandpa.  They had never met their grandparents because they lived far away in a western state called Oregon.

Just a few months earlier, Charles, Katherine, and little Elizabeth Remington were very happy living in their little five room house in Asheville, North Carolina.  Katherine was a dressmaker for the wealthy Vanderbilt family.  Charles worked on the Biltmore estate.  But, then, tragedy had struck the family.  Katherine had gotten very sick after having had her last baby.  There were complications, and she died within a week after baby Phillip was born.

Little Elizabeth and baby Phillip were cared for by neighbors.  Charles grieved so much, that he started drinking.  He soon lost his job at the Biltmore estate.  He had no money nor any means to support himself or the children.  Charles blamed little Phillip for the death of his beloved Katherine.  After several months of grieving, he came to his senses and realized that he had to go on with his life and care for his children.  He had imposed on his neighbors long enough.

Charles sold the house and gave some of the money to his neighbors for caring for the children.  The rest of the money was used to pay off his bills and to pay for the funeral expenses.  There wasn’t enough money left to travel to Oregon, so he decided to travel to Knoxville, Tennessee and earn some money working in the coal mines.

He decided that when he earned enough money, he would return and get little Elizabeth and baby Phillip.  Charles knew his children needed to be with their grandparents, so he decided that the sooner they left for Oregon, the better off the children would be.

Charles’ plans were to go to Tennessee and return in about a month or two.  He didn’t want to be gone too long.  He promised little Elizabeth that he’d be back before the moon changed faces two times!  Little Elizabeth could understand that!  She knew her daddy always kept his word.  She kissed him good-bye and promised to take good care of little Phillip.  That was the last time she ever saw her daddy.

Now, here it was October 15, 2003.  As Beth read the internet web-site, she could not believe what it said: The web-site article was dated October, 2003 and read: "Spirits of the Fraterville Itinerant Miners."  The story was taken from an old newspaper that was dated May 19, 1902:  "Over 200 men and boys were killed making it the worst disaster in the history of the mining South….On May 2, 1902…  Bodies were dismembered in the explosion including itinerant miners whose identities were never determined.   Memorial Day in Fraterville is May 19th.  Itinerant miners had no family members to care for them. They were buried by strangers adjacent to the railroad trestle in Fraterville without anyone ever knowing their names."

Beth thought for a minute, "Itinerant means traveling from place to place.  Her great-grandfather was traveling from place to place, and he was a miner.  That made him an Itinerant Miner.  Could he have been one of the Fraterville Itinerant Miners?"

The article went on to say, "Today the old railroad trestle is gone and the mine portal is sealed.  Only fieldstones remain to mark the graves of the itinerant miners."

When Beth finished reading, she located the link to the web-site as that of Briceville Elementary.  That was linked to the 5th grade class.  Beth called information and asked to speak to the 5th grade teacher.  Ms. Mary Jo came to the telephone.

Beth explained that she was a granddaughter to a Mrs. Elizabeth O’Leary.  She said that her grandmother had mysteriously lost her father when she was a little girl.  The great-grandfather had left one day and went off to find work.  He never returned to get her grandmother or her baby brother.  The great-grandfather had just disappeared and no one had ever heard from him again.

Beth’s grandmother and her baby brother were given up for adoption, but she has always insisted that something must have happened to her father.  Beth’s grandmother had died in 1985.  On her death bed, she made Beth promise to find out what happened to her father and take her to him.

Ms. Mary Jo said, "How, I don’t understand?"  Ms. Beth quickly explained that she had read the internet web-site about the Fraterville Coal Mine disaster and the itinerant miners.

She said, "Since itinerant means traveling from one place to another, and my great-grandfather was a coal miner, that made him an itinerant miner."

Ms. Beth explained to Ms. Mary Jo that she felt sure one of the itinerant miners could have been her great-grandfather.  Then, Ms. Beth asked if she could come and meet Ms. Mary Jo and see the place where the itinerant miners were buried.

Her immediate reply was "Yes, I think that can be arranged."

On October 28, 2003, Ms. Beth Hampton, her parents, Betsy and Jim Lancaster and Ms. Mary Jo gathered at the graves of the itinerant miners.  It was about 5:30PM when everyone arrived. The sky was clear, but the sun was descending rapidly behind the tall Appalachian Mountains. Just at the last moment Mr. Barry Thacker and Ms. Carolyn Moore showed up to cover the story.

As Ms. Beth got out of the car, she held a medium sized blue jar with a lid.  It looked to be an urn of some sort. Ms. Beth and Ms. Mary Jo went to one another and hugged. Then, they introduced everyone.

Ms. Beth said, "Everyone, I want you to meet my mother, Mrs. Jim Lancaster.  She has an extraordinary story to tell.  Mother?" Everyone looked at Mrs. Lancaster.  She blushed.

"Please, call me Betsy," said Mrs. Lancaster.  "Thank you so much for meeting us here this evening.  You have no idea what this means to any of us!  Well, this is my story as told to me by my mother so many times before she died.  It was her wish to be reunited with her father."

With that introduction, Betsy began her story.  She repeated the same story Beth had told Ms. Mary Jo when she had called the school earlier.  Then she began adding new information. "After Beth’s great grandfather did not return, her grandmother became very upset.  She was only seven, but she said she knew something very bad had happened to her father.  She cried and cried.  The neighbors had to give the children up to welfare workers who put the children in an orphanage.  Little Phillip was adopted right away. Beth’s grandmother, who was also my mother, was adopted soon afterwards," Mrs. Betsy took a deep breathe.

"She never gave up hope of seeing her father.  She searched as she got older, but then she got married and had a family of her own.  Later, she stared searching again.  She knew he went to some coal mining towns, but she wasn’t sure exactly which state he went to," Betsy looked around at all the sad faces.

"Everyone told her that he was depressed, and he just walked away and abandoned her and Phillip.  She never did believe that story.  On her death bed, she cried and made Beth promise to take her to see her father’s grave.  You see, she and Beth were very close.  They had a very special connection," Mrs. Betsy was near tears.

"We didn’t know how we could do it, but we were determined to try.  So, here we are, after all these years, maybe we’ll be able to bring them together again," Betsy stopped to dry the tears.

Mr. Barry spoke up, "You mean you have her ashes in that urn?"

"Yes," she replied, "She wanted to be cremated.  Is it okay if Beth spread her ashes here in this cemetery?"

"Well, I guess so, but how do you know for sure that it is her father that is buried here?" asked Mr. Barry.

"My heart tells me that this is the right place," said Beth. "I can feel my grandmother’s presence.  She and I were always very close.  She is happy now.  I can feel the happiness.  I know this is the right place."  Beth looked at Mr. and Mrs. Lancaster.  They both nodded their heads.

So, Beth took the blue jar, unscrewed the lid and walked carefully among the fieldstones.  Ms. Mary Jo walked with her.  "How will you know which grave is your great-grandfather’s?" she asked.

"I can sense the right one.  My grandmother will let me know," answered Beth.  As Beth walked near the edge of the train trestle, near the woods, she stopped.

"This is the right grave," she smiled as tears rolled down her cheeks.

The wind had stopped blowing.  The birds and animals were silent in respectful attention.  Mr. Lancaster said a lovely prayer of thanksgiving.  Then, Beth slowly poured the ashes of her grandmother upon the grave of the nameless Fraterville Itinerant miner.

It had been over 100 years since the young man had been laid to rest. Was the young Itinerant miner truly Beth’s great-grandfather?  How would they ever know for sure?….

Everyone started to walk towards the cars.  This time they all had a few tears to blink back.  Darkness was starting to roll in.  A very cold chill suddenly filled the air.  A strong breeze swept over the valley.  Ms. Mary Jo heard a soft laughter.  She turned to look.  The others must have heard too, because without speaking, they were all turning to look.

As they looked, from a distance of perhaps fifty feet, they witnessed something that was totally amazing.  A figure of a young man about six feet tall was walking towards the woods. Beside him, hand-in-hand was a young girl of age seven or eight.  She was playing and laughing as her daddy took her hands and swung her up into the air and onto his shoulder.  She was looking over her daddy’s shoulder as she waved good-bye.  Then, they disappeared into a cloud of fog as they walked into the woods….

Without a word, they all turned with smiles on their faces. This time, their tears were tears of happiness. They quietly got into their cars and drove away in silence.  Was it real?  Did Elizabeth finally find her daddy?  Was it the fog?  Did they all imagine the laughter of little Elizabeth?  The End…..

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